Magical correspondences, part 5 of 6

Image by Andrew Joron (with alterations by Amy Catanzano) of eclipsed sun-images
Image by Andrew Joron (with alterations by Amy Catanzano) of eclipsed sun-images filtered through trees, casting zeros and almost-zeros on nearby objects.

What follows is part five of six written exchanges between me and Andrew Joron about poetry and science in 2012. Joron’s creative and critical work have been highly influential to me. When I contacted him after The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog ran an article,“From the Golden Age of San Francisco Science-Fiction Poetry to the New Age of Quantum Poetics,”about our shared interest in poetry and science, he generously responded to my poetry and speculative essays on quantum poetics published on Poems and Poetics. Joron and I have decided to present our conversation here for Jacket2. 

See also parts onetwothree, four, and six.

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Hi Amy,

I’m about to take another trip north of San Francisco, this time to view an annular eclipse of the sun (on May 20). My passion for astronomy has resulted in my chasing solar eclipses around the world (they’re relatively rare events, and I’ve managed to see three of them; my fourth attempt was rained out). The annual eclipse (where the apparent disk of the moon is too small to completely cover the sun’s disk) will produce a “ring of fire” effect (I’ll use welder’s glass to view it safely). The lineup of sun-moon-earth is best explained (as most directly perceivable phenomena are) by Newtonian mechanics, yet there’s a primal awe about witnessing the sun’s extinction at midday, or, in this case, to see the sun transformed into a fiery ring centered on a black disk! The Newtonian explanation does not, as the Romantics accused, abolish the wonder; for me, it actually enhances it (to know that I’m watching a event unfold in real time at the scale of the solar system, causing strange nuances of light & shadow & temperature to sweep across the landscape). If I thought, as humanity did for most of its history, that a monster was eating the sun, or that divine retribution was at hand, the feeling of wonder would be overwhelmed by fear and panic. In contrast to these fight-or-flight reactions, which rigidify the self, I would define wonder as something closer to love, as a flower-like opening of self to other. I would say to Blake: Newton has helped me to experience a kind of feeling unavailable to mythological thought—because the difference between myth & science is that between a closed & open system of thought. Closed vs. open dichotomizes starkly different structures of feeling. Myth gives a final answer to everything; science questions itself & the world in a way that always leads to more questions. (And to think that any particular scientific theory, whether it’s Newtonianism or QM, gives a final answer to anything is to mythologize science.)

The wonder provoked by science is present, then, even within the limits of cause-and-effect Newtonianism. Of course, quantum weirdness appears more wondrous to us now than billiard-ball physics, but that’s largely because its truth is so newly revealed. Soon enough it will become part of the furniture (as relativity already is). And there are situations, such as the annular eclipse, in which the tired old truths of classical physics come to life again. What I’m getting at is that it’s the method, and not the result, that persists in science—the scientific method is one in which the approach to truth is open-ended. Undoubtedly, the results of QM seem to reveal aspects of nature that are more poetic than those of earlier theories, but that’s only because our idea of poetry has changed along with that of science. A strictly rhymed & metered arrangement of words around a central subject corresponds to the Newtonian worldview, whereas there’s presently a zeitgeist in which indeterminacy reigns in every field of endeavor.

But whatever the zeitgeist, the aim of science is to discover the truth about nature. This sets it apart from poetry, which prioritizes not truth but imagination. I would argue that while the truth of QM may be appear to be poetic, the aim of QM is not to be poetic, but to discover the truth. Poetry is not bound to be truthful; it wants only to swerve freely. The scientist is a worker, the poet a player. The servitude of science contrasts with the sovereign character of poetry. As Bataille puts it in his essay “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice”: 

Man’s intelligence, his discursive thought [including science—AJ], developed as functions of servile labor. Only sacred, poetic words, limited to the level of impotent beauty, have retained the power to manifest full sovereignty. . . . To the extent that [in our case, scientific—AJ] discourse informs it, what is sovereign is given in terms of servitude.

But nature, as we know, also swerves freely.[*] Poetry is more like the objects & processes that science studies than it is like the method & practice of normal science. QM as a finished theory does not proceed poetically but nonetheless reveals nature to be poetic. Put another way, the tools of QM are all classically determinate—there’s nothing fuzzy about a measuring instrument or a mathematical equation—but through them we can access an indeterminate nature. Although Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics does not employ, as you say, a “grammar of cause and effect to describe its principles,” neither does it engage in poetic leaps: like any scientific theory, it is expressed in accordance with the laws of mathematical deduction and inference. 

