Books, Creativity, Philosophy, Science

Crocheting reality – beautiful fringe science


“For thousands of years mathematicians believed there were just 2 types of geometry, the plane and the sphere. But another more aberrant structure lurks beneath the surface of Euclid’s laws – one that has been illuminated through the art of crochet.” *

You’ve heard correctly: crochet!

The Institute for Figuring features many ways to make abstract topics more accessible, one of them is to crochet models of hyperbolic spaces. A whole institute dedicated to aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics — this is awesome!

Crocheting is just one example of a colorful sub-culture that is unhappy with the abstractness of scientific theories:

“They feel that physics has been hijacked, and that nature must speak a language that ordinary people can grasp.”

writes science writer Margaret Wertheim in her recent interview in Nature.

In her new book Physics on the Fringe Wertheim shows many other examples of ‘outsider physics’, including this beautiful interlocking ‘circlon’ model of elements by Jim Carter:

I enjoyed reading her interview and will make sure I’ll have a look into her book – but at the end of the interview Wertheim lost me a bit. When asked ‘Can outsiders help to advance science?’ she answers:

There isn’t a bright burning mark in the sand between truth and fiction. Things that seem fantastical in one era can become mundane in another. Concepts that were assumed to be true in the past, such as the ‘element’ phlogiston, now seem ridiculous.

So far, so good. I’m not completely sure how a “a bright burning mark in the sand” would look like, but let’s not start nitpicking. Wertheim continues:

The idea that science proceeds purely by empirical scrutiny is a myth. Quantum mechanics makes predictions about matter and light that have been verified to many decimal places. Special relativity is used to correct for infinitesimal deviations in the position of Global Positioning System satellites. But how will our concepts fare in 500 years? We don’t know.

I sympathize with the attitude; I am after all a Feyerabendian fanboy: I can see great value in unconventional ideas. Anything goes, yeah!

But that still requires a great deal of empirical scrutiny. If our scientific concepts change in the next 500 years (which I would be surprised if they didn’t), couldn’t that be just what we call scientific progress and evidence for the power of empirical scrutiny?

I’m not convinced Wertheim actually answers the question: Self-correction (regardless of how slowly it happens) makes science strong — even without the help of fringe scientists, no matter how great their crocheting and knitting skills.

Florian

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