L I T T O R A L

Mathematics is a kind of Poetry
a conversation with James Gleick

12/23/2011  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 
James Gleick

photo by Phyllis Rose

James Gleick is rightly hailed as our leading chronicler of science and modern technology. He has a knack for presenting complex subjects in a clear and compelling style that drives book sales measured in millions; and for imbuing the world of science with a pitch-perfect sense of the adventure, humor, and humanity that is all too often seen as the antithesis of this realm.

Gleick’s first book, Chaos, introduced the general public to chaos theory and made the “butterfly effect” a household phrase. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as was his second book, Genius, a biography of the American physicist Richard Feynman. Gleick’s next project was not a book at all, but the Pipeline, a pioneering internet service provider, had all the earmarks of Gleick’s mission to make the world of complex science accessible to the layman. “I’d heard about email and other internet-type things from scientists I knew,” Gleick recalls today of the Pipeline’s inception in 1993. “But at that time there was no way for a person like me to gain access to the internet.” So, together with computer programmer Uday Ivatury, Gleick developed “something that no one had every created before: user-friendly Windows software to let novices use e-mail and chat and other internet services.”

Gleick’s newest book is the culmination of his previous work as a writer and internet innovator, and perhaps the most important book published in the past year. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood reveals the roots of information theory and tracks the development of communications technologies that now characterize our society.

Our conversation began over email as the baseball playoffs were getting underway. It concluded before Thanksgiving, as we were putting the finishing touches on the program schedule for “Yet Another World,” the 30th annual Key West Literary Seminar, behind which Gleick is the driving creative force. Over this span, we discussed Gleick’s taste in fiction, the difference (or lack thereof) between the artist and the scientist, interconnections between humanity and technology, and the possibility of delivering lunch as an email attachment.

•••

Littoral: The Information suggests a prodigious understanding of complex mathematics and scientific theory. But I’m told you were an English major. How would you describe your math and science background?

James Gleick: I had a very strong math and science background from kindergarten through about 10th grade. Then I gave it up. It’s true that I was an English major, and I hardly took any science courses in college at all–not even Physics 101, which I have regretted a million times or so.

When we're talking about creativity-about genius, about originality-I don't know if there's any difference at all between the artist and the scientist. Ultimately, of course, the scientist is constrained by reality a little more tightly than the artist. But only a little.

L: What draws you to scientists and mathematicians?

JG: I think it’s not the scientists and mathematicians I’m drawn to, but their work: the science and math. Scientists do so much, intentionally or not, to shape how we see the world. And yet, science is a part of our culture that seems to go underreported, maybe because the subjects seem alien or forbidding. I wouldn’t say I understand complex math and science, but I appreciate it. It doesn’t seem alien to me. I’ve tried to cultivate a reporter’s skill set in getting scientists to talk about what they care deeply about.

L: I also declined to take upper-level math and science courses as a student. They didn’t seem forbidding, so much, as boring, empty of creativity. But in your hands, high mathematics seems incredibly creative, like a kind of poetry that makes its own rules as it goes along, all in the service of a more pure truth. Are there similarities in the way a great writer and a great mathematician approach their disciplines?

JG: That’s beautifully put: “high mathematics seems incredibly creative, like a kind of poetry that makes its own rules as it goes along, all in the service of a more pure truth.” That’s how it is, I think. For them, I mean. The challenge is to try to get into their heads, insofar as that’s possible. When we’re talking about creativity–about genius, about originality–I don’t know if there’s any difference at all between the artist and the scientist. Ultimately, of course, the scientist is constrained by reality a little more tightly than the artist. But only a little.

James Gleick's "The Information"

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Jacket design by Peter Mendelsund.

L: What do you most like to read?

JG: I read mostly fiction, by far. What kind? I don’t know! Anything good, I’d like to say.

L: Do you write fiction yourself?

JG: I don’t. I tried, a long time ago, and discovered that I couldn’t do it. It’s too hard. I’m lacking something necessary and don’t even know what that is.

L: As program chair for this year’s Key West Literary Seminar, you had the opportunity to draw a sort of frame around contemporary fiction. What’s the common element among the writers you chose?

