Institute of Physics scholarship award and full interview

I’m proud and honoured to share that I’ve been awarded a PhD research scholarship by the Institute of Physics. An announcement by my university can also be found here.

As I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, my PhD research focuses on M-theory and the question of string theory’s non-perturbative completion. To be a recipient of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund on the basis of my planned research in mathematical physics, which included having to deliver a presentation on my topic and an interview with the physics panel, is quite satisfying. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous knowing that I can be maths heavy and that this might not be recieved too well in-front of a well-distinguished panel comprised mostly of experimental physicists! But I am delighted that the wonderful physics content of my research was acknowledged.

In conjunction with the announcement of my scholarship award, I was invited to participate in a more personal interview designed for the non-physics reader. Within I answer a variety of questions, including about my current research. I also share a bit more about myself, my upbringing, and other personal stories and reflections.

Below is the complete version of the interview I gave for the Institute of Physics. There is also a shortened, edited version that can be found here.

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1. Tell us about your work – and what drives you (We want to know about your area of physics and why you’re passionate about it. What does it mean to you? Why is it important? Imagine the reader is not a physicist).

Firstly, thank you for inviting me to answer questions.

The situation today in fundamental and high-energy physics is incredibly interesting. A lot has happened since the 1950s or so, with many great successes. Just think: essentially all observable phenomena are well described, on the one hand, by quantum field theory and the Standard Model of particle physics, and also by Einstein’s theory of general relativity on the other. We have established tremendously accurate descriptions of the very small – quantum theory – and the tremendously massive – cosmology and astrophysics. Modern physics has made some remarkable achievements, both in advancing human knowledge, and in supporting how we may apply the laws of nature to develop important technologies. Having said that, it is almost certain that these fundamental theoretical frameworks are incomplete. For example, general relativity and quantum field theory break down when we start to study situations at the centre of a black hole or close to the big bang. Many readers will likely also have heard of concepts like dark energy and other things, which also currently remain unknown.

A big question in fundamental physics, perhaps the deepest and most important, has to do with what we call quantum gravity. This represents the unification of general relativity with quantum field theory. I work in mathematical physics, and, in particular, my research is focused in string / M-theory. Today, this is the most promising and indeed leading theory of quantum gravity.

One of the great successes of string theory is how, in a single consistent mathematical framework, we have a theory that combines gravity with the quantum laws of nature. This means that at very large scales, we find gravity as Einstein described it in his general theory of relativity. But on very small scales, in which space-time is discretised, we have a theory that captures the idea of quantised units of gravitational energy. We think of these quantised units as particles that we call gravitons. In practical language, string theory describes how the curvature of space-time emerges from the existence of gravitons. Thus, we have a quantum theory of gravity.

Despite the many successes of string theory, we still face some open problems and challenges in formulating the complete theory. It is not possible, at this point, to speak of such challenges without a degree of technicality as this is a highly technical subject. What I will say is that, in keeping to practical language, one of the biggest and most important questions we face concerns what may be described as the non-perturbative completion of string theory. This is what my PhD research is focused on understanding.

To explain this, allow me to share a bit of history. As late as 1995, we had five perturbative string theories – type I, type IIA, type IIB, and the two flavours of heterotic string theory (SO(32) and E8 × E8) – and these were seen to be distinct. Much of modern physics is built using tools and approaches that deal with what we may describe here as local, approximate, perturbative descriptions of reality. And these perturbative theories of fundamental physics – the five string theories – are remarkably successful and beautiful. Just from the humble idea of the extended of object of the string, which is a generalisation of point particle theory (which one may have some familiarity with going back to undergraduate or A-level physics), we can generate some brilliant results like Einstein’s gravity. But just think of the situation in the mid-1990s: in quantum gravity, we had five theories without a way of knowing how to select the correct one. This is quite a messy situation! But one of the amazing qualities of string theory is that it comes with a wealth of symmetries.  And it was following a very important proposal by Edward Witten that the five perturbative string theories were found to be deeply related by a number of non-trivial dualities, or, for the sake of practicality, what we may describe here as symmetry relations. So rather than being distinct, the five string theories were found to represent different limits of an overarching theory.

This is quite an evocative idea, namely that there is some deeper underlying structure to quantum gravity, from which things like space-time may even emerge! This overarching theory is known as M-theory, and the non-perturbative completion of string theory to M-theory is specifically what my PhD research seeks to investigate.  M-theory is truly remarkable for several reasons. Although the five perturbative string theories exist in ten space-time dimensions, M-theory exists in 11 space-time dimensions. So it is a higher dimensional theory. Given that one can think of it as the parent theory to string theory – i.e., as a single mathematical structure that unifies the zoo of perturbative string theories, with its low-energy effective action being what we call supergravity – it represents a unique theory of quantum gravity. More than that, M-theory is, in every sense, the leading candidate for a Theory of Everything (ToE). It is also the mathematical theory that makes sense of the dynamical physical objects we call branes (objects that, again, emerge in higher dimensions as a generalisation of point particle theory), which propagate through space-time according to the rules of quantum mechanics.

However, although there presently exist many hints and plausibility arguments in support of the proposed existence of M-theory, a systematic formulation of the non-perturbative theory remains an open problem. There are many reasons why a fundamental and rigorous formulation of M-theory is important. Not only do we expect to find new physics and new mathematics – in fact, it has been described as a great unexplored ocean in this regard – it will also help provide a final say on things like fundamental string cosmology.

As you may be able tell, it is an area of research I find to be incredibly exciting, not least because it is potentially so fundamental. In recent years a number of especially exciting developments have begun to crystalise in how we may attack the question of a rigorous formulation of M-theory, including the study of what we call higher structures. The presence of higher structures – or what we may summarise as higher homotopy theory – in fundamental physics is in and of itself a super interesting fact. And, as I mentioned at the outset, a lot of what we talk about and study also has to do with combining spacetime geometry and quantum field theory defined as generalised geometry. As I have alluded, some of the implications are grand, including the extension of spacetime itself, with a further consequence being the possibility that geometry and gravity – indeed, space and time – are emergent concepts.

As I work in mathematical physics and find great interest in both foundational maths and fundamental physics, I enjoy this area of research because there is a wonderful interplay between the two. My PhD research is positioned at this interface.

2. What drew you to this area of physics? (Tell us a little about your physics journey and how you ended up focusing on this area. When did you first become excited about physics? What was it that excited you? What led you to where you are now?).

By most accounts within the formal parameters and constraints of mainstream education, my physics journey up to this point has been described as highly unconventional. This is certainly largely owed to the fact that I have Asperger’s, and as a person with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) I experience a lot of difficulties and unique challenges. Formal education environments are certainly something that I did not cope with well in the past, and something I continue to struggle participating in today.

Due to the challenges that come with my Asperger’s and also the difficult conditions I experienced growing up, I was often in and out school for many years. To be completely honest, there were a lot of times when I tried to go to school or participate at a university, and it was just never sustainable for me. The classrooms or lecture halls were too overwhelming; the curriculum was too slow or uninteresting; time pressures were too difficult to manage; the lectures or lessons were not fundamental enough or too restrictive for my interest. It was often, I suppose, the case that I would rather be given the textbook and left on my own to work through and derive everything. I am much more comfortable with that independence. I have also grown used to being in my own space, with all of my books, with my maths and physics, working and studying on the things I find meaningful. So, I think there are a lot of reasons, from my perspective, as to why formal education has always been in some ways inharmonious or discordant.

In truth, without the right support, I probably wouldn’t have successfully joined the University of Nottingham and still be working at the university today. It was a massive personal step for me, one that we worked up to over a couple of years, and once I arrived at university it was incredibly challenging on so many levels. It required a lot of support, patience, and understanding. But I was also incredibly fortunate to have landed at such a fantastic school, with great support staff for people like me with ASD. The same can’t be said in all cases, and there are a lot of brilliant people out there with ASD that don’t receive the right support, or who don’t have the opportunity or foundation to pursue a formal university education for social, economic, or cultural reasons. I think I am decent at maths and physics, capable enough to teach myself string theory for example, and I was super close to not being a university student because, in a multitude of ways, I generally don’t ‘fit’ in the way that is expected.

