Sunday, January 29, 2017

227: Heads In The Clouds

Audio Link

A few days ago I was flipping channels on the TV, and saw a few minutes of one of the horrible movie adaptations of Jonathan Swift’s classic 1726 satirical novel, Gulliver’s Travels.  When you hear that title, you probably think of a man being tied up on the beach and being captured by an army of tiny Liiluputians.   Most adaptations of the novel focus on that nation of tiny people, which actually comprised only the first section of the Travels.   Although mainly a political satire, even that part of the book had an influence on modern mathematics and computer science—  the Lilliputians were fighting a war over which end of an egg to crack first, with the Big Endians vs the Little Endians.   We now use those terms when describing whether the highest or lowest byte comes first in each multi-byte ‘word’ that forms a computer memory.   But that’s not our main topic today.   What I want to talk about is one of Gulliver’s later voyages, which directly satirized the mathematics and science of Swift’s day:    the voyage to Laputa.

Laputa was a city built on a floating island, populated by a highly educated race of men who spent all day contemplating advanced ideas of music, mathematics and science, almost completely disconnected from any practical matters.   These were a group of people who literally had their “heads in the clouds”.   According to at least one website, this metaphor was already in use by the 1600s, so Swift may have had it in mind when designing this city.  In fact, Laputans are always so deep in thought that they must hire an assistant to alert them when they need to interact with the real world.   As Swift described it:  

It seems the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing; for which reason, those persons who are able to afford it always keep a flapper … in their family, as one of their domestics; nor ever walk abroad, or make visits, without him.  And the business of this officer is, when two, three, or more persons are in company, gently to strike … the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself.  This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post; and in the streets, of justling others, or being justled himself into the kennel.   

Somehow all this contemplation never translates in practice to real world usefulness.  Gulliver admires the elaborate care which their tailor takes to measure every detail of his body, but the clothes then delivered are ill-fitted.  Their houses are all poorly put together, with walls at odd angles, because their precise geometric instructions are too refined for the uneducated servants who end up having to do the actual building.    They serve their food cut carefully into various geometrical shapes or representing musical instruments, with no relevance towards whether that is an appropriate or useful presentation for actual consumption.   He summarizes the situation with “I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music.” 

A question you might now be asking is:  why does Swift seem so hostile to advanced science and mathematics, which by our time have resulted in amazing improvements to human comfort, productivity, and lifespan?   We need to keep in mind that back in the early 1700s, it was not at all obvious that all the effort spent by the elites on pursuing advanced studies of mathematics and science were actually leading anywhere.   One of the few practical abilities the Laputans did have was the power to lower their floating city and crush rebellious townspeople on the ground, perhaps a hint at the worry that new science was too often used to develop instruments of war rather than advance humanity.  Here is one of Swift’s comments on the unfulfilled promises of scientific leaders:  “ All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals.  The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. “   In fact, these promises were largely fulfilled by the sciences in the 20th century— too bad Swift never lived to meet Norman Borlaug and see the massive agricultural productivity increases of his Green Revolution.

Swift also was particularly sensitive to the suspicious claims that scientific understanding of mathematical laws governing the natural world would somehow enable a corresponding scientific and mathematical reorganization of society to benefit mankind.   He’s actually pretty explicit about this, stepping back from the satire to address the real world directly at one point:  

But what I chiefly admired, and thought altogether unaccountable, was the strong disposition I observed in them towards news and politics, perpetually inquiring into public affairs, giving their judgments in matters of state, and passionately disputing every inch of a party opinion.  I have indeed observed the same disposition among most of the mathematicians I have known in Europe, although I could never discover the least analogy between the two sciences; unless those people suppose, that because the smallest circle has as many degrees as the largest, therefore the regulation and management of the world require no more abilities than the handling and turning of a globe; 

Here I think Swift was on to something, when we consider that the major mass-murdering totalitarian movements of the 20th century all had intellectuals at their core who believed they needed to scientifically re-engineer society.    On the other hand, since I’m actually an engineer who now serves in elected political office, I should probably stop the podcast at this point before getting myself into trouble.   

f you’re a fellow math geek and haven’t read Gulliver’s voyage to Laputa, I think you’ll really enjoy it.   Since it’s so old it’s out of copyright, you can follow a link in the show notes and read it for free at Project Gutenburg.
And this has been your math mutation for today.


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