Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Reduction on a Summer Day

I was walking from Pioneer Works in Red Hook to my apartment in nearby Cobble Hill talking with the fashion designer turned futurist developer Mari Kussman on a very hot Friday. Though roasting, and with the smell of  rotting fish from the nearby Brooklyn docks in the air, we were overlapping each other in our general optimism for the place we were. We had just come from Pioneer Works, this dynamic transformed factory which is now an art hub  where I have been working with the owners and board to make a nano lab and science initiative which will help realize founder Dustin Yellin’s goal of a true combined innovation space. So we had walked through the Ernesto Caivano exposition, played on the piano, toured the set of a film I am involved with that is directed by Alexis Gambis, and seen the beautiful precision work of those constructing the actual space where our high tech lab will go. There was very little to complain about as there wasn’t a better place where two new friends exploring creative and scientific interests could engage with that morning. In fact this brief tour was kind of a wrap up of a week which was enlightening and somehow still left questions in my mind. They were more existential in nature, or at least existential in a not completely paradoxical, yet strange way. The question was how the combination of pockets of insight could be re and de-constructed in such a way that we could feel both creative and rational. For many years I have thought these things were not at odds, which is one reason I am so attracted to Pioneer Works and all of these various seemingly unrelated activities. Still there is a philosophical emptiness that comes with reconciliation of these vast worlds of expression and thought. So while dangerous in that I stand to misrepresent events that even though recent are polluted by my own moods and preconceptions they may have some resonance. Or perhaps you can participate in the puzzle which has been the 3 year journey of these essays in “Converging Minds.” As a scientist I recognize the metrics as Karl Popper defined them. Progress is made through falsifiable discoveries. That is, it isn’t even real science yet until it has the ability to be proven incomplete. Yet we mark our lives like the papers we write. They are completions for publications that still leave a nagging sense of the incompleteness.

I had only met Mari the week before, and even though we sat across from each other the table discourse was not one which allowed people to have real intimate conversation. This is normal with a group of 12, and this 12 was even more unique, as everyone came prepared with such well-defined and well-reasoned ideas on any discussion that was begun that it took on the feel of a seminar with Korean food and beer. The dinner was organized in order to welcome the economist and prolific writer, Professor Robin Hanson to New York, and the conversation was at such a dynamically high level of pure reductionist philosophy that Spock himself would have had trouble keeping up. If there is a belief, which I actually do have, that a dinner with people smarter than you is a better dinner, then this was a feast for me. A large part of the discussion was unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, which is how to teach rationality. The nuances of rationality, critical thinking and probabilistic reasoning were ones I hadn’t fully realized when I made two simplistic statements. I had said that teaching rationality could be done in two ways. The first is by teaching statistics to children in primary school.  This was not something that this group would disagree with, though outside of that table I have had many arguments about this, including with my daughter’s own teacher. Never the less this makes some sense. Statistics gives perspective, and therefore it becomes more intuitive to notice outliers in daily life. Belief in ghosts, being attacked by terrorists and a personal God become less likely by learning some specialized math. The second point I made was one that I heard Mari appealing to, which was a call for artistic expression as a way to gain empathy, and empathy in itself when properly understood as a neural mechanism was actually very rational. This was the glue of the discussion that could not dry in such a short time, but did continue even that night via Facebook chats. I had recounted the same story I have told hundreds of times about seeing the Beckett play “End Game” at 14 and realizing that I had been irrational my whole life. This was shocking and terrifying actually, but set me on the course of trying to understand the world differently, not through faith but through experimentation. Is this reductionist though, if an art experiment (a play, composition or video etc) is rarely understood scientifically even by the artist let alone the viewer in the way that a scientific experiment can? Is art falsifiable?

The conversation may have briefly ended but the thought continued. That Saturday I hosted an artist salon for Dominick Talvacchio . Dominick is an understated polymath, as his actual mathematics have been pursued privately and as a teacher rather than in academia. He is also a playwright, a web app developer, a former semi pro baseball catcher and a champion backgammon player, almost none of which I knew before this week. His art though is a distillation of much of this, often taking on meticulous and sometimes minimal form. The party was mostly informal talking and drinking (old school gin cocktails, though that has absolutely nothing to do with this conversation), but we did have a few minutes for me and others to ask Dominick some questions. One that he explored in some detail was the creation of a silk screen (to the left), which is a large reduction of rectangles by individual pixels. As you can see though, this seemly pure mathematical exercise becomes a sea of waves which ignites the imagination as much as any great master work of art. A few of us went to my back garden to continue to talk about the piece while Dominick himself stayed above. One observer pointed out that the universe is not only ordered but also chaotic, for which I took to mean irreducible. For this reason he liked that the waves emerged more than the reduction of the rectangles. It is of course only through the rectangles that the waves emerged, and though creating waves directly is artistic enough, it wasn’t this work.

I thought about that conversation  when Mari and I arrived back at my home from our trip to Pioneer Works. I was about to have a dinner where Dominick would show yet another of his skills as an Italian American chef. I made a coffee for Mari and gave it to her in my favorite Star Trek mug. She looked at the mug and asked who my favorite character was. I said Captain Kirk, likely out of my own desire to be so cool and confidant as Kirk always was. She, the artist, the designer, the promoter of empathy said immediately that Spock was her favorite character. I looked up at the wall where Dominick’s painting still hung and thought about the week. What she was saying was what Dominick’s piece was also saying, and which I couldn’t put into words. It is honorable and even right to reduce. It is essential. Still, even when we do this we remain humanly attached to the result of the reduction not the reduction itself. You can start in either place with art or science, but in the end it reduces to the logical without losing its beauty. Perhaps this is also why I write “Converging Minds”, even though the only mind is this one limited mind. The more I reduce it, the more I understand what it is capable of creating. Perhaps this is what we all do.

No comments: