Heart vs Mind: What Makes Us Human?; The First World War; How to Get Ahead; Precision: The Measure of All Things

We finished three different series over the last week so I wasn’t going to write about any of the one-off programmes as well, but Heart vs Mind: What Makes Us Human? irritated me sufficiently that I wanted to say why! The premise of this film was that the presenter, David Malone, had always thought of himself as a wholly rational person but then his life had become derailed – his wife had started to suffer from severe depression and it was as if the person she had been no longer existed. In the wake of that, and his responses to it, he started to think emotions were more important to what makes us human than he’d previously thought. So far, so good – I mean I might quibble about how it’s a known thing that no-one’s really totally rational and we know that the mind affects the body & vice versa; and I might wonder what his wife thinks about being talked about as if she might as well be dead. But those are not why I found this programme irritating.

I found it irritating because the argument he was putting forward had the coherency and strength of wet tissue paper. He took the metaphorical language of “brain == reason; heart == emotion” and then looked for evidence that the physical heart is the actual source of emotions. There was some rather nice science shown in the programme – but whenever a scientist explained what was going on Malone would jump in afterwards and twist what was said into “support” for his idea.

For instance, take heartbeat regulation. It is known that there are two nerves that run from the brain down to the heart and they regulate the speed of the heartbeat. There is a physiologist in Oxford (I didn’t catch his name) who is looking at how that regulation works. It turns out there is a cluster of neurones attached to the heart which do the actual routine “make the heart beat” management. The messages coming from the brain tell the heart neurone cluster “speed up” or “slow down” rather than tell the heart muscle to “beat now; and now; and now”. Interesting, but not that astonishing – I think there are other examples of bits of routine tasks being outsourced to neurones closer to the action than the brain is (like the gut, if I remember correctly). Malone took this as proof that the heart had its own mini-brain so it would be possible for it to generate emotions. And so it’s “like a marriage between heart and brain with the brain asking the heart to beat rather than enslaving it and forcing it to beat.”

There were other examples of his failure to separate metaphor from reality – indeed his failure to realise that there were two things there to separate. Take, for instance, the metaphor of the heart as a pump. Malone hated this metaphor, so industrial and mechanical and soulless. Practically the root of everything wrong with modern society! (I exaggerate a tad, but not much.) However, the heart undeniably does pump blood round the body. So he looked at visualisations of blood flowing through his heart (another awesome bit of science) and talked about how beautiful this was – as the blood is pumped around the shape of the heart chambers encourages vortices to form in the flow which swirl in the right way to shut the valves after themselves on the way out. Which is, indeed, beautiful and rather neat – and I learnt something new there. However Malone then carried on about how we shouldn’t keep saying the heart is a pump because the complexity of the heart’s pumping mechanics are too beautiful to be reduced to what the word pump makes him imagine. Er, what? Saying you can only imagine pumps as simple metal cylinders with pistons says more about paucity of your imagination than the pumpness of the heart.

I think part of my problem with this was that I’m not actually that much in disagreement with him so it was irritating to watch such a poor argument for something reasonable. I too believe Descartes was wrong – you can’t separate mind from body. The mind is an emergent property of the body. And there is feedback – our mental state, our emotions and beliefs, affect the body and its functions. Our physical health and physical state affects our minds. It’s not surprising to me that it’s possible to die of a broken heart (ie mental anguish can affect the physical system including disrupting heartbeat potentially fatally in someone whose heart is already weak). But this is not because the metaphor of the heart as the seat of emotions is a physical reality. It’s because mind and body are one single system.

None of us are rational creatures. Emotions are a central part of what makes us human. And metaphors do not need to be based in a physical truth to be both useful and true.

(I also get grumpy about people who think that explaining something necessarily robs it of beauty but that’s a whole other argument. As is the one where I complain about the common equation of industry with ugliness.)

Moving on to what I intended to talk about this week: we’ve just finished watching the BBC’s recent 10 part series about The First World War. This was based on a book by Hew Strachan, and used a combination of modern footage of the key places, contemporary film footage, photographs and letters to tell the story of the whole war from beginning to end. Although obviously the letters were chosen to reflect the points the author wanted to make, using so many quotes from people who were there helped to make the series feel grounded in reality. It was very sobering to watch, and the sort of programmes where we frequently paused it to talk about what we’d just seen or heard. It wasn’t a linear narrative – the first couple of episodes were the start of the war, and the last couple were the end, but in between the various strands were organised geographically or thematically. An episode on the Middle East for instance, or on the naval war, or on the brewing civil unrest in a variety of the participating countries.

I shan’t remotely attempt a recap of a 10 episode series, instead I’ll try and put down a few of the things that struck me while watching it. The first of those was that there is so much I didn’t know about the First World War. This wasn’t a surprise, to be honest, I’ve not really read or watched much about it and didn’t spend much time on it at school (having given up history pre-GCSE). But I’d picked up a sort of narrative by osmosis – the Great War is when Our Men went Over There and Died in a Brutal Waste of Life. And that’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. Even for the Western Front – the British narrative is all about it being “over there” but (obviously!) for the French and the Belgians this was happening in their country and in their homes. One of the sources used for this part of the war was a diary of a French boy – 10 years old at the start, 14 by the end – which really brought that home. And (again obviously) the Western Front and the French+British and German troops weren’t the only participants nor the only areas of conflict. I thought separating it out geographically & thematically was well done to help make that point.

