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Goethe on the need for cooperation and criticism in science (1832)

August 11, 2021 Comments off


The extracts below are from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).

Goethe is most well known by his literary works Faust and the Sorrows of Young Werther. However, to physicists he is well known for his interesting book Theory of Colors (Zur Farbenlehre, 1810), which had an eccentric view of light and colors, and contained a wrong attack on Isaac Newton’s theory of white light and colors. Yet, Goethe’s work does have some interesting and creative aspects of redeeming quality [1].

Goethe was much more than an author of a few literary books and a dabbler in science. He was a dominant intellectual in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He published widely on many topics, and thought deeply and philosophically. In the extracts below Goethe speaks on his view of the role of collaboration and cooperation to advance science.


Extract 1: “Here we find what is true of so many human undertakings, namely, that it is only the interest of several people focused upon one subject that enables us to produce outstanding results. Thus it is apparent that the greatest obstacle to the scientists may be the envy prompting him to exclude others from the honor of a discovery, or an immoderate desire to treat and work out a discovery exclusively in his own way.” [2;p.221]

Extract 2: “Now if lay individuals of native alertness can be of such great help to us, how much more extensive must be the benefit when experts work hand in hand! For one thing, each science in itself is such a massive thing that it will occupy many indivuals, and cannot be mastered by one individual alone. We may point out that knowledge is like flowing water confined by a dam and gradually lifted to a higher level, for the most magnificent discoveries are made not so much by individuals as by an age. Evidence of this are the many important discoveries made simultaneously by two or even more trained thinkers.” [2;p.221]

Extract 3: “On the one hand we are in great debt to society and friends; on the other hand we owe an even greater debt to the world and the century. In either case it is impossible to exaggerate the necessity for sharing of ideas, for co-operation, criticism, and opposition, if we wish to keep to the right path and forge ahead.” [2;p.221]


I have maintained for quite some time that “fads” in science can be good. When you have 100 physicists totally focused on a narrow subject one makes quick work of all the key concepts and results that can be squeezed out of it, and then you move on. If you have 100 physicists doing 100 different things it’s like road repairs in dysfunctional States — cones set up on 100 different stretches of road, with small crews leaning over their shovels wondering what to do next and accomplishing little from morning till night. Extract 1 seems to share this sentiment — get a lot of people focused on something and you make progress fast. What stalls it is when someone creates barriers to others participating in order to position himself to get all credit.

In Extract 2 Goethe emphasizes his point in Extract 1, but goes one step further. He’s pulling an Obama “you didn’t build that!”[3]. What you accomplish is part of an environment much bigger and much more important than one individual. You play a role, and it is important, but don’t think you did it alone, and don’t even think it wouldn’t have happened without you!

In Extract 3 Goethe emphasizes again the need for sharing and coperation. But he also throws out the need for “criticism and opposition”. If scientists create an environment of pure nicety and agreement then we wouldn’t “keep to the right path and forge ahead.” Any scientific environment where criticism and opposition is deeply frowned upon is an environment of stagnation. The great scientists cooperate, share, criticize, and oppose.

Thus, progressive scientific environments are ones that foster these traits: they have policies and structures that encourage cooperation, sharing, criticism and opposition. A necessary but insufficient condition for fostering is not punishing. At a minimum, do not set up an environment that punishes cooperation, sharing, criticism and opposition. Some scientists today seem to think that criticism and opposition are entirely in opposition of cooperation, and since cooperation has highest value, criticism and opposition must be eliminated through punishment (directly or indirectly). And that’s exactly how you make science progress stop right in its tracks. Goethe understood that, and that’s why he had to throw in his endorsement of “criticism and opposition” to make sure we did not misunderstand his message.


[1] D.L. Sepper. “Goethe Against Newton: Towards Saving the Phenomena”, in Goethe and the Sciences: A reappraisal (eds. F.Amrine, F.J. Zucker, H. Wheeler). Boston: D. Reidel, 1987.

