Tag Archives: Science

Grothendieck, a genius

I’ve written about Grothendieck here before, through two books about this mathematical genius published shortly after his death: Alexandre Grothendieck, 1928 – 2014. Summer is an opportunity for listening to radio broadcasts and I had the pleasure to rediscover this extraordinary character, first of all through Alexandre Grothendieck : un mathématicien qui prit la tangente initially broadcasted in La conversation scientifique in 2016 on French radio, France Culture,

and then by listening (while writing this post) to Alexandre Grothendieck ou le silence du génie first broadcasted in 2015 in Une vie, une œuvre, on the same radio.

From one thing to another, I downloaded Récoltes et semailles, a 929-page document written between 1983 and 1986 by the mathematician. You can download the pdf in French. Just as Perelman, Gödel or Erdős, for us, simple mortals, we can believe that genius rubs shoulders with madness and the journey, the life of these creators will undoubtedly remain mysteries forever.

I read a few dozen pages of this book and Chapter 2.20 fascinated me. I suggest you read it. I find this extract quite admirable and translated it with my limited means…

2.20 A shot look at the neighbors across the street

The situation seems to me very close to the one which arose at the beginning of this century, with the emergence of Einstein’s theory of relativity. There was a conceptual dead end, even more blatant, materializing in a sudden contradiction, which seemed irresolvable. Of course, the new idea that would bring order to the chaos was one of childish simplicity. The remarkable thing (and conforms to a most repetitive scenario…) is that among all these brilliant, eminent, prestigious people who were suddenly on their teeth, trying to “save what there was to be saved”, no one thought about this idea. It had to be an unknown young man, fresh from the benches of student lecture halls (maybe), who came (a little embarrassed perhaps at his own audacity…) to explain to his illustrious elders what had to be done to “save the phenomena”: one just had to separate space from time [68]! Technically, everything was gathered then for this idea to hatch and be welcomed. And it is to the honor of Einstein’s elders that they were indeed able to welcome the new idea, without resisting too much. This is a sign that these were still a great time…
From a mathematical point of view, Einstein’s new idea was trivial. From the point of view of our conception of physical space, however, it was a profound change, and a sudden “change of scenery”. The first mutation of its kind, since the mathematical model of physical space released by Euclid 2400 years ago, and taken up as is for the needs of mechanics by all physicists and astronomers since antiquity (including Newton), to describe terrestrial and stellar mechanical phenomena.
This initial idea of Einstein was subsequently much developed, embodied in a more subtle, richer and more flexible mathematical model, using the rich arsenal of already existing mathematical notions [69]. With the “generalized theory of relativity”, this idea broadened into a vast vision of the physical world, embracing in one look the subatomic world of the infinitely small, the solar system, the Milky Way and distant galaxies, and the path of electromagnetic waves in a space-time curved at each point by the matter which is there [70]. This is the second and last time in the history of cosmology and physics (following Newton’s first great synthesis three centuries ago) that a broad unifying vision has emerged, in the language of a mathematical model, of all the physical phenomena in the Universe.
This Einsteinian vision of the physical universe was in turn overwhelmed by events. The “set of physical phenomena” which it is a question of reporting has had time to expand since the beginning of the century! There have emerged a multitude of physical theories, each to account, with varying degrees of success, for a limited set of facts, in the immense mess of all “observed facts”. And we are still waiting for the daring kid, who will find by playing the new key (if there is one…), The dreamed “cake model”, who wants to “work” to save all phenomena at once… [71]
The comparison between my contribution to the mathematics of my time, and that of Einstein to physics, was imposed on me for two reasons: both work was accomplished through a mutation of our conception of “space” (in the mathematical sense in one case, in the physical sense in the other); and both take the form of a unifying vision, embracing a vast multitude of phenomena and situations which heretofore appeared to be separate from one another. I see there an obvious kinship between his work [72] and mine.
This relationship does not seem to me to be contradicted by an obvious difference in “substance”. As I hinted earlier, the Einsteinian mutation concerns the notion of physical space, while Einstein draws from the arsenal of already known mathematical notions, without ever needing to expand it, or even upset it. His contribution consisted in identifying, among the mathematical structures known of his time, those which were best suited to [73] serve as “models” for the world of physical phenomena, instead of the dying model bequeathed by his predecessors. In this sense, his work was indeed that of a physicist, and beyond that, that of a “philosophy of nature”, in the sense in which Newton and his contemporaries understood it. This “philosophical” dimension is absent from my mathematical work, where I have never been led to ask myself questions about the possible relations between the “ideal” conceptual constructions, taking place in the Universe of mathematical things, and phenomena that take place in the physical Universe (or even, lived events taking place in the psyche). My work has been that of a mathematician, deliberately turning away from the question of “applications” (to other sciences), or “motivations” and psychic roots of my work. Of a mathematician, moreover, driven by his very particular genius to constantly expand the arsenal of notions at the very basis of his art. This is how I was led, without even noticing it and as if playing, to upset the most fundamental notion of all for the surveyor: that of space (and that of “variety”), that is our conception of the very “place” where geometric beings live.
The new notion of space (like a kind of “generalized space”, but where the points which are supposed to form the “space” have more or less disappeared) does not resemble in any way, in its substance, the notion brought by Einstein in physics (not at all confusing for the mathematician). The comparison is necessary on the other hand with quantum mechanics discovered by Schrödinger [74]. In this new mechanism, the traditional “material point” disappears, to be replaced by a kind of “probabilistic cloud”, more or less dense from one region of ambient space to another, depending on the “probability” that the point is in this region. We feel, in this new perspective, a “mutation” even more profound in our ways of conceiving mechanical phenomena, than in that embodied by Einstein’s model – a mutation which does not consist in simply replacing a somewhat mathematical model, narrow at the armatures, by another similar one but cut wider or better adjusted. This time, the new model resembles so little the good old traditional models, that even the mathematician who is a great specialist in mechanics must have felt suddenly disoriented, even lost (or outraged…). Going from Newton’s mechanics to Einstein’s must be, for the mathematician, a bit like going from the good old Provencal dialect to the latest Parisian slang. On the other hand, to switch to quantum mechanics, I imagine, is to switch from French to Chinese. And these “probabilistic clouds”, replacing the reassuring material particles of yesteryear, strangely remind me of the elusive “open neighborhoods” that populate the topos, like evanescent ghosts, to surround imaginary “points”, which still continue to cling to and against all a recalcitrant imagination…

