The Gravity of Scientific Language
The Universe in a Glass of Wine

a dialogue between

Cal Hewitt & James Soderholm

CH: Historically, a lot of science was done in dead languages, especially Latin, and it often worked very well: Newton's Principia is remembered as a great work of literature as well as for the great insights that it contains. The beauty of a lot of it doesn't really translate - 'for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction' is an ambiguous fudge of words, and the original Latin, I'm told, is quite the opposite.

However, the situation today is very different: English has become almost universal as the language of international scientific literature, but it's a constant uphill struggle against the fact that as a language it's alive; words pop in and out of usage and change their meanings, it's full of euphemism and idioms, when beautiful it's often vague. This is terrible for trying to precisely and concisely record technical knowledge in a form that could survive for centuries. And so science begins to be done in a form of the English language that strives to be dead - to fix meanings, be free of idiomatic expressions, and for the sake of being understandable to those for whom English is not their mother tongue, use simplistic sentence structures and lack ornate vocabulary.

It seems a logical solution to the problem when English is generally so universal, but it's a awful loss in terms of the way our greatest discoveries are recorded. The observation of gravitational waves by LIGO is arguably the most profoundly important discovery in physics in recent years, so let us use the abstract to their landmark paper as our first example. The language is tragically dull, lacking confidence in itself, it's cluttered with jargon so as to be almost unintelligible except to a scientist in that specific field. It certainly won't go down in history as a great accomplishment in itself; instead the public will remember the discovery in terms of tabloid headlines and reams of generic 'popular science' books.

Some questions that follow:

Is it possible to express scientific results in English in a way that's beautiful, but also sufficiently thorough and not liable to misinterpretation in years to come?

If not, should we genuinely consider moving back to something like Latin when publishing these landmark papers? (it seems almost ridiculous in modern times...)

How does the precise language of the results themselves in something like Newton's works tie in with writing on a result's philosophical/general implications, which can benefit a lot from the poetic vagueness of any particular language? (Say, when trying to express the almost incomprehensible scale of the universe, an appeal to the sublime can certainly help)

JS: I suppose I would need to see the announcement paper from LIGO—can you supply it? I assume it is somewhat less objectionable that the demotic idiom of the tabloids, which of course almost revel in the guttural, whilst some of you scientists are trying to reach the stars (aping Wilde there).

And rather than recur to dead but precise Latin, why not come up with newly-minted metaphors to depict scientific discoveries? As you suggest, even that hoary old category, ‘the sublime’ goes some distance—although hardly billions of light years—to suggest cosmic immensity. If the specific gravity of scientific language is difficult to represent in English words—and taking into account that English is one of the most complete and precise languages in the world (only Russian and French are its equals, apparently), then why not try using more figurative language, assuming that a lively metaphor is more suggestive and nuanced that the orthodontics of Latin diction and syntax?

So, let’s get down to cases. Let’s talk about specific instances where you think that English is simply not pulling its weight. I take it that ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, for example, are weak metaphors. And ‘cosmic microwave background’? Isn’t ‘background’ misleading? I am far out of my depth here, as you know, so you must educate me.

I note in closing that the marvellous word ‘metaphor’ is itself a metaphor.

late 15c., from Middle French metaphore (Old French metafore, 13c.), and directly from Latin metaphora, from Greek metaphora "a transfer," especially of the sense of one word to a different word, literally "a carrying over," from metapherein "transfer, carry over; change, alter; to use a word in a strange sense," from meta "over, across" (see meta-) + pherein "to carry, bear"

Is it possible to blend mathematics and metaphor to create an ornate and precise vocabulary for scientific discovery that bears us across all those gravitational waves?

CH: Let’s make the distinction between quite different things that must be represented in the process of recording a discovery. First is the technical mechanics of an experiment; that perhaps a telescope was set up in such-and-such a configuration, attached to some instrument, and collected whatever kind of data for so many days. Second is the synthesis, from the results of the experiment, of a theory to explain them, initially as a mathematical relation that the numbers obey, but then as a generalised statement in words; a profound truth about our universe that the data and the pattern within them show to be the case.

