12.0320 attitudes toward data

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sat, 28 Nov 1998 16:54:47 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 320.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sat, 28 Nov 1998 16:56:20 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: attitudes toward data

Dear Colleagues:

This being an interdisciplinary seminar it seems just the right place to ask
a question about from whom we as computing humanists can learn about data.

My own background, among other fields, took in at one time the disciplines
of physics and mathematics. In my first year at Berkeley I had a class in
relativistic mechanics, taught by one Walter Knight, and another in
calculus, taught by Henry Helsen. (Forgive me if I have these names wrong,
this is entirely from memory.) One day in the physics lecture, Professor
Knight walked up to the chalkboard and wrote in very large letters,

PI = 3

(i.e. the Greek letter). He saw immediately that we were all puzzled,
probably to a student having memorized PI to several decimal places and
proud of it -- at least I was. So he returned to the board and wrote,

PI = 3.000000000000000

and so on until he wrote off the end of the board. He saw that we were even
more puzzled. He exclaimed, "This is physics! PI = 3 is good enough for us!"

In the very next lecture (I swear this to be true) I went into the calculus
lecture. Professor Helsen, a very passionate man, strode to the edge of the
stage, his eyes burning with fervour for mathematics, and declared in a loud
voice, with no preamble, "PI is a concept, an idea! It cannot be
approximated to any number of decimal places!"

Ah, I suddenly realised, physics and mathematics!

It seems to me that in our relationship to data we are much like physicists,
or at least those of the "good enough" school. Data is important but not
sacred, not untouchable. Those of us who deal with words are more than a
little familiar with the apparent fact that language, esp. poetic language,
stretches toward, triangulates on the unsayable. (If you don't believe this,
fall passionately in love, then write a love letter, or talk to a poet,

All is and is not
and it all falls apart on the page
in silence

(Octavio Paz, Vrindaban,
from A Tale of Two Gardens, tr. Lysander Kemp)

We may find ourselves altering data to get at the truth of it, bringing
certain things into focus, stressing them more, for whatever reason. Playing
with the data.

Can we then learn from the physicists, who have consciously been working
with data as such for a long time. Or should we look to other fields as well?


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
<Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
maui gratia

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