Notes :

[68] This is a bit short, of course, as a description of Einstein’s idea. At the technical level, it was necessary to highlight what structure to put on the new space-time (it was already “in the air”, with Maxwell’s theory and Lorenz’s ideas). The essential step here was not of a technical nature, but rather “philosophical”: to realize that the notion of simultaneity for distant events had no experimental reality. This is the “childish observation”, the “but the Emperor is naked!”, which made cross this famous “imperious and invisible circle which limits a Universe”…

[69] These are mainly the notion of “Riemannian manifold”, and the tensor calculus on such a manifold.

[70] One of the most striking features which distinguishes this model from the Euclidean (or Newtonian) model of space and time, and also from Einstein’s very first model (“special relativity”), is that the global topological form of space-time remains indeterminate, instead of being prescribed imperatively by the very nature of the model. The question of what this global form is strikes me (as a mathematician) as one of the most fascinating in cosmology.

[71] One called “unitary theory” such a hypothetical theory, which would manage to “unify” and to reconcile the multitude of partial theories of which it was question. I have the feeling that the fundamental thinking that awaits to be undertaken, will have to be placed on two different levels.
1_) A reflection of a “philosophical” nature, on the very notion of a “mathematical model” for a portion of reality. Since the successes of Newtonian theory, it has become an unspoken axiom of the physicist that there exists a mathematical model (or even a single model, or “the” model) to express physical reality perfectly, without “detachment” no burr. This consensus, which has been law for more than two centuries, is like a sort of fossil vestige of a living Pythagorean vision that “Everything is number”. Perhaps this is the new “invisible circle”, which replaced the old metaphysical circles to limit the Universe of the physicist (while the race of the “philosophers of nature” seems definitively extinct, supplanted handily by that of computers…). As long as one likes to dwell on it for a moment, it is quite clear, however, that the validity [of] this consensus is by no means obvious. There are even very serious philosophical reasons which lead to questioning it a priori, or at least to providing very strict limits to its validity. It would be the moment or never to submit this axiom to a tight criticism, and perhaps even, to “demonstrate”, beyond any possible doubt, that it is not founded: that there does not exist a unique rigorous mathematical model, accounting for all the so-called “physical” phenomena listed so far.
Once the very notion of “mathematical model” has been satisfactorily identified, and that of the “validity” of such a model (within the limits of such “margins of error” admitted in the measurements made), the question of a “unitary theory” or at least that of an “optimum model” (in a sense to be specified) will finally be clearly stated. At the same time, one will probably also have a clearer idea of the degree of arbitrariness which is attached (by necessity, perhaps) to the choice of such a model.
2_) It is only after such reflection, it seems to me, that the “technical” question of identifying an explicit model, more satisfactory than its predecessors, takes on its full meaning. It would then be the moment, perhaps, to break free from a second tacit axiom of the physicist, going back to antiquity, and deeply rooted in our very way of perceiving space: it is that of continuous nature of space and time (or space-time), of the “place” therefore where “physical phenomena” take place.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, leafing through the modest volume constituting Riemann’s complete work, I was struck by a remark from him “by the way”. He observes that it could well be that the ultimate structure of space is “discrete”, and that the “continuous” representations which we make of it perhaps constitute a simplification (excessive perhaps, in the long run…) of a more complex reality; that for the human mind, “the continuous” was easier to grasp than “the discontinuous”, and that it serves us, therefore, as an “approximation” for understanding the discontinuous. This is a remark surprisingly penetrating into the mouth of a mathematician, at a time when the Euclidean model of physical space had never before been questioned; in the strictly logical sense, it is rather the discontinuous which, traditionally, has served as a technical method of approach to the continuous.
Developments in mathematics in recent decades have, moreover, shown a much more intimate symbiosis between continuous and discontinuous structures than was previously imagined in the first half of this century. Still, to find a “satisfactory” model (or, if necessary, a set of such models, “connecting” as satisfactorily as possible..), that this one be “continuous”, “discrete” “or of a” mixed “nature – such work will undoubtedly involve a great conceptual imagination, and a consummate flair for apprehending and updating mathematical structures of a new type. This kind of imagination or “flair” seems rare to me, not only among physicists (where Einstein and Schrödinger seem to have been among the rare exceptions), but even among mathematicians (and here I speak with full knowledge of the facts).
To sum up, I predict that the expected renewal (if it has yet to come…) will come more from a mathematician at heart, knowledgeable about the great problems of physics, than from a physicist. But above all, it will take a man with “philosophical openness” to grasp the crux of the matter. This is by no means technical in nature, but a fundamental problem of “philosophy of nature”.

[72] I make no claim to be familiar with Einstein’s work. In fact, I haven’t read any of his work, and only know his ideas through hearsay and very roughly. Yet I feel like I can make out “the forest”, even though I’ve never had to make the effort to scrutinize any of its trees. . .