It is in the latter part of this that the need first arises to create new language, or new ways of using it. These truths can often so far defy common sense that our vocabulary – created only in terms of what we have already experienced – lacks the concepts to describe them. But is metaphor really the best way to do this? Surely it is an injustice to the precision in which we can understand our world to express our understanding in such vague terms? Why say one thing and mean another when we know precisely what we mean? Metaphor certainly does excel in the step one further than this; to wrap our heads around the unintuitive constructs we have built, and come to terms with facts we have unearthed that are so alien in nature to our macroscopic world. But we’re still left with the problem of the pre-metaphorical steps, and my objection to today’s language with regard to these isn’t so much that it’s inadequate but that frankly it’s ugly. It’s cluttered with unattractive jargon and acronyms, sentence structures seem simultaneously simplistic and unwieldy.

The beauty of the result exists not only in itself, but in the process that created it, for this is where the ingenuity lies. When we record this process in language, and in other fields are so invested in making our language beautiful, surely it here also can reflect the beauty of the process?

We must also address the way in which English is used for science internationally. If we were to express our discoveries in metaphor, then a constant genesis of new metaphor would be required when new discoveries and concepts were created – one immutable vocabulary would never be enough. But could we expect those who had not grown up with the language, perhaps learnt it only recently for their work, to master not just its use but its creation? And there’s nothing to say that scientific and linguistic creativity would go hand in hand, even for those would did speak native English. Science could not go on when some of its greatest practitioners found it impossible to express the marvellous ideas that occurred to them.

On the examples you name: in ‘dark’ matter and energy, ‘dark’ takes the meaning of denoting that which we do not understand. Coincidentally, ‘dark matter’ doesn’t seem to interact with visible light so does indeed appear dark to our telescopes, but ‘dark energy’ is a different matter entirely, only having in common with ‘dark matter’ the fact that little about either is known. Probably the greatest weakness of that metaphor is that it suggests the two concepts are one and the same (especially when relativity tells us that ‘matter’ and ‘energy’ are themselves equivalent) when in actuality they couldn’t be more different.

‘Cosmic microwave background’ isn’t really a metaphor in itself (background takes its usual meaning that the CMB is a low-level signal which can be detected everywhere) but I feel that such a clumsy, overly-descriptive phrase doesn’t befit the evidence that led us to our current understanding of the origin of the entire universe. I’m not sure what would!

JS: Given the need for technical terms and mathematical equations, how would you in fact make the Abstract below more readable—and more beautiful—to the intelligent non-specialist, such as myself? Figurative language tends to make the abstract concrete—this is its job—but it also can produce opacity just when one wants clarity.

On September 14, 2015 at 09:50:45 UTC the two detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory simultaneously observed a transient gravitational-wave signal. The signal sweeps upwards in frequency from 35 to 250 Hz with a peak gravitational-wave strain of 1.0×10−21. It matches the waveform predicted by general relativity for the inspiral and merger of a pair of black holes and the ringdown of the resulting single black hole. The signal was observed with a matched-filter signal-to-noise ratio of 24 and a false alarm rate estimated to be less than 1 event per 203 000 years, equivalent to a significance greater than 5.1σ. The source lies at a luminosity distance of 410+160−180 Mpc corresponding to a redshift z=0.09+0.03−0.04. In the source frame, the initial black hole masses are 36+5−4M⊙ and 29+4−4M⊙, and the final black hole mass is 62+4−4M⊙, with 3.0+0.5−0.5M⊙c2 radiated in gravitational waves. All uncertainties define 90% credible intervals. These observations demonstrate the existence of binary stellar-mass black hole systems. This is the first direct detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger.

