Re: A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies

Robert Owen (
Sun, 14 Nov 1999 01:14:30 -0500

J R Molloy wrote:

> From:
> "The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that
> everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is -- second only
> to American political campaigns -- the most prominent and pernicious
> manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time."
> -- Larry Laudan, Science and Relativism (1990)

I cannot possibly do a thorough job of placing your remarks within the scope of a much larger context where [A] they become more generally meaningful, and [B] they may be subject to proper analysis and criticism. You have made some sweeping generalizations and described some parochial views that, in my opinion, are sometimes merely simplistic and that sometimes are, because of a bias to which you are entitled, of limited explanatory value. I wish to emphasize, however, that I am replying to your post because it expresses, in a very lucid and intelligent way, one perspective on matters worthy of respectful examination.

At this time, I will limit myself to responding to your introductory quotation with some contrasting ones. I do not consider this response argumentative at all -- it is meant to complement in a preliminary constructive way your essay, which I consider one dimensional rather than incorrect as such.

                                       ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"It would be a poor thing to be an atom in a universe without physicists, and physicists are made of atoms. A physicist is an atom's way of knowing about atoms."

"... nature seems very conversant with the rules of pure mathematics, as our mathematicians have formulated them in their studies, out of their own inner consciousness and without drawing to any appreciable extent on their experience of the outer world."

> For some years I've been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of
> intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities.

'In the 1970s, when quantum theory began employing such terms as "beauty," "charm," and "strangeness" to signify the various properties of quarks, a friend turned to me [as a poet] and said: "You know, they're waiting for you to give them the words." I saw what he meant, but he was not quite right: Science does not need art to supply its metaphors. Art and science are alike in their quest to reveal the world."

> In the first paragraph I deride ``the dogma imposed by the long
> post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook'':
> that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any
> individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties
> are encoded in ``eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain
> reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to
> the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the
> (so-called) scientific method.

"Physics tries to discover the pattern of events which controls the phenomena we observe. But we can never know what this pattern means or how it originates; and even if some superior intelligence were to tell us, we should find the explanation unintelligible."

"Truth in science can be defined as the working hypothesis best suited to open the way to the next better one."

It's an experience like no other experience I can describe, the best thing that can happen to a scientist, realizing that something that's happened in his or her mind exactly corresponds to something that happens in nature. It's startling every time it occurs. One is surprised that a construct of one's own mind can actually be realized in the honest-to-goodness world out there. A great shock, and a great, great joy.

Finally, like it or not, Science can no longer isolate itself from the Humanities, including especially their influence on public opinion and politics.

"In short, while scientists have generally considered themselves to be the intellectual descendants of the "Benjamin Franklin" model of the benevolent scientist, bringing enlightenment to humankind, too often scientists are actually perceived by the public to be more in the "Dr. Frankenstein" mold, unleashing scientific havoc on an unsuspecting world.

"The lesson we need to draw from this phenomenon is increasingly evident: Modern scientists (and their first cousins, engineers) must become as adept in dealing with societal and political forces as they are with gravitational and electromagnetic forces--and, candidly, up to this point I would not give us a passing grade. Today's scientists are no longer constrained simply by the laws of nature, as was generally the case in the past, but also by the laws (and attitudes) of the land."


[1] George Wald, Higgins Professor of Biology Emeritus, died on April 12 of natural causes at his home in Cambridge. He was 90. Wald shared the 1967 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for research on how the eye sees and passes visual images to the brain.

[2] Volume 281, Number 5373 Issue of 3 Jul 1998, pp. 40 - 41 ©1998 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

[3] "To date I have just retired from my directorship at the Max-Planck- Institut für Verhaltensphysiologie in Seewiesen, Germany, and am at work building up a department of animal sociology pertaining to the Institut für Vergleichende Verhaltensforschung of the Austrian Academy of Science. Fascinating Autobiography at:

[4] Leo P. Kadanoff (University of Chicago Physics and Math Departments); GREAT GOLD MEDAL OF THE ACADEMY- In 1998, it was awarded to Professor Leo Kadanoff (James Franck Institute, Chicago). Kadanoff is one of the major pioneers of theoretical physics in our times. He has had a profound influence on a number of fields: applied mathematics, physics, mechanics, cosmology, chemistry, and polymer science. The Great Medal is given in recognition of this exceptional achievement.

[5] Norman Augustine is chairman of the Lockheed Martin Corporation and a member of the engineering faculty at Princeton University.

Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA