Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Relatively speaking

Ah, the "two cultures." They seem to be alive and well, even if C.P. Snow's famous formulation of the rift between the sciences and the humanities has been revised almost as often as it has been cited. These days, I suppose, you could best describe the "two culture" divide as being between scientists who continue to insist that their research results in empirical "truth," or at least empirical validity across myriad cultures, and literary intellectuals, who insist that no, science is embedded in culture nonetheless, because - well, I'm not sure why; it does seem that science's validity across every frame of reference (it even works in France!) would silence these people. Indeed, if science were actually embedded in a single cultural frame, the vast international cross-pollination of scientific research that we observe every day would be impossible. But never mind! Have you read Thomas Kuhn? He explains it all for you.

Of course it's not really fair to lay the weight of that ongoing debate on a slight, charming show like Einstein's Dreams (left), now at the Central Square Theatre through December 14. Still, the show does seem to want to be seen in that context. It's being produced by an outfit called Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT, a joint effort between my alma mater and the Underground Railway Theater to "develop new plays about science to provide the general public with a better understanding of our increasingly scientific and technological world." Judging from its first effort, alas, it's so far fallen short of that goal: Einstein's Dreams communicates almost nothing coherent about Einstein, or the Special Theory of Relativity, or the paradoxical nature of space-time in general. Still, it's not a bad evening out - a sweet, light piece of postmodern story theatre that never reaches the scientific sophistication of your average Nova episode, but is diverting, and sometimes even touching, all the same.

The trouble with its larger ambitions, of course, is the same problem that has always dogged the "two cultures" debate: the scientific illiteracy of most humanists. True, many scientists, engineers, and techies in general can seem culturally, or at least socially, retarded; still, a lot of them have read Shakespeare, many more dabble in conceptual or technological art, and most are avid, and sometimes even superb, musicians. They're more than halfway over the "bridge" to the humanities. But try to think of an actor or painter or writer who could hold his or her own at a particle accelerator. You see the problem? The vast majority of our "intellectuals" can rattle on ad infinitum about the mind/body problem or Cartesian dualism, but ask them about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and you'll almost certainly get a blank stare. And you can forget about the actual meaning of the Special Theory of Relativity - tellingly, when an actor in Einstein's Dreams attempted to write down its famous Lorentz transformation, he got the equations wrong (he clearly learned them visually rather than mathematically, rather the way ABBA used to sing its English hits phonetically).

So it seems whenever the two cultures meet, scientists find themselves facing humanists who basically haven't learned even the rudiments of their language; rather obviously, if there's ever going to be a translation of scientific meaning into humanistic meaning, humanists are completely unequipped to do it. Instead, they compensate with a parallel universe of "discourse" - and Einstein's Dreams is, I'm afraid, actually a case in point, although it's clearly well-intentioned (and never irritating). Alan Lightman's original bestseller was a short, light variation on Italo Calvino: a series of metaphoric meditations on "time" that pretended to derive from Einstein's development of the Special Theory. It didn't, of course, not really; Lightman's conceits - a land where time ends, a land where time goes backwards, a land where times goes in circles, etc. - conjured a rarefied melancholy, but said nothing about the actual intellectual challenges posed by Einstein (who never dreams about Hendrik Lorentz or Henri Poincaré, who were actually on his mind; like all pop culture, Dreams insists that Einstein came to his conclusions in an intellectual vacuum rather than an ether). Instead, Lightman's musings were elaborations of common postmodern tropes, that, true enough, grew like dandelions once Einstein had broken the traditional understanding of time. But styled as an evocation of his subconscious during the development of the Special Theory, I'd say they actually obscure the real meaning of Einstein's achievement (if anything, they map a bit better to the dilemmas of quantum mechanics, an entirely different kettle of metaphysical fish).

Which isn't to say that Lightman's skits aren't often damn cute, and sometimes genuinely moving, and are ably acted (at right) by the versatile Debra Wise, Steven Barkhimer, and especially Robert Najarian, who turned Einstein into a graceful commedia acrobat without ever losing some sense of his quiet depth. Director/adaptor Wes Savick gave a good account of the book - he hung on to much of its text verbatim - while Evan Harlan provided an apt live musical soundtrack. And Wen-Ti Tsen's simple set - really just three moving panels - poetically evoked all manner of environments (even cosmic ones).

Best of all, however, Einstein's Dreams concludes with a short talkback with either Lightman himself or an MIT or Harvard professor (depending on the night). The evening I attended, Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek took the stage, looking like he'd just stepped out of central casting, wisps of uncombed hair, tweedy jacket and all. Wilczek, of course, quickly demolished the intellectual pretensions of the play, but in about as gentle a way as one could imagine (while the actors stared into space with fixed, uncomprehending smiles). And the discussion which ensued was probably the most invigorating I can recall in a theatre in years; probably due to Wilczek's presence, the place was full of MIT students, and to put it bluntly, MIT has the highest ratio of brains to b.s. of any college in this benighted burg. For awhile we all breathed the clear, cold air of thoughtful conversation rather than "discourse" - I suppose for me it was something of a nostalgia trip (even though I, too, could no longer write down a Lorentz transform to save my life), but that doesn't mean I'm not grateful.

1 comment:

  1. What's even worse about the way the current generation of post-modern humanists misunderstand science is that they don't even understand post-modern theories about science. It's not that every theory is just one of many "competing narratives" it's that we reject the idea that the theory, and the culturally and historically contingent analogies and metaphors, have a transcendent status. They still have an abundance of data or evidence (depending on the type of research being done) that validates or falsifies the hypothesis.

    Most scientists understand this already.

    Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault were both trained as historians of science-- but too few of their readers even understand what that entails.