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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

16 April 2012

Geo600: Gravity's Rainbow

I have a worry that this blog could start to assume a very elderly and curmudgeonly tone, and that I will start to establish myself as a sort of digital Victor Meldrew. I certainly feel that it is one of the roles of the digital humanities scholar to try and counter the kind of puppyish techno-enthusiasm which seems to believe that Twitter (or Tumblr or Instagram or whatever is next) can solve the problems of humanity. The digital humanities should be a means by which more rigorous critical and theoretical perspectives can be brought to bear on our engagement with the changing digital world. We should want to own an iPad and feel that we can make use of it (strongly yes on both counts for me), but we should also recognize that as a cultural, political and social object, the iPad raises lots of very challenging questions as to how knowledge will be controlled, commodified and mediated in the future. However, in developing such critical perspectives, there is a risk of losing one’s enthusiasm for innovation. In its earliest days, humanities computing was notable for the way in which it was constantly pushing forward the envelope and trying new things. I wonder whether we have lost something of that spirit.

I was prompted to reflect on the importance of innovation by a fascinating article in yesterday’s newspaper about a remarkable project to detect gravitational waves. The newspaper described the project as Anglo-German, but two of the main collaborators in Geo600 are based in the Physics Department at my former home of the University of Glasgow, and I wish I had known about the project while I was at Glasgow, because I would have beaten a path straight to its door.

I’ll try to summarise the project which, since I only scraped an O-level in Physics, will be, I'm sure, an inept and crude account. Einstein proposed that big stellar events like supernovae send out gravitational waves which sweep through the universe. However according to Einstein these waves would be so weak that it would be impossible ever to detect them. Thus, when light from the supernova explosion that formed the Crab Nebula reached the earth in 1054, at about the same time a gravitational wave would also have reached the earth, but its effect would have been barely perceptible.

The Geo600 project is attempting to achieve what Einstein thought impossible – to measure the impact of these gravitational waves. In order to do so, it is necessary to design and construct incredibly sensitive detectors,  capable of detecting changes which would cause the detector to move by only a few hundred billion-billionths of a metre. The detectors that have been built are so sensitive that they show the effect of the waves pounding on the beach fifty miles away, or will be affected by the gravitational pull of a person walking past. If these detectors are successful, they will prove Einstein right in predicting the existence of gravitational waves, but wrong in thinking that these waves could never be detected. Verifying an important aspect of the Speial Theory of Relatively is clearly valuable enough as a scientific outcome, but the Geo600 project proposes also completely to transform the nature of astronomy. To quote Professor Jim Hough at Glasgow: ‘We are going to create a completely new kind of astronomy…  Until now, everything we have learned about the universe has been based on studies of electromagnetic radiation – from infrared to visible light to gamma ray detection. Gravity waves will create a completely new type of astronomy’.

The humble humanities scholar may feel that she or he will never need or want to develop such ambitious projects. But reading the article on gravitational waves made my mind run back to a quotation from Charles Babbage, the Victorian pioneer of computing, that I used in a talk at the University of Kentucky in 1995. Here’s what I said then:

"In the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, Babbage pointed out how a knowledge of mechanical laws gives you a different view of the world. When you speak, the waves spread out, gradually losing strength and impetus, but still remaining, until the only trace is perhaps in the movement of molecules, but still there. Likewise, the cries of a drowning man would create sound waves which would spread out through the water, until only the water atoms retained the impression of them. With a sufficiently powerful computer, Babbage speculated, you might be able to detect those faint traces and recover the last words of the dying man. This would be true of any object - the Beowulf manuscript would retain the faint impression of the conversations the scribe had while writing it. That is the meaning of the phrase I suggested to Kevin as a motto for this conference, and which Ackroyd also uses in his novel: 'Every atom, impressed with good and with ill, retains at once the motions which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.' Babbage's notion that you could recapture those words must have seemed bizarre in 1837, but in these days of chaos theory it seems less strange. Perhaps one day we will hear the Beowulf scribe speaking. There is certainly a challenge there which I think we should take up".

This image that ‘the air itself is one vast library’ was also taken up, I noticed, by James Gleick in The Information. If we can detect gravitational waves, can’t we also detect sound waves from the past, and open up the vast library in the air? Is it really so impracticable? Isn’t this the kind of innovation that the digital humanities should be working with physicists and other scientists to take forward? It seems that we don’t develop visionary research in the humanities on the same scale as in the sciences.  It is this kind of visionary research, the ‘big humanities’, that scholars in the digital humanities should be arguing the case for.    

Postscript 17 August 2012

The idea that in some way sounds of the past can be recaptured from the air occurred to others apart from Babbage. Friedrich Kittler's challenging and celebrated work, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter reproduces  Salomo Friendlaender's short story, 'Goethe Speaks into the Phonograph' (1916). This takes the idea that the air in a room where Goethe once spoke would still retain the impression of the waves generated by his voice, but adds a grotesque aspect by suggesting that, in order to recreate Goethe's voice, it would be necessary for the airwaves to be directed across Goethe's vocal chords (which fortunately had been preserved after his death). For Kittler, the idea of recapturing these historic sound waves from the air reflected the awareness of sound waves created by the discovery of the gramophone. If the abiding image of the digital is the binary opposition of one/off, the gramophone reflected the triumph of the analogue unit of the wave. In a sense, this idea of recapturing the past from soundwaves in the air might be seen as an analogue fantasy.        


  • Simon Tanner says:
    16 April 2012 at 08:29

    Sound is a mechanical wave that results from the back and forth vibration of the particles of the medium through which the sound wave is moving. So we would have to model the impression of the sound wave and extrapolate back from that the sound that made the impression and then to replay that sound to be received by the ear of a modern day listener. A number of problems would need to be overcome:
    1. The impression is cumulative of all the sound experienced by the object over time. This isn't like rings in a tree, they are layering one on top of each other, not in layers, but in addition. How do you extrapolate which impression or part thereof relates to what sound at what time?

    2. the Geo600 project is seeking to measure new gravitational waves - it is much easier (however seemingly impossible previously) to measure something as it is happening than in retrospect. We need to take this into account in the humanities as well. We tend to not measure at the right times to see the effects we seek.

    3. Sound is also a strange phenomenon - we are still not altogether sure that if a mechanical vibration happens (typical definition of a sound creator like a drum) then is it sound or just vibration until an sentient eardrum is involved. Does this matter to our investigation - I would say yes.

    I think we would need quantum computing to start to address these problems and to do the massive computations involved that would make the Geo600 look straightforward. It would be a form of time travel for sure if it was feasible.

    That would be a true revolution for every academic subject imaginable. It is tempting to through out some technological determinism ideology here as well that presumes that a society's technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values. In which case the development of the technology to do such an experiment might become inevitable but our ability to cope with (or even recognise) the findings might be much more unpredictable ;o)

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