Thursday, December 18, 2008
It all started with an answer I gave, in a typical pragmatic style of scientific proposals, to Professor K’s question what my paper would contribute to history of Tang or history of science. “The paper should be a critique of industrialized life, to inform the western world with an alternative living style,” I said. The answer obviously did not satisfy, but seemingly astonished him. Since then, I was looking for what really defines a history work, other than how to make a use of it, like what social scientists, economists etc. do.
Professor J recommended me to read The Landscape of History written by John Lewis Gaddis. Gaddis is a famous Cold War historian. He wrote The Landscape during the year spent in Oxford with no specific obligations. This precious year was made possible by a big fellowship called George Eastman Visiting Professorship that has accommodated other celebrity scholars like Linus Pauling and Felix Frankfurter. A professor set free indeed, Gaddis set out to discuss what history is about and how historians do it. The Landscape is dedicated for historian cubs and more generally for his fellow historians, because not all of them can articulate what history is about, or think this articulation is of any importance.
Gaddis provides a timely lesson. For my case, surrounded by scientists and social scientists, I did suspect if history has any methodological rigor. Anyway, telling a story based on manuscripts and correspondences can not really be regarded scientific, but I guessed trying to judge history as scientific or not is off the point – history has its own value as a record system and an art. Nevertheless, the “science envy” became a promoter to increase methodological rigor in humanities for the last several decades. That is why social sciences have been obsessed with “teasing out” independent variables from the dependent ones, while Gaddis himself just could not imagine the possibility that any social factor in reality exists in an “independent” mode. In defending history, Gaddis used a quirky way in defining science first. He says, look, while the social scientists are drudgingly emulating natural science by their awkward models which are far from reality, several branches of natural science have found the importance of narratives and become more history like, such as cosmology, ecology and paleontology. What defines science, consequently, is not its experimental methodology but its fitting representation about reality. With this methodological “passing of ships in the night”, historians should be proud because, first, they do not inflict themselves with erroneous assumptions about the existence of “independent variables” or concern themselves with the impossible task of making history a precise science; second, by doing so, they have already resembled some of the most interesting branches of natural science.
Comparing those history-like sciences with history, Gaddis brings a lot of analogies between history methods and those from other fields into his book. There is always danger of overusing analogies, and he is quite aware of it. He absolves himself from the guilty of overuse, or sometimes, misuse of analogies by saying that anyway, these comparisons serve only as metaphors. Thus when he compares historical scales to the structure of fractals, or when he tells a parable about historians’ work by describing how paleontologists design a representative skin according to the remaining skeleton of a dinosaur, we would forgive his impreciseness, or even learn to appreciate his pedagogical elegancy to make abstractions empirical. After all, Gaddis’ initial aim is to name the unnamed or the assumedly unnamable in the discipline of history. In light of the difficulty of the task, metaphors are invaluable helps to import the link from the familiar to the unfamiliar.
Caspar D. Friedrich’s art The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog serves as the main metaphor for history study and also the cover of the book. A man standing on the rocks, facing the fog covered terra, contemplates on what are happening before him. By gazing the vast terra from high, he would probably feel both empowered and diminished. I felt a sense of mission staring at this man’s back, assuming he is indeed a historian. After all, not all people climb to the rock, the vantage point, where historians stand, and try to grasp the past.
Final thanks to Gaddis for providing what I was looking for.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
As implied before, Brady not only attempts to depict this scientific heroine’s life, but also to shed lights on discourses on sociology, philosophy of science with her biographical approach. In a moderate sense, her work used “collage, narrative discontinuity, multigenre narratives, unsuspected time-shifts”, as Söderqvist suggested, in order to illuminate the links between a significant individual’s life events and scientific development in larger scale. An invaluable experimental attempt as it is, however, Elizabeth Blackburn probably will not fully satisfy either public readers or historians of science, due to its ambivalence between a person and a career as the subject matter. The most-likely readers may remain in the scientific community itself, if the latter would pardon Brady’s public oriented treatment of technical terms. Especially, to read and contemplate on the messages about scientific excellence Brady brings out can be more than helpful to a novice of molecular biology and biochemistry.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Their talk attempted to grasp tremendous ideas not only because this work is about the creation of the universe. By building his art based on scientific knowledge, McElheny’s first effort is to negotiate how art can be constructed according to precise models, as science has been done. He also tries to convey the ideas derived from science in a way that they can shed lights on the nature of humanity. If, as the Big Bang proposes, the universe has no absolute center and everywhere can be seen as a relative center of the universe, what does it tell about humanity? How can any system of places, people or thoughts gain supremacy to others, if the places they reside in are equal? Also, if the universe was made possible by its imperfection, maybe we should not try to define a perfect state and tag humanity as nature’s corruption or its ascension. By presenting the equality and plurality of galaxies, he tried to overturn hierarchical, utopian world views, which may be what he means by “modernism”.
In light of both intriguing and confusing feature of the “Big Bang”, it was no wonder that the cosmologist Weinberg attracted most of the questions. (Hooray, Science!) When people realized the faithfulness of the sculpture’s design in presenting cosmology and how little was added for art’s sake, the philosophical, ideological notions the artist argues seemed a little bit arbitrary. Consequently, the artist seemed rather like an “under labor” of science, as philosopher F put it, although the artist must think differently.
However, there are other artists who claim themselves as labors for science. Some of them, such as Felice Frankel, even do not categorize their profession as artist. (Thank Professor J for her introduction.) Frankel views her photographs as “phenomena” rather than art. How the hydrophobic and hydrophilic material forms regular grids (right), for example, assumes more a question to investigate than an esthetic experience. As such, she may never have to label her work as modern or post-modern under the mantle of a research scientist. Ironically, these “artistic scientists” are more likely to use generic scientific processes as a tool to create arts (e.g. “brainbow”) than those self-claimed scientific artists.
Too bad that I do not know much about Monet, Picasso and other experimental pioneer's works. Due to this and many other ignorance, I can only post some pictures as instances of marriage between science and art here, rather than give a fuller account of its spectrum.
Galelio: Saturn's rings -- Art as minimal as a scientific shorthand.
Mitosis won the first prize in Princeton's Art and Science Competetion. It was created in superimposing a microscopic cell image and a floral pattern, overlaying elements of art on science.
Art by Jennifer Rea.
Kepler's Platonic solid model. How blissful he would have felt if he had an opportunity, like what McElheny provided to Big Bang, to build this into a concrete form.