Saturday, 27 June 2009

Madame Bovary on a beam of light

I’ve been rereading ‘Madame Bovary’ and am struck, all over again, at how Flaubert lets us draw our own conclusions about Emma Bovary’s actions, without forcing any ‘morals’ down our throats.
Flaubert was one of a set of nineteenth century writers, along with others such as Zola, who were very influenced by the rise in science and who saw himself as a sort of human and/or social experimenter. Many other writers have also consciously seen themselves in this way. Brecht commented that he conducted experiments on audiences with his dramas and spoke of turning the theatre into a laboratory.

‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn can be seen as an experiment in the way it repeats variations of the real-life conversation between Heisenberg and Bohr in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, in a repeated attempt to understand what really happened at this meeting. But, literature isn’t really the same as an experiment? In ‘Copenhagen’ the audience is presented with different versions of the events but we never get to understand what really happened, and why. But that’s not the aim of this particular experiment. What we’re left with is an understanding that it is fundamentally impossible to know what happened that night in Copenhagen, despite all the written records.
That understanding is a satisfactory result of this dramatic experiment. It doesn’t matter that this experiment cannot really happen, that it’s only acted out for us. It’s actually a perfect example of a thought experiment.

Thought experiments have a long pedigree in science. They’re best characterised as hypothetical experiments which we can imagine, but which we’re not able to perform. They allow us to set up a scenario and think through the repercussions. Einstein, influenced by the philosopher and physicist Ernst Mach, was a whiz at developing thought experiments. Some of the best ones (such as imagining a person riding on a beam of light) show how his theories developed from considering everyday objects such as clocks and rulers. They also provide the most accessible illustrations of the ramifications of his theories, without having to wade through all the maths.

As twentieth century physics became more esoteric and abstruse, physicists became more and more reliant on thought experiments to illustrate the implications of their work.
The most famous of these thought experiments; Schrodinger’s cat, was developed as a reductio ad absurdam by Schrodinger to criticise the bizarre, and clearly to him wrong headed, ‘standard’ interpretation of quantum physics. In this experiment a cat is locked in a box with a vial of poison. After a fixed amount of time, depending on a random process, the cat will either be killed by the poison, or not. But according to quantum physics, until we open the box, observe the cat, and therefore measure the outcome of the experiment; the cat is in a superposition of quantum states and is both dead and alive.

This experiment is not about to be performed in any laboratory soon. It doesn’t need to be. Thought experiments are a beautiful use of imagination in science. They allow the scientist to imagine ‘what if?’
This is precisely the question that fiction writers ask. Just because the results aren't scientifically provable doesn't mean they're not true.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

A spark of life

I’ve been reading about the process of cloning. Some of this process seems conceptually simple, obvious even, yet is clearly very technically demanding. For example, part of the process requires removing the nucleus from a cell and inserting it into an egg which has had its own nucleus removed (a nucleus is the part of a cell which contains the DNA, and this in turn contains the genes needed to instruct a growing embryo what to do and how to grow).

Then, a small electric shock is applied across the egg and its new contents. This shock apparently has two purposes. One is to help the nucleus ‘fuse’ to the egg and the other is to ‘activate’ the cell division process (which is what happens when an egg is fertilised by a sperm), and help the egg on its way to becoming a new organism.

This process of applying an electric shock also seems simple in one way. But it’s not obvious why it should work, and I can’t find a proper explanation in any popular account of cloning. How can an electric shock mimic the natural process of fertilisation? Why did anyone think this would work?

I find this lack of information unsettling and it seems at odds with the rest of the detailed information about cells, nuclei and so on. The account that we do have brings to mind the scene in ‘Frankenstein’ in which the monster is brought to life by an electric shock. Is that why we’re not given more information about the process, because it’s assumed that we’re familiar with it already, through reading or watching ‘Frankenstein’?

To be fair, the idea that electricity is linked to life has been around for longer than ‘Frankenstein’. When she wrote the book, Mary Shelley was influenced by Galvani’s experiments in the late eighteenth century. Galvani found that when he applied an electric shock to dead frogs’ legs they twitched, leading him to think that electricity was the vis viva, a sort of life force.

This intertwining of science and stories about bringing inanimate objects to life goes back further. The Golem is a creature in Jewish culture made out of clay and dirt who is created to protect Jews. One of the best known versions of this story is set in Prague in the sixteenth century. The Rabbi of Prague makes the Golem in order to protect the Jews in the city from anti-Semitic attacks. Here, the creature is not activated with electricity, but by having the word ‘emet’ (Hebrew for ‘truth’) inscribed on his forehead (in some versions a piece of paper inscribed with this word is inserted into his mouth). He does as he’s told and he protects the Jews, but he gets increasingly violent himself, until the Rabbi is forced to deactivate him, and he does this by rubbing out the first letter of ‘emet’ leaving ‘met’, which means ‘death’.

The fact that words are used to bring the Golem to life, and then to kill him off again, is a nice metaphor for the power of language. It feels more precise than a flash of electricity; perhaps that's because there is more information in a word than in a spark.