Needless to say, and to return to the question, so much of my life so far has been outside of formal education. As a result, I have self-studied almost everything I know. When I was younger, I taught myself calculus and eventually expanded my self-learning to higher mathematics. The same with much of physics, from classical mechanics through to quantum field theory – I had already taught myself a lot of this prior to entering university as a first-year undergraduate. This is why my physics background may be described as unconventional. But to be honest, from my perspective, teaching myself maths and physics without relying on a teacher or sitting a class, seems like quite a normal and reasonable thing to do. I work at my own pace and ask my own questions. I can explore and enjoy maths and physics in my own way, giving myself as much time as I deem necessary to explore a topic fundamentally. You know, I think in a lot of ways maths and physics have become some of the only things in the world that truly make sense to me.

When I joined the University of Nottingham, I had been developing a lot of interest in general relativity, quantum field theory, and quantum gravity. I read about a number of different theories of quantum gravity, many of which I found to suffer mathematical inconsistency among other things. This is how I found my way to string theory, also with the encouragement and support of my professor Tony Padilla, who is now also my supervisor.

During the first weeks of my undergraduate, I took my string studies very seriously, and around this time my interest in non-perturbative theory began to crystalise. In that first year, the School of Physics obtained permission from the university to accelerate me to a Master of Research degree. My thesis involved the study of double sigma models in string theory. I am now looking forward to studying for my PhD within the Particle Theory Group at the University of Nottingham.

3. What does winning the scholarship mean to you – and what difference will it make? (How do you feel about winning? How do you feel about taking on a PhD? Would you be able to take on a PhD without it? In what ways will it help/make a difference?)

I’m both proud and honoured to have been awarded the scholarship for the duration of my PhD. I’m also incredibly proud to have affiliation with the Institute of Physics and to take on an ambassadorial role, something I take very seriously.

Coming from where I do, outside of formal education, I used to sometimes sneak into university lecture halls and, well, there were times when I would think to myself that perhaps I could do a PhD in physics or be a good researcher in a formal academic environment. I don’t always think about it so explicitly these days, but it truly means everything to me to be doing my PhD in mathematical physics. One could speak to the depth of the notion of existential meaning here, in terms of one’s projects and interests in life. But it is more than that for me. I would be working on my maths and physics no matter what, because it is what I know and it is what interests me; but now I have the opportunity to do so within a formal environment without financial concern, social judgement, or other pressures and worries.

To formally pursue a PhD at such a wonderful university and as part of a very cool research group, to get to continue working with Tony Padilla and to talk strings every day, and really to be able to study my maths and physics in an encouraging environment, is kind of life-changing. I am very grateful and I look forward to the future, where, hopefully, after a good PhD I can continue to contribute quality work and carve out a formal research career, maybe even teach strings one day. The scholarship has helped provide a good foundation in pursuing these ends.

4. What challenges have you faced to get to this point? (Any barriers/challenges that you have had to overcome that you feel comfortable talking about. Has anyone discouraged you? Have your personal circumstances made it harder? Have societal barriers/conditions had an impact? How have you overcome these challenges?).

In addition to my lifelong struggle with my Asperger’s, which, clinically, has been diagnosed as severe, I also had a very difficult childhood and experienced a lot of bad stuff growing up. I grew up in an environment that was incredibly dysfunctional, hostile, and in many moments scary. There was a lot of abuse and neglect, periods in and out poverty, with no heat in the winter – just not very nice things for quite a long time. By the time I was 14 or 15, without the right support, I could barely function, let alone cope. And in these circumstances, the pursuit of one’s interests and intellectual passions were rarely permitted. Instead, there were many times in life that were largely about survival and trying to escape. These were times that were generally quite debilitating. For years I also struggled with my mental health. I still do, although there is always an aspect of that owed to my ASD.

I can talk about it all now because I’ve had a lot of time and support in working through the traumatic events and the terrible stuff I witnessed and experienced. Growing up, I moved to different families, which offered great reprieve, and there have been so many extraordinary people that brought me into their homes, sometimes for years, and supported me as I slowly found my feet in life. These are individuals and families who intervened to fill the gap and take on abandoned parental responsibilities. They did so much for me, helping enable a positive foundation to grow and develop in life, to self-actualise, and to be able to pursue my interests. So, despite having to face a lot of challenges in life, some of which are quite extreme, I am also very thankful today. My life could have turned out differently on many occasions. And partly why I share that here is because, well, maybe someone will read this and take something from it. There are a lot of people that have ASD or that grow up in bad conditions and are never given the proper support they need as human beings – a positive and healthy foundation to life from which one can then begin to move. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which, while problematic in places, serves as a reminder that the meaning of society is to help foster the conditions in which all citizens can realise their full potential. As a society, I think from a fundamental humanistic perspective we ought to never stop demanding socio-economic, cultural conditions that give as broad a scope of people as broad of a horizon of opportunity as possible.

It is also the case for me that in growing up in incredibly difficult conditions, I have come to recognise that I owe a lot to my Asperger’s and my sense of personality. I think it enabled me in many ways to survive the incomprehensible by maintaining a presence of mind. I eventually learned to cope with and understand life through my studies. Not only did my books come to provide a welcomed and flourishing space, they offered explanation and detailed insight into all that I had observed: psychologically, sociologically, economically, and so on.  One way that it is described is that, for some people, they learn to manage their present experience by thinking of their past experiences as reference points; for me, this is how I use books. So, aside from my beloved physics and maths, I have studied everything with great interest: from the whole of psychology and human behaviour to our best current theories on social structures and relations, history, anthropology, economics, philosophy, and in many ways across the social and natural sciences. I have never been dissuaded by the challenges I have faced. As a young adult, outside of formal education, I spent my days alone at public and university libraries, or sitting at the back of university lecture halls that I had snuck into.

I’ll share a story that is quite personal to me. As a child, when times were especially difficult, I remember sneaking away to the far and unvisited corner of a local park. Lying there, on the opposite side of the hill that faced away from everything and everyone, I would stare at the clouds and contemplate existence. Particles, birds, planets, and stars. Why do clouds exist and why are they shaped the way they are? Why do they move as though they are moving through fluid, floating without support? This was a site of one of my first philosophical and scientific reflections. And, really, despite my many difficulties in formal education environments, some of which are ongoing, science and academics has played an incredibly important role in my life. It has become a natural extension of myself as a person with Asperger’s who is driven to understand in accordance with my life spent with my books. I learn about human relations and behaviour through their empirical study just as I learn about quantum fields through my physics. I think with that inquisitiveness, one of my earliest memories of being excited about physics was when I was no more than 6 or 7 years old. I saw a photograph of a professor standing in front of a chalk board, and written on the board was sigma notation. Looking back, it was likely generality relativity that was being taught, but the mystery of the language, the power of physics that we may describe the nature of reality, it always stuck with me.

As I said before my ASD also brings many of its own unique struggles and daily challenges. I require a lot of support. I can compute scattering amplitudes but struggle to manage a calendar or money. I sit here writing because I am fortunate to have received support with my Asperger’s, to have a stable home environment, and to have a loving and caring partner, Beth. There is a lot of well-defined research which, last I checked, showed that about 80% of people with ASD struggle to hold down a full-time job or be independent, and it was estimated that suicide rates are 10 times more than average. Not all autistic people can work, and, for sure, I know that struggle to maintain my own independence. There were times when I was ashamed or pressured because I couldn’t maintain a job or understand how to pay rent, because I couldn’t maintain independence, understand how to manage my bills, and organise my life. Prior to intervention, I was kind of just left to work it out. Now, of course, that is my experience – everyone will have their own. But the point is there are so many simplistic narratives about autistic people and even just about poverty in general. In education, I was once deemed a troublemaker! Another lost soul and statistic.

I think we need to do more as a society to understand the complexity of individual situations, and we absolutely need to do more to combat ongoing prejudices and to support people with ASD.

5. What would you say to those who have also faced barriers to following their dreams to pursue physics at university and beyond? (Any advice/encouragement would be great).

I don’t want to be naïve and just say “go for it”. The reality is that different people have different challenges with different barriers. If a person loves physics and it is their main passion in life, but at the same time facing homelessness or a precarious existence, it is not just a matter of saying “go for it” and “you can do anything”. Poverty and class can be barriers. Racism, too, can be a significant barrier. Disability, mental health, physical health – people face all sorts of different challenges.

What I am trying to say is that if someone dreams to study physics, that is amazing because physics can offer a person so much in life. They should do so regardless of age, gender, race, disability, class, and so on. Absolutely. But saying that is not enough. People also need support, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is up to our institutions – university, government, etc – and it is up to us as a physics community to identify where support may be lacking. If you are a person wanting to pursue your passion for physics but struggling with personal circumstances or barriers to doing so, don’t be ashamed to seek support. Universities have advice and support services who can often help you to find ways forward.

6. Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the data and the mathematics, so I can only present my personal thoughts which I don’t think have much or any value. What I can perhaps share, as a physicist who also has interests in biology, especially mathematical biology, and who enjoys thinking about life, is a broader or perhaps more fundamental perspective about the concept of diversity that I find inspiring.

Let me put it this way: when we speak of diversity, what are we actually (in a fundamental sense) speaking of? I find, for me at least, that discussion about diversity can sometimes result in confusion. The word is used in many contexts with many meanings. In political and sociological language, the structure of the language often implies an antonym of homogeneous groups, or, sometimes, as an antonym of a specific individual as a group: a white male with certain physical attributes, class distinction, and heterosexual orientation. From the dictionary definition of diversity, on the other hand, we find that it means difference or variance. I think science has an important perspective to offer in this precise sense.

From a genetic-centric view, and certainly also in other parts of biology, we have a concept called normal human variety. To that, I am not just speaking here of race and racial diversity. I am talking about differences in people of all kinds, including what today is called neurodiversity, which is meant to describe people like me with autism. My point is that, prior to the development of genome sequencing, people would use phenotypic characteristics (skin colour, bone structure, head size, etc.) to assess things like racial differences and even to attempt to define the concept of race, smartness, and so on. Indeed, still today cognitive bias and other prejudices are based on phenotypic characteristics of human beings and, at times, quite archaic ways of thinking. We see it every day.

I won’t get into here the debates between realism, anti-realism, and constructivists, although the limited attempts to argue the former in this context are like Swiss cheese while the latter can also be too one-dimensional. In any case, what I am driving at is how, in the past (unfortunately these attitudes still seem to manifest in the minority) what was thought of as different species or races among humans and other biological organisms was determined by phenotypic characteristics and as a result, phylogenetic trees and different groupings of humans and other organisms were often incorrectly constructed. But with technological advancements and our ability to sequence genomes quicker, more efficiently and cheaply, we have been able to compile larger genome databases with some powerful algorithms that can compare genomes more accurately. Thus, in biology, phylogenetic trees, the relationships between species, and divergences within species, can be more accurately assessed and drawn. What we find is that a lot of things that may have been thought to have been be related are not and vice versa. When comparing genomes of people from different parts of the world, we have found that although there are many minor variations between the genomes of humans as a whole, there is not enough difference to define different races. That is to say, there is no evidence for taxonomic delineation according to any definition of species or sub-species within humans, such that phylogenies inferred from mitochondrial DNA do not show any clear distinctions.

This is what I find inspiring and what I think about when thinking of diversity. The story of human beings, of our evolution, and of the universality we all share on this rock in some isolated region of the universe – it is quite beautiful. The Homo sapiens lineage has relatively recent origin when compared to other evolutionary timescales, like the planet Earth we call home, and our cosmic insignificance couldn’t be more pronounced. The universality to this reality is one that I think supports a critical humanistic vision, a perspective that, from an objective standpoint, also celebrates the incredible genetic diversity among local populations. It gives us fundamental perspective about the arbitrary nature of geographic boarders, racist attitudes, tribalism, and the many needless wars and suffering that have been waged and inflicted throughout human history on the basis of such arbitrary identifications.

In other words, while there is this incredible universality to human beings, and the similarities among people is something to be celebrated, there is so much to also celebrate about our differences – what we can call the particular as it emerges from the general. So, for example, people with ASD and the different perspectives we may offer as individuals, which, currently, is described under the heading of neurodiversity. Or, for example, the different perspective we may all offer, given our geographies and our own psychological histories. Or the diversity in our skin colours and other phenotypic differences that have come about rapidly in our evolutionary history. One of the great things about humanity is owed to the fact that as human beings we come in different shapes and sizes, we have different facial characteristics, varying eye colour, different finger prints, and different skin colours. For me, it gives perspective on how irrational our social history has also been – the needless suffering that people have faced and continue to face as a result of grim prejudice. Recently, for example, the daily prejudice black people continue face has been a renewed subject of discussion in the media. I think also of people with autism or other disabilities.

When I think of modern science, like in my area of fundamental physics, I think of the conferences I’ve attended, and the wonderful diversity of perspectives that combine. Modern science can be a fantastic representative of a more rational world, where people from many different geographic regions and backgrounds work together to solve difficult problems and to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge.

7. The IOP is committed to encouraging participation in physics among people after the age of 16 – especially those from under-represented backgrounds. How do you think we can better support others from under-represented groups who are considering studying physics? Is there anything you want to do as an ambassador?

From the little I have shared about myself, it is obvious that I think education is important. Life-long learning, for me, is a process whose end is defined only by one’s mortality. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16, 25, 55, or 80 years of age, one can always decide to take up an interest in physics or whatever else. In fact, I would encourage anyone interested in studying science to take up physics, even if they don’t plan to pursue it as a career; because regardless of what area you find interest in, physics can offer an important perspective in life. But to anyone from an under-represented background considering studying physics, or who has a passion for studying physics, I would say keep trying, and ask for support. If you are facing challenges and barriers in life, think about who might be best placed to support you through these and contact them to ask for help. This might be a teacher at school, your local council or social services department, your GP or another healthcare professional, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, charities and support groups set up for people like you, family or friends, or the university you would like to attend. There is support out there, and it can take time to find the right support and to work through challenges, so being patient with yourself and others can help. There will be better days and harder days, so take one day at a time. Try to learn from setbacks and if things don’t quite go to plan, try to rest, regroup, and get back up the next day and try again. This is after all what a scientist often has to do!

As someone from an underrepresented background, it can sometimes be hard to feel confident that you could go to university, or be a scientist, if you don’t see or hear about people who are similar to you doing the same thing successfully. Sometimes it can feel isolating, wondering whether others have experienced the challenges that you have in pursuing their interests and goals in science, and if so, how they might have overcome these, or even whether it is possible to overcome such challenges at all. Sometimes it can be difficult to find easy answers to questions about whether a particular environment (e.g. a university or workplace) will be welcoming and accessible to someone like you. In this respect, I think organisations like IOP can help by working with universities to make them more welcoming, accessible and supportive environments for people from underrepresented backgrounds. IOP can also work to increase the visibility of people from underrepresented backgrounds who are studying and working in Physics. This could include such individuals sharing both their successes (to show that success is possible!) and the challenges they have faced, including how they have worked through these challenges. These real-life examples can be much more helpful to people who may be facing challenges and barriers of their own in pursuing physics at university or as a career, than a rose-tinted success story that leaves out the challenges and bumps along the way.

As an ambassador this is something that I would like to contribute to, and I hope that by sharing my story, perhaps it might encourage others who have faced similar challenges to keep trying and working towards their goals.

8. What would you say to someone thinking about applying to the fund? (Would you encourage them to apply? If so, why? What advice would you offer?)

I would encourage anyone to apply. Unfortunately, I am not one to give advice about applications and things, because I tend to struggle a lot with these procedures. What I can say is make sure your application meets all of the criteria, and, if your application is not successful, don’t be discouraged. Take it as a learning experience – ask for advice about any areas in which you can improve your application for next time, and try again either with another funder and/or with the Bell Burnell fund at the next application round.

9. What message do you have for Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell – and other supporters who have made this funding possible?

I suppose I would just like to thank Prof. Dame Burnell and the others involved in the scholarship. It means a huge amount to me to be able to pursue my PhD, and I hope that my research in the next few years helps to repay the support and belief in me, and that, moving forward, I can be a good ambassador and help contribute a meaningful voice in the British scientific community.

(n-1)-thoughts, n=6: Asperger’s and writing, Lie 2-algebroids, linguistics, and summer reading

Asperger’s, studying, and writing

As a person with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), I’ve learned that writing plays an important and meaningful role in my life. I write a lot. By ‘a lot’ I mean to define it as a daily activity. Sometimes I will spend my entire morning and afternoon writing. Other times I will be up through night because my urge to write about something has kept me from sleeping. Most often I write about maths and physics, keeping track of my thoughts and ideas, planning essays, or writing about my work. But I also make it a principle of life to read widely. Indeed, I enjoy reading – studying – as much as I enjoy writing, and this often motivates me to write about many other topics. The two go hand-in-hand.

