Science Editorial 15
September 23,2013

Observations accumulated while sitting for 5 hours on a train from Paris to Perpignan

(1)Observations on Wave Mechanics and the Arts

(A)Quantum Theory and Renaissance Painting

Quantum Theory has given us the paradigm known as the "wave/particle duality of light". This paradoxical behavior of light was surely known to all the great painters.Renaissance painters in particular must have noticed when light behaves like a wave (diffraction, interference, polarization),and when it behaves like a particle (Geometric Optics based on the notion that light travels in perfectly straight lines).

This could be an excellent topic for a research project :by studying the paintings and the treatises of the great painters, notably the scientifically inclined ones such as Leonardo DaVinci, Albrecht Durer, Piero dalla Francesca and others,one could identify features in their work which show that they understood the dual nature of light and transferred this knowledge to their art.

(B) Music and superposition

Sit for awhile in a restaurant, and observe how every sound comes across distinctly, how one can separate conversations and distinguish them from noises, the activity in the restaurant, the clinking of dishwares, the sounds coming from the street.

This counterpoint is audible and readily interpreted at every moment of our waking life. How is it then, that contrapuntal music developed only in Western Europe? . Even in this system, only a very small number of sounds, base on the simplest ratios, are consonant. As for the small number of dissonances intervals, they are not "out of tune" ( although one could say that any sound t hat is out of tune is a dissonance) . So it all has to do with the relationship of the full spectrum of ratios, rational and irrational, to the simplest rational ratios. Paradoxically, the tritone ratio, 1: √2, is also treated as a "standard dissonance"!

Yet the simultaneous superposition of sounds waves is all about us. It would not be difficult to choreograph it with all the imagination one brings to diatonic music. Some films seem to do this in their inventions of “atomospheres”.

Could not a talented composer create contrapuntal music from voices, motions, street sounds?

The idea is present in a very crude form in John Cage's “4 minutes and 33 seconds”.

(2) On the root causes for the undependability of French engineering

After many visits to France one concludes that French engineers are very strong when it comes to Macro-engineering (Eiffel Tower, TGV trains, high tension power lines), but quite inept in basic domestic engineering (doorbells, air-conditioners, telephones…)

Speculation : The causes for this phenomenon date back to Napoleon. Napolean established the Ecole Polytechnique to create a cadre of military engineers to fulfill his dreams of world conquest. He needed good, reliable cannons, bulwarks, locomotives, battering rams, ships. Thus, from the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution, French engineering was oriented towards massive macro-engineering pro jects related to war.

It was quite otherwise with England. Here the origins of modern engineering lie in the textile industry, the steam engine and factories designed to produce items for maritime commerce.

(3) On the disasters of communication within the sciences.

The trimestres of the Institut Henri Poincare usually last about 12 weeks, 5 days a week for a total of 60 days. On each day there can be from 4 to 6 lectures, easily 300 lectures in all.

By and large these lectures are disasters, and really understandable by persons who are intimately acquainted with their fields: the transparency images on the large screens at the base of the auditoriums are all but invisible, while the chalk scratching engraved with frenzy or urgency on the blackboards are completely invisible. Just about every lecture is in English, while most of the audience are French. The French are fond of English, but only rarely learn it with any proficiency. The lecturer themselves normally a kind of English that is more mumbled than clear. These enormous difficulties accompany a subject matter that is generally very specialized and abstract.

Despite this, hundreds of students, teachers and researchers, attend as many as they can,although much of it must be a colossal waste of time. In discussions afterwards, those who honest or candid admit that they understand little beyond a vague and general sense of what is being said.

This is intended as a general comment on the staggering wastefulness that is normal to the pursuit of basic science.It is because of this, for example, that one finds that the AMS conferences now devote much of their content to general survey lectures alongside the rosters of specialized communications.

(4) On The Boring as a necessary feature of scientific discourse

This comment is not intended as derogatory: It is intrinsic to the nature of science that scientists need to be somewhat boring. To be otherwise is to sacrifice "objectivity" (neutrality) in favor of bias, color or emotion. If the scientist does not train himself to be neutral he can't do science.Yet neutrality can become tedious, and tedium is at the demonic core of The Boring.

(5) “Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters”, by Kate Brown, Oxford UP 2013

This is a truly remarkable historical study of the devastating moral, ecological and political effects of the nuclear arms race in the two cities in which the manufacture of Plutonium (U 238,239,240) was carried out: Richland and the Hanford plant in Washington State, and Ozersk and the Mayak plant in Russia.

One of her theses is that the politically anaesthetized mentality of the tacky suburban bedroom communities in America that flourished in the 50’s, had its origins in the synthetic lifestyles and modes of conformity of the small town of Richland. With few exceptions the population of this artificial township deliberately cut itself off from the world of workers’ camps and impoverished towns in its surroundings. It also maintained a high state of denial with respect to the real nature of the work it was doing, and the devastating ecological damage to a vast region in Washington State.

Richland was, and perhaps still is, right-wing conservative in its politics, yet it survived by government subsidies and welfare state type protections. These were established on the grounds that the work being done there was vital to national defense. A similar pattern was present in Ozersk, where an essentially Stalinist mindset was complemented by far more civil rights than those available to most Russian citizens.

One can draw a connection between Kate Brown’s thesis, and the influence of the mindset of Los Alamos during World War 2 on the general intellectual climate of American universities, which one can characterize as a synthesis of liberal opinions combined with suburban aspirations.

While the world’s greatest physicists were all too busy cobbling designs for bombs that could devastate entire cities, their free time was devoted to in seminars and lectures on every subject imaginable, on cultural diversions like string quartet concerts , and other refined activities. Sometimes they referred to themselves as the Athens of the modern world.

One should not entirely place the blame for building and dropping the bomb on the shoulders of these Nobel Prize winners. In fact, there was very little hard science involved in manufacturing the atomic bombs. Most of the effort was done by engineers. The real reason for having so many famous names at Los Alamos was to bestow their prestige as a kind of masquerade to cover over the gruesome atrocity of what they were involved in.

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