A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: June 2016

Patrons of the Humanities

Writing from his perch above the Ice Bay of Forochel, Brenton has a proposal for ordinary people to sponsor humanities scholars, with expenditures beginning at zero dollars. As a good blog post should, it provoked a swift series of associations in my mind.

  1. Cool! I can be a Renaissance prince!
  2. No, wait, I would hate that.
  3. This is what Patreon and other crowdfunding sites are for. This is more personal, but the dollar figures will be much smaller.
  4. Thinking back to my days as an impecunious scholar, some of these would embarrass the daylight out of me.
  5. In a modern liberal democracy, we’re supposed to set up public organizations to do the things that used to rely on princely patronage. That solves the stabby/poisonous parts of #2 and replaces the embarrassment in #4 with the tedium of filling out forms. (Much better.)

We’ve built things like the National Endowment for the Humanities here in the U.S. of A., but they’re chronically under-funded.  The checkbook is under the control of people who want the agency to be as small as they can make it.  But that point connected me to something else I think a lot about.

Economic interlude

Depressing though it is these days, I stay abreast of macroeconomics.  Since the financial crisis of 2008, the fundamental problem in the developed world has been that all the rich people want to sit on their money. The economy is sluggish because the demand for money is so high that the demand for everything else is too low, so people don’t have work. The interest rates that would re-launch economic growth (according to most models) are less than zero. But that’s not generally possible, so holding cash is better than investing it.

Now here’s where things get weird: in conditions like this, the way to fix the problem of too much demand for money is to print more money. And then you give it away to people. In some people’s imaginations, you just drop cash out of helicopters, but perhaps we can think of something less contusive. With a lot more money sloshing around the economy, that will generate some inflation, which is exactly what we need. The rich people (which includes sovereign wealth funds from oil-producing countries) will see their bank accounts losing value, so they’ll look for things to spend it on before it diminishes. That will re-launch demand, and put everyone back to work.

We’ve even gotten to the point that the old idea of the Universal Basic Income is coming to life again. It differs from helicopter money only because it’s a fiscal program initiated by the legislature, not a monetary program run from the Central Bank.


What does this have to do with patronage? (Oh yes, patronage. This post was about patronage, wasn’t it?) Universal Basic Income is probably a bridge too far in our current north-atlantic superculture. I’d propose instead a Universal Research Fellowship program. A grant of (I don’t know; I’ll pull a number from Brenton’s post) $25,000 per annum for anyone who wants to conduct research. Recipients would have to submit a prospectus that’s good enough to pass electronic review (which only checks for plagiarism), and produce an annual paper in the public domain.

Benefits: relaunching the economy; removing a bunch of people from jobs they hate; employing rafts of detectives to track the free-for-all in identity fraud; new golden age of the humanities.

Disadvantages: Brenton’s call to action has the advantage that it’s something that an individual can do, so it’ll probably happen much sooner than my idea. But once the robots take all the manufacturing jobs, collective action will be the only solution big enough to match the problem.


Several people were live-tweeting the proceedings at the C.S. Lewis & Friends Colloquium, and from them I learned that Sørina Higgins had described Lewis’s poetry as “metrically competent”. Sick burns from faint praise, all in a spirit of good fellowship.  Well, I know a double dactyl when I see one, which led to this.

Higgledy piggledy
Metrically competent
C.S. “Jack” Lewis sat
Down with his pen.

“Time to get on with it,”
Counting on fingers, he’s
Writing again

Stealing presentation ideas

Brenton Dickieson recently discovered an unpublished preface to The Screwtape Letters that shows C.S. Lewis originally thought of them as part of the Space Trilogy (and incidentally making him the intellectual forefather of Douglas Adams). He gave a talk about it at the Lewis & Friends Colloquium, and has posted links to a recording of the talk and his presentation materials on his blog. It’s excellent;  30 minutes well spent.

There are three ways that talk is relevant to my project here.

  1. He knocks the “so what” question out of the park.  Easily half the time he’s talking, he’s suggesting ways that the connection can be used to give a new perspective on perennial questions about Lewis’s work. It’s a useful model for how to talk about my “discovery”, though I don’t have such a clear picture of the future.
  2. He gave the talk as a first-person narrative, whence I shall claim legitimacy for my own upcoming presentation. Writing it has been a continual struggle to keep it in the mode of an academic paper.  Releasing myself from that straitjacket will make the rest of the writing much easier.
  3. …and this is the big one, Brenton tossed off a casual side remark to the effect that “world-building is what we’re really interested in, here.” That crystallized for me the structure in which I’m working.  (As I’ve mentioned, I am so slow on the uptake that I make Butterbur look like a quicksilver wit. This is another case of that.) Science can meet Speculative Fiction scholarship to their mutual benefit, if we focus on how the authors build their worlds.  In a way, I’d be reverting to a pre-Enlightenment approach to science, except studying Nature to learn about the intention of the sub-creator.

The last one is really obvious, but there’s a reason the penny hadn’t dropped. This is a way of reading books that I turned away from, decades ago.  Lots of books can’t stand the scrutiny.  Even when I was a child, I had to stop myself from throwing a book across the room when I read a line like, “slow the ship down, we need to be in a lower orbit.” After I’d spent a couple of decades of school, it got worse. I was catching even authors who brag about their mathematical prowess (looking at you, Robert Heinlein) in physics mistakes. If I’d stayed picky, I wouldn’t have had anything to read! The trick to making it work here will be first to discern what parts of the primary world the author was using to convey meaning, and confine my attention there.

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