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Nima Arkani-Hamed debates a novelist

...on differences between science and arts...

The Science Museum organized a 55-minute conversation of Nima Arkani-Hamed with Ian McEwan, an English novelist. Note that Nima is dressed in an unusually elegant, formal way, to show that physicists are culturally superior. Relatively to him, McEwan is dressed like a rank-and-file physicist. ;-) The female host mentions that Nima is an avid reader; she doesn't even have to say that he is a spectacular piano player, too.

The video starts with a 16-minute test of patience. Jump to 15:45 if you're sure that you would be able to pass the test. ;-)

The novelist thinks that the society undervalues science relatively to arts. He also feels compassionate about the scientists because they need to race, to be the first ones, while novelists may always write a derivative book that will be said to be unique, anyway.

Well, I am not sure whether the degree of interaction between these two Gentlemen was too high but to say the least, fans of Ian McEwan were led to be exposed to one contemporary particle physics' most energetic minds.

McEwan says that a writer may still do perfectly fine if he or she is totally detached from science. But the total detachment is less and less frequent although he later admits to have many writer friends with zero interest in science.

Before 18:00, the novelist says that "climate change forces people to learn something about science". You may bet that I had to interrupt my watching for some time to lower the tension in my stomach. McEwan's "climate change" reason to be interested in science reminded me of the young rabbis who asked Richard Feynman whether electricity was fire (to know whether they could use an elevator on Saturday):

It really was a disappointment. Here they are, slowly coming to life, only to better interpret the Talmud. Imagine! In modern times like this, guys are studying to go into society and do something—to be a rabbi—and the only way they think that science might be interesting is because their ancient, provincial, medieval problems are being confounded slightly by some new phenomena.
Nima points out that everyone can appreciate arts but you must know something to appreciate science and to see that e.g. Nima is not just another crank.

Around 26:00, the novelist says that the humanities have increased the gap between science and the arts as these postmodern hacks are trying to hijack the word "theory", for example. Science's truth is just another ideology, and so on. McEwan has lost a few friends who love to relativize the truth. These views are passing – from arts to politics, Nima adds.

Near 29:00, Nima talks about a physicist's popular talk with a 12-year-old kid who complains that the Higgs field is just like the aether. So the physicist tries to explain "trust us, we're not stupid" and argue that the Higgs field is like an aether in the analogy but it is not like the aether. ;-) Analogies have limitations but Nima believes that the essential points can be explained – to a very engaged audience. For example, Nima himself learned much cosmology from Weinberg's popular "The First Three Minutes" (so did I, when it was piecewise translated to my childhood's favorite VTM magazine). Nima also talks about the severe constraints that Nature imposes on our viable theories.

The novelist's subsequent monologue mixing teaching of science, "applied mathematics", statistics, and natural selection was something that looked somewhat chaotic to me. I didn't really understand what he wanted to say and I would bet that neither did he. At least, they may discuss the beauty in science and arts – and what the concept means and doesn't mean. Science's sense of beauty isn't a matter of fads, Nima points out. It's because the beauty is a shorthand for something else – some inevitability or uniqueness. I have learned that "pretty", "cute", "cool" mean something else than "beautiful" in physics. Nima also talks about the completion of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony from the four tones. It looks inevitable but Beethoven had to try flawed drafts first. The analogy with the search for the right beautiful theories is clear.

McEwan says that the contemporary music isn't about beauty; it is a method to express the anxiety. Poetry and self-organizing structures are more beautiful. But music may return to the beauty. Modernism has declared that emotions and beauty are frauds, he argues. He suddenly mentions the abolition - of the spacetime – and the reality of time. Nima isn't interested in debates "what is real"; they are crap, he says politely. Instead, he talks about the mixing of space and time and the reasons why the concepts are probably not fundamental. McEwan reinterprets Nima's words in some way but he doesn't recognize the ideas so they laugh. Nima also says that the question itself is often unclear up to the moment when the final right answer is almost isolated.

McEwan was asked by the host whether the creative efforts in science and arts are analogous. He only has "fantasies" what theoretical physicists could be doing the whole day. And one of them is that they're like novelists, sitting in some relaxed position with a notepad near them. They are in a misty state with some bits of the talent etc. Despite the mythology, Nima says, people don't go to their offices to write systematic equations from A to B and say "now I succeeded" at the end. This is the usual story about the approach of Nima's colleague Edward Witten, however. ;-) It never ever works like that...

