Daniel S. Griffin

slithy toves

23 May 2015 - Berkeley

I’ve recently started listening to Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges and reading The Pasteurization of France by Bruno Latour.

In the former, Hodges recounts the struggle of forced abstraction in understanding the new theory of quantum mechanics and cites a passage from Arthur S. Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World.

Something unknown is doing we don’t know what–that is what our theory amounts to. It does not sound a particularly illuminating theory. I have read something like it elsewhere:
        The slithy toves,
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

Eddington goes on to note that the ability to tie numbers to the unknowns does make the theory useful.

Pondering this imagery as to how it may serve to help one better grok with unknown unknowns, I ran into Latour’s description of his starting point and method for looking at the pasteurization of France.

I start with the assumption that everything is involved in a relation of forces but that I have no idea at all of precisely what a force is.

Latour’s method is partly in admitting that as a starting point but then in moving from that point through “the interdefinition of actors” and “the chains of translations” in texts from the period.

This left me thinking that we may better approach a certain subset of unknown unknows by imagining slithy toves that gyre and gimble in the wabe rather than as voids. Imagining the unknowns as subjects, objects, and verbs may perhaps allow us to better look for such that are not now properly accounted for. To Eddington’s concession, we can then start tying numbers to them. And from Latour we can borrow a confidence in our ability to look at unknowns and recognize the importance of shedding preconceptions and starting with the interactions of the slithy toves.

Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, wherefrom of course those lines come, is itself a great example of an unknown, it is a nonsense poem after all, that is well-navigated through examining the interactions of actors.

That is all to say, reciting Jabberwocky may do us better than Rumsfeldian incantations.

See also: squeegees