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« Science, Beauty, Pedagogy (Dean) | Main | The Genocide Olympics (Joe) »

July 18, 2007


'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
-John Yeats ,"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

I would assert that while converses don't always hold true, in the case of science it could be said that 'Truth is beauty' and in some ways more pleasing to the soul than just the physical appearances or manifestations of beauty.

I am not dismissing the passions of scientists. I'm merely whining about the too frequent resort to what I read as a melodramatic, fulsome term, steeped in religious connotations. It’s comical that a search for "passion" in OED results in a list of three entries, the first of which reads:

passion: found in god

Nor am I entirely dismissive of melodrama, for that matter. It has its time and place. But passion has become a commonplace attribute, sufficient nowadays to explain a person's engagement in work, play, hobbies, and assorted activities, where clearly what is meant is some characteristic a bit less cloyingly transcendent: excitement, eagerness, even enthusiasm (which is also loaded with religious significances). I will barf if I have to read about another chef, for example, who is willing to endure the long hours and the hot kitchen because he or she is “passionate” about food. Blech. I'm happy that Prof. Mazur finds his work...his mission, if you will...stimulating, and that his students, by focusing on process, are learning to make connections between concepts, facts, and ordinary phenomena. Of course, this outcome has been the typical mission of liberal arts programs for perhaps decades. The message is old news among the humanities disciplines.

Sujatha's comment sort of makes my point in another way. She uses for an epigram the famous lines of English poetry that associate truth, beauty, and knowledge, in their context the dubious culmination of the poet’s musing on a silent work of ancient art. (Truth is, the poet was Keats, by the way. Yeats was the guy who confused ballerinas with choreography.) “That’s all there is to it,” is how the National Lampoon ages ago in a spoof of a high school exam represented a distracted student’s completion of the last line, and that is indeed a fair reading of one ominous sense of the foregoing lines. The ode is replete with admiration, tension, yearning, ambiguity. Like Sujatha, Keats himself says something to the effect that mere physical appearances are less satisfying than more purely imaginative reflections: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter. . .” But Sujatha, as proponent for science, essentially festoons her remarks with Keats’ lines . . . and then asserts (in fairness, her verb) that they are inadequate to science. She—rather, science—gets to have it both ways to score a rhetorical point, the sort of point poo-poo’d on other occasions when judged by the demands of scientific rigor.

Ruchira, you set up an unfair contest. An “inspired scientist” bests “the more flamboyant purveyors of passion in the arts.” Perhaps, but, leveling the playing field, does it even make sense to pit an inspired scientist against an inspired poet, to compare the degrees or kinds of imaginative richness explored by them? Neither is poetry necessarily or always “the realm of fast and loose creativity where anything goes.” And if the beauty perceived by the eye of the beholder is not the beauty of science, then are you suggesting the latter can and should be verified? Is the Mandelbrot fractal image I used as an illustration for my post an instance of genuine, objective beauty, because it’s an expression of a scientific revelation?

In my post, I obliquely anticipated the absence of Newton’s apple from a pantheon of landmark scientific historical moments. That’s what I meant by “silly mythologizing.” I am vindicated. But I’ll go one step further. I can’t authoritatively and absolutely dispute that “Galileo's entire scientific life was spent in turning Aristotelian science on its head and laying the groundwork for modern mechanics and astronomy.” But I can deflate the heroic tone. See Mario Biagioli’s”>Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism, described in one review as “a convincing argument for Galileo as the courtly gentleman whose patronage goals drove his scientific work.”

To be fair, this rude awakening from a sweet dream of heroic persistence and inspiration by a growling material appetite is obviously not exclusive to Galileo or the industry of science. To take a random example (well, not entirely random: it does involve another Renaissance Italian), consider Denis Stevens’ remarks about Claudio Monteverdi, a composer of almost verifiably glorious dramatic vocal music. In his July 1973 article, “Monteverdi’s Necklace” (Musical Quarterly, v.59, no.3, pp.370-81, 377-78), Stevens details “the longest letter Monteverdi ever penned,” a reply to an offer from one of his patrons, Duke Ferdinand, to return to Mantua:

In more than six closely-written pages he goes carefully over every point of the offer: how much he earns at St. Mark's, and how much more this is than the salary of his eminent predecessors; how much he earns by accepting commissions from outside, and how he is thanked warmly as well as paid promptly. In addition to financial security and artistic opportunity, he enjoys a position of power in the elaborate hierarchy of the doge's private chapel: it is up to him to appoint or dismiss musicians . . . and he need not attend every service requiring music if he does not wish to, since he has a capable assistant to stand in for him.

