18.658 solitude and industry

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 23 Mar 2005 07:32:56 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 658.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 23 Mar 2005 07:28:41 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: solitude and industry

In her biography of John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (Faber and Faber, 1998),
Sylvia Nasar describes the early experiences of Solomon Lefschetz, the
fellow who created Princeton as the post-Goettingen centre for mathematics
and who brought Nash there. Lefschetz "spent nearly a decade in obscure
teaching posts in Nebraska and Kansas. After days of backbreaking teaching,
he wrote a series of brilliant, original, and highly influential papers
that eventually resulted in a 'call' from Princeton. 'My years in the West
with total hermetic isolation played in my development the role of "a job
in a lighthouse" which Einstein would have every young scientist assume so
that he may develop his own ideas in his own way." (p. 59) Once at
Princeton Lefschetz became the highly social and socializing centre of a
society of mathematicians, including staff, graduate students and the odd
undergraduate, that met every day for tea. But he knew his own mind by then.

A long time ago I worked at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, a big
science establishment where large teams of physicists, nuclear chemists,
engineers and so forth worked with masses of data, programmers and other
support staff. I worked for a time for Willy Chinowsky, who like many
physicists felt, at least some of the time, trapped in a structure that
would not allow them that "job in a lighthouse" which Einstein recommended.
By that time the way of doing nuclear physics required such a structure, to
support the industrial-scale processing, with industrial-scale equipment,
of large numbers of photographs of interactions in order to find "golden
events" that would show this or that about the problem under investigation.
But, Chinowsky felt, something very important had been lost in the process.
By that time, partially also as a consequence of what the Manhattan Project
produced, the demand from physics students at Berkeley to work "on the
Hill" had started to go into steep decline. Members of LRL staff had to go
down the Hill, to potential students, to persuade them that working there
was what they wanted to do.

Recently I attended a course for PhD supervisors held locally. All the
attendees except for me were medics and biomedical researchers. Perhaps the
most useful thing I learned was how differently such people design, think
of and conduct PhD training. Their model (if my experience is indicative)
is highly regemented, quite industrial, very cut-and-dried. The experience
reminded me strongly of complaints a senior doctor friend of mine used to
voice about medical training, though he was speaking about the N American
MD degree, and of comments my personal physician in Toronto used to make
whenever I visited him: about the soullessness of his practice, of his need
for more than technique to see him and his mortally ill patients through,
to some sort of understanding and peace. Doctors in many places continue to
earn handsome salaries, so medical schools are still crammed full, but
there's still a problem to think about.

The question I keep circling back to is, what do we desire for the field we
are building? John Unsworth reminded me yesterday that it's not only a
question of desire: there are tools, and they help us to open doors on new
landscapes of possibilities. Yet these tools are human inventions, and so
expressions of desire -- instruments to which we give some sort of
semi-independent life. So, how we think about what we do, what we think
it's for, is formative. Where we begin, and begin again and again, is, I
would suppose, with the humanities rather than with the tools -- when (or
is it if) that distinction can be made. The question is, what do we regard
as primary? What do we privilege when (minute by minute) a choice must be made?



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Received on Wed Mar 23 2005 - 02:43:35 EST

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