One reason writing has become important for me has to do with how, as a person with Asperger’s, social communication (by which I mean verbal, but of course also entails other forms like sign) is a source of struggle. I don’t often write about my Asperger’s, mainly because I find it a difficult process. It is hard to organise my thoughts about it, and I am never sure what is appropriate to share. In formal language, my Asperger’s is described clinically as high-functioning but severe. A big part of my life is about learning new strategies to cope. Some of the strategies may even be familiar to others without ASD, like learning to talk in front of others in ways that minimise anxiety and stress, or without completely freaking out (what we call in my language ‘red card’ moments). Or, to give another example, we work on finding strategies for the times I am at the office, so my brain doesn’t go into hyperdrive and so I can focus on discussion and also things like writing on the whiteboard. Another thing about my Asperger’s is that it can be hard adjusting to new people and it can be very stressful acclimatising to new environments. I’ve been working with Tony, now my PhD supervisor, for two years or more and I have only recently started to acclimatise and find our engagement a bit easier to manage. Indeed, in the same time I’ve been at the University of Nottingham, it remains an ongoing process adjusting to this new environment and to being on campus. Like with my close friend, Arnold, who, even after seeing him everyday for years, it was often still a challenge for me to engage with him socially and to visit his house. There is a lot to my experience, not just the social aspect of experience, that can be difficult and demanding as well as overwhelming. I also struggle a lot with anxiety and other things, in addition to extreme sensory sensitivity. So I require a lot of time and space for stillness in my own environment, with my own structure and routine – usually in my own space with my books and other comforts – because sensory overload can easily overwhelm.

In my one attempt to write about living with ASD I expressed how it can be difficult to understand cultural meanings as another example. This is a way of describing orientation to many of the ‘codes’ or behavioural routines that normalise in society. For example, I remember when I was a teenager being pressured a lot to establish the same routine economic patterns as others, or blamed because I didn’t have a job or couldn’t maintain one. I find it difficult to compute things like why daily life is the way it is for most individuals or why people behave as they do. What motivates daily behaviour and routine? How do people make decisions or direct the future course of their lives? Science, textbooks, and studying fervently became, at least in part, a survival-based mechanism. There is no instruction manual about humans; or about why history has taken the path it has in the course of human and societal development; or why many arbitrary social customs have come to be the way they are; or why my father acted and behaved the way he did; among many other things that come to be a feature of life. Studying became my way to cope and to understand, and writing became an extension of that. For instance, I studied every aspect of psychology to help better understand my experiences growing up or why, at least in part, people act violently or use violent language. I’ve read and written across most of philosophy; the same for economics, certainly enough to understand the fundamental debates; and also a lot of sociology. At one point I read a lot of political history, with history one of my favourite subjects. While all of this has a purpose in aiding my attempt to try and understand the world I am a part of, it also supports my passion for studying, my focused interests, and provides the stimulation I need.

On top of it all, living with Asperger’s can be quite exhausting. Indeed, one thing that is common for people diagnosed with autism is the experience of a certain type of fatigue, or what, in my house, we call ‘crashes’. These are a daily experience, where I need to put on my headphones and sit in my own (still and comfortable) space for however long it takes to calm my brain. For these reasons, day to day life is often spent in controlled environments, because it helps ease the red card moments, reducing stress and anxiety, and thus also helps combat the amount of crashes.

I think it all adds up in some sort of complicated sum as to why I find writing an important outlet. But even writing has its own difficulties. I remember my teacher, when I was 6 or 7 years old, say that my brain runs faster than my pen. I think this is true. I think of the sluggish pen effect as the difficulty in converting the internal representations of whatever concept or idea into concise written form at the pace I wish to feed ink to paper. So even though I write everyday and have been practising for many years, the usual result of my writing is typically permeated with errors. The process can be disabling and discouraging, to be honest, with many moments of frustration and failure; but, I’ve also learned that when I battle through and produce something I am happy with, the moment of victory is worth so much.

For many personal reasons, I’ve been regularly encouraged to write more and share more on my blog, and this is something I’ve been working toward. I think that, over a couple of years, I’ve grown more and more comfortable sharing essays and technical notes, although perhaps that is especially true in recent months; but I am also practising writing in other ways, like more personally and less formally. Technical writing is much easier than informal discussion, although a definition of the latter still seems somewhat unclear.

So as one step, this is a new blog post format that I may start experimenting with over the coming weeks, in addition to my usual research entries, essays, and technical notes. Although I prefer to keep my blog focused on my maths and physics research, which of course is mainly string related, allowing from time to time the inclusion of the odd bit of academic diversion, I think this (weekly or fortnightly) format of (n-1)-thoughts may be a fun space that allows me to practice writing in different ways, to share disconnected thoughts or random interests, outside of the formal essay or technical structure.

Generalised geometry, higher structures, and some John Baez papers

Another gem by, Urs! In a recent post on higher structures and M-theory, I made a comment recommending that people read Urs Schreiber’s many notes over the years. In my own research, I’ve found them to be invaluable. The most recent example relates, in some ways, to what I also mentioned in that post about how we may motivate the study of higher structures in fundamental physics: namely, how the Kalb-Ramond 2-form can be seen as an example of a higher structure as it is generalised from the gauge potential 1-form. I won’t go into details here, but the other day I was thinking about such generalisations, and I was thinking about Hamiltonian mechanics in the process. As I’ve mentioned before, if I were to teach string theory one day I would take this approach, emphasising at the outset the important generalisation from point particle theory to the extended object of the string.

Thinking of higher structures, I knew there were many connections here, and I was wanting to fill out my notes, for instance from how in generalised geometry the algebraic structure on TX \otimes T*X is a Courant Lie 2-algebroid. Those who study DFT will likely be quite familiar with Courant algebroids, and, certainly from a higher structure perspective this line of study is interesting. I also knew there was an original paper, which I had seen in passing, talking about this and the relation to symplectic manifolds, but I couldn’t find it. Then, bam! As Schreiber notes in a forum reply, ‘Courant Lie 2-algebroids (standard or non-standard) play a role in various guises in 2-dimensional QFT, thanks to the fact that they are in a precise sense the next higher analogue of symplectic manifolds and thus the direct generalization of Hamiltonian mechanics from point particles to strings’.

The part ‘from point particles to strings’ was hyperlinked to an important paper, the very paper I was looking for! The paper is Categorified Symplectic Geometry and the Classical String by John C. Baez, Alexander E. Hoffnung, Christopher L. Rogers. I look forward to working through this.

I also want to highlight several other papers from around the same time by Baez, including one co-authored with Schreiber, that I think are also foundational to the programme:

Categorification co-authored with James Dolan;

Higher-Dimensional Algebra VI: Lie 2-Algebras co-authored with Alissa S. Crans;

Lectures on n-Categories and Cohomology co-authored with Michael Shulman;

and, finally, Higher Gauge Theory co-authored with Urs Schreiber.

Thinking about my summer reading list

My summer holiday is in June this year, as I have a conference in mid-July and then I am scheduled to return back to university 1 August. I think Beth and I are going to spend a week in a North Norfolk, one of our favourite places, which has also sort of become a home for both of us. In anticipation of my break, I’ve started putting together my summer reading list, as I do every year. To be honest, there are so many good books right now, it is difficult to choose.

Although my list isn’t complete, one book that I’m already looking forward to is Jennifer Ackerman’s ‘The Genius of Birds‘. I had this book on my Christmas break reading list but, unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to get to it.

I recently purchased ‘Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Life, Love and Relationships’ by Camilla Pang, and I think I will add this to my list. Camilla has a PhD in biochemistry and, as she also has ASD, my interest in this book is more so about her personal journey coming to grips with the complex world social around her through the lens of science. It sounds, on quick glance, that we’ve come to cope with the world in similar ways and share an interest in understanding human behaviour and development. Having said that, I think there is a bit of a risk that people might read this book and conflate it with some sort of autistic worldview, which is completely incorrect, or, equally incorrect, as a scientific view of human behaviour. Contrary to some reviews, I wouldn’t read Pang’s book looking for a strictly scientific view (else one will be disappointed). I could be wrong, but I think ‘Explaining Humans’ may have potentially been mispromoted, hence some of the confused feedback. I approach this book as I would when reading someone’s memoirs, like ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist‘ by Dara McAnulty, ‘Lab girl‘ by Hope Jahren, or ‘Letters to a Young Scientist‘ by Edward O. Wilson. With topics including the challenges of relationships, learning from mistakes, and navigating the human social world by finding tools in things like game theory and machine learning, my interest is in the fact that this is another author with autism and, for myself, I similarly use textbooks and my studies to understand and manage my experience the world. Even on a purely phenomenological level, it will be interesting.

