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.

Essay 40: Movies as a “Backdoor Into Financial History”

“Financial history” (the Professor Niall Ferguson PBS miniseries, The Ascent of Money, of recent years tries to “flag” this domain) can be exciting and eye-opening if the student fins the kind of “backdoor” into it that makes it all enchanting and not a tiresome slog through opaque textbooks.  Movies are a good way to “parachute” into fields, domains, areas of study:

The 1963 movie Mary Poppins is partly about bank runs and the “Tuppence” song in the movie communicates the centrality of London finance in the world of 1910, the setting of the movie:

“You see, Michael, you’ll be part of railways through Africa
Dams across the Nile, fleets of ocean Greyhounds
Majestic, self-amortizing canals
Plantations of ripening tea
All from tuppence, prudently fruitfully, frugally invested
In the, to be specific
In the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs
Fidelity fiduciary bank

Now Michael, when you deposit tuppence in a bank account
Soon you’ll see
That it blooms into credit of a generous amount
And you’ll achieve that sense of stature
As your influence expands
To the high financial strata
That established credit, now commands
You can purchase first and second trust deeds
Think of the foreclosures
Bonds! Chattels! Dividends! Shares
Bankruptcies! Debtor sales! Opportunities
All manner of private enterprise
Shipyards! The mercantile
Collieries! Tanneries
Incorporations! Amalgamations! Banks”

The current  U.S. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin was a foreclosure king of the Great Recession of 2008.  An American movie on “bank runs” is of course the classic It’s a Wonderful Life (with James Stewart as the local banker.)

The 1910 world of London finance show in the movie Mary Poppins can be now contextualized by realizing all of this crashed down in August 1914 which represents the beginning of post-WW 1deglobalization.”  Thus, finance and globalization issues haunt the present.

Walter Bagehot’s masterpiece of 1873, Lombard Street, is a kind of anticipation of this syndrome and Charles Kindleberger‘s (MIT) Manias, Panics and Crashes gives the sense of the underlying instability.

Kevin Phillips’s book Bad Money of 2008 outlines the dangers of “over financialization.”

The movie and the fun song can help a student find his or her way in to these areas and domains.