The University Project: Stories and Science

For background you might start with these two pieces from Dougald Hine:
About this university…
The University Project: Five Reasons

I can’t tell stories. I am a mathematician, I find rules. I want to break everything down into its simplest components, to things that feel self-evident. This can be stereotyped as reductionism, even criticised for taking away the beauty and mystery of the world. That is the cultural wars crap. To me the process of seeking the simple, understanding the rules, is itself simple. To cut away the things that are simple so that we can get to the true complexity. To see problems clearer by cutting away the simple stuff that initially looks complicated. Right now my rules based understanding is screaming:

The world needs story tellers and stories

Stories that et us work more effectively with he world. Stories that allow us to grab the understanding gleaned from some deep scientific study without having to get to the bottom of its details.

Think about fairy tales, there is something magical about them and it is not just the witches. On the surface they are fantasy, things that clearly made up, 1000 year sleeps, pumpkins becoming coaches, houses made of cake… Yet at their core they have deep psychological truth and wisdom. They can help prepare children for the darkness of the world around them. In fact any work of fiction is by definition lies, but novels have had as great an effect on my life than just about any understanding I got from science and maths.

You do not get this wisdom just by being a story. It comes from the authors wisdom, understand and beliefs about the world. And there’s the rub. The understanding of the world that we have been able to grasp with the tools of mathematics and science is immense and detailed. Even the experts can only grasp parts of it. In fact the amazing work of Gödel, Turing, Church, Post, Chaitin and others means that this can be exactly quantified. To butcher another great story teller:

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in arithmetic, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Yes, humble arithmetic can be studied for as long as you care and yet still reveal new secrets. When this is the case, how do we expect someone who also needs to learn the delicate arts of telling stories, or performing to also gain a deep understanding of science or medicine. Just as we cannot expect those who have spent many years learning how to create science to also tell compelling stories. There have been many examples of course, but very clever people in a single field are rare, so we should not just wait for the few who are brilliant in more than one, when we can bring the one-fielders together.

We need the skill and art of storytellers forged by the ability of science to cut through the crap and give a sense of what is real. Stories that on the surface are engaging fictions but whose heart and core message can be backed up by spreadsheats and data.

This bring me to the university project. Yet when I try to say why it becomes difficult. Everything above is really just part of the classical ideal for the university. Universities still act as the haven for many, many wonderful things. Why then do I feel we need to explore alternatives? Yet I do. I feel that due to a combination of pressures universities do not nurture such collaborations in the ways they need to be. The value system within academia has become too focussed on ability within a specialisation and a certain value system based on certain forms of publication. This is especially true at the hiring level. Working outside a discipline is consider a great thing, but only after you have mastered your field. The problem to me is that working outside an expertise is not a trivial task. It needs to be studied, worked on and developed. Successful collaborations can take years to develop real output, and there are other collaborations that last years without getting there.

The university project feels different, placing open connections at its institutional core. Using play and friendship as ways to overcome the barriers of the jargons and fixed ideas we have to develop to become successful specialists. It is not about replacing the university, or even reinventing it, but about giving options opening new paths to the beautiful concept:

The cultivation of knowledge.

These ideas have been fermenting for a long time, and have developed during my involvement with the University project and the discussions and ideas around it, most notably the thinking of Dougald Hine (of course) Alex Fradera, Nick Stewart and Rhett Gayle. These crystallised into a concrete idea when I read a tweet from Vinay Gupta.

I am not claiming any particular originality in the thinking, and there are many examples of the sort of combination that I ask for. I want this to increase, not to start! As examples you can look to authors such as Borges, Nabakov, Perec, and Pratchett, and coming from the science side to tell stories Asimov and Sagan. It does feel that this sort of endevour is growing. The theatre production A disappearing number by Complicté working with mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is an incredible example. It is discussed in the broader setting by Joe Winston, whose work on stories, beauty and education is wonderful.

Other people telling stories with and of mathematics include my friends Paul Prudence and Rohit Gupta. Both of whom provide lyrical beauty and whimsy to mathematical ideas.

There is so much possibility  and to me the grand push of the university project is to try to explore and find ways of unleashing it to the true benefit of humanity and the world.