Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Pick Two (aghrivaine) wrote,
Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Pick Two

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Unified Field Theory

Towards the very end of Stephenson's "System of the World" are several of the most remarkable climactic confrontations imaginable. Yes, there's a duel to the death between two life-long antaognists who's emnity has spanned decades and continents that culiminates with one of them impaled by a cello in an orchestra conducted by Handel. Sure, that's cool. (No spoiler that, I'm not saying who it is, or which one dies, after all...) There are ladies of note feinting away when their long-lost loves are captured and tried for High Treason, there are fanstical chymical explosions that level parts of the English countryside. All that and more.

But the one climactical showdown that seemed to me the most remarkable was an imagined confrontation between Leibniz and Newton. Not, as one might imagine, and as the book would have us believe, over who was the originator of the calculus. No, the whole crux of the book is this - that those two men are proponents of a different way of describing science and the world - and that both are after the one common key in physics (then called natural philoslophy) that would explain not just the mechanistic principles of How Stuff Works - but why it does, and why we humans seem to have the capacity to Will things to happen, and then they do. Newtown - while simultaneously advancing a mechanistic explanation, also represents the old order in that he has pursued the quintessence of the world through Alchemy - through the pursuit of mystery, of magic, of something that is essentially, supernatural. Leibniz, on the other hand, is an inferior Natural Philosopher because he advances a metaphysical answer - that all matter consists of "monads" that are themselves independent agents of Will. It explains why humans can be humans, and why they have Will - but also fails utterly to explain the mechanical workings of the world. Leibniz dismisses these as mere details. In short, neither of them are right - but in the clash between the two something incredible, something world-changing is going to happen.

Stephenson inserts a charming irascible character named Daniel Waterhouse who is the witness (and in some ways the cause of) these seminal (and fictional) events. I dearly wish Waterhouse were a real character - he is a perfect example of a Man Between; he is the son of a puritan zealot, one of Cromwell's heavies - but is himself entirely atheistic. "Isaac, it's all weights and plumbs, springs and counter-springs, all the way to the top." He says, when explaining human Free Will. He's a Natural Philosopher who eschews the mysteries of Alchemy while he toils at creating the Logic Mill (a fictitious steam-powered computer) and disdains the notion of a Philsoopher's Stone that can be used to find that central force that Newtown is missing. He is a materialist in a dualistic age, but also fusty and old-fashioned in his predilictions, manners, and preferences. He's deeply conservative, but a radical liberal in his clear-eyed view of the world ... and deeply loveable in his own understanding that he his faculties are sufficient for him to witness the change, but not adequate to affect the change - that will be left to savants like Leibniz and Newton.

So these two titans of Natural Philosophy clash at the behest of Caroline of Hanover. It's Stephenson's chance to trot out a summation of all the miracles of progress of the age, of the incredible changes that occurred through the entire Baroque era - of the transformation of the world from one of metaphysical mystery to one of ... well, still a msytery, but a mechanical one, one that can be solved through observation and experimentation. Both men realize that it's Men who will determine this new System of the World, and both want to be sure it's right. And it occurred to me that the very thing they're after - the one final explanation, the Force that drives it all, the System of the World, has yet to be found. Today we maybe call it Unified Field Theory, or maybe even as detailed as the Higgs Particle (or the God Particle) ... but we haven't found it.

There's still room in the world for a savant like Newton or Leibniz to come along and change everything, to describe that final missing piece, the keystone in the arch of all reality. It's a stirring scene - not just because of its fine writerly touches, but also because of how it brings together a study of character, a detailed knowledge of history, of the history of science, of science itself - of theory and practice and philosophy all at once. I remembered that was why I was a physics major my first year in college. (I was, too...but calculus is the language in which the poetry of the universe is writ, and I am, much to my grandfather's chagrin, destined to be an illiterate ape. So Rhetoric it was.) Why shouldn't Unified Field Theory involve diverse fields, and not just particle or quantum physics? And then it came to me, like a flood...

Nah, I got nothin'. Sure would be cool though. I wish I were a lot smarter than I am. Guess I'll stick with pirates and unix.


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