Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Honest-to-God rambling thought

So I spent part of today trying to understand the Axiom of Choice, and so far what I have gathered is this: it involves choice, and mathematicians cannot write. This chain of thought lead me to a secondary conclusion: Perhaps many of the higher sciences are difficult to understand, not because the concepts themselves are confusing, or not only because the concepts themselves are confusing, but because the people who must write about these concepts cannot write worth a damn.

I had the same problems understanding Meditations on the Tarot (BTW that is (a not actually about Tarot and (b. a really good book with some really weird ideas). The concepts themselves were difficult to grasp, but I first had to wade through the language of the book, which for a recently written book was very ... strange. And I frequently find myself going "Oh, THAT's what you were talking about. Is there a reason you couldn't just say that in simpler language?"

Writing is hard work, in case you didn't know. The primary job of a writer is to take an idea from inside of their head and phrase it in a way that a reader can easily understand. This is why (IMHO) passive voice is out of favor. "The body was placed in the cupboard" is more difficult to understand than "She put the body in the cupboard." Admittedly, the concept here (a body in a cupboard) is simple enough for anybody to grasp, but it's awkward. Awkwardness is a roadblock to comprehension. The more complicated the concept, the larger the roadblock. The more roadblocks you put between the reader and comprehension, the more blatantly you fail in the most basic job in writing.

 And before you say, "These ideas are complicated, CW. There's no way you could write them so most people could understand," There's a beautiful example of breaking things down simply in A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favorite books. In it, a teacher (who also happens to be a former star) explains time-and-space travel to a child. Specifically, how use of the fourth dimension allows the teacher, the child and their companions to jump from planet to planet almost instantaneously when the child knows it should be impossible. This is a very complex idea, and I have read several other books on the subject of time and dimensional theory which I enjoyed very much. But none of the books had the gorgeous simplicity of the Wrinkle in Time passage, and I suspect I wouldn't be able to understand any of the other concepts at all if I had not read Wrinkle as a child. So let me repeat myself: I had a basic understanding of dimensional theory as a ten-year-old, not because I was brilliant, but because someone was willing to take the time and effort to break an extraordinarily complex idea into language a child could understand. So it can be done. If you have the time, patience and intelligance to do so.

If this is true (that any idea can be broken down into language simple enough for a child to understand) than the more complex ideas are more difficult to grasp, not because they are complex but because the people who understand them just can't be arsed to break them down. It's too much work and they don't want to. Education is the attempt to find a middle ground. Give someone the basic knowledge necessary so that the "in the knows" don't have to break their concepts down quite as far. Also, breaking a complex idea into simple language requires a total understanding of the subject at hand, so that the writer knows which simple words to use. In order to describe a cerulean hemisphere, you must completely understand what both concepts mean to break them down into "half a ball, in a specific shade of blue". If you are talking to someone with the same knowledge as you, sans the specific concept, you can use more complex language. If you are talking to someone with less specified knowledge, however, then you must not only understand your concept, you must also understand language, and also understand the way people think. It takes intelligence to understand the implications of what a wrinkle in fourth-dimensional space could mean for spacial travel. It takes genius to break that concept down into the image of an ant walking across a table cloth, and what a large wrinkle in the table-cloth would mean to the ant.

And having gotten THAT out of my system, I leave you with this:

Math is so cool

1 comment:

  1. Goddamn BBC News. Crashed my browser before I could post my long comment.

    I can't find the quote, but George Orwell said something along these lines. He said that technical language (Jargon) in any field can be used for two reasons.

    The first use is to explain things in a highly compact form. In this use it's a quick and precise way to get complex ideas across to other people. This sort of jargon can be broken down into ordinary language. Whatever you're talking about losses some precision, and it takes about three times as many words, but it can be explained in ordinary language.

    The second use is to mark the jargon-user as a member of the in-group (Us), and the people who don't understand the jargon as the out-group (Them). This sort of jargon can't be broken down into ordinary speach, because there's no actual information there other than Us/Them.

    At least, I think that's what he was saying. It would be nice to find that essay again.