Edge 165— August 15, 2005
(7,750 words)




FEUILLETON
SPIDER FLOWERS: Katinka Matson's Scanner Art Fascinates With Intensive Clarity
Andrian Keye
Monday, August 1, 2005

Ever since Marcel Duchamp mounted the front wheel of a bycicle onto a bar stool, the anarchic use of everyday technologies has been part of the standard repertoire of Modern Art. Usually such works question our perception by distorting reality. The flower images by the New York artist Katinka Matson are different for their exactness and completeness: the surreal aura of her pictures come from their enormous clarity. The flowers seem to radiate from the inside and the details are recognizable into the last fiber as though they were being viewed under a magnifying glass

Original German text


A MADMAN DREAMS OF TURING MACHINES
by Janna Levin

Gödel didn't believe that truth would elude us. He proved it would. He didn't invent a myth to conform to his prejudice of the world at least not when it came to mathematics. He discovered his theorem as surely as if it was a rock he had dug up from the ground. He could pass it around the table and it would be as real as that rock. If anyone cared to, they could dig it up where he buried it and find it just the same. Look for it and you'll find it where he said it is, just off center from where you're staring. There are faint stars in the night sky that you can see but only if you look to the side of where they shine. They burn too weakly or are too far to be seen directly, even if you stare. But you can see them out of the corner of your eye because the cells on the periphery of your retina are more sensitive to light. Maybe truth is just like that. You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.

[more]


All these theories are preposterous, but that's not my problem with them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.

IN DEFENSE OF COMMON SENSE
By John Horgan

John Horgan, author of The End of Science, and feisty and provocative as ever, is ready for combat with scientists in the Edge community. "I'd love to get Edgies' reaction to my OpEd piece — "In Defense of Common Sense" — in The New York Times", he writes. Physicist Leonard Susskind, writing "In Defense of Uncommon Sense", is the first to take up Horgan's challenge.

THE REALITY CLUB: Leonard Susskind responds to John Horgan.

[more]



IN DEFENSE OF UNCOMMON SENSE
Leonard Susskind responds to John Horgan

LEONARD SUSSKIND
Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stanford University

Instead of dyspeptically railing against what he plainly does not understand, Horgan would do better to take a few courses in algebra, calculus, quantum mechanics, and string theory. He might then appreciate, even celebrate, the wonderful and amazing capacity of the human mind to find uncommon ways to comprehend the incomprehensible.

[more]




FEUILLETON
SPIDER FLOWERS: Katinka Matson's Scanner Art Fascinates With Intensive Clarity
By Andrian Keye
August 1, 2005


Ever since Marcel Duchamp mounted the front wheel of a bycicle onto a bar stool, the anarchic use of everyday technologies has been part of the standard repertoire of Modern Art. Usually such works question our perception by distorting reality. The flower images by the New York artist Katinka Matson are different for their exactness and completeness: the surreal aura of her pictures come from their enormous clarity. The flowers seem to radiate from the inside and the details are recognizable into the last fiber as though they were being viewed under a magnifying glass.

Scanner Flowers
Photo: Katinka Matson

Katinka Matson may not be the first to experiment with this approach to imagery. In the 60s, photo-realistic painters played with this kind of hyper-realism in much the same way as photographers of today such as Andreas Gursky or Loretta Lux.

What's new, however, is the technology that Katinka Matson uses to make her pictures. Instead of oilpaints or a camera she uses a regular scanner. And because the light scanning of such an office machine eliminates even the easiest distortion, she develops a naturalistic effect, which questions our way of seeing, because our eyes have long adjusted themselves long ago to the distortions of photo and movie cameras.

Science historian George Dyson described the effect of Katinka Matson's pictures: "Visual processing (in humans and other organisms) is characterized by layers: not only the layers in the retina, behind the retina, in the visual cortex, and finally in our consciousness and our culture as we interpret the ultimate results. There are also evolutionary layers, and the lensless, scanner-like visual system of the insect still lingers, unseen but essential, in some of those layers between light and brain. One of the reasons—besides sheer artistry—that Katinka Matson's work resonates so strongly with us is that the insect-like vision that results from scanning direct-to-CCD runs so much deeper in us than vision as processed through a lens. By removing the lens, Katinka's work bypasses an entire stack of added layers and takes us back to when we saw more by looking at less."

