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Bohr's Use of Language

December 14, 2018

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

At the end of the fourth chapter of Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, Niels Bohr writes, “Besides, the fact that consciousness, as we know it, is inseparably connected with life ought to prepare us for finding that the very problem of the distinction between the living and the dead escapes comprehension in the ordinary sense of the word. That a physicist touches upon such questions may perhaps be excused on the ground that the new situation in physics has so forcibly reminded us of the old truth that we are both onlookers and actors in the great drama of existence.” I love the stage analogy that Bohr uses. I picture a camera forever panning backwards. When the scene begins, we are looking at a stage, but as the camera moves backward the audience is on the stage. Included in my visualization is that both the stage and ourselves become increasingly smaller. This is important to the way that I see Bohr’s argument. Bohr suggests that even if we can claim to know pieces of the whole, we will never see the complete picture at one time. This is not to say that we cannot connect pieces in the way that we do a puzzle, but that no single piece can stand as significant of the whole. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature explains that the future of science will be (and already is) beyond our senses. Instead of seeing reactions and experiments, we must rely upon a variety of tests, the accumulation of which will grant a picture of the whole. At no one time, Bohr reminds us, will we be able to actually see the whole, however. In both this piece and in “Discussion with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics,” Bohr explains how his view differs from Einstein. Unlike Bohr, Einstein believed that at some point we will have a complete picture of atomic physics.

A recent discussion of these readings sparked my curiosity about the things which validate science, such as observable data. I am also interested in the way that Bohr compares atomic theory to classical philosophy. By this, I mean that he understands that there are unknowns in atomic theory. Finally, I also want to know more about the way he emphasizes that the scientist is a part of the experiment. In Atomic Theory he writes, “The resignation as regards visualization and causality, to which we are thus forced in our description of atomic phenomena, might well be regarded as a frustration of the hopes which formed the starting-point of the atomic conceptions. Nevertheless, from the present standpoint of the atomic theory, we must consider this very renunciation as an essential advance in our understanding. Indeed, there is no question of a failure of the general fundamental principles of science within the domain where we could justly expect them to apply. The discovery of the quantum of action shows us, in fact, not only the natural limitation of classical physics, but, by throwing a new light upon the old philosophical problem of the objective existences of phenomena independently of our own observations, confronts us with a situation hitherto unknown in natural science. As we have seen, any observation necessitates an interference with the course of the phenomena, which is of such a nature that it deprives us of the foundation underlying the causal mode of description.” As with classical philosophy, we are at a crossroads. This new path is filled with unknowns, and not only that, but unobservable unknowns. Despite this complication, Bohr asks scientists to depend upon established terms which maintain a sense of cohesiveness, but also give us some concrete foundations for theoretical science. This technique hearkens back to the beginnings of philosophy as humans grappled to find language suitable for metaphysics.

The “old philosophical problem of the objective existences” outside of our own hearkens back to the roots of philosophy. In fact, as science moves forward, it must address many of the same questions that began as early as 2000 years ago. To address some of these unknowns, Bohr demands precise language without straying from classical vocabulary. Both Atomic Theory and “Discussion with Einstein” address the difficulty of language for the scientist and for the public. He explains that unknowns do not equal a lack of knowledge or a scientist’s uncertainty about the validity of their research. Rather, an unknown is in itself useful. He labels this dilemma an “intricacy of language.” Bohr writes, “[Q]uantum theory presents us with a novel situation in physical science, but attention was called to the very close analogy with the situation as regards analysis and synthesis of experience, which we meet in many other fields of human knowledge and interest. As is well known, many of the difficulties in psychology originate in the different placing of the separation lines between object and subject in the analysis of various aspects of physical experience. Actually words like ‘thoughts’ and ‘sentiments,’ equally indispensable to illustrate the variety and scope of conscious life, are used in a similar complementary way as are space-time co-ordination and dynamical conservation laws in atomic physics. A precise formulation of such analogies involves, of course, intricacies of terminology, and the writer’s position is perhaps best indicated in a passage in the article, hinting at the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition.” The imprecision in language exists in all fields, and grows as the field grows. Bohr’s insistence upon utilizing classical terminology is twofold. First, He asks that we use exact, well-defined terms so as to limit misunderstandings. Second, he wishes to avoid further abstraction of an already abstract subject.

