Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hodgepodge 109/365 - Apophenia (Walter Murch)

I spent a fun afternoon and evening in San Francisco with my dear friend Rasa, brunching on yummy quinoa salad; wandering along peaceful paths through the Presidio looking at the Andy Goldsworthy environmental art installations (which I have written about before); eating Vietnamese noodles; and—the reason for my visit to the City, besides seeing Rasa—attending a conversation between author Lawrence Weschler and legendary cinematic sound editor and amateur astrophysicist Walter Murch at the historic Mechanics' Institute downtown.

At the evening event, I learned the new word apophenia: the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness—of patterns—in unrelated or random phenomena. In the 1990s, Murch became . . . obsessed seems not too strong a word . . . with an 18th-century postulate known as Bode's (or the Titius-Bode) law, which holds that planets and moons orbit their hosts (the planets around the sun, the various planets' moons around them) at predictable mathematical ratios: the pattern in question.

Weschler, a writer whose essays for the New Yorker I have long admired (he writes beautifully about art, among many other topics) has known Murch for about as long as this obsession has been in play, and they speak regularly of Murch's most recent insights—not just about the planets, but (apparently) about pretty much anything a brilliant, perceptive, curious brain such as Murch's can conjure up. But they've spoken enough about Bode's law that Weschler decided to write a book about Murch, the law, and what working astrophysicists think about it. The upshot: astrophysicists do not think about it. For them, it's very much a case of apophenia: finding meaning in something that, for them, is basically just a cute coincidence.

But Weschler and Murch then cited Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift, which Wegener hypothesized as early as 1912 but which was not really embraced by the scientific community for another forty years. For two reasons: Wegener was known as a meteorologist, not a geologist or geophysicist; and, perhaps more important, the mechanism for continental drift was not theorized until the 1950s, once paleomagnetism, and subsequently plate tectonics, started to be understood. It's one thing to recognize that Africa and South America look like puzzle pieces (and further, to find that geological features extend across the continents, but with that huge ocean in between); it's quite another to understand how the continents might have moved around in the first place.

Mechanism provides meaning. There is no explanation—yet—for the predictable ratios of celestial orbits. And so, the idea is dismissed.

Perhaps there really is no meaning in Bode's law. Maybe it is just a cute coincidence. But it was interesting for me to sit in the hall and listen to Murch's very accessible presentation, and consider the mysteries of the heavens, celestial harmonies, the music of the spheres.

Oh, because that's another thing: Murch—being an acoustician—attached musical pitches to the various ratios, which in turn, when played as chords, make recognizable intervals. Coincidence? Maybe. But it's a lovely one.

As I was driving up this morning, once I got to Gilroy I could tune in to the San Francisco NPR station, KQED, and who was being interviewed but . . . Walter Murch! So if you're interested in hearing a better explanation of all this (he's very eloquent and clear), you can find that interview here.

The photos here are of the fabulous spiral staircase at the Mechanics' Institute.

1 comment:

  1. Apophenia! I love it. In fact, all that pattern- and meaning-making reminds me of a weekend discussion recently with Barry Lopez. That's how he explained his approach to writing.