Learning about the Multiverse

Another week, another lecture. I heard Brian Greene speak on Monday about recent developments in theoretical physics. He talked about multiverses—the possibility that because it’s probably possible to go on travelling forever (as opposed to hitting a wall or returning to the start) then all this space may be filled with infinitely many parallel universes, each of could differ from our universe, on everything from physical laws to what colour my eyes are. It’s an attractive idea for some mathematicians, apparently, because it would explain some of the strange numbers you get when making calculations about the universe’s growth.

I came away from the lecture recalling that I’d mulled over some of the same possibilities when I was younger. Since my maths hasn’t got much better since then, these thoughts aren’t much more advanced now. This recollection made me particularly interested to listen to Brian Greene speaking that same day on the Radio 4 programme Start the Week, where he appeared with his British counterpart, Brian Cox, and the science journalist/author Angela Saini. The conversation turned to science education, and the two Brians agreed that it’s important to enthuse children with big ideas about the universe (or multiverse) so that they want to acquire the knowledge and mental discipline to understand these problems more clearly. Without disparaging other subjects, all three agreed that science should be accepted as a part of British cultural identity, and that understanding how the scientific process works would help citizens to make better judgements about matters like climate change. Saini helpfully broadened the discussion by contrasting Britain with the widespread enthusiasm for science and technology among Indian students.

There are many similarities between the claims being made for science and humanities education as drivers for democratic responsibility here, but I was left thinking about an important difference. Talk of the multiverse and wonders of the solar system is intended to be (to quote the blurb about Brian Cox’s current TV series) ‘spellbinding’ and ‘breathtaking’. It’s intended to nurture the type of thinking that I recalled having when I was younger, which anyone who has looked up at the night sky and tried to make sense of it all has had. This fascination gives a taste of why learning times tables, equations and the scientific method is worthwhile. This training helps us to make sense of the world.

The humanities don’t work like this. My equivalent fascination for books impelled me to delve deeper, but there’s not the same barrier between wondering and understanding. I could become engrossed by Jane Austen’s Emma or James Joyce’s Ulysses, but it wouldn’t make sense to say that I’d have to go away and study for several years until I could ‘properly’ understand them. This is because I’m studying human culture, which was written to be read and, at some level, understood. At the point that I’m not reading but studying literature, I’m developing new skills and knowledge (as with the science lesson) that challenge what I already know. It helps me to read between the lines, open my mind to new possibilities, and work out how to talk about given aspects of culture more incisively (just as it’s possible to talk about the universe’s creation in more detail if you know the maths).

The difference here, as I see it, is that because the scientist is working with the natural world, you have to develop your own skills to the point that you can start matching nature’s complexity, and the sophistication with which we find out about the world. But culture only exists because we already know something about it, and so the project of studying literature is immediately to examine pre-existing ideas and refine our judgment, with the object of coming to terms with reality through the lens of human experience. So wonder can be a motivation for students of arts as well as science. For science, this means asking those big, unanswerable questions and then groping towards an answer. For the humanities, you take what you know and start asking more and more difficult questions about it.


Geoffrey Hill, Professor of Poetry Lecture (8th March)

The second Professor of Poetry lecture was given in the Oxford Exam Schools on Tuesday by Geoffrey Hill. Hill is a formidable poet and critic, known for pushing hard against the limits of the English language. He has a prophetic air—helped along by his white waterfall of a beard—in his public utterances. His inaugural lecture, for example, drew a connection between skimming and scamming: giving a cursory glance to the world or to a poem leaves you susceptible to political fast-talking and deception.

In Lecture Two Hill said that he wishes to focus on poetry from the period 1520 to 1720 in his lectures (all fourteen remaining ones, was my impression). As a student of exactly this period, this was all very gratifying, as were admiring references to Thomas Wyatt, John Donne and especially William Shakespeare’s sonnets (a guide to the ‘intelligence of the age’). Hill spent around twenty minutes talking through a lyric poem by the lesser-known Cavalier poet, John Suckling. The perceptiveness of his reading aside, Hill’s analysis was intended to show how poetry from this period is invariably well-crafted, even when written by John Suckling. The attention to conceits, paradoxes, shifts of meaning, ambiguities, versification, rhyming, syntax and so forth is all there. This sensitivity makes the poetry more difficult to read, but this is entirely positive. It’s like preferring chewy wholemeal bread to unfilling white.

He ended by referring to a recent trip to HMV in which he bought the new PJ Harvey album, which apparently wasn’t all that displeasing (he was less impressed with The Streets’ ability to rhyme—’knitten’ and ‘thicken’ didn’t impress). The appeal is less surprising given that her record’s called ‘Let England Shake’. His lecture enforced the value of canonical English poetry to create tough, alert readers who are responsive to today’s political and cultural situation. He also suggested that young poets should look to the masters, or even imitators of the masters, and try to recover their technical innovations. You may not agree that England is a stagnating morass, and you may not think that Renaissance lyric poetry is where all the literary wholemeal bread is. But there’s a valuable reminder about the importance of literary study here, and Hill hopes that his lectures convey a ‘blank intransigence’ (Hill quoting from A.D. Nuttall‘s Overheard by God) about what he believes in.

An example. Hill pretended to throttle himself to convey the strength he felt in the language in line 8 of this Thomas Wyatt lyric. It’s about the perils of court-life and fame:

1   Stond who so list vpon the Slipper toppe
2   Of courtes estates, and lett me heare reioyce;
3   And vse me quyet without lett or stoppe,
4   Vnknowen in courte, that hath suche brackish ioyes.
5   In hidden place, so lett my dayes forthe passe,
6   That when my yeares be done, withouten noyse,
7   I may dye aged after the common trace.
8   For hym death greep’the right hard by the croppe
9   That is moche knowen of other, and of him self alas,
10   Doth dye vnknowen, dazed with dreadfull face.

