the human factor

Bookishjenluc_2It’s that time of year when everyone’s compiling their "Top Ten" lists in every imaginable category, and science books are no exception. We here at Cocktail Party Physics don’t feel the need to have a bona fide "Top Ten" list. ("It’s just so Letterman, and Letterman is so over," Jen-Luc Piquant sniffs with faux-Gallic disdain.) For starters, a mere two months ago, the Royal Institution in London beat everyone to the punch by publicizing their list of the top science books of all time. (Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table took top honors.) We would have given top honors to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, even though it’s a fictional play. Chalk it up to my humanities background, if you will, but you must admit, Arcadia makes for brilliant theater.

That background might also explain why my all-time favorite science books tend to be those that combine solid science with an innovative approach to narrative. Take, for instance, the woefully under-appreciated Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore, which explains the basic principles of quantum mechanics by taking the reader on an imaginary tour of a subatomic Wonderland. (Classic quote by Alice: "I must not have observed myself properly when I was in a superposition of states just now.") Gilmore has since built further upon that theme: Once Upon a Universe employs classic fairy tales in the service of the explication of scientific concepts, while Charles Dickens provides the inspiration for Scrooge’s Cryptic Carol. Neither book quite measures up to Alice, but they are nonetheless entertaining while still being scientifically informative.

Then there’s Lawrence Krauss’ Atom, which essentially traces the "lifetime" of a single oxygen atom from the Big Bang to the hypothetical end of the universe, covering the basics of most of modern physics in the process. Charles Seife’s award-winning Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea brings an abstract mathematical concept vividly to life by essentially telling its "life story." David Bodanis took a similar approach with E=mc2. Tackling scary abstract concepts by "humanizing" them and telling their "stories" is an excellent means of appealing to non-scientifically oriented readers. And sometimes it prompts even hardcore science types to view overly-familiar concepts in a fresh, new light — perhaps learning a bit more about the historical contexts of those fundamental ideas, along with some snazzy trivia with which to impress people at cocktail parties.

This year, Bodanis applied his considerable narrative gifts to telling the story of an actual historical personage, Emilie du Chatelet, in his book, Passionate Minds. She was that rare creature, a woman in the 18th century who was gifted in math and science, and whose aristocratic lineage and accompanying wealth allowed her to pursue those interests; she completed an acclaimed translation of Newton’s Principia, among her many accomplishments. Plus, she had a torrid affair with Voltaire before ultimately dying in childbirth in her early 40s. (For my prior post on du Chatelet and another noteworthy female mathematician, Sonya Kovalevsky, go here.) It would be difficult to go wrong with such colorful material, and Bodanis doesn’t disappoint. Passionate Minds is a fascinating read — I devoured it over the course of two days — thoroughly researched, and it brings that all-important human factor to bear on the arcane field of mathematics. (Although some have criticized the book for being a bit too light on the mathematical details, this actually makes it more appealing to a broader, non-technical audience. And du Chatelet deserves the admiration of a much wider audience.)

As much as I liked Passionate Minds, it ended up placing second among the science books I read this year — third if you consider Michael Pollan’s justly praised The Omnivore’s Dilemma to be a "science book." Pollan’s book blew me away, but Columbia astrophysicist Janna Levin gave him a run for his money with her latest tome, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.  I bought the book on a whim, without knowing much about it, after seeing Levin’s appearance on "The Colbert Report" — the first time I’ve ever seen Stephen Colbert so intimidated by his guest, he failed to be appropriately snarky. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Levin over coffee in October, and she regaled us with hilarious backstage tales  from the studio’s Green Room — those tiny details and glossed-over imperfections one almost never gets to see on TV, apart from reality shows.

I mention this partly in the interest of full disclosure, but also because Levin’s willingness to be forthright about her own humanity is precisely the quality that makes her latest book so compelling. It’s an odd mix of historical fact and fiction — specifically, a fictionalized rumination on the lives of two very different men: Kurt Godel Godel
and Alan Turing. Those lives have been very well documented, warts and all, with numerous published biographies of both men over the years.

Godel was a famed logician, mathematician and mathematical philosopher best known for his two incompleteness theorems: namely, that (a) a system cannot be both consistent and complete, and (b) the consistency of the axioms cannot be proved within the system. For 50 years, mathematicians had been searching for a universal set of axioms applicable to the entire field; Godel’s work dashed their hopes, since the most obvious implication is that it simply isn’t possible to compute all conceivable mathematical questions. There will always be at least one true but unprovable statement for any given system.

