Looking Around Is Educational

Julian Fellowes (the writer who gave us Downton Abbey) followed up with a 2018 movie called The Chaperone about a girl named Louise Brooks who became a global superstar, especially in Weimar (pre-Hitler) Germany:

Louise Brooks is a rebellious 15-year-old schoolgirl who dreams of fame and fortune in the early 1920s. She soon gets her chance when she travels to New York to study with a leading dance troupe for the summer—accompanied by a watchful chaperone.

Louise Brooks starts as a would-be dancer, “inducted” into an avant-garde dance school. This is the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts (founded in 1915 by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in Los Angeles, California), which helped many perfect their dancing talents and became the first dance academy in the United States to produce a professional dance company.

Upon Louise’s “induction” into the school, one of the founders says to the girls, “Remember you are not in your body, your body is in you.”

The listener wonders: What could this possibly mean?

The answer is this: In one sense you have a body, but in another, you are your body. The first body is the “thing” you weigh on the bathroom scale. This is your interaction with gravity, as measured in conventions like pounds. On the other hand, you are also “somebody” (i.e., some body). To have and to be are entwined here. In philosophy, say in the writings of Gabriel Marcel during the fifties, the body you weigh is “corporeal” and the body you are is “existential.”

Very roughly, the first body is objectively weighed, the second subjectively sensed as your experience of yourself.

Physics and Dance (by Emily Coates and Sarah Demers), a recent book from Yale University Press, gives you the dancing body as a biomechanical problem. Dancing itself is the expression through biomechanics and movement based on physics, but apart from this, it’s also an art form.

The student will see that a moment in a movie—in this case The Chaperone—can open a door to a whole set of domains, realms and phenomena. Education at its best comes from learning how to go from such instantaneous accidents on the street or screen to a larger canvas.

Thus the declaration, “Remember you are not in your body, your body is in you” explains that biomechanics is an infrastructure, while the artistry of the dance is an art form (i.e., a kind of “communicative action,” to use a Habermas phrase).

Education and the “Knowability” Problem

There was a wonderful PBS Nature episode in 2006 called “The Queen of Trees” [full video, YouTube] which went into details about the survival strategy and rhythms and interactions with the environment of one tree in Africa and all the complexities this involves:

This Nature episode explores the evolution of a fig tree in Africa and its only pollinator, the fig wasp. This film takes us through a journey of intertwining relationships. It shows how the fig (queen) tree is life sustaining for an entire range of species, from plants, to insects, to other animals and even mammals. These other species are in turn life-sustaining to the fig tree itself. It could not survive without the interaction of all these different creatures and the various functions they perform. This is one of the single greatest documented (on video) examples of the wonders of our natural world; the intricacies involved for survival and ensuring the perpetual existence of species.

It shows us how fragile the balance is between survival and extinction.

One can begin to see that the tree/animal/bacteria/season/roots/climate interaction is highly complex and not quite fully understood to this day.

The fact that one tree yields new information every time we probe into it gives you a “meta” (i.e., meta-intelligent) clue that final theories of the cosmos and fully unified theories of physics will be elusive at best and unreachable at worst. If one can hardly pin down the workings of a single tree, does it sound plausible that “everything that is” from the electron to galaxy clusters to multiverses will be captured by an equation? The objective answer has to be: not particularly.

Think of the quest of the great unifiers like the great philosopherphysicist Hermann Weyl (died in 1955, like Einstein):

Since the 19th century, some physicists, notably Albert Einstein, have attempted to develop a single theoretical framework that can account for all the fundamental forces of nature–a unified field theory. Classical unified field theories are attempts to create a unified field theory based on classical physics. In particular, unification of gravitation and electromagnetism was actively pursued by several physicists and mathematicians in the years between the two World Wars. This work spurred the purely mathematical development of differential geometry.

Hermann Klaus Hugo Weyl (9 November, 1885 – 8 December, 1955) was a German mathematician, theoretical physicist and philosopher. Although much of his working life was spent in Zürich, Switzerland and then Princeton, New Jersey, he is associated with the University of Göttingen tradition of mathematics, represented by David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski.

His research has had major significance for theoretical physics as well as purely mathematical disciplines including number theory. He was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and an important member of the Institute for Advanced Study during its early years.

Weyl published technical and some general works on space, time, matter, philosophy, logic, symmetry and the history of mathematics. He was one of the first to conceive of combining general relativity with the laws of electromagnetism. While no mathematician of his generation aspired to the “universalism” of Henri Poincaré or Hilbert, Weyl came as close as anyone.

Weyl is quoted as saying:

“I am bold enough to believe that the whole of physical phenomena may be derived from one single universal world-law of the greatest mathematical simplicity.”

(The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, page 46)

This reminds one of Stephen Hawking’s credo that he repeated often and without wavering, that the rational human mind would soon understand “the mind of God.”

This WeylHawkingEinstein program of “knowing the mind of God” via a world-equation seems both extremely charming and beautiful, as a human quest, but potentially mono-maniacal à la Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. The reason that only Ishmael survives the sinking of the ship, the Pequod, is that he has become non-monomaniacal and accepts the variegatedness of the world and thus achieves a more moderate view of human existence and its limits. “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in the novel gives you Melville’s sense (from 1851) of the unknowability of some final world-reality or world-theory or world-equation.