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August 4, 2007

Science Revolutionaries: struggling for soul?

"The giant brains who devised quantum mechanics, whatever that means" is the tagline for this book review in The Economist (14 July 2007.

Both Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, and Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science intrigue me.

An adaptation of the introduction to Faust in Copenhagen is provided by the author, Gino Segre, laying out his creative use of a play by the central physicists on Goethe's Faust as the organizational framework of the book. I'm definitely intrigued by the group dynamics - especially since the blogger linked to above agrees with another reviewer's diss of Bohr's actual contribution to the field. A New York Times review summarizes how the silly play upon "Faust, who in the legend sells his soul for universal knowledge... [became] in retrospect...profound." Another review in The Sunday Times blasts Segre's effort to link artistry and science with the lives of their progenitors is "where art and science differ. For understanding their work, Joyce’s and de Chirico’s lives matter. Pauli’s is irrelevant."

It seems I should read Faust first.

Regarding Uncertainty, The Economist review says the title is wrong because much more is covered than the Uncertainty Principle (a personal favorite). [Why? Because it articulates in the hard sciences what is known about language (see Burke, Billig, for starters): "the uncertainty principle posited that in many physical measurements, one can extract one bit of information only at the price of losing another."]

The Scientific American review (linked above) mentions something quite interesting: "Niels Bohr agreed with the basic premises of [Heisenberg's] startling insights but saw the need to 'make sense of the new quantum physics without throwing overboard the hard-won successes of the previous era.'" This is interesting in light of the debate about Bohr's contribution, as well as the critique of "logical inclusiveness" that Kuhn deconstructs as "closely associated with early logical positivism" (98): "[T]he view of science-as-cumulation is [closely] entangled with a dominant epistemology that takes knowledge to be a construction placed directly upon raw sense data by the mind" (96). Another reviewer explains that Uncertainty "illustrates the collaborative nature of science, especially of physics, and how major discoveries are usually the result of contributions over time by many individuals, with one or two leading figures providing the key insights that bring clarity to a particular issue." This is the same point emphasized by John Gribbin in The Scientists (see entry: The Middle is Always Light). This reviewer (Hugh Ruppersburg) continues, describing how author David Lindley places Einstein in the category designated by others to Bohr, as "the conservative elder doubter who believes that classical physics — its ability to predict with utter precision how the world must operate — must not be undermined by a theory holding that at a certain level there is no precision or certainty." From this angle, "it is Bohr who finally provides the vocabulary through which the world has come to understand the principle" - a direct counter to the critique that Bohr's contribution has no contemporary standing. At the same time, Ruppersburg seems to agree (in a parallel fashion, not directly) with the critic (cited above) of linking scientists' lives and work: "He [Lindley] also argues that the popularity of modern cultural, philosophical, and literary theories that depend on the notion of uncertainty, randomness, and unpredictability really have no real connection to Heisenberg’s principle, other than the fact that it helped popularize the notion of uncertainty in the 20th century. Heisenberg provided a metaphor for these theorists, nothing more." (I may beg to differ on this, but am not yet prepared to argue why.)

I am struck by the use of "soul" in the title of both works. Coincidentally (?), I was just contemplating the word in other writing this morning, suggesting it is too ambiguous because of its range of meanings (27 Google offerings). One of the articulations of soul that resonates with me is from the science fiction series, Alvin the Maker, which puts the forces of Making and Unmaking at the core of life. The physicists who worked on physics were aware of the double-edged sword of the knowledge they sought to uncover; it is interesting that the dialectical (?) tension between epistemology and ontology is invoked to characterize early physicists' search for knowledge.

[Two earlier blog references to Kuhn: Holding Form and Inside/Outside.]

More (selections from Reflexivity) on Burke: Definition of Human, Creation Myth, and On Hope and Despair.

Posted by Steph at August 4, 2007 11:09 AM