One of Godel’s lesser known contributions concerned general relativity — he was a close friend of Einstein’s at Princeton — specifically the possibility of "rotating universes" to enable time travel. Despite Godel’s eccentricities, Einstein was very fond of his friend, accompanying him to his citizenship exam — during which Godel informed the presiding judge that he had discovered a logical loophole in the Constitution that could allow for the establishment of a legal dictatorship in the US. Thanks in part to Einstein’s presence, he was awarded citizenship anyway. Towards the end of his life, Einstein admitted to economist Oskar Morganstern that the only reason he still came to the Institute of Advanced Studies  was to have the privilege of walking home with Godel.

An English mathematician, logician and cryptographer, Turing has been dubbed the father of modern computer science, in part for his concept of the so-called "Turing machine." His inspiration was Godel’s incompleteness theorem. He reformulated Godel’s findings to prove that such a hypothetical machine could perform any conceivable mathematical problem as long as it was represented by an algorithm. He later proved that it is not possible to algorithmically decide whether a given Turing machine would ever halt (there is a notorious  "halting problem" in computation). Theorists in computation still use Turing machines in their research. He also devised the "Turing test" as his contribution to the ongoing debate on artificial intelligence — a debate that has since moved far beyond the basic conditions Turing described. During World War II, he was among the many scientists working as code-breakers at Bletchley Park, devising numerous techniques for breaking German ciphers, most notably an electromechanical device called the bombe that succeeded in cracking the code of the infamous German Enigma machines. His post-war work found him designing one of the first stored-program computers, although the machine was never built, and later he programmed software for one of the world’s earliest true computers, the Manchester Mark I.

So Godel and Turing were both brilliant scientists/mathematicians; they were also human beings tormented by their internal demons. Godel was shy, hermit-like, and paranoid, convinced people were trying to kill him with poison gas, or via poisoned food. He suffered a bleeding ulcer, and a couple of nervous breakdowns, and  was further traumatized when his good friend Moritz was gunned down on the steps of his university by a deranged student. Godel emigrated to America after the Nazis rose to power, since his past association with Jewish intellectuals caused him to be banned from teaching. Ultimately, Godel died of malnutrition in 1978, weighing all of 65 pounds. He literally starved himself to death, a direct result of his paranoia, and the illness of his wife, Adele (he would only eat her cooking, so when she could no longer cook…).

Turing was a genius at math and science, Alan_turing5_1
but had no interest in anything else, which made him a problematic student — also one who was regularly tormented by his classmates for being different. His homosexuality emerged early on, and he fell in love while at public school with his classmate Christopher Morcom. Morcom’s death in their last year from bovine tuberculosis (he drank infected cow’s milk as a boy) devastated the young Turing, who never quite forgot his first love.

When Turing’s sexual proclivities came spectacularly to light (with tragic consequences) in 1952 — a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and such acts deemed illegal — he was charged with gross indecency and forced to endure estrogen hormone injections as "treatment" to avoid a jail sentence. He lost his security clearance, gained weight, developed breasts because of the hormones, and became increasingly depressed as a result. He died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning by consuming a poisoned apple. The verdict was suicide, and more than one biographer has speculated that Turing’s choice of method was inspired by his favorite film: the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Levin’s notable achievement in A Madman Dreams… is that she brings each of these men vividly to life in her fictional account.  There isn’t much detail here about their scientific accomplishments, and why should there be? Their work has been well-documented elsewhere, and avidly discussed for decades. The purpose of Levin’s book isn’t pedagogical, but artful, and on those grounds it succeeds admirably. That’s why A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines is my top pick for best science book of 2006.

It’s a risky venture to dare to fictionalize such revered men, and no doubt Levin will experience some sharp criticism for her chutzpah. (Dava Sobel endured several painful critical arrows for her collection of essays, The Planets, which also pushed the boundaries of science writing beyond the conventional limits. That book had its flaws, but I’d rather read a flawed book that takes some chances than a perfectly constructed mundane endeavor that never quite surprises.) There are many in the scientific community made uncomfortable by fictional imaginings of historical figures in science, and the more recent the history, the more controversial such fictions become. I admit to being baffled as to why this is so: (a) the general public needs to see scientists as human beings, not cold, calculating geniuses with ice water in their veins; and (b) sometimes fictions, while not entirely "true," can get at a deeper "truth" that sticking to strict historical fact (although Levin takes very few liberties with her subject matter). 