It was odd to note how much the world has changed in the last century. Because there was film footage of these people – dressed a bit too formally, but looking like ordinary people – the casual anti-Semitism and racism in their letters and official communications was more startling than it would’ve been from more distant seeming people. Things like referring to Chinese or African troops as “monkeys” in relatively official documents. I’m not saying that racism or anti-Semitism have vanished in the modern world, but there’s been a definite change in what’s acceptable from politicians and so on.

Throughout the whole series the shadow of the Second World War loomed. Obviously no-one knew at the time how things would turn out (tho it seems one of the French generals did make some rather prescient remarks about only getting 20 years of peace at the end of the First World War). But it’s rather hard to look at it now without the knowledge that hindsight gives us. Which ties in with my remark about anti-Semitism above, because one of the things that changed cultural ideas of “what you can say about Jews” is the Holocaust. And other hindsight spectres included the situation in the modern Middle East as set up in large part by the First World War, and of course the Balkans too.

Interesting, thought provoking, and I’m glad I watched it.

Very brief notes about the other two series we finished:

How to Get Ahead was Stephen Smith examining three different historical courts and looking at both the foibles of the monarch and the ways a courtier at that court would need to behave & dress in order to succeed. He picked out a selection of very despotic rulers – Richard II of England, Cosimo Medici of Florence and Louis XIV “the Sun King” of France. I wasn’t entirely convinced about Smith as a presenter, a few more jokes in his script than he quite managed to pull off, I think. But good snapshots of the lives of the elite in these three eras/areas.

Precision: The Measure of All Things was Marcus du Sautoy looking at the various ways we measure the world around us. For each sort of measurement (like length, or time) he looked at how it had evolved throughout history, and at how greater precision drives on technology which in turn can generate a need for even greater precision. I think I found this more interesting than J, because I think it’s kinda neat to know why seemingly arbitrary units were decided on when they could’ve picked anything. I mean the actual definition settled on for a meter is arbitrary (the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second) but there’s a rationale for why we decided on that particular arbitrary thing (the definition before the definition before the current one was that it was 1/10,000,000th of the distance from the north pole to the equator).

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Churches: How to Read Them – series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.

Krakatoa Revealed – somewhat chilling documentary about the 19th Century eruption of Krakatoa and what we’re learning about the certainty of future eruptions of Krakatoa.

24 Hours on Earth – nature documentary looking at the effects of the diurnal cycle on animals and plants. Lots of neat footage and a voiceover with somewhat clunky and distracting metaphors (“Soon the sun’s rays will flip the switch and it will be light” !?)

Episode 1 of David Attenborough’s First Life – series about the origins of life and the evolution of animals.

In Our Time: Fermat’s Last Theorem

Fermat was a 17th century lawyer who did maths in his spare time, corresponding with many other mathematicians around Europe. He had a habit of setting little challenges to his correspondents – “I can prove this, can you?”. He’s famous now for an annotation he made in a book – that he had found a proof that an + bn = cn has no positive integer solutions when n>2 “which this margin is too narrow to contain”. The guests on the episode of In Our Time that discussed it were Marcus du Sautoy (University of Oxford), Vicky Neale (University of Cambridge) and Samir Siksek (University of Warwick).

They started off by setting the theorem in context. It’s a generalised form of Pythagorean Theorem – the one we all (probably!) learnt at school. For a right-angled triangle the sum of the squares of the two shorter sides is equal to the square of the longer side (the hypotenuse). And du Sautoy pointed out that this has a very practical application – if you have a rope with equally spaced knots in it and you arrange it into a triangle with sides 3, 4 and 5 then you are guaranteed a right-angle between the sides of length 3 & 4. Useful for building pyramids. And other things you want the corners to be right-angles on. So for n=2 we know there are some positive integer solutions.

It’s also a sort of equation called a Diophantine Equation – these are polynomials that only have positive integer values of their variables. So other examples are things like x2=y3-2 (which has at least one solution – 52=33-2). Some Diophantine Equations have no solutions, some have finite numbers of solutions, some have infinite. And the question is what sort of equation Fermat’s Last Theorem is.

Fermat never wrote his proof down anywhere, and the experts were suggesting that perhaps he never actually had a generalised one. That his proof by infinite reduction of the case where n=4 was all he’d done (and then was suggesting that must be the case for all the other possible values). The equation itself isn’t a particularly interesting one and hasn’t any direct practical applications, but it became famous because no-one could find the proof that Fermat said he had. Various famous (and otherwise) mathematicians tried to find the proof – the one that they discussed that I particularly remember is Sophie Germain, who was a French mathematician in the late 18th/early 19th Century. At that time she couldn’t study mathematics formally because she was a woman, so she was self-taught & corresponded with other mathematicians using a male pen-name. She found a way to inspect particular values for n to show that there were no solutions – and used this to prove the theorem for values of n up to 100. Neale clearly found Germain particularly interesting as she nearly got side-tracked into a bio of her before being pulled back to the subject at hand 🙂

During the 19th & 20th Centuries there were several monetary prizes on offer to people who found a proof, but no-one did until Andrew Wiles in 1997 (just before the time limit on that particular competition). They did discuss a bit about what his proof was, but I didn’t follow it well enough to remember it well enough to explain it – it had something to do with mapping these sorts of algebraic equations to elliptic curves, and if you could show there was no possible curve then there must be no solutions to the equation.

They summed up the programme (very briefly) by saying that even though the equation isn’t itself terribly important the effect of the competition to solve it was to drive forward several other areas of mathematics that do have practical applications.