Preposterous Universe

Monday, March 07, 2005
Six scientists in search of an author

Here's a simple way that academia could be greatly improved: humanities professors should stop reading their papers out loud, and start talking from notes like normal people. I will never understand why they do this in the first place. There is no reason why humanists, trained in the arts of rhetoric and communication, should be even worse at giving talks than scientists are. It's certainly not because it's easier to read a pre-written paper word for word; I tried it at an humanities conference once and found it to be utterly awkward and unnatural. I thought the Western tradition was supposed to valorize speech over writing. Does this go back to Plato's battle vs. the Sophists or something?

So it was great fun talking to the humanists during coffee breaks at the STAR conference (consistent with conferences generally), but the highlights of the formal program came largely from the physicists and the theatre folks. There was only one talk about physics itself, a brief tutorial on quantum electrodynamics by Joe Polchinski. Joe got into the narratological spirit of things, presenting Feynman diagrams as little "stories" about the interactions of electrons and photons. Of course these stories have special properties -- for one thing, every allowed version of the story actually happens, and reality arises as a sum of all of them. For another, the same story can be told in different ways, including different orderings of events in time. I'm not sure if anyone has tried to write a play whose dramatic structure was inspired by these features of quantum field theory, but there's room for something interesting.

We also had several readings from works of fiction, including Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, and Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams. But the most memorable performance was turned in by none other than David Gross, playing the role of Richard Feynman in Peter Parnell's play QED. It's difficult, in dramatic depictions of scientists, to get the science itself right, but even harder to get the voice right, the unmistakable dialect in which scientists talk about their work. But David's Feynman was spot on (although he didn't attempt the Far Rockaway accent). As Janna Levin said, it was the best dramatic performance of the conference.

David also made an interesting point during the discussion, when he claimed that both science and theatre have retreated from their ambitions over the last few centuries. Theatre, of course, had a somewhat loftier status during the Elizabethan period than it enjoys today. Science, we might think, has only been growing in importance over the years, but one could argue that it has backed off from its Enlightenment aspirations to remake the way we live. David pointed out that basic research in fundamental physics shares with art a certain purity in its search for underlying truth (accompanied by some snarky comments about the earthier pursuits of business and politics). He's a big fan of E.O. Wilson's Consilience, which argues for a reconciliation of the sciences, arts, and humanities. I think Wilson goes too far in leveling the very real differences between science and the other fields, but since I'm operating under the disadvantage of not actually having read the book, I should keep quiet.

Excerpts from Janna's own book were read by Kate McConnell. How the Universe Got Its Spots is a unique work, combining an accessible introduction to certain ideas in modern cosmology with an honest portrayal of the real life of an actual scientist. Everyone should read it. Most science books don't talk so much about the scientist's personal life, but at least this one has a happy ending -- Janna and Warren are now married and living in Manhattan with their little boy, and she is thinking of a good title for her next book.

I was the moderator for a panel on "Intertextual Einstein," and one of the panelists was Dennis Overbye. Besides his regular gig as a science reporter for the New York Times, Dennis is the author of Einstein in Love, and he talked about how our image of Einstein as a cuddly genius is dramatically at odds with reality, especially in his relations with women. (There is a letter from Einstein to his first wife Mileva that must be seen to be believed -- an itemized list of the conditions under which he would continue to live with her, including that she never bother him in his office or say anything bad about him to other people.) Dennis also wrote Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, one of my all-time favorite cosmology books. He confirmed the rumor I had heard long ago, that negotiations were underway to turn the book into a movie, with Tom Hanks starring as Alan Sandage. (As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.) Sadly, it doesn't look like it's going to happen. But show business is unpredictable, so who knows?

At the end of the conference I suggested to David that, now that he had the Nobel Prize, perhaps it was time to conquer new worlds by moving to Hollywood and taking up acting. He admitted that he had dabbled in theatre in high school. He also noted that Feynman himself was constantly performing, and contributed quite consciously to his myth-construction. And then he pointed out that he himself was performing all the time, and he couldn't help noticing that I did as well. (Moi?) Indeed, isn't everybody? We are all postmodernists now.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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