A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: Vive la France

My Favorite Bookstore 

Whenever I’m in Paris…  OK, that sounds really pretentious, so let me make it clear that a “trip to Paris” for me means that I’m in France visiting my in-laws, and I’ve escaped from their house in the suburbs for a day. Still, going to Paris is always awesome. Everybody should do it as often as they can.

At the end of a day pretending I’m a flâneur, I always arrange to wind up at my favorite bookstore, “L’Écume des Pages” on the Boulevard St. Germain. Don’t bother trying to translate the name – it doesn’t mean anything without you have read a book called L’Écume des Jours by Boris Vian If you like beatnik surrealism, I highly recommend that.  Come to think of it, that website is lame.  Listen to this instead.  (Lyrics in English here, but they should have said “systematically” where they said “automatically”.)

Anyway, this is my haul from my latest trip:

Books purchased on my latest trip


Learn to Philosophize with Bourdieu, by Adelino Braz; Vian and ‘Pataphysics by Thieri Foulc & Paul Gayot; and The Roman Empire through its Menus, by Dmitri Tilloi D’Ambrosi.  Bourdieu may have said the most intelligent things of anyone we had to read in the Literary Theory course I took last winter, but he writes in such an elevated style that I’m grateful to have a pedestrian commentary to clarify exactly what he was talking about.  The ‘Pataphysicians are always fascinating. They appear to be doing nothing but jerking people’s chains, but underneath may be completely serious. And I always love to read about ancient Rome. I could never pass up a book that contains a recipe for rose petals with fish sauce.

The Physics of Street Signs

There are little jokes about science all over the roads in France. I have no idea whether they’re intentional or not.

Last week I was gallivanting around Provence.  I know; somebody’s got to do the dirty jobs, right? On the departmental routes (like state roads in the USA), there are little rest areas where you can pull off. Like on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’re named in honor of people. They aren’t symmetrical, the way Americans do them. Instead, the northbound rest area ends where the southbound begins.

french rest areas look like sine waves

Rest areas on french country roads

The result is that the areas look like a sine wave.  On the road through the Camargue, one of them, to my delight, was named “de Broglie“. If we consider the rest area as a quantum-mechanical system, estimate its wavelength, and use de Broglie’s formula to calculate its momentum, the number will come out to be unmeasurably tiny.  That’s good; we want civil-engineering projects to stay where we put them.

map to the Parking Lagrange

Parking garage on the Rue Lagrange, Paris Vme

Once a person with a couple of years of physics is sensitized to them, these little landmark jokes appear with suspicious frequency.  The first one I noticed was a parking garage called “Lagrange”.  Makes perfect sense, since it’s on the Rue Lagrange in Paris. But you don’t even have to formally study physics in this case.  Just read enough science-fiction, and you’ll know the Lagrange points by heart.

Also, the Rue Coriolis is a one-way street, running counter-clockwise around a big apartment building.  As it must, since it’s in the northern hemisphere.

Am I just imagining there’s a pattern here? Probably.  But the elves distinguish two things that English calls “hope”.  Amdir is when you express a desire that some event with a calculable probability will come out in your favor. Estel is when you’re expressing faith in the divinely-ordained course of the universe. The modern world doesn’t have much call for estel, usually. But that’s exactly the word for my hope that somewhere there’s a civil engineer doing these on purpose.

Plucking the Canard

As much as I respect Alan and Shawn at The Prancing Pony Podcast, I have to warn people when we can’t trust them.  Life in France is one of those times.  In their first episode on The Hobbit they repeated the slanderous canard that you can’t get a glass of ice water in a French café.

Your Idiosopher is not one to duck the obligation to give back to the community of scholars, so here’s how you do it.

The cheapest thing on the menu in most any bar is an apéritif called “pastis”.  Maybe it goes under a brand name like Ricard or Pernod or 51. It’s anise flavored, tastes like licorice. Most people don’t like it, but that’s not important right now. What’s important is that you drink it with ice cubes and water. At expensive bars, it comes with a carafe of ice.  Even in the cheapest dives, the waiter will bring you a glass full of ice cubes with a tablespoon of liqueur in it, and a pitcher of water. Pour the pastis into the gutter, pour the water over the ice, and you’re back in America for five minutes.

Pitcher of ice water, also pastis

You see? Told you!

I suppose you could try telling them to “hold the pastis”. I never tried that, because I actually like the stuff. It’s a working-class drink, totally unfashionable. My father-in-law laughed for years at the sight of me drinking like a retired plumber, because he didn’t understand the true objective of the exercise.

Echoes of Númenór

Akallabêth tells us there were three languages in use in Númenór:

For though this people used still their own speech, their kings and lords knew and spoke also the Elven tongue, which they had learned in the days of their alliance, and thus they held converse still with the Eldar, whether of Eresséa or of the westlands of Middle—earth. And the loremasters among them learned also the High Eldarin tongue of the Blessed Realm, in which much story and song was preserved from the be inning of the world; and they made letters and scrolls and books, and wrote in them many things of wisdom and wonder in the high tide of their realm, of which all is now forgot.

