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Imagination in Flight

November 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin has her protagonist, Genly Ai, travel to the distant planet Gethen which has no birds or flying insects. As a result, the communities there never even thought to attempt flight and their language has no word for flying. It is no wonder, then, that the people mistrust Genly who arrives by airship. It is also easy to see why Le Guin chose this scenario. She masterfully removes something which we often take for granted (that there are flying animals and insects) and then demonstrates how it impacts imagination. (For the record, there are many other major differences between our earthly world and Gethen, but I’m only talking flight today. I definitely recommend the book for all of those who are curious about science fiction experiments.) In chapter thirteen, Genly Ai and another man are sharing folktales about the places where they are from. Genly shares the story of flight. He remarks that he is not talking about a spirit world, but the real world. He says, “’Not by flapping their arms, you know. They flew in machines like cars.’ But it was hard to say in Orgota, which lacks a word meaning precisely ‘to fly’; the closest one can come has more the meaning of ‘glide.’ ‘Well, they learned how to make machines that went right over the air as a sledge goes over the snow.’” Of course, in order to communicate, language restricts Genly Ai to analogies of the place where he is, so he focuses on a common machine from this icy climate, the sled.

 Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The history of flight is extremely curious and inspiring. The history of aviation includes such fascinating, bold, strong personalities as Emilia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, the Wright brothers and many, many others. However, I was caught by surprise recently when I discovered how little I know about lighter-than-air ships. In reading Ships of the Air by Lyn Curlee, I saw again that same spark of curiosity that often drives human invention. Curlee writes, “One day, after watching ashes from a fire float upward, Joseph Montgolfier folded a piece of paper, held it above a fire, then watched it fly up the chimney. Joseph believed that the smoky fire created some kind of gas that was lighter than air. Only later did he and Étienne understand that hot air rises. But Joseph did understand that if a big enough bag could be filled with hot ‘gas,’ the bag would rise off the ground – and could carry a person with it.” From there begins a wonderful, rich, global history layered with politics and science. After Montgolfier demonstrated a hot air balloon flight to Marie Antoinette, the world took note. Furthermore, his balloon contained a flight crew of a sheep, rooster, and duck, whose survival proved that the atmosphere was higher than previously imagined. Many people became interested in designing and flying airships. In the late 1800s, they became popular sights in France, London and Germany. And as war broke out, the zeppelin famously became a machine of war, rather than leisure.

Back when the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting with cloth and paper balloons, however, there were many misconceptions regarding flight. Curlee writes that in 1766, “Professor Charles’s balloon floated 15 miles into the countryside, landing near a small village. The villagers, who thought the balloon was a monster, destroyed it with pitchforks.” This mentality echoes what Le Guin describes on her science fiction world, Gethen. It took an incredible amount of imagination to believe in flight. Furthermore, imagination is, in part, problem-solving. For the story of airships to become any kind of success indicates that man must often think outside the box. I return to Joseph Montgolfier watching ashes rise. With possibility comes the calculated risk of burning the paper. Understandably, then, the airship has faced many problems, such as weather, flammability, size versus weight ratios, etc. Curlee continues, “The story of lighter-than-air travel is mainly the story of failures. People who designed airships made many mistakes – often because they were experimenting with new technology, sometimes because they were careless.” Even so, hot-air balloons still inspire our imaginations. They predate airplanes, have been created by humans all over the globe, and have been put to many uses (including a German mail service). One thing is clear, flight of any kind captivates humans. The ability to defy gravity, even for an instant, sparks the imagination.

 Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

These photographs were taken at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Every October, over five hundred balloonists visit Albuquerque for its unique landscape and wind patterns. Balloons feature colorful designs, brand names, and cultural icons (Darth Vader is often a big hit). To see five hundred balloons floating up in the sunrise certainly inspires the imagination!