It began with a coincidence. While scanning a regular photo Katinka Matson put a bunch flowers on the scanner. "I was rather frustrated that day. But the very first flower scans had already inspired me," she said. She has no idea if she was the first, or only, artist to experiment with this new technology. But she was the first to perfect the art of scanning to the point of gaining recognition as an artist. In 2002, The New York Times Magazine included her work in its annual year-end edition of the big ideas of the year. 

For the past five years she has experimented with techniques and materials, until she found the perfect combination of creating images through her scans, working on them with Adobe Photoshop, and presenting them as Iris prints on water color paper, which are mounted on aluminum. Because Iris prints are limited as to size, and are, in addition, extremely sensitive, in her newest series of white spider flowers, she uses a new digital printing process on large canvases which adds even more power to the painting-like structure of her images. She normally makes thirty forty different scans from a set of flowers, before she finds an image that interests her. And recognizing the right state of the dessication of the flower can take days of observation. "Fresh flowers are pretty," she says, "but they only become interesting when they begin to show the first signs of withering."

Katinka Matson's "Spiders" is on exhibition in Munich this week, her first work on canvas, in the context of the Bitfilm Festival for Digital Media in the Bundesgartenschau (German National Garden show). A slide show projection of earlier work is also being presented.

ANDRIAN KREYE

Copyright © sueddeutsche.de GmbH/Süddeutsche Zeitung GmbH

[Original German Text]

 

A MADMAN DREAMS OF TURING MACHINES
by Janna Levin

Gödel didn't believe that truth would elude us. He proved it would. He didn't invent a myth to conform to his prejudice of the world at least not when it came to mathematics. He discovered his theorem as surely as if it was a rock he had dug up from the ground. He could pass it around the table and it would be as real as that rock. If anyone cared to, they could dig it up where he buried it and find it just the same. Look for it and you'll find it where he said it is, just off center from where you're staring. There are faint stars in the night sky that you can see but only if you look to the side of where they shine. They burn too weakly or are too far to be seen directly, even if you stare. But you can see them out of the corner of your eye because the cells on the periphery of your retina are more sensitive to light. Maybe truth is just like that. You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.

Introduction

The following message arrived from Janna Levin, Barnard physicist and writer:

"There have been a few recent articles in the press on the theme that "the novel is dead". Comments on Edge, on the other hand, have gone in the opposite direction, noting the widening umbrella of the third culture in terms of the work of accomplished novelists and playwrights who noodle around with scientific ideas like Ian McEwan in Saturday, Richard Powers in Galatea 2.2, Michael Frayne in Copenhagen, David Auburn in Proof – not to mention Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. Maybe these works hit some things more effectively than can be done in a straightforward popular science book. Conversely scientists have played with new forms of expression like Primo Levy in The Periodic Table and Alan Lightman in Einstein's Dreams.

"So let me throw this out there in the hopes that Edge readers will find the attached piece of interest — an early draft from a book I’ve been writing called A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. This is a story. Does that make it fiction? It’s based on truth like all of our stories. It’s a story of coded secrets and psychotic delusions, mathematics and war. It’s a chronicle of the strange lives of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. These stories are so strange, so incredible, that they are totally unbelievable. Except they’re true. And fact is more extraordinary than fiction.

"This excerpt may be particularly relevant now given the recent Edge features on Gödel with Rebecca Goldstein and Verena Huber-Dyson."

JB

JANNA LEVIN is a professor of physics at Barnard College of Columbia University and recently held a fellowship from NESTA (National Endowment for Science Technology and Arts) at the University of Oxford. She has worked on theories of the Early Universe, Chaos, and Black Holes. Her work tends to encompass the overlap of mathematics, general relativity, and astrophysics. She is the author of How The Universe Got Its Spots: Diary Of A Finite Time In A Finite Space.


A MADMAN DREAMS OF TURING MACHINES

Vienna, Austria. 1931.

The scene is a coffeehouse. The Café Josephinum is a smell first, a stinging smell of roasted Turkish beans too heavy to waft on air and so waiting instead for the more powerful current of steam blown off the surface of boiling saucers fomenting to coffee. By merely snorting the vapors out of the air, patrons become over-stimulated. The café appears in the brain as this delicious, muddy scent first, awaking a memory of the shifting room of mirrors second ­ the memory nearly as energetic as the actual sight of the room which appears in the mind only third. The coffee is a fuel to power ideas. A fuel for the anxious hope that the harvest of art and words and logic will be the richest ever because only the most fecund season will see them through the siege of this terrible winter and the siege of that terrible war. Names are made and forgotten. Famous lines are penned, along with not so famous lines. Artists pay their debt with work that colors some walls while other walls fall into an appealing decrepitude. Outside, Vienna deteriorates and rejuvenates in swatches, a motley, poorly tended garden. From out here, the windows of the coffeehouse seem to protect the crowd inside from the elements and the tedium of any given day. Inside, they laugh and smoke and shout and argue and stare and whistle as the milky brew hardens to lace along the lip of their cups.

