Kepler

I think I will safely eschew any controversy in this post by stating that there are more songs about love than about science. It is therefore nice to be able to add the fairly recent opera/oratorio “Kepler”, composed by Philip Glass, to that second select list. I have to admit that I have been listening to it almost obsessively in the last few weeks. Indeed, how often does one hear an enthusiastic chorus singing with gusto such rousing lines as

Numerus, quantitas et motus orbium!

Number, quantity and circular motion!

or declaiming the basis of the scientific method

Zuerst
entwerfen wir uns
in den Hypothesen
ein Bild
von der Natur der Dinge.
Dann konstruieren wir,
den Calculus,
die Weise der Berechnung.
So demonstrieren wir
In Folge die Bewegungen.
Und schliesslich pruefen wir,
den Weg zurueckverfolgend,
die wahren Regeln
unserer Rechnung

At first
We sketch
[See the first comment below for this change]
With hypotheses
An image
Of the nature of things.
Then we construct,
The calculus,
The way of computing.
Thus we demonstrate
The motions.
Lastly, we check
By retracing the path
[Strangely this was not translated in the original libretto, see the 6th comment]
The true rules
Of our calculation.

These quotes are in Latin and German, since P. Glass, as he often does, uses the original language for his texts, and in that case most of the libretto (written by Martina Winkel) is taken literally from Kepler’s own writings, interspersed with bits of German baroque poetry to put him in the context of his time and place.

[I’ve changed a bit the German translation in the second case from what is in the Libretto, where some constructions like “We place us in the hypotheses” seemed a bit strange; any better attemps at translating the German are welcome in the comments!] I just changed this piece following a suggestion from the first commenter below, and added the missing third-before-last line, as suggested by another commenter

While waiting for the DVD, I had a look at Youtube; and — marvel! — some ingenious soul has put there the full recording of the opera, presumably as it appeared on Austrian television some time in 2009 or 2010. As I’m not sure about the legality of this, I’ll abstain from putting a link, but searching “Kepler Glass” on the site will lead you to it quite quickly. (There are two separate movies for the two acts; the first quote above is located around 12:50 mn in the first act, and the second appears around 39:10). (5.2.2011: it seems that these have now been removed from Youtube, which is probably not surprising; fortunately, the DVD will come out in late February.)

(Note: I am aware that in certain rarefied circles, the music of Philip Glass is considered to be just one step above elevator music, but I am personally completely philistinate in that respect, and will not countenance comments along these lines…)

Roman dodecahedron

The platonic solids are of course quintessentially Greek (although a claim to their discovery has apparently been staked on behalf of rugged Scots — who certainly play rugby better, not that this should influence priority disputes). I was therefore quite intrigued to see today, in the Roman Museum of the town of Avenches, a very beautiful Roman dodecahedron:

The decorations are quite interesting; note for instance that the holes in the faces are not all of the same size. The accompanying text mentioned that at least 60 such objects have been found in what was ancient Roman territories north of the Alps, and that their purpose (if any) is not known. This one was found in a private house (the approximate date is not mentioned, but the old Roman city of Aventicum apparently flourished mostly during the first Century).

De la supériorité de l’esprit français

From the CERN English website:

CERN’s Visits Service organises tours of its experimental areas and facilities, which are free of charge. Tours in several languages are organised on Mondays to Saturdays starting at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. It is essential to book in advance.
Please note that the tours are not suitable for children under 14 years of age.

(emphasis mine, as people say in history books).

Now from the French version:

Le service des visites du CERN organise des visites gratuites de sites d’expériences et d’infrastructures. Ces visites sont proposées en plusieurs langues, du lundi au samedi, à 9h ou à 14h. La réservation est obligatoire.
Veuillez noter que le niveau des visites n’est pas adapté aux enfants de moins de 10 ans.

“Würfeln” is German for playing dice

Since finishing Max Jammer’s book on the history of Quantum Mechanics, I’ve read a few more (and more popular) books, articles or reviews about the same general subject. One very striking thing — very obvious because of the outstanding level of the earlier book — was that none of the other texts gave any kind of feeling for the fact that the foundational work (until the middle 30’s at least) was very much a German-speaking affair. A few other languages are represented (de Broglie and the Curies in French, Dirac in English, Bohr at least partly in Danish), but their numbers are dwarfed by those of the German-speaking masters (Planck, Sommerfeld, Born, Einstein, Pauli, Schrödinger, Jordan, Heisenberg, etc). One anecdote emphasizes this clearly: the Indian physicist S. N. Bose sent a crucial paper in the form of a letter to Einstein (presumably in English), asking him if he could arrange for a German translation to be made and for its publication (Einstein did the translation himself).

Jammer gives most of the important quotations (and the crucial words in others) in the original language, with a translation. The other texts I’ve read, even if they briefly mention the original language, give only English translations of older quotes, with rarely a word of German appearing. (Of course, there is a lot of later literature which was first written in English). For most of the quotations, it seems there is no “official” translation, so it’s hard to judge their correctness.

For instance, it seems every source gives a slightly different version of the so-called “God doesn’t play dice” citation. The German original (in a letter from Einstein to Max Born in 1926; Born had been the first to give the standard interpretation of the modulus square of the “wave function” as giving the probability density of finding a quantum particle at a given point) is the following:

Die Quantenmechanik ist sehr Achtung gebietend. Aber eine innere Stimme sagt mir, dass das noch nicht der wahre Jakob ist. Die Theorie liefert viel, aber dem Geheimnis des Alten bringt sie uns kaum näher. Jedenfalls bin ich überzeugt, dass der Alte nicht würfelt.

which translates fairly literally (the best I can do…) as

Quantum mechanics is very imposing. But an inner voice tells me, that this is not yet the real McCoy. The theory provides a lot, but it brings us little closer to the secrets of the Old Man. At least I am certain, that the Old Man doesn’t play dice.

What is mostly missing from most of the translations I’ve seen is the informality and playfulness of the language. There’s wahre Jakob, which seems really equivalent to the real McCoy. And of course there is der Alte — I have no idea what would be a colloquially equivalent word in English; I can’t say at all whether it really refers to a deity or not (and if yes, at what level of formality). And I also wonder if there isn’t some slight difference of emphasis or subtlety of meaning in the verb würfeln, which contains in a single word the meaning to to play dice (jouer au dé). [Interestingly, it seems that würfeln also means to dice in the cooking-sense of cutting in dices.]