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Ira Israel Headshot

One Frame at a Time

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When Cezanne prepared to paint a landscape he would look out at vast fields, hills, forests, and farms before him and arbitrarily choose a "frame." His painting would ultimately include a section of his expansive view within the left-right and top-bottom limits that held his canvas and he would exclude the rest. This framing would represent what Cezanne felt and thought would be the most aesthetically pleasing perspective at that moment depending on infinite possible factors such as how the sunrays were striking particular leaves or branches. Another painter would look out onto the same field in Arles and almost certainly not see the same ideal composition that Cezanne saw.

Does this type of framing also exist in other media such as the film and television? In narrative theory there is a distinction between the plot and the story: the plot is the framed information provided to the audience, usually in linear time, from point A to point B, or from say Wednesday until Saturday; the story includes all of the facts and events that led the characters up until Wednesday (the backstory) and that occur outside the scope of the camera lens.

If we look at all media, including journalism, we find that they come from a perspective. Juxtapose Fox News' and HuffPost's recounting of the same political or economic story and you will immediately see what I mean.

Taking this concept of framing one step further, does a similar type of framing exist for the hard sciences and social sciences as well?

One of the most important scientific developments of the last century was Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: Physicist Werner Heisenberg proposed that in order to be certain about one value of measurement such as velocity, a second value must be arbitrarily held constant and vice versa. It is impossible to measure the position and velocity of a particle at the same time; the experimenter must hold one constant. This is an artificial framing created in order to ascertain a value. I employ the word "artificial" here to distinguish between "reality" -- which is whatever exists "out there" and is essentially amorphous, infinite, and perpetually changing -- and what we perceive with our five senses and categorize with our minds. What I am proposing is that when our minds try to grasp particular phenomena it is often impossible to measure these values without a human-made, contrived, artificial frame. Just as Cezanne chose which section of the field would be included in his landscape, scientists choose which dynamic data to include and exclude or which to artificially hold constant.

Going even further, physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed in his famous eponymous theoretical experiment that the observer and the observation of the phenomenon influence the outcome of the experiment.

And if you wish go even further, then try to wrap your mind around philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's pondering if one can ever be certain that when he or she says the word "red," the listener envisions the same color that speaker has in mind.

It is clear that people who admire one of Cezanne's magnificent landscapes are seeing the field from the point of view that Cezanne thought was most interesting or aesthetically pleasing that day.

However, isn't it peculiar that with science, as opposed to art, we seldom stop to question the frame?

The earth was perceived as flat with the sun rotating around it for a very large part of the history of Western consciousness. In a few hundred years -- although it is very difficult to imagine -- a new and more accurate perspective regarding our place in the solar system may be discovered that will be considered to be more accurate (or more interesting) than our current understanding. Historian of science Thomas Kuhn proposed that scientific paradigms shift every 20 years; in the information age, consider how much technology has expanded the horizons of our knowledge of late. Remember just 40 years ago -- before ATMs, mobile phones, and the Internet -- our daily lives and our realities were very very different. In just one generation our means of communicating and means of exchanging goods and services have changed drastically.

Imagine meeting your great-great grandparents today: They could recount what it was like getting their first flush toilet, refrigerator, or bicycle. Similarly, if you live long enough you may someday be able to recount with grand nostalgia to your great-grandchildren what it was like getting your first iPhone, email account, or maybe even electric automobile. If you tried to explain to a suburban businessman in the 1950s that in 60 years a black man would be president of the United States, he would have probably guffawed in disbelief.

If we recognize that -- due to astonishing technological advances -- our lifestyles and beliefs are continuously shifting beneath our feet, why does it remain elusive for us as a species to proactively envision and create a frame for peace, health, and well-being for our planet and its inhabitants? What great catastrophe will it take to inspire humanity to realize that we are all interdependent and must learn to live harmoniously with each other and with nature?

For more by Ira Israel, click here.

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