A group of scientists from the University begin to meet and throw their ideas into the mix with those of artists and novelists and visionaries who rebounded with mania from the depression that follows a nation's defeat. The few grow in number through invitation only. Slowly their members accumulate and concepts clump from the soup of ideas and take shape until the soup deserves a name, so they are called around Europe and even as far as the United States, The Vienna Circle.

At the center of the Circle is a circle: a clean, round, white-marble tabletop. They select the café Josephinum precisely for this table. A pen is passed counterclockwise. The first mark is made, an equation applied directly to the tabletop, a slash of black ink across the marble, a mathematical sentence amid the splatters. They all read the equation honing in on the meaning amid the disordered drops. Mathematics is visual not auditory. They argue with their voices but more pointedly with their pens. They stain the marble with rays of symbolic logic in juicy black pigment that very nearly washes away.

They collect here every Thursday evening to distill their ideas ­ to distinguish science from superstition. At stake is Everything. Reality. Meaning. Their lives. They have lost any tolerance for ineffectual and embroidered attitudes, for mysticism or metaphysics. That is putting it too dispassionately. They hate mysticism and metaphysics, religion and faith. They loathe them. They want to separate out truth. They feel, I imagine, the near hysteria of sensing it just there, just beyond the nub of their fingers at the end of arms stretched to their limits.

I'm standing there, looking three hundred and sixty degrees around the table. Some of them stand out brighter than the others. They press forward and announce themselves. The mathematician Olga Hahn-Neurath is here. She has a small but valuable part to play in this script as does her husband Otto Neurath, the oversized socialist. Most importantly, Moritz Schlick is here to form the acme and source of the Circle. Olga, whose blindness descended with the conclusion of an infection, smokes her cigar while Otto drinks lethal doses of caffeine and Moritz settles himself with a brush of his lapels. The participation of the others present today is less imperative. A circle can be approximated by a discrete handful of points and the others will not be counted. There are perhaps more significant members of the Circle over the years, but these are the people that glow in color against my grainy black and white image of history. A grainy, worn, poorly resolved, monochromatic picture of a still scene. I can make out details if I look the shot over carefully. Outside, a wind frozen in time burns the blurred faces of incidental pedestrians. Men pin their hats to their heads with hands gloved by wind-worn skin. Inside a grand mirror traps the window's images, a chunk of animated glass.

In a plain, dark wooden chair near the wall, almost hidden behind the floral arm of an upholstered booth, caught in the energy and enthusiasm of that hopeful time as though caught in a sandstorm, is Kurt Gödel.

In 1931 he is a young man of twenty-five years, his sharpest edges still hidden beneath the soft pulp of youth. He has just discovered his theorems. With pride and anxiety he brings with him this discovery. His almost, not-quite paradox, his twisted loop of reason, will be his assurance of immortality. An immortality of his soul or just his name? This question will be the subject of his madness. Can I assert that suprahuman longevity will apply only to his name? And barely even that. Even now that we live under the shadow of his discovery, his name is hardly known. His appellation denotes a theorem, he's an initial, not a man. Only here he is, a man in defense of his soul, in defense of truth, ready to alter the view of reality his friends have formulated on this marble table. He has come to tell the circle that they are wrong, and he can prove it.

Gödel is taciturn, alone even in a crowd, back against the wall, looking out as though in the dark at the cinema. He is reticent but not un-likeable. The attention with which his smooth hair, brushed back over his head away from his face, is creamed and tended hints at his strongest interest next to mathematics, namely women. His efforts often come to fruition only adding to his mystery for a great many of the mathematicians around him. And while he has been known to show off a girlfriend or two, he keeps his real love a secret. His bruised apple, his sweet Adele.

There is something sweet about his face too, hidden as it is behind thick-rimmed goggle glasses, inverted binoculars, so that those who are drawn into a discussion of mathematics with him feel as though they are peering into a blurry distant horizon. The completely round black frames with thick nosepiece have the effect of accentuating his eyes or replacing them with cartoon orbs ­ a physical manifestation of great metaphorical vision. They leave the suggestion with anyone looking in that all emphasis should be placed there on those sad windows or, more importantly, on the vast intellectual world that lays just beyond the focus of the binocular lenses.

