[Humanist] 28.286 cartoonists and theoreticians

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Aug 25 09:09:14 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 286.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 24 Aug 2014 09:49:32 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: cartoonists and theoreticians

The following is for those of us who follow the scholars of 
cartoons and the cartoonists themselves, or at least some of them.

First this from the great theoretical physicist Yakov Il'ich Frenkel, 
from a review article in Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk (1946), quoted by I. 
E. Tamm, "Yakov Il'ich Frenkel", Soviet Physics Uspekhi 76.3-4 (1962): 
183 (iopscience.iop.org):

 > "The more complicated the system considered, the more simplified must
 > its theoretical description be. One cannot demand that a theoretical
 > description of a complicated atom, and all the more of a molecule or
 > a crystal, have the same degree of accuracy as of the theory of the
 > simplest hydrogen atom. Incidentally, such a requirement is not only
 > impossible to fulfill, but also essentially useless. . .  An exact
 > calculation of the constants characterizing the simplest physical
 > system has essential significance as a test on the correctness of the
 > basic principles of the theory. Once, however, it passes this test
 > brilliantly, there is no sense in subjecting it to further tests as
 > applied to more complicated systems. The most ideal theory cannot
 > pass such tests, owing to the practically unsurmountable mathematical
 > difficulties unavoidably encountered in applications to complicated
 > systems. In this case all that is demanded of the theory is a correct
 > interpretation of the general character of the quantities and laws
 > pertaining to such a system. The theoretical physicist is in this
 > respect like a cartoonist, who must depict the original not in all
 > details, like a photographic camera, but simplify and schematize it
 > in a way as to disclose and emphasize the most characteristic
 > features. Photographic accuracy can and should be required only of
 > the description of the simplest systems. A good theory of complicated
 > systems should represent only a good "caricature" of these systems,
 > exaggerating the properties that are most difficult, and purposely
 > ignoring all the remaining inessential properties."

Second from Michael E. Fischer, "Scaling, universality and 
renormalization group theory", in J. F. W. Hahne, ed., Critical 
Phenomena (Springer Verlag, 1983): 47:

> The modern attitude is... that the task of the theorist is to
> understand what is going on and to elucidate which are the crucial
> features of the problem.... So the crucial change of emphasis of the
> last 20 or 30 years that distinguishes the new era from the old one is
> that when we look at the theory... nowadays we inevitably talk about a
> 'model'.... We should be prepared to look even at rather crude models,
> and, in particular, to study the relations between different models. We
> may well try to simplify the nature of a model to the point where it
> represents a 'mere caricature' of reality. But notice that when one
> looks at a good political cartoon one can recognise the various
> characters even though the artist has portrayed them with but a few
> strokes. Those well chosen strokes tell one all one really needs to know
> about the individual, his expression, his intentions and his character.
> So... a good theoretical model of a complex system should be like a good
> caricature: it should emphasise those features which are most important
> and should downplay the inessential details.

Both are just good sense, I suppose, but I wonder if the parallel 
between theorizing and story-telling does not cut much deeper than that.



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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