[2] Extracts contained in article written in 1792-1793, and originally published in Natural Science in General; Morphology in Particular, vol II, No. 1 (1832). As quoted in Goethe’s Botanical Writings. Woodbridge, Connecticut: Ox Bow Press, 1952.

[3] Barack Obama, “You didn’t build that”, July 13, 2012.

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The Unified Universe

July 1, 2021 Comments off

James Wells // Aeon May 28, 2021

When trying to explain what motivates me as a physicist, the film A Passage to India (1984) comes to mind. Based on the play by Santha Rama Rau, adapted from the novel by E M Forster, it describes the fallout from a rape case in the fictional city of Chandrapore, during the British Raj in India in the 1920s. What keeps the viewer’s attention is the subtlety of the relationships between the characters …


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Max Planck’s physics argument for social justice (1936)

May 12, 2021 Comments off

Max Planck (1858-1947) is one of history’s most original physicists. He is credited with being the first to propose quantum theory which he developed in his studies of black-body radiation at the beginning of the 20th century. Planck was also very much interested in philosophy and wrote much for public outreach about the implications of quantum theory to our understanding of nature. In the passage below he even extends his views about physics to the realm of social justice. These words were written in 1936 Germany, a very difficult time when social justice was deteriorating.


“Justice is inseparable from truthfulness: justice, after all, simply means the consistent application in practice of the ethical judgments which we pass on opinions and actions. the laws of nature remain fixed and unchanged whether applied to great or to small phenomena, and similarly the communal life of men requires equal right for all, for great and small, for rich and poor. All is not well with the State if doubts arise about the certainty of the law, if rank and family are respected in the courts, if defenseless persons feel that they are no longer protected from the rapacity of powerful neighbors, and if the law is openly wrenched on grounds of so-called expediency. … Such principles made Germany and Prussia great; it is to be hoped that they will never be lost, and it is the duty of every patriot to work for their preservation and consolidation.”

-Max Planck, “Physics and World Philosophy”, 1936 [Reprinted in M. Planck. The Philosophy of Physics. Norton, 1963.]

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Pliny: it’s downright madness to concern ourselves with cosmology

February 14, 2021 Comments off

Author and Background

Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23-79), sometimes called Pliny the Elder but most often just Pliny, was a prolific Roman author. His book, Naturalis Historia, or Natural History, was a multi-volume encyclopedic compendium of his voluminous readings in the sciences, along with some of his own commentary and reactions to scientific claims. He published the first 10 Books of Natural History in AD 77 at the age of 53, but then died a few years later before putting out the rest of the Books, which totaled 37 in all. The latter 27 books were collected and finalized by his nephew (Pliny the Younger).


The world and this – whatever other name men have chosen to designate the sky whose vaulted roof encircles the universe, is fitly believed to be a deity, eternal, immeasurable, a being that never began to exist and never will perish. What is outside it does not concern men to explore and is not within the grasp of the human mind to guess. It is sacred, eternal, immeasurable, wholly within the whole, nay rather itself the whole, infinite and resembling the finite, certain of all things and resembling the uncertain, holding in its embrace all things that are without and within, at once the work of nature and nature itself.

That certain persons have studied, and have dared to publish, its dimensions, is mere madness; and again that others, taking or receiving occasion from the former, have taught the existence of a countless number of worlds, involving the belief in as many systems of nature, or, if a single nature embrace all the worlds, nevertheless the same number of suns, moons and other unmeasurable and innumerable heavenly bodies, as already in a single world; just as if owing to our craving for some End the same problem would not always encounter us at the termination of this process of thought, or as if, assuming it possible to attribute this infinity of nature to the artificer of the universe, that same property would not be easier to understand in a single world, especially one that is so vast a structure. It is madness, downright madness, to go out of that world, and to investigate what lies outside it just as if the whole of what is within it were already clearly known; as though, forsooth, the measure of anything could be taken by him that knows not the measure of himself, or as if the mind of man could see things that the world itself does not contain.

Source: Pliny. Natural History. Book II.I. (transl. by H. Rackham). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.