He speaks only when spoken to and then only about mathematics. But his responses are stark and beautiful and the very few able to connect with him feel they have discovered an invaluable treasure. His sparse council is sought after and esteemed. This is a youth of impressive talent and intimidating strength. This is also a youth of impressive strangeness and intimidating weakness. Maybe he has no more than the rest of us harbor, but his weaknesses all seem so extreme ­ hypochondria, paranoia, schizophrenia. They are even more pronounced when laid alongside his incredible mental strengths ­ huge black voids, chunks taken out of an intensely shining star.

He is still all potential. The potential to be great, the potential to be mad. He will achieve both magnificently.

Everyone gathered on this Thursday, the rotating numbers accounting for some three dozen, believe in their very hearts that mathematics is unassailable. Gödel has come tonight to shatter their belief until all that's left are convincing pieces that when assembled erect a powerful monument to mathematics, but not an unassailable one ­ or at least not a complete one. Gödel will prove that some truths live outside of logic and that we can't get there from here. Some people ­ people who probably distrust mathematics ­ are quick to claim that they knew all along that some truths are beyond mathematics. But they just didn't. They didn't know it. They didn't prove it.

Gödel didn't believe that truth would elude us. He proved it would. He didn't invent a myth to conform to his prejudice of the world ­ at least not when it came to mathematics. He discovered his theorem as surely as if it was a rock he had dug up from the ground. He could pass it around the table and it would be as real as that rock. If anyone cared to, they could dig it up where he buried it and find it just the same. Look for it and you'll find it where he said it is, just off center from where you're staring. There are faint stars in the night sky that you can see but only if you look to the side of where they shine. They burn too weakly or are too far to be seen directly, even if you stare. But you can see them out of the corner of your eye because the cells on the periphery of your retina are more sensitive to light. Maybe truth is just like that. You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.

~~

The iron frame of Kurt's bed was a brutal conductor of the chill singeing his hand so sharply as he hoisted himself awake this morning that it might as well have left a burn and the cloud of condensation that escaped from his damp mouth could have been smoke. He prepared for his discussion with The Circle most the day and took care to present himself well. He applied layers of clothes like a dressing over a wound, carefully wrapping his limbs in strong woolen weaves. The third pair of pants buttoned easily over the inner two layers with just the right amount of resistance. He made sure the two pairs of trousers he wore closest were slightly short and stayed well hidden behind the cuff of the outer suit. A similar procedure was followed for his upper half ­ a series of shirts and vests created a padding five garments thick. Even then he looked lean although less alarmingly so.

Despite his detachment, his family's sophistication was not entirely lost on him and surfaced in the subtle choices he made, if not in the few kitsch objects he clashed against his mother's design in the interior of his large flat, then at least it showed in the many garments that he now used to flatter himself, a reference to the rich textiles manufactured in his father's factories. He applied the finely woven jacket that still hung loosely from the line connecting the points of his two shoulders and finally a handsome overcoat was draped over that.

Gödel loves these Thursday nights. The rest of the week is spent in near complete isolation, sometimes losing the sense of days. Comforted by the darkest hours when his loneliness is assured, he manipulates logical symbols into a flawless sequence, generating theorem after theorem in his notebooks. He fills the plain paper books with mathematical proofs that lead to new ideas that spawn new results. He can't always find a context for the proliferation of logical conclusions other than the pages themselves which are covered one-sided from left to right until the book is finished and he moves back through the volume covering the back of the pages from right to left. In these ordinary brown notebooks he builds a logical cosmos of his own in which the private ideas are nested, his secret gems. His most precious insights he transcribes in Garbelsberger, an obsolete form of German shorthand he was taught as a schoolboy and is sure no one else remembers.

While he often loses Monday easily and tries to find root in Tuesday, though Wednesday is a mere link between nights, he always knows Thursday. He likes to arrive early and choose the same place each time, a dark wooden chair near the wall, almost hidden behind the floral arm of an upholstered booth, not too close to the center but not too far out where it might become crowded, people pressing in to warm themselves against the heat of argument emanating from the core. Comfortably still, with an undisturbed tepid coffee he never intends to drink, he listens to the debates, the ideas, and the laughter, like a man marooned on an island tuning into a distant radio broadcast. Proof that there are others out there. Proof that he is not alone. Proof.

