Friday, September 22, 2006

More Answers

Zeek asked, "Along the lines of the base 10 question, why the 12 tone scale? Couldn't it be something else or is there some explanation from physics I should know about?"

A great question. On the one hand, there are non-western musical traditions that use other scales, but, on the other hand, it surely is not a matter of complete cultural convention that we use the scales we do. In fact, this is one of the most important questions in all of intellectual history. The ancients realized that certain tones are harmonious while others most definitely are not and that when played on stringed instruments, there were ratios between these notes with respect to where on the string one placed one's finger to generate them. The attempt to find a relationship between these ratios is what began the study of mathematics. You've got a tripartite relation here between (1) pleasingly harmonious music -- something experienced in the human mind, (2) the vibrations of strings -- a purely physical occurrence, and (3) abstract mathematics -- ideal relationships holding between abstract numerical concepts. When the ancients also observed regularities in the motions of astronomical bodies, this three part interrelation is what led to them to posit the existence of the music of the spheres -- if there was a mathematical relationship governing the physical motion, then that motion ought to produce sound and if the universe is so orderly and well-constructed, its music must be ultimately harmonious. The fascination did not stop in the ancient world. Descartes' first written work concerned this exact question as well and fueled his belief that all could be reduced to and understood by mathematical reasoning.

Unfortunately, I don't have much beyond history to offer as an answer, but my guess would go as follows: (1) sound travels in waves and waves can superimpose to create complex combined waves, (2) we hear because the soundwaves hit the eardrum which then vibrates itself in the same fashion, (3) cacophonous notes cause irregular waveforms where harmonious notes cause simpler,smoother waveforms on the eardrum, and (4) the brain interprets the complex non-regular waveforms as displeasurable music but interprets the smoother waveforms as pleasurable harmonious music. Anyone?

Gwydion asks, "Why do all of the ancient goddess statues from religions worldwide have gigantic hips and breasts?"

The ancients were fascinated by change -- physical motion, generation, growth, transformation, death. One doesn't need to explain why things stay the same -- that's just how they are. But so much doesn't remain the same and they were enthralled by the question why things change in the way they do and whether there is any way to predict and affect the change. The gods and goddesses were created to explain the changes. We can change things by the force of our will, so other changes must be the result of larger, more powerful wills. Since goddesses are female and the amazing change associated with women is birth, life being the greatest mystery, goddesses became associated with this great power. Wide hips generally mean easier birth -- and it is a recent phenomenon that surviving birth can be largely assumed, and breasts enlarge after birth with the coming of the milk. So since they are the givers of life, the goddesses ought to represent this change...oh, and it was Steve Landesberg who played Dietrich on Barney Miller.

MRW asks, " How big is a hydrogen atom?"

About one angstrom; that is, to line up just an inch of hydrogen atoms, you would need 254,000,000 of them.

Ken has several questions. (1) "Do you think we will see a "Copernican Revolution" like Kant described in the next 50 years. Something along the line of the age of discovery that brought on the renaissance?"

Yes and no. On the one hand, technological advance to speed up to staggering degrees. Calculations that used to be time prohibitive are now trivial. Computer modeling allows all sorts of new approaches which will lead to incredible discoveries. Communication allows scholars to transmit results and analysis to a worldwide community of peers, making collaborative work standard. BUT, a Copernican revolution is not mere progress, even great progress, rather it overturns the entire foundational structures of our understanding of the world, our basic categories that we use to make sense of reality. The intellectual world is now so fragmented in sub-sub-sub-fields which are becoming so intricate because of the progress that can be made, that we see micro-revolutions all the time, but it is so demanding to keep up with the rapid progress in any given corner of the academic universe, that we can't have the needed generalists who are able to gain a deep sense of the larger zeitgeist and undermine it with new worldviews. Because of the progress, I think that it makes big time revolution unlikely.

(2) "My alma mater has had a losing record in football the last two years and have had there ass kicked on national TV too. I have resigned myself to rooting whoever plays against us in hopes the coaching staff will get the Axe.( Mudbug says it's jumping off the bandwagon but I need a deeper meaning ) What philosophy would best describe this phenomenon?"

This is straightforward utilitarianism right out of Jeremy Bentham: the best act is that which brings about the best consequences. Like a painful needle that immunizes you against a horrible disease, sometimes a little pain now can afford a greater benefit later.

(3) "Every time I read your blog entries I always think of the book Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. What is your favorite lines from that book?"

The section where he distinguishes between the classical and romantic minds. The idea has been ingrained in Western thought since the Greeks and reinforced by Christianity that there is a single human nature, a single potential goal that we are all actualizing in our best moments. Pirsig, in that passage, does a wonderful job of demonstrating the different types of human natures, what some, especially German thinkers, have called archetypes. There are different lenses through which different minds construct the world out of the same observations. That insight is the basis for contemporary continental thought where it is historical, political forces that shape the lens and require deconstructing to see their influence, and contemporary analytic thought where scientific theories are seen as providing potential lenses as sets of models. That book is a wonderful way to open young minds to the world of philosophy, it combines the building blocks that come into play in hard core philosophy with the sort of Catcher in the Rye/James Dean romanticism that is attractive to us at that time of life.

Ilya asks, " What does "Carthago delenda est!" mean. The standard translation is "Carthago must be destroyed". I just read a site that suggests that it really means "If Carthagen is not destroyed we are all doomed" though I really doubt that can be expressed in three words. What is the context for the phrase and what does it really mean?"

It does literally mean "Carthage must be destroyed," but has a deeper connotation that has made it a cliche. As the Romans were building their empire, they worried about Carthage, a wealthy city nearby. They had not been able to defeat it militarily and as the Romans dedicated all of their resources to expansion, Carthage thrived on trade. The fear from some was that a prosperous Carthage would stand as a constant threat to Rome and so Cato the Elder coined the slogan "Carthago delenda est!" which he would repeat and repeat and repeat. Unless they engaged in a war of pre-emption to destroy Carthage, Carthage would no doubt ultimately destroy Rome, went the reasoning. Cato was so persistent that ultimately the Romans agreed and sacked Carthage in the Punic wars. It has been almost 2000 years since and the Romans still have yet to find the weapons of mass destruction that Dickus Chenius, assistant to Cato the Younger said were in Carthage as written in the scrolls "Meetus the Pressius". So "Carthage must be destroyed!" is a way of saying, it's a dog eat dog world and we need to attack to save ourselves.

Great questions everyone. Thanks!