I know that, despite your love for physics and baseball and the Supreme Court, most people really come to Cosmic Variance for one thing: literary theorizing. Well, it’s been a little thin on the ground here, so let’s redress the balance.
As oldtime Preposterous readers know, in March I attended a conference at the KITP in Santa Barbara on Science, Theatre, Audience, Reader: Theoretical Physics in Drama and Narrative (duly blogged about here and here). I participated in a panel discussion, chatting about how modern science provided an excellent source of raw materials for literary metaphors — much in the spirit of Clifford’s last post. The idea was straightforward, and doubtless not original: science is a product of the human imagination, but not a free product; it’s forced to some up with startling and counter-intuitive ideas by the need to conform to the data. And as experiments have probed into realms that are increasingly distant from everyday experience, these ideas have become increasingly bizarre and counterintuitive. The kinds of ideas — dark energy, curved spacetime, collapse of the wavefunction — that you probably wouldn’t invent by just sitting in a favorite cafe chatting with friends. And because these ideas are so unfamliliar, they suggest provocative and illuminating perspectives on ordinary human interactions. (Black holes as personality types, entropy as a metaphor for social decay — you know the idea.)
The respondent on the panel was Arkady Plotnitsky, a charming expatriate Russian who studied mathematics and physics in Leningrad (back when it was Leningrad) before moving to the States and becoming a literature professor. He encouraged me to write up my talk for publication in a special issue of Poetics Today, which I have finally done. So here it is: From Experience to Metaphor, by Way of Imagination (pdf file). Feel free to comment away, keeping in mind that this is not in any sense my area of expertise. (So, does this mean that writing articles for Poetics Today is a good way to advance one’s physics career? No, not really. Let’s say it’s a higher good.)
Now I want to see Michael BÃ©rubÃ© start publishing in Physical Review Letters.