Diffractions: Science, Emotions, and Culture, (Part 3)

By Vandana Singh

Read part 1 here.

Read part 2 here.

Richard Feynman, in his Lectures on Physics, commenting on the poetic notion that the universe is in a glass of wine, exclaims thus:

How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts—physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology and so on—remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

So Feynman is saying two important things: divisions such as physics, biology, etc., are convenient, not fundamental. And further, the scientist is not only observer but participant—that after you are done contemplating the wine, much may be lost if you don't drink it! So much for the clinically detached observer! I admire the way Feynman erases two taken-for-granted boundaries in one fell swoop. I don't know to what extent he meant this statement to be taken seriously—perhaps he was being facetious. Feynman was a sort of Loki of the physics world, who would likely not have had much patience for philosophical discourses about science, so it gives me a certain mischievous pleasure to begin the last of my three columns on science, culture, and emotions with this particular quote.

My journey of exploration began two columns ago with a series of personal observations about the apparent distance between science and the emotions, and it led me to raise the following questions: what is the place of emotion (if any) in science? How does gender play a role? What effect does the culture of scientific enterprise have on the practice of science, on scientists, and the content of science?

What I discovered—with the help of books, articles, and interviews with people of apparently infinite patience—was fascinating. Scientific enterprise, at least in the West, does have a distinctly "masculine" culture ("masculine" as constructed in the West) and its origins explain this. Scientists are the subject of vigorous study by intrepid social scientists. The culture of science has inevitable consequences, such as gender disparity, and this perhaps explains in part why interest in the sciences is declining amidst students in the U.S. at least. But does this culture of science affect the content of the field? Can we imagine other ways of doing science that would not only make the field more hospitable to women, people of color, and other marginalized aliens, but would also change science as we know it? Would a change in the culture of science open us to new vistas, new paradigms, erase old blind spots, making obvious things we simply did not notice about our universe?

Historically there is evidence that newcomers with different perspectives can revitalize a field and shock it out of complacency. A paper by Wylie and Nelson in Value Free Science? (Kincaid, Dupré, & Wylie, eds.) gives two examples, one from archaeology and the other from developmental biology. In the 1970s and 1980s there was an influx of women in the field of archaeology. Their research ultimately drew attention to female-related activities in early cultures that had been earlier ignored or subjected to unexamined assumptions. Among other things the shift in understanding challenged conventional assumptions about prehistoric divisions of labour—"in many settings the bulk of the dietary intake came from small game and plant material provided by the 'gathering' activities of women" rather than from hunting by men—thus completing and complicating our knowledge of early societies. In a similar manner, feminist biologists opened up a new and radically expanded understanding of human embryonic sexual differentiation, an area that had been quite misunderstood before they came on the scene. The feminist and science studies scholar (and friend of science fiction) Donna Haraway has commented extensively on analogous gender-bias issues in primatology in her various essays.

Currently I am reading a biography of the biologist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock by the feminist and scientist Evelyn Fox Keller, who has also written extensively on gender and science. McClintock made some astonishing discoveries in cytogenetics. While she focused intensely on the details of the chromosomes of a cell, it was with the intent of understanding the organism as a whole, what she called developing a "feeling for the organism." Her intuition about genetics was astounding. When a fellow scientist asked her how she saw so much when she looked at a cell under a microscope, she said she liked to walk around in there. In the book she tells her biographer that she develops a "real affection" for the pieces that "go together," which become "part of you. And you forget yourself." To what extent one can generalize from McClintock's experience I don't know—she had an unusual upbringing and she shunned conventional gender roles, aspiring to be free of gender. But the training of the intuition and the moment of discovery when the ego disappears is common to seers of all kinds, men and women, in fields as disparate as art and science. Biologist Ursula Goodenough, in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, seeks in her own way to bridge the gap between the scientist and the object of scrutiny. Addressing the science-religion divide, which is, of course, related to the divide between science and emotion, she asks: "What is being religious, anyhow? What about the way I feel when I think about how cells work or creatures evolve? Doesn't that feel the same as when I'm listening to the St. Matthew Passion or standing in the nave of the Notre Dame cathedral?" Arguing for a need for a planetary ethic, she presents several journeys into biological phenomena with the intention of eliciting a non-denominational, personal religious/spiritual response, what she calls religious naturalism.

