"Make it so." Weekly Newsletter #4
|Rajesh Kasturirangan||Aug 21, 2014|
I arrived in the US as a greenhorn mathematician. Mathematics was and remains one of the most international of disciplines: Russians, Chinese, South and North Americans, Africans, Middle Easterners, East Asians, Europeans and Indians are all welcome. I met people from about twenty countries in my first week at UW-Madison. Maths and theoretical physics are in marked contrast to philosophy - their sister theoretical discipline - which remains parochial everywhere. Something worth thinking about in this week's links.
My first apartment in Madison was in Allen House on University avenue. It was a one bedroom apartment that I shared with a fellow Indian graduate student. He was the smart one; commandeering the one bedroom to himself since he had a girlfriend and needed the privacy. I slept on the living room carpet for a year. It goes without saying that I spent as little time in that apartment as I could.
It was the TV room downstairs that saved me from complete despair. Star Trek: The Next Generation was on everyday from 11:00 PM to midnight. There were about ten of us who watched it religiously. It took me a couple of months before I realized that two of those were fellow mathematicians. We soon became the best of friends. Years later, one of them came to my wedding, pretending to be my wife's brother. That's another story.
TNG was much better than the original. Picard had all the qualities Kirk lacked. It was a kinder, gentler Star Trek which showcased a group of mutual aliens exploring the universe. It didn't go unnoticed that our Allen house audience was a mixture of foreigners and Americans exploring the universe in grad school.
That technohumanist dream still sticks with me, but I think Star Trek is dead. Silicon Valley was always about money, but now it seems to be exclusively about it. Technology is no longer a means of expanding one's imagination, even when it claims to be so. Consider Elon Musk, of Tesla and Space X fame. I wonder why he gets the adulation that he does. Space is not the final frontier anymore. A man landed on the moon almost fifty years ago. We need a different technical imagination; not one that abstracts humans away from the earth and relocates us in space. Earthworm cosmology.
It works in practice, but...
Earthworm cosmology is biocentric when compared to star-trek cosmology, but does it compute? As my theorist friends say: it works in practice, but does it work in theory? Why should you care? Let me count the ways:
I don't want to bring back a geo/anthro-pocentric view through the backdoor. Earthworm cosmology is as universal as star-trek cosmology. While it should have a clear moral edge stemming from our status as inhabitants of this planet, it should apply to any being anywhere.
It shouldn't become stamp collecting.
Theory is more interesting.
Earthworm theorists have their task cut out: create interesting theories that find favor outside the world stamp collectors. As far as I can tell, theory + interesting + non-stamp-collecting requires the use of something like mathematics. Is earthworm mathematics the same as star-trek mathematics? I don't think so, but we have to start from what we have and dig our way back into the earth. This week's links explore the shift in mathematical thinking that might make it suitable for earthworms.
This week's links
Then, let's move on to silicon valleys burning problems or how the man caught up with burning man.
I guess earthworm cosmology is a new kind of science, though not the new kind that Wolfram thinks science should become. He does have some interesting things to say about the future of pure mathematics though.
This might also be a good time for me to plug my own article on the topic.
John Baez was the first internet star of mathematics. "This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics changed the way math was communicated on the net. John has influenced the practice of mathematics without having a prestigious position or tenure at Princeton or Harvard and in the last few years he has moved away from his earlier concerns toward doing something about climate change using mathematical tools. The azimuth project is his attempt to do something about the global ecological crisis.