CH: I think the first step would be to make it understandable, and given the abundance of technical terms this is an easier job than it appears. Beyond the very existence of such things as black holes and waves that can bend space itself, there’s little in the abstract which is conceptually complex - of course this will change once we reach the detail of the paper!

Here is my attempt at a first translation into plain, simple English:

On September 14th 2015, an experiment called LIGO in the United States detected a one-off signal in gravitational waves for the first time. The experiment involves two detectors some distance apart, and they both detected the signal at the same time. These waves are oscillations in the fabric of space itself; not the movement of objects within it but of the canvas in which everything exists.
It is thought that the signal was caused by two black holes about 410 Megaparsecs (a unit of distance) away – large stars which have collapsed in on themselves to create an object so dense that its gravitational pull doesn’t even let light escape – circling into each other and coalescing into one larger black hole, which then lost some more energy in becoming calmer. This is the first time that black holes have been observed (by any means) behaving in this manner, although it was predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity that if they did, they would produce a signal very much like the one we observed.
The waves began oscillating back and forth 35 times a second, and this steadily increased to 250 times a second. At their most intense, they were causing space to stretch by a factor of 10^-21. The two original black holes were roughly 36 and 29 times heavier than our sun, and the final black hole roughly 62 times heavier than our sun. The missing mass was lost as energy in the form of the gravitational waves that were observed.
The signal was sufficiently intense to make it incredibly unlikely that it was caused by random ‘white noise’ in the apparatus. It met the condition that modern science uses to constitute a definite discovery.

I notice that without trying, some metaphors (albeit rather boring ones - space as fabric or a canvas are by no means the most enlightening comparisons) are creeping in. As to making it beautiful, I think I’ll need your help...

JS: If one feels the pull to communicate, one visualizes in metaphors, unless pure mathematics is by itself more powerful and precise, as Plato suggested. Any canvas or fabric brings us down to earth, down to Aristotle, but Plato is pointing to the heaven of Forms, and they are as unsullied as the Pythagorean Theorem when we learn to work it out in our frontal lobes, not as we scratch it out in the dirt using a stick (cf. Meno).

I think your version of the Abstract is much better than the original one. It’s more prosaic—in a good way—and more generously descriptive. Our dialogue calls to mind a distant memory of some chapters in Robert Pirsig’s cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the author has much to say about the soullessness, aridity and needless complexity of technical and instruction manuals. Pirsig becomes philosophically obsessed with the word and idea of Quality, and he traces it back to the ancient Greeks and tries to understand how Western culture lost its way, how we became besotted by technology and yet unable to understand it. For Pirsig and the ancient Greeks, Quality of understanding and a sense of beauty go hand in hand. If I were to render your translation more beautiful, I probably would have to transmute it into a prose-poem Abstract. How would Marcel Proust write about gravitational waves? I sometimes wonder if only serious writers—not thinkers, not scientists—are the only ones who can think in enough registers, who can ride enough beams of light, who can deploy enough points-of-view, to be able to properly depict the true nature of reality.

Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer, 
Drinker of horizon's fluid line; 
Ear that suspends on a chord 
The spirit drinking timelessness; 
Touch, love, all senses...
―Stephen Spender

CH: To depict it, one must not only know nature, but understand it intimately, inside out. Can anyone do this but the scientist? And may anyone but the thinker stretch their head around what the scientist has seen? It seems that the perfect expression of scientific truth requires the coalescence of all three minds – in reality perhaps perfect communication between them, in both the precise and the abstract.