He usually disagrees with them. Still, The Circle gives him a clear form to relate to, an external setting for his private cosmos ­ solid rocks of reality appearing in a fog of ghosts.

This evening he is later than usual. Knocked unsteady as he has been by the recent turns. He has his latest notebook with him, pressed against his jacket. His knuckles protrude from the spine of the book like barbed wire lacings. The pages are nearly full, front and back covered, they must be read as a loop from the first page front to the last page back, then towards the first page again, a closed path, a broken triangle, and at the pointed tip a discovery. An incredible discovery. He is so impressed by the stream of symbols that accumulate particularly at the endpoint, where they began, that he feels lightheaded while his blood collects in pools about his boney knees.

He's in front of the glass doors of the Café Josephinum. Through the filter of the windowpanes the activity becomes an unreal smear of lights and colors. His hand on the door, it opens, that aroma, and he moves into the room. Through the filter of his eyes the activity persists, an unreal smear of lights and colors. Who here is real?

Pushing against a breeze of phantoms he moves towards the table, pressing into a chair. Amazing that he looks composed. His physical condition is fragile. His emotional condition is fragile. He hides the former behind thick textile weaves and a well-manicured façade. He hides the latter behind the pattern of reflected lights off his glasses. On this stage provided by the Café Josephinum, he looks at ease, as though he belongs. But the past few days have been irregular at best. For one thing, Adele almost poisoned him. He woke into the hardest cold this morning like breaking through the surface of a frozen lake and gasped for breath ­ the air shocking his nose and throat with brittle spikes of ice as his mind sucked in the progression of the past days. A terrible relief flooded his system and the relieved thoughts themselves confirmed to him that he was indeed alive. I think therefore I am, he thought. Both the thought and the condition of being alive amused him. While he has run the events over and over in his mind, they permute with each replay: An old woman, his death, then Adele who is kind until she dusts something into his stew. Then again: An old woman, his death, the rain, Adele manipulates his confession and blatantly builds a toxic pyre. An old woman. His death. The rain. Adele. Pretty, stained Adele. His heart aches with suspicion and the thick mucous of betrayal.

His heart also aches with disease. He is fatigued. His chest is sore. He has no breath. This very evening he coughed up blood. His heart has become stiff and scarred after a bout of rheumatic fever at the age of eight. A valve in his atrium fused and constricted over years. It took the disease a full decade to declare the specific threat intended. He is plagued by attacks. A backwash of his blood stretches the chambers, depriving his arteries. He lives in constant fear for his life. Every minute framed by panic. The flutter in his chest a warning of a potential blood clot, suffocation, or heart failure. He shouldn't be here with the smoky air, warm and virulent. But the relief that filled his limbs this morning gave him a feeling of urgency and ambition. And he needs to see Moritz.

The Circle doesn't take shape until Moritz Schlick arrives. He enters like a gale, his entrance embellished by a curl of eddies in his wake that flow around the door and into the room. He is the chair of natural philosophy at the University, a title that carries great prestige and authority. Moritz is always a gentleman, always gracious and earnest and admirable. As he rocks into a chair, hands are waved, more coffees are ordered and in the darkening room, darker than the ebbing day, they all begin to settle amid clanking dishes, knocking elbows, their collective weight leveraged inward. The table wobbles as cups rise and fall and a circle forms.

It's Moritz Schlick's Circle. Drawn together by his invitation and kept together by his soothing tones. They come here to orbit around truth, to throw off centuries of misguided faith, the shackles of religion, the hypnotism of metaphysics. They celebrate the heft of their own weight in a solid chair, the heat off the coffee, the sound their voices manufacture within the walls of the café. Some are delirious with the immediacy of this day because it is all that matters. There is nothing else. Everything true is summed up in the chair, the cup, the building. There is only gravity, heat and force. The world is all that is the case.

Moritz knows the greatness that can emerge from the members he has chosen by hand, so he smoothes the caustic edges between egos and makes out of them a collective, an eclectic orchestra out of dissonance. Moritz is the glue that holds together the communist, the mathematician, the empiricist. He selects each person here with care, patiently turning them over in his mind, studying them with his kind eyes. They are comforted by his self-assurance and are sincerely flattered by the invitation to Thursday's discussions, if they are ever fortunate enough to receive the summons. There are many for whom the hoped for invitation never comes.

