By Rowen Sinclair-Gregg

Recently I sat down with tutor Natalie Elliot to chat over coffee. Though I haven’t had class with her, I know her as senior resident, Shakespeare buff, and fellow participant in study groups. I wanted to hear about the things she was reading, especially non-program books, as well as the projects she has been working on.

RS: Have you been reading any non-program books recently?

NE: I just started reading the Tale of Genji because many tutors who have taught it in our Eastern Classics program have talked about it as a life-changing book. I just started it, and so far, I love it. The thing that excites me the most about it is how central poems are to the action of the story, and to the dialogue. We had a lecture on classical Chinese poetry last year, and the lecturer made a remark that in the era he worked on, every occasion demanded a poem. I remember thinking, oh, I would love to live in such a time. And then I opened Genji, and there I was. Every significant exchange comes with a poem. And each one is stunning and subtle.

RS: I read a bit of it [the Tale of Genji] in High-school and that was my favorite aspect too— (all of the poetry that is interspersed in the story.) There are many references, a character will say something like  “dew soaked sleeves” which is a line in a prominent poem of the time that  has a specific meaning. It signifies that he or she is sad because the beloved is leaving.  

NE: I like that too. I think it will be fascinating to start to get a feel for what is conveyed in each poem. They feel like ink drawings that are meant to be reflected on, savored, and wondered at.

RS: And what about other non-program reading?

NE: Aside from Genji, I have been reading around in contemporary short fiction and science journalism. I find myself a bit lost in contemporary short fiction, because most collections and journals have a really wide range of writers and styles. I recently read some of Carmen Maria Machado’s collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and found her stories vivid and compelling. She seems to have struck a cultural nerve–but she gets at it with a kind of macabre humor that seems fitting right now.  I’ve also been reading Seth Fried’s collection The Great Frustration. Some of his stories could be described as literary sci-fi–and they have a similar kind of dark humor. If I am not reading fiction, I like to read long form science journalism.

RS: Some friends and I were talking recently about how Quantum computing is in development now.  It came up after Senior Lab when we watched a few of Richard Feynman lectures. Is that similar to what you are reading?

NE: Yes–I like to read popular essays in that territory. The last great piece I read was in Nautilus on Walter Pitts, a man who plays a tragic role in the history of machine learning. There are some good essays in Nautilus about the sort of subjects Richard Feynman talks about, but they are usually more historical and take on one thing he says at a time–I like that kind of piece. I think it resonates for me with the genealogical way that we think about science at SJC.

This is where the conversation meandered a bit. We touched first on machine learning, and the use of computation to investigate the world.

NE: I’ve been thinking more about the history of computers, partly because we are developing a computation sequence at SJC, and partly because I spend time with friends who work at the Santa Fe Institute, and sometimes write for their quarterly newsletter Parallax. Some of the researchers there are asking about the challenges that we face when we use computer algorithms for scientific research. They have been wondering about the limits that complex algorithms place on what we understand scientifically.

RS:  It sounds like there is a grey area of what we don’t actually know about the internal moves that some machine learning algorithms make. It is one thing to use a shortcut in calculus when you know all the steps you are summarizing, but this sort of thing is much bigger.

NE: That seems right–and it seem like an important problem to tackle both for science and for how machine learning tools figure in our lives.

We began talking next about Shakespeare. To those who don’t know Natalie Elliot, or do not realize the interplay between the classes at St. John’s, this might seem like a strange departure— but it is not. Over the summer Elliot has been writing a book about Shakespeare’s response to early modern science.

NE: Once you go to St. John’s you realize the scientific Renaissance is something that often gets neglected in other arts curriculums, so many programs miss the ways that poets and dramatists and novelists are engaging with the science around them. It turns out that Shakespeare is very close to most of the subjects we touch upon in our freshman lab curriculum. [In lab] we look at atoms, change our understanding of weight, learn to see the Copernican universe and examine how living cells work— Shakespeare engages with these topics in many of his plays. He responds poetically to the beginnings of science.

RS: There is an exciting phenomena we witness here as students: the overlap between subjects. Freshman year feels so cohesive because Lab is tied to Seminar, just as Language is tied to Math. We construct our own periodic table of elements and realize we are considering atoms — only to come to Lucretius and see that he has similar concerns. Upon completing Euclid’s proposition about the diagonal of the square, we are met with it again in Plato’s Meno and can trace the steps Socrates takes Meno through. In this light,  the idea that Shakespeare–at the height of the poetic and fanciful–could be engaged with the scientific renaissance is not so surprising.

NE: That sounds about right to me.

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