Socrates’ treatment of virtue in the Meno reminds me (tenuously) of a passage from one of Feynman’s lectures. He describes how in a glass of wine there can be found metaphors for all of the strands of scientific endeavour, the swirling liquid constantly evaporating as physics, the complex aromatic compounds which create the aroma as chemistry, the microorganisms that fermented the grapes as the study of life, and so on. But all in all, it is together something which cannot be known by looking at one part alone, or even all parts listed together. Nature does not care that we have chosen to dissect the glass into a multitude of disciplines – to give each one a separate name, and in doing so we move further from being able to understand the whole. By making many out of one we miss the point of what – or perhaps how – nature is. Science’s effort to combat this form of blindness comes in the form of unification – how we gradually become able to explain many phenomena as different parts of the same thing. The great historical example of this is electromagnetism: that the action of magnets, light, electric circuits, radio transmission, etc. are all now explained adequately by one theory. Ultimately an aim of fundamental physics must be to unify to the greatest possible extent – to find a single theory that explains all phenomena we observe in our universe. (Not its final aim, for the creation of such a theory would be by no means the end of science.) To this we have not come close. Could the use of language – to explain nature as a whole – help us?

A final thought: Newton’s theory of universal gravitation was just as revolutionary in its time as gravitational waves are in ours. Yet he had no need of writers and thinkers to enrich his ideas with the figurative; the simple but precise words from his own mouth survive over time and remain great today. In hundreds of years, when the existence of gravity waves seems as obvious to us as the fact that it’s the same phenomenon that causes the apple to fall to Earth and moon to circle the sky, will our attempts at heady metaphor be seen as a sign of inarticulacy? If not (and I hope not) then what has changed between then and now? Is it something to do with the fact that science is no longer the work of the individual, but of the collective?

JS: Are there not scientists working alone? Is all achievement now the work of the collective? Not long ago I visited Isaac Newton’s house in Woolthorpe and spent some time in the room where, quite by himself, he played with prisms until his mind became a prism. I also stole about thirty dead, beautiful autumn leaves from beneath that famous apple tree. In my solitude I reflected upon his genius and his solitude and two thoughts came to mind. One from Beethoven: “Loneliness is my religion” and one from Nietzsche: “Everything can be accomplished in solitude, except sanity.” Nietzsche strolled alone through the Alps and invented the opposite of Jesus, which he called ‘Zarathustra’. Hawking sits alone in his wheelchair, solitary and immobilised, and tries to imagine a unified field theory.

So why can’t you be the next Newton or the next Hawking?

I leave you with a bit of William Blake’s poetry.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand 
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour. . .

We are led to Believe a Lie 
When we see not Thro the Eye 
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night 
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light 
God Appears & God is Light 
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 
But does a Human Form Display 
To those who Dwell in Realms of day

CH: I find it hard to believe that those kinds of dreams of a thinker like Hawking are really science, at least in the form known to Newton. Newton grasped the prism, a fragment of nature, in his hand, and held it to the light; he experimented. Even when working with pen alone to formulate his theory of gravity, he was analysing the foremost astronomical data of his day – for the sake of preserving his loneliness he was perhaps lucky that then it would fit in a table on a single page.

Today, we understand prisms. We don’t, however, understand the exotic curiosities that can be conjured only by particle smashers deep below the Earth, which appear in a flash of pure energy and perish in an instant more. We don’t understand the vast structures of ‘dark matter’ (it looks like we’re still waiting on a better name!) that hold our galaxies together, and which require an equally vast observational effort to attempt to understand. Today, the world’s entire computing power struggles to keep up with processing the information we collect (the vast majority of data from the LHC is thrown away as it would take too long to store) - let alone the analytic abilities of our human minds.

The realm where the lone thinker does still seem to reign is in providing the first creative leap towards explaining all of our fragmented information in a unified and beautiful way, in other words, in creating clarity. Though I think we mustn’t idolise these thinkers above the scientists who work alongside them; after all, Newton was a scientist...

I find it interesting that for me, Beethoven’s music above any other can create order in my own mind – he is where I would often turn when drowning under complex and seeming irreconcilable strands of thought, from scientific data or otherwise. Even if the theoretical side of scientific endeavour becomes strictly the domain of the collective, I think the art of lone minds can always help us.