Alan and Shawn at the Prancing Pony Podcast reminded me of this. Languages are parallel between Númenór and medieval England:

Númenór England
Common people Adunaic Anglo-Saxon
Aristocracy Sindarin French
Scholars Quenya Latin

This Númenórean social divide persisted all the way through the Third Age, and it shows up in the way Gondorians talk. Let’s look at two words for strong fighting men, both of which make teenage boys snicker: “doughty” and “puissant”.

‘Happily your Caradhras has forgotten that you have Men with you,’ said Boromir, who came up at that moment. ‘And doughty Men too, if I may say it; though lesser men with spades might have served you better.’” The common folk of Minas Tirith hear rumors that “When the Riders came from Rohan, each would bring behind him a halfling warrior, small maybe, but doughty.” Grimbold of Rohan gets that adjective, as would many warriors of the Rohirrim. Frodo describes the Rangers of Ithilien as doughty, and he’s being polite. “Doughty” is a good Anglo-Saxon word, meaning “the guy who gits ‘er done.”  It’s appropriate for Rohirrim, hobbits, and other such plebs.  Boromir, despite being of a noble family, has a strong mixture of base blood, so he uses it to refer to himself and Aragorn.

But the blood of Westernesse runs “nearly true” in Faramir, and when Tolkien says that about him, he means the blood of the Númenóreans who escaped to Middle Earth at the last minute: the Faithful; all from the aristocracy. Now listen to Faramir talking to Éowyn: “You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant…” The word “doughty” is gone, replaced by its French synonym.  Faramir is an expert rhetorician — putting some social distance between his target and his rival is a nice move — though perhaps only a professor of philology would expect such a maneuver to work in that context.

More than three thousand years later, the social-linguistic fracture lines endure in Gondor. And Denethor at least was proud of it.  Florence doesn’t seem so bad any more.

Anne Dufourmantelle

Discovering an interesting philosopher by reading her obituary is a definitive case of mixed feelings.  That’s where I am now with Anne Dufourmantelle, psychologist, theologian, and philosopher.Anne Dufourmantelle portrait  Lately it seems that many projects in which I am interested are hobbled by an imbalanced perception of risk.  All activities involve a tradeoff between the risks involved and the good that can be achieved, but lately safety and security have been elevated to pre-eminence over all other possible goods.  This seems like a recipe for stagnation.  I was pleased to learn that people are doing the intellectual heavy lifting to support or refute that apparent situation.  Alas, the reason I heard about her in English-language media is that she lived up to her philosophical understanding of risk, and suffered a heart attack while rescuing two children caught in a rip tide.

Here’s what she said in an article in Libération, about her book In Praise of Risk.  Interview by Anastasia Vécrin, 14 September 2015


In the face of the terrorist threat and the migrant crisis, how can we continue to live without giving way to a security panic? Some want to close the borders, others advocate an increased armed presence on public transportation. But do these proposals reassure us? Or rather, do they remind us of imminent danger? The philosopher and psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle, author of Eloge du risque (Payot 2011), explains that living necessarily involves taking risks. And today it is the migrants, victims of the wars in the Middle East, who need protection more than we do.

Q: In the context of permanent terrorist threat, must we over-protect ourselves?

AD: First, terrorist threats are always a political weapon for the control of individual freedom. Any security response is already political. The question is always phrased as “how, in addition to protecting people and preventing an attack, can we reinforce the means of control and make them more efficient?” Remember: all totalitarians end up using the terrorist threat to liquidate alternatives.

Moreover, in a more banal sense, “security” generates fear more than it assuages it. Under the media-pushed threat of random violence, the population becomes paranoid, even to the point of denouncing others to the authorities. Every terrorist act emphasizes a little more the idea of continuous danger. An opportunity for abuse of power exercised this way rests on the potentiality of a dangerous, even mortal, intrusion that can only be thwarted by maintaining a perpetual state of alert.

When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and becoming part of something larger than oneself. That doesn’t happen in the current case. In my opinion, if the threat of the attacks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre had lasted months, another relationship to the threat would have grown in the population, beyond any directives from the state. We’d have seen a form of active solidarity.

Faced with an external reality of anarchy and horror, people reorganize their lives, invents small rituals, tiny actions, magic words to protect a space of humanity. In a way, anxiety loses ground because people have recourse to an alternative. On the contrary, to imagine an enemy ready to attack from time to time induces a state of paralysis, a feeling of impotence which calls for a maternal body, supposedly all protective. “Big Brother” turns into “Big Mother” as the psychoanalyst Michel Schneider put it. Today, we desire this overprotection and are encouraged to remain in a condition of voluntary servitude.