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Why Read Archimedes

September 28, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I hear a lot of teachers complain that students are not willing to spend much time trying to struggle with a difficult problem. Some of these teachers lament the fact that gadgets have become a main source of information, rather than logic. In other words, we can answer our tough math problems with Google or some other device. I think there is more going on than the implementation of technology, though. It seems that in addition to new technologies, our students are also handed a lot of information at one time and asked to decipher it. Technology can be fun, enticing and extremely helpful, but I also agree that we (all of us!) would benefit from sitting with a particular problem or question for a long time, and puzzling it out on our own. This type of solitary work reminds me of the concentration required from composers, authors, and mathematicians. Our current education model often emphasizes group projects because, it is true, that we learn a lot from groupwork. But I hate to see it come at the expense of solitary contemplation. No one else can tell me what I myself think. Instead, I have to understand it for myself, and that is often the result of hard work, struggle and problem-solving.

Choosing Archimedes as the subject of today’s blog is a bit surprising since I have never truly enjoyed math. I always had to work so hard to understand the concepts. However, I do enjoy Archimedes, and so, as ironic as it seems, I wanted to explain a few reasons why. On the one hand, I should never speak authoritatively about math. On the other hand, however, I am a great representative of the “struggle-it-out” style of learning. And I’ll be honest, while I have not resolved my fear of math, I have come to see elements of beauty in it. A few years ago, I worked my way through pieces of Euclid and came up with some very rewarding ideas. (I wrote about some of these ideas in three separate blog posts. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to those.) That these ideas reward myself alone is inconsequential because they often connected with yet other interests. In other words, they enlightened studies in other areas. I find these connections particularly fascinating because this capability mimics one of the ways in which knowledge grows. It is also how houses are built. I do see vital connections between theoretical knowledge and practical applications.

Recently, I discussed some of Archimedes’ writings. “The Sand-Reckoner” caught my attention because he quickly develops a mathematical account of the universe. Furthermore, Archimedes proposes that human knowledge would benefit by increasing the current understanding of large numbers. Previous to his work, Greeks used the word “murious” which roughly translates to “uncountable.” (The Romans later changed murious to myriad.) In “The Sand-Reckoner,” Archimedes argues that by using a myriad as the number base, he can learn information about pieces of our world and our universe. In his proof he uses larger numbers than anyone had previously used. In fact, he repeats the desire to push the envelope.

This text surprised me, not because of the difficulty of the math (which is astounding when coupled with the difficulties of doing precise equations in such an old system.) Rather, I understood that whether or not the calculations are factually accurate for us today is not the reason why we continue to read Archimedes. I believe that we still read Archimedes because he asked humans to combine calculation with imagination. To think of a problem, such as the size of a grain of sand, and then try to measure it. He did the same with the universe. So, while claiming that the diameter of the universe can be measured by the diameter earth may not be precise, it does capture the imagination.

In addition to mathematics, this proof places importance on theoretical knowledge. He elegantly demonstrates that it is good to think about things. To sit with a problem, even if it is potentially unanswerable. He writes, “It is true that some have tried, as you are of course aware, to prove that the said perimeter [of the earth] is about 300,000 stadia. But I go further and, putting the magnitude of the earth at ten times the size that my predecessors thought it, I suppose its perimeter to be about 3,000,000 stadia and not greater” (521). He repeats this phrase later as he claims to go further than anyone has regarding the dimensions of the universe as well. It is this unlimited imagination that nearly reaches the heights of today’s astronomy. In “The Sand-Reckoner,” Archimedes demonstrated the importance of philosophical thought through a mathematical proof.

I want to emphasize that conversation enhanced many of my own ideas about Archimedes. In order to access this reading as best as I could (and I am still far from an expert on this reading), I completed the following steps. First, I read the text twice, taking notes and writing questions. Next, I tried to answer a few of my own questions based upon his text. And finally, I discussed the whole reading with a group. The discussion leader asked tough questions that gave further insight into Archimedes’ text. These difficult concepts came alive during our discussions, for which I am grateful. So, while I first struggled on my own with his proofs, I also found conversation as a necessary accompaniment towards better understanding. Thanks to those who discussed these works with me!