Gödel blushed with either vanity or shyness, who can know for sure, when Moritz approached him in the room in the basement of the mathematics Institute and extended the invitation almost four years ago. Kurt was at the chalkboard organizing another student's thoughts in spare symbols, lovely dusty marks on a landscape of poorly erased predecessors. He always transcribes the skeleton in the pure notation of symbolic logic first and with such care before he begins to speak. Even though he was only a twenty-one year old student, the others watched with admiration for his ability to see through to the logical bones in their debates, like a chef skillfully removing the endoskeleton of a filleted fish without a morsel of clinging flesh. Moritz watched him too and moved by the lucidity of Gödel's resolution to a problem he himself had found distractingly difficult, he came to his final decision to extend to Kurt an invitation to his Circle on Thursday nights.

Moritz joined him at the board, quietly adding a fine comment on the infinite list of integers that might participate in the reasoning off the middle rib of the fish's spine. And in this smooth manner he eased Gödel into conversation. Everyone either knows by instinct or learns by plain experiment to meet Gödel with mathematics first. And so Moritz approached with the right words about infinity and integers and earned that look of gratitude and trust. As he shook Kurt's hand and his own head in grateful amazement, they talked:

"Herr Professor, I have been thinking about the Liar's Paradox where the liar says, this sentence is false."

"Ah, the antinomy of the liar. Yes, that liar who says, this sentence is false."

"The sentence cannot be false."

"Because if it is false as claimed, then it must be true. A contradiction." Studying his young student for a time Moritz stroked his lip dry and concluded his motion with the reply, "And it cannot be true. Because if it is true, then it is false which is again a contradiction. It is a paradox and an artifact of our careless use of language. Mathematics will never allow such a paradox. Mathematical propositions will either be true or false with no contradictions."

"What if mathematics is not free of such propositions?"

"It must be. Mathematics must be complete. There are no unsolvable problems."

Ever since that morning of the invitation and the antinomy of the liar, Gödel has found Moritz's very presence reassuring. If Kurt was different in character, more affectionate, less rigid, and if Moritz too were just a little different, more spontaneous, less reserved, Gödel could have come to love Moritz like a father. Instead he feels something more formal, more distant, more appropriate probably. He feels grateful. He keeps this feeling to himself and the sentiment has almost no outward manifestation beyond his attendance here at Moritz's discussions. He believes that Moritz is real, that he exists and it happened in the moment that Moritz shared the comment on the infinite list of numbers. With that insight, it was as though he uttered a code word. I am one of the real ones, his comment certified, and with that he crystallized from the cloud and took shape.

[Excerpted from A Madman Dreams Of Turing Machines by Janna Levin. Knopf, 2006. Copyright © Janna Levin. All rights reserved.]

 

All these theories are preposterous, but that's not my problem with them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.

IN DEFENSE OF COMMON SENSE
By John Horgan

Introduction

John Horgan, author of The End of Science, and feisty and provocative as ever, is ready for combat with scientists in the Edge community. "I'd love to get Edgies' reaction to my OpEd piece — "In Defense of Common Sense" — in The New York Times", he writes.

Physicist Leonard Susskind, writing "In Defense of Uncommon Sense", is the first to take up Horgan's challenge (see below). Susskind notes that in "the utter strangeness of a world that the human intellect was not designed for... physicists have had no choice but to rewire themselves. Where intuition and common sense failed, they had to create new forms of intuition, mainly through the use of abstract mathematics." We've gone "out of the range of experience."

Read on.

JB

JOHN HORGAN oversees the science writings program at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include The End of Science and Rational Mysticism.

John Horgan's Edge bio page

THE REALITY CLUB: Leonard Susskind responds to John Horgan.


IN DEFENSE OF COMMON SENSE

As anyone remotely interested in science knows by now, 100 years ago Einstein wrote six papers that laid the groundwork for quantum mechanics and relativity, arguably the two most successful theories in history. To commemorate Einstein's "annus mirabilis," a coalition of physics groups has designated 2005 the World Year of Physics. The coalition's Web site lists more than 400 celebratory events, including conferences, museum exhibits, concerts, Webcasts, plays, poetry readings, a circus, a pie-eating contest and an Einstein look-alike competition.

In the midst of all this hoopla, I feel compelled to deplore one aspect of Einstein's legacy: the widespread belief that science and common sense are incompatible. In the pre-Einstein era, T. H. Huxley, aka "Darwin's bulldog," could define science as "nothing but trained and organized common sense." But quantum mechanics and relativity shattered our common-sense notions about how the world works. The theories ask us to believe that an electron can exist in more than one place at the same time, and that space and time — the I-beams of reality — are not rigid but rubbery. Impossible! And yet these sense-defying propositions have withstood a century's worth of painstaking experimental tests.

