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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Science of Creativity or Creativity of Science?

Alene gave me the article I referred to in the previous post because of the focus on pedagogy; there is also a nugget of substance that happens to coincide with something I'm working on this summer.  So blogging comes with a lot less guilt when I can use it to think out loud.

Here is another piece of the interview with Eric Masur:

On a physics exam, the student will see a diagram and they’ll classify it. Then, it’s simply a matter of putting the right numbers in the right slots and, sort of, turning a crank. But this is algebra. It is not physics. When you test the students later on the concept, they can’t explain what they’ve just done.

This saddens me. In my laboratory, we’ve made some important discoveries. Several were accidental — serendipitous. If we’d only functioned on the standard knowledge, we wouldn’t have recognized what was before us.

Q. What were these findings?

A. Here’s the biggest one: Just for the fun of it, we once put a silicon wafer into some gas we had lying around the lab. We then irradiated it with ultra-short laser pulses. What came out was a wafer as black as the blackest velvet. Until that moment, the conventional wisdom was that silicon was never black. So it certainly was possible to think of this thing as a mistake and to have tossed it away. Instead, we put it under an electron microscope where we saw that we had found a new material: 98 percent silicon, 2 percent embedded gas.

And today, we have a patent for this black silicon, which has important applications in communications and sensor technology.

Some thoughts on the relevance of this to my nascent project below the fold.

The thrust of the work, for which I have posted the present introduction as thought-piece, is to explore my sense of the "thingness" of some areas of the law, as opposed to the "aboutness" of others.  I have made up a number of words or descriptors in the past seven months to explain this - morphosity or "formness" is one; viscosity or "thickness" is another.  This is thinking out loud, so bear with me, and defer on the implications, if any, for now.

It seems to me there is a difference between law that is laid upon independent activity in a regulative way - like contract law upon transactions, for example - and law that creates systems that otherwise would not exist.  Hence, the distinction between Articles 2 and 9 of the UCC:  one is about transactions that otherwise exist, but Article 9 is a creation in and of itself.  Its rules, to use the term bandied about by philosophers, are constitutive.  That is not to say there are no regulative rules in Article 9, but they are regulative in the same way that it is regulative to outlaw clipping in football after you have determined what clipping is out of constitutive rules (thanks to Fred Schauer for that example).

So when we start to talk about a system of rules, it's hard to avoid thinking about models and metaphors, and how analogical reasoning fits into all of this.  I've just finished reading Max Black's essay on the subject ("Models and Archetypes") in his book Models and Metaphors:  Studies in Language and Philosophy.  Black proceeds through an analysis of various types of models, from the scale model to the analogue model to the mathematical model to the scientific theoretical model.  From there he proceeds to a discussion of the means by which we extend what we know (i.e. the patterns of what is known to us) by analogy to something we do not quite understand.  And here is where we return to the relevance of Professor Masur's comments.  Black says, comparing scientific theoretical models to metaphor as figure of speech:

Much the same can be said about the role of models in scientific research.  If the model were invoked after the work of abstract formulation had already been accomplished, it would be at best a convenience of exposition.  But the memorable models of science are "speculative instruments," to borrow I.A. Richards' happy title.  They, too, bring about a wedding of disparate subject, by a distinctive operation of transfer of the implications of relatively well-organized cognitive fields.  And, as with other weddings, their outcomes are unpredictable.  Use of a particular model may amount to nothing more than a strained and artificial description of a domain sufficiently known otherwise.  But it may also help us to notice what otherwise would be overlooked, to shift the relative emphasis attached to details - in short, to see new connections.

Black concludes:  "If I have so much emphasized the importance of scientific models and archetypes, it is because of a conviction that the imaginative aspects of scientific thought have in the past been too much neglected.  For science, like the humanities, like literature, is an affair of the imagination."

If we take Black and Masur together to impart some sense of mystery at the core of physics, how much more is the same implicit in the assessment of social issues, or the solving of social problems, the latter of which is category within which we teach our students a particular discipline.  But solving those problems by formal applications of rules may be to understanding human relationships what doing algebra is to understanding physics.  I remember vividly "brainstorming" sessions in our business when things were looking dark and we needed new and creative ideas.  Everyone would be straining and struggling, and true to my nature, I would crack a joke, only to have the CEO glower at me:  "this is serious." 

Try this:  "be creative or you are fired!"  Sorry, it doesn't work.  Focus instead on the relationship between humor and innovation.   Each involves the unanticipated juxtaposition of ideas.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 17, 2007 at 12:09 PM in Legal Theory, Lipshaw | Permalink


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As usual, much food for thought.

Your suggestions have direct relevance to the role of utopian imagination in political theory and praxis (including of course, 'the solving of social problems'). If you're interested, I'll elaborate in another comment.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 17, 2007 12:34:13 PM

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