Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Little lesson -- part 3

One could introduce here any number of Wallace Stevens poems that explore the ground between imagination and reality -- invention and discovery -- but let me offer just one more late poem, titled "The Planet On The Table":
Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.
This could be the credo of the scientist: that our theories of the world share some congruence, however imperfectly perceived, of the world of which they are a part.

The entire apparatus of science -- reproducible experimentation, mathematical description, the exclusion of cultural references from scientific communication, peer review, and so on -- has evolved to ensure that the makings of ourselves are no less makings of the world, a world that is assumed to exist in the absence of human perception.

Doctor Johnson presumed to refute Bishop Berkeley, who argued that "reality" exists only in the mind, by kicking a stone. The best scientific refutation of a Berkeleyian idealism is the fact that science works, astonishingly well. Consider, for example, the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift; interferometry using the radiation of quasars billions of light-years away received at widely separated radio telescopes on Earth confirms a drift over time (inches per year) that the theory had previously supposed. One could multiply such examples ad infinatum.

Indeed, the whole of modern technology and medicine stiffens our confidence that science is successful at discovering some aspects of the real. The planet on the table, if you will. Anyone who thinks the germ theory of disease is an invention, for example, and not a discovery, can forego the use of antibiotics. I think not.

This is, of course, an endlessly interesting question, which is why I've taken the unusual tack of using the poems of Wallace Stevens to address it. We are all in it together, scientists and poets. It is not important that a scientific theory is fixed and immutable; what is important is that our theories embody "Some lineament or character,/ Some affluence, if only half-perceived,/ In the poverty of their words,/ Of the planet of which they were part."

(I'll be away tomorrow. Back Friday.)