12 September 2008


The Large Hadron Collider is a wonderful discussion fueller. My flippant reference to it on Wednesday prompted a perfectly serious exchange of theological views between a believer and a nonbeliever – it also brought a rash of rabid abuse which had to be consigned to the bit bucket, but there you go.

On the same day, I had a long lunchtime conversation with my friend and colleague Ivor McGillivray whom I'd not seen for a couple of months (he had been cycling to the moon, or something equally energetic) and the LHC kept recurring in a conversation about Saussure, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes. A conversation with Ivor is always stimulating and wide ranging.

Time and a half went by unnoticed, a lunch hour became two and a half hours, and we both suddenly realised that we were supposed to be elsewhere ... which was a shame because the talk had just turned (without abandoning either linguistics or particle physics) to cultural value.

My last question as we parted was: does a large collider necessarily have higher cultural value than a small haiku? But he was dashing to retrieve his bike in one direction, and I was running to a meeting in another, and the answer (never mind the follow up) was lost on the wind.

Me, I'm not at all sure that the answer is "yes". I'm not at all sure it's a meaningful question ... though it feels meaningful to me.

A definition of cultural value would be useful, but not easy to agree. The definition offered to a history of mathematics seminar during my own degree freshman year (back in the dark ages of late 1971 or early 1972) was: "the worth of an artefact or idea in terms of how a member of a culture was brought up to perceive that artefact or idea". If I accept that definition, then cultural value is a highly relative thing whose locus of meaning scores low in both accuracy and precision ... which is just academic delaying tactics before admitting that the definition doesn't ultimately tell us very much. Apart from anything else, only the youngest of us have been "brought up" to have any opinion on the LHC at all – for most of us, it arrived on the cultural landscape after our "bringing up" was complete.

Why does something have, or acquire, cultural value? And how is the value measured? What do I mean when I say "cultural value" ... and is it the same as Ivor, or anybody else, mean when they say it?

Does my question (LHC vs haiku) become more meaningful if we compare like for like? The collider promises increased knowledge of the physical universe within which we live, through two phases: gathering of data, followed by a long period of analysis. Four centuries ago the painstaking collection of data on the transits of Mars by Tycho Brahe, followed by a long period of analysis by Johannes Kepler, gave us the idea of elliptical planetary orbits. Both are examples of fundamental progress in physics; neither created a completely new physics. The collider involves a much greater economic investment in total, but not in terms of those involved - and when adjustments are made for the different socioeconomics of the two periods, the difference is less than it at first appears. The Copernican model (upon which Kepler's planetary mechanics were based) became part of every human being's gut level visualisation of the universe; it seems doubtful that particle physics will ever be able to do the same. How do the two compare in cultural value?

Or how about, very much in our own time, particle physics and genetic biology? The LHC and sequencing of the human genome?

Letting go of the small haiku, how about that old two cultures divide: all of science and all of art? If we were, hypothetically, able to agree that those two large abstractions are of equal cultural value, then what subsets of art would be equal first to physics, then to particle physics, then to the LHC? Can we perhaps offer up Renaissance painting against particle physics, Boccaccio's Decameron against the LHC?

Does the LHC have cultural value because a (our) culture has already invested five or six billion euros (or whatever) in it? Does it have cultural value because of what it will return to our culture – in knowledge, in economic and technological spin off, in mythology, in whatever? Does it have cultural value because our culture looks up to scientists, particularly physicists, and so what they do takes its value from that esteem? Is the esteem pragmatic, or religious, or something else?

Does the LHC acquire cultural value simply because (as I commented above) it crops up so often in conversation? And, if so, does that mean that its cultural value is at least partly down to a small group who tried to prevent it in the courts? Or to the spectacular economic investment?

Do we value things (like the collider, but also like the haiku) because they seem useless, and therefore symbolise the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of need (which also, somehow, made it's way into the lunchtime conversation)?

The more I turn the phrase "cultural value" over in my hands, the more I look at it, the less I understand it. The more it reveals itself to be a Saussurean arbitrary signifier whose locus of meaning wavers and melts into its own bell curve of uncertainty when interrogated – which is just academic gobbledygook for "my brain hurts".

Were it not for
cries in snow,
would herons be?*

* Translation by Takashi Ikemoto, 1963, of a haiku by the Lady Chiyo-jo (1701-1775).


Julie Heyward said...

In petri dish grows mirror
right hand feeds it
left hand moves it round.

[I can't remember the rules for haiku so I just made it Really Short.]

Felix Grant said...

JH> I can't remember the rules for
JH> haiku so I just made it Really
JH> Short.

[laughter] I'm not sure how far rules from such a foreign form can be said to translate across to English.

However, most who write haiku in English agree on sticking to the rule that it should have seventeen syllables. You have sixteen, so if we ad a letter "a" to the last word:

: In petri dish grows mirror
: right hand feeds it
: left hand moves it around.

Whaddaya think?

Julie Heyward said...

Oh, I get a syllable!

Like a game show! I could win a new fridge!

No, I especially didn't use around; 'round' sounds more ... well, round.

How about if I put an 'a' before mirror ("a mirror").

You have so many questions in your original post, at first I suspected you of chumming the water, but, on second thought, I realized this was simply Felix at work.

So many ideas; so little time.

Poor Pothecary said...

it should have seventeen syllables

Distributed across the three lines as 5/7/5.

By the Aioi Bridge
Gingko flames in the hot sun.
Condition normal.

Felix Grant said...

To both Julie Heyward and Poor Pothecary: the Herons translation I quoted has only eleven syllables, divided 4/3/4 ... but I'm assured that the Japanese original complies with the 5/7/5 structure.

It would be interesting to know how the various sonnet forms are translated into Japanese - which aspects of the structures they consider essential and which expendable in the interest of "working" in the new language and its own conventions.

Tee fourteen lines would, I suppose, probably be kept. A shift after the octave would probably be easy enough to preserve. Things like iambic pentameter and prescribed rhyme patterns might, I imagine, be more flexibly interpreted.

Poor Pothecary said...

See The Sonnet Form in Japanese (PDF).

Felix Grant said...

JH> ...I suspected you of chumming
JH> the water, but ... realized this
JH> was simply Felix at work.

Who knows ... perhaps they are the same thing?

"Yesterday, I couldn't spell Diuretic catalogue - but today I are one..."


Felix Grant said...

Poor Pothecary: that was fascinating - thanks!

For anyone else wanting to read it: the link was damaged, here's a
repaired (I hope!) version
of it.

Julie Heyward said...

LHC haiku
idea diuretic
or is it brain chum?

The chickens pecked chum
accurately. Then they made
five eggs precisely.

Poor Pothecary said...

link was damaged


I've been reading a bit more about haikus: according to the Wikipedia piece, "the great majority of literary haiku writers in English write their poems using about ten to fourteen syllables, with no formal pattern" to more closely simulate the constraints in Japanese, where 17 syllables carry considerably less information.