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February 19, 2004

Sharon Burgmayer (Chemistry)
"The Teleology of Green, or: Is There Meaning in Orange?"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Sharon's presentation (PPT, 5.0 MB) took its title from a "domestic dispute" initiated when the linguist George Lakoff delivered a December '02 talk on "The Brain, the Mind and Language" (sponsored on campus by the Language Working Group).Taking issue with Lakoff's claim that colors are "all perceptual"--not a property of the external world, but rather the response of the brain to light--Sharon's husband had asked her to paint "the teleology of green." After Sharon had explained to this group, in considerable detail, the way in which photo receptors in the brain interpret color, we realized that the title of her talk was something of a joke: there is no meaning inherent in green.

Our discussion ended with a lively analysis of Roald Hoffman's poem "The Difference between Science and Art," which, in presenting the "brutishness" of a minute scientific examination of pigment, likewise fails to identify the "meaning" of the color orange. Is the analysis of pigment inappropriate in its scale? A misrepresentation of the work of scientists, who know that "meaning" is never arrived at by the examination of one part, but in a complex interaction of many pieces? The poem also seemed to some of us, in its description of the way in which color beams "into the observer's skull," a strange inversion of the leitmotif of Sharon's talk: that color is not present in the world, but a percept produced by brain activity.

The "scale" of our discussion will change again dramatically next week, on Thursday February 26, when Anne Dalke and Ted Wong will lead a conversation about "Information Overload: Turning it Off/Turning it On":
Can you get too much information?
Do you want spam filtered for you?
If so, by a person or by a computer program?
Do you want to be able to broadcast e-mail announcements?
Do you want information pushed at you, or do you want to pull it to you?
Do you want the choice to turn off selected information streams, even if it limits others' ability to tell you things you might want to know?
Or hampers their ability to tell you what they want you to know?

Please join us for this discussion, or for the conversation continuing on-line.

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