Today's post is slightly off-topic for this blog, but I couldn't help myself. I promise it won't happen too often. I just received, via the departmental mailing list, an advertisment for what sounds like quite a nice event at the Tate Modern, in London. They are showing a film about mathematics and mathematicians, which will be followed by a discussion with Michael Atiyah and Cédric Villani, two very successful mathematicians, from different generations, countries, and sub-fields. This is great, but it is part of a broader series of events, going by the name Topology.
If you follow the link above, you will find some of the most extraordinary pseudo-intellectual bullshit I have ever had the displeasure of reading. The conceit seems to be that the development of topology in mathematics had wide ramifications for such diverse fields as psychology, psychoanalysis, and architecture (I'm not joking). From the website:
"Limit, boundary, interior, exterior, neighbourhood, disconnection and cut were central notions that became ways of describing the fields of forces experienced by individuals. Static ideas of space as a container were replaced by understandings of movement-space, of multiplicity, differentiation and exclusive inclusion that in turn have led to new ideas of power, subjectivity, and creativity."Oh dear.
It only gets worse when you read the descriptions for some of the other events in the series; it is all meaningless crap like the above, with the occasional "topology" or "topological" thrown in out of context. One thing which is pretty clear is that the author has never studied topology in their life, or if they have, they failed to understand it. Here's another taste:
"Spaces of Transformation will incarnate through performance, an intensive non-ordinary moment of space-time, a closing celebration that will give shape and meaning to the entirety — changing, shifting and integrating. A dynamic paradoxically entangled topological logic, with future-anterior foldings into and out of other heterogeneous space-times in relational processes of becoming."Perhaps it only makes sense if you've taken magic mushrooms or something.
This is part of a broader trend of trying to marry art and science; for example, CERN now employs a choreographer. In general, I think it's fantastic if artists turn to science and mathematics for inspiration; not only does this have the potential to lead to some interesting art, but it can help to get people excited about science, so that perhaps they will be motivated to learn about the ideas behind the art. But I don't think this cause is furthered by people writing the type of drivel exemplified above. Art is emotional and subjective, and should be described as such (the exception being to make comment on the technical prowess of the artist), with scientific language reserved for the discussion of science; using it otherwise only has the effect of dumbing down public discourse. Vacuous statements do not obtain meaning just because you couch them in the jargon of a profound subject.
Let me finally turn the spotlight back on myself, and observe that when you study mathematics and/or physics, it is easy to fall into the trap of intellectual snobbery, and denigrate all those who study other less-exact pursuits, such as psychology, 'social science', philosophy, and so on, as being inherently inferior. That's not what I'm doing here, because I think all those fields can teach us important things; if every 'thinker' concentrated on the mathematical sciences, the world would be a sorry place indeed. But people like the author of the above website have nothing interesting to say, and this should be pointed out.