Another book that I may add is of a completely different tone: namely, Saul David’s ‘Crucible of Hell’. I’ve been enjoying reading about WWII again, and, as noted in this post on Dan Carlin’s podcast series on the events in the Asiatic-Pacific theatre, the battle of Okinawa (and others) I haven’t read much about. A few more books I have been thinking about: Douglas R. Hofstadter’s ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid‘, ‘The Deeper Genome‘ by John Parrington, ‘King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry‘ by Siobhan Roberts, ‘Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics’ by Bernardo Kastrup, ‘Quantum Computing Since Democritus‘ by Scott Aaronson, Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Society‘, and Daniel Kahneman’s latest ‘Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement‘. Tough decisions.

Linguistics

I’ve been short on time this week finishing some calculations and working on a paper, prior to receiving my second Covid jab. But the other afternoon I thoroughly enjoyed this article. It’s on the Galilean challenge and its reformulation, wherein discussion unfolds on why there is an emerging distinction between the internalised system of knowledge and the processes that access it.

As alluded a moment ago, a general theory of development has interested me for a long time. For my book published by Springer Nature, a lot of the study and references were originally motivated by this interest. When I last did an extensive read on the topic, there was a lot of progress in developmental models – biology, bio- and neuro-linguistics, child psychology, and so on. The summer when I was writing my book, I had already compiled all of my research and I was running short on time in terms of the writing process (I wrote the book in the span of two weeks). Around the time of my research, if I recall there was discussion in biolinguistics regarding the hypothesis of ‘[t]he fibre tract [as one reason] for the difference in language ability in adults compared to pre-linguistic infants’. I remember noting that interesting ideas were developing, and this is a nice article on that front. What is particularly fascinating, I would say, is how language design appears to maximise computation efficiency, but ‘disregards communicative efficiency‘ [italics mine].

This certainly runs directly counter to common belief, as mentioned in the article, namely the established view that communication is a basic function of language. For a long time, as I understand it, there was belief that there was an experiential component to early language formation; but what current research suggests is that, an experiential component is not fundamental at all. Of course an experiential component plays a role, in some capacity, when it comes to externalisation processes, such as in development of variances in regional accent here in England as an example. I mean, the subject is mediated (to whatever degree) by his/her sociohistorical-cultural circumstances, but, unless I am misunderstanding (I need to read through the research more deeply) language itself is not some purely social construct.

Regarding reference to the evolutionary record, I wonder how the developing view in the article relates to ongoing research concerning, for example, certain species of birds, their migratory paths, and the question of inherited or genetic knowledge. It’s an absolutely fascinating area of study, something I’ve been reading about with my interests in mathematical biology, and of course there is very apt analogy here also with broader developments in microbiology.

One last thing of note from reading the article, as I have written quite a bit about the enlightenment philosophes and the start of modern science, it is notable how they sought to ask the question of language. Descartes’ fundamental enquiry into language – the Cartesian question – remains interesting to this day, and I was delighted to see it referenced at the outset. I recommend reading Descartes’ meditations plus other contributions to the enlightenment philosophes – Kant, Spinoza, Hume, to name a few. There is so much here that remains relevant to our modern history and to the development of the contemporary social world. For a few years I’ve been writing a series of essays on Hegel’s science of logic and his epistemology, which is notably relevant today in my area of work in fundamental maths/physics.

Mental health awareness week

Finally, it’s mental health awareness week in the UK. Often these sort of campaigns can be incredibly superficial, failing to look at root causes or ask fundamental questions about well-being and support, but they don’t have to be. Mental health awareness is something that I’ve always taken seriously, not least because I have experienced many challenges with my own mental health throughout my life. The last time I did research and wrote on the subject, suicide statistics in many leading Western countries were significant. I know, too, that for people with autism, like myself, mental health can present a significant challenge in addition to the other challenges one may face. People with autism are much more likely to die by suicide than the general population, as many cause-specific analyses of mortality for people with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) indicate. Sometimes these facts are overlooked when we talk about mental health as a society, and often I find it important to highlight. But mental health doesn’t discriminate, it affects all people from all backgrounds, and weeks like this one are a good time to help foster discussion, combat stigma, and to think about mental health in all of its facets.

*Image: ‘Streams of Paint‘ by markchadwickart (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

History of Japan from the Heian period through the Second World War

For readers who like to study history, whether rigorously or simply for the enjoyment of historical discussion, last week I finished listening to a series of podcasts – much more like a series of extensive lectures, with each entry spanning 4 to 5 hours in length – on the history of Japan and its involvement in the Second World War. The talks by Dan Carlin (see bottom) have been published over the course of the past two years, and serve almost as a narration of Japanese history (from Carlin’s view) beginning roughly from the Heian period through to the events of the Asiatic-Pacific theatre.

Carlin, it must be said, is not a historian (it is fair to say that he is an amateur historian). And while it is generally the case that many historians applaud his podcast and popular engagement with history, it is important to approach his presentation as a form of popular history, firstly. That is to say, I take it as history as a way of seeking and exploring lessons, and thus, too, as a way of speculative theorising connections of factual historical events. This is not to say that Carlin is not brilliant at presenting history. He is in every sense one of the best popular history presenters, who, as I see it, has a first-principle motivation to give context to historiography by highlighting the human experience of an event. History is bloody, absolutely; and the ‘human factor’ that Carlin ensures is not lost in history is deeply important, not least philosophically. It must also be said that he provides plenty of support for his views and never fails to provide his full list of references, which usually includes both primary and secondary sources; but, again, the insisted nuance is that rigorous historical study and popular history are two very different things. The point of discretion here is just to say that one must approach each talk critically, for example discerning when Carlin is presenting his own theory or views and when he is directly citing a primary or secondary reference.

In more ways than one, listening to Carlin’s historical presentations – especially his emphasis on the human aspect of history – reminds me of an allegory on history by Albert Camus. This is something I should maybe return to and write about sometime.

***

Admittedly, the history of Japan is something I know of in discrete, disconnected pieces. It’s just not something that has been a focus in my history studies. Like a puzzle picture, some parts I have filled in but mostly in passing or in unconcentrated ways. For example, I have some understanding of its pre-historic period, mainly from books covering our best known research on early human migration that happened to include the Japanese archipelago. Over time I have also picked up some bits on ancient Japan and things like Heian culture, famously the era in which the samurai emerged. I’ve also read bits on Japan’s involvement in World World II but, again, my focus has largely been on the European theatre. Both of my grandfathers, one on my Scottish side and the other on my English side, were involved in the war. I grew up with the Second World War being a regular topic of discussion, with the Battle of Britain and other notable events often a focal point. As a kid, I also studied planes and I really liked the old British war planes, like the Spitfire, and used to build models of them as a hobby. All of this is to say that I’ve never focusedly studied the Asiatic-Pacific theatre in the same way I’ve done the European.

This is perhaps one reason why I found myself thoroughly enjoying Carlin’s series. One can approach his telling of the history with the aim in mind being a study of Japan’s involvement in both world wars. For this reason the focus is narrowed on pertinent historical and cultural developments preceding the great wars, before finally covering the events in the Pacific theatre. There is far too much to comment on, as the range in subject matter is vast. One thing that I found interesting is Carlin’s emphasis on colonialism as it relates to Japan’s motivation, military emergence, and ultimately resource-focused campaign in Asia. But before this, there were so many pertinent socio-cultural and historical developments in Japan’s history, as Carlin tells it, which contribute to what is described as a certain cultural and behavioural fanaticism. This fanaticism is expressed, in one way, through the eyes of the Japanese soldier of the time and finally culminated in an extreme barbarity that very much defined the Asiatic-Pacific theatre.

Carlin starts by first examining the phenomenon of Hiroo Onoda, the last Japanese soldier to come out of hiding from a Philippine jungle and surrender in 1974. What drove Onoda to behave in a way that, in one frame, may be described as going beyond the valour of duty, or in another frame may be described as fanatical and delusional, is a driving question in Carlin’s thesis. It is what shapes his telling of the history, because it leads Carlin, in the prologue, to introduce the observation – very much as we observe across all societies, I would argue – that human beings are malleable for better or for worse, and the ways in which we may be shaped or perhaps even deformed in extreme ways are based on our sociohistorical-cultural circumstances. So what were these circumstances? How did they develop? And what are the deep historical roots, not least related to Japan’s foray into imperialism?

