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Issue B: Changing words and things: science’s place in the world

Jorge Luis Borges’ essay Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, begins with the disappearance of the land of Uqbar from the 1917 Anglo-American Cyclopedia.

The entry in the encyclopaedia is recalled for a memorable observation by the heresiarchs of Uqbar (‘mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase the numbers of men’), yet when a copy of the same encyclopaedia is located, there is no entry sandwiched between ‘Upsala’ and ‘Ural-Altaic Languages’.

This essay also starts with a mystery, more modern and less glamorous. Whilst writing a website blog on an art project run in collaboration with CERN particle collider in Geneva, spellchecker picked up the word ‘miniscule’, as used in the following sentence “the current laws of physics (the Standard Model) break down in situations where immense masses exist in miniscule spaces”.

After a more fruitful search than that managed by Borges, an explanation is found on the ever-useful Oxford Living Dictionaries site. The word is spelled ‘minuscule’ and is derived from the Latin word miniscula (littera) meaning ‘somewhat smaller (letter)’. However, people naturally associate the word with ‘mini’, and hence it is often spelled miniscule – in around 52% of total use of the word, including chatrooms or, indeed, unedited personal blogs. The author concludes that ‘the adjective minuscule is a good example of a word whose spelling is changing’.

Seeing something so fundamental as a word change before our very eyes is perhaps more noteworthy than usual in this time of alternative facts, post-truth and covfefe. The Oxford Dictionaries’ approach to the ebb and flow of language is reassuring. “As the compilers of dictionaries, our job is to record the language as we see it being used today… meanings expand and mutate, loanwords are constantly adopted, so-called rules are stretched and twisted”. As the histories of numpire, decimate and awful testify, words change their spelling and meaning over time. The French post-structuralist thinker, Michel Foucault, even argued that the past several centuries have seen a change in how language is used, with implications for the very way that facts are understood as knowledge.

In his 1970 book The Order of Things, Foucault reviews knowledge and what is now termed science in the Renaissance (16th Century), Enlightenment (17th-18th Century) and Modern (19th Century) eras. Originally titled Les Mots et les Choses, the book finds that in the Renaissance period the ‘word’ and the ‘thing’ were the same or, perhaps more precisely, an organic and entwined reflection of each other. There was no conception of words and things being different, other than in the way an object is different to its reflection. Key notions for understanding the world of things were resemblance and similitude.

Photograph from the series Microscopic Macroscopic, shot by Stephen Bennett at CERN particle collider, 2016-17

 

Words changed their role during the Enlightenment to become more abstract, less ingrained in the essence of the ’thing’, and more representative of it. This precipitated a complete change in the way Western culture thought. Instead of employing resemblance as a favoured mode of analysis, the new way of using words permitted classification, comparison, discrimination and ordering. This heralded the growth of the taxonomy as an essential scientific approach.

Foucault’s final regime change or ‘discontinuity’ was the 19th Century discovery of depths and hidden forces in words and things. Modern linguistics no longer treat a word as a word, but analyse its origin, causality, history and meaning; in parallel, the study of wealth becomes a study of hidden economic forces under Ricardo, or superstructures under Marx; biological and physical sciences become preoccupied with evolution, nuclei and fundamental forces.

What lessons can we take from Foucault’s analysis? First, that the way knowledge and truth is conceived changes over human epochs. It is perhaps impossible to ever know whether we are on the verge of a transition, except in hindsight – The Order of Things completed its analysis by arriving at modernity, yet its publication coincided with the cusp of postmodernity. Are we on the fringe of another change in the way that words and things are understood as knowledge? This seems an important question given contemporary debate about a ‘post-truth’ era. Which brings me to the second lesson: we can never take for granted the role of science and evidence in society.

These two concerns informed my artistic collaboration with Michael Hoch’s team at CERN particle collider. The project explored the linkages between microscopic and macroscopic scales in physics. As indicated in the initial reference to minuscule in this essay, the astonishing scales involved in phenomena like black holes and the Big Bang break from our current scientific framework for understanding things – the Standard Model.

