Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Intersection of Thoughts and Things

Do our cosmologies, our fundemental physics, our grandest philosophical/scientific ideas reflect the rarefied domains of mind and pure reason or do they live through the very real, very dirty process of living, embodied, in the world? The best answer to this question, at least for the most famous example of relativity theory, comes directly from Galison's book "Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Map's". As Galison summarizes

When Einstein came to Bern patent office in 1902 he entered an institution in which the triumph of the electrical over the mechanical was already wired to reams of modernity. Here clock coordination was a practical problem (trains, troops, telegraphs) demanding workable, patentable solutions in exactly his area of greatest professional expertise: precision electromechanical instrumentation. The patent office was anything but the lonely deep-sea lightboat that the no-longer young Einstein had longed for as he spoke to the Albert Hall audience in the dark days of 1933. Reviewing one patent after another in the Bern Office, Einstein had a grandstand seat for the great march of modern technologies. And as coordinated clocks were paraded by they were not traveling alone. The network of electrical chrono-coordination provided political, cultural, and technical unity all at once. Einstein seized on this new, conventional, world-spanning simultaneity machine and installed it at the principled beginning of his new physics.

It was, in Galison's eyes, no accident that Einstein finds himself in the patent office which itself was no physics backwater. There was an intersection of thoughts and things, culture and creation, politics and philosophy swirling around the invention of relativity theory. As Galison says
Staring through the metaphorical we can find the literal, through the literal we can see the metaphorical.
I think this is not just true of the emergence of relativity but of all our grand discoveries. Our highest abstractions are woven through with the concrete of breath drawn upon breath and the clash of humans in the sweat and mire of daily life. This is the sacred as profane, the transformation of embodied life into distilled essence and back again. This is our wondrous gift in being human.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Abstract Embodied: Part I

We separate and compartmentalize the imaginative life of our species and in doing so flatten and reduce ourselves. We restrict our understanding of history and the full field of possibilities into which we might move. Our grandest conceptions of space, time, cosmology and life live separately from the day to day truck of commerce. There is the sacred and then there is the profane. They are, we think, separate and distinct. In making that distinction we cleave the world into two less-than-halves and miss what is most remarkable about being human.

The profane emerges from the sacred as well as the other way around. The abstract and the concrete support each other and can not be encountered separately.

In working on the research for my next book I have been reading Peter Galison's Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time and I would like to recommend it to anyone who is interested in the overlap between social and scientific history. Galison has taken great pains to show how the most arcane of scientific theories - Einstein's relativity - did not spring from a rarefied and disconnected aether of abstract thought. Instead it emerged in a context where light signal travel times and the meaning of simultaneity were at the very center of the culture's deepest concerns.

The world of the late 1800s was crisscrossed with thousands of miles of telegraph cable and railroad lines. It was a world that was shrinking far faster than our digitized globe. For all of human history few people traveled faster than 40 miles an hour (a galloping horse) unless they were falling from a cliff. Suddenly train lines where whisking people from one city to another at sustained speeds of 75 mph or more. Even more astonishing telegraph cables reaching from Denver to Dakar to Peru to Paris allowed news to flash instantaneously across continents and oceans. For the first time in human history the meaning of "at the same time" had an import and an ambiguity to it that had never existed before. If it was 10:00 am now here in Rochester, what time was it in London?

Empires depended on the answer to this question. The determination of longitude, established by a comparison of local time with the time at a distant standard meridian could mean the difference of miles between contested boundaries. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Kings cared about simultaneity.

Into this fray comes young Albert Einstein - patent clerk/physics student - ready to take on the physics of electromagnetism, moving bodies, time and simultaneity. What matters for this discussion is the simple fact that he did not dream up this issue on his own. He did not arrive there by simply wondering in the realms of pure thought. He did nothe did not end up at his questions alone and he did not end up there by accident. The entire world was waiting for him.

To be continued...