Pliny’s remarks here are somewhat convoluted. He mixes scientific claims with normative claims, and all of them are somewhat imprecise. Nevertheless, the overall message that he seems to want us to hear is this: do not waste your time on pursuing very remote things, when we have so much to learn right around us. And whatever is true here is likely to be what is true there, and since here is a lot closer than there, let’s stop speculating about what goes on there. And anyway, even if you do learn a thing or two about stuff far away, your questions will just keep going and you’ll never come to an end, so you might as well not start it.

But Pliny was wrong. Aggressive work to understand the workings of the heavens, in all its ways, was key to progress made in physics. Newton and others looked to the heavens, and in the process found useful laws for here on earth. To suppress intense curiosity and speculation about every aspect of the natural world in which we find ourselves is a prescription for a stagnate scientific society. And that’s exactly what Rome was at the time. For all the wealth and relative stability they created, they produced almost nothing of value in basic science. Few deep questions were moved along by the Romans. The ancient Greeks did much more. Even the most elegant of all Roman writings on science, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (circa 60 BC), was just an ode to Epicurus’s writings on atomism (circa 300 BC) whose earlier basis was in Democritus (circa 400 BC).

The Romans did almost nothing of value in science partly because they had too many Pliny’s in their society, who merely read the ancient Greeks, did no original work themselves, and then had the gall to make strong commentary on what is worthwhile and not worthwhile in science even when they didn’t really understand what they were saying. In other words, they substituted true scientific work with mere reporting laced with strong ignorant opinions.

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Galileo analyzes the cancel mob gathering against him

February 7, 2021 Comments off

Galileo reveals why he thinks cancel mobs form and what characteristics their leaders and followers have.

Galileo was under fire by theologians and academic philosophers who were against the heliocentric view of the universe that he espoused. Galileo worked in the court of Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany at the time. He wrote a letter in 1615 to the Duke’s mother, the Grand Duchess Christina, in hopes of gaining support and protection from the forces gathering against him [1]. It did not entirely work, because shortly thereafter in 1616 he was judged by Rome, in response to the many complaints against him, to be in conflict with Church views and his work had to be renounced and suspended. Galileo ultimately violated this injunction and was condemned by the Inquisition 17 years later in 1633.

Galileo’s letter was mostly an excellent theological defense of scientific freedom. But there were several parts of the letter that were focused on analyzing what today might be called the “cancel culture.” Here are six such passages, all quoted from [1]:

 I. Some years ago, as Your Serene Highness well knows, I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them in contradiction to the physical notions commonly held among academic philosophers, stirred up against me no small number of professors—as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences.

II. Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth, they sought to deny and disprove the new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments….

III. But some, besides allegiance to their original error, possess I know not what fanciful interest in remaining hostile not so much toward the things in question as toward their discoverer.

IV. Persisting in their original resolve to destroy me and everything mine by any means they can think of, these men are aware of my views in astronomy and philosophy [heliocentric universe].

V. They [leaders of the persecution] know that it is human nature to take up causes whereby a man may oppress his neighbor, no matter how unjustly, rather than those from which a man may receive some just encouragement. Hence they have had no trouble in finding men who would preach the damnability and heresy of the new doctrine from their very pulpits with unwonted confidence….

VI. And the smaller number of understanding men could not dam up the furious torrent of such people, who would gain the majority of followers simply because it is much more pleasant to gain a reputation for wisdom without effort or study than to consume oneself tirelessly in the most laborious disciplines.

What is fascinating in these extracts and in the letter as a whole is Galileo’s pain of realizing that people are not so much interested in arguing and discussing the pros and cons of the heliocentric view. They most wanted to silence him, Galileo the man, the “discoverer.” They wished to “destroy [him] and everything [his] by any means they can think of.”

Galileo also speculates something about human character in Extracts II and V. In Extract II he complains that many show “greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth” — a problem that has not abated over the centuries. In Extract V he says that it is natural for “such people” to want to gang up on an individual, and leaders that are after him know that very well. Thus, it is easy to have simplistic or wrong opinions and still incite a mob against an individual, because people are prone to want to join in such activities.