Yet predating the Standard Model by several centuries, pre-Enlightenment thinkers also identified powerful relationships between the microscopic and the macroscopic level. The Renaissance concept of Aemulatio (emulation) explained why things can imitate one another from the other side of the universe without apparent connection or proximity, whether they be patterns of celestial bodies, river deltas on earth, veins in the human wrist or capillaries in a leaf. The machines at CERN interrogate the seriously microscopic – particles a million million times smaller than a human hair – because they are directly linked, the same material even, as could be found in black holes and dark matter.

My collaboration with CERN resulted in a work, entitled Microscopic Macroscopic, which tries to capture some of these relationships. It reflects upon the transition between various scientific regimes and asks whether understanding past discontinuities can help us move beyond the limitations of the Standard Model. 

  

Photograph from the series Microscopic Macroscopic, shot by Stephen Bennett at CERN particle collider, 2016-17

 

The very role of science in society could also be subject to disruption. Science has been central to Western social and political life for almost four centuries now, but it has not always been this way – see occult philosophy in the Elizabethan age, alchemy, shamanism and so on. Inherent to the post-truth plotline is the question whether another regime shift may be taking place, where science is less integral in determining what ‘truth’ is. American politics is an obvious place to start, but closer to home there are signs too, with a notable British politician stating in 2016 that “Britain has had enough of experts”. Confidence in experts is at an all-time low, partly because of social media echo-chambers that only serve to confirm our own biases, and partly because of high profile perceived failures of the ‘establishment’ relating to the financial crisis, Eurozone crisis and predicting Brexit.

The Pew Research Centre suggests that socio-economic and political status affect individuals’ views on certain science issues such as climate change and the funding of basic science. The Microscopic Macroscopic project is not only about particle physics; it asks whether portraying the high profile and spectacular work at CERN can excite a cross-ideological audience about science in a more general fashion.

The problem is the difficulty of capturing the amazing developments at CERN. No one can see a Higgs Boson or particles colliding, and the physical geography is idiosyncratic but hardly awe-inspiring. The Microscopic Macroscopic film and associated photography tries to capture the awe and wonder of particle physics. I use only photographs taken at CERN, mainly of microscopic features of the physical environment: gleaming machinery, car bumpers, watermarked windows and rusty dustbins. Photographs are blown up to take on a macroscopic and even celestial characteristic, before being animated in a compelling sequence. The aim is to provide a sense of the astounding science pioneered at this multi-country research facility through visualisation. Science may or may not need a shot in the arm to move beyond our current understanding of words and things, to make sense of anti-matter, black holes and the start of the universe. The work Microscopic Macroscopic argues that whatever the case, it is essential that science is central to our conception of truth in modern society.

 

 

References

1 Borges, J. L. (1970). ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ in Labyrinths. Penguin Books: London.

2 Oxford Living Dictionaries (2017) Minuscule or miniscule? Accessed on: 05-07-2017. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/spelling/minuscule-or-miniscule

3 Buxton, C. (2013). ‘When does wrong become ‘right’?’ In Oxford Dictionaries Blog. Accessed on: 05-07-2017. Available at: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/02/when-does-wrong-become-right/

4 Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Translated from the French. Routledge: London.

5 Michael Hoch founded the Art@CMS team at CERN. Art@CMS is an education and outreach initiative of the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics. See: http://artcms.web.cern.ch/artcms/about/

6 See more on the project at: https://www.srgbennett.com/#/cern/

7 Yates, F. (1979). The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age. Routledge: London.

8 Mance, H. (2016). ‘Britain has had enough of experts, says Gove’ in Financial Times, 3 June. Accessed on 28-01-2017. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c

9 Minouche Shafik (2017) In Experts we Trust?. Available at: http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/speeches/2017/speech964.pdf

10 Pew Research Center (2015). ‘Americans’ in Politics and Science Issues. Accessed on 20-01-2017. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/07/01/americans-politics-and-science-issues/

 

 


We are excited to have recently published our second issue of THECUBE‘s magazine, with contributions from both members and friends. For this issue we have been looking at the thematic of ‘TRUTH’. This article by Stephen Bennett, is just one of the many that can be found in the magazine. If you would like to read the entire magazine please click here. We hope you will enjoy it, and feel free to get in touch if you are interested in contributing to our next issue for more details.