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If I Were A Polymath…

When you have two or three degrees and a couple of other strings to your bow, friends and colleagues can be flattering and start to use the ‘P’ word generously. But apart from the fact that I know several people personally who have two PhDs and so have certainly taken polymathism to a higher level than me, I do not think of myself as a polymath as I have not produced much in different fields. I’ve studied a fair bit, learnt quite a lot fairly well and taught a lot of it, too, and done quite a bit of performing in music, but I am late in starting to produce and I think one only earns the right to be called a polymath when one has really turned out significant stuff in several areas. If you really want to get a feel for some great modern polymaths, check out the websites and CVs of some of the top US scientists or mathematicians. There you get the Feynmans and the guys who, as well as being world-leaders in their fields are also regional trampolining champions or award-winning jazz pianists.

I’m not saying it is too late to start, mind. Young at heart and in mind, and all that. The key is to get stuck in to some projects which one might reasonably hope to complete, what with all the other priorities in life. So…looking ahead and on my wishlist of research projects are:

1. Research into the relative psychological effects of listening to singing as performed by a miked voice and an umiked operatic voice. The background here is that I believe the demise in the appreciation of opera is not just due to changing tastes or shifts in technology but to the fact that the microphone works its magic by allowing the listener an intimate experience of ‘whispering in the ear’ – much as a lover might do. (I’m not saying that all pop music is like this – there is plenty of shouting and screaming! – but the point is still made.) In opera, much of your training goes into learning to project the voice without strain. You learn to maximise certain frequencies in the voice which ‘carry’ (in fact the ear is simply most sensitive to these frequencies – around 20KHz – and so picks them out from background noise) but the result is not really ‘intimate’. It is exciting, yes, and moving, but it is almost impossible to achieve that whispering quality of a Rod Stewart, a Luther or a Joss Stone. But enough of the background for now. The point is that I would like to run experiments to record the effects of different types of singing on the emotional states of the listener. Publishing in this area would be project #1.

2. Research into the effect of speaking different languages on one’s psychological state. Just today I was stuck again by an Italian colleague who inserted a vowel after every-ah single-ah English-ah word-ah he spoke. This must have an effect – the leaving of the mouth open so much of the time. Perhaps the ‘tight-lipped’ and reticent Englishman has little choice. Many of his words end tight lipped. Interestingly, too, some of my Italian friends have commented how melancholy Shakespeare sounds to them ‘all moaning Oh, Ohhhh, Oh’. Now I don’t know if these things can be scientifically tested, but it would be nice to try to devise experiments. Does speaking Chinese make you more matter of fact? Speaking Italian more physically at ease and open? English, more reserved, and so on? Many Chinese students have said they simply think differently in Chinese and English, but that is more a matter of concept formation, I would say. The other question is more one of emotional state. Anyway, it would be fun to explore these issues. Polymath project #2.

3. A comparative economic study of the current banking crisis and the mining crisis of the 1980’s. When all the sums are done, I would like to know which would have been better for the UK economy: to keep open the mines that were running in the 1980s and not move toward the ‘financial services’ industry from whose disastrous mismanagement we may never emerge; or to do as we did, and shut down an ‘unproductive industry’ on the basis that it was not going to make money in the short to medium term. This question fascinates me as it touches on economics, the possibilities of autarchy, political will and so on. What a great topic for a PhD! Project #3.

4. A bit more speculative this one – mainly because in the mists of time I have slightly lost the exact formulation of the question. But here we are: In mathematics, when we are introduced to complex variables, we are told in many descriptions that a complex variable ‘is just a 2-vector, with a particular multiplication operation defined on it’. So you learn how to multiply two complex numbers together using this operation. But you also learn of the amazing and beautiful geometrical properties of the complex plane, the geometrical space on which you can plot the complex numbers – all that stuff about poles and residues that underlies so much of physics. So my question is: what is the relation between this simple tweaking of the multiplication operation on the 2-vector and the beautiful and unique geometry of the complex plane? Apparently – or so my lecturer of the time told me 15 years ago – that is a very interesting question. Another PhD? Project #4.

5. Getting more spectulative now. I would like to understand more about the entropy of information and its relation to this explosion of content we are creating on the web. You see, I have this thing that, basically, it is low-entropy goods that humans value (houses, cars, mobile phones) and the only way we can create low-entropy goods is by increasing entropy elsewhere on our planet (2nd Law of Thermodynamics) – which is unsustainable in the long run. We currently do this by burning fossil fuels, but it is a theoretical problem, this one, not simply an issue of ‘just finding the right energy’. For even if we found some other almost limitless source of energy (unlikely, but let’s say we can), we will always lose the entropy battle in the end, so long as we want more and more low-entropy goods. Now the relevance of this to the green tech argument is that (I am tentatively claiming) every time you order bits in a computer you are reducing entropy and this must be paid for by entropy increase somewhere else in the environment. So there is no way tech can help you here. Just typing into your machine you are doing entropy damage to the environment – and the fairly immediate evidence of this is the massive amount of cooling our computers need. Now this argument depends on regarding an English sentence, say, as lower entropy, in terms of information, than the random bits in a computer that might make it up – and I don’t know whether this is the correct way to view the situation. I don’t know if the ordering of information on the web really has an entropy cost. And I’d like to know. Project #5.

6. Energy return on energy investment. EROEI. This is on Wikipedia. But everyone argues over it. Do alternative energy sources really ever give you a net energy gain, or does the mining, making, transporting etc of all the materials and kit needed to make and set up, say, a wind farm or a wave barrier always mean that you get out less energy overall than you put in? I’d love to do some research on this and come up with some answers. What could be more important? Project #6.

With some serious web research I could probably find out a bit about what is going on in several of these areas – though it would take me a good while in some cases to understand the research if, indeed, it exists. Maybe I just like the questions.

But if there is someone interested in taking forward these research questions, some interdisciplinary collaboration, please do let me know.

Photo attributed to Joe Alterio under a CC license.

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