Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Invention versus discovery.

Fiction invents, science discovers – right?
But fiction can make you see the real world differently, through examining how humans react to it. For example, Hamlet is torn between two impossible choices, and cannot act because he sees the disadvantages in both. He analyses and rejects the modes of behaviour that his peers would have chosen (as articulated in other Elizabethan revenge tragedies). As a result, we cannot look at how humans think of themselves and their place in the world, without thinking of Hamlet. The play extended humans’ self-consciousness by showing the limitations of actions and the consequential inevitability of self-analysis.

More practically, a fictional depiction of real-life social issues can profoundly affect the way we react to those issues. When the film ‘Cathy Come Home’ was first shown in the Sixties, it exposed the way that homeless people were treated by the authorities and started a national debate. The charity Shelter was formed as a result, and homeless people now have legal rights to housing.
Fictional depictions are sometimes the only way that we can ‘see’ big problems. Poverty in India can seem vast and overwhelming, until the novels of Rohinton Mistry bring it within our understanding, and our empathy. Similarly ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie probably works as a better introduction to the Biafran war than many factual texts, because it uses interesting and sympathetic characters (including a child soldier who is forced to take part in a mass rape) through which the reader can see the effects of that war.
A recent academic paper (http://www.bwpi.manchester.ac.uk/resources/Working-Papers/bwpi-wp-2008.pdf) examines the use of fact and fiction in understanding developmental issues and argues that fiction is a credible way of spreading knowledge. It can reach a wider audience than more factual approaches, and provide a richer illustration of how people react to their surroundings, because it’s at liberty to investigate the inner lives of those people in a way that factual narratives are simply not able to do.

Conversely, discovery is not just a passive intake of external data. It’s also a framework to put the data into, in order to make sense of it. Constructing this framework necessarily involves invention. When you carry out an experiment, and measure some variables, you have to have an idea of what these variables are; you have to conceptualise them. For example, if you decide to measure the temperature of a box of gas, you have to have an idea of what temperature actually is, and how it might be related to the gas’s energy. How is the gas’s confinement to a box going to affect the result? What if you pump in more gas and increase its pressure? Or heat it up? Which of the variables are important and will affect the results? And which can be ignored? Will the colour or shape of the box holding the gas affect the results?
Straightaway the process of doing experiments becomes recursive; you carry out an experiment to get a better understanding of the external world, but you already need some sort of narrative of it in order to do the experiment in the first place.
Sometimes this narrative is drawn from places outside science. The importance of Galileo’s observations of four moons orbiting around Jupiter stems partly from the religious dogma which stated that everything orbited the Earth.
Modern science likes to think it makes its models exclusively from within science and that nothing else taints it. But models are made from language, and this can give the lie to this belief of purity. For example, in the fifties James Watson came up with ‘the central dogma of biology’ to express the idea that the flow of information from DNA to RNA and then onto proteins is one-way. (This excludes Lamarckian models of evolution in which DNA can be changed by changes to the proteins during the lifetime of the host organism.) He confessed afterwards that he didn’t really know what dogma meant, but he wanted a word to stress the importance of the idea. There’s no doubt that it’s important, but calling it a dogma implies that any criticism of it is heretical. Maybe Watson was being tongue-in-cheek when he used this word, but it’s hardly an incitement to open debate.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Time takes a cigarette...

The concept of time in science is problematic. It’s everywhere, yet elusive. The one-way flow of time from the ‘past’ (i.e. what we remember), to the ‘future’ (what we cannot yet recall) is the ghost in the machinery of physics. Newton’s laws on motion, quantum mechanics, general relativity; all these theories are symmetrical with respect to time. They don’t invoke or explain its passage. As is well known, the only equation in physics that does directly invoke the passage of time is the second law of thermodynamics, which says that things tend from an ordered state (low entropy) to a disordered state (high entropy). One way of explaining time’s flow from past to future is to say that the universe started off in a very low state of entropy, which is subsequently increasing.
So, does biology fare any better? DNA can work as a natural ‘clock’ in the way that it accumulates mutations. We can compare DNA from different organisms and estimate when these organisms diverged. I suppose this is similar to using the decay of carbon 14 to date organic matter.
This gives the study of DNA a natural rhythm, perhaps.