JS: That ‘first creative leap’ may sip the liquid horizon of a unified field or a multiverse. The intuitive mind as a gazelle. Pre-Socratic Thales bounded and found himself calling everything ‘water’. That was not a monistic description of an arche so much as an intuition of one world from many phenomena—an early attempt at a unified field? Does thinking separate, like a prism, or put together? Interesting that the etymology of the word ‘thing’ is ‘a gathering’. Does Beethoven separate into notes only to put together into melody, and add harmony further to clarify his musical intuitions? When I am going out of my mind I listen to Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Since I don’t know much about how music works, I can find consoling clarity in the simplicity of my appreciation of certain moments of phrasing in that work. But trying to say exactly what I mean is a little like trying to put into moribund metaphors the gravity of an aesthetic experience, or scientists trying to language forth the ‘dark matter’. As Virginia Woolf said—registering her own kind of gravity—‘words always stick two inches too low’. How to correct [for] that trajectory? The purpose of art?

The Art of Lone Minds – now there’s a companionable book, irony warmly embraced.

CH: Does thought separate or combine? – the intuitive answer seems to be, both, of course! Returning to Feynman’s wine glass, we begin to understand by splitting our understanding into parts: we think of the organic molecules evaporating from the liquid to create an aroma, separate from the enzymes that made fermentation possible, etc. However, when this is done, we yearn for the whole, for we know that however useful our classifications may be, nature did not intend them. Our thought takes us some of the way there: we can now describe chemical interactions in terms of quantum electrodynamics (a theory of physics) and much of the simpler biology in terms of that chemistry. This new whole is a far more enlightened one than that which came before. Thought as reorganisation, recombination?

Do you think the Matthew Passion seems so clear because we don’t understand it? One of my favourite of Beethoven’s works is his Grosse Fuge: a late composition for string quartet, originally a movement of a longer piece. It is certainly not something which anyone can say they understand, and a convincing explanation of its structure has yet to be found. How may we attempt to separate it – into notes? A note is not a singular, but a harmonic series of frequencies, and in the muddy trills and complex dissonances the adjacent series coalesce into one. Of course thinking in terms of notes makes sense because of intent: a collection of individual pitches is how the music is recorded on the page. Maybe this is because we have no other way to write music down – was the whole so divided in the artist’s mind?

It seems that attempts at analysis are imposing structure where it does not naturally belong, as with the wine glass. However, somehow, a clarity of understanding does arise to the listener – perhaps as the beautifully simple fundamental particles and the laws that govern them condensed out of the pure energy of the Big Bang. Hence Beethoven’s title – ironic or not: the fugue is one of the most intellectual, ordered, intentional forms, considered too baroque for any serious attention of his contemporaries. Can this unexplainable structure (of the universe too) really be called intentional? I don’t mean in the tired sense of a designer God. We always describe the world in terms of rules, but is it right to hear nature – a pool of somehow consonant but ultimately chaotic frequencies – as a great, regimented fugue?

JS: Two poetic thoughts immediately come to mind, so thinking must be coalescence. But both thoughts also register differences. Thinking must be a constant dialectic of making/finding similarities and making/finding differences. Perhaps ‘nature’ and the ‘nature of mind’ are also a dialectic or a fugue. I think that great novelist and lepidopterist, Vladimir Nabokov, believed that the more one examines a subtle and complex natural phenomenon, a rare butterfly, for example, the more the mind becomes itself butterflied into new patterns. This is a new way of thinking of the butterfly effect, the bounding gazelle or the prismatic mind. Is this what Einstein meant by trying to understand how the mind of God works? He must have intended the phrase ‘mind of God’ to be a metaphor, right? If gravitational waves could speak their own language, what would it look like? The language of mathematics? But what if the language of mathematics is itself metaphorical, an approximation of the ‘truth’ about the structure or unity of the natural world? Didn’t Galileo say that the universe is written in the language of mathematics? Max Tegmark cuts to the chase: the universe is mathematics. If so, doesn’t that rather rule out nouns and verbs?