It is clear from the examples in archaeology and biology that the culture of science and the attitudes of the experimenter might affect its content. But what about physics? In the ideal world where science culture would be a lot more inclusive, would the content of a discipline like physics, so far removed from the direct study of gender or race, differ in any way from what it is now? A more inclusive culture would, I imagine, allow for greater diversity in terms of gender, race, and philosophies, resulting perhaps in greater creativity and productivity. Physicists working together in such a mix might even speculate on such questions as consciousness without embarrassment. But consider this:

Electrons have a mass of 9.11 x 10-31 kg. The acceleration due to gravity on earth has an average value of 9.8 m/s2.

Where is the room for emotion here? Where is the reference to gender or race? Perhaps the content of physics is immune from the troubles of other sciences where gender and race might directly affect content, such as archaeology or biology.

How or whether physics would differ in terms of content in a world where the culture of physics is inclusive and unrepressed is an interesting question. It is far more interesting than assuming that "of course" there would be no difference. Science fiction writers have imagined alternate scientific cultures. What I'd like to do is to see whether one can go a step further: imagine an alternative science, or sciences.

I want to begin with something that the eminent Indian physicist George Sudarshan said to me when I interviewed him in 2004. Sudarshan's attitude toward science diverges drastically from the Western tradition. For him, doing physics is not about pushing the boundaries, discovering something new. (This is astonishing if you think about what most people think scientists do, or should do.) Sudarshan said: "My aim is not to advance science. To be a scientist means to be doing science. Would you ask a musician how, while playing music, he advances the cause of music?" This attitude is, of course, part of the idea that truth appears only when the ego, or self, disappears—that the truth is important in its own right, and not simply for what use it might be to someone. Thus to such a physicist, "doing science" might mean walking through a snowstorm, watching the flakes fall and contemplating the interplay of gravity and air resistance, or marveling at the nature of the bonds between water molecules that result in the bewildering variety of shapes of snowflakes. "Doing science" might mean pondering on something merely because it is interesting, being with and befriending a phenomenon without any desire to wrest its secrets from it. With Sudarshan, anyway, this attitude has, ironically, resulted in some great insights and discoveries—he has made contributions to quantum optics and particle physics that many deem worthy of a Nobel. It would be interesting to imagine a culture of science, of physics in particular, dominated by this way of thinking, where scientists are more than cogs, and science more than a knowledge-machine in the service of industrial capitalism.

Some years ago a few colleagues in the social sciences and I worked through a philosophical tome entitled Meeting the Universe Halfway by Karen Barad. It was utterly fascinating—and to this non-social scientist, somewhat frustrating since it is clearly not written for the lay person. Yet the ideas it contains seem to hint at a completely different way of looking at the universe, and speak to a question that has always bothered me, which I have raised before in this series: How can a scientist pretend to objectivity while studying the world, given that he/she is also a part of the world? How essential is the distance we put between the scientist and his/her subject of study? Barad's work deserves deeper scrutiny than I can give it here, but I will try to condense the essence of it as best as I can, given my current limited understanding of her ideas.

Barad is a physicist, a feminist, and a scholar who has studied the works of physicist Niels Bohr. She introduces some fascinating neologisms in her work, among which is the term "intra-action" instead of "interaction," thus rejecting the implication that the things "interacting" are separate, or ever existed as separate things. The word "intra-action" recognizes that we are all part of a dynamic whole, and that separate identities, "physical" or "social," only ever come about in specific instances. The word gives a flavour of Barad's ideas, which emerge from and extend Bohr's musings on quantum physics. (These musings went a lot further than I ever learned when my professors mentioned, almost in passing, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics). Bohr speculated deeply on the notion that one cannot measure the position and momentum of a particle with arbitrary precision (Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle). He noted that the apparatus through which one measures position is not only different from the apparatus needed for the measurement of momentum, but that the term momentum has no meaning within the context of this other apparatus. This leads to the revolutionary idea that concepts such as mass, momentum, position, etc. do not have an independent or a priori reality but exist only when we make a particular choice of apparatus. Here apparatuses have a special meaning, as Bohr says (quoted by Barad in her book), they are "macroscopic material arrangements through which particular concepts are given definition, to the exclusion of others, and through which particular phenomena with particular determinate physical properties are produced." An apparatus, in this sense, can include the experimenter as well as the pieces of equipment in a laboratory, although, as Barad elaborates, it is more than an assemblage—it is material-discursive in that it generates particular meanings and entities while excluding others. Thus a particular apparatus constitutes a temporary and contextual division of the world, a kind of "cut" that enacts boundaries and specifies meaning. For Barad, objects, individuals, or mental constructs are not primary; what are primary are phenomena, which result through specific kinds of intra-action. "Our knowledge making practices," Barad says, "are social-material enactments that contribute to, and are a part of, the phenomena we describe." Thus, "intra-action," the idea that things, concepts, etc. do not pre-exist prior to their relating in a specific way. Barad's extensions of Bohr's ideas brilliantly avoid the pitfall of relativism and science as a purely social construct (as in the ideas of certain social scientists derided in Alan Sokal's Fashionable Nonsense) and, in addition, have enormous implications for how we look at the world, including notions of identity. In her philosophy of agential realism, objectivity survives as the objectivity of a particular phenomenon coming together in a particular way. But this is local determinacy, which does not exclude other possibilities for knowledge. Thus the way we do science now constitutes a particular kind of cut, and does not preclude others.