Again, there is much to say, given the range of Japan’s history covered. I encourage the reader to listen to the series, because, while at times Carlin seems to make some drastic theoretical connections, the way he tells the story is absolutely gripping and, no doubt, within his recounting of many first-hand accounts, there are kernels of truth disclosed that are overwhelmingly moving in the sense that the Asiatic-Pacific theatre, in its sometimes unrelenting barbarity, was a deeply human tragedy.

***

I will leave the reader with this comment, as it is particularly on my mind. The prologue to Carlin’s series, described above, and much of how he traces key developments in Japan’s history – it reminded me very much of Edgerton’s study on social pathology, in which it is argued that a society may be more or less pathological, with the degrees of variance characteristic of the particular sociohistorical-cultural moment. This was also the thesis of my book, Society and Social Pathology, published a few years ago. Within it I argued, if we are to understand social pathology in a critical way, conceptualizing the complex interconnection between the individual subject and his/her social conditions is the first place to start. In studying the relation between one’s sociohistorical-cultural conditions and the impact those conditions have on the individual subject, my thesis argued toward a more comprehensive, systems view of society, its development, its pathology, and its discontents. As a matter of perspective, if nothing else, a number of questions that Carlin asks – for instance, what leads to the development of the sort of behaviour displayed by Onoda – reminded me of similar questions when coming to study the importance of obtaining a well-defined and rigorous concept of social pathology. Below is an excerpt from when I was thinking about such matters:

One incredibly important argument that we will discuss […] concerns how […] all societies, just like individuals, can be pathological to greater or lesser degree (Edgerton, 2010). This is an important feature of my present thesis. In a survey of literature on the history of human society, it would appear fairly safe to conclude that social pathology as defined in this book is a reoccurring characteristic across cultures and epochs.  Overcoming the pathological development of human society is, to borrow the words of Kenan Malik (2014), “a historical challenge”. That is why although capitalism […] may take a central focus in the present study, due to the fact that capitalism as a particular social formation is what defines our present social world, this particular period of human social development is also part of a significantly broader history. For this reason if the intention is to look at the facts, the realities, the many social phenomena, which defines a large part of modern life, in attempt to understand why needless social suffering persists and why irrationality prevails, to accomplish this task we must also come to grips with […] a philosophy of history [that] intersects with and combines numerous disciplines, from anthropology and archaeology to psychology. And it will help us contextualize a framework for understanding both the ongoing process of pathological development throughout history, as well as the ongoing process pertaining to our present conditions.

Episodes:

*Image: Pacific Theater Areas, Wikipedia.

The US election and my holiday reading list

It is reasonable to wait for confirmation; however, as things stand, it appears Donald Trump is about to get walloped in the election, losing both in terms of the electoral college and the popular vote. One might indeed take a moment to say, ‘good riddance!’. But it will take a lot more than a Biden victory to defeat the prejudiced, often anti-science, and certainly contra-enlightenment views that have been amplified in the past years, not to mention the shady funding behind them.

What is super interesting, I think, is that when looking at the numbers the definitive nature of the urban / rural divide in the United States is made explicit. It is old sociology, to be sure, and I can think of no better description than how there seems a complete contradistinction of views. It is a rigid contest, and it is certainly not as simplistic as designating the young, educated urban dweller against the opposite in the country bumpkin. For example, it is noticeable that in some circles the right-wing voices in support of Trump have expressed anti-globalisation views in almost identical ways as some circles on the left, the difference primarily being in the framing. Although this doesn’t factor ideological residues, the point is that the split seems rather nuanced with as much economic as cultural import, not so different than what we have also witnessed here in the UK. For many reasons, I have been reminded also in recent years of Stephen Bronner’s analysis of anti-modernism movements. It will be interesting to read in the coming months new studies on these socio-economic and cultural dynamics, as no doubt a few books are already in the works.

One last comment before moving onto other things: it is hopefully telling that Biden’s first speech as president-elect made explicit mention of the need to reconnect with science. Rebuilding trust in scientific impartiality is imperative, after much opportunism that subordinated key scientific institutions to political bias and ideological ends. Surely, also, such a rebuilding effort coincides with the demand to strengthen evidence-based approaches to policy. Philosophically, such approaches are still not completely without their problems, but it is a project we ought to work toward.

Unification was also a key message, and quite understandably. Whatever one may think of French President Macron, last week he gave what I thought was a nice talk on the principle of enlightenment in the form of communicative reason (it reminded me very much of Habermas): to continue to work to create a public space structured in such a way that rational dialogue and debate may be achieved. This runs completely counter to demonisation and intense polarisation – the old habits of tribalism. Objective reason doesn’t commute, or is not compatible, with ideology in as much that analysis should work continuously to free itself from bias. It is unfortunate to see that it has become a tenet of general discourse to succumb to irrational worldviews in which their political and cognitive biases overshadow the normative process of reason. Biden spoke the other night of the battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses, which I interpreted in these terms – an expression that gives description to the enlightenment project. From a systems view, I am sceptical; but I am also open to seeing what he does. As with an incredibly difficult calculation or when probing an important proof, it is about incremental steps.

***

Now that I have submitted my thesis on double sigma models and field theory, I have two months holiday before I am due to return to university. During my break, I plan to catch up on a lot of reading. I would also like to finish a number of essays and potentially start drafting several more. For example, I am currently finishing an essay on braneworlds from my studies in autumn 2019. I also have a long essay being polished on deriving general relativity from string theory, among a list of others in my current area of the doubled string, generalised geometry, and de Sitter. So I look forward to my holiday where I can be in my own space a bit and enjoy writing on these fantastic topics.

I also have some others essays that I would like to write in other fields. For example, one essay that I have been working on for some time concerns the epistemology of the early medieval university in which Aristotleanism was formally introduced to Europe. For that purpose, I have added Nicholas Orme’s book on Medieval Schools to my holiday reading list.

There is another book at the top of my reading list. It’s Vincent Azoulay’s acclaimed ‘Pericles of Athens‘. I’ve been thinking of Pericles lately, perhaps partly to do with the experience of a year marked by a global pandemic. Indeed, the collapse of Periclean Athens was instigated in no small way by its own terrible malady – a rather vile plague that proved catastrophic for what was one of the earliest of egalitarian and democratic experiments in human history. (A nice discussion between historians was recently presented here). The intent here is in no way to draw analogies with our contemporary times, although with current trends it is not completely outlandish to suggest that contemporary democracy – and certainly present economic models in which it is housed – is facing a challenge. Indeed, and furthermore, it’s not just the pandemic but many trends in behaviour, not least what we have been seeing politically in the past years, that have highlighted the utter idiocy capable of human beings in a test of democracy at its very foundations. Isaac Asimov once wrote, ‘The great anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge“‘. In a similar vein, there is a great passage by Bertrand Russel that strikes the same point, and similarly a most famous passage by Walt Whitman comes to mind. Considering that some would argue that the prospect of enlightenment has not been fully realised, nor the prospect of democracy completely fulfilled, it will be interesting to read more about the struggles of Periclean Athens. An inspiration to some prominent enlightenment thinkers, often engagements with Pericles are dominated by the same old question that Socrates once asked: has philosophy made citizens (and, I would add, the life of citizens) better? History can often serve as a magnifying glass, and if philosophy’s remaining relevance is tied to asking the question of the existence of needless (social) suffering, maybe there is still something in Pericles to write about.

As a fun read, I’ve picked up Stephen Brusatte’s celebrated title exploring the latest research on the history of dinosaurs. It is a book that I have been desperate to read since the summer. I can’t wait to dig into its pages!

Finally, I was thinking of Brockman’s cross-field collection ‘Life’, with a contribution by Dyson on the garbage-bag-model followed by Ackerman’s ‘The Genius of Birds’. This was actually one of the first on my lists as it relates to my interests in mathematical biology (and plus, I enjoy studying birds in my spare time).

If there is time, I’ve been wanting to read Edward Wilson’s ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge’. In addition to his now dated ‘On Human Nature‘, these books will certainly inspire a number of essays (his book ‘The Diversity of Life’ is also worth mentioning) because I have studied epistemology to great lengths and I am always keen to delve with nuance into evolutionary psychology and its issues. But they will likely have to wait until my summer holidays, along with a list of others (it is an ever-growing list!).

These mostly comprise my general academic reading and don’t really get into some of my ongoing non-academic books. I’ve been reading through a lot of the Star Wars canon recently. For my holiday, I picked up the new Marvel Kylo Ren comic series as well as the new Darth Vader series, and so far I have been enjoying both.