In Extract VI, which occurs near the end of the letter, he comes back to the theme of ignorant persecutors and is obviously bitter about the number of simpletons who have a “reputation for wisdom” but never exert themselves tirelessly “in the most laborious disciplines”, which one can presumably take Galileo to mean mathematics and natural sciences. And yet, these simpletons “gain the majority of followers.”

Of course, there is an element of Galileo’s approach to his persecution that contributed to the antipathy people had toward him. For example, Father Grassi, a Jesuit priest who was present at Galileo’s trial said of Galileo:

As for Mr. Galileo’s displeasure, I tell you most sincerely that I, too, am displeased. I have always had more love for him than he has for me. And last year at Rome [during the trial] when I was requested to give my opinion on his book on the motion of the earth, I took the utmost care to allay minds harshly disposed toward him and to render them open to conviction of the strength of his arguments, so much so, indeed, that certain people who supposed me to have been offended by Galileo . . . marveled at my solicitude. But he has ruined himself by being so much in love with his own genius, and by having no respect for others. One should not wonder that everybody conspires to damn him. (as quoted in [2])

If there is something to learn from the Galileo story regarding these issues it is this: heroes do not abandon their convictions because of threatening mobs; true scholars are tentative and teachable and do not “cancel” people but rather engage with the arguments or, at worst, ignore them (because there is only so much time in the day); be nicer to the simpletons than they deserve or their mob will gain strength and be further motivated to condemn you; but even being nice won’t necessarily protect you — you have to be prepared to suffer for your convictions and one day there might be a book about your discoveries and opinions, like Galileo [1].

It would seem difficult for people who are part of “cancel culture” to accomplish anything nearly as grand as Galileo. Their mindsets of rigid boundaries and complex no-go zones are very high maintenance and leave little energy or space for deep, challenging, and creative thought. Furthermore, their efforts to control the expressions of others, if successful, dull the minds of everyone around them in time.

The great English poet John Milton, Galileo’s friend later in life, warned of the same when in a speech before the English Parliament in 1644 he declared that limits on freedom in publishing doom society to produce only fustian drivel. According to Milton, the effect is devastating. He brought up the cancellation of Galileo as evidence:

I could recount what I have seen and heard in other countries, where this kind of inquisition tyrannizes; where I have sat among their learned men, for that honour I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of Philosophical Freedom, as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning amongst them was brought; that this was it which had dampened the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican Licencers thought. [3]

Soft-power licencers can be just as damaging. Limits on freedom are not only imposed by governments but also by pseudo-ecclesiastical petition mobs which can be just as devastating as any governmental decree that takes away people’s jobs and livelihoods, not to mention their dignity.

The words of Galileo and Milton speak to us four centuries later to remind us that a flourishing creative society depends on us embracing freedom.


[1] Galileo Galilei. “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”, 1615. English translation published in Drake, Stillman. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. New York: Anchor book, 1957.

[2] Moss, J.D. “Galileo’s Letter to Christina: Some Rhetorical Considerations.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol.36, No.4 (Winter 1983), pp.547-576.

[3] Allen-Olney, Mary. The Private Life of Galileo. Boston: Nichols and Noyes, 1870. The quote is originally from Milton’s Areopagitica (1644). I have modernized the spelling here. Italics are mine.

Milton visiting Galileo when a prisoner of the Inquisition. Solomon Alexander Hart, 1847.
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Calvin: my success was due to my teacher as a teenager, Mathurin Cordier (1550)

December 30, 2020 Comments off


Bernard Cottret. Calvin: A Biography (translated from the French by W.W. McDonald). Cambridge, UK: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.


John Calvin (1509-1564), the great Protestant reformer of the 16th century, had a rough start in his studies, but he was fortunate in his early teenage years to find himself in the classroom of Mathurin Cordier (1479-1564), one of the foremost educators in France’s illustrious academic history. They met in 1523 in Paris at the Collège de la Marche. Calvin was 14, and his genius needed someone like Cordier to nurture it.