CH: The language of mathematics is a product of the human mind – that mind a complex biological system, explainable in terms of chemistry, in turn explained by physics. Mathematics is not the universe but a secondary consequence of it. The English language, the language of music, and every other mode of human expression likewise arose purely from chaos and the laws of nature. The language(s) of the universe must surely be all of our own!

Mathematics is one of the most elegant forms that nature has concocted to express itself, but there is also much it cannot do. If gravity waves spoke, they would be messengers from a fantastical faraway land, telling of the tumultuous collisions of light-traps infinitely dense and as massive as stars. Hardly something that can be expressed in an equation. Mathematics describes only what we can already comprehend – it could tell us the precise way a gravity wave oscillated in space and time, but could not answer what is a gravity wave. I don’t think there is anything to suggest that it in any way resembles how the laws of the universe are fundamentally inscribed, if that question makes any sense at all.

This belief that what science is looking for – rules that govern the world, universal and immutable – really do exist, is I think what Einstein meant when he spoke of God. I am content with the fact that the scientific belief in the laws of nature is one of faith alone, because it is a faith both well-founded and fruitful regardless of its veracity. If it turns out to be valid, then these laws and random chance are responsible for all we have created, experienced, and observed. Their most beguiling phenomena butterfly the mind – another of their own creations – and compel it to understand itself. When deep in these new patterns we will ourselves to understand without trying, as the gazelle bounds by instinct alone. If we are a product of the universe, then is this will the universe’s own?

JS: Didn’t someone say that thinking is the universe’s way of trying to understand itself? Before our stardust-minds go back to stardust, there is a flicker of self-awareness, a photon of insight, before the long good night. Mind and language are Nature’s way of raising a wine glass to itself. It could so easily have been otherwise.

Where man is not, nature is barren. William Blake

To loop back to the beginning of this dialogue and the insights of Newton, it was another Romantic poet who had perhaps the wittiest thing to say about both the levity and the gravity of the occasion of discovery. From Don Juan, Canto X:

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
     In that slight startle from his contemplation --
'T is said (for I'll not answer above ground
     For any sage's creed or calculation) --
A mode of proving that the earth turn'd round
     In a most natural whirl, called "gravitation;"
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.

Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
     If this be true; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
     Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes:
     For ever since immortal man hath glow'd
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.

Along with Newton’s Principia, Byron’s poetry is full of glowing insights about the acts of levitation that understanding gravity makes possible. Our own dialogue has been one such flight of fancy, riding a gravitational wave of metaphor to the moon. Unlike you, I haven’t mathematics to understand nature or the will of universe. But the butterfly-wings of figurative language have conducted us both into some strange regions. I am reminded that Plato’s dialectic is also a kind of wing that ascends to the beauty of clarity through reasoned conversation. Is that clarity the aim of all thinking and writing?

CH: Remember that clarity can also be misleading – after all, many of Newton’s Principles (though how precise and unambiguous they are!) have turned out to be subtly wrong. But this doesn’t change the fact that they were utterly invaluable to the process that led to our current understanding, and still leads on. Rather, it emphasises it. To return to our original question of how science may be recorded in great literature – I think perhaps the greatest thing that our living language can give is to record that constant process, the ever-changingness, the provisionality of scientific progress. The journey is analogous to that of our language itself, and indeed to our literature, music, and art, and all the other creations of the laws of nature and randomness combined. Each leap overwhelms us with its sublime clarity, but this clarity is neither eternal nor absolute.

I find it hard to close this dialogue: coming to an end would undermine its spirit. I think this discussion, this bounding of our butterflied minds and synthesis of new and heady metaphor must continue for as long as humanity – between us, between the conflicting, echoing voices in our own heads, and between all the scientists, thinkers and writers of the world. Our flight has left us in a strange but exhilarating land far beyond the moon (they got there in the sixties) and we’ve no choice but to go further still.