[73] For comments on the qualifier “moribund”, see a previous footnote (note page 55).

[74] I think I understand (by echoes that have come back to me from various sides) that we generally consider that in this century there have been three “revolutions” or great upheavals in physics: Einstein’s theory, the discovery of radioactivity by the Curies, and the introduction of quantum mechanics by Schrödinger.

Applied Sciences? Does it exist?

I had to wait many years to discover there was a book written about science and innovation which convincingly shows there is not such thing as a linear model of innovation described usually as Basic research → Applied research → Development → (Production and) Diffusion

Thanks to Laurent for mentioning to me Pasteurs Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation by Donald Stokes. There is more on Wikipedia.

Pasteur himself apparently said: “There is not pure science and applied science but only science and the applications of science”. More precisely he seems to have said according to Wikipedia again:
« Souvenez-vous qu’il n’existe pas de sciences appliquées, mais seulement des applications de la science ».
(Remember that there are no applied sciences, but only applications of science)
and
« Non, mille fois non, il n’existe pas une catégorie de sciences auxquelles on puisse donner le nom de sciences appliquées. Il y a la science et les applications de la science, liées entre elles comme le fruit à l’arbre qui l’a porté »
(No, a thousand times no, there is not a category of sciences to which we can give the name of applied sciences. There is science and the applications of science, linked together like the fruit to the tree that carried it.)

I have agreed with this for so many years and for the same reasons I never really understood the concept of R&D, I mean why the concepts of research and development would be associated in the same unit, but that is a slightly different topic!

Here is a long extract from Stokes (taken from a pdf found here) worth reading I think:

The examples from the history of science that contradict the static form of the postwar paradigm call into question the dynamic form as well. If applied goals can directly influence fundamental research, basic science can no longer be seen only as a remote, curiosity-powered generator of scientific discoveries that are then converted into new products and processes by applied research and development in the subsequent stages of technology transfer. This observation, however, only sets the stage for a more realistic account of the relationship between basic science and technological innovation.

Three questions of increasing importance arise about the dynamic form of the postwar paradigm. The least important is whether the neatly linear model gives too simple an account of the flows from science to technology. An irony of Bush’s legacy is that this one-dimensional graphic image is one he himself almost certainly never entertained. An engineer with unparalleled experience in the applications of science, he was keenly aware of the complex and multiple pathways that lead from scientific discoveries to technological advances-and of the widely varied lags associated with these paths. The technological breakthroughs he helped foster during the war typically depended on knowledge from several, disparate branches of science. Nothing in Bush’s report suggests that he endorsed the linear model as his own.

The spokesmen of the scientific community who lent themselves to this oversimplification in the early postwar years may have felt that this was a small price to pay for being able to communicate these ideas to a policy community and broader public for whom science was always a remote and recondite world of affairs. This calculation may well have guided the draftsmen of the second annual report of the National Science Foundation as they stated the linear model in the simplistic language quoted earlier in this chapter. In any case, these spokesmen did their work well enough that the idea of an arrow running from basic to applied research and on to development and production or operations is still often thought to summarize the relationship of basic science to new technology. But it so evidently oversimplifies and distorts the underlying realities that it began to draw fire almost as soon as it was widely accepted.

Indeed, the linear model has been such an easy target that it has tended to draw fire away from two other, less simplistic misconceptions imbedded in the dynamic form of the postwar model. One of these was the assumption that most or all technological innovation is ultimately rooted in science. If Bush did not subscribe to a linear image of the relationship between science and technology, he did assert that scientific discoveries are the source of technological progress, however multiple and unevenly paced the pathways between the two may be. In his words,

new products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.

Even if we allow for considerable time lags in the influence of “imbedded science” on technology, this view greatly overstates the role that science has played in technological change in any age. In every preceding century the idea that technology is science based would have been false. For most of human history, the practical arts have been perfected by “‘improvers’ of technology,” in Robert P. Multhauf’s phrase, who knew no science and would not have been much helped by it if they had.

[…]

But the deepest flaw in the dynamic form of the postwar paradigm is the premise that such flows as there may be between science and technology are uniformly one way, from scientific discovery to technological innovation; that is, that science is exogenous to technology, however multiple and indirect the connecting pathways may be. The annals of science suggest that this premise has always been false to the history of science and technology. There was indeed a notable reverse flow, from technology to science, from the time of Bacon to the second industrial revolution, with scientists modeling successful technology but doing little to improve it. Multhauf notes that the eighteenth-century physicists were “more often found endeavoring to explain the workings of some existing machine than suggesting improvements in it.”

Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology

Following a recent post about critics of technosciences and a much older one about the failed promises of science, here is a very short post about a (very good) book written in French and not (yet) translated in English: Homme augmenté, humanité diminuéeD’Alzheimer au transhumanisme, la science au service d’une idéologie hégémonique mercantile (Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology.)

The author begins with his personal story, how his mother suffered and died from this terrible Alzheimer’s disease. Then he began to inquire about it and his doubts began to grow. We do not have to agree with everything author Philippe Baqué says, but we cannot avoid having the same doubts about where and how science and innovation drive us all. I hope these three short extracts will create the same reaction I felt:

[Page 71] Jean Maisondieu, a psychiatrist and author of Crépuscule de la Raison, la maladie d’Alzheimer en question (Sunset of reason, Alzheimer’s disease in question), often claims that Alzheimer’s disease does not exist, but the Alzheimer’s patients do exist for sure.

