Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

12 MARCH, 2012

The Laws of Thermopoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science

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What Charles Dickens has to do with equilibrium and entropy.

In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, a young girl at the turn of the nineteenth century turns to her tutor, Septimus Hodge, and subtly describes the second law of thermodynamics while examining her breakfast:

When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?”

Perhaps it is odd for a twelve-year-old girl to consider the state of entropy decades before its invention, but in Stoppard’s play, all of its characters seem to obey some property of physics, bouncing around like molecules in two closed systems, heating up, dissipating, and eventually reaching equilibrium.

That’s not thermophysics, that’s thermopoetics.

Energy is eternal delight.” ~ William Blake

Professor Bari J. Gold takes this very idea, that characters and plots can obey the laws of physics, and extends it into nineteenth-century literature in ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science. The result is an extraordinary reconsideration of Victorian novels, plays, and poems pierced by time’s arrow, in which the works of Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde are bound up with energy conservation, the paradox of heat, engines, the grand unified theory, and of course, entropy.

Entropy is the measure of randomness in a system, also commonly used to describe an inevitable decline into social disorder. A closed system, like the worlds of Dickens novels, will develop towards a state of total entropy — disorder will never decrease, unless acted upon by forces from the outside.

What is life but organized energy?” ~ Arthur C. Clarke

The most familiar example of this in Victorian literature is Dickens’ Bleak House, where the endless Jarndyce case grinds on steadily, mixing its characters like jam into pudding. To survive the Courts of Chancery one must embrace entropy, and those that were caught up in its system had a “loose way of letting bad things alone take their own bad course, and a loose belief that if the world could go wrong, it was in some offhand manner, never meant to go right.”

Another Dickens work, A Tale of Two Cities, might also be recognized as a thermopoetic novel of equilibrium, in which the best of times are balanced by the worst of times, each character has a spiritual double. Or consider that Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray has created in this painting a heat sink, which absorbs the degrading age of its main character, allowing Dorian to remain a youthful constant.

All of this isn’t to say that Charles Dickens had entropy on the brain when be was writing A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 — the concept wouldn’t be developed thoroughly until five or six years later. Instead, ThermoPoetics creates a new kind of law, one that recognizes that science and art are not two separate systems, but instead that the rules that govern both fiction and physics are borne out of the same world — something beautifully aligned with Jonah Lehrer’s concept of “the fourth culture” of knowledge.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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12 MARCH, 2012

Alan Turing’s Reading List: What the Computing Pioneer Borrowed From His School Library

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What Alice in Wonderland has to do with electromagnetic theory, relativity, and Pluto.

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” it’s been said. Since creativity is combinatorial, the architecture of mind and character is deeply influenced by the intellectual stimulation we choose to engage with — including the books we read. There is hardly anything more fascinating than the private intellectual diet of genius — like this recently uncovered list of books computing pioneer and early codehacker Alan Turing borrowed from his school library. Though heavy on the sciences, the selection features some wonderful wildcards that bespeak the cross-disciplinary curiosity fundamental to true innovation. A few personal favorites follow.

SIDELIGHTS ON RELATIVITY (1922)

Sidelights on Relativity, published in 1922, is a two-part book based on a series of lectures Albert Einstein gave between 1920 and 1922. It begins with “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” explores the nature of ether and the idea that the universe is not mechanical through the lens of Newton, Maxwell, and Lorentz’s work, and the implicit contraction of “space without ether.” The second part, “Geometry and Experience,” considers the concept of infinity through Euclidean geometry.

The book is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (1871)

The follow-up to Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (also on Turing’s reading list), Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There — one of the best classic children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups — has a palpable philosophical undercurrent running beneath the seemingly nonsensical dialogue and situations, inviting the reader to extract his or her own conclusive existentialism.

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” ~ The Queen

A study in contrasts and opposites, the book is as much escapism from reality as it is a journey into our most authentic, uninhibited selves.

Also in the public domain, the book was the 12th text to be digitized by Project Gutenberg.

SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD (1925)

Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, originally published in 1925, is one of the seminal texts of modern science, presaging nearly a century of cutting-edge discoveries by examining science in the richer context of culture and the humanities as a force of social progress — a conceptual predecessor to what Jonah Lehrer has termed “the fourth culture”.

Philosophy, in one of its functions, is the critic of cosmologies. It is its function to harmonise, re-fashion, and justify divergent intuitions as to the nature of things. It has to insist on the scrutiny of the ultimate ideas, and on the retention of the whole of the evidence in shaping our cosmological scheme. Its business is to render explicit, and—so far as may be—efficient, a process which otherwise is unconsciously performed without rational tests.”

The Internet Archive has a free download.

THE UNIVERSE AROUND US (1929)

English astrophysicist Sir James Jeans was an early champion of “popular science.” In The Universe Around Us, he set out to make cosmogony, evolution, and the general structure of the universe “intelligible to readers with no special scientific knowledge” by rewriting and reforming lectures and “wireless talks” he had given to academic audiences.

In the second edition of the book, Jeans added a discussion of “the new planet Pluto,” whose planetary status has since been revoked, as well as the rotation of the Milky Way and “the apparent expansion of the universe.” By the fourth edition in 1943, Jeans had distilled the discovery of atomic nuclei, suggesting it could “not only give a satisfactory account of the radiation of the sun and stars, but can also explain many hitherto puzzling stellar characteristics.” In a way, the changes across the four editions offer a fascinating footprint of some of the most important discoveries in modern science, narrated in near-real-time by a scientist who made it his life’s work to foster a popular understanding of the scientific method.

MATTER AND MOTION (1876)

In 1876, pioneering physicist James Clerk Maxwell, best-known for formulating electromagnetic theory, penned Matter and Motion — the first comprehensive guide to the fundamental principles of elementary physics, pulling the curtain on the logic and rationale of the concepts his work built upon, presented in order of complexity in an effort to build a layered understanding of the timeless laws of physics.

Physical science, which up to the end of the eighteenth century had been fully occupied in forming a conception of natural phenomena as the result of forces acting between one body and another, has now fairly entered on the next stage of progress – that in which the energy of a material system is conceived as determined by the configuration and motion of that system, and in which the ideas of configuration, motion, and force are generalised to the utmost extent warranted by their physical definitions.

To become acquainted with these fundamental ideas, to examine them under all their aspects, and habitually to guide the current of thought along the channels of strict dynamical reasoning, must be the foundation of the training of the student of Physical Science.

The book is available for free in multiple formats, courtesy of The Internet Archive.

Alex Bellos has the full list. Many of the books are now in the public domain and are thus free.

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08 MARCH, 2012

Creating a “Fourth Culture” of Knowledge: Jonah Lehrer on Why Science and Art Need Each Other

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From Gertrude Stein to Karl Popper, or how to architect “negative capability” and live with mystery.

One of my favorite books of all time is Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which tells the story of how a handful of iconic creators each discovered an essential truth about the mind long before modern science was able to label and pinpoint it — for instance, George Eliot detected neuroplasticity, Gertrude Stein uncovered the deep structure of language, Cézanne fathomed how vision works, and Proust demonstrated the imperfections of memory. I was recently reminded of this powerful passage, in which Lehrer makes a case for the extraordinary importance of the cross-pollination of disciplines, the essence of Brain Pickings’ founding philosophy, particularly of art and science — a convergence Lehrer calls a “fourth culture” that empowers us to “freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience.”

We now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us how to live with mystery. Only the artist can explore the ineffable without offering us an answer, for sometimes there is no answer. John Keats called this romantic impulse ‘negative capability.’ He said that certain poets, like Shakespeare, had ‘the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Keats realized that just because something can’t be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art.

But before we can get a fourth culture, our two existing cultures must modify their habits. First of all, the humanities must sincerely engage with the sciences. Henry James defined the writer as someone on whom nothing is lost; artists must heed his call and not ignore science’s inspiring descriptions of reality. Every humanist should read Nature.

At the same time, the sciences must recognize that their truths are not the only truths. No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge. That simple idea will be the starting premise of any fourth culture. As Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science, wrote, ‘It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.”

Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, comes out later this month.

HT Wired

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