I realize we’re skirting dangerously close to the deservedly-maligned "essential truth" cited by James Frey earlier this year as a defense for fabricating portions of his best-selling memoir. But as physicist James Kakalios (author of The Physics of Superheroes, another favorite book of mine in 2006) recently commented over at Cosmic Variance, the typical physics curriculum routinely employs fictions as a pedagogical method — only those fictions are "terribly dull":

"You drop a mass from a tower — but ignore air resistance. You shoot an arrow from a cliff 200 meters above ground, at an angle of 37.5 degrees with the horizontal, and want to know the time before the projectile strikes the ground. A fiction. No one in recorded history has ever cared how long it takes the arrow to reach the ground. I’ve been doing professional physics for over 20 years, man and boy, and I’ve never needed to use this in the lab…."

Kakalios makes an excellent point; fictions are not necessarily at odds with science, no matter what proponents of C.P. Snow’s  notorious "two cultures" concept might say. I’ve always felt Snow’s dichotomy was more than a little arbitrary, and grossly over-simplified. True, there are cultural differences between the sciences and the arts, but that doesn’t mean that never the twain shall meet. Case in point: A friend of mine who teaches composition and comparative literature recently described an engineering major who enrolled in her class, who had a very difficult time grasping the fundamental concept of writing that first paper. Accustomed to hard experimental data, problem sets, and equations, she was bewildered by the task set before her. My friend patiently explained that the text was her data, and her job was to interpret that data and construct a convincing argument. The young woman finally exclaimed, "Oh — you mean you want me to make stuff up!" Deciding that flash of insight was close enough, my friend agreed: "Yes, do that — make stuff up." And the young woman turned in a competently argued paper.

Really, was that so hard? A tiny bridge of understanding has been built as a result of my friend’s efforts. We need more such bridges. In the immortal words of Goethe, "Science arose from poetry — when times change, the two can meet again on a higher level as friends." Times are changing, and Levin, Kakalios, et al. are among those helping to bring about that change. They just might usher in a new age of science writing in the process, where creativity and innovation are encouraged and rewarded rather than treated with dismissive disdain. Science + art = BFFs (best friends 4-ever). That’s my New Year’s wish for 2007.

3 thoughts on “the human factor”

  1. Jennifer-
    A very well argued and reasoned post. I couldn’t agree more, and thank you very much for your kind words about my book. As someone who has appeared a few times as a minor character in recent comic books, I quite agree about art and science BFF.
    Wishing a happy and healthy new year to you and your fiance.

  2. Since you mention Kurt Godel, I’ll plug _Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel_ by Rebecca Goldstein as the best science book of the year. Goldstein has produced less of a biography of Godel than an extended musing on his life and accomplishments. Like the justly popular _Godel, Escher, Bach_, _Incompleteness_ allows a deeper understanding of Godel’s mathematical accomplishments, but Goldstein’s real achievement is to give the reader an idea of what Godel was like and where his ideas came from. Particularly amusing is the contrast she draws between Godel and his contemporary Wittgenstein, who was a puffed-up blowhard compared to the retiring and precise mathematician. Goldstein also sketches the friendship between Einstein and Godel that you allude to above, and suggests that the near simultaneous deaths of Einstein and Godel’s wife were what drove him over the precipice.
    Thanks again, Jennifer, for a year’s worth of entertaining and informative blog postings. I’m happy to say that my middle-aged women’s reading group will be tackling _Black Bodies and Quantum Cats_ in February, and most remarkably, I wasn’t even the member who suggested we read it.

  3. I have always interpreted C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” thing as his way of describing a lamentable state of human affairs, not any deep truth about what is in the final reckoning incompatible. We who have read a little, thought a little and are not so afraid of mathematics can see the gulf between these cultures shrink to an inconsequential puddle not worth mentioning. The best science teachers have all spoken in parables to communicate knowledge, and modern literature is replete with examples of ideas flowing the other way, enriching the written word with what clever folks have discovered about the natural world.
    Art and science are human endeavors, tied up with our need to pose questions and test answers. Sometimes, a piece of one seems entirely irrelevant to the other, but we should always remember that it is we who draw the lines dividing the human enterprise into digestible sections, and nothing requires life to conform to our incomplete understanding of it.

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