21.202 risk-taking

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 8 Aug 2007 07:44:49 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 202.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 08 Aug 2007 07:36:56 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: risk-taking

I expect that like many of you with mid 20C
origins, I read Erwin Schrödinger's once famous
little book What is Life? (1944) in my youth and
then forgot about it -- until reminded recently
by Robert Rosen's Essays on Life Itself. But for
those of you who haven't read Schrödinger's book,
allow me a small bit of background. Schrödinger
(1887-1961) was an Austrian-Irish theoretical
physicist whose fame came from his work on
quantum dynamics. He won the Nobel Prize in 1933
for a quantum dynamical equation that bears his
name. (The Wikipedia entries on Schrödinger and
his equation will fill you in on some details.)
Anyhow, shortly before the end of WWII, he turned
his attention to theoretical biology, about which
by his own admission he knew very little,
comparatively speaking, and gave a series of
lectures in Dublin that were published in 1944
under the title of the book I am recommending. He
felt, as Einstein had once remarked, that physics
as we know it is terribly primitive -- that
although living systems are part of the natural
world, the science that should be able to include
them cannot. So he turned to organisms as
respository of a "new physics". It must have
taken considerable bravery for someone in his
position, at the top of his field, so able to get
an audience (of ca 400 people) and a publisher
afterwards, but expected to produce goods of the
highest calibre, to venture into the unknown. But
he did. This is what he says at the beginning of
the book after recognizing that experts, as "a
matter of noblesse oblige", are usually expected
not to write on any topic of which they are not master:

>We have inherited from our forefathers the keen
>longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge.
>The very name given to the highest institutions
>of learning reminds us, that from antiquity and
>throughout many centuries the universal aspect
>has the only one to be given full credit. But
>the spread, both in width and depth, of the
>multifarious branches of knowledge during the
>last hundred odd years has confronted us with a
>queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are
>only now beginning to acquire reliable material
>for welding together the sum total of all that
>is known into a whole; but, on the other hand,
>it has become next to impossible for a single
>mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it.
>I can see no other escape from this dilemma
>(lest our true aim be forever lost) than that
>some of us should venture to embark on a
>synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with
>second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of
>them – and at the risk of making fools of ourselves. (1992/1944: 1).

The whole of which Schrödinger spoke may be far
more complex than he imagined -- though, his
imagination being what it was, I'd be cautious
going too far in that direction. It is certainly
now even fashionable to speak, as Nancy
Cartwright has brilliantly written, of a "deeply
dappled" physical world. Yet, I'd think,
wholeness remains by some kind of reasoning the
goal by which we operate intellectually, even if
it never can be achieved. It certainly seems that
a synthesis of what we're doing with computers is
squarely on our agenda, and that to achieve it,
Schrödinger-like bravery is required.



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities
Computing | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in
infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Wed Aug 08 2007 - 03:13:43 EDT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.2.0 : Wed Aug 08 2007 - 03:13:44 EDT