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Sunday, January 16, 2011

What I'm reading: Jan 2011 edition

I've made it half-way through Lewis Hyde's "Common as Air". This is a book about "copyright". Specifically it's a book which tries to define the origin, limits and purpose of copyright through the lens of the "Founding Fathers" of American culture.

It's a good book. It's an interesting book. And it's plenty factual. But it seems to me that it's only relevant to anti-Tea Party internet forum trolls. I'm just not sure how relevant "Founding Fathers" are to "the rest of the world" (in what I see to be an America-on-the-decline era). It reads a little bit like someone starting out with a conclusion, and then hunting down a few quotes to back it up. And the conclusion itself reads a bit like a university term paper.

I've all but given up on this book because:
a. I don't live in the US at this point in time.
b. It only serves to highlight for me the wrong-direction copyright law, corporate law (see The Corporation), etc. have taken in the US - and this tends to cause me much anxiety. It's like seeing a good friend of yours lose their job and drift into psychosis (all the while knowing that they have a family to support and a huge cache of WMDs in the garage).

So I've turned to Steve Nadis & Shing-Tung Yau for some light escapism in "The Shape of Inner Space - Sting Theory and the Geometry of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions". Now, I've got some real problems with String Theory itself, but this book really isn't about that. It's about geometry. It's about the hodge-podge of geometrical constraints that is a Calabi-Yau space.

I've been reading about cosmology for a good long while, and there are a few basic terms I see quite a bit: Hilbert space, Hamilonitan, Bekenstein-Hawking radiation, Schwarzschild-radius, Minkowski space, de Sitter space. Mostly I don't understand these in any rigorous way (because that would require quite a bit of math I don't have). But one can develop a cargo-cult definition of these sorts of things. And that definition can be stitched up against the next closest scrap of learning to ultimately come together as a patchwork quilt of understanding.

Yau/Nadi take care here to nut out the details of Calabi-Yau in almost purely laymen’s terms. The writing itself is not great, but the content more than makes up for that for my money. I'm only half-way through and I've had at least two Eureka moments.

The funny thing about this book, and Penrose's "The Road to Reality", and I say this from a very low altitude, is that they make me wonder if physics hasn't just found a deep local minimum. Has physics just taken a turn towards embracing an attractive tautology? There's a sort of feeling in string theory that "It's so beautiful. It must be true." And there's no hint of the sentiment that should follow: "And if it's true, we can prove it by performing experiment X, because the theory predicts Y." String theory, as near as I can tell, does not predict much. And what it does predict, cannot be tested by any known or suggested experiment.

But these are the problems for greater minds than mine. So what's in it for me? I'm interested here on two fronts. Firstly I've seen art both lead and follow science. I've seen culture mirror the tone of science/art. Post-modernism was mostly just a response to Miami Vice, but it was also a response to Einstein's relativity. Imagine trying to put to air Seinfeld's "show about nothing", or worse Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in the late 1950's. To be "funny", that particular brand of humour requires the general public to have an intuitive understanding of relativity, uncertainty, chaos, etc..

Secondly, what sort of comedy/art can we distil from a philosophy of science which not only allows the totally anti-intuitive results of quantum theory, but goes even further in requiring a massive leap of faith, a total redefinition of science on the fly? It's not without energy or strain that culture was able to embrace relativity and chaos in an artful and organic way (the 60's, 70's, 80's, and 90's each carried their own revolutions). I'm interested to look at the bleeding edge of both art and physics* to see where we might be going. Or more likely, to be able to make sense of things when we get there.

*physics, more than any other field of science, attempts to describe that which determines everything else. All other sciences work on top of physics.

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