Disenchantment and the anthropology of (re-)enchantment

I recently read an interesting essay by Egil Asprem entitled Dialectics of Darkness. Its original purpose was to serve as a review of The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Jason Josephson-Storm. I have yet to read Josephson-Storm’s book, so I shall have to reserve comment for another time. But I am certainly already familiar with its main subject and the history behind it, which is one reason I found great interest in navigating Asprem’s essay on the enlightenment (and thus, too, the notion of enlightenment reason) and the anthropology of active (re-)enchantment.

Additionally, following the publication of Asprem’s work, a number of other short essays and articles appeared directly in response. I list them as follows, The Enchanted World Today by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem; The Reemergence of Magical Beliefs by Adam Possamai; and, finally, Models of (Re-)Enchantment by Dafydd Mills Daniel. 

The latter article by Daniel offers what I think to be a decent and certainly interesting reading of Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins, particularly their nuanced and deeply considerate approaches to naturalist philosophy as well as their attempts to satisfy the demands for ethical norms rooted in a naturalistic model. It is no secret that I enjoy a lot of Russell’s writing, and a short disclaimer would highlight at this point that Russell’s essay A Free Man’s Worship (referenced by Daniel) is perhaps one of my favourite pieces of humanist literature. However, while I think a review of the contents of Daniel’s contribution could, in itself, be the focus of an entire essay, I will save a few comments for the end.

In reading the essay by Asprem, and then the follow-up by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem, one thing struck me in particular. Up to this point, I’ve tended to see the enlightenment not as some cultural totality or as a total cultural shift in a particular moment of time but as a historical process. From d’Alembert and Descartes to Leibniz, Pascal, and Newton (to name a few enlightenment thinkers) – I think there is also a kernel of insight to be retrieved from their respective notes on this issue. Indeed, for many notable enlightenment thinkers, not least Kant, there was no such enlightenment as a historical period that completely extinguished enchantment; it was instead perceived as an ongoing process of social, psychological or spiritual development in human history. (In fact, as an aside, I would be inclined to argue that the enlightenment philosophes are generally distinguishable by the very nature of their confrontation with the dichotomy between process vs. substance metaphysics, a point that I think is relevant here). The philosophes were or can be read as an attempt to formally describe this process and capture its positive implications. Indeed, I think for many enlightenment scholars this view would not be received contentiously. And so, I am inclined to perhaps warn against the view that the enlightenment should be seen as a period of total cultural disenchantment that may or may not have eventually regressed to an unfolding process of (re-)enchantment over time.

Moreover, an investigation into the objective validity of reason and of scientific knowledge discloses, I think, a sort of naivety that sometimes saturates our thinking with regards to the idea of the historical realisation of cultural enlightenment. In the essays cited above, Newton is mentioned because for all his mathematical and scientific genius he also studied alchemy. But when the enlightenment is seen as a process, which too must exist or manifest in given history with its own established domain of concepts and prejudices, the weight of this contradiction becomes more measurable. To generalise my complaint: it is no secret that many enlightenment thinkers, even some members of the radical enlightenment (as some scholars distinguish), maintained belief (personal or via organised religion) in God whilst championing secularised knowledge and humanistic values. However, I’m not convinced this should be seen as a failure or interpreted in the context of (re-)enchantment. Even today, I don’t think it is entirely false to say that some members of the scientific community maintain a belief in the superstitious, supernatural, or the divine. Famously, there were many significant and famous modern physicists who also carried superstitions beliefs or artefact beliefs in myth. Taking a broader view, we may objectively perceive and criticise such logical inconsistency, and perhaps for the benefit of reason take lesson from their example. One lesson to recognise is that myth – or perhaps its remnants depending on how we parameterise the theory – may persist in very organised or established ways as historical legacy or artefact. It is not at all controversial to say that human bias and prejudice may continue to exist despite evidence against whatever belief; and it would seem very appropriate to look at these issues in their sociohistorical context in order to establish as nuanced a view as possible.

So from my own reading and studies, my interpretation of the enlightenment project is as an ensemble of concepts not necessarily unique in category but realised uniquely in time. In a sense, my view has been shaped around the idea of the enlightenment as a unique realisation of concepts, the genesis of which dates back and through such pre-Socratic scholars as Anaxagoras and Democritus, Thucydides and the The Mytilenaean Debate, and then eventually the philosophical considerations of Plato onward. Such concepts include, in modern language, basic ideas of reason as set against myth and political realism.

In many of the grandfathers and fathers of modern science we see this much more in terms of a general shaping of epistemology, however much residues of myth and enchantment may be found (from one philosopher to the next), given that human history is saturated in the perpetuation of prejudice. Although such a course of discussion requires a fuller essay in itself, what I am trying to say, in different words, is how the enlightenment may be viewed as a certain continuation in the historical generation of ideas and that epistemology is perhaps the best site to study its development. In philosophy, particularly or especially philosophy of the subject, this may be expressed by way of a study of the genesis of the modern subject, which some trace as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. Perhaps more insightful is Bertrand Russell’s study of knowledge in The Problem’s of Philosophy (1912) in which, rather than considerations of metaphysics, epistemology is brought directly into focus. From this view – namely, from the study of epistemology – the genesis of well-known enlightenment values and ideas appear in different forms, under different guises, and through manipulations of different frameworks in the very seeds of philosophical thought in classical antiquity forward.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave can very much be read as an investigation into epistemology not so dissimilar to the enquiry of enlightenment philosophes into the possibility of knowledge – rational and scientific or otherwise. The leading question for the enlightenment may be stated, ‘What even constitutes knowledge, let alone rational and objective knowledge?’. As a profound site of investigation, often ignored or not taken serious enough, it is one that can be traced back to pre-Socratic study which was, I am inclined to argue, eventually refocused with advent of the first Medieval universities and their systematic introductions of Aristotelian language, then in the humanist renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, and finally in the 18th century philosophes.

On the other hand, although the enlightenment project did not emerge simply out of nothing, there is something unique about it which continues to draw serious interest and consideration. In a sense, I think it may also be viewed a lexicalized concept. As such, it is unique in what it represents as a particular unification of ideas and values realised in such a way as to be epistemologically revolutionary. Taking this view, I think we can also begin to delineate different epistemologies and their significance with respect to the prospect of enlightenment knowledge.

Arguably, one of the last great philosophical efforts to answer the fundamental question of the status of knowledge and the possibility of knowing – and, really, the status and legitimacy of abstract concepts – was in the work of Kant. Interestingly, I think it can be strongly argued that Kant’s investigations, and likewise also Hume’s skepticism in which Kant seeks to overcome, are much more relevant to philosophical systems of knowledge than scientific systems of knowledge. There is, at a point, a divergence between traditional philosophical epistemologies and scientific epistemologies. For Kant, and also Hume, neither seem to be able to do justice to the unique epistemological domain of scientific enquiry, which, I think was clearly realised in the 20th century to be very different than the general philosophical domain of enquiry. Although, in my opinion, Kant comes extremely close in places, I would be inclined to expand that, at least in a Platonic sense of conceptual space, scientific knowledge can be cleanly and clearly differentiated from purely subjective reasoning, and that while Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism is not entirely satisfactory, the latter can be overcome through explanation within scientific systems of reasoning. But with these matters put to one side, the deeper point is that I think one can see clearly this delineation of epistemologies not only in the progression of modern science but also in what it has to say about the prospects of reason and human rationality.

Mention has already been made of Russell. It would be terrific to write more about his works in both a critical and non-critical way, because his 1912 investigations are some of the best when it comes to late-modern encircling of these differences in epistemology by way of fairly systematic investigations into the nature of knowledge. That said, I think some of the most illuminating sites of reflection can also be found in the writings of many of the great 20th century physicists, who concerned themselves with such longstanding historical debates. Einstein, to offer one example, is noted to have spent time thinking about epistemological questions and engaging with debates on the nature and status of knowledge.

