Thursday, September 24, 2015

Michel Garcia Deliver's his Field Notes in the Colour Garden

On September 22, Michel Garcia delivered his lecture to the Textile Symposium audience. Each slide was so packed with information that it could lead to a lifetime of study. Michel gave the audience a generous tour of recent work in the world of natural dyes as well as a look at some fascinating historic cases.

Tim McLaughlin introduced Michel. We've had requests to reprint the introduction and so here it is:

I’d like to introduce a chemist by talking about physics. 
In particular I’d like to talk about how we talk about those things we cannot directly apprehend. 
Last night in Beverly Gordon’s lecture, string theory was mentioned. In particle physics, “string theory” is a theoretical framework which gains some explanatory power by considering one dimensional objects it calls “strings.” 
And this is interesting. Because we have no apprehension of sub-atomic particles … whatsoever. We discover them by experiment and we model them mathematically, but we can only understand them – form concepts about what they are like - in terms of human experience – that is, what we have seen, felt, heard, smelt, and tasted and the inferences we have made from these experiences. 
In physics, the difficulty of conceptualizing what was happening with really really tiny objects, came to a head with the great physicist, Neils Bohr, who, together with mathematician Werner Heisenberg, put together a set of principles that has come to be known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. I love that term “the Copenhagen Interpretation”– you can just picture a group of physicists sitting in a Danish cafe drinking tiny but incredibly strong coffees — talking about what constitutes reality at the sub-atomic level.

And the essence of the Copenhagen Interpretation is what I just mentioned in relation to String Theory. We can only understand particle physics in terms of human experience. Or to put it another way, our ability to explain natural phenomena is constrained by our ability to form concepts. 
The wave/particle duality of light is perhaps the most well-know example of this. On the level of objects that we can handle – baseballs and ponds for example – waves and particles are mutually exclusive concepts. It is contradictory to say one object behaves as both. But at the sub-atomic level, photons behave as both waves and particles. 
And because sub-atomic particles do not behave like macroscopic objects, physicists (not generally a whimsical lot) can be quite poetic when naming or describing them. For example, there are six flavours of quarks: up down, top, bottom (and my two favourite) strange and charm.
Let’s move on to chemistry. 
Our ability to explain natural phenomena is constrained by our ability to form concepts. This may be a familiar sensation to those of you with an interest in dye chemistry. How is it that sometimes a small change in your dye procedure can have such dramatic results? How is it that dyeing sometimes fails so completely? What is happening in there? We cannot see the molecules coming together or moving apart. We do not have a clear idea of what an ion is, how big or small it is, what shape it is, if it is heavy or light, brittle or soft. 
Our ability to explain natural phenomena is constrained by our ability to form concepts. 
We wish to understand the natural phenomena of the dye pot. And, luckily for us, there is someone who is gifted at forming the concepts that increase our understanding. Michel is not just a chemist – that is, someone who is fluent in the language of chemical diagrams and who understands the laws that govern chemical reactions. Rather he has a gift for metaphor and image, for analogy and comparison.

Wittgenstein once famously said, the limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Michel gives us the language to talk about and understand colour and its botanical sources. He has a deep sensitivity to the culture of natural dyes and he believes in the free sharing of information. And it is our great pleasure to welcome him to the Maiwa Textile Symposium once again.

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