Knowledge Against Ignorance

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, man’s understanding of his position in the universe was changing. But neither the mathematical calculations of Copernicus nor the observations of Galileo had provided proof that the Earth moved. Empiricism demanded a demonstration.

In his book, Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science, Amir D. Aczel describes how the French physicist’s simple experiment exasperated the scientific elite and earned him a place among them by solving “the most persistent scientific problem of all time.”

After working for months in his Paris cellar, Foucault succeeded in 1851 in suspending a five-kilogram brass bob from a two-meter steel wire so that it was free to move in any direction around the vertical. As the pendulum swung in a fixed plane, Foucault was able to view how the rotation of the earth caused its orientation to shift.

Galileo had insisted in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, that “all experiments practicable upon the earth are insufficient measures for proving its mobility, since they are indifferently adaptable to an earth in motion or at rest,” but the untrained Foucault had shown otherwise.

After viewing a demonstration of Foucault’s pendulum at the Paris Observatory on February 3, 1851, the mathematicians and physicists of the French Academy of Sciences could not deny that they did “see the world turn.” But they quickly became incensed that their lifetimes studying rotations, gravity and astronomy had not led them to imagine and perform what many of them called Foucault’s “beautiful experiment.” Refusing to give Foucault his due because he was not one of them, they scrambled to justify their own shortcoming and minimize Foucault’s achievement, barely mentioning his work in technical reports of the year’s scientific activity.

It is likely that Foucault would never have received the recognition he deserved, including nomination to the Academy of Sciences and the Legion of Honour, without the support of President/Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who had a deep personal interest in science and was devoted to progressing the nation by promoting scientific ideas.

But ultimately, according to Aczel, “Foucault’s great triumph is a triumph of the human mind. It is a double victory of knowledge against ignorance. First, Foucault’s great achievement showed how physical intuition, engineering skills, and perseverance can win against the hubris of mathematics detached from the real world. More important, Foucault’s landmark experiment spelled the end of speculations and persistent false beliefs. As such, Foucault’s definitive proof of the rotation of the earth helped vindicate Galileo, Copernicus, and Giordano Bruno.”


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Learning to Fly

History is almost always more nuanced than we would prefer, and many “historic” figures became such more by chance or bluster than genuine merit. But David McCullough makes clear in his book, The Wright Brothers, that the well-known aviation pioneers deserve every bit of their success and fame.

We knew about the Wrights’ initial powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, but I did not appreciate how the brothers at the time prudently chose not to tout their success before they were confident that their invention had become truly useful. McCullough describes how the brothers continued for the next several years learning to fly back in Ohio, largely out of view. Only a few witnessed the flights at Huffman Prairie outside Dayton where they mastered control of their flying machine and improved its engine, performing in varying winds and learning to maintain complete control throughout their flights.

Unhurried by others’ attempts to fly in the United States and Europe, they ignored the skeptical voices of many who had heard reports of their first brief flight but little since. The Paris Herald said provokingly in 1906, “They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars.”

In addition, as their still largely unseen proficiency grew, the Wrights began to seek an outlet for their machine. The United States War Department declined their request for funding, saying the machine had not yet been brought to the stage of “practical operation.” So, despite Wilbur’s insistence that he was not a businessman, he travelled to Europe in 1908 to meet with representatives of the government in France, where the pursuit of flight was a national obsession. “He found himself in the thick of extremely complex commercial dealings,” according to McCullough, “playing for extremely high stakes with highly experienced entrepreneurs, politicians and bureaucrats, and in a language he neither spoke nor understood.” Moreover, “at the war ministry it was being said the Wrights were ‘bluffers like all Americans,’ ‘worthless people’ trying to sell to France ‘an object of no value’ that even the Americans did not believe in.”

But in that fraught environment, out of his element, Wilbur demonstrated a strength of character beyond his scientific genius. “Alert, patient, closely attentive, Wilbur ‘never rattled,’ as his father would say, never lost his confidence. He could be firm without being dictatorial, disagree without causing offense. Nor was there ever a doubt that when he spoke he knew what he was talking about….Most importantly, he remained entirely himself, never straying from his direct, unpretentious way, and with good effect.”