Most working scientists don’t much care about the self-reflexive or philosophical aspects of the theories they use: they are seeking only to test those theories against nature. The fact that both relativity and QM require the observer to become part of the system measured doesn’t change the way that scientists conduct their business, i.e., by finding the simplest theory that can account for the phenomena. The few philosophically minded scientists who articulate their stances end up rehearsing or adapting some part of the philosophical tradition rather than making a new contribution to philosophy itself (one thinks of Einstein’s Platonism, Bohr’s resort to Eastern mysticism, or Heisenberg’s invocation of German Romantic philosophy).

Here I’m only talking about what Kuhn calls “normal” science. And QM, as one of the most successful scientific theories ever, has long ago attained the stage of normal science. However, when it comes to scientific revolutions, all the rules go out the window. My teacher at Berkeley (where I earned my undergraduate degree in History and Philosophy of Science) was Paul Feyerabend, an anarchist philosopher of science whose work inspired Kuhn and whose slogan (referring to scientific method) was “Anything goes!” Feyerabend, in his book Against Method, showed that scientists are capable of defying logic in periods of crisis, acting (to use Bataille’s terms) in a sovereign rather than a servile fashion. At these rare revolutionary moments, science proceeds poetically—but only in the act of theory formation. Once the theory is formed, the poetic process—the imaginative leaps—that brought about its formation gets airbrushed out of the picture: we see only a logically verifiable set of equations with empirically verifiable results.

In string theory, though, the part about “empirically verifiable results” does not apply—leading some to question its status as a scientific theory. String theory is necessarily self-reflexive because it’s a set of equations that inhabits its own mirror-world, the first truly postmodern physical theory. The physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book criticizing string theory called Hiding in the Mirror; I'll quote from a review of it:

Krauss’ book is subtitled The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions as a polite way of saying String Theory Is for Suckers. String theory, he explains, has a catch: Unlike relativity and quantum mechanics, it can’t be tested. That is, no one has been able to devise a feasible experiment for which string theory predicts measurable results any different from what the current wisdom already says would happen. Scientific Method 101 says that if you can’t run a test that might disprove your theory, you can’t claim it as fact. When I asked physicists like Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek and string theory superstar Edward Witten for ideas about how to prove string theory, they typically began with scenarios like, “Let’s say we had a particle accelerator the size of the Milky Way …” Wilczek said strings aren’t a theory, but rather a search for a theory. Witten bluntly added, “We don't yet understand the core idea.”

If stringers admit that they’re only theorizing about a theory, why is Krauss going after them? He dances around the topic until the final page of his book, when he finally admits, “Perhaps I am oversensitive on this subject … ” Then he slips into passive-voice scientist-speak. But here’s what he’s trying to say: No matter how elegant a theory is, it’s a baloney sandwich until it survives real-world testing.

Krauss should know. He spent the 1980s proposing formulas that worked on a chalkboard but not in the lab. He finally made his name in the '90s when astronomers' observations confirmed his seemingly outlandish theory that most of the energy in the universe resides in empty space. Now Krauss’ field of theoretical physics is overrun with theorists freed from the shackles of experimental proof. The string theorists blithely create mathematical models positing that the universe we observe is just one of an infinite number of possible universes that coexist in dimensions we can’t perceive. And there’s no way to prove them wrong in our lifetime. That’s not a Theory of Everything, it’s a Theory of Anything, sold with whizzy PBS special effects.

It’s not just scientists like Krauss who stand to lose from this; it’s all of us. Einstein’s theories paved the way for nuclear power. Quantum mechanics spawned the transistor and the computer chip. What if 21st-century physicists refuse to deliver anything solid without a galaxy-sized accelerator? “String theory is textbook post-modernism fueled by irresponsible expenditures of money,” Nobel Prize-winner Robert Laughlin griped to the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year.

When scientists are beholden to nature (understood in terms of the current paradigm), they are workers; when they are not so beholden, or else find themselves in a state of crisis, they are players—and so can become poets and philosophers.

And what about poets? Clearly, there’s no need for us to become scientists, especially if that entails servitude—instead, our work is already as swervy as the nature that scientists labor to discover!

[*] Even Newtoniasm was forced to admit that planetary orbits exhibit an element of chaos, an admission that opened the door to further developments.

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Andrew Joron is the author of Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems (City Lights, 2010). Joron’s previous poetry collections include The Removes (Hard Press, 1999), Fathom (Black Square Editions, 2003), and The Sound Mirror (Flood Editions, 2008). The Cry at Zero, a selection of his prose poems and critical essays, was published by Counterpath Press in 2007. From the German, he has translated the Literary Essays of Marxist-Utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch (Stanford University Press, 1998) and The Perpetual Motion Machine by the proto-Dada fantasist Paul Scheerbart (Wakefield Press, 2011). Joron lives in Berkeley, California, where he theorizes using the theremin.