As a result, many scientists came to see common sense as an impediment to progress not only in physics but also in other fields. "What, after all, have we to show for ... common sense," the behaviorist B. F. Skinner asked, "or the insights gained through personal experience?" Elevating this outlook to the status of dogma, the British biologist Lewis Wolpert declared in his influential 1992 book "The Unnatural Nature of Science," "I would almost contend that if something fits in with common sense it almost certainly isn't science." Dr. Wolpert's view is widely shared. When I invoke common sense to defend or — more often — criticize a theory, scientists invariably roll their eyes.

Scientists' contempt for common sense has two unfortunate implications. One is that preposterousness, far from being a problem for a theory, is a measure of its profundity; hence the appeal, perhaps, of dubious propositions like multiple-personality disorders and multiple-universe theories. The other, even more insidious implication is that only scientists are really qualified to judge the work of other scientists. Needless to say, I reject that position, and not only because I'm a science journalist (who majored in English). I have also found common sense — ordinary, nonspecialized knowledge and judgment — to be indispensable for judging scientists' pronouncements, even, or especially, in the most esoteric fields.

For example, Einstein's intellectual heirs have long been obsessed with finding a single "unified" theory that can embrace quantum mechanics, which accounts for electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, and general relativity, which describes gravity. The two theories employ very different mathematical languages and describe very different worlds, one lumpy and random and the other seamless and deterministic.

The leading candidate for a unified theory holds that reality stems from tiny strings, or loops, or membranes, or something wriggling in a hyperspace consisting of 10, or 16 or 1,000 dimensions (the number depends on the variant of the theory, or the day of the week, or the theorist's ZIP code). A related set of "quantum gravity" theories postulates the existence of parallel universes — some perhaps mutant versions of our own, like "Bizarro world" in the old Superman comics — existing beyond the borders of our little cosmos. "Infinite Earths in Parallel Universes Really Exist," the normally sober Scientific American once hyperventilated on its cover.

All these theories are preposterous, but that's not my problem with them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.

Common sense — and a little historical perspective — makes me equally skeptical of grand unified theories of the human mind. After a half-century of observing myself and my fellow humans — not to mention watching lots of TV and movies — I've concluded that as individuals we're pretty complex, variable, unpredictable creatures, whose personalities can be affected by a vast range of factors. I'm thus leery of hypotheses that trace some important aspect of our behavior to a single cause.

Two examples: The psychologist Frank Sulloway has claimed that birth order has a profound, permanent impact on personality; first-borns tend to be conformists, whereas later-borns are "rebels." And just last year, the geneticist Dean Hamer argued that human spirituality — surely one of the most complicated manifestations of our complicated selves — stems from a specific snippet of DNA. Although common sense biases me against these theories, I am still open to being persuaded on empirical grounds. But the evidence for both Dr. Sulloway's birth-order theory and Dr. Hamer's "God gene" is flimsy.

Over the past century, moreover, mind-science has been as faddish as teenage tastes in music, as one theory has yielded to another. Everything we think and do, scientists have assured us, can be explained by the Oedipal complex, or conditioned reflexes, or evolutionary adaptations, or a gene in the X chromosome, or serotonin deficits in the amygdala. Given this rapid turnover in paradigms, it's only sensible to doubt them all until the evidence for one becomes overwhelming.

Ironically, while many scientists disparage common sense, artificial-intelligence researchers have discovered just how subtle and powerful an attribute it is. Over the past few decades, researchers have programmed computers to perform certain well-defined tasks extremely well; computers can play championship chess, calculate a collision between two galaxies and juggle a million airline reservations. But computers fail miserably at simulating the ordinary, experience-based intelligence that helps ordinary humans get through ordinary days. In other words, computers lack common sense, and that's why even the smartest ones are so dumb.

Yes, common sense alone can lead us astray, and some of science's most profound insights into nature violate it; ultimately, scientific truth must be established on empirical grounds. Einstein himself once denigrated common sense as "the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18," but he retained a few basic prejudices of his own about how reality works. His remark that "God does not play dice with the universe" reflected his stubborn insistence that specific causes yield specific effects; he could never fully accept the bizarre implication of quantum mechanics that at small scales reality dissolves into a cloud of probabilities.

