seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
[personal profile] seekingferret


When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

~Walt Whitman



I first encountered this poem in high school English, and I come across it again every few years. I can't explain entirely the rage it summons in me.

But maybe this is the point I wish to make. A friend mentioned the Randall-Sundrum model of the universe and I went to that wikipedia page to try to learn what that was. Pretty soon I was desperately linkhopping- I have a basic education in relativity and differential geometry, but pretty basic, and even the vocabulary I did learn at some point, it's been a decade since and I needed to refresh my memory.

So I clicked on anti-de-Sitter space and from there to Lorentzian manifold and from there to Riemannian manifold, and I want to point out something about these four articles.

The article on Randall-Sumdrum model begins "In physics" The article on Anti-de-Sitter Space begins "In mathematics and physics." The articles on Lorentzian Manifold and Riemannian Manifold begin "In differential geometry." There's that tricksy slippage between physics and mathematics Whitman is writing about. Are the learn'd astronomer's "proofs, the figures," his "charts and diagrams" a meaningful and interesting representation of the actual stars, or are they just lifeless mathematical models that lack the "mystical" potency of observing the stars with the naked untrained eye? Aside from answering this question, though, the distinction is, I think, actually important to doing physics. Because if you theorize that spacetime takes a certain shape that can be modeled by a particular manifold, and then your measurements in an experiment don't match the manifold, you have to consider two different possibilities: One, that spacetime doesn't match your theorized model, and two, that your measurements were inaccurate. But if you're a mathematician working with a manifold and it doesn't match your expectations, only your math is wrong.

So this distinction Whitman writes on matters. There are the mathematical models of the stars, and there are the actual stars themselves, and if you forget this you end up confusing the manifold with the spacetime. A physicist needs both to do their work.

Nonetheless, I feel a great rage when I read Whitman's poem, a rage at the idea that the untrained eye bestows a more exciting and therefore truer reality than the subtle delver into the measureable mysteries of the cosmos can attain through experimentation and analysis. This may be dogmatic scientism on my part, but if so, let it be!

(no subject)

Date: 2017-07-19 01:34 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I want to appreciate beauty *as well* as understanding, but when people treat it as a dichotomy, I want to ask, when they were children, did they only want to *look* at buttons? Or did they want to *press* them? (I mean, ok, Whitman was maybe before electric buttons, but still.)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-07-19 02:26 pm (UTC)
grrlpup: (Default)
From: [personal profile] grrlpup
That poem is SO SMUG. No fans in this house.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-07-19 02:40 pm (UTC)
brainwane: My smiling face in front of a brick wall, May 2015. (Default)
From: [personal profile] brainwane
I don't usually read the poem as prescriptive, just descriptive of Whitman's experience -- like, "someone is lecturing using a kind of incomprehensible set of abstractions that I don't have the skills to manipulate right now, and everyone else in the room gets it except me, and it's a relief to go off by myself and have some solitude with nature -- right now this is my own way of appreciating the thing that they appreciate a different way". I have totally had all the sub-experiences within that, though never all in the same sequence like in the poem. But I get why it reads as prescriptive and smug sometimes!

(no subject)

Date: 2017-07-19 03:28 pm (UTC)
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
From: [personal profile] sanguinity
You give Whitman waaaaaaaay more credit than I do. I read it as, "I didn't understand the equations at all, and around about the fourth Wikipedia page, I said 'fuck it, this is hard' and so went and engaged with the stars in the only way I can manage but meanwhile inexplicably considered myself superior to the people who do understand and write the wikipedia pages, because I assume that writing Wikipedia pages about stars is mutually exclusive with looking at the stars, as opposed to being deeply dependent on it."

Or, as [personal profile] grrlpup said above: SO SMUG.

btw, I feel pretty much the same way about Poe's sonnet about science.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-07-19 04:11 pm (UTC)
cahn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cahn
But mathematics is really beautiful too! So I think Whitman fails there too. But anyway -- I always think of the Feynman quote when confronted with stuff like this:

“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination - stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one - million - year - old light. A vast pattern - of which I am a part... What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

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