Q: Nevertheless, the desire for security can’t be completely satisfied, because there’s always some risk…

AD: The idea of absolute security – “zero risk” – is a fantasy. It appeals to an archaic sense of impotence and the desire for remedies attached to it. You have to be wary of someone who offers you total security, because the shelter often works in a perverse way. The price of protection quickly becomes very high, as we see in mafia protection rackets. When we start from infantilization, we put ourselves under guardianship. Except that when you see police patrolling, it is more worrying than reassuring. Paradoxically, the signs of protection reactivate the feeling of insecurity. Security laws provoke transgressions that will themselves justify new security rules. It is a vicious circle. True protection includes confidence in the capacity that someone does or doesn’t have to experience their freedom. To live is to take risks by definition. A person with autonomy is less easy to influence than one who is governed by fear.

Faced with an unpredictable danger, the fear that overwhelms us is all the stronger because it traps us in the impossibility of anticipating and anticipating. We are paralyzed in the face of senseless cataclysm. To be a victim of a terrorist attack is to be a “generic” victim, that is to say, they have been targeted not individually but because they belong to a sex, a culture, a religion, or a function in society. Or they could just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This fatal absurdity is unbearable in our modern age, where “destiny” has given way to everyday life, and where we’ve tried to make “chance” an endangered species.

Q: To refuse risk is to refuse to live?

AD: The usual expression is to say, “I risk my life”, but perhaps one should say, “I risk life”. To be entirely alive is a risk, and few people are. There are many zombies, undead, lives attenuated by the “disease of death” as Kierkegaard called it. This risk is what another philosopher who disappeared under torture, Jan Patocka, called “life in amplitude”.

Q: Why such a search for protection?

AD: One of the things that characterizes the human being is this first breath of a newborn baby. It is a suffering, and it can also be an ecstasy. In either case, it is a radical passage. Life is metamorphosis; it begins with this first risk. Man is neotenous, an unfinished being who needs to be protected for survival, unlike other animal species. If, initially, he is not surrounded by care and protection, he is in danger of death. These early stages of our being are marked by this association “ life = survival”, which are anchored in our memory, then repressed. When one invokes threat and fear, I believe that part of us regresses to this first period of life, to its fundamental vulnerability.

Q: How can we get free of this feeling of fear?

AD: I do not have a universal answer. From an analytical point of view, it may be possible to tame fear by welcoming it. When one admits his fear, his finitude, a confidence can be reborn from this vulnerability. If we make fear into something negative, we lock it in place. Like the mechanisms of anxiety or neurosis, fear is formed by one’s past, so we understand the future by means of that experience. Neurosis has a horror of the new. We can disarm fear if we identify this mechanism of referral to the past, of systematic repetition. Sometimes it is necessary to refuse a security initiative. Let there be a call to vigilance, fine, but let us still keep up our confidence. People who are not going to give up going about their business, even though there are bombs exploding on way, are people who are placing a heavy stone on the pan of the balance against terror.

Q: How to explain this paradox: that people want more security while wanting to preserve their freedoms?

This is not so much paradoxical as it is infantile. It brings us back to that age of life that wants both a protective cocoon and the thrill of transgressive experiences. The taste for freedom is widespread but the strength to bear the risk, much less so.

There is also an indirect answer to your question: those who really need protection are the victims of these unjust wars that have set fire to the Middle East, for which we are collectively responsible. We usually call them “migrants” (a term that leaves them perpetually wandering). The terrorist threat they live under is not fabricated by governments for control. They survive under terror, and try to escape from it. It is our duty to open our borders, for the law of unconditional hospitality is the first humanizing rule of a civilization. Let us not forget that one day it will be our turn to be the migrants, and we will be begging for hospitality and protection. What security procedures will be arrayed against us then?

National Defense

A South African cyber-security researcher whose nym is “the grugq” recently posted a review of what we know about recent attempts to interfere with elections through the insecurity of our computer and social-media networks.

The thing that jumped out at me was his diagnosis of why the attempts in France failed.  OK, #1 has to be that whatever cyber-criminals were trying to rig the election look like Boy Scouts next to former-president Sarkozy.  But right behind that is the fact that the social-media troll army that did so much damage in the US ran into a brick wall:  Trolls speak bad French, so the French didn’t listen to them.

We should promote a similar idea here.  If the audience for our political discourse insisted on good English, complete with literary allusions (Sarkozy called François Fillon a “Thénardier” in the interview linked above), then external attempts to subvert elections would be doomed to failure, and our national security would be enhanced.

Disclaimer #1:  I recognize that this proposal would have probably elected Jesse Jackson back in the 1980s.

Disclaimer #2: Observing the size of Pentagon research grants, compared to the size of research grants in the humanities, could not possibly be related to my motivation for writing this post.

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