Incidentally, I owe the title of my column, Diffractions, to my reading of Barad's book. One of the things I learned from the book was the contrast between the word "reflection," which is what we say we do when we think about something, and which is associated with a rather passive optical phenomenon metaphorically suggestive of isolation (a mirror reflects the person looking into it, and there is nothing else going on), and the word "diffraction," which refers to a class of optical phenomena, including wave interference, that have to do with waves interacting with each other—or rather, intra-acting among each other, a far more dynamic and interesting process.

As I struggle to understand Barad's work, I feel very strongly that it describes an enormous freedom, a way out of the cage of tired old paradigms and unquestioned assumptions that mark all aspects of our lives. Within this freedom, surely, is the key to new ways of doing and looking at science, including physics.

About five hundred years ago the rationalist and philosopher Descartes summarized his thoughts on the Newtonian revolution in physics in his work. Prominent among these was his notion of dualism—for example, the separation between the realm of physical objects and interactions (governed by Newtonian physics) and the realm of human emotion and spirituality. Descartes' analytical knife thus divides the Western understanding of the universe into two parts, and is still problematically part of the air we breathe, the system of paradigms that restrain us to particular ways of thinking and acting. In fact, the Newtonian clockwork universe, which embodies a lonely atomism or separateness (a natural consequence of a reductionist worldview), is surely problematic given the indisputable fact that the universe is not Newtonian.

Where Newtonian physics fails, as it does in the realm of the very small, reductionism also fails. Quantum physics forces us to view the world very differently, abandoning old notions of order and predictability—and so does the newer science of complex systems. The latter deals a direct blow to reductionism because it deals with systems that can't be reduced to the sum of their parts—like solar systems, global climate, and maybe even human societies. The clockwork universe of Newton and the attendant paradigm of reductionism led to Western democracy, industrial capitalism, environmental degradation, and the lives we live today. If we were to construct paradigms from the new physics, from non-Western and non-gendered cultures, imagined or real, what would they give us? If we employed the freedoms hinted it in the Baradian view, would we see the universe in a multitude of wondrous ways, as in a kaleidoscope? How would we then practice science? How would we then live?

Physicist Bruce Rosenblum pointed me to a quote attributed to John Bell, the quantum physicist, who, in the context of quantum mechanics, said that "the new way of seeing will involve an imaginative leap that will amaze us." I eagerly anticipate being amazed.

Sources cited

Kincaid, H., Dupré, J., & Wylie, A. (Eds.). (2007). Value-free science? Ideals and illusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Vandana Singh would like to thank the scholars she contacted for this article who generously shared their thoughts. She takes all responsibility for any errors or inadvertent misrepresentations of their positions. She would also like to thank her colleague, anthropologist BenAlberti, for enlightening her on several points. Her recent short fiction includes work in Clockwork Phoenix and Year's Best SF 14, as well as a novella, Distances (Aqueduct Press), which was included on the 2009 Tiptree Award Honor List and won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award for 2008. Her first short story collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, was published in India by Zubaan/Penguin in Fall 2008. Upcoming work includes short fiction in a Bestiary anthology edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Her latest publication is a short story, "Indra's Web," out in TR:SF, an anthology of new science fiction published by MIT's Technology Review, in October 2011. For more about her and her work, see her website.

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