Monday, January 31, 2005

Math in the media

Tonight, as is my wont, I listened to the fantastic program This American Life on my local NPR station. Their theme this week was Family Physics, and they took ideas from math and physics and told stories about how these ideas provided metaphors for complicated life situations. Good stuff, and you can listen to it online if you're curious.

I especially appreciated one part of the show's prologue. They interviewed a physicist who complained about people reading pop-physics books and then taking these ideas and running with them into areas where they were never intended to be applied. Like family dynamics. Ira Glass then noted that physicists were really just asking for it by giving their theories such interesting and evocative titles. Fair enough!

I had a great time listening to the show, but I have to note that this is the first time ever in an artistic forum that I have heard even a mention of the fact that mathy people have a real problem with artists "mis-using" their ideas (in the opinion of said mathy people), much less giving time for a real, live scientist to give voice to this.

Thank you, Mr. Glass!

We wouldn't have as much of a problem if more artistic folks seemed to actually understand the ideas whose titles they are appropriating (some do, yes).

Just this past week on the new TV show Numb3rs, I had to limit myself to one or two frustrated sentences when they mentioned the "uncertainty principle" and "measurement alters the thing measured" in the same set of lines. I had to say something, honour demandeth no less, but Lady M____ has heard my Rant on the subject often enough, and I doubt the cats were interested, either.

I shouldn't complain, because I can't think of any other time when a lead protagonist on a mainstream TV show has been a mathematician, and I'm happy to see Rob Morrow and Judd Hirsch working again, but here goes...

We had grave doubts about this show from seeing the pilot episode. Oh, yet another crime investigation show where women are being raped and murdered, but we're supposed to not find this luridly violent and pornographic because, you know, cops are investigating it so it's bad and the bad guys get caught even though oddly enough in almost every episode women seem to get raped and murdered in vividly creative and disturbing ways. How innovative.

Notice that I said crime investigation rather than criminal investigation. Emphasis upon topic and theme.

We gave it a shot again because, well, for one it was about a mathemetician and I just had to be sure that they were defaming my calling before I started writing angry letters, and two, from the previews we weren't sure whether the glimpsed saran-wrapped corpse was female or not. He wasn't. We were pleasantly surprised to see no women being raped and murdered as well, and the previews for next week's show seem to imply that this trend will continue. I guess we'll see.

However, I majored in mathematics, and have spent a lot of time hanging out with math and science types, and I've never met anyone who exhibits the stereotypical obsessive-compulsive behavior of the lead character. All of us loved the movie Pi but we're not really like that and most of us have never been approached by Kabalistic terrorists in search of The Secret. Or the FBI looking to solve crimes. Or, really, anybody anywhere looking for help from math for their lives. *sigh*

Smart people aren't usually like this. Almost every exceptionally smart person I've met can be charming and quite socially well-adapted, or at least as well-adapted as any other segment of the populace. Really. Smart and geeky are not the same thing.

I really can't speak to the mathematics of the show, because there honestly hasn't been enough to comment on. Lots of terms are thrown around, and the mathematics on chalkboards or graphical segues seem vaguely appropriate, but generic in the way that they could really apply to anything statistical. But it's prime-time, remember, and I've never seen an integral sign or indexed formula anywhere else on TV other than PBS, so whatever.

Jumping back to the "uncertainty principle", I lose track of the occasions where I have heard this bandied about as being the notion that perception alters the perceived. They are very different concepts. I have several Rants and even one Lecture devoted to this difference. I was preparing a course on Mathematics and Poetry for a local independant adult educational organization which specializes in poetry, and while the course never happened, I got around to preparing class outlines. One of my sessions would have focused on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in physical theory and poetic practice.

This goes back well over a decade, back to when a writer friend actually asked me to develop a talk about the uncertainty principle, because she found it evocative and wanted to make sure she really understood it. I never got to tell her about what I found, and I guess I've been lying in wait ever since...

Don't get me wrong, as there's been a lot of interesting art based up0n misconceptions of this idea, or at least calling other ideas by it's name. Perception does seem to alter the perceived, and it's a great metaphor, but this has little or nothing to do with the actual uncertainty principle, and is a different concept entirely.

Oddly enough, the uncertainty principle isn't physics, it's mathematics. It's actually a logically derivable mathematical identity which is true regardless no matter what physics might happen to be in reality. Werner Heiserberg noticed this math and gave a physical interpretation to it and a new physical metaphor. But his physics are still not what most people think they are and imply very different things from the usual interpretations.

I'll stop now, and continue in a more technical or metaphorical vein as the readership seems to want. *cough* comment *cough*


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Please, sir... can I have some more?"

4:29 AM  
Blogger fatoudust said...

Errr... do you want more on this topic, more in the blog in general, or what?

Also, I'm MUCH more likely to pay attention to commentators who choose to identify themselves in some way. I left anonymous commenting on because it's a big pain to register, but I prefer to know whom I'm speaking with.

5:40 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home