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These essays, especially the one by Asprem which ignites a wonderful chain of contributions and perspectives, are undoubtedly stimulating. The one thing that stands out to me, given the above reflections, is the risk that one may easily take a viewpoint that is too binary, lacking the complexity of a systems view of human society and the general types of behaviour it fosters. Disenchantment and re-enchantment seem less like fundamental processes than epiphenomena. In many ways, I think the antimony often defined between disenchantment and enchantment can be broken down into very basic elements of the epistemological study of reality versus appearance, from which Russell for example delineates two forms of knowledge: by description and by direct acquaintance. The latter is very much akin to the best of existential phenomenology of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which intimate description of the phenomenal world of direct experience and sense data is given. Often these movements neglect the abstract and theoretical or are simply unable to conceptualise it. Russell, on the other hand, is able to substantiate the validity of logicism and logical reasoning – indeed, we may even extend his analysis today to theoretical knowledge – whilst maintaining ample recognition of the experiential and the phenomenological. Preservation of the recognition of the type of knowledge by direct acquaintance is important in terms of secularised ethical and moral foundations; but doing so while maintaining a concept of the objective and not regressing to subjectivism is no easy task. Much of contemporary post-modern philosophy, for instance, sinks into the muddied confusion of pure subjectivism and at a great cost.

But if we decide that the disenchantment-enchantment model is not satisfactory, what I want to say is that, as I have been alluding, perhaps the more fundamental site of enquiry is the study of epistemology, from which any and all discrepancy between disenchantment and (re)-enchantment may emerge. And, in few words, I think this and the paragraph immediately above describe why Daniel’s essay touches on something very important in his reference to the compelling arguments by Russell and also Dawkins, respectively. Intentionally or not, they both present fairly convincing approaches principled, firstly, on the foundations of knowledge and the validity of objective knowledge. From this, and as modern science would also indicate, (re-)enchantment is reduced to the domain of cognitive human bias, dogma and superstition; the persistence of myth played out in daily human life has its roots here, just as the violence and irrational ideologies that define the contemporary political domain are often a projection of the unreasonable on the basis of the prejudiced nature of the subject’s interaction with the world. If, as some scholars describe, the contemporary political domain may be generally depicted as a polarised space for the practice of bias and prejudice, with the establishment of echo chambers and irrational subjective pursuits of ideological ends as opposed to rational, disclosing, truth-giving processes – I take it from the view of Russell that such a space is merely the continuation pathological epistemologies.

What is also significant about both Russell and Dawkins is that, rather than completely rejecting the human existential inclination to search for meaning, it is acknowledged and reformulated positively. They argue that there is no deeper source of meaning than that which is naturally disclosed within the epistemological domain of science, and that through science and its many lessons the human need and thirst for meaning may be quenched, even in the face of our own cosmic insignificance. Unlike romanticism for example, in which meaning and inspiration is deduced purely subjectively and with emphasis on the primacy of the individual, which completely prefigures the notion of the subject by neglecting the objective; what we see in the better parts of Russell and Dawkins is a positive, evolving notion of enlightenment meaning-giving process that in many ways may begin to answer Camus’ deep (and certainly valid) conundrum.

For these reasons, I agree and sympathise with Daniel’s assertion that, in many ways, Russell and Dawkins successfully carve a path a forward, transcending the pitfalls of the romantics so often tied to (re-)enchantment and anti-modern movements, whilst preserving the existential depth of what it means to be human and in search for meaning. Through this lens, I think the picture of total enlightenment disenchantment from the perspective of cultural anthropology becomes something of a myth. Allow me to explain.

In certain strands of contemporary philosophy, the projection of some complete realisation of reason and the crystallisation of rational society (such as in Weber’s construction) would seem to rely in some way on a view of cultural enlightenment as a sort of final development. In that sense, it too would seem predicated in places on the myth of cultural enlightenment and hence the achievement of solid rational outcome. But I would argue that history has witnessed neither, and even the best examples of contemporary society fail satisfy the demands of both concepts.

Furthermore, many of the critical philosophes of the 20th century, most of which were rooted in or indebted to the enlightenment, placed great importance on reason, its historical genesis, and the ongoing struggle in its realisation. That is to say that the genesis of the modern subject was a central point of focus, and with this focus many provocative debates on knowledge and reason may be found. Crucially, the concept of enlightenment reason is not perceived as a given. The concept of enlightenment reason may have historically crystallised in a unique way – or at least some framework was formalised to better describe it – and hence concepts of rational society may have begun to spring forth. But we learn in the critical philosophies that the parameters in which reason and notions of rational (thus disenchanted) society may be historically realised can be more or less pathological, and that generally in the social and communicative domain it is reason’s absence that continually defines humanity’s historical struggle. In Weber’s construction, then, one could argue that the concept of reason is essentially utilised in a less than rational way. There is, in other words, an ongoing classical distinction between form and content, and their lack of synthesis, that I would argue underlies much of the struggle for reason that continues to the present day.

Such a viewpoint reinforces the idea – indeed, the acute observation – that we do not presently live in a rational, scientific society. Evidence of this can easily be found in the very structure of contemporary debates and the issues they concern. Instead, it would seem much more akin to a society that uses notions of reason or quasi-systems of reason and science at its convenience, without complete subscription to its logical and rational demands. So, in a way, I think there is a deeper truth to Josephson-Storm’s study. I would say that some enlightenment disenchantment has been achieved but only up to a point within a particular epistemological domain that exists within broader social-pathological and enchanted parameters. I think the subtlety and nuance of such a viewpoint carries forward what may have been deemed the radical enlightenment based largely on the assessment that, following a lexicalized concept of the enlightenment, the reality of the process of enlightenment reason is much more akin to a struggle for reason and for a future rational society against the forces of its absence.

One last comment, to conclude this already lengthy engagement. If the enlightenment is seen more as a unique configuration of concepts and ideas, as part of a larger history, which triggered a process (against myth, prejudice, etc.) in the development of reason, science and ultimately fundamental secularised values – from this point of view, reason and human rationality may be perceived within the scope of a theory of society that recognises how, and in what way, such important concepts must be socially fostered. The notions of disenchantment and enchantment, if the binary is correct to construct, discloses a tremendous conflict: namely, the legacy of historical and cognitive biases, in addition to general irrational human tendencies and inclinations which reject the objective. That a society may, in recent time, promote itself as disenchanted only to then be said to have regressed to (re)-enchantment and myth – or only for (re)-enchantment and myth to continue propagate – would seem one of the central themes of Dialectic of Enlightenment. At the same time,  modern science continues to push the boundaries of human thought, and its special epistemological domain of enquiry is generally irrefutable. The influence and demands of enlightenment reason continues to challenge, even scientists, to normatively check one’s biases and to continue to struggle for a clearer recognition of objective knowledge within the historical context of constraints of that knowledge at any given time.

However, in that the promise of enlightenment reason – the promise of reason and human rationality – may exist and yet simultaneously be folded into a human social world of continued and renewed enchantment – and hence, myth and the irrational confluence with the rational – this is akin to acknowledging that differentiated spheres of society may each be affected differently. It is this fragile and precarious existence of reason and its unrelenting possibility of betrayal that seems to be one of the essential features of today’s social world, so much so that in continued enchantment reason can take on the appearance of a disfigured form that is, in fact, absent of any rational content.

The struggle is to see reason and unreason, solid as the ground beneath one’s feet or as the material objects in one’s daily life. Even those who believe they command reason often, in their certainty, fall guilty of its opposite. It is notable that most major cultures and religions to have crystallised in human history possess a concept of good and bad, in moral philosophical terms; light and dark in religious language; or reason and unreason, in epistemological terms. With no exception, none have reconciled these ideas however much one may faithfully believe the contrary. This is as close to an objective view that may be accessed, and almost always whatever lesson one may wish to glean such fleeting objectivity can quickly turns subjective through the simple demand of interpretation. This was as much a struggle for Plato as Aristotle and the 18th century philosophes. In the modern lens, it was as much a struggle for Kant and Hegel as Adorno or alternatively the opposing attempt to formulate the post-modern.

One thing I can speak to is that in mathematics, ideally, we follow the systematic through to the result, and then we ascertain whether the logic is true or not. But this space of concepts and of thought would seem different to the world of social occupations, in which concepts – like policy – can be reasonable, unreasonable, or both simultaneously. This is why there is no realised fundamental moral theory, because the space of concepts is saturated in the subjective stuff of daily human life. The point is not to say that the objective is in accessible, but oftentimes its fleeting and precarious nature cannot be trusted in the eyes of human beings. Even when solid objects are attempted to formed in words, such as God, or in symbols, such as peace, one can easily feign through solid and rigid representations the opposite of its conceptual substance. People have killed in the name of religion or the idea of a just politics without any awareness of the indignation of the contradiction. I think here, too, Russell and Dawkins serve important lessons and insight as we continue to reflect on the importance of the enlightenment and its realisation.

**Image: Projection of the Enlightenment by Anshu Kumar.