Calvin never forgot the unequaled influence that Cordier had in his intellectual formation, not only in learning Latin but also in learning how to learn. So few knew how to do that back then, since imitation of the Greek and Latin ancients was the highest form of erudition among the elites at that time. Cordier even used French in his classroom. This was considered quite gauche since French was considered a brutish language among the elites at that time. Latin was the only language a scholar should publish in. Calvin would later translate his master work, Institution de la Religion Chrestienne (1541), into the French vernacular of the day, perhaps being inspired by the example of his teacher.

Years later, Cordier and Calvin reunited in Geneva, which was a safe haven for the reformists. This time Calvin was the master. Their respect for each other remained strong. They both died in the same year, 1564 — Calvin in May, Cordier a few months later in September. Cordier and Calvin are both buried in the Cimetière des Rois (Cimetière de Plainpalais now) in Geneva.

We know Calvin’s feelings of gratitude for Cordier from the dedication to his old teacher at the beginning of Calvin’s Commentary on The Book of Thessalonians. The extract below is from that dedication


It is with good reason that you also have a place in my labors, since having first begun the process of study under your conduct and skill, I have advanced at least to this point of being able in some degree to benefit the church of God. When my father sent me as a young boy to Paris, having only some small beginnings in the Latin language, God wished me to have you for a short time as my preceptor, so that by you I might be so directed to the true road and right manner of learning that I could profit somewhat from it afterwards. Since, when you had taken the first class and taught there with great honor; nevertheless, because you saw that the children formed by the other masters through ambition and boasting were not grounded in good understanding and grasped nothing firmly, but could only make an appearance with gusts of words, so that you had to start over and form them anew; being disgusted with such a burden, that year you descended to the fourth class. It was for me a singular favor of God to encounter such a beginning of instruction. And although it was not permitted me to enjoy it for long, since a thoughtless man, without judgment, who disposed of our studies at his own will, or rather according to his foolish whims, made us immediately move higher, nevertheless the instruction and skill you had given me served me so well afterwards that in truth I confess and recognize that such profit and advancement as followed was due to you.


Imagine Cordier watching the great Calvin preach to the masses at St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva, recalling back to that awkward young boy struggling through his Latin exercises, and knowing how instrumental he was in building the scholarly abilities of the young Calvin who later would change the world so profoundly.

A great teacher that can launch a youngster that reached such great heights indeed should be celebrated. So here’s to Mathurin Cordier, and all the other dedicated and fantastic teachers out there like him.

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Gaddis: historians operate more like natural scientists than do social scientists

December 20, 2020 Comments off


John Lewis Gaddis. The Landscape of History. Oxford University Press, 2002.


While on sabbatical at Oxford, the eminent Cold War historian from Yale, John Gaddis, decided to give lectures on the methods of historical research. The resulting book is somewhat philosophical in nature. One of the key points he makes is that historians are more like natural scientists than social scientists, in that natural scientists and historians share the same conviction that there is no such thing as a big independent variable that must be found to account for the phenomena, but rather an ecology of variables that jointly feed into a complex system that may even be chaotic. As part of this argument he mounts several attacks on reductionist-oriented social scientists. The extract below is one such volley.


Students in the social sciences are often told to proceed “as if” these anomalies had not happened. Saving the theory is what’s important: it doesn’t matter if doing so “smooths out,” or even flattens, the facts. What this means, though, is that the social sciences are operating — by no means in all instances, but in many — at roughly the level of freshman physics experiments [with idealized, artificial set-ups]. That’s why the forecasts they make only occasionally correspond with the reality we subsequently encounter.

…. Hence, when social scientists are right, they too often confirm the obvious. When they don’t confirm the obvious, they’re too often wrong.


From the perspective of a distant scientist there might not seem to be a whole lot of light between an historian and a social scientist. However, as the extract above suggests, there can be deep divisions between the two once you get closer. The attack on social scientists fits into Gaddis’s larger picture that historians are much more like natural scientists (especially cosmologists, paleontologists, etc.) than social scientists. 