So far, Einstein seems to be wrong about God's aversion to games of chance, but he was right not to abandon his common-sense intuitions about reality. In those many instances when the evidence is tentative, we should not be embarrassed to call on common sense for guidance.

[Editor's Note: First published as an Op-Ed Page article in The New York Times on August 12th]



IN DEFENSE OF UNCOMMON SENSE
Leonard Susskind responds to John Horgan

LEONARD SUSSKIND
Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stanford University

John Horgan, the man who famously declared The End of Science shortly before the two greatest cosmological discoveries since the Big Bang, has now come forth to tell us that the world's leading physicists and cognitive scientists are wasting their time. Why? Because they are substituting difficult-to-understand and often shockingly unintuitive concepts for "everyman" common sense. Whose common sense? John Horgan's (admittedly a non-scientist) I presume.

The complaint that science — particularly physics — has lost contact with common sense is hardly new. It was used against Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg, and even today is being used against Darwin by the right wing agents of "intelligent design." Every week I get several angry email messages containing "common sense" (no math) theories of everything from elementary particles to the rings of Saturn. The theories have names like "Rational Theory of the Phenomenons.

Modern science is difficult and often counterintuitive. Instead of bombastically ranting against this fact, Horgan should try to understand why it is so. The reasons have nothing to do with the perversity of string theorists, but rather, they have to do with the utter strangeness of a world that the human intellect was not designed for. Let me explain.

Up until the beginning of the 20th century, physics dealt with phenomena that took place on a human scale. The typical objects that humans could observe varied in the size from a bacterium to something smaller than a galaxy. Similarly, no human had ever traveled faster than a hundred miles an hour, or a experienced a gravitational field that accelerates objects more powerfully than the Earth's acceleration, a modest thirty two feet per second per second. Forces smaller than a thousandth of a pound, or bigger than a thousand pounds, were also out of the range of experience.

Evolution wired us with both hardware and software that would allow us to easily "grock" concepts like force, acceleration, and temperature, but only over the limited range that applies to our daily lives — concepts that are needed for our physical survival. But it simply did not provide us with wiring to intuit the quantum behavior of an electron, or velocities near the speed of light, or the powerful gravitational fields of black holes, or a universe that closes back on itself like the surface of the Earth. A classic example of the limitations of our neural wiring is the inability to picture more than three dimensions. Why, after all, would nature provide us with the capacity to visualize things that no living creature had ever experienced?

Physicists have had no choice but to rewire themselves. Where intuition and common sense failed, they had to create new forms of intuition, mainly through the use of abstract mathematics: Einstein's four dimensional elastic space-time; the infinite dimensional Hilbert space of quantum mechanics; the difficult mathematics of string theory; and, if necessary, multiple universes. When common sense fails, uncommon sense must be created. Of course we must use uncommon sense sensibly but we hardly need Horgan to tell us that.

In trying to understand the universe at both its smallest and biggest scales, physics and cosmology have embarked on a new age of exploration. In a sense we are attempting to cross a larger uncharted sea than ever before. Indeed, as Horgan tells us, it's a dangerous sea where one can easily lose ones way and go right off the deep end. But great scientists are, by nature, explorers. To tell them to stay within the boundaries of common sense may be like telling Columbus that if he goes more than fifty miles from shore he'll get hopelessly lost. Besides, good old common sense tells us that the Earth is flat.

Horgan also complains about the lack of common sense in cognitive science, i.e., the science of the mind. But the more psychologists and neuroscientists learn about the workings of the mind, the more it becomes absolutely clear that human cognition does not operate according to principles of common sense. That a man can mistake his wife for a hat is-well-common nonsense. But it happens. Cognitive scientists are also undergoing a rewiring process.

Finally I must take exception to Horgan's claim that "no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories [string theory and cosmological eternal inflation] as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge." Here I speak from first hand knowledge. Many, if not all, of the most distinguished theoretical physicists in the world — Steven Weinberg, Edward Witten, John Schwarz, Joseph Polchinski, Nathan Seiberg, Juan Maldacena, David Gross, Savas Dimopoulos, Andrei Linde, Renata Kallosh, among many others, most certainly acknowledge no such thing. These physicists are full of ideas about how to test modern concepts — from superstrings in the sky to supersymmetry in the lab.

Instead of dyspeptically railing against what he plainly does not understand, Horgan would do better to take a few courses in algebra, calculus, quantum mechanics, and string theory. He might then appreciate, even celebrate, the wonderful and amazing capacity of the human mind to find uncommon ways to comprehend the incomprehensible.


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