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Paul Valéry – Science in the kitchen

January 23, 2015

“Our world is entrenched within the combined total of our perceptions and acts. We have done our best to express the total in a system of measurements – a system, that is, for establishing and repeating ;;; formulas, numerical recipes. … A formula is nothing but a … mathematical prescription.
          – A set of directions.
          – Yes. Directions for performing … certain acts of measurement.
          – Fac secundum artem.
          – Yes. … So we have summed up in a series of formulas everything required to reproduce or foresee the phenomena under observation in the Universe according to the 1640-1850 model. … But research led us quickly enough outside the domain of our primitive perceptions. So we found new methods of perception and action. But these methods are indirect. They consist of relays. They are feelings, gropings … but they transpose. … What they indicate has to be interpreted by way of images or ideas – all borrowed perforce from our basic, invariable stock of supplies. …
          – Unless the species evolves.
          – That will take some time. … Meanwhile, you can see the fix we are in. We’ve arrived at the bankruptcy of imagery. How imagine a world where there can be no question of seeing, touching, where there are neither figures nor categories, where the very notions of position and movement are somehow incompatible? The physicists resort to the most incredible casuistry in their efforts to escape from this. …
          – We’ve gone a long way. … I’ve even been tempted to think that determinism was undermined. …
          – Everything is. From now on, every idea has to live dangerously.
          – It’s a relapse, a reversion.
          – No. … Now draw up a balance sheet in the hard currency of Science.
          – What do you mean by that?
          – I mean, consider simply the increase in power. All the rest, theories, hypotheses, analogies – mathematical or otherwise – is both indispensable and provisional. What remains as capital is simply the power of action upon things, the new achievements – the recipes. …
          – You’re reducing Science to the kitchen level. …
          – My dear Doctor: one fine day Volta puts two metals into contact with an acid solution. The results are quite unheard-of. He gives them his name, and ‘explains’ them as best he can. Today they are interpreted in quite a different fashion. In thirty years it will be different again. … But whether thirty or three hundred, the recipe is still sound. The theory of it may change a hundred times, the increase in man’s power is always there: he still knows how to produce, by means of two metals and one acid, as defined by his senses, the means of separating water into its elements and stimulating an electromagnet. As for the cook, she’s a marvel at solidifying albumen, and in the guise of mayonnaise she can perform colloidal feats of sleight-of-hand. …”

(from Idée fixe [1932], translated by David Paul)


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