Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Moonlight held together with words

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Those of a social-scientific bent (and I count myself among them) are wont to explain human motivations and actions and feelings by reference to observable, if not precisely measurable, social phenomena. "It's hardly surprising that M would leave T and run off with D," H and I might say to each other, unwinding over a couple of beers after the kids are put to bed, "given the fact that her last job put her into all kinds of long hours and adrenaline-producing situations with D, while only causing stress in her relationship with T because of her having to be all over the state." Add in, say, factor X in M's background and the stress between M and T being raised to the third power because they have three children, and you can get yourself a fairly complicated mathematical equation.

The great astronomer Galileo Galilei, who preferred the title "Mathematician and Philosopher" and who, after being censured by the Inquisition at age seventy, merely went ahead and laid the basis for Newton's invention of physics, was a man whose "genius lay in his ability to observe the world at hand, to understand the behavior of its parts, and to describe these in terms of mathematical proportions."* And yet he often referred to wine as "light held together with moisture."

*Dava Sobel, Galileo's Daughter

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