JG: In different ways–very different–these writers present visions of the near future. Some of them aren’t very nice visions. Of course it’s a way of writing about the present, about our potential, about ourselves: what we expect, what we fear.
    So many great writers are being drawn to this way of writing now, often adopting styles or techniques that used to be called “science fiction.” I’m not sure why, but I have some ideas. I’m hoping we’re about to find out.

L: It’s no surprise that a lot of these writers explore the possibilities of technology. What is it about technological advancement that scares people, and what do they love in it?

JG: Technology empowers us, almost by definition. That can be exhilarating. The scary parts depend on the technology, but if we’ve learned anything it’s that no technology comes free of charge. In the case of information technologies we know the problem all too well. Broad, instantaneous, almost godlike access to facts does not make us wise. It may not even make us knowledgeable.

L: One of the most compelling things in The Information is the connection you draw between humanity and technology. Though new technologies are often maligned as alien, people use metaphors of the human body as a way to understand them…

JG: And it’s a two-way street. We simultaneously grab onto the new technologies as metaphors to help us understand our bodies and ourselves. When a journalist tried to describe the first London telegraph office–with its eight instruments connected to copper wires–he said it was “the great brain–if we may so term it–of the nervous system of Britain.” But nobody knew how nerves worked, much less brains. Soon people were explaining the nervous system by analogy to telegraph networks, and then telephone switches, and now computers.
    Often we’re not even aware of our deeply embedded technological metaphors. When we turn to earlier and earlier history for insight, what are we doing? We’re “winding the tape backward” (Marshall McLuhan used that one).

L: This book feels like a kind of mountaintop, like it was the one all your earlier books were building toward. Does it feel that way to you?

JG: Yes, it does. It had its start in Chaos, when Rob Shaw and his friends first told me about Claude Shannon and information theory and how they were using this seemingly abstract weird framework to study physics. Faster was in a certain way a warm-up for this book, and all the time I was working on Isaac Newton I was thinking about issues of information. In this passage, for instance: it says something about information (certainly not about physics) that there was no concept of an “address”; that “When Newton sent a letter to the Secretary of the Royal Society, he directed it To Mr Henry Oldenburge at his house about the middle of the old Palmail in St Jamses Fields in Westminster.” Now, of course, we’ve assimilated the idea of an address as a hierarchically ordered geographical data set (complete with postal “code”); and not for nothing is the word also a crucial term of art in computer science.

L: What will your next project be?

JG: This last book took me seven years to write, which seems like a lot. So I don’t know what I’m doing next. Something shorter, that’s for sure.

L: OK. Final questions. The part about quantum mechanics/physics/computing was way over my head. Will we one day be toting quantum laptops? On my quantum laptop, will I be able to email you this sandwich?

JG: I’m reminded of the moment in Sleepless in Seattle when the boy Jonah says to the wise-beyond-her-years girl Jessica, regarding airfares, “Do you know how much it costs to go to New York?” and Jessica says, “Nobody knows. It changes practically every day.” Quantum physics is way over everyone’s head. We’re not meant to understand it, in any meaningful sense of the word understand. Once we’re past that hurdle, it starts to be really fun.
    Information theory is taking over big parts of quantum theory, but not in the sense of providing any ultimate grand solutions. I enjoyed this comment by one of the pioneers of the new quantum information science about turmoil within the ranks of the theorists: “Go to any meeting, and it is like being in a holy city in great tumult. You will find all the religions with all their priests pitted in holy war … They all declare to see the light, the ultimate light. Each tells us that if we will accept their solution as our savior, then we too will see the light.”
    But the science is real, and it’s exciting. No, we will not be toting quantum laptops–not in our lifetimes, anyway. Quantum computers are one of the great potential applications; they have powers that seem almost magical, but actually to make them, and to control them, on scales larger than a few atoms at a time, is a very distant goal.
    As for the sandwich–yes, another topic I cover is what they call quantum teleportation. But no, we won’t be teleporting any sandwiches.

James Gleick blogs at around.com and tweets @JamesGleick.

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