Time flows naturally in fiction. I can’t think of any novel that is set in one ‘present’ moment. There are novels that are set in the present but that present does move on. Perhaps by their very length, novels preclude the examination of the single moment, in a way that short poetry or short stories can. But novels (or epic poetry such as the Iliad) can play with time, make it double back on itself, even run backwards (e.g. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis), and examine moments in time over and over again from different perspectives. Plays can do this too; Michael Frayn’s play, ‘Copenhagen’ consists of conversations between Bohr, his wife, Margrethe, and Heisenberg[1]. Within each conversation, time flows ordinarily, but the whole play is set in the afterlife, and all three characters are dead. As such they are unable to move or develop, they are curiously static in time, and the play itself does not move forward. It succeeds, brilliantly, because it takes a single point in time (the real-life conversation between Bohr and Heisenberg) and unfolds it to expose all the complexities that exist in that moment, like hidden extra dimensions suggested in string theory.
But what do we mean by the ‘present’? The moment that we exist in is always hemmed in by the past and the future. We walk a knife-edge between what we remember and what we anticipate. Is it just a trick of the consciousness, that we think we ‘are’ at any given point in time?
A novel, poem or short story is a system of words that relies on relationships between them to function. And yet they are always read sequentially. We are taught to read by moving from one word to the next in an ordered way. We can possibly read a short sentence at once by glancing at it, but no more than that. So our ‘present’ corresponds to a short block of text, and poets can explicitly take advantage of this in the way they present their work on the page. Is a line of poetry equivalent to a present moment? And how does this relate to breathing? And music? When we listen to music we hear a phrase, the aural equivalent to a line of poetry. The phrase is there in our head, but it continuously gets superseded. If our perception of the present were any different, e.g. if it were shorter than it is, would poetry or music ‘work’ in the same way?
The sequential nature of literature and music has a nice analogy in the structure of DNA, with its rows of neatly ordered bases. And yet, like literature or music, there is something in the ‘wholeness’ of DNA that is not present in its parts. Different genes may be responsible for different functions in the parent organism, but they affect each other, they don’t work independently of each other. A novel is like that too. Whilst we can only retain in our short term memory a small proportion of what we are reading when we read a novel, we also retain an overall structure. The sentences we read accumulate in our memory to create an impression of the overall work.
[1] I’ve referred to this play before, see my third blog. It’s being performed at the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum this April.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Where do you stay?

I’ve already mentioned in a previous posting the complexities around the links between genes and Jewishness. Sharing an ethnicity does not mean sharing an exclusive genepool. There can be more variation within shared ethnicities than between them. And the link between genes and nationalities is even more complex, although perhaps less so in a small country like Scotland which has had relatively little immigration. Perhaps nationalities are (becoming) more memetic than genetic – one can learn to be a different nationality through subconsciously, or consciously, adopting the mores of the people around you.

For example, when I was a child we drank coffee. We hardly ever drank tea. Although my parents were both born in England, one grew up in America and the other was the child of German and Austrian immigrants, and neither had a history of drinking tea. Even as a child I drank coffee for breakfast. Now (perhaps as a result of living in Yorkshire for several years and having a partner from there) I drink tea all the time, and so does my father. Has he learnt it from me?

But sometimes you can get stuck in the middle – for example, I never know what to reply when someone asks me where I ‘stay’. Scottish people use the word as a synonym for ‘live’ or ‘reside’. If I reply ‘I stay at…’ it feels artificial, as if I’m appropriating someone else’s language. But if I reply ‘I live at…’ it implies I’ve thought about using the word ‘stay’, have rejected it as being too Scottish for me, and have retreated to ‘standard’ English. Either alternative makes me feel self-conscious.

Perhaps I should make up my own word.

I’ve learnt that genes are influenced by their envronment, too. They get turned on, or ‘expressed’, by influences surrounding them. This environment stretches all the way from the neighbouring genes, through the rest of the cell, the host organism, and the wider environment. So, genes are not little bullet entities that whistle unperturbed through their host organisms, only randomly mutating. (This concept of ‘random mutations’ sounded so dangerous when I first read about it and I couldn’t figure out why until I realised that it’s a reminder of radioactivity.)

This adaptation to your surroundings can be reflected in laws on nationality. Different countries have different attitudes and laws on the conferring of nationality is conferred. Some use ‘blood’ (e.g. Germany before 2000) through which you can confer your nationality to your offspring even when they’re born outwith the country, others use ‘territory’(e.g. USA) through which your offspring automatically achieve that nationality by virtue of being born there. Those that use territory – do they place more emphasis on learning behaviours and attitudes, such as the desire to aspire to ‘American’ ideals? Because there are no genetic links to rely on to hold society together?

Notice that I used the Scots word ‘outwith’ in the previous paragraph. Perhaps I’m adapting my language after all.