Access the blogs on Euclid at our website, hmu.edu, or by clicking on the links below:

(First post: http://www.hmu.edu/hmu-blog/2016/1/28/january-quarterly-discussion-review)

(Then this: http://www.hmu.edu/hmu-blog/2016/2/3/euclid-and-whitehead-found-poem)

(Finish with this: http://www.hmu.edu/hmu-blog/2015/12/22/euclidean-utopia)

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What Is Science Fiction

April 27, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a three-day conference hosted by the Great Books Council of San Francisco. The event, which took place at Asilomar, offers four discussions focused on one play, one work of non-fiction, one of fiction and a handful of poems. The wonderful selections were further enriched through discussion. The selected fiction was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Though this story is set on a distant planet and in a distant future, I connected with many of the issues raised in the text. Personally, I feel that Le Guin brilliantly demonstrated what it is like to meet a culture very different from your own. It included political frustrations, tensions between genders, misunderstandings of all kinds, economic interests, and an epic journey. To be honest, the setting could be nearly anywhere and at any time because she addressed so many universal societal issues. However, in moving the narrative outside of “earthly” restrictions, Le Guin allows for dynamic debate, divorced from possibly hurtful particulars. So, in part, science fiction allows for an emotional detachment in a way that actual events or specific names and places would not allow.

More than that, though, science fiction allows the reader to examine the consequences of what we often call “progress”. In last week’s blog, HMU Fellow in Ideas, Matt Phillips wrote about one of the benefits of writing in a noir style. He writes: “Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.” In a similar fashion, science fiction provides a palette for understanding unknowns. As science progresses at light speed, it moves far past the average citizen’s grasp. There is no way to keep track of each scientific study or each new technological platform. Science’s broad reach affects our daily lives in demonstrable ways, but more often than not, understanding a new device arrives as an after-effect. Regulators and lawyers struggle to keep abreast of changing technologies. We even struggle to name new technologies, which we often base off of natural phenomena such as “cloud computing” or “website”. The science fiction writer is tasked with thinking in terms of possibility. What if faster is not better? Or, what if faster is greatly better? What are the possible outcomes of gene-therapy? Or, who should have access to such potentially powerful tools?

Science fiction, however, does not predict futures. It simply explores them. In the preface to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin writes:


“This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only be the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

“The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed  Schrödinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted – but to describe the reality, the present world.”

In a recent report on genetic technology, NIH Director Francis Collins claims: “When something truly significant is discovered its consequences are overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term." Simply put, it is difficult for the non-scientist to understand the scope of the continual scientific evolution. Therefore, the science fiction writer designs and creates a thought experiment meant to discover potential outcomes. The evolution of science fiction seems natural to me, as humans progressively depend upon and live with technology. Excited by new capabilities, we are also curious about implications. For example, what if anyone could alter their own genes; should they?

In another article, new types of data are being used to identify poverty and restructure impoverished areas. I found it particularly interesting to see the diverse groups necessary to discuss such implementations. The article mentions:  “a coalition of homeowners, renters, people with the experience of homelessness, nonprofit developers, community associations, religious institutions, policy experts, and university faculty” who will discuss human rights issues in such a difficult transition. I can see how science programs (such as STEM or STEAM) benefit society. I also firmly believe that ethics courses are as necessary as science. I believe that this is another benefit of science fiction: it is almost a category between the two, uniting science with fictitious outcomes in which we can ask ethical questions. It is authors like Le Guin who question our understanding of progress. I do not mean to imply that we should not embrace technology or change. In fact, rather the opposite. I embrace science, science fiction and ethics as all necessary parts of my education.

In addition to excellent discussions, the group at Asilomar listened to a keynote speech by Corie Ralston, current director of the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology. Not only is she a scientist, but she also writes science fiction. She gave a wonderful presentation that included a short history of science fiction, but also a hopeful future for the genre. Her website describes a deep-rooted love of science, nature, creative thought and reading. She writes: “If writing is a way to emotionally understand our world, then science is a way to practically understand our world. And science is more than that to me: it is a way of exploring and creating and learning how to think. It uses the best of our human nature. It is a continual source of awe.” I could not agree more.

Thanks to the wonderful folks of the Great Books Council of San Francisco for welcoming me into their discussions!

