Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

A Portrait of Don Quixote from the Palette of Chaos Theory

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

A Portrait of Don Quixote from the Palette of Chaos Theory

Article excerpt

In the last two or three decades, chaos scientists have been coining new words and adapting words from every-day language to name and describe some characteristics of mathematical entities and physical phenomena, as revealed in images generated by computers. (1) "Science takes words and shapes their meaning to its own ends," states Ian Percival (16) and, apparently, humanities can play the same game by reclaiming the words shaped by science and reshaping them to serve their own purposes. "Fractals," "attractor," "cascading," and other terms as common as "sink," "doughnut," "saddle," and "noise," which have clear and specific meanings for chaoists, have been adopted by literary critics and are now being used in their scientific context to describe aspects identifiable with written discourse. The methodologies and instruments of enquiry used by scientists and literary critics are, on the other hand, entirely different.

Chaoists rely heavily on powerful machines to carry out in minutes the wearying and time-consuming iterations required to plot and make dynamically visible on the screen the trajectories produced by instructions programmed into the computer. This reliance on, and extensive and unavoidable use of, computers make the transition from science to humanities difficult. How to feed into a number-crunching machine intangibles which cannot be represented by numbers or formulas, purporting to obtain results akin to those obtained by scientists handling hard data? How to convince scientists of the validity of the subjective conclusions reached by humanists handling the soft data drawn from the imaginary worlds which are their concern?

Humanists and scientists deal with their interests in totally different ways, and their analogies reflect these differences in approach. For instance, mathematician Ian Stewart has no qualms whatsoever at mixing Italian cooking and cosmology in order to bring his point home. The stars that move within a galaxy whose trajectories fall apart are, in the words of Stewart, "meatballs of regularity in a stochastic spaghetti" (151). The reason why Stewart's comparison is successful is because it allows both scientists and non-scientists to visualize the physical problem instantly. Virtually everyone reading Stewart has seen a dish of spaghetti and meatballs, or has a close idea of what it looks like, or can imagine how a dish of spaghetti and meatballs probably looks from the description of the problem involved in tracing the trajectories of stars within a galaxy as described by Stewart. Scientists, it would seem, can contain the universe in a pasta dish in the laboratory and get away with it because they can imagine and devise mathematical formulas to describe their theories, and most scientists are able to carry out and repeat experiments in their laboratories, or against real phenomena, to validate or disprove their hypotheses. There is, however, one small kink etched on the scientific side of the coin. When the time came for Stewart to represent "the restricted three-body problem, in an approximation due to Hnon and Heiles" (150, Figure 59), he could not resort to a drawing, however schematic, of a dish of spaghetti and meatballs. His comparison would have collapsed. Scientists can visualize galaxies and describe them as dishes of spaghetti and meatballs, but they are hesitant to draw them as a culinary concoction, and they certainly cannot test a literary work in a scientific laboratory.

As a rule, the material and data handled by artists, critics, and philosophers can seldom be tested in laboratories; theories can neither be conclusively proven nor altogether dispelled. The way non-scientists bring their points home most forcefully is, not infrequently, by simply reversing the order of the two terms of the scientist's equation. A poet would compare the eyes of his beloved to the stars in the sky; a gastronomer a dish of spaghetti and meatballs to heavens. …

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