Monday, May 12, 2014

A Thousand Words

Have you noticed that paragraphs have gotten shorter?

We are reading more and more text displayed on screens, in landscape rather than portrait, or on tiny handheld devices. This hasn’t only affected the layout and typesetting, it has altered the way we write.

Short paragraphs and lists are now often used to break up blocks of text, and so are images. There is hardly any writing on the internet not decorated with an image. Besides reasons of layout there is the image grab of sharing apps that insists you need to have a picture. If none is provided this often comes out to be some advertisement or a commenter’s avatar. Adding a default image avoids this.

A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words, but these thousand words are specifics that are often uncalled for, in the best case distracting in the worst case misleading. Think of “scientist” or “academia”. What image to pick that will not propagate a stereotype or single out a discipline? You may want to use a female scientist just to avoid criticism, but then isn’t your image misleading? And to make sure everybody understand she’s a s-c-i-e-n-t-i-s-t, even though she’s got lipstick on, you need a visual identification marker, a lab coat maybe, or a microscope, or at least a blackboard with equations. And now you’ve got a Latino woman in a lab coat looking into a microscope when all you meant was “scientist”.

FQXi launched a video contest “Show Me the Physics!” and in the accompanying visualization you’ll find me representing “scientist”, think bubble included (0:22). I’m very flattered that I’ve been promoted to a stereotype killer. Do you feel aptly represented? (Really, do not take pictures of yourself within 5 minutes of waking up. You never know, they might end up being your most popular ones.)

But if a picture adds a thousand words worth of detail, then a word calls upon a thousand pictures. The word is a generalization and abstraction that encompasses whole classes.

When my two year old daughter had spaghetti the first time, she excitedly proclaimed “Hair!” Humans are by nature good at classification, generalization and abstraction and this expresses in our language. That’s why we understand metaphors and analogies, and that’s where much of our humor roots.

This generalization is why we are so good at recognizing patterns, devising theories and, yes, at building stereotypes. Show me an image that captures all the richness, all the associations, all the analogies and connotations that come with the words “life” or “hope” or “yesterday”.

What are we doing then by drowning readers in unwanted and often unnecessary information? Sometimes I wonder if not the well-intended image works against the writer’s intent of making the text more accessible.

I love music, almost all kinds, but if anyhow possible I avoid music videos. I actually don’t want to know how the band looks like and I don’t want to know their interpretation of the lyrics. I want to make up my own story. Images are powerful. They stick. This video ruined David Ghetta’s Titanium for me.

This made me wonder if not this fear of the abstract, the word all by itself, is the same fear that leads science writers to shy away from equations. If a word calls upon a thousand images, an equation calls upon a thousand words. Think of exponential growth, or the wave equation, or the second law of thermodynamics. Did you just think of stirring milk into your coffee? Verbal explanations add details that are as uncalled for and can be as misleading as adding an image to illustrate a word. An analogy, a metaphor or a witty example does not convey what makes these equations so relevant: Their broad applicability and the ability to describe very diverse phenomena.

Recall these word problems from 8th class? The verbal description is supposed to make the math more accessible, but finding the equation is the real challenge. Science isn’t so much about solving equations. It’s about finding the equations to begin with. It’s about finding the underlying laws amidst all the clutter, the laws that are worth a thousand words.

Sometimes I wonder if I’d not rather be an abstract “scientist” for you, instead of a married middle-European mother of two, and I wonder what are the thousand words that my profile image speaks to you. And I fear that, by adding all these visual details, we are limiting the reader’s ability to extract and appreciate abstract ideas, that by adding all these verbal details to science writing, we are ultimately limiting the reader’s ability to appreciate science - in all its abstract glory. Hear my words...


    The scientist.

    Three problems with our universe: 1) There is not enough surface area/volume; 2) It lacks connectivity; 3) The able are managed by the smartless.

    "The greatest failure to use the abilities of people…to learn about their frustrations and about the contributions that they are eager to make.” Out of the Crisis 1982 – Ch. 2. "Principles for Transformation," p. 53. W. Edwards Deming.