There is a difference between big discoveries that some giants sometimes make and the tiny, $3 million discoveries that people like Nima are doing, he emphasizes. :-) A good story has a higher chance to be right but some stories are too good to be true. So 99% of our life is to prove that some too good stories are wrong. So a physicist knows he's a nearly constant failure. To make things worse, he's sure about the failure because he knows how the success looks.

After 57:00, McEwan says that extra dimensions etc. seem profoundly inelegant to him, especially if there are 11 dimensions. 10 would be better, he says. I honestly can't figure out whether he's joking but if he's serious, it is really really stupid! Now, the need for scientists to be the first one and to compete is mentioned. Novelists can write derivative junk and be considered unique at the same time. McEwan says that scientists may race for days or weeks. Well, we would sometimes hunt minutes because of that. ;-) McEwan praises "The Double Helix".

Nima mentions that scientists discover, not invent, so it's enough to be in the vicinity of the truth and not fight it. The truth sucks you soon or later – sooner if you're more talented. McEwan claims that Darwin had the greatest anxiety attack. Nima finally says that the credit etc. is important for the individuals, not for the grand scheme of things. Physicists have a different thinking and it's important to think in new ways – but not just about new things. One must think in new ways about old things and all things.

McEwan says that he likes to think of science as just one aspect of curiosity etc. In this sense, he agrees with his postmodern former friends, I think. He says that faith directly opposes science. The female host finds an elegant moment to terminate the debate.

If you are going to watch it, don't forget to share your impressions.

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snail feedback (18) :

reader Uncle Al said...

Science requires objective qualification of the few. Social activism requires subjective disqualification of the many. As murderous Rome was followed by 1000 years of European-purifying penury, so science must be ended in the name of compulsory degradative egalitarianism.

Ignorance is a form of knowing things, as is faith. Personal accomplishment steals from the deserving. Knowledge and understanding mock diversity. Reality is a peer vote. Fanfare not even the common man but LGBT, LGBTI, LGBTQQ, MSGI, GSD, SGL, GLBTA, GSM, MSM, FABGLITTER, LGBTQ+, and especially unknown acronyms.

We will all live together when nobody lives apart. One bathroom for all, no partitions, no TP.

reader DvtheDv said...

Erg. Ian McEwan seems rather uncomfortable throughout much of the discussion, as if he would rather be elsewhere. Which would of course explain his vague meanderings and the general (in my view) awkwardness of this exchange. Arkani-Hamed is much more on point in terms of the words he is saying, though he seems to have a nervous tic that I don't notice so much in other YouTube videos of him.

reader AngularMan said...

I know it's off topic, but I wonder what you think about the latest Gibbs vs Boltzmann entropy discussion, Lubos.

This is the preprint of the Nature article:

reader Jan Reimers said...

Thanks for posting this Lubos, I never would have found it otherwise. I failed the patience test miserably. Before I watched it I though "Oh no, not another artsy intellectual making broad sweeping statements about science, full of the standard misconceptions". But I was pleasantly surprised, I thought McEwen made a number of interesting points with a smattering a rambling as you also noticed. I found the whole time discussion un-enlightening. One thing that got missed, is that theoretical physics (and science in general) is a lot of hard work. Sitting with a note pad warming your feet by the wood stove is not how it gets done. And there lies the reason for the gulf between the public's appreciation of art vs science. The majority people are happy to read novels, attend concerts and browse art galleries, but very few people have to discipline to sit down and do the hard work required to understand modern physics.


reader PlatoHagel said...

Might I share my thoughts as written here?

reader lukelea said...

Ian McEwan, whom I have never read, impressed me favorably. His attitude towards science strikes me as just about what Lubos should want it to be, more generally, among public intellectuals in general. When McEwan mentioned climate change as an example of why non-scientists need to know more about science -- whether we can really predict things when there are "more than two or three variables" or something like that, I took it to mean he was open-minded and was quite capable of coming down on the skeptical side. So I give him an A. I'm also going to pick up one of his novels. Anybody know which I should start with?

reader lukelea said...

You could also say that very few people have the discipline to sit down and do the hard work required to understand appreciate James Joyce's Ulysses or the main sequence of Thomas Eliot's major poems. Believe me, it takes the same kind of commitment required to become a good physicist.

reader Gordon said...