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William James and the Stream

February 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

"Let us call the resting-places the 'substantive parts,' and the places of flight the 'transitive parts,' of the stream of thought. It then appears that the main end of our thinking is at all times the attainment of some other substantive part than the one from which we have just been dislodged. And we may say that the main use of the transitive parts is to lead us from one substantive conclusion to another." - William James, Principles of Psychology

William James's famous depiction of human thought as a continuous stream is now a mainstream idea. HMU's January Quarterly Discussion focused on this metaphor. We investigated its "resting places" and "places of flight". Why, or how, does one come to recognize any thought? James says that we have many thoughts of which we are both aware and unaware. These thoughts compose our stream of consciousness. Humans encounter a staggering amount of data everyday and parse it into the noisy stream, combined with reminders, memories, song lyrics, and interests (just to name a few other things that we carry).

One thing that strikes me as important is that James does not clearly define any terms in this chapter. Rather, he invokes the power of metaphor to universally describe thought. The accessibility of a stream is clear in ways that a scientific definition may not be. At the same time, though, James also notes the inherent flaws of language. He is quick to claim that language cannot accurately depict all reality. Rather, he says, "language works against our perception of the truth." In other words, perception is subjective. The subject defines experience in language that is also defined by the subject. An object, something external to the subject, can be defined only through the subject's access to it. And repeated experiences lead us to a level of "sameness".

"Sameness" allows humans the ability to recognize forms. An orange, for example, is round, orange and citrusy. Language allows sameness, but also limits us from having absolutely equivalent experiences with that orange. We know that an orange has a recognizable form, but it may carry different connotations for each of us. This additional baggage is personal, and not necessarily transmitted in the thought of orange itself. However, James claims that we can continually expand our understanding of an object. He writes, "Experience is remoulding us every moment, and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a resultant of our experience of the whole world up to that date.... Every brain-state is partly determined by the nature of this entire past succession." (152) In other words, our thoughts exist in a continual stream. As we interact with each thought, the thought develops its own unique parts.


So, while "sameness" allows us to converse with others about an object, personal influence is in part always lost. For example, imagine an orange sitting on the table. Investigate your preconceived notions of orange. Does the color please you? Do you like the flavor and taste? Does it make you think of summer or winter, a particular vacation, dessert or juice? We have almost instantaneous associations that may be what we are thinking when we speak. For example, I grew up with an orange tree. So, after this conversation and after thinking about what defines an object itself, I realized that when I say the word orange, I mentally recall the experience and smell of picking oranges. Therefore, while the communicable thought remains only that the orange is on the table, I am sensing much more than my words contain. Orange is the object of thought, but not the full thought itself. James continues that "[t]he next point to make clear is that, however complex the object may be, the thought of it is one undivided state of consciousness." So, for me, an orange is also experiential in a way that language does not immediately transmit. Imagining that everyone functions in a similar manner, makes it difficult to grasp how humans arrive at any verifiable "sameness".

I wonder what causes us to say anything? What focuses our attention on a single thought? It was suggested that the stream of thought is substantive and also transitive. The substantive section represents objects of interest. These objects exist in time and places for us, as we must associate them with some experience or definition. However, the transitive subset of the stream is composed of things that have yet to enter our consciousness. For whatever reason, these objects avoid our consciousness, and, as a result, they cannot be expressed in any sort of time-part. They literally do not yet exist in any functional or communicable way, though they may exist within the stream.

I am astounded at how difficult a discussion of simple thought is. Representing our personal definition of an orange, even, can be problematic. Extend this into philosophical ideas and intangible notions, and it is a wonder we can communicate at all. This is reinforced by the fact that thought can be traced through hundreds of years of philosophy. James is, in part, responding to those previous thinkers when he rebuts the idea that thought is composed of single, static conclusions. Rather, he reinforces complexity by allowing that each idea is connected to a massive flow of data.

I am ever-so-grateful to those who discussed James's work with me. His stream of consciousness idea has profound implications for communication and is well worth reading. I truly appreciate others' time and efforts in clarifying difficult points.

Our next Quarterly Discussion will focus on two translation. Join us! Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information.

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