From Experience to Metaphor

By Sean Carroll | November 4, 2005 1:12 pm

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 Bérubé start publishing in Physical Review Letters.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Words
  • Plato

    I like your article Sean.

    Even Penrose had to seek the help of Escher. :)

    I mentioned Alice briefly in relation to the photonic journey, but realistically this adventure from mathematics to the fabled story has indeed capture the mind in what Alice is doing today. You see?

    Spooky action at a distance has been extended from to issues of quantum entanglement, yet in it’s history, this was the world on the other side(Hyphephysics has a geometrical valuation in algebraic geometry(NOn communitative)?

    So “piece meal” physics of imagination and experimentation, has move the metaphorial mind to consider “other experiments” as you suggest in this extension.

    Yes there are dangers as well. But these are eliminated once engaged in the reality makng process.

  • tom fish

    Hey Sean, are there any physicists that you find to be exceptional writers? Specifically, I mean physicists who write well in their research papers. I’ve always thought Bob Geroch had a neat way of turning phrases.

  • Moshe

    Sidney Coleman is famous for that, and to my taste also Ed Witten.

  • Plato

    The “Creative Commons” is not limited to scientists alone. There are always higher “ideals” that one might like to inject into society.

    Some are indeed good story tellers, NOn? Some see the advancement of technologies as necessary tools to advancements in society. :)So the boundary has to be pushed, so we extend societal vision of what you scientists are doing.

    Creating the “neuronical network” and “trackbacks” are a simple examples of what the neuron can do here in the creative commons? It all starts with an idea, and googlization?

    Again, the cathedral and the bizzare are instrumental historical processes that sparked this advancement in communal blogs like quantum diaries. Like Cosmic variance, it arises from a foundational perspective, called the internet. It was once situated in the halls of higher learning, but insight and foresight, saw where this could take society.

  • spyder

    Plato mentions the Creative Commons; the brainchild of Lawrence Lessig (at Stanford) and his associates. One of the features of the Common’s is to allow for progressive (the time process not political) development of artistic creation. It has worked very well for music and online novel experimenting. I can easily see an evolving science based forum within the Arts (bravo to Clifford’s efforts at USC) wherein creative commons copyrighted material could morph and evolve from the blackboard (or whiteboard/LED screen powerpoint presentation as you prefer) through visual arts, into literary media, and beyond into music. Clifford’s equations in News From the Front, as sculpture that become musical instruments that create a libretto for a performance piece. We live in a time when our technologies and our most creative thinkers have the capacity to share common creation in near real time. We need to honor that and go for it.

  • Sean

    Tom, sorry, I meant to reply earlier. Moshe’s choices are the first two that come to mind for me as well — Sidney Coleman and Ed Witten. Coleman is the more poetic, and Witten sometimes doesn’t correctly calibrate what makes sense to mere mortals, but their prose is a model of clarity. Geroch is another good example.

    Off the top of my head, I might also mention Alan Guth, Steven Weinberg, Joe Polchinski, Martin Rees, Roger Penrose, Richard Feynman, Murry Gell-Mann. No surprise that these are also outstanding physicists — it’s their ability to see things so clearly that enables them to state them so lucidly for the rest of us. Of course, there are an equal number of counterexamples, whom I will refrain from listing.

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Cosmic Variance

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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