I don't really like McEwan's writing, but he is open-minded and intelligent.

I agree that most modern music (and modern art) is degraded (the talent component is lacking) compared to the better composers from 1600 to the early 1900s. For those interested, here is a neglected Russian pianist/composer that even I can listen to without wincing:

or, if you like classical jazz, you can listen to string and QF theorist Anton Kapustin's father, Nikolai:

or you can do the ideologically pure thing and just listen to Bach:

@lukelea -- I think that Eliot's best poem was "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock". The Wasteland was too self-consciously stuffed with Greek quotes (in the original Greek) and allusions that only someone who had a first in Classics would "get". Joyce suffered from the same virus, particularly in Finnegan's Wake--". A way a lone a last a loved a long the (last line of the book) / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from ..... "(first line of the "book").
Yes, I agree that a lot of work would be required to understand Joyce in these books, but unlike, say,
QFT, to what purpose? I prefer the simplicity of Beckett.

reader Eugene S said...

I agree that most modern music (and modern art) is degraded

That's because you're an incurious, calcified, philistine blockhead. You like what you know and you know what you like.

Why don't you take a time machine back to the 18th century?

reader lucretius said...

Personally I am more offended by his starting date. I mean, what can you say about a person who fails to appreciate this:

reader Eclectikus said...

Thanks for posting this, I've enjoyed it a lot.

In 43:20 Ian McEwan talk about Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, one of my favourite thinkers from before our Civil War, and a pretty clear-sighted one. Highly recommended, starting with "The Revolt of the Masses", and following with "España invertebrada" (Invertebrate Spain), that looks like it was written last week.

McEwan cites specifically this quote: “Tears and laughter are, aesthetically, frauds”, It comes from the essay “The Dehumanization of Art” (1925) and I think it might interest readers of TRF.,_Culture,_and_Literature

Notice: I also passed the patience test, next time maybe you should trust your readers and spare us the process by adding "&feature=share&t=15m45s" to the YT address :P

reader Gordon said...

I would not call Michelangelo a composer. If you want to include artists in the time frame, I would have to go back millenia or even longer to Lascaux caves. By modern art, I am talking about modern expressionists.

reader Gordon said...

Hmm, I post a friendly and informative post, and look at the response. I guess you are right, Bach is definitely inferior to 50 Cent and Lil Twist...
FYI I listen to all sorts of things, and yes, I do know what I like. This is the first time I have heard appreciation of classical music and great art referred to as "philistine". We need more of them.

reader lucretius said...

Michelangelo did not compose this, Josquin did. Presumably you have also not heard of Gombert, Lassus, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd, etc, not to mention Ockegham or Dufay. But not having hear of the Renaissance is still not as bad as believing that "modern art" is "expressionism".

reader Gordon said...

I was looking at the Sistine Chapel in your video, not playing it. Are you blind, or just wilfully misinterpreting me. I do not dislike the Renaissance obviously. I like Tallis and Byrd, Monteverdi, etc but they are not favs. Abstract expressionism is a subclass of modern art. You are being purposely nasty and playing word games. Obviously modern art is not just expressionism --- it is much less.
I suggest a peace treaty, a least for now, or else, like
Lear, "I will do such things...what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terror of the earth."
or, in an actual "modern" translation of Shakespeare for students,
"Don't mess with me." :)

reader Gordon said...

I can extend my time frame as a fat tail of a Gaussian to the mid twentieth century with a few surviving outliers to the 21st
Stuff like this is good music:

I can even listen to Eminem and appreciate it occasionally---

Anyway, I am glad to see that you have recognized me--the Doctor--and my tardis---

reader lucretius said...

You are being very tempting ;-) . I am reminded of this:


I can call spirits from the vasty deep.


Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them?

I doubt that they will come or are already on the Internet. Anyway, I don’t mind a truce or a “hudna”, but I can’t speak for Eugene, I am afraid. He has not got his name for nothing…

reader BBJko said...

Hi , I'm not a physicist but i like reading on string theory . I'm very interested in the subject. There's a question that I want to ask .I get the impression that there's some object that we don't know enough details about that somehow gives rise to space-time and matter and force fields (At lower energies ) so spacetime as well as other gauge fields are emergent (not fundamental? So it seems that if we start with some spacetime structure we can derive the corresponding gauge fields etc . Can we go the otherway around ? That's from knowledge of gauge fields (e.g standard model ) derive spacetime structures?