Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Problem with The Relevance

The single biggest problem facing the reader of Jaki's The Relevance of Physics is not its size or even its scope. (An aside: I understand some readers of this bloog are having difficulty obtaining a copy; perhaps you might send an e-mail to Real View Books inquiring whether there are any remaining copies around, or asking about a reprint - perhaps if there is sufficient interest...) No; the difficulty arises in the complexity of dealing with the subject itself, the history and inner life of science. This study (which I called "cliognosology" in a previous column) is at least half philosophy, and requires tools of literature and history and allied fields - and yet, at the same time it requires knowledge of the matter of science itself: its subject matter, its organization, its method - along with its dramatis personae of science, their writings and methods. It is a huge project.

But then so is any field of our subject, and if we are scientists (in the widest sense) we do not shrink from mere size, or from complexity. We do not avoid the thought of Antares, though it may be larger than our entire solar system out to the orbit of Mars. We do not avoid the topic of metabolism, though the usual chart of Metabolic Processes looks more like some sort of vast computer network - even to the four-place enzyme codes which have the same format as IP addresses! Besides, this book contains important ideas - it is a sourcebook. We do not reject the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics because it is too large to go into our pocket - and TROP is a good deal smaller. It's also a good deal more readable. And where it is a bit obscure, I hope to assist, by means of this study.

Therefore, let us begin with chapter one, "The World as an Organism" (pp. 3-51)

In these first stage-setting paragraphs, we immediately find how rocky our road is - and yet how rich. (Apropos of my own introduction, I think of our Society's Master, Pierre Duhem: physicist, historian, and hiker. He did not avoid a difficult rocky trail for he knew the vistas to be attained by means of it!)

We find Plato mentioned in the unattributed quote of Whitehead; we find mention of a J. Burnet; we find the name Archimedes with that odd word "divus". A bit later we find a torrent of other names: Homer, Plutarch, Hesiod, Thales and so on, but among these we also find scattered Einstein and Schrödinger. We may wonder who these people are, how they relate, and what is the point of it all.

Clearly, Jaki's spotlight is on ancient Greece - as indeed you will find in the rest of this chapter. Now, if you happen to have read other of Jaki's books, in particular Science and Creation, you may be a bit surprised at some of the "encomiums" he gives to ancient Greece here. (That word "encomium" is a fancy synonym for "praise" and is one of SLJ's "pet" words, but surprisingly it does not appear in TROP.) In fact, this is one of the curious complications - almost an unsettling one - about this book. Is Jaki praising or condemning the Greeks, or what? No; he is trying to suggest a larger view.

This method, Jaki's style, or approach to handling such topics, may take a little getting used to. It's not the usual sort of exposition one finds in science, and (contrary to his own words to me about non-fiction writing) I think it suggests a certain hidden longing for the complex-web-weaving style of detective-fiction. (Oh, how I wish he had written a mystery story!) Let me say more about this. A writer like Chesterton (of whom, as you know, I am particularly fond of mentioning!) will allude to other writers, and give huge leaping analogies, thereby linking difficult ideas into something one can grasp. He will not refrain from even taking a famous Bible verse and extending it by a sort of trick of typesetting, almost as one makes a word "bold-face" in a word-processor. One famous instance is GKC's inversion of Mt 19:6 to give "Those whom God has sundered, shall no man join" - almost mystical insight into the truth of the sexes, and one which Jaki quotes (e.g. in "Purpose Redux" in SLJ, A Late Awakening and Other Essays, though he is not using it as GKC did.)

Jaki does not use Chesterton's approach, though on occasion we find his using something like it, as we have just seen. (It can happen to any serious student of Chesterton.) He has another, which (like Chesterton) takes some getting used to. He leaps, in a kind of weaving motion, bringing various link-points together across the millennia and across the entire gamut of "cliognosology" [my word for "the study of the history of science] which we should see here as its two halves, as Science, writ large, and as History. You will find its first instance in the second paragraph of our text, where we find Heisenberg and Aristotle and Schrödinger bumping into each other - and this is just the start.

You may claim: but this is only natural when one examines an idea!

Perhaps. This is why it is so difficult, especially to come into such a topic as a scientist, since it is not about the idea, but about those who held an idea, or a version of an idea - it is History writ large, not Science, though it may be an item drawn from Science or which one has come to term Science. It will be unsettling, but then so are some of the ideas in our own science or what we term science. This is the point, and this is the strategy of presentation, which does have a scientific style: bring the related matters together, no matter how twisted other parts may become - and then examine the adjacencies. (This is much like Mendeleev's method which gave us the Periodic Table - a matter which we shall hear about in chapter 4 of our text.) So if we need to bump something from quantum physics with something else from ancient Greece, just keep reading, and enjoy the view - it may get bumpy, but the vista will be excellent.

Fortunately, when we get to the fourth paragraph, we find this kaleidoscopic mosaic clarified for us. Jaki is setting up his structure for the first three chapters, the three views of Nature as (1) living, (2) mechanical, or (3) numerical.

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