[Page 74] I reached the conlusion that patients are demented mostly because they were dying of fear, at the idea of death. The brains of Alzheimer’s patients might be altered, but these patients are mostly sick of fear.

[Page 260] I feel the need to ask the question again: what is transhumanism? An economic and political lobby? A technoreligion? A new eugenic ideology? The biggest science fraud of the 21st century?

Worth thinking about it… Is aging a disease? Is death a disease?

Gandhi and Technology, according to Bertrand Jarrige

A second post about the excellent Technocritiques – Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences after that one: Techno-critics according to François Jarrige. Jarrige surprises me by giving Gandhi‘s views on technology. Fascinating. I (in Fact Goodle translate was a great supporting tool…) translated his full account that you could read in French on pages 192-195.

No one better illustrates the ambivalence of the relationship to technology in the colonial world than Gandhi. If indeed he uses a simple traditional spindle to weave his clothes, he travels by train and uses a watch. The figure of Gandhi deserves attention because criticism of the machine occupies a central place in his speech and action. But if his successors and followers have venerated him for his contribution to India’s political independence, they have rarely taken seriously his criticism of the technical surge and his proposal to restore the local indigenous economy. For Gandhi (1869-1958), the “machine civilization” and the big industry created a daily and invisible slavery that impoverished entire sections of the population despite the myth of global abundance. While some reduce Gandhian thought to a set of frustrated and simplistic principles, others see it as a rich “moral economy”, distinct from both the liberal tradition and Marxism [1].

Born in 1869 in the state of Gujarat, while British rule over India grew and the railway network expanded, Gandhi went to England to study law in 1888, like hundreds of young upper caste Indians. After 1893, he went to South Africa, where he thrived as a lawyer and woke up to politics in contact with racial discrimination. He gradually developed a method of non-violent civil disobedience that will make his celebrity and organize the struggle of the Indian community. On his return to India, after 1915, he organized the protest against the taxes considered too high, and more generally against the discriminations and the colonial laws. During the inter-war period, as a leader of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi led a campaign to help the poor, to liberate Indian women, to encourage fraternity among communities of different religions or ethnicities, for an end of untouchability and discrimination of castes, and for the economic self-sufficiency of the nation, but especially for Swaraj – the independence of India with respect to any foreign domination.

In 1909, Gandhi wrote one of his rare theoretical texts in the form of a Socratic dialogue with a young Indian revolutionary. This text, Hind Swaraj, written in Gujarati before being translated into English, aims first at detaching Indian youth from the most violent fringes of the nationalist movement [2]. The book was banned until 1919. According to Gandhi, these young revolutionaries are indeed the victims of a blind veneration of technical progress and brutal force imported from the Western world. He is therefore gradually extending his political criticism of the industrial and technological civilization itself. Gandhian thought is based on a sharp criticism of Western modernity in all its forms. On the political front, he criticizes the State and defends the ideal of a non-violent democratic society, made up of federated villages and based on the call for voluntary simplicity. He denounces the notions of development and civilization, and the technical surge that founds them, as sources of inequality and of multiple perverse effects. According to Gandhi, “the machine allows a small minority to live on the exploitation of the masses […] indeed the force that moves this minority is not humanity or the love of the like, but envy and greed “. Political autonomy is therefore futile if it is not accompanied by a profound questioning of modern industrial civilization. “It would be foolish,” says Gandhi, “to say that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than an American Rockefeller,” and “we do not have to look forward to the growth of the manufacturing industry.” Gandhi defends the development of self-sufficient local crafts within the framework of village autonomy and a limitation of needs.

Gandhi belongs neither to the Indian neotraditionalist currents that consider the ancient Hindu civilization as intrinsically superior, nor to the camp of the modernizing nationalists seeking to copy the Western world to turn its weapons against the colonial order. He intends to define a third original way. Gandhian thought feeds on multiple sources. In a way, it belongs to the anti-modernist current that developed in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. He read William Morris and John Ruskin, and was marked by the anarchistic Christianity of Tolstoy [3]. His vision of the world feeds on the intellectual atmosphere of the end of the Victorian era and the ethical and aesthetic critique of the technical and industrial surge that was then developing. Gandhi is neither hostile to science nor anti-rationalist, as it is sometimes written. He first criticizes the way in which scientific discoveries and the use of reason are applied and put at the service of the powerful and exploitation. He criticizes the blind faith of the Western wolrd in material progress and the desire for power embodied in technical surge. He also wants to save England from its own demons. According to him, “mechanization has impoverished India”; it turns factory workers into “slaves”. It is not by “reproducing Manchester in India” that Indians will emancipate themselves from British rule. One of the particularly powerful technical bases of British rule is precisely the development of the railroad: “Without the railroads, the British could not have such a stranglehold on India. “Supposedly to liberate the Indian people, the rail is actually used primarily by the power as an effective tool of mesh and domination.” The railways have also increased the frequency of famines because, given the ease of transportation, people sell their grain and it is sent to the most expensive market” instead of being self-consumed or sold on the closest market. Gandhi tries to link his criticism of big industry and European technologies to his project of political emancipation. It shows that progress leads to a worsening of living conditions, that “civilization” permanently creates new needs that are impossible to satisfy, that it digs inequalities and immerses part of humanity in slavery. For him, this type of civilization is hopeless. The mechanization and globalization of trade is a disaster for India, the mills of Manchester having destroyed the craft industry and the world of Indian weavers: “The machinist civilization will not stop making victims. Its effects are deadly: people let themselves be attracted to it and burn themselves like butterflies in the flame of a candle. It breaks all ties with religion and in fact only derives tiny benefits from the world. [The machinist] Civilization flatters us to better drink our blood. When the effects of this civilization are fully known, we will realize that religious (traditional) superstition is harmless in comparison to that which nimbuses modern civilization.

