It is not easy to become sane

Two things happened today that — by pure coincidence — seemed to me to have a thematic connection, even though one of them is important to the whole scientific community in the UK and the other is important only to me.

The genuinely important event was that six of the principal bodies representing physical scientists, engineers and mathematicians finally banded together to resist the attempts by EPSRC to “shape the capability” of these disciplines. Don’t be misled by the diplomatic language of their letter: the very fact that these bodies have come together at all makes this a revolution, by the standards of the tiny and acquiescent world of British science, on a par with the unlikely alliances of the Arab Spring. Some of these communities stood to do rather well, in the short term, out of Delpy’s managerial and relentlessly “utilitarian” reforms, but it seems that even they have decided that he and his cabal are too detached from reality to be left unchallenged. So far, the letter seems to have been reported approximately nowhere in the mainstream media, so it’s still likely that EPSRC will manage to dampen political interest and survive the uprising — but for the moment, we can indulge a fleeting desperate hope.

The less important event was that I had my head slammed, with stunning force, into the fact that the institution where I work is one where independent thought cannot be tolerated. It was a minor-sounding incident. I and some colleagues had set up an unofficial departmental blog, containing a pretty harmless mixture of news announcements, historical notes, puzzles and short articles intended to induct our undergraduates into the culture of mathematics. (I’d better not link directly to that blog as this would give away the existence of this one; suffice to say that if you already know where I work you can probably locate it.) We’d had the idea cleared by our head of department and — we thought — been granted permission to post a message to students letting them know of its existence. We did so. The HoD went through the roof with terror: although we’d described the blog as “unofficial” and although it’s plastered with disclaimers, there was the possibility that somebody sufficiently stupid and litigious could see the word “department” in our message and conclude from this that it was condoned by the Department or the University. Cue two hours of frantic phonecalls terminating in desperate supplication to the VLE administrators who — may they be forever blessed — finally found a way to delete the message from the news stream so I could replace it with an officially sanctioned fawning apology.

What do these incidents have in common? In his illegal diary, Winston Smith writes “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” O’Brien, his hand on the dial of the pain machine, corrects him: “Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.” Those who would and do rule this world are unperturbed by sociological analyses revealing the power structures beneath their claims of objective truth (or whatever the trendy phrases currently are). They are unperturbed by technology: technologists can always be trained to serve the interests of those who command and pay them. What threatens these people, and what they must neuter or destroy, is honest simple thought. Two plus two make four. Words that have no meaning have no meaning, and when they’re put through their semantic paces must confess this. Numbers — even numbers generated by attempts to quantify the unquantifiable — must still obey the laws of arithmetic, and when interrogated must admit that they are liars.

Stalin, in a time and a country far further lost in insanity than our own, developed a kind of paranoid awe of writers: those people for whom words could not be stripped of their meaning. It was this fear that reprieved and then destroyed poets such as Osip Mandelstam, who found himself morally unable to turn his lyrical gift to the service of the Party. (“Poetry is respected only in this country”, Nadezhda Mandelstam records him saying, in chapter 35 of her terrifying book. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”) Our own age is careless about poetry, perhaps because it has already marginalised the art and developed a language for public discourse so senseless that it’s almost impregnable. But it’s an age that is obsessed with numbers, and treats them with an awe that only the innumerate can summon. On days like today, I start to wonder whether the mathematicians will be the next to find ourselves as accidental rebels and martyrs: not because of any ethical courage or insight on our part but simply because the one thing we cannot and must not do is to deny, under whatever compulsion, that two plus two make four.

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4 Responses to It is not easy to become sane

  1. Pingback: What the papers say | Geometry Bulletin Board

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