The Hazards of Interdisciplinary Writing, Part Two

In response to a request I am going to highlight a part of my paper to illustrate what can happen when specialists in their field look for evidence from another field and unfortunately misrepresent that evidence:

“Greene, Boles, Bruemmer, and Daniels-Howell assert that ‘the universal nature of archives is neither universal nor natural’ (a sentence to which one is tempted to add, “Discuss,”) and explain:

‘The whole notion of archival truths and the “nature” of archives and records is itself a fundamental weakness… If one is religious, ethics and morality may still be universal and immutable (for example, the Ten Commandments define right and wrong immutably and objectively for believers). But we can no longer even talk about the “nature” of electrons, for example, or the “nature” of light as if they are immutable and absolutely objective. Darwin, Freud, and Einstein blew apart the ability of most of Western society to accept such absolutes about the physical and psychological realms of our existence. Even less do human made things such as houses and cars have “natures”—they are what we say they are. Their characteristics and functions and forms change over time and from society to society. We might suppose that records and archives, also being purely human constructs are fairly plastic and pragmatic things—concepts that help accomplish some larger goal and that can be changed and modified to help achieve that larger goal (Greene et al, 10).’

“With all due respect to these great minds, this is incorrect, and unfortunately repeats a popular misunderstanding of quantum mechanics: that it describes a world in which subatomic particles do not, and thus everything else cannot, have a ‘nature.’ (Do houses and cars really change their functions over time or cultures? Why document functions, then?) Yet physicists do speak of the nature of the electron: it has a quantifiable magnetic moment or ‘spin’ and a negative[1] charge always, and either travels free or is locked in orbit around atomic nuclei, never in the nucleus. These are its static attributes; however, when the physicist attempts to quantify the dynamic attributes of position and momentum, yes, the electron can be said to not possess them absolutely: the more precisely one measures its position, the less precisely one can measure its momentum, and visa versa. This is an empirical, objective scientific observation, not a social construction. In fact all objects display this Heisenberg Uncertainty between their dynamic attributes[2] and that is a far cry from denying that they have a nature.

“As for archives, of course they are what we say they are, but it is what we say they are that evolves, being so inextricably linked to human nature, and this is the rightful province of theory. Of course archives have sociological aspects; of course they are socially defined. Human values, culture, history, art, and justice and are what we say they are, and our conceptions of them evolve, but not haphazardly, and neither do our conceptions of archives change erratically. How, then, do they change?” [What follows is a discussion of Eastman and my thought experiment.]

[1] Negative because Ben Franklin decided to call its opposite charge “positive”; of course, these terms are arbitrary (Krauss, 2001, 24).

[2] The error is too small to be perceived, however, in everyday experience. Greene et al may be interested in George Biddell Airy’s electron diffraction experiment, in which a stream of electrons is aimed through an adjustable circular iris at a phosphor screen which records each electron’s arrival as a “dot.” When this iris is made small enough one can sit and watch the “dots” slowly accumulate, but over time these electrons, which are all in an identical state as they approach the iris, upon going through it and striking the screen form not a central circle but an interference pattern— with concentric rings, like an archery target—an unmistakable feature of waves arriving in and out of phase. This can be described by the equation Ө = 70(L/d), where L is the wavelength, d the diameter of the iris, and Ө is the angular diameter of Airy’s disc (the “bulls-eye”) in degrees (Herbert, 1985, 63). Yet one sees each particle strike the screen in succession!

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2 thoughts on “The Hazards of Interdisciplinary Writing, Part Two

    1. kristine Post author

      Of course you’re smart! What do you mean?
      This all just comes with time. You have to remember that I did not own a car for almost 25 years, so I spent hours on the bus reading everything from quantum mechanics to Valdimir Nabokov to Antonin Artaud to Stephen Jay Gould. (Who I still recommend, BTW, though I regret that because of him I did not read Dawkins earlier.) Read and think; read people who argue against each other; if you want an accessible intro to quantum theory, read Nick Herbert’s Quantum Reality.

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