Gandhian criticism of machinery intrigues much in the inter-war period. It is reflected in his economic program based on the defense of village industries as in its project to “de-mechanize the textile industry”, which appears immediately unrealistic and unrealizable. Moreover, Gandhi’s positions went from total opposition to European machines to a more nuanced criticism: in October 1924, to the question of a journalist, “Are you against all machines?” He replies: “How could I be … [I am] against indiscriminate craze for machines, and not machines as such”. He also rises against those who accuse him of wanting to “destroy all machines”: “My goal is not to destroy the machine but to impose limits on it”, that is to say to control its uses so that it does not affect the natural environments or the situation of the poorest. He ultimately develops a philosophy of limits and control of technological gigantism.

But this discourse provoked a lot of misunderstanding and was gradually erased as a reliquat of obscurantist tradition. The Socialists and with them Nehru himself in his autobiography published in 1936, lament that Gandhi “blessed the relics of the old order”. His analysis of industrial technology was soon marginalized to the independence of the country by the forced modernization project. But Gandhi’s figure also exerted considerable fascination far beyond the Indian peasantry. In the inter-war period, his criticism became a source of inspiration for social movements and thinkers from very different horizons, even as criticism of the “machine civilization” was growing in Europe.

[1] Kazuya Ishi, The socio-economic thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as an origin of alternative development, Review of Social Economy, vol. LIX, 2001, p. 198 ; Majid Rahnema and Jean Robert, La Puissance des pauvres, Actes Sud, Arles, 2008.
[2] Hind Swaraj, translated in English as Indian Home Rule, and later in French with title Leur Civilisation et notre délivrance, Denoël, Paris, 1957.
[3] Ramin Jahanbegloo, Gandhi. Aux sources de la non-violence, Thoreau, Ruskin, Tolstoï, Editions du Felin, Paris, 1998.

Techno-critics according to François Jarrige

I write from time to time and perhaps even more often about this other fact of innovation and entrepreneurship (which remains my passion, positively), a face that is darker, more negative, a vision that is more critical of the impact of innovation on society. I read these days, in French, Technocritiques – Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences (Technocritics – From the refusal of the machines to the challenge of the technosciences) by François Jarrige. It is a rich, harsh, demanding but exceptional book for all those interested in the subject.

Even if extremely critical at first sight, the book shows that the positive and negative aspects of progress have always developed in parallel. My closest reading of this work was probably that of Bernard Stiegler, In Disruption – How Not to Go Crazy? without forgetting the works of Libero Zuppiroli, such as The utopias of the 21st century. Thanks to him for mentioning this remarkable book.

Here is a full translation of a long and exciting passage on pages 87-88. It looks like it describes our world, it does describe an older one.

“If we were to characterize our time by a single epithet, we would not call it a heroic, religious, philosophical, or moral age; but the mechanical age, for that is what distinguishes it from all the others.” [1] Carlyle embodies the romantic denunciation of “mammonism” (that is, the religious worship of the god Silver), whose mechanical surge of his time is one of the manifestations. Why always strive, thanks to mechanics, to sell “at a lower price than all other nations until the end of the world”, why not “sell for equal price”, he asks? [2] He invites “ingenious men” to find a way to distribute products more equitably rather than always looking for ways to achieve them at the lowest cost: “A world of simple patented digesters will soon have nothing to eat: such a world will be extinguished and by the law of nature it must be extinguished.”

At the same time, Michelet, the great French romantic historian, discovered the gigantism of machinery during a trip to England in 1834. He also describes the ambivalence of the effects of machines. Impressed by the “beings of steel” who enslave “the being of blood and flesh”, he is nevertheless convinced that one will continue to prefer to the “uniform fabrications of the machines the various products which bear the imprint of the human personality”. If the machine is undeniably a “powerful agent of democratic progress” by “putting a host of useful objects within the reach of the poorest”, it also has its terrible setback: it creates a “miserable little people of men-machines that live half [and] that engender only for death “. [3]

The anxiety about machinery diminished in the Victorian era, with the expansion of the prosperity of the imperial period, the decline of workers’ violence, the rise of the political economy. However, it continues to arouse the fears of some moralists, such as John Stuart Mill, a complex radical thinker, a liberal fascinated by socialism and a feminist justifying imperialism. In his Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill proposes an inventory of the political economy of his time. He distances himself from economists who are overly optimistic about technical change, expresses reluctance about the beneficial effects of the division of labor and considers that the state must compensate for the detrimental effects of mechanization. But his criticism goes beyond these classic questions because John Stuart Mill proposes a theory of the “stationary state” that breaks with classical economics. He describes this “stationary state of capital and wealth” as “preferable to our present situation”, marked by the struggle of all against all. He sees it as a world shaped by “prudence” and “frugality,” in which society is composed of “a large and well-paid body of workers” and “few enormous fortunes”; this “stationary” world, where everyone would have enough to live, would leave room for solitude and contemplation “of the beauties and grandeur of nature”. In this world, the “industrial arts” would obviously not stop, but “instead of having no other goal than the acquisition of wealth, the improvements would reach their goal, which is the diminution of work. [4]

To be followed, maybe …

Sources:

[1] Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times,” Edinburgh Review vol. 49, 1829, p. 439-459
“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends.”
http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/carlyle/signs1.html

[2] Thomas Carlyle, “Past and Present” (1843), Cathédrales d’autrefois et usines d’aujourd’hui. Passé et présent, fr. transl. of Camille Bos, Editions of the Revue Blanche, Paris, 1920, p.289
I admire a Nation which fancies it will die if it do not undersell all other Nations, to the end of the world. Brothers, we will cease to undersell them; we will be content to equal-sell them; to be happy selling equally with them! I do not see the use of underselling them. A world of mere Patent-Digesters will soon have nothing to digest: such world ends, and by Law of Nature must end, in ‘over-population;’
P. 229-31, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26159/26159-h/26159-h.htm

[3] Jules Michelet, “Le peuple”. Flammarion. Paris, 1974 [1846]

[4] John Stuart Mill, “Principles of Political Economy,” fr. transl. Léon Roquet, Paris 1894 [1848] Pages 138-142.