  2. People who cannot craft words equally cannot use pictures in their stead. Social media encroachment as non-discriminatory mass accommodation of the smartless is wildly successful. It suffocates those who would keep score because product not process is important.

  3. You forgot to comment on the need for science in an inhuman world. Is it for better or worse?

  4. Enforcement Droid Series 209s versus paintball guns with Parts A and B of quick cure large expansion polyurethane foam.
    Graphics hold no truth at all. How's Afghanistan doing, $(USD)10^12/year for 12 years versus guys in skirts w/o bagpipes?

  5. We might want to consider here the deeper nature of language. The attempt to develop artificial languages especially Glossa (formerly Interglossa) from the Scientific Humanist era. Frederick Bodmer who studied Ojiba Amerindian here in Wisconsin and Lancelot Hogben.
    What is the minimum words needed to say convey a statement in science?
    What appealed to me was that the root words were based on Greek and Latin roots which in world wide science word borrowing are recoginzed in many languages and where it can uses logical relations.

    "re " is a unit of speech BTW, and so is "fi" which more or less means filament.

    So I find it not surprising a child would.catagorize spaghetti as the word "hair " in a world we may not be able to catagorize. For example fi as a string theory concept, or time as a world line. Where do archetypes and stereotypes meet and can they coexist or be interchanged?
    So I find my boys in the yard with playing in a patch of dirt witch looked like a field of wheat. They said they were planting spaghetti so we could make more. I smilled but thought something of language must be passed down in the fi of the DNA.

  6. Sometimes I wonder if I’d not rather be an abstract “scientist” for you, instead of a married middle-European mother of two...

    Please be both :) Either classically or quantum mechanically :)

  7. Yes, but you know very well how excruciatingly painful it is to sit through a powerpoint presentation with no pictures. Dear seminar givers: your first duty is to avoid boring us to death. Everything beyond that is a luxury!

  8. Late 70es reading the provided lecture notes for electrodynamics 101/102, a commentary accompanying a half-a-dozen glyphs long 4-vector expression of Maxwell's equations, that "All of electrodynamics is contained therein"...

    The assertions you make in the post remind me of my reaction at that commentary, that it was manifestly belied by the dozens preceding pages of stiff material that the author needed to throw at an audience highly selected for predisposition, in order for that strikingly compact representation to make any sense.

    What makes images powerful is, I surmise, that our visual wiring allows us to effortlessly make sense of them with little background theory - a property antipodal to that of equations.

  9. The universe is self renormalizable and self evolving.

    "This temporal sequence is not a picture. "

    I like uncle Al's comment of volume and surface only for me. It is area and edge or an edge and its points in discrete information sequences. After 4000 words in a manuscript I reduced it to one page of a graph but is that a picture? I still could not recall how I first derived it or thought I did for trying to create it from memory years later linear sequences could not be recovered again once fallen into a loop of finite nodes. Picture a vapor percipating out ice. Pictures worked and seemed easier after surprisingly difficult exercises in imagining 3D.
    It looked remarkably like a variation on the DNA code charts which is quite a rich zillion words of the universes total picture.
    Some see Feynman diagrams as such a simplified sketch yet so rich a picture - or is it say a brane like formula?

    I put a photo on my status last night in Facebook after reading Neil Bates FQXi essay using letters facing flat mirrors. While up and down seems not reversed right and left does, but also forward and backward. Where does the always forward sense of the letters meet the reversal?

    I looked up some fine points on German and Norse languages and decided so much of what we perceive is influenced by the deep structure of words. Word order in German is all important, as variable as jumping genes with a lot going on before the verb. The feminine form does not change where neutral and masculine matches the endings. The matrix seems close to a given. See The Loom of Language by Bodmer.

    My "teleoscoping" problem does relate to these fractal linear and holographic debates and issues.

    I rather like the ideas on a more local region of these ideas such as entanglement. And that things concretely default to the positive - that is the intuitionist formula has a concrete relavance also if one can call it 2 formulas and not a zillion.

    The information in the edge and the region seems in the main equal.

    I leave you with a picture. Imagine say RNA where the bases pop out for an organism to learn or encode something. But they do not - what abstract effects we so picture hint of hidden symmetry or its breaking within.
    A fractal linear sequence regardless how we consider origins and endings in a rather large indifferent cave of light and shadows should at least move thru adjacent dimensions.

