The Anthropologist and the Physicist

Back in 1998 I attended a meeting that was intended to kick off a discussion group exploring the interdisciplinary connections between the hard sciences and the social sciences. Many fields were represented, including physics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, chemistry, and mathematics. Prominent names already doing interdisciplinary work were there: Robert Axelrod (mathematical game theory applied to political science), Scott Atran (neurological underpinnings of religious belief), Richard Nesbitt (cultural differences in cognitive processing), and many more. Everyone felt the excitement and possibility of new collaborations.

Part-way through the meeting, Anthropologist Sarah Caldwell spoke up (what follows is a paraphrase, not a quotation):

I can’t help but notice a bias in the discussions going on here. There is a lot of talk about how methods and theories in science can help sociology, anthropology, and the social sciences. We are asking whether metaphors from physics can or cannot be applied to groups of people, or how methodologies from psychology or neuroscience can or cannot be applied to the study of religion. But this seems very one-sided. Why aren’t we asking how different cultural perspectives can inform physics? Why aren’t we asking how different religious ideas can be applied in mathematics, or can help our understanding of neuroscience?

The general response in the room was… dismissal. A physicist, especially, scoffed: “Physics is physics… it doesn’t depend on cultural beliefs. How could things like that possibly help in the study of physics or mathematics?”

Others in the room demanded an example of the kind of thing Sarah might mean. She suggested (paraphrased):

“Well, for example, in Hindu tradition they do not view time as linear, they view it as cyclical. Physics is rooted in the Western idea of linear time. What might we gain if we considered–just entertained–the idea of viewing time as a circle in physics, as well?”

The suggestion was shrugged off. “The idea of time being a circle is just a fanciful metaphor. Time is a dimension, mathematically. It doesn’t depend on social or cultural experiences.” And after a few more awkward words, the topic moved on to other things.

At the time, I felt very uncomfortable with the way the room dismissed this idea. It’s not just that they thought it “uninteresting”: they treated the idea as ridiculous. And personally, I sided with Sarah. Viewed from the perspective of anthropology, the response of the physicists and mathematicians in the room felt like a kind of implicit cultural supremacy.

But I said nothing at the time. I was too young, too flustered, too intimidated by the powerful intellectual figures in the room to formulate a response.

But now, 12 years later, it occurs to me that I know what I should have said. I know what I would have said, had I the presence of mind to do so.

This is my response to the Physicist:

“OF COURSE you re-define dimensions based on data! You do it all the time. Have you ever plotted your experimental results on a log-log graph? By doing that, you are changing the axes of the space you are using to make the data more understandable. In a way, you are taking some features of the data–the world you are looking at–and you are putting that information into the space–the theoretical framework that you use to view the world.

“We do it all the time in the ‘real’ world, too. We consider the surface of the earth to be a curved two-dimensional space on which we move around. You could say that the three-dimensional space itself that the Earth exists in is not (effectively) curved, but our movement is constrained by the surface of the earth, which iscurved. So, the space we live in is curved.

“And that’s the key point: our movement is constrained. If we can plot our data on log-log graphs to better understand them, and if we can view our locations as points on a curved 2-dimensional space, then we are building information about our lives and our world into the dimensions.

“So why not cyclical time? If there is some cultural or social force that constrains our social actions in such a way that they can be more clearly expressed as cycles, then by your own conventions in physics, we should be ‘viewing the data’ on a cyclical dimension. It seems to me like Hindu tradition has actually anticipated some of the very mathematical tools that physics now relies on…. probably by thousands of years.”