Creativity according to Isaac Asimov

While travelling in the USA in January, I was mentioned a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity “How Do People Get New Ideas?”.


Isaac Asimov by Andy Friedman (Source: MIT Technology Review)

I have always been skeptical about how to teach creativity or even how to encourage it. I felt very much in agreement with what Asimov had written way back 60 years ago. Let me quote him:

– the method of generation [of ideas] is never clear even to the “generators” themselves,

– what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected,

– once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious,

– making the cross-connection requires a certain daring,

– a person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance; since (s)he occurs only rarely, (s)he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us,

– my feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required; the creative person is, in any case, continually working at it; his (her) mind is shuffling information at all times, even when (s)he is not conscious of it,

– the presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing; nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself,

– the optimum number of the group [i.e. such people just before] would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted.

This is quite fascinating: according to Asimov, creativity is an isolated act; making connections possible maybe helped by small groups, but even this, Asimov is not totally convinced of… I have often read interesting articles about creativity in art, science, technology and the idea that freedom to think combined with obsession to solve or do something might be much more critical than social interactions.

Why society cannot be put into equations by Pablo Jensen

My former colleague Boris advised me to read French book Pourquoi la société ne se laisse pas mettre en équations (Why society cannot be put into equations) and I must thank him for the advice 🙂

Author Pablo Jensen – his personal and wikipedia page will tell you more – is a physicist and his book tries to explain why equations in social sciences (even in physics by the way) may be tricky. Truth is a complicated topic. But whereas there is (some) truth in natural sciences which can always be revisited, the concept of truth in social sciences is even more difficult, just because the human behavior is full of feedback loops so that what is true today, not to say yesterday might be taken intro account to modify the future… If you read French, it is really interesting, if not, let’s hope for a translation soon.

As a really nice illustration of truth in physics, Jensen mentions how Galileo struggled with the mechanics of falling bodies [pages 42-5].


Source: Galileo’s notes on motion, Folio 116, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence; Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence; Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Galileo never published his data as he did not understand why they looked wrong. The answer is a sliding ball does not have the same speed has a rolling one. Rotation absorbs a fraction of the energy (apparently √(5/7) or 0.84) which was close to Galileo’s apparent mistake.

Then Jensen reminds us of how difficult weather forecast and climate modification are (chapter 4). So when he jumps to social sciences, he is quite convincing about the reason why mathematical modeling may be a very challenging task. On a study about analyzing tweets to predict success, he writes the following: Le résultat de leur étude est clair: même si l’on connaît toutes les caractéristiques des messages et des utilisateurs, le succès reste largement imprévisible. Techniquement, seule 20% de la variabilité du succès des différents messages est expliquée par ce modèle, portant très complexe, et d’ailleurs incompréhensible, comme cela arrive souvent pour les méthodes utilisant l’apprentissage automatique. Il est intéressant de noter qu’on peut doubler le niveau de prédiction en ajoutant une seule variable supplémentaire. Il s’agit du succès passé de l’utilisateur. de son nombre moyen de retweets jusque-là. […] La vie sociale est intrinsèquement imprédictible, de par les fortes interactions entre les personnes. […] La masse des données permet d’opérationnaliser des vieux dictions comme “qui se ressemble s’assemble”, “dis-moi ce que tu lis, je te dirai qui tu es” et surtout “je suis qui je suis”. (The result of their study is clear: even if one knows all the characteristics of the messages and the users, the success remains largely unpredictable.Technically, only 20% of the variability of the success of the different messages is explained by this model, even if it is very complex, and in fact incomprehensible, as it happens often for the methods using machine learning. It is interesting to note that the prediction level can be doubled by adding a single additional variable. This is the past success of the userm through its average number of retweets so far. […] Social life is inherently unpredictable, because of the strong interactions between people. […] The mass of data makes it possible to operationalize old sayings such as “birds of a feather flock together”, “tell me what you read, I will tell you who you are” and especially “I am who I am” [Chapter 12, Predict thanks to big data? [Chapter 12, Predict thanks to big data? Pages 150-3].

An even more striking example of the incomprehensible nature of machine learning is about image recognition: the best way to predict the presence of curtains in a room was to identify a foot in a bed. Just because most bedrooms had both [Pages 154-5]. Jensen also criticizes the ranking of universities and researchers (pages 246-53), a topic I had addressed in the past in La Crise et le Modèle Américain. In chapter 20, “are we social atoms?”, he adds that for human beings [Page 263]: “for now, we do not know internal characteristics which are both pertinent and stable” without which analyzing human beings as a group becomes problematic.

