[Humanist] 31.760 status among the disciplines

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Apr 11 09:45:59 CEST 2018


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 760.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    "Norman Gray" <norman at astro.gla.ac.uk>                    (67)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 31.755 status among the disciplines

  [2]   From:    Don Braxton <don.braxton at gmail.com>                       (61)
        Subject: Regarding Post "status among the disciplines"


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Tue, 10 Apr 2018 11:41:16 +0100
        From: "Norman Gray" <norman at astro.gla.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 31.755 status among the disciplines
        In-Reply-To: <20180410075639.1EAED9D08 at s16382816.onlinehome-server.info>


Willard and all, hello.

On 10 Apr 2018, at 8:56, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:

> Kleitman in turn dwells on the analogy of combinatorics with 
> mathematics
> in regard of status, e.g.:

>> Much of mathematics was and is motivated by potential application to
>> science or engineering.
>>
>> When such an application is successful, it quickly becomes absorbed
>> into the subject; if important, it becomes a part of the science, is
>> taught to students as such, and ceases to be considered mathematics.
>> Thus, what is left as mathematics and taught as such in areas of
>> application, are either preliminaries, or those subjects that have
>> not been successful enough or important enough to be taken over.
>> Thus, applied mathematics is in effect excluded from its successes.
>>
>> Of course, there is always the possibility that new mathematical
>> methods will be required to handle new or now ill-understood
>> scientific problems. Thus mathematicians represent the threat to
>> scientists that they may be forced to learn new tricks and to study
>> new and perhaps unfathomable mathematical lore.
>
>
> Comments?

Well, yes..., sort of.  The following is perhaps a 'refutation by 
anecdote':

* The Dirac delta function, string theory, and renormalisation, are all 
mathematical tools within particle physics which were developed by 
(mathematically sophisticated) theoretical physicists, but which, 
despite being very useful in that area, were regarded as underjustified 
by mathematicians.  The latter then reworked the ideas, doing work which 
was productive from the point of view of mathematicians.  That is, this 
is physicists' rough tools being mathematically productive.

* There's a story (ie, apocrypha-alert!) of an old buffer at Cambridge 
in the 20s, trundling in for the start of his much-repeated lecture 
course on matrices (very arcane and largely useless), nearly having a 
heart attack to find, instead of a couple of extra-keen undergrads, 
theoretical physicists hanging from the rafters, who urgently needed to 
know how to work with Heisenberg's matrix mechanics, presented in 1925 
as a novel approach to quantum mechanics.  This is mathematicians' 
fun-and-games being unexpectedly productive as tools. (Hamiltonian 
mechanics and group theory have had a broadly similar journey)

* G H Hardy famously (and jubilantly) cited number theory as an example 
of a bit of (pure, of course) mathematics that could never be of any 
practical use.  Number theory now encrypts the connection from your 
computer to your bank. (I'm not sure where this fits in to the argument, 
but it's a nice story).

If there is a distinction between theoretical physicists and applied 
mathematicians, it is not in the maths that they work on.  Instead, the 
former use and develop the maths as as tool to do physics, though it's a 
tool they generally thoroughly enjoy using.  The latter use and develop 
the maths because they enjoy making the tool, and they get some 
inspiration, and problems to solve, from the rough-work that the 
physicists do.  That is, the difference is more in intent than practice.

Pure mathematicians just amuse themselves, off in the corner, quietly 
(probably best not to enquire closely, but the applied mathematicians 
tend to keep an ear cocked in that direction, and perhaps monitor sugar 
intake).

Thus the distinction between these disciplines is less rigid, and less 
transactional, than I think Kleitman is suggesting.  It's not far wrong 
to say that the applied mathematicians are acting as intermediaries, but 
the tide goes in both directions, and sloshes from end to end.

Best wishes,

Norman

-- 
Norman Gray  :  https://nxg.me.uk
SUPA School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow, UK



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Tue, 10 Apr 2018 11:30:48 -0400
        From: Don Braxton <don.braxton at gmail.com>
        Subject: Regarding Post "status among the disciplines"
        In-Reply-To: <20180410075639.1EAED9D08 at s16382816.onlinehome-server.info>


In response to the highlighted section below, two observations occur to
me.  My observations should be seen in the context of someone not connected
to innovation in mathematics but in Digital Humanities.

First, the highlighted section begins with the phrase "taught to
students".  I would suggest it is more complicated than that.  In my
teaching of digital humanities, and as emphasized in almost all DH
discussions of pedagogy, we emphasize teaching with students and often
students teaching us as instructors.  Part of the joy and challenge of DH
is that no one can develop and maintain expertise in all the fields and
skills though which DH projects ramify.  Interdisciplinarity is emphasized
in a team-based, and situational and problem-solving manner that can only
be attempted with diverse skills and knowledge in the room.

Second, if my first thought is taken seriously then there can be no worry
of "inclusion or exclusion" beyond who gets a voice at the table.  This
assertion is justified by the fact that outcomes belong to no one
discipline.  Process and approach are malleable and belong to all the
disciplines involved, and to a degree, none of them at the same time.  DH
is not, in my opinion, a new discipline but a pedagogy enabled by digital
technology to frame, approach, and successfully solve questions that
humanities by itself cannot hope to undertake in isolation or without the
aid of digital technology.  It pushes the limits of technology by ferreting
out limits of technology and asking for more or why technology hasn't been
designed to address a novel configuration of issues. And it also reverses
the critical inquiry by identifying the limits of humanities and its ad hoc
belief that computers cannot produce meaningful and relevant information to
age-old human questions and their various cultural products..

For example, think of the attempt to say substantive things through
so-called "distance reading" of literary corpora.  Humanists don't like it
because it claims mathematics can explain the genius and appeal of genres
and specific authors.  Technology will not like it because the results
force them to address questions of how patterns translate into meanings and
values.  I run into this all the time, but more frequently among humanists
who seem to believe transgressive innovation is some kind of sacrilege.

DH produces hybrid results that challenge disciplinary boundaries and
"proper" fields, and thus, it is too narrow a question to ask whether it is
taken up in this or that field.

Who cares who gets credit for the success?

My two cents.

Don Braxton

Daniel J. Kleitman's "On the future of combinatorics" (2000)* provides
an amusing as well as enlightening analogy for digital humanists
wondering about where they stand in a world structured by disciplines.
Kleitman in turn dwells on the analogy of combinatorics with mathematics
in regard of status, e.g.

> Much of mathematics was and is motivated by potential application to
> science or engineering.
>
> When such an application is successful, it quickly becomes absorbed
> into the subject; if important, it becomes a part of the science, is
> taught to students as such, and ceases to be considered mathematics.
> Thus, what is left as mathematics and taught as such in areas of
> application, are either preliminaries, or those subjects that have
> not been successful enough or important enough to be taken over.
> Thus, applied mathematics is in effect excluded from its successes.

-- 
Don Braxton
J Omar Good Professor of Religious Studies
Juniata College
Huntingdon, PA
16652
USA





More information about the Humanist mailing list