Bohr’s focus on the language debate reminded me of a recent article on modal verbs, or verbs which predict rather than describe simple facts. The article claimed that scientific papers often get buried or dismissed because they include words such as “might,” “could,” “may,” “ought,” or “will.” Of course, these verbs reflect the fact that scientists do not have all the answers, and each experiment leads to further unknowns. This dismissal is something that Bohr feared and a reason for his insistence upon classical terminology. Incorporating existing terminology with atomic physics, science remains valid and as independent of the scientist as possible. Again, I am reminded of the fact that, according to Bohr, the scientist is a part of the experiment as much as they are observers. Therefore, if the scientist were to also alter terminology in a way that best suits their vision, they would further insert themselves and their view into the experiment. Furthermore, modal verbs signify opportunity for further experiment. They also reflect Bohr’s insistence upon the fact that we cannot know the whole picture anymore. As we interact with and learn from the world, the complexities in science grow larger. However, while uncertainty can be off-putting, uncertainty in science should be celebrated.

Bohr’s focus on language makes me think that there are opportunities for educators here too. In teaching science (to both scientists and non-scientists), we should include a better understanding of the specificity of language. We can also explain the benefit of things like modal verbs. Perhaps this will better enable us navigate complicated theories and unobservable data. We could also better educate young scientists with writing skills. Integration of these fields seems inextricably tied together. Bohr speaks of the writer’s dilemma which he calls, “the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition.” In some senses, the scientist is now also a writer. In other words, language is of extreme importance for the future of science and we would do well to also teach according to these principles.

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Literary Magazines

December 7, 2018

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

“We should like to think of the readers as a homogeneous group of friends, united by a common appreciation of the beautiful, - idealists of a sort, - and to share with them what has seemed significant to us.” - Eugene Jolas, editor of TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review

TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review was first published in 1927. Only twenty seven issues exist, all published between 1927 and 1938. This eclectic quarterly (not to be confused with the more contemporary Transition Magazine) published all sorts of work. It intended to support modernist and surrealist writers. In the first issue, Jolas wrote: “Of all the values conceived by the mind of man throughout the ages, the artistic have proven the most enduring. Primitive people and the most thoroughly civilized have always had, in common, a thirst for beauty and an appreciation of the attempts of the other to recreate the wonders suggested by nature and human experience. The tangible link between the centuries is that of art. It joins distant continents in to a mysterious unit, long before the inhabitants are aware of the universality of their impulses.” Though issues of this journal are difficult to find, a friend lent me a copy of the 26th issue, published in 1937. It has many stories to tell.

TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review, Number Twenty-Six, 1937. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review, Number Twenty-Six, 1937. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The journal includes articles, essays, and literary works in either German, English, and French. In other words, the recipients of this journal were educated and, most likely, tri- or bilingual. Also, I assume that the audience was interested in material that not just broke the rules, but defied them. It includes prints of both art and music, poetry and drama. The Contents page lists the following categories: verse, prose, the ear, the eye, cinema, the theatre, workshop, inter-racial, and architecture. Published in black and white, it does include images from Mondrian, Man Ray, and Joan Miró (among others). I was, personally, most surprised and pleased at the inclusion of a hand-written composition of “Gyp’s Song” from Second Hurricane by Aaron Copland, dated January 21, 1936. He calls this a piece of Gebrauchsmusik, or music composed for an amateur group.