Against all this he weighs the Mantuan offer, which involves a certain amount of currency conversion, and decides that it is not really worth very much. It seems that the duke would only go as far as matching Monteverdi's actual income from St. Mark's, and even this involved some kind of trickery, for only two-thirds of the sum was guaranteed, the other third coming from ground rents assigned to him by the treasury. Indignantly, Monteverdi points out that this part of the income is his already, allocated to him by Duke Vincenzo; and how can he be given what is already his by right?

And so on. Inspiration, indeed.

Sorry for the misspelling- I did indeed mean to attribute the quote to Keats not Yeats ;).

I wasn't implying that I agree with the rest of Keats' ode (which I have always found boring when studying it as a schoolgirl),in which he expands on the reflections prompted by gazing upon a Grecian urn. That was his perception of the glories of ancient art. I deliberately used his lines in a different context to emphasize what seems to me to be a form of beauty associated with science in general.

I still fail to see why Dean should take objection to the use of the word 'passion' in association with Mazur's work as a pedagogue. Perhaps he is reading too much into the use of the word passion
Incidentally, the following meaning is also listed in the Merriam Webster online: passion ardent affection : LOVE b : a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept c : sexual desire d : an object of desire or deep interest ).
Mazur and those chefs or designers or mallrats may chose to use the word 'passion' to express their strong devotion to their activities, as much as they choose- it's their birthright.

Thanks Dean for your "passionate" and contrarian comment.

I'm happy that Prof. Mazur finds his work...his mission, if you will...stimulating, and that his students, by focusing on process, are learning to make connections between concepts, facts, and ordinary phenomena. Of course, this outcome has been the typical mission of liberal arts programs for perhaps decades. The message is old news among the humanities disciplines.

That indeed is the challenge for all science teachers - how to teach science like the humanities, to infuse "poetry" into facts and formulas. By the time a student enters grad school in science, he or she is able to see "meaning" in the tedium. But for most others, the damage is done much earlier. Science was too "hard" and scientific knowledge in the classroom didn't make any "sense". The real tussle is at the lower levels of science education. I have always believed that science teachers in the middle and high schools ought to be appointed as much for their charm, exuberance and general knowledge of the world as their mastery over the subject matter. That is when they need to tell stories to their pupils. Human interest stories surrounding scientific discoveries and the scientists themselves as well as through bench experiments. Physics, chemistry and if possible math, should be connected to history, politics, economics or even the kitchen at home. There should be less emphasis on flooding the curriculum with more and more information, necessitating rote memorization. Rather, the teacher should have more time to "humanize" science. Trained in this manner, college science should not be a daunting prospect for most students.

If your objection was mainly to the word "passion," I have nothing to quibble about. I will pick any equivalent you choose - joy, dedication, exultation? Wait, the last one too is probably religious in its connotation. Just don't suspect that the scientist lacks any of those qualities.

As for Galileo being a "materialistic" scientist, I had no illusions about that. The book Galileo's Daughter, which I reviewed some months ago, is strewn with evidence of his concerns over money, comfort, social standing and physical well being. He in fact was very much like the modern day scientist worrying about research funding, tenure and pay raise. In his letters to his cloistered daughter Maria Celeste, he cribbed and bitched about the foolishness of various university officials and the stinginess of his sponsors. I was highly amused to come across one letter in which Galileo, like most senior university professors (but unlike Mazur) complained bitterly that the University of Padua lacked the necessary foresight and appreciation for what scholarship entailed. They had the gall to burden him with the teaching of callow students (undergrads?) when his time would be far better spent in pursuing the research of his interest !!! Not very heroic preoccupations? Sure. But the content of his work and how he went about it under the threat of death, humiliation and imprisonment? Heroic by any standard.

Neither is poetry necessarily or always “the realm of fast and loose creativity where anything goes.”

Belive you me. Some of what passes for poetry or art definitely qualifies as "anything goes."

