The poetry of equations: The 'Alice approach'

“And what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversation?”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
In No Small Matter, a book on the 'science on the nanoscale', famous chemist George Whitesides and photographer Felice Frankel achieve to convey the poetry and beauty of science with elegance and erudition. Their unique manner of presentation - saying much, by saying less - is more effective than most other books on science written for the lay audience. There is no surfeit of words, no clamour of explanations, and no riot of reasons.

Felice Frankel’s photos (or visualizations) show  bits - 1s and 0s - using wine glasses with red Shiraz, a prism on Venetian blinds, and a 'faked' quantum apple (to make the point that quantum mechanics confounds our ‘normal’ intuitions) and quantum dots, that are simultaneously beautiful art and beautiful science. George Whitesides’s prose is the 'second voice' in this lovely duet of images and words and strikes a wonderful balance between explaining and making us ponder.  He asks to reconsider what we take for granted - the magic of listening to music, for instance, is the ‘magic of transformation’. Using the LP track of Eleanor Rigby, Whitesides makes us rethink this amazing feat of alchemy. The the voices of the Beatles were recorded (copied) in the variations of grooves in vinyl, transmuted to electrical impulses by the needle, transduced by the vibrating speaker diaphragm into vibrations that are carried in the air, through our outer ear, and then via tiny bones and fluid in our inner ears back into sound, back into the emotion of Eleanor Rigby and all the lonely people. With the well-crafted images and sparse sentences the book has the economy and power of poetry. Saying much, by saying little. 
 Curiosity is an itch, that understanding scratches
From the dawn of time, humans have had that itch and that need to scratch won’t ever go away. That’s what we humans do. Whitesides, for all his accomplishments, shows no trace of arrogance in what we now know; showing, that with greater understanding comes greater humility. For there is still lots we cannot explain. It’s not just arcane quantum or cosmological phenomena. We have the DNA code, but we don’t know how proteins ‘do what they do’ from messages in the code. As he writes, its like constructing the lives of people by looking at a telephone book. We don't understand how water molecules work in the cell.  Even the the everyday, plain and mundane confounds us. We don't understand cracks - how a crack actually ends. We don't understand bubble formation. We don’t understand colliding water jets.

Maybe someday we will get to a more complete explanation, or it may elude us, but the strange beauty of the water jets and the rest will continue to enchant us forever.
What really got me was the piece titled 'Duality': 
We're burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest - perhaps the greatest - of art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.

We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby's crib. We panic.
An equation can be thing of such beauty and subtlety that only a poem can equal it....
It's an idea worth trying on for size. Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a  reality beyond the reach of words. 
He quotes De Broglie’s equation:
 λ = h / mv
In a compact and precise way it says, “A moving object is a wave”. That is poetry of the highest order, he says, and I agree. Even haikus seem long in comparison.

There no end to technological reductionism, but Whitesides urges us to write that love letter from Indiana in long hand. Science will only scratch that itch. It’s up to us to use our judgement as well. As we delve deeper there is more need of caution. As he admits, even in the case of equations, not all equations are alike and ann do not lead us to delight in their beauty, “Some are porcupines, some are plumber's helpers, and some are tarantulas.”

At the end of the book, scientist and non-scientist will have gained some understanding of science works. That is secondary. What is more important in my opinion, is that it shows how fascinating all this really is, and how we go about finding and exploring things that we cannot see, or hold, or smell. I call this the ‘Alice approach’ - create wonder. Draw attention to that itch, and the scratching will take care of itself. Drawing people into the beauty that nature is.

My issue with the polemics and arguments offered by science apologists is that they are written to appeal to the already convinced choir, who silently smile and cannot but nod in approval, but they do little to draw the ‘others’ in, and often achieve the opposite effect of turning them away. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was wonderfully written, but I cannot think it actually convinced anyone (barring a few fence-sitters) to actually change what they already believed in. It was divisive and that does not help. This is not the ‘Alice approach’.

Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, Why Politics and Religion Divide Good People, talks about ways to end the partisan politics of the Right vs. the Left, but this can be also applied elsewhere. In a twist of the Western adage - 'shoot first, questions later', his work as a moral psychologist has shown that ‘we are emotional first, and rational later' and when reason is brought into play it’s in support of the initial emotion. We make up reasoning post-hoc to bolster what ever was our initial emotional response. Reasoning and reflection can cause us to change our opinions but it is rare (We are less in this mode than we would like to believe). The approach to begin to gain any traction in an opponent’s mind is to use methods that ‘talk to their intuitions, and not to their reason’. Keep the reasons for later.

There is a similar problem in Science v. Faith/Religion debates. It’s not that the reasoning of the science boosters is not sound, but that the tone is wrong and reason alone is inadequate. You need to appeal to the intuitions that believers have. Richard Dawkins in his recent book, The Magic of Reality written for children and ‘curious’ adults, has tried really hard to create that ‘Alice approach’. It contains beautiful expositions of scientific experiments and phenomena with a preamble of folkloric and mythical explanations. It works, but only somewhat as they serve as ‘foil’ and straw-men to be knocked down later. What then remains of wonder when it really an argument, a quarrel in another guise? 

In a less intrusive way and with greater effectiveness, Whitesides/Frankel give us a tour of this Wonderland of the nanoscale and quantum phenomena that any one of any stripe cannot fail to be moved.

Alice would’ve  heartily approved.


Wavefunction said...

It's a great book. And Whitesides is one of the smartest men I know. I have listened to many of his talks and this quality of wisdom through concision that you mention constantly shines forth. He has the capacity to communicate very deep and thought-provoking ideas and questions through just a few words.

hirak said...

It was an absorbing and delightful book - enjoyable and illuminating on many levels.