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No. 1012:
Explaining Music and Entropy

Today, thoughts on trying to explain entropy, music, and football. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My wife and I are enjoying supper in a restaurant, surrounded by tanks of brilliant, colorful fish. I savor the food and I savor the sight. I know neither the recipe for the sauce nor the genus of the fish. My knowledge is purely sensate.

We talk about a fine choral concert the night before. Between sections, singers came out and read program notes. They drove me to distraction by explaining the music. The sound was wonderful. It was all-in-all of itself, and I was overpowered by a craving to stay centered in the sensate joy of it. The meaning of a cantus firmus melody line, woven into renaissance polyphony -- egging it on and defining it -- does not lie in explanations.

Yet we've become a nation of explainers and explainees. How can anyone bear to watch football with the sound on? Ice-skating is an art which, like ballet, combines movement and music. But television won't let you experience it without a running thread of explanation -- drowning out the music and breaking the flow of motion into analyzed axels and lutzes.

Today, we ask why scientific illiteracy rises so alarmingly. An answer dawned on me in that restaurant: The more scientific illiteracy we see, the harder we try to cure the problem with explanations. The trouble is, an understanding of science does not -- and never can -- come from explanation.

Understanding a cantus firmus line in music comes from hearing it. An understanding of that fine sauce on my fish could not have come from a recipe book. Good English is not forged in explanations of the grammar it's based upon.

It is a mind-set, not an explainable set of principles that makes a scientist. It is taking pleasure in questions and finding, within yourself, the resources to answer them. Science is mental awareness. It is the confidence to distrust explanation. The more we reduce science teaching to a set of explanations, the worse we sabotage understanding.

Years ago two teachers explained entropy to me. One said, "Entropy has no meaning. It's just a tool for arranging thermodynamic tables." The other said, "Entropy is an index of the order of the disunity of the universe." Neither explanation was worth anything by itself. But the tension raised in my mind by the two taken together made a thermodynamicist of me.

Science is a process that only has value where knowledge doesn't yet exist -- where there is no explanation. By putting endless explanations at the center of science education, we deny students the very process, the very soul, the cantus firmus without which -- there is no science.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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