A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: January 2016

I’ll show myself out, thanks

While I’m thinking of multi-lingual puns:

The lake was too polluted for fishing or swimming, so the town council declared that the water was verboten.

The Punning Mind

Gandalf tells the story of his confrontation with Saruman at Orthanc:

I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.[1]
“I liked white better,” I said.
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.” LotR, II, ii.

Saruman is making an elaborate, layered pun here.  Let’s step away from the Germanic-root words for a moment.  Breaking white light into its spectral components: analysis. Writing things on paper: thesis. Dyed white cloth:  high-status ancient Romans usually wore white to work, but it was tacky to wear that to dinner.  For festivities, they wore a brightly-colored outfit called a synthesis.  If you’re familiar with classical civilization and you like word games, Saruman is encapsulating the scientific method in three quick phrases.

Am I just imagining this?  Well, “His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle…” and there’s this:

… Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, the name of which had (by design or chance) a twofold meaning; for in the Elvish speech “orthanc” signifies “Mount Fang”, but in the language of the Mark of old the “Cunning Mind”.  LotR, II, ii.

This is exactly the same kind of multi-lingual pun.  Saruman has a previous conviction, Your Honor.  (Once again, little in Tolkien is due to “chance”.)

And we were warned this was coming.  “Saruman” comes from “searo“, “art, skill, contrivance, deceit, stratagem…” which the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary[2] warns “is uncertain whether the word is used with a good or with a bad meaning”.   And no way am I going to try to contradict Professor Tolkien on Anglo-Saxon, but I note that “orÞanc” also has a positive gloss as “original thought”.  Both of these words for intelligence can be taken two ways. There’s a context in which this ambivalence persists in modern English:  For every “smart person”, there’s a “smart alec”; for every “wise man”, there’s a “wise guy”.  And those latter terms are generally applied to a person who makes clever puns in ostensibly serious situations.[3]

Saruman is playing a mind-game here, irritating Gandalf with too-clever puns so he’s rattled, and doesn’t see the trap Saruman is about to spring on him.

1. I have a friend who would buy a gown made of that cloth in a heartbeat.[back]
2. Thanks to Tom Hillman for the link to Bosworth-Toller. For learning Anglo-Saxon, Prague is the last place I’d have thought to look. [back]
3. The public-school career of your humble Idiosopher could in no way have contributed to the evidence for this observation. [back]

Finding problems in a text

Back to that guidance for topic selection that I find so helpful. I’ve decided that patterns are best used as supporting evidence, not topics.  Now, let’s look at what we can do with problems.  The Writing Center says you’ve got a problem if,

A character might act in some way that’s unaccountable, a narrator may leave out what we think is important information (or may focus on something that seems trivial), or a narrator or character may offer an explanation that doesn’t seem to make sense to us.

Problems are potentially much more fruitful for scientists. Noticing a problem and solving it is our default modus operandi.  As the old saying goes, “Engineers like to solve problems.  If no problems are available, they will create some to solve.” This is our comfort zone.

Good problems come from looking “along the story”, not looking “at the story”. I’m not interested in questions like, “where are Elrond’s farms?”  JRRT didn’t need them in the story, so they’re not in it.  Here are some problems I can see in LotR:

  1. Gandalf gives a very persuasive speech against the death penalty to Frodo, but then encourages everyone to go to a war that will bring death to thousands. What’s the difference? I think of choices in terms of costs and benefits. What is JRRT encouraging me to put on the two sides of the ledger?
  2. Technology seems to go the wrong way. The Shire seems to be mid 18th-century; Rohan early medieval; Gondor high medieval. The more populous the cities, the fewer signs of invention. That’s exactly backwards from the whole history of the real world. (Irrelevant tangent:  Did Merry make his fortune after the war selling horse-collars to the Rohirrim?) Is this the standard failure of Romanticism, of the kind that makes me prefer the Baroque? Or did JRRT have some larger purpose in mind?
  3. Gandalf is usually really smart, but he tells Saruman that breaking light with a prism is somehow destructive. Worse, JRRT has him imply that writing words on white paper means you’ve “left the path of wisdom.” Which is, to say the least, an odd opinion for a writer to promulgate. What’s wrong with Gandalf here? Isn’t he supposed to be the wisest of the Maiar?

I think I really like that last one.

Down the Rabbit-hole of Digital Humanities

Looking for material about “digital humanities”, which may be where I’m going from here, I’m finding a whole world of research I never knew about. Research of stunning triviality. I have seen horrors like a professor of rhetoric who uses the word “discursivity”.  According to Webster’s dictionary,

discursive. 1 a : moving from topic to topic without order : rambling b : proceeding coherently from topic to topic. 2 : marked by analytical reasoning. 3 : of or relating to discourse <discursive practices>

Using a word whose first two definitions directly contradict each other is a failure of rhetoric, in my estimation. Especially since the meaning couldn’t be deduced from context, which is why I looked it up.

One gleam of hope:  did you know there is a method of data analysis called “grounded theory“? It’s so impressive that it gets an acronym when people write about it. What I like about it is the tacit admission that most theory in the humanities is ungrounded.  A certain segment of humanities scholarship sees itself as airy spirits dancing swiftly above us Calibans in the physical sciences. We, in return, see them as frivolous and insubstantial.  Grounded theory might be a valuable middle ground among us, since it includes “whether the theory worked or not” as a criterion for judging the effectiveness of a hypothetical structure.  Also, everything I can find about the methodology of grounded theory says that I’ve been doing it for years.  If you expand the size of the data sets from dozens of records to thousands, it’s how I analyze the performance of transportation systems.

Anyway, now that I’m done grumbling, this is the book I was reading.


Therein lies the inherent weakness of the analytic (or ‘scientific’) method: it finds out much about things that occur in stories, but little or nothing about their effect in any given story.

Sounds like, in the opinion of Prof. Tolkien, my project is doomed.  It’s a good thing scientists don’t accept arguments from authority.

Pattern-topics considered harmful (Part 2)

When I find a pattern in a work of fiction, I’m pulling on a thread that the author has woven into the text. How far does such a thread extend? Does it have meaning apart from the instances I’ve spotted?

In the sciences, we rarely have to check that, because we’re trying to extract a law of nature. Natural laws are true all the time, so when I’ve found a pattern, I’ve accomplished something. I can extrapolate from it without fear, as long as I remember the domain of validity of my Ansatz.

With a work of fiction, by contrast, there is no reason to suppose that I’m working within an inductive set, from which I can infer future things. Once the text ends, what reason is there to suppose that the pattern I found goes any further? This is where so many literary analyses fall down. A pattern I see in one place may not be a fundamental symmetry that applies anywhere else.

Now, searching for patterns to go across multiple texts has merit. In fact, that’s how genres get defined. But that’s the domain of the real literati, not “trespassers”. (To borrow JRRT’s characterization in “On Fairy-Stories”.)

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