The literature section contains a couple of astonishing things. First of all, it has an original publication of Work in Progress by James Joyce. This was published in periodicals which allowed the artist to continue writing and perhaps fund the remainder of their writing. Joyce calls his piece: Work in Progress, Opening pages of Part Two, Section Three. Of course, Work in Progress was finally completed in 1939 and published as Finnegan’s Wake. That this piece exists at all is one of luck due to the chance meeting of Joyce and Jolas. Furthermore, it is so rare anymore to see a partial work. Either we have less patience or time for serial publications, but it is neat to pick up Joyce’s story at the line which begins: “It may not or maybe a no concern of the Guinnesses but.” Furthermore, the Contributor section says nothing of Joyce himself and reads in a style different from all of the other contributors. It reads:

“The fragment of James Joyce’s “Work in Progress” which appeared in TRANSITION No. 23 (February 1935). “Opening and Closing Pages of Part II, Section II”, will be published in book form early in 1937, under the title of “Storiella as she is Syung”, by the Corvinus Press, London. This edition, which will be limited to 150 hand-printed copies, will include reproductions in color of two illuminated lettrines by Lucia Joyce.

“No further fragments of “Work in Progress” will be published in book form, as the book will appear in its entirety some time in 1937, probably some six months after the issuance of the trade edition of “Ulysses” in Great Britain. One thousand de luxe copies of “Ulysses” were published in London by John Lane on October 3, 1936.”

It should be noted that an edition of “Storiella as she is Syung” was auctioned in 2007 for $14,400, but in 1936, Joyce had trouble publishing this text. He struggled to write Work in Progress due to the poor reception of early chapters, as well as failing health, and rising conflicts prior to World War II. In fact, the first sections of the book had been published by the popular magazine The Dial. The editors at The Dial asked to rewrite his text and finally refused to publish the rest of it. And it is at this time that Joyce happened to meet the Jolas’s who became interested in carrying it in TRANSITION. We are so lucky that they did, considering it allowed Joyce to finish and then publish all of Finnegan’s Wake two years before his death.

Finally, a portion of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is included in this edition of TRANSITION. While the story is listed in the Contents page, there is no information about Kafka in the Contributors section. While it was surely an oversight, I find this deletion significant. Kafka died in 1924 almost ten years after the initial publication of Metamorphosis and nine years before the first translation into English. Originally translated into English by Willa and Edwin Muir (still very popular today) in 1933, Eugene Jolas, then, translated this version for TRANSITION himself. It is not an easy version to find, perhaps only because it exists in pieces of the serialized magazine.

In looking through this quarterly, I am amazed at the amount of strings attached to each work. There are social, historical, personal, anecdotal, artistic and cultural implications of nearly every aspect. For more fun, I suggest following just one of these threads: research Eugene Jolas, or the Muirs, or publishing in the 1930s, or wartime effects on literature, etc. This edition alone could go in so many different directions. Of course, this is always true. Art of any form interacts with culture in complex ways, some of which seem invisible in the moment of publication. Reflection offers such a deep wonder which impresses me beyond words. Researching this quarterly has turned into a minor obsession, a wormhole of sorts that takes me away from my daily tasks and leads me into the lives of so many others.

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Narrative of Helen Keller

November 30, 2018

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

Recently, I read The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. (I have already expressed my appreciation for the way she describes language in a previous post.) I was also quite taken with her reflections on nature, which played a large role in her education and entertainment. She also speaks eloquently about the excitement and challenges of travel and college. During university, Keller notes the difficulty in finding some of the college-level texts in braille. She often had to wait for resources to be translated or shipped. In addition to school, however, she enjoyed art, literature, travel, and conversation. During her travels, Keller spoke to many celebrities, artists, and scientists. As a way of greeting, she often touched their face or to read their lips. In turn, they waited patiently for translators and interpreters. With strong will and curiosity, Helen Keller defied unimaginable odds to overcome her disabilities. Of course, her family had the means to seek and provide these resources. They found teachers and sought help from celebrated scientists, educators, and politicians. The combination of her own personal endowments with that of her family’s wealth and sacrifice create an incredible story well worth the short time it takes to read.

