Philosophy and General Reading

On Recent Events

Dear Reader(s),

It has been some time since my last post. Just as I was gearing up with a series of different articles and essays – and generally getting into a good pattern of regular blogging – Covid-19 broached the shores of the UK. With the outbreak, life for all was turned upside down. In addition to having to adjust to the unsettling reality of a global pandemic and its implications – I usually respond to such world events with lots of studying and research as a way to get my head around what is objectively happening – one of the practical consequences was a series of changes to daily life and usual routines. As a person with Asperger’s, these types of changes means it can take time for me to re-establish solid ground. I’m sure everyone reading this will be able to sympathise one way or another, given that the global pandemic has affected us all in different ways. For some, the pandemic will have had a greater impact than for others, whether directly in terms of illness or economically or otherwise. People have lost loved ones; there are stories of vulnerable individuals struggling for support or being taken advantage; we are now seeing unemployment rates increasing; among a list of other things. I once wrote about the concept of rational compassion as an alternative to empathy, and it seems pertinent. In addition to the public health crisis and the suffering that has caused, there seems no shortage of economic suffering for many. It is unfortunate, I think, in a very critical and objective way, that rational debate and dialogue has often seemed to be overtaken by extreme political rhetoric and ideology on both sides of the spectrum. I know in the UK and elsewhere, important debates about managing public health and economic health have often become reduced to two ideological positions and what is essentially a false moral dichotomy. It shouldn’t be so surprised, I suppose, since wearing a mask and social distancing – two science and evidenced-based policies that require some semblance of social reason and rational compassion – have become politicised and subject to the irrational. We of course have the far-left and the far-right, both of which ultimately seem to fold into one another as the spectrum of extremes takes on the image of the ouroboros (you can decide which is the head and which is the tail); but it is not just the extreme polarisation, but also the interior of these poles. Perhaps the moral is as it always was: it is no secret that the condition of the human being is one of struggle for reason and rationality; as I am currently writing in a series of essays on the enlightenment and the anthropology of (re-)enchantment, the enlightenment was a historical moment that resulted in the culmination of developments since Plato and beyond. Enlightenment disenchantment was by no means total, such is evidenced surely in taking a systems view of contemporary patterns and trends.

But I digress. What I meant to say is that these are uncertain times, to be sure. For whatever it may mean to each individual that reads my blog, I hope you’re keeping well.

For my part, I’ve been fortunate to continue my studies and keep working away on stringy things. During the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time catching up on mountains of string study. One thing that comes with academic acceleration from undergrad to post-grad, at least in my case, is that there is a lot of catching up to do in terms of daily research level string physics and computation. It is not too difficult; rather it is the sheer amount literature. I’ve managed to cover so much in a short time, which has been satisfying, and I’m delighted to have reached a point where it seems each day I am growing increasingly comfortable with the bigger research picture and my place within it. The word ‘orientation’ is perhaps fitting; but how I’ve spent my time is probably more than some typical orientation process. It’s not only about going over foundations as well as contemporary literature and trends of thought, I also find great urgency to go back to the earliest and significant historical string papers and build up as much as I can from first-principles – to deepen my understanding and intuition of the issues and where we need to be.

In the last month or so, I’ve also been working on my MRes thesis, mostly thinking through a lot of double sigma model stuff and generally just putting a lot of energy into maintaining focus on this particular project. Of course, as my professor will attest, numerous things are constantly pulling at my attention and slowly I am finding my way. As for my thesis project, it has been enjoyable. Proficiency in double sigma models is important for future work as well, particularly with my interest in generalised geometry sharpening (among a list of questions from which I may entertain), so I’ve managed to properly sink in to the work allowing the occasional distraction: such as, for instance, Ashoke Sen’s deeply interesting paper on string field theory plus a lot of non-geometry stuff. I often tweet samples of thoughts or references, but I will likely start blogging about all this cool stuff as well.

There is much to write about in string theory and quantum gravity, with some absolutely brilliant papers sitting on my desk. I also have a stack of maths papers I would like to discuss at some point, also not at all irrelevant to string theory. All in good time I’m sure.

For now, as a gentle return, I wanted to make one last comment: with the murder of George Floyd and the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter, there has been a lot of discussion again about racism and racial injustice. There is quite a bit of science behind understanding how bias and prejudice plays notable roles in human experience, including in the sort of cognitive processes that operate in the form bigoted and racist attitudes. As many have highlighted, education is certainly one important strategy as a lot of studies indicate the role of environment in relation to subject development. To that end, I’ve seen a lot of people sharing books and important literature on things like the history of slavery and civil rights. When I was young, about the age of 7 or so, I remember studying the history of slavery in the UK as well as slavery in America, including the Underground Railroad and the life of Harriet Tubman (I can’t recall the books we read, but see for instance this biography by Catherine Clinton). This of course also coincided with studying the American Civil War and other events in Europe. Over time I’ve also read a number of books, like Stephen Bronner’s ‘The Bigot’, which formulates the persistance of racism and bigotry as a sort of anti-modernity. It is an interesting philosophical read. Somewhat relatedly, a couple of weeks ago I tweeted about some of my recollections of Olaudah Equiano (extracts of his memoirs have been digitalised by the British library), a former slave and prominent abolitionist in Britain. In the time of the 18th century enlightenment, he was very much a man of letters. There were also a number of other prominent voices during this period, and, if I remember correctly, a key to generating popular repulsion toward slavery was the industrial workers movement of the time, of which I believe Equiano was a part. Among whites, English Quakers were one a notable organised support. A historian will certainly be able to offer many more details. When one studies this history – take the end of the 18th century in Britain for example, where there was popular support for abolition – it is easy to slip into a view that slavery was abolished and that is the end of it. But it was, and continues to be, a messy and complex moral picture. Indeed, even among enlightenment thinkers of the time, there were several notable secular philosophers supporting abolitionism; but it was certainly morally convoluted and not at all universal. It is fair to say that the actual abolition of slavery in the 19th century also did not mean an end of social-racial thinking; in fact, it is well documented how new forms of formalised racial thought emerged, including new theories of formal racial hierarchy and the formalisation of systems of belief based on eugenics. There is an article in the UN Chronicle that summarises a bit of this history. In terms of books, I’ve recently learned of two that sound informative and interesting: George M. Fredrickson’s ‘Racism: A Short History‘ is often cited. I also recently learned of a book by Timothy C. Winegard entitled, ‘The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator’. This is not a book on epidemiology, nor is it a work of biology, virology, or for that matter even anthropology. It is a popular history book, the sort I tend to try and avoid; but I’ve heard it offers a fairly detailed history of the slave trade as it relates to mosquito-borne diseases during European colonisation.

Of course, one can easily find online a list of important and widely cited books on the topic. These are two new ones that I’ve highlighted for myself. I’m currently putting together what would be my summer reading list, although my break is delayed until after my thesis is submitted (likely during the autumn before my PhD in December or January). That could be a topic for another post :)