Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Metaphoric fractals

It's wine tasting night again and this week went better. We were learning about the wines of France and tasted good/classic wines from some famous regions. Our instructor likes to expound on his favorite topics even more than I do. But eventually, being tipsy and looking at the map got me thinking of drinking wine on the beach in Marseilles ('92) and seeing a Mandelbrot butt reflected in my wine. (Think a circle with a rounded crack in it.) I've been thinking recently that a lot of big things have similar qualities to small things, which is what fractals are all about. So, Cranky Otter has another Opining Lecture tonight.

I like this definition from dictionary.com:
fractal [(frak-tuhl)]
    Contraction of “fractional dimension.” This is a term used by mathematicians to describe certain geometrical structures whose shape appears to be the same regardless of the level of magnification used to view them. A standard example is a seacoast, which looks roughly the same whether viewed from a satellite or an airplane, on foot, or under a magnifying glass.
My big leap with this is to compare people to molecules, specifically our behavior in public spaces with confined gas molecules. Take your standard "pivnert" equation to define ideal gas behavior, PV=nRT. Or Pressure times Volume equals the number of molecules times the Temperature/energy, with a constant (R) thrown in to make it useful for calculations. But qualitatively, if you have a constant amount of gas at a constant temperature, making the space the gas is in LARGER reduces the pressure which is to say the molecules move further apart. Or add more gas to a bottle and the molecules crowd together, and maybe even precipitate out into a liquid or solid.

You can also see this with people on a train. Strangers (n) get into the car (V) and sit as far away as they possibly can from each other (low P). You can also get pairs or groups of people coming on board who stay together, like covalently bound molecules, but this group is equally far away from the other singles and groups. At some point people start standing to keep the strangers at a consistent and even distance. Sometimes strangers will sit a little closer to one person, if another one is scary (polarity). But with every new addition, the allowed stranger space gets closer and closer until at rush hour, you're dry-humping someone you don't look at in the face as the train rocks back and forth. This all occurs repeatedly whether you're dealing with a gas or with people who supposedly have free will, which makes me wonder about how free our wills really are. Then the train rocks to a halt, the seal is broken on the pressure vessel, and people spill forth like uncorked champagne. Or like sparkling wine, if it's not a French train.

And this is why I blog. Because I think things like this that feel smart in my head, but might not be all that interesting to you unless you've had as much wine as I have, and they need a place to go. Otherwise these thoughts will rattle around in my brainbox, gaining an importance to me that is unwarranted. Well, that and I can't tell all this stuff to my long suffering buddy at dinner.

And still, we are not done; this one has been brewing for a while! I also think that all hobbies and professional interests are much like branching fractals. You can take in a broad scope of them, and there are many unrelated things that grow away from each other, and yet occasionally overlap in weird ways, and can be clustered with related things. But as you look into each particular area of expertise, the focus gets more and more specific, but has more and still more elements to be discovered. And you'll still find these weird overlaps with other things.

It always makes me crazy when people say things like, "I don't like science." There's too much to "science" for that to be true! But someone only looked at the big branches of the tree and decided that one looked too daunting, without realizing that some of the ends of these branches are very accessible and have low hanging fruit. Not all of them require you to climb the whole tree straight up to get there. I know biologists who detest physics - although physics drives biology too, it's not always necessary to know it to do good zoological studies. I know macrobiologists that can't stand microbiology and vice versa. This I think is funny because in order to know which things in "science" you like or don't like, you've actually had to have some contact with it and some self awareness, rather than a knee jerk reaction. I never actually took any biology courses, unless you count 4 days covering natural proteins in my grad polymers lecture. (If I'd known about how cool natural polymers were before my senior year, I might have made different choices, but c'est la vie.)

I've got a friend gearing up to teach a "survey" class on architecture - the history of architecture in 15 easy lessons - how can one possibly cover it all? One can't. Some teachers hate these classes because they're the guided-bus-tours of education. But if someone enthusiastic doesn't teach these classes, who is going to get the students to realize that even if they hate barrel vaults, they can study post-modernism; even if they hate microbiology, they can still be a beekeeper; even if Milan is a polluted hole, Genova is charming and Firenze has the best gelato in the whole world. If you'd just stopped at Milan before knowing about Firenze/Florence you'd have some fantastic outfits, but would have missed the duomo and, seriously, the best gelato in the world.

And here's my point with interests being fractals. Take any hobby or profession, and you can find someone who knows more about it than you do, someone who knows as much as you do but about a different subsection, someone who goes to do something really offbeat with it, several people in the mainstream, the conference organizers, the rule makers, etc... in every single topic. They're all the same structure. You can't ever get totally away from the elements you don't like because those elements are everywhere. But it also means that no matter what you enjoy, you know to start with the big picture and find something in it that interests you, and look at that more closely and repeat.

But I find my preference, for the most part, is for seeing the bigger pictures, for knowing of the depths to be plumbed, not the tediousness of plumbing of the depths. I'm a generalist, not a specialist. While I loved having a multi-talented beekeeping friend tell me all about how healthy bees make regular patterns with the way they fill the cells in their hives while sick ones tend to pack things in irregularly, I'm comfortable with that level of knowledge. I have no need to make my own honey or know what parasite makes bees schizophrenic. While I loved listening to our guest speaker rattle off the best vintages of the last two decades of French Burgundy wines from the top of his head, I have NO desire to ever be so immersed in wine lore to ever do that. I just need a working vocabulary good enough to get me something I consider palatable. Like this wine I'm finishing off now, because they offered the remains of the tester bottles at the end of class, and I was able to get the one I'd rated most highly. Although I am getting really good at glass ornaments and pumpkins, so I do plumb some depths. But it's really hard, sometimes, to choose what I want to spend my curiosity on.


Anonymous said...

Dang I even half understood that.

What's worse... I know what PV=nRT is...


Science??? Physics - cringe. I passed Engr on my Math skills and my ability to manipulate formula's and realize that "If in doubt, make that one 0".

I had a point... sigh... too early.. will need to re-read your post when I'm more awake... :)

Noemi said...

Yay Genova!