Thursday, February 25, 2010

Through the Blackboard

Filed under: General — m759 @ 12:07 PM

Or: "Gopnik Meets Oppenheimer in Heaven"

(Or, for those less philosophically minded, "Raiders of the Lost Pussy")

Midrash on "A Serious Man"
by Steven Menashi at
The American Scene

"A Serious Man kicks off with a Yiddish-language frame story that takes place in a 19th-century Eastern European shtetl, where a married couple has an enigmatic encounter with an old acquaintance who may be a dybbuk," recounts Dana Stevens . "The import of this parable is cryptic to the point of inscrutability."

It seems to me that the Coen Brothers’ dybbuk is the Jewish folkloric equivalent of Schrodinger’s Cat .

When we first meet the main character, a physics professor named Larry Gopnik, he’s writing equations on the board: "So if that’s that, then we can do this, right? Is that right? Isn’t that right? And that’s Schrodinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead?" Likewise, we can’t know whether Fyvush Finkel [the aforementioned old acquaintance] is alive or a dybbuk. We can only evaluate probabilities. When a Korean student named Clive Park complains to Larry that he shouldn’t have failed the Physics midterm because "I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat," Larry says:

You can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean— even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

But the fable actually tells us that the math doesn’t capture reality.

The story in images below summarizes a meditation suggested by this parable and by

  1. Tuesday's post "Fish Story"
  2. Today's AP thought:
    "Open-mindedness is not the same as empty-mindedness." –John Dewey
  3. "Zen mind, empty mind."
  4. Today's NY Times obituary for Selma G. Hirsh,
    author of The Fears Men Live By (Harper, 1955).
    Hirsh died on St. Bridget's Day.
  5. A search for the Hirsh book that led to a web page
    with a 1955 review of J. Robert Oppenheimer's book The Open Mind
  6. A search for the Oppenheimer book that led to
    LIFE magazine's issue of Oct. 10, 1949
  7. "Satori means 'awakening.'" — TIME magazine, Nov. 21, 1960


Blackboard in "A Serious Man"–

Physicist accelerated against his blackboard in 'A Serious Man'


Blackboard at the Institute for Advanced Study–

J. Robert Oppenheimer at his blackboard

"Daddy's home! Daddy's home!"

(Click to enlarge.)

Oppenheimer homecoming, with ad for 'Pussy-Footer' alarm clock


Related material–

A Zen meditation from Robert Pirsig
is suggested by the time on the above
alarm clock– 8:20– interpreted,
surrealistically, as a date — 8/20.

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