In order to strike a deal with the French, there had to be a demonstration of the worthiness of their flyer. It was in 1908 in Le Mans, France that Wilbur Wright finally demonstrated in public the mastery of flight they had acquired mostly unnoticed.

Working without his brother or his primary mechanic, Charlie Taylor, Wilbur Wright prepared himself and his plane for the moment that would launch or ground their dream. In front of a crowd of spectators who waited for hours in hot sun, his thoroughness was almost unfathomable. “Neither the impatience of waiting crowds, nor the sneers of rivals, nor the pressure of financial conditions not always easy, could induce him to hurry over any difficulty before he had done everything in his power to understand and overcome it,” described his associate Hart O. Berg.

Wilbur personified the advice he later wrote to his brother when Orville was preparing for a demonstration of his own in Virginia: “Don’t go out even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent,” he insisted. “Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready.”

Wilbur was finally confident of his preparations in Le Mans on August 8, 1908, at six-thirty in the evening with dusk approaching, he turned his cap backward, and to those accompanying him said quietly, “Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.”

He sailed away toward a row of tall poplars, where, at what seemed the last minute, the left wing dropped sharply, he banked off to the left, turned in a graceful curve, and came flying back toward the grandstand….Very near the point where he had started, he made another perfect turn to fly full circle once again, all at about 30 to 35 feet, before coming down to a gentle landing within 50 feet from where he had taken off. In all he was in the air not quite 2 minutes and covered a distance of 2 miles.

“The length of the flight was not what mattered,” said McCullough, “but that he had complete control and, by all signs, could have stayed in the air almost indefinitely.”

Mechanical and aeronautical genuises? Yes. But the Wrights’ success was due as well to their meticulous preparation, their confident refusal to make premature haste, their excruciating perseverance, and their integrity in seeking first to satisfy their own curiosity—to understand.

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Leaving the Temple

If I told you what it takes to reach the highest high,
You’d laugh and say, “Nothing’s that simple.”
But you’ve been told many times before messiahs pointed to the door;
No one had the guts to leave the temple.

It’s a perilous thing to read wisdom into the lyrics of a rock song, no less from one of Pete Townshend’s self-indulgent “rock operas”. But I read once that the message of Tommy is, “You have to make your own miracle,” i.e., you can’t be fulfilled by following after and mimicking someone else, doing what (seemingly) works for them. Pinball?

Imitation may be a place to start but, when it becomes a refuge, it can ultimately become silly, stultifying and a bit pathetic. Leaving the temple simply means creating your own purpose in life and deciding what you can give to those around you.

How do you leave the temple? If your temple is:

  • Social media and popular culture, you overcome FOMO by focusing on real relationships and involvement.
  • Populism, you resist lies, threats and hate; and engage in rational, dignified discussion.
  • Consumerism, you abandon narcissism, materialism and greed; and pursue meaningful experiences instead.

It can be safe, secure and popular to worship with a crowd, but it takes guts to leave the temple.

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Getting Better, VI: Looking Beyond the Headlines for the Trend Lines

A report last month from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation indicates that humanity is headed in the right direction in many important ways. “Goalkeepers: The Stories Behind the Data” sheds light on how far public health officials have come in the fight against infectious disease and poverty.

Bill Gates says that global trends—including wins in the following areas over the last twenty-five years—indicate that “the world is far from falling apart. In fact, it has never been better—more peaceful, prosperous, safe, or just.”:

  • Childhood mortality
  • Maternal mortality
  • Family planning
  • HIV
  • Stunting
  • Poverty
  • Smoking
  • Sanitation
  • Financial services for the poor
  • Neglected tropical diseases
  • Vaccines

“Looking beyond the headlines for the trend lines,” as President Bill Clinton says, and understanding how many challenges have been overcome so far can be motivation to help solve current problems and prevent even more in the future.

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A Tendency to Cooperate

Teamwork is mankind's greatest achievement

Ayn Rand believed that people could become self-reliant by elevating their own interests above all else; as the Ayn Rand Institute’s web site says, she “wrote volumes urging people to be selfish.” As a result, she opposed religious and political controls that could hinder individuals from pursuing their personal goals. Certainly, there’s something to be said for having a society of people who are free to achieve their goals, right?

