Friday, November 29, 2013

A close shave?

Newton said: "Nature spurns the pomp of the superfluous."

It is a concise summation of Ockham's razor, and if anyone wielded the razor to good effect it was Newton. In one broad swipe he united planets, comets, tides, cannon shots, and apples falling from trees. A few sweet, spare equations. No feathers, no frills. No pomp and circumstance.

I can't remember the name of the professor who taught my graduate course in classical mechanics. But I remember the course vividly. Like a textbook on the blackboard. 1.0, 1.01, 1.02, 2.0, 2.01, 2.02, 2.03, 2.031… Exquisitely organized. Not a superfluous mark of chalk. As spare and essentially furnished as a monk's cell.

As I started teaching, I emulated my professor. I wanted my students to appreciate the way nature could accomplish her manifest ends with a minimum of tools. And so my courses unfolded with an admirable economy, and the students transcribed the notes from the blackboard with the same unblinking fidelity with which I had done so in graduate school. I spurned the superfluous.

They were beautiful courses, if I don't say so myself.

But meanwhile I was changing. I was beginning to doubt Newton's dictum. Nature seemed to love the pomp of the superfluous. Everywhere I looked there was excess, baroque frills -- feathers, finery, variety. Out of sparseness, nature contrives inexhaustible pomp. Where sparrows would do, she adds herons, and nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers, and a rainforest full of species I have never heard of. Her innovations are prodigious.

And slowly my understanding of myself as a teacher began to change. More in line with Booker T. Washington: "Without pay or little thought of it, I taught anyone who wanted to learn anything I could teach him." Classical mechanics, yes. But nuthatches too. Stars and sand. Dark matter and zodiacal light. Spider silk and silken words. Always trying to stay a few steps ahead of my students, saying: "Look, look, look."

Should I have spurned the superfluous? Or was I right to embrace the pomp? My life was richer because of the latter, but my appreciation of nature's fecundity was stiffened by beginning with the former. How my students' lives were affected is for them to say.