Already in Chapter 13, Jensen explains that there are four essential factors that make the simulations of society qualitatively more difficult than those of matter: the heterogeneity of humans; the lack of stability of anything; the many relationships to consider, both temporally and spatially; the reflexivity of humans, who react to the patterns of their activity. […] No single factor produces anything on its own […] In the social sciences, a dense network of causal conditions is needed to produce a result. […] There is no guarantee that the consequence of [one factor] will be the same in other situations than it will be combined with other causal factors. The only possible answer is “it depends”. [Pages 162-4]

To discuss the greater or lesser stability that can be expected from these internal characteristics, we must go back to their origin. For the physicists, the answer is clear: the origin of the forces between atoms is to be sought in the interactions between these really stable particles that are the nuclei and the electrons. […] The origin of human actions is at the heart of sociology. Its first intuition was to seek the determinants of practices not in the inner minds of people studied by psychology, nor in a universal human nature, but in social influences. [Page 264] The social world is more like a swirling fluid than neat combinations of bricks. […] Of course this image is too simple, because it neglects the memory, the strong viscosity of the social. But it shows the limits of the static vision of the economy or of social physics, which start from individuals already made, ready to function, to generate social life by association, under the impulse of their independent natures. [Page 270] Social life does not therefore consist of a series of discrete interactions as the formula or the simulations suppose. Rather, it must be conceived of as the result of the unfolding of relationships. The distinction between interaction and relationship is crucial, because the latter involves a series of interactions followed between people who know each other and keep the memory of past exchanges. In a relationship, each interaction is based on past interactions and will in turn influence those that will come. A relationship is not a simple sequence of one-off interactions, but a process of continuous creation, of the relationship and therefore of the people involved. [Page 271]

Jensen does not say society cannot be analyzed, qualitatively or quantitatively. He gives a subtle analysis of the complexity of society and social behaviors which we should always remember before accepting as facts often too simplistic analyses from big data…

Grigori Perelman according to Masha Gessen

I had mentioned Grigori Perelman in a rather old post: 7 x 7 = (7-1) x (7+1) + 1. I discovered recently a new book about this exceptional mathematician, not so much about his achievements but more about his personality.

About Asperger’s Syndrome

I will not tell much Perelman here, Masha Gessen does it with talent. Let me just translate here form the French version I am reading: “It seems to me that many of the whistleblowers,” wrote Atwwod, “have Asperger’s Syndrome, I’ve met several who have applied the code of ethics of their company or government to their work and have reported wrongdoing and corruption in the workplace. All of them were surprised to see that their management and their colleagues did not understand their attitude. ”
So it is perhaps not a coincidence that the founders of dissident movements in the Soviet Union were among mathematicians and physicists. The Soviet Union was not the place for people who took things literally and expected the world to work in a predictable, logical and fair way.
[Pages 215-6, French edition]
[…]
One can also interpret the difficulties he experienced when he presented his solutions. If Perelman was suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, this inability to see “the big picture” is perhaps one of the most surprising traits. British psychologists Uta Frith and Francesca Happe talked about what they call the “low central coherence” characteristic of autism spectrum disorders. Autistics focus on details, to the detriment of the overall picture. When they manage to reconstitute it, it is because they have arranged the various elements, a little like the elements of the periodic table, in a systemic scheme that satisfies them to the extreme. “… the most interesting facts, wrote Poincaré, one of the greatest systematizing minds of all time, more than a century ago, are those who can be used many times, those who have a chance to happen many times. We have had the good fortune to be born in a world where there is are many; suppose that instead of sixty chemical elements we have sixty billion, that they are not common ones and rare ones, but they would be evenly distributed, so every time we pick up a new pebble, there would be a high probability that it would be made up of some unknown substances… […] In such a world, there would be no no science, perhaps no thought and even life would be impossible because evolution could not have developed the conservative instincts; thanks to God it is not so.”
People with Asperger’s syndrome apprehend the small pebble world by small pebble. Speaking of the existence of this syndrome in society, Attwood resorted to the metaphor of a five thousand-piece puzzle, “where normal people would have the full image on the lid” which would allow them to have global intuitions. Aspergers, they would not see this big picture and should try to nest the pieces one by one. So maybe rules like “never take off your hat” and 2lis all the books that are on the list “formed for Gricha Perelman a way to see the missing image on the lid, to encompass all the elements of the periodic table of the world It was only by clinging to these rules that he could live his life.
[Pages 217-8, French edition]

About power

Another interesting topic addressed by Misha Gessen is on page 236 of the French edition again:
– When he received the letter from the commission that invited him he replied that he did not speak with committees, said Gromov, and that is exactly what he did. They represent everything that one should never accept. And if this attitude seems extreme, it is only in relation to the conformism that characterizes the world of mathematics.
– But why refuse to talk to committees?
– We do not talk to committees, we talk to people! exclaimed Gromov, exasperated. How can we talk to a committee? Who knows who is on the committee? Who tells you that Yasser Arafat is not one of them?
– But he was sent the list of members, and he continued to refuse.
– The way it started, he was right not to answer, Gromov persisted. As soon as a community begins to behave like a machine, all that remains to do is to cut ties, and that’s all. The strangest thing is that there is no longer a mathematician who does the same. That’s what’s weird. Most people agree to deal with committees. They agree to go to Beijing and receive a prize from President Mao. Or the king of Spain, anyway, it’s the same!
– And why, I asked, could not the King of Spain have the honor of hanging a medal around Perelman’s neck?
– What is a king? Gromov asked, totally furious now. Kings are the same morons as the Communists. Why would a king award a medal to a mathematician? What allows it? It is nothing from a mathematical point of view. Same for the president. But there is one who has taken control of power like a thief and the other who inherited it from his father. It does not make any difference.
Unlike them, Gromov explains to me, Perelman had made a real contribution to the world.