  10. I think you have explained why I always prefer a good book to the movie that is based on that book. My rule is, if you must see a movie based on a book, see the movie before you read the book. There is less disappointment that way. Of course if you write a book and a movie is made of it, I will be happy to see the movie too.

  11. JimV,

    Sometimes the underlying metalanguage of the universe 's screen play is richer than what the perceptions of the reader or viewer as part of the experience can see.

    Lord of the Rings, the block buster movie, can never stand as deep as my reading the book before there were movies. Let us recall Tolkien was a linguist and some of the exotic languages and alphabets came from his childhood friends secret languages.

    The Stand as I read it came very close to the movie. That is rare.

    Being an impressionable young human my own project of sci fi fantasy with the purpose of making things like higher dimensions in physics so easy a child could understand the metaphors came to a halt for years in the face of such works of genius. I do not think journalism to communicate science is an easy if not an impossible task. We accelerate not only information but how we feel or should feel about it.

    I have posted things on this blog which really is an informal journalism, but the ideas, assertions or questions were intended for the scientists too.

    There is the living of life and learning that for all of us, writing is really hard mental work., as much as spending time thinking about learning and living.

    Your observation is important. It is hoped in the silence and computation
    That some magic moment will reach clarity in the future for inquiring thinkers. It does happen or we get lost and overwhelmed in the sheer complexity growing as well.

    @etc al
    Congruence and Gaussian numbers in a rather complex conformal space - the new finding on unlimited heat transfer in graphene should be instructive although strict division by Fourier into real and imaginary parts has always been questioned.

    The value of a product made of metal depends on successive application of heat as well as enfoldings where carbon meets the two edged sword of Swedish steel.

    What sort of picture or formula is |0>?
    Joy Christian makes a point.

    Like the neutrinos taking time to accept they change in flight so have mass less likely our sun goes Nova, the Biceps data evidence may take time to accept. Then again, it is quite possible we cannot detect neutrino mass this side of that conformal that imagines the absolute of ends, limits and beginnings implying metalanguages over languages in motion or standing wave hierarchies in the sound or picture of we who synchronize to the cosmic heartbeat

  12. I had never heard Titanium. The video detracts from the music although the video is well done.

  13. Bee,

    You could blog as some Wizard of Oz and deliver disembodied pronouncements from behind a velvet curtain, but I don’t think it would be as engaging as your candid, personal reflections on the many subjects that attract your interest. If anything your personal context and wry humor must add rather than detract from what you are intent on conveying.

    And your words are a kind of conveyance, a rickshaw service in a highly abstract realm.

    “Transduction in general is the transportation or transformation of something from one form, place, or concept to another. In psychology, transduction refers to reasoning from specific cases to general cases, typically employed by children during their development.”

    And of course communication modalities are incredibly diverse and often subtle. A new study says that among professional poker players it is the way they move their hands that most accurately reveals what kind of cards they are holding.

    Communication approaches vary. Advertising agencies may spend thousands tuning a message to your particular channel whereas some Texans believe English is the only proper language for a ballot. What is the best way to convey the subtleties of quantum mathematics? Are its abstractions rejected out of some aversion?

    “Do not choose a coward’s explanation that hides behind the cause and the effect.” – Leonard Cohen

    What is Mr. Cohen saying here? Perhaps this is simply musing on a failed romance, worry that there may be a hard to face truth that escapes facile explanation? Similarly, the worry with abstraction is that some subtle essence may escape its net. If we don’t like the results of the equation, it is on these grounds we might first complain.

    I am in awe at the power of mathematics and the perseverance of those folks that bring it to task. And, I am oppressed by a mathematics that seems to suggest a global determinism over which I have no tangible effect.

    In any case, I think I would learn a great deal from a cartoon schematic of the Hamiltonian. Something with captions and little arrows pointing out things like clutch, brake, differential and etcetera, an enumeration of constituant parts.

    Or perhaps it would work as an opera…

    P.S. The word count of your “A Thousand Words” is only seven hundred, seventy-seven.



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