(Thomas Wyatt, Poem CCXL [Stond who so list vpon the Slipper toppe], text from Literature Online)

Christopher Page and Quentin Skinner Lectures

I’ve been to two lectures at the Oxford Exam Schools this week, both given by leading academics associated with Cambridge University. On Monday I heard a talk, with sung interludes, given by an authority on medieval music, Chris Page (he has recently published a book on the first thousand years of music in the Christian West). He stressed the importance of music in the medieval liturgy: people sang the bible more than they read it, and plainchant evoked emotions in the listener and singer. He spoke about neurological and psychological aspects of auditory experience, but worried that these approaches don’t take account of the historical moment where music is produced; i.e., how society and culture condition our response. This extends to the vocabulary we use to talk about medieval music. So, rather than just talk about ‘zygonic memory’ (referring to music that’s easily memorized), Page considered how the word ‘compunction’ was used in the first millenium to discuss emotional responses to music.

This interest in the language, the terms being used to make argument is closely identified with the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ of historical thinking. Quentin Skinner is closely identified with this approach to intellectual history, and he is giving this year’s Clarendon Lectures–the first lecture was on Tuesday. The series’ title is ‘Shakespeare and Rhetorical Invention’, and already the connection with his broader methods of analysis is clear: he’s going to see how Renaissance theories of rhetoric (the art of persuasion) help us to understand how Shakespeare was writing speeches in the plays.

It’s nothing new to argue for rhetoric’s central importance to understand what’s going on in Renaissance literature: it’s a key part of the classical heritage that was being reclaimed across Europe, and in England all grammar school students, including those at Stratford, would have been immersed in it. Skinner’s argument focuses on ‘invention’ (what you put in a speech), but sounded original to me mostly in its specific claims about when Shakespeare was most interested in rhetoric–from the end of 1596 (when he’s writing Romeo and Juliet) until about 1604 (Measure for Measure and Othello). He claims to have found Plutarch’s Moralia (Philemon Holland’s 1603 translation) being quoted in Hamlet, which struck me as particularly provocative not only because scholars have been combing through that particular play for centuries, but also because, if true, it’d be relevant to the debate about how the three different versions of Hamlet relate to each other: it’d be a neat piece of evidence for arguing that the 1604 quarto really was made more literary by Shakespeare for print publication…but this is another story.

Skinner’s lecture was attended by a Who’s Who of academics in the Oxford English Faculty working on the early modern period. Some of them may have drifted off in the first half while Skinner was introducing rhetorical theories, which is to say that he was pitching it beyond the inner sanctum of Oxford dons, towards the outer sanctum of graduate and undergraduate students and beyond. The lectures are telling us how to read Shakespeare with a better sense of the historical ideas about language that are informing his writing. This helps us appreciate Shakespeare’s plays and his dramaturgy (writing drama). More globally, it encourages us to think about how language is shaped by its historical circumstances that give words meaning. This applies to literature written five hundred years ago, a millenium ago and just yesterday. Words change, gain and lose meaning–‘credit crunch’ and ‘Big Society’ being two examples of words with meanings specific to how they’re used in twenty-first century Britain. You could even analyze this blog post for traces of how my having typed it out on the screen makes it different from something handwritten. Rhetoric exists in many forms.

Fees Discussion in Oxford

I was pleased to hear David Norbrook, a Professor of English I know, speak out at an Oxford Congregation meeting earlier this week (he speaks at 35.40 in this recording). Professor Norbrook speaks about how the university needs to ‘stop apologizing’ for what it does, and stand up for its core values of promoting ‘truth, honesty and independent-mindedness’. Against political and market pressures exerted on universities, he reminded those present that universities are vital cultural institutions (like the BBC or the British Museum), regardless of how their existence suits the current political agenda.

This argument does not entail that univerisities should ignore what’s happening in the outside world. Far from it. Universities are institutions that nurture and cherish important democratic ideals, such as critical judgment, disinterested inquiry and pluralism. They do this by establishing a supportive scholarly community in which individuals pursue their own course of learning and research that has purpose and relevance initially within that community. Neuroscientists write papers that neuroscientists will read, and art historians write papers for other art historians. And by circulating ideas, methods and discoveries, universities become a beacon for these values.

There is no need to apologize, then, that research in English studies won’t immediately create jobs, and won’t be something that secondary school students or broadsheet readers will always want to hear about first-hand. Doctoral students in English at Oxford–all two hundred of them–pursue diverse and highly specific topics: see here and here for research topics. At some point these will become available online at the Oxford Research Archive, but many won’t be widely read, and certainly not by those outside universities.

This is just as it should be. English studies, just like every other discipline, is becoming more specialized as people learn more and employ new research methods to understand literature. There aren’t many scholars today who could hold forth professionally on a wide historical range of topics, as older and still active critics like John Carey and Christopher Ricks can. Today the usual way to promote the values Prof. Norbrook talks about is to have advanced students research small areas with great rigour, discipline and careful analysis. Established scholars can branch out, but not as much (it seems to me) as they once could. This research can become ‘useful’ to others later down the line: it’s good for scholars to communicate their ideas to a general audience, but this is not the primary purpose of scholarship. Research projects the high standards that went into its creation, as well as its discoveries about nature and culture.

* Note: the discussion is now available to read on the Oxford website.