But when Rand’s followers extol her promotion of personal liberty, they fail to recognize or admit that individualism—or objectivism, as she preferred to call it—as a guiding principle:

  1. Doesn’t work in practice, and
  2. Is not the highest expression of mankind.

After reading Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead,” I came across Randall Munroe’s comic that pretty much depicted my impression. He said:

“I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge a**hole to everyone.'”

And there are concrete examples of her philosophy’s failure in practice and as a description of what drives human achievement.

Sears CEO Eddie Lampert has been largely guided by Rand’s ideas in his leadership of the company:

“Lampert broke the company into over 30 individual units, each with its own management, and each measured separately for profit and loss. Acting in their individual self-interest, they would be forced to compete with each other and thereby generate higher profits…What actually happened is that units began to behave something like the cutthroat city-states of Italy around the time Machiavelli was penning his guide to rule-by-selfishness. As Mina Kimes has reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, they went to war with each other.”

A decade into Lampert’s tenure, Business Insider said, “the 124-year-old retailer is imploding.”

Rand said, “Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.” She believed that teamwork was for savages.

But not only have humans always had a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, in fact, it may be “that it is our hyper-social, cooperative brain that sets us apart [from other human-like species]. From language and culture to war and love, our most distinctively human behaviours all have a social element.” Teamwork is mankind’s greatest achievement.

Oftentimes, Rand’s self-interested fans end up simply sounding like children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.”

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What Might This Be?

In the 1950s, the Rorschach inkblot test was “as closely identified with the clinical psychologist as the stethoscope is with the physician.” Since their publication in Psychodiagnostics, in 1921, Hermann Rorschach’s ten inkblots have not only been used as a military, educational, corporate, legal and anthropological tool, but also:

In his book, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, Damion Searls describes the progression that led from Rorschach’s visual work with a particular patient—”a wall painter with artistic ambitions” for whom the existing techniques of talk therapy, dream interpretation, and word association were ineffective—to the development of his famous test and the reasons it has endured for so long.

In the early twentieth century, klecksography, the art of making images from inkblots, was not only a popular parlor game—along with “readings” of patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds, fireplace ashes and candle wax drippings—but also a method used by psychologists to measure the extent of people’s imagination, particularly children.

Rorschach—who prior to becoming a psychologist was an artist—began to show people the inkblots he created himself “in connection with research on the nature of perception, not the measuring of imagination; he was…interested in what people saw, and how, not just how much.”

Searls ultimately insists that the resilience and power of Rorschach’s unique “visual psychology” stemmed from the fact that “we evolved to be visual” and therefore, “seeing runs deeper than talking.” The visual nature of Rorschach’s test—movement, color, form—was the key that rescued it from relativist uncertainty.

“Rorschach’s fundamental insight was a visual version of Jung’s types: we all see the world in different ways. But the fact that it’s visual makes all the difference. Understanding the real inkblots and their specific visual qualities gives us a way to move beyond the relativism, at least in principle. It’s not all arbitrary: there’s something truly there that we’re all seeing in our own way. Rorschach’s insight can stand without forcing us to deny the existence of valid judgments, Truth with a capital T.”

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A Horse, Of Course

A horse’s size and strength typically command awe and respect, mixed perhaps with a bit of fear for the uninitiated. But when watching an experienced horseman locked in a dance with a horse—walking forward, moving back—gracefully sensing each other’s movements before they happen, the horse’s power and beauty under control is an amazing thing to behold.

Lessons can be learned about life, including communication and leadership styles, by being around horses and connecting with them. “Horses have a very unique and honest way of teaching us about ourselves,” said Abby Jane Ferrin, an equestrian programs manager.

Working with horses teaches the value of:

The similarity of horses’ social and responsive behavior to human beings allows many types of special needs to be addressed by interacting with a horse. Equestrian therapy uses horses to promote emotional growth in individuals with ADD, anxiety, autism, dementia, delayed mental development, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, depression, and brain injuries. It promotes confidence and self-esteem, enhances social relationships, and improves coping skills.

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