More broadly speaking, the book is interesting reading in that he explains the methodologies of natural science in order to make a more positive likeness argument that historians are more similar to natural scientists. I do not agree with all the characterizations, but it is quite clever and fascinating nevertheless.

Finally, another relevant point Gaddis makes in the book is that reflection on the methods in one’s field (what are your deeper goals and how do you propose get there) is a necessary exercise that all should do. I believe this to be true among physicists as well. There needs to be more reflection on goals and especially methods within physics — not just on short-term goals and the tactical methods to get there, which is rather easy, but also on the long-term grand goals and the strategic methods needed to get there, which is very hard yet critical to long-term success. This is what I tried to do in my recent book Discovery Beyond the Standard Model of Elementary Particle Physics, but there is much more to do and say in this realm.

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1952 Ronald Reagan film ridicules the value of university education

December 13, 2020 Comments off

Society is taking a very hard look at universities these days. With the huge losses they are suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic, scrutiny is being put on them. Do they have the value they presume? Are students well served by their years at University?

This has been a question that has been asked for a very long time, but in particular in the United States when enrollments exploded in the late 1940s. Americans had a lot of mixed feelings about becoming a nation of educated folks. We rapidly went from one of the least educated “advanced countries” to the most educated in a short period of time, as judged by fraction of population with college degrees. The United States no longer has that title — Canada is #1 now — but it is still in the top 10.

So is it new and alarming that Americans are questioning the value of investing in a college education? Part of me says yes, and I think universities bear some responsibility for that, but another part of me says no, it has always been that way in America.

I was watching an old movie recently starring Ronald Reagan: 1952’s “She’s working her way through college.” It’s about a former burlesque dancer, played by Virginia Mayo, who makes her way to Midwest State College and creates quite a stir for everyone, including a lowly Associate Professor of English and Theatre, played by Ronald Reagan. It’s a so-so film, but as a college professor myself I was fascinated by its portrayal of college life and college politics of the early 1950s.

The movie lambasts the Board of Directors of the university. It makes fun of football players who only want to take the easiest classes. It portrays the classroom as rather dull and suggests that extra-curricular activities are the real saving graces of college. These are all largely unfair but familiar themes even today.

And then about halfway through the film the student body sings a song called “We’re working our way through college” (see below for lyrics). It’s a song that more or less questions the whole value and absurdity of having to go through college. A major theme is that none of what they learn will be useful, and they are only wasting the “old man’s dough.” But they’ve got to do it since companies require college degrees even though they are useless for the job at hand. But it has a playful tone and suggests they are having fun anyway and are drinking the “midnight oil” rather than burning it.

In other words, nothing’s changed. And maybe nothing will change. Society will playfully make fun of universities for decades more to come, but universities will go on because underneath the good-natured teasing and sometimes malicious attacks, real value is recognized. That is my hope.


Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1937. Sung in 1952 movie “She’s working her way through college”, starring Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan.


We’re working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we’ll probably never ever use again.
It helps a lot to know
You’ve got a nice diploma,
But will it pay the mortgage on the home sweet home-a?
We’re getting an education
To run a filling station,
For they never take anyone but college men.

Oh, you’ve got to know your Cicero,
Your Hannibal and Caesar,
To turn the crank
And fill the tank
And say, “How many, please, sir?”
And the mathematics is the thing we’ve gotta know,
Working our way through college on the old man’s
Dough, re, mi fa, sol, la, ti…


We’re working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we’ll probably never ever use again.
And do we study, do we toil?
Don’t you think it!
And do we burn the midnight oil?
No, we drink it!

The study of economics
Will never fill our stomachs
If we finally have to be insurance men.
Oh, the Sigma Chi may rate you high
And ask you to their rushes,
But no one’s gonna ask you when
You’re selling Fuller brushes.
Hooray for history and Greek and algebra!
We’re working our way through college
With a Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!