I grant you that I am obsessing over the use of a word. A more succinct complaint might be that it has become a cliché used to puff up the allure of one enterprise or another. As such, it's an easy target. But even substitution of the proposed synonyms won't remedy the larger issue, as I see it. The public discourses of science want (1) to maintain a reputation for science based on rigor, amassing of facts, arcane knowledge, cold-eyed judgment, and superlative expertise, and as such to demean, at least implicitly, the "anything goes" character it pins on the arts; (2) nevertheless, to appropriate those amorphous, irrational, unverifiable characteristics commonly associated with the arts--passion, sublimity, inspiration, etc.--for its own achievements; and yet, (3) to seek to explain (away) those irrational characteristics in terms sanctioned by the scientific discourses. An example of (3) appears in this AB post from last year.

Again, Ruchira, I think you're being unfair and keeping a double standard. Of course "Some of what passes for poetry or art definitely qualifies as 'anything goes.'" Some poetry and art positively holds itself out as a manifestation of that principle. I think of Kenneth Koch's--dare I say, "sublime"?--When the Sun Tries to Go On, lines from which I've had to crib from an account by Ron Padgett, but they'll suffice for the sake of expediency:

And, with a shout, collecting coat hangers
Dour rebus, conch, hip,
Ham, the autumn day, oh how genuine!
Literary frog, catch-all boxer, O
Real! The magistrate, say "group," bower, undies
Disk, poop, Timon of Athens...

The poem is 2400 lines of this. I imagine that qualifies for "anything goes." A young David Lehman wrote a strained review of it, but it's not without its insights. Perhaps it only compounds the injuries of unbridled anything-goes-ness. First a loony so-called poet, then his loony so-called critic! Of course, Lehman was also trying to rein it in by identifying formal elements that allow him to refer to it as a poem in the first place.

I happen to love the poem, one of the few, unlike any of Keats', that make me laugh out loud. But I can see why a reader would resist it, even strenuously. Nevertheless, I don't see how the existence of a vast number of defective poems, for example, discredits poetry in general. Isn't there also bad science?

I can anticipate a couple responses to this question: (1) No, because bad science would be science that doesn't comport with the prescribed method . . . which isn't science at all; or (2) Yes, but the discovery of bad science illustrates the effectiveness of the method. In either case, science gets to choose the terms of the dispute, but in neither case is science wholly discredited. I suppose Lehman makes a similar gesture when he proclaims that Koch's poem is "a completely self-enclosed world of language, where syntax and content are subordinated to the independent existence of the words themselves . . ." Some might say that Harry Frankfurt had a word for this sort of boot-strapping. And I might even agree. But I'm not entirely averse to gazing at words untethered from their functions and meanings, or at least trying to do so.

Bingo! You anticipated my response more or less correctly. Science does get to choose the parameters because of the nature of science.

Look, I am not discrediting poetry or art. By now, it must be amply clear to you that my interests and admiration are by no means confined to science or scientists. I probaby wouldn't have brought up the comparison that appears so odious to you (creativity in science vs non-science), had you not objected to poor Professor Mazur expressing his humanizing passion for physics. Perhaps you should have qualified it right away that you object to the word whether it issues from the lips of a scientist, chef or as Sujatha says, a mallrat pursuing a vocation. Also, you defined passion and I felt compelled to point out that the emotion is not in short supply among scientists. More broadly, I attempted to dispel the popular notion of scientists as cold, methodical and robotic - incapable of sudden and crazy inspirations or "eureka" moments.

I have never bought into the neat and tidy left brained/ right brained, Mars/Venus pigeon holing of the human mind and I hate it when I find students (specially women) buying into that classification and shying away from "hard" mathematical disciplines. Except for those who fall into the extremes of the bell curve, most of us are capable of being scientists, poets and artists in the same life time. If you read the biographies of older scientists, from just a three quarters of a century ago, you'll notice that they were polymaths. Most physicists, chemists and mathematicians were also well versed in literature, philosophy, language and the classics. And this was as true of western scientists as it was for those in India whose life stories I am familiar with. That our educational system of specialization increasingly compartmentalizes us is a pity. Perhaps, given the explosion of knowledge, it is inevitable. I bemoaned this loss in an earlier post.

#1 - Adam, when God told him all the principles he would need to survive outside the garden.

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