Today, however, I want to focus on Keller herself and the way that a person becomes textualized. Having proclaimed my appreciation for The Story of My Life, I do also see her narrative as a reflective, nostalgic view of life. As with all texts, I enjoy the ability to discover both hidden truths and falsehoods. Perhaps she has romanticized elements of her story. Perhaps her story is no more noteworthy than so many others sitting on today’s bookshelves. Over the years, however, some of Keller’s works have been banned, which begs the question: what makes her story unique and worthwhile? Why should we continue to read her words?All things considered, I tend to agree with History.com which claims: “Widely honored throughout the world and invited to the White House by every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson, Keller altered the world’s perception of the capacities of the handicapped. More than any act in her long life, her courage, intelligence, and dedication combined to make her a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”

The Story of My Life was written during Keller’s college years. The fact that she later became a voice of socialist movements has been well-documented. Though socialist agendas do not show up in this early memoir, she does give a hint of frustration with the world in Chapter XXII. She writes, “It seems to me that there is in each of us a capacity to comprehend the impressions and emotions which have been experienced by mankind from the beginning. Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this gift from past generations. This inherited capacity is a sort of sixth sense - a soul-sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one.” Clearly she connects with the cosmos, with nature, and with other people who remain ghosts to everything but her hands. She continues, “The sun and the air are God's free gifts to all, we say; but are they so? In yonder city's dingy alleys the sun shines not, and the air is foul. Oh, man, how dost thou forget and obstruct thy brother man, and say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ when he has none! Oh, would that men would leave the city, its splendour and its tumult and its gold, and return to wood and field and simple, honest living! Then would their children grow stately as noble trees, and their thoughts sweet and pure as wayside flowers. It is impossible not to think of all this when I return to the country after a year of work in town.” This voice echoes Walt Whitman. It has been reinforced by her particular brand of religion. It also echoes socialist ideas which she embraces later in life.

Even so, her letters, essays, and books help give depth and understanding to the era of both World Wars. During this time, she corresponded with many famous and influential people, which itself alone merits reading. What is it, though, that makes any story worthwhile? I have to believe that Keller, like so many others, writes in order to understand what life is, to speak her story, and to preserve her memory. I wonder if the desire to leave something lasting pressed upon her because she lived in a tangible, but invisible world? In The Story of My Life, she describes the joys and frustrations of communication without hearing or vision. What must it be like to take everything on faith, to depend upon others for everything? She must, of course, resort to the written word as a natural path of communication.

As I think about this story again, despite its faults, I find no reason to remove the reading. Others disagree, however, and even this year the state of Texas has proposed removing Helen Keller from their curriculum. (She has been overshadowed in the media, though, due to the possibility of Clinton’s removal). I wish that I had been included in those conversations because having read Keller’s works, the removal of them makes me wonder: Why do we read if not to discover a world of ideas, some of which may challenge our own? If we seek to remove Helen Keller’s works, then have we not artificially textualized them? It seems to me that any singular or explicit definition of her work has replaced Keller with text. In other words, in removing context, we have also removed the person.

This is something that I am still coming to terms with myself. In reading through the Great Books it is easy to forget that Dante or Hume or Homer was a person. Plutarch carefully reminds the reader again and again that Rome was ruled by people, not giants. Certainly, history offers any number of problematic authors, but we are skillful readers. We ourselves are curious and intelligent, interested in the world, and to me, that means that we are capable of pursuing problematic texts for ourselves. And if we seek to encourage critical thinking skills in others, then we must provide opportunities. This post is not intended to be a defense of Helen Keller, but rather a defense of the idea of exploration. There are few women in history who have provided us with so many writings, not just her own memoirs, but letters to (and from) many influential people of note. I think it serves us better as educators and students to flesh out this person of interest rather than discard her as a firebrand of little worth.

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Holiday Menus

November 23, 2018

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

“Cookery is the most ancient of the arts, for Adam was born hungry.” - Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

I love cooking and so, naturally, I love old cookbooks. The holidays present a perfect time to rummage through my cookbooks. I learn so much about culture just from these pages. I also enjoy the pamphlets and chapbooks that small entities publish, such as church groups and non-profit organizations. Though some recipes are redundant, each publication adds a little flavor to the shelf. Today, I just wanted to share holiday tips from a variety of magazines and cookbooks over the last 100 years. As the years change, so does the style of food and the description of ingredients. It is fun to see recipes change from “a peck of potatoes” to “a pound of potatoes” and also to note changes introduced by accessibility to freezers, microwaves and other devices. If you have a favorite tradition or table setting, please, share it below!

