Subtle messages

Hmmm… I found this mong the junk mail in our letterbox. Is someone trying to tell me something? Years ago I remember a comic giving out ‘life tips’. One was: “the last cheque you should ever write should be to the undertaker. And it should bounce!”

Happy Bloomsday!

It’s Bloomsday — June 16 — the day when all the action in James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. For years — since the early 1990s — I’ve celebrated it by giving a lunch in my college at which guests have Gorgonzola sandwiches and drink Burgundy (same as Leopold Bloom did in Davey Byrne’s pub in the novel) and read from the great book. I can’t hold the lunch this year because of coincidental diary conflicts, but the lovely Bronac Ferran, a regular attendee, sent me (as a consolation prize) this photograph she’d taken recently while on a trip to Zurich — the city where Joyce died and is buried together with Nóra, his wife, and Giorgio, their son.

Murray Gell-Mann

Nice obit of the great (but prickly) physicist in the New York Times. Excerpt:

Much as atoms can be slotted into the rows and columns of the periodic table of the elements, Dr. Gell-Mann found a way, in 1961, to classify their smaller pieces — subatomic particles like protons, neutrons, and mesons, which were being discovered by the dozen in cosmic rays and particle accelerator blasts. Arranged according to their properties, the particles clustered in groups of eight and 10.

In a moment of whimsy, Dr. Gell-Mann, who hadn’t a mystical bone in his body, named his system the Eightfold Way after the Buddha’s eight-step path to enlightenment. He groaned ever after when people mistakenly inferred that particle physics was somehow related to Eastern philosophy.

Looking deeper, Dr. Gell-Mann realized that the patterns of the Eightfold Way could be further divided into triplets of even smaller components. He decided to call them quarks after a line from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.”

With Dr. Gell-Mann at the forefront, physics took on a Joycean feel. Before long there were up quarks and down quarks, strange quarks and charm quarks, top quarks and bottom quarks, all stuck together with particles called gluons. The funny nomenclature was as much a Gell-Mann inspiration as the mathematics.

Muster Mark must’ve been delighted.

The truth about Ansel Adams

There’s an interesting interview of the photographer Stephen Shore by another photographer, Alec Soth, in today’s Financial Times. It contains an interesting story about Shore’s first encounter with Ansel Adams:

One of my closest friends at the time was a curator named Weston Naef, and he had a loft in SoHo. He invited me to dinner one night with Ansel Adams. This is in maybe the mid-1970s. Ansel had been, in fact, very helpful to me without my knowing it. Uncommon Places [Shore’s first book] came about because I had a show in ’76 at MoMa and he saw it and came back with his editor at New York Graphic Society, named Tim Hill, and suggested they do a book. That’s how Uncommon Places happened.

Ansel had been drinking before I got there, and while I was there he had six glasses of straight vodka — a prodigious amount of vodka — and at one point he said, “I had a creative hot streak in the ’40s, and since then I’ve been pot-boiling.” And I thought, when I’m 85 that’s not how I want to look back at my life.

Later in the conversation he asks Adams how he managed to do as much work as he had in the 1940s when he had five children. The reply: “I got separated”. I’m reminded of Cyril Connolly’s listing of “the pram in the hall” as one of his Enemies of Promise.

So there is a God, after all

One of the things that cheered me up no end this weekend was the way Uber’s IPO flopped — at least in comparison with the $120B fantasies of the punters who had invested in it on the assumption that it would be the winner-that-took-all in the market for mobility. The assumption of the company was that it wold be valued at $100B at the IPO, but in fact it wound up at $70B. Which means that a significant number of investors are probably left owning shares that are worth less than they paid for them in more recent funding rounds. Since the Saudi royals are among those investors, it couldn’t have happened to nastier people.

Sixty years on

Today is the 60th anniversary of CP Snow’s celebrated Rede Lecture on the Two Cultures, which started an argument that sometimes rages still. Tim Harford has a nice essay marking the anniversary. Sample:

Snow was on to something important. His message was garbled, in fact, because he was on to several important things at once. The first is the challenge of collaboration. If anything, The Two Cultures understates that. Yes, the classicists need to work with the scientists, but the physicists also need to work with the biologists, the economists must work with the psychologists, and everyone has to work with the statisticians. And the need for collaboration between technical experts has grown over time because, as science advances and problems grow more complex, we increasingly live in a world of specialists.

The economist Benjamin Jones has been studying this issue by examining databases of patents and scientific papers. His data show that successful research now requires larger teams filled with more specialised researchers. Scientific and material progress demands complex collaboration.

Snow appreciated — in a way that many of us still do not — how profound that progress was. The scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould once mocked Snow’s prediction that “once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor” and that division would not last to the year 2000. “One of the worst predictions ever printed,” scoffed Gould in a book published posthumously in 2003.

Had Gould checked the numbers, he would have seen that between 1960 and 2000, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty had roughly halved, and it has continued to fall sharply since then. Snow’s 40-year forecast was more accurate than Gould’s 40 years of hindsight. Even when we fancy ourselves broadly educated, as Gould did, we may not know what we don’t know. That was one of Snow’s points.

But the deepest point of all — buried a little too deep, perhaps — is a practical problem that remains as pressing today as it was in 1959: how to reconcile technical expertise with the demands of policy and politics. In short — have we really had enough of experts?

The historian Lisa Jardine highlights this sentence in Snow’s argument: “It is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.” We didn’t decide we’d had enough of experts in 2016; we made that decision long ago.

Cambridge University Press published a nice anniversary edition of the lectures a while back, with a wonderful introductory essay by Stefan Collini.

In some ways, Snow was a sad — and sometimes a ponderous — figure. I met him once. I was writing a profile of Solly Zuckerman at the time and went to see him in his office in London (he was an official in Harold Wilson’s administration). I found him to be helpful and generous with his time.