From a philosophical standpoint, it would be perfectly natural to start with a confession. After all, it is the first word in the title, and one must always define the important terms of an argument to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. That seems a pretty obvious thing to do, but it appears it’s not always so, particularly in the sciences. Oftentimes in engineering I’ve noticed people don’t generally seem to care about what they’re using so long as it’s useful, but the time it was most annoying was while watching a fancy physics lecture I happened to stumble upon when I was wondering about really cold stuff. The lecture went something like this:
Mathematical fanciness I don’t understand….
more and more fanciness…
“The future of this topic is…well, it’s basically wherever we lead it, because twenty or so years ago we were the first people studying it… so we can pretty much do what we want….”
More and more fanciness…
Something about hamiltonians… possible reference to Hamilton, the musical…
Even more fanciness…
“Oh look, I accidentally used the same letter twice in the same equation. Here, it means this, and this one means that. Just make a note of it….”
Really, Professor, the same letter? Of all the letters in English, Greek, Russian, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, you had to use the same letter? That makes about as much sense as the parlay system in Pirates of the Caribbean I. Personally, I don’t really think it helps your argument any if you’re doing research at the edge of your field. Unless using the same letter twice is going to save a bunch of undead pirates from an Aztec curse and thus facilitate a Johnny-Keira kiss in a stirring sequel, you’d better pick another letter. Or symbol. Or hieroglyph.
Speaking of which, why does no one ever use hieroglyphs in math? The Babylonians were good at math; why not their characters? Or maybe even Chinese. If we used Chinese, we could represent the whole word in one go instead of having to remember ν means velocity…or voltage…or possibly even deformation… but that deformation can also be a big or small delta, though the deformation described by ν would more often than not instead be replaced with mu, which may, from time to time, mean micro, or a permeability constant, or the coefficient of static or kinetic friction, or a whole host of other things, which does not generally include the parlay d’une vache française, which is more a concern of rhetorical dialect than it is of math.
Sheesh, writing that out, I’d swear they’re just being mean.
But that’s what happens when research is new, or when the general public doesn’t really know or care about what’s being said to the extent that they would challenge it. I noticed a similar problem while analyzing the thematic structure of Hodayot (Dead Sea Scrolls, fragments 1QHa, 1Q35, 4Q427-432), which was only uncovered in Wadi Qumran sixty-odd years ago. Existing research on more obscure fragments such as these, is, well, non-existent, and what is there is sometimes quite scrappy.
It’s a problem I never really came across in the rest of theology, though. All and all, most of the ancient manuscripts inked out by a bunch of dead guys have volumes written on every last letter and punctuation mark. I myself wrote ten, profoundly eloquent pages unpacking why, in heaven’s name, Jesus would literally curse a fig tree to death, a story no longer than a paragraph in the Gospel of Mark (11:12-14; 20-25), though much more has been written about much less.
At the time, I really wanted to argue that Jesus just had a bad case of the hunger grumps, but I did not. Perhaps I could have, if my rhetoric had been careful and my context strong enough.
Context is important. For one thing, I don’t think you can really have a proper definition without context. You certainly can’t in engineering, unless maybe you want to calculate the voltage of the microscopic, rough-surfaced projectile you may or may not have just thrown at a noisy, pirate-loving cow.
In the humanities…well, it only takes a passing glance through history to notice the scores of people hurt, subjugated and/or murdered through the manipulation of context.
Perhaps that’s why academics seem to want to keep the humanities people away from science. You show them evolution and they trample whole continents with social Darwinism. Or they go to the other extreme and start silencing astronomers and excommunicating comets (Pope Callixtus III excommunicated Haley’s comet in 1456), and engaging in various other, not-very-science-friendly affairs. It’s difficult to admit, but it seems as a rule, when it comes to combining arts and science humans generally prefer to run with safety scissors.
My own education jumped from the beginnings of calculus and Rutherford’s model of the atom to America’s censorship of Gojira films and stories of 80-year-old nuns breaking into weapons facilities, which I always thought was a bit extreme (though Merman does turn mathematical fractals into torture devices for the sake of an ethical debate, so maybe they have a point about humanities majors).
Regardless of whether I should or shouldn’t be here or there, however, I was in the arts and have broken my way into engineering now, so the confession exists. And, like anything else worth saying, my confession has context, which is the subject of the next post.
It involves a woman in purple and an emotionally-conflicted man, 1,600 years apart, leaving in the dead of the night…
Next Post: The damaged goddess