Though it has no special section dedicated to Thanksgiving, the 1930 Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook explains, “At the formal dinner, butter is not served. None of the food is on the table when guests come into the dining-room. The napkin is on the service plate. Suppose the menu consists of a fruit cocktail, a soup, an entree, a main course, a salad, a dessert, and after-dinner coffee.”

From January 1951 article in EveryWoman Magazine. Article by Mary Grovesnor Ellsworth. Photo credit: Alissa Simon.

From January 1951 article in EveryWoman Magazine. Article by Mary Grovesnor Ellsworth. Photo credit: Alissa Simon.

Tucked inside a corner of this same cookbook, my grandmother saved an article by Mary Grovesnor Ellsworth titled “Blue Print for a Winter Party” from the January 1951 edition of EveryWoman Magazine. It recommends Jambalaya as the best holiday feast because it is a dish that “is much, much easier than pie – and that nobody will have had yesterday.” The page includes a map of footprints to guide your guests from serving table to dining tables and strictly advises that the traffic between kitchen and serving tables should never cross. She prepares everything the day before and suggests that men make the salad. Ellsworth writes, “The easiest and showiest way of coping with the salad is to dress it in the bowl. Men love to do this! It looks complicated and professional, is very easy to do, and actually produces a dressing that for some reason tastes different from the same ingredients combined before they hit the greens.”

A small book called the Foodorama Party Book, published by Kelvinator (at that time a division of American Motor Corps out of Detroit), 1959, contains recipes centered around frozen foods (which makes sense for Kelvinator, one of the first big names in freezers). For example, their Thanksgiving includes “Broccoli California” which is frozen broccoli cooked according to directions and topped with olive oil, garlic, almonds, and olives. To prepare for the feast, they write:

“The Thanksgiving table is set with your prettiest cloth and appointments. The ever-perfect centerpiece is that traditional symbol of a plentiful harvest: red cabbage, acorn and yellow squash, white and yellow onions, pumpkin, eggplant, green peppers, apples, grapes and oranges – all arranged on a tray lined with autumn leaves. … Simple family games for after dinner include Nut Throw (take turns pitching unshelled nuts into a bowl set a few feet away), Thanksgiving Day (make words from the letters in Thanksgiving Day), Nut Relay (push a nut along the floor over the finish line – but push only with your nose!).”

The Thanksgiving Feast suggested by Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook (from 1961) is as follows: Roast Turkey, Bread Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Mashed Potatoes, Giblet Gravy, Creamed Onions, Mashed Squash, Carrot and Celery Curls, Ripe and Green Olives, Assorted Hot Rolls, Old-fashioned Mince Pie, and Autumn Pumpkin Pie. They also included a picture of their advised table setting (below).

Thanksgiving table setting according to  Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook , 1961. Photo credit: Alissa Simon.

Thanksgiving table setting according to Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook, 1961. Photo credit: Alissa Simon.

And finally, jumping up to 2007, in The Art of Simple Food, Alice Waters displays her love of entertaining with the following advice:

“Here are a few practices I employ to help me plan a menu, think it through, and cook it. These are critical for large gatherings and complex events, but they are useful for simple dinners, too. Once you have decided on the menu, make a game plan. First write out the menu and draft a shopping list. If, when you make the shopping list, you discover that the shopping, not to mention the cooking, is too complicated, go back and revise the menu – or see if anyone can help. … I also like to have a little something ready to nibble on when the guests arrive. This can be as simple as a bowl of warm olives or roasted nuts. I often make croutons topped with a tasty tidbit. Another of my favorite little somethings is a plate or bowl of freshly cut seasoned vegetables (carrots, fennel, radishes, celery, sweet peppers) served with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon.”

Whatever your holiday tradition or feast, enjoy! We wish you all the best.

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