Sunday, April 15, 2007

Science as play

In Homo Ludens, a book about play in culture, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote: "[Play] creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection...Play casts a spell over us, says Huizinga; it is enchanting, captivating. "It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony."

Like play, science is a search for order in an imperfect world. It offers a temporary, limited perfection in the face of the blooming, buzzing confusion of everyday reality. It casts a spell and lifts us out of apparent chaos into an idealized world of make-believe.

The physicist Bruce Lindsay wrote: "Science is a game in which we pretend that things are not wholly as they seem in order that we may make sense out of them in terms of mental processes peculiar to us as human beings."

The mental processes that lead to science find their first expression in a parent's lap. The nursery rhyme is the earliest form of play. The child hears and reacts to the rhythm of the rhyme even before she understands the meaning of the words. The rhyme is a special activity, marked off in time and space from ordinary experience. The slightest deviation from the rhyme is set straight by the child who says, "That's not the way it goes."

In the enchantment of the nursery rhyme we are dealing with the same human needs that led all early cultures to impose familiar images upon the night's chaotic scattering of stars. The images were simple (swans, bears, hunters, etc.) but they provided the pleasure of recognition ("Look! The Big Dipper."). Once the constellations had been invented, the arrangement of the stars in the night sky was no longer arbitrary, but necessary. The constellations created order.

However, a few stars, the so-called "wandering stars" or planets, had the disturbing habit of moving about. A different sort of geometrical "rhyme" -- circles moving upon circles -- proved necessary to impose order upon the planets, and with these new patterns, invented by Greek astronomers, science was born.

Huizinga writes: "In nearly all the higher forms of play the elements of repetition and alternation [as in the refrain] are like the warp and woof of a fabric." The Greeks made repetition and alternation the warp and woof of nature. They called it the problem of One and the Many -- explaining how and why things constantly change yet remain essentially the same.

The laws of Greek astronomy, like the rules of any game, allowed a rich variety of variation within a rigid frame of sameness. Every playing of the game is different. Every game is played by the rules.

An episode in John Knowles' novel "A Separate Peace" recounts the spontaneous invention of "blitzball" by a daredevil schoolboy athlete named Finny. Finny picks up a heavy leather-covered ball, a medicine ball, which someone has left lying about, and says to his pals, "Now this, you see, is everything in the world you need for sports. When they discovered the circle they created sports."

Whereupon Finny tosses the ball and a game begins. Finny makes up the rules as he goes along. The rules seem arbitrary, but in fact they are intuitively contrived by Finny to maximize one particular outcome -- his own ability to win. The narrator tell us: "Right from the start, it was clear that no one had ever been better adapted to a sport than Finny was to blitzball." The game of blitzball became wildly popular at Finny's school, and was still being played long after Finny and his pals had graduated.

When they invented the circle, they also invented science. The first theoretical science was astronomy, and astronomy was grounded in circles for a thousand years. Greek astronomy had one goal, "saving the appearances"; that is, finding some combination of circular movements that exactly described the motions of celestial bodies.

In retrospect, the rules of Greek astronomy, like the rules of blitzball, seem arbitrary, but they survived as rules of the astronomy game until the time of Kepler and Galileo. In science, as in all successful games, the rules have a high degree of stability. The spoilsport who refuses to play by the rules is drummed out of the game. Major changes of the rules, when they occur, usually spring from the mind of an innovative genius with an intuitive "feel for the game" -- a Knute Rockne or a Johannes Kepler.

Science is a sophisticated game of make-believe in which we invent an idealized world that matches in many important respects the world of ordinary perception. The scientist is motivated by a deep-seated human need for rhythm and harmony, alternation and repetition. In this, the scientist is a mind at play, creatively stretching the limits of the possible within a framework of rigid rules -- alike in action and spirit to Finny and his friends on the playing fields of school.

Further Reading

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens. This classic book, which I first read as an undergraduate, is almost as old as I am, and still in print.

Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, is another classic that is deservedly still in print.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.