REFRAIN 3 (added for 1952 film)

We’re working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we’ll probably never ever use again.
It’s swell to tell
What parallel
And parallax is,
But after graduation
Will it pay our taxes?

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Pitkin: itch to understand and the whole art of learning (1931)

December 6, 2020 Comments off

Sometimes students come to me and ask how can they know if they are well suited to a life of scholarship, to be a professor or professional researcher for decades and decades. I tell them that if they love the process of learning and research, and if they have dozens of questions they are bubbling over with enthusiasm to get to the bottom of no matter how long it takes to do so, and they wake up each morning with eagerness to tackle them that day, then they can know.

I stumbled across a question that is very much related: how do I know I have it in me to master the art of learning, which is so critical to a successful life of scholarship? The passage below is the answer provided by Walter Pitkin, former undergraduate student at University of Michigan (class of 1900) and later professor of journalism at Columbia University from 1912-1943. In summary, you must “itch to understand”. I fully agree with Pitkin.


When all is said and done, your success as a learner depends enormously upon your philosophy of life. Your perspective determines what you are going to do about it; and the energies which emerge in your attitudes and emotions give vigor and scope to your ways of learning.

Do you see life as a mere struggle for money? Then you will shun all study which pays no quick cash dividends.

Do you look upon yourself as a creature of blind chance, helpless in an all-engulfing chaos of futility? Then you will probably find no pleasure in well directed intellectual effort.

Do you consider this world of yours and all its creatures simply as a curious, lovely, alarming, grandiose, noisy, gaudy, thrilling spectacle, which you contemplate as an innocent bystander? Then you remain forever an esthete and contemplative, uninterested in the deeper forms of learning.

Do you itch to understand every machine you see, every odd act of a friend, every absurdity of politicians and actors and debutantes, every obscure news item, and every strange light in the night sky? Then you have it in you to master the whole art of learning.

From W.B. Pitkin, The Art of Learning. McGraw Hill, 1931.

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Beauty and truth in theoretical physics

January 16, 2020 Comments off

There is some controversy about what is meant by a “beautiful theory”. Dirac and many others talked about beauty being a key property of good theories. But what does that mean? Some have countered that the ideas of beauty in physics are worthless mumbo jumbo and should be dispensed with. Although I do not think it is ever necessary to use the word “beauty” within physics, I think there is an important sense in which beauty can be used, has been used, is being used, perhaps subconsciously by some and consciously by others, wherein beauty has meaning and leads to truth.

The risk of a theoretical physicist defining what is meant by “beautiful theory” is that it tends to focus on properties of theories that the individual theorist making the definition finds important, which devolves into a self-serving empty exercise of technicalities.

Let us then look to the long tradition of human expression for beauty outside the narrow realm of physics theories. There is within the practical art world — not just among philosophers of art — a long-revered definition that attempts to generalize the notion of beauty. It comes from Owen Jones’s “Grammar of Ornament” from 1856, a very influential art and design book out of London that has never been out of print these last ~164 years.

In one of his foundational propositions Owen defines beauty to be what is present when the mind reposes through lack of want:

“True beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want.”

I think this definition can apply fruitfully to theories within physics. The eye and affections are satisfied through the inscrutable but worthy intuitions of a serious and successful physicist (like a Dirac, and many others) who has experienced the delight of writing a new theory that explains more and is correct. And the intellect is satisfied through the “absence of any want” that a great theory accomplishes when at that time the main questions are answered and the main desires of the theory are fulfilled. For a time, one reposes and says, “Yes, this is good. It is beautiful what I now see.”

This reaction is an archetypal reaction manifested since the beginnings of recorded history. Even the author of Genesis says, “And God saw every thing that he had made and behold, it was very good … and he rested.”

It is another question whether beautiful theories correspond to ultimate truth, but I think they unambiguously correspond to solving conundrums of their time and station. And inasmuch as we believe there is progress in science — that solving the identified problems of a particular time generally pushes us forward and not haphazardly — we then can reasonably hold that beauty’s arrow arcs toward truth.

[Image below is one of the color plates Owen included in his book. source:]


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