I’ve been spending time with a handful of ideas which all point in the same direction: theory often gets in the way of understanding. The solution is a bias for tinkering and experimentation — and perhaps a direct disrespect for even the most sacred theories.
Every human life exists within a specific time and place. And along with it comes a complex set of forces that shape the kinds of actions and thoughts that are available to us. Whether scientific, social, philosophical, financial or otherwise, theories and traditions that seem timeless and unquestionable are found wherever our thoughts can take us.
How do you break free? You mess around with things. You hurt yourself and learn. You forget what you’re supposed to see and look for what’s actually there.
Disrespect becomes useful. I like the way Paul Feyerabend says it best: “There is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes.”
And so it comes down to a matter of courage. To not be trapped by assumptions, to find ways of understanding what’s right in front of you in the most immediate, unmediated way.
Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, and Feyerabend’s Against Method are three books that give a dose of this courage.
Kuhn shows how truth is often stifled by scientific paradigms that have outlasted their usefulness. Taleb exposes the failure of standard models and theories in the face of the inherent uncertainty of future events. And Feyerabend gives the green light to grab whatever you can find in the pursuit of your own understanding.
Debates within modern physics provide another take on this question of theory and practice. What happens to a field where direct observation is no longer possible? When the things under consideration happen at scales either too small or too large to measure, and when the dominant theories are about phenomena that defy even the imagination?
Time is the only thing that’s real. Time isn’t real. Our universe is a hologram. Are these physicists brave souls who have broken with dogma into the light of truth? Or are they the victims of their own theorizing? Perhaps both?
Time Regained! “I no longer believe that time is unreal. In fact I have swung to the opposite view: Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.”
Life Is a Braid in Spacetime “At the other end of the spectrum, Julian Barbour argues in his book The End of Time not only that change is illusory, but that one can even describe physical reality without introducing the concept of time at all.”
There Is Growing Evidence that Our Universe Is a Giant Hologram “So, it seems that for now, we’ll have to wait for the physicists doing the hard math and shooting the lasers to tell us whether our lives are just a very sophisticated illusion. In the meanwhile, the big question on my mind is, how the heck will such a revelation affect us?”
Why physics needs art to help picture the universe “At the frontiers of modern physics, relevant experiments are difficult. The easy ones have been done and their lessons have been thoroughly absorbed. The old Baconian model of patiently accumulating data and then using it to infer laws is no longer practical. Instead, the winning strategy has been to guess laws, derive their consequences, test them and thereby discover whether Nature chooses to use them. If not data, what guides the guesswork? In a word, aesthetics.”
The Abdication Of Space-Time “Why have our perceptual systems evolved to present us a world in the format of space and time if, as Seiberg says, space and time are illusions, primitive notions that will be replaced by something more sophisticated? What selection pressures favored the ascendancy of this primitive format? What fitness advantages does it confer?”
A Fight for the Soul of Science “In considering how theorists should proceed, many attendees expressed the view that work on string theory and other as-yet-untestable ideas should continue. ‘Keep speculating,’ Achinstein wrote in an email after the workshop, but ‘give your motivation for speculating, give your explanations, but admit that they are only possible explanations.’”
In the midst of the wild theorizing in physics, a major story within biology is downright comforting: a new technology gives new capabilities with direct results.
Gene Editing Tool Hailed As A Breakthrough, And It Really Is One “Every once in a while a technology comes along that completely alters the way scientists do their work. It’s hard to imagine astronomy without a telescope or high energy physics without an accelerator. From here on in, it’s going to be impossible to imagine biology without CRISPR-Cas9.”
Three articles consider the evolution of writing and the book.
It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.’ “I’m not saying that such writing should be discarded: Who hasn’t been moved by a great memoir? But I’m sensing that literature — infinite in its potential of ranges and expressions — is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and is unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time.”
The death of writing — if James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google “While ‘official’ fiction has retreated into comforting nostalgia about kings and queens, or supposed tales of the contemporary rendered in an equally nostalgic mode of unexamined realism, it is funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the cultural avant garde.”
The Future of the Book is the Future of Society “Just as Gutenberg and his fellow printers started by reproducing illustrated manuscripts, contemporary publishers have been moving their printed texts to electronic screens. This shift will bring valuable benefits (searchable text, personal portable libraries, access via internet download, etc.), but this phase in the history of publishing will be transitional. Over time new media technologies will give rise to new forms of expression yet to be invented that will come to dominate the media landscape in decades and centuries to come.”
And here’s the best of the rest of what I found this week:
The Blood Harvest “Each year, half a million horseshoe crabs are captured and bled alive to create an unparalleled biomedical technology.”
The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic “‘[Pitts] was in no uncertain terms the genius of our group’ said Lettvin. ‘He was absolutely incomparable in the scholarship of chemistry, physics, of everything you could talk about history, botany, etc. When you asked him a question, you would get back a whole textbook … To him, the world was connected in a very complex and wonderful fashion.’”