It reminds me of a colleague’s quote: “There are not many statues for committees in public parks.”

It’s also worth mentioning here an article from the New Yorker that Gessen mentions too: Manifold Destiny. A legendary problem and the battle over who solved it by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber. On a related topic, the authors quote Perelman whom they met: He mentioned a dispute that he had had years earlier with a collaborator over how to credit the author of a particular proof, and said that he was dismayed by the discipline’s lax ethics. “It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens,” he said. “It is people like me who are isolated.” We asked him whether he had read Cao and Zhu’s paper. “It is not clear to me what new contribution did they make,” he said. “Apparently, Zhu did not quite understand the argument and reworked it.” As for Yau, Perelman said, “I can’t say I’m outraged. Other people do worse . Of course, there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest.”

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee – a Symphony of Research

Progress in science depends on new techniques, new discoveries and new ideas, probably in that order – Sydney Brenner
All science is either physics or stamp collecting – Ernest Rutherford

I did not know much about genetics, except my data here and there about biotechnology startups. But thanks to his book The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee makes me feel I know much more. His brilliant storytelling is like a symphony, describing the early days of genetics, with Darwin and Mendel and the latest developments of this fascinating science. There are brilliant quotes like the two above, respectively page 202 and 221. And there are marvelous portraits.

I will only give a few of them, the pictures I mean, as a quiz…

But before letting you discover the names below, here is a short extract from The Gene, a famous anecdote about how Genentech was born…

And a great analysis of what science, technology and biology are:
“Do not be lulled by that description. Do not, gentle reader, be tempted to think – “My goodness, what a complicated recipe!” – and then rest assured that someone will not learn to understand or hack or manipulate that recipe in some deliberate manner.

“When scientists underestimate complexity, they fall prey to the perils of unintended consequences. The parables of such scientific overreach are well-known: foreign animals, introduced to control pests, become pests in their own right; the raising of smokestacks, meant to alleviate urban pollution, releases particulate effluents higher in the air and exacerbates pollution; stimulating blood formation, meant to prevent heart attacks, thickens the blood and results in an increased risk of blood clots to the heart.

“But when non-scientists overestimate complexity – “No one can possibly crack this code” – they fall into the trap of unanticipated consequences. In the early 1950s, a common trope among some biologists was that the genetic code would be so context dependent – so utterly determined by a particular cell in a particular organism and so horribly convoluted – that deciphering it would prove impossible. The truth turned out to be quite the opposite: just one molecule carries the code, and just one code pervades the biological world. If we know the code, we can intentionally alter it in organisms, and ultimately in humans. Similarly, in the 1960s, many doubted that gene-cloning technologies could so easily shuttle genes between species. By 1980, making a mammalian protein in a bacterial cell, or a bacterial protein in a mammalian cell, was not just feasible; it was, in berg’s words, rather “ridiculously simple”. Species were specious. “Being natural” was “often just a pose”. [Page 408] […]

“Technology, I said before, is most powerful when it enables transitions – between linear and circular motion (the wheel), or between real and virtual space (the Internet). Science, in contrast, is most powerful when it elucidates rules of organization – laws – that act as lenses through which to view and organize the world. Technologies seek to liberate us from the constraints of our current realities through those transitions. Science defines those constraints, drawing the outer limits of the boundaries of possibility. Our greatest technological innovations thus carry names that claim our prowess over the world: the engine (from ingenium, or “ingenuity”) or the computer (from computare, or “reckoning together”). Our deepest scientific laws, in contrast, are often named after the limits of human knowledge: uncertainty, relativity, incompleteness, impossibility.

“Of all the sciences, biology is the most lawless; there are few rules to begin with, and even fewer rules that are universal. Living beings must, of course, obey the fundamental rules of physics and chemistry, but life often exists on the margins and interstices of these laws, bending them to their near-breaking limits. The universe seeks equilibriums; it prefers to disperse energy, disrupt organization, and maximize chaos. Life is designed to combat these forces. We slow down reactions, concentrate matter, and organize chemicals into compartments, “It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe,” James Gleick wrote.” [Page 409]

And now the answer the the picture quiz:

Charles Darwin Gregor Mendel William Bateson Thomas Morgan Alfred Sturtevant
Calvin Bridges Hermann Muller Hugo de Vries Ronald Fisher Theodosius Dobjansky
Frederick Griffith Oswald Avery Max Perutz George Beadle Edward Tatum
Linus Pauling James Watson Francis Crick Rosalind Franklin Maurice Wilkins
Arthur Pardee François Jacob Jacques Monod Edward Lewis Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard
Eric Wieschaus Sydney Brenner Robert Horvitz John Sulston Paul Berg
Arthur Kornberg Janet Merz Herbert Boyer Stanley Cohen Frederick Sanger
Walter Gilbert Craig Venter Allan Wilson Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza Shinya Yamanaka
Jennifer Doudna Emmanuelle Charpentier

What we cannot know

It’s the 3rd book I read by Marcus du Sautoy. After the Music of Primes and Finding Moonshine: A Mathematician’s Journey Through Symmetry, here is What we cannot know.

Seven frontiers of knowledge according to du Sautoy: Randomness and Chaos, Particle Physics and the Infinitely Small, Space and Quantum Physics, The Universe and the Infinitely Big, Time and Gravity, Consciousness, Mathematics.

To illustrate some of this, here are tww short extracts:

Du Sautoy asks, what is the B. in Benoit B. Mandelbrot and the answer is Benoit B. Mandelbrot. Nice!

And quite nice too about the “purity of fields” by xkcd.com

If you love science(s) or mathematic(s), a clear must-read!