Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Unpackaging Ideas, Context and Lectures

Unpackaging Scripture
Last weekend I attended a lecture on scripture (Tanach). The lecture was specifically on the story of King David and his relationship with Batsheva. The Rabbi giving the lecture talked about the different levels of interpretation from Talmudic, medieval to modern day commentators.

The point that the Rabbi was trying to make the in the lecture was that as well as the written tradition (Tanach), there is also an oral tradition (Talmud and later commentators) that are needed to “unpackage” the ideas and context in which they took place.

For example, various commentators have pointed out that in biblical times it was understood that ‘a thousand men’ means ‘many people’ and ‘ten generations’ means ‘forever’.

Physics Example
Rather than trying to recreate the lecture, I’ll re-use the example from the lecture that was used to illustrate the point about “unpackaging of ideas”.
E = MC2

Hopefully you recognize this formula. It's Albert Einstein’s Mass–energy equivalence. Now I’m not an expert in the area of Physics. My teacher refused to teach me A-level physics and there ended my dreams of working in the field of robotics.

Contained within Mass–energy equivalence formula are a lot of ideas and concepts. For example, it has been used to explain the origin of energy in nuclear processes but actually what it allows you to do is measure how much mass is lost in such reactions.

However, when you dig a little deeper you learn that only a very small amount of mass is converted in to energy:

“In nuclear reactions, typically only a small fraction of the total mass–energy of the bomb is converted into heat, light, radiation and motion, which are "active" forms which can be used. When an atom fissions, it loses only about 0.1% of its mass (which escapes from the system and does not disappear), and in a bomb or reactor not all the atoms can fission. In a fission based atomic bomb, the efficiency is only 40%, so only 40% of the fissionable atoms actually fission, and only 0.04% of the total mass appears as energy in the end.”

So starting with the relatively simple formula we’ve (hopefully) come to an understanding that when applied to nuclear reactions, the idea unpackages to explain that mass-energy converted to heat, light, radiation and motion can be measured and that only a very small percentage of mass is converted.

Kabbalistic Symbolism
Now we come on to the bit that I’ve been struggling with recently. First of all I’ve been reading about the concepts of Partzuf, Tzimtzim and Adam Kadmon in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s brilliant book: “Inner Space”.

Whilst skim reading would give me a cursory understanding of these concepts, actually unpackaging the ideas and internalizing their meaning is proving to be a very challenging task. Meditation on concepts allows a person to understand them at both a rational and psychic-intuitive level. But figuring out how these ideas can overlay my perception of reality is a whole other step.

The second issue that I’ve been struggling with is how to write a lecture on Merkavah mysticism - such that the context, concepts and research are unpackaged in the most appropriate way for the target audience.

Conenctions to other recent Blog posts
Gordon recently posted about going on a museum tour and reminded me why I get frustrated by tour guides unwillingness or inability to unpackage the context and ideas in historical objects. Yes, you guessed it I’m one of those people who asks the annoying questions that make guides either give an impromptu lecture in great detail or get annoyed and hurry the tour along even quicker.

Rufus Opus is giving a giving a lecture at the Crucible. It’ll be interesting to see in his post-lecture write-up how he dealt with unpackaging the concepts in his lecture for the target audience. Also how much time he spent on clarifying terminology.

Jason at Strategic Sorcery has been discussing the uses and meaning of the words Magic which I’ve been reading through the lens of unpackaging of terminology. Like the E = MC2 formula the word Magic on the surface is quite simple, but when you start to unpackage it and refer to it in specific context, historical time/location, schools of thought etc it suddenly becomes an Aladdin’s cave of meanings.