In a strange incident in 1986, Dan Rather was roughed up by a couple of well-dressed goons as he walked home near the corner of 88th Street and Park in New York, with one of them repeatedly asking, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” The newsman made news himself because the louts, instead of calling the celebrity CBS reporter by his given name, Dan or even Daniel, referred to him as ‘Kenneth.’ This was just weird enough to make the national news. The brouhaha died down and the incident was quickly forgotten until 1994 when a band by the name of R.E.M. out of Athens, Georgia recorded the hit song, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” off their album Monster, which is why anyone remembers the story. The reason Rather came to be asked the strange question by the nutty duo is quite weird and stupid and tragic, and I’ll get into that later in the post, but it’s when we hit the ‘stupidity curve’ as a culture, where schizophrenic news cycles and the weird shit that we see today has hit the fan every day, week and month since.
I’ve seen a lot in my lifetime. But I’ve never seen anything like this.
— Dan Rather (@DanRather) September 30, 2019
Guess who he’s is talking about? Dan Rather is still going strong after fifty years in the business, the former anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1981 to 2005, he was with CBS for a total of 44 years, breaking onto the national scene in 1963 with live reports from the Kennedy Assassination in Dallas, so let that Tweet sink in for a moment, folks. The New York Times reported this week that a bipartisan report says Trump’s abuse has pushed federal science to a ‘Crisis Point’ because, …”[T]he Trump’s EPA blocked scientists from speaking at a climate change conference, its Interior Department forwarded a policy letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection only after deleting concerns from biologists about a border wall’s effects on wildlife, and the F.B.I. issued a crime report that omitted dozens of tables of data on homicides and arrests.” Every president over the past two decades has, to some degree, undermined research and injected politics into science, the report said. But, it concluded, “Now, we are at a crisis point, with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards.”
1986 was pre-internet, with ‘analog’ everything — pencils, note pads, newspapers, telephones, record stores, radios and TVs of course, television, that greatest technical achievement after Edison’s light bulb, transformed the 20th Century as much as computers have now transformed the 21st. The transition from light bulbs to power stations to television sets and radios stations broadcast to the entire nation was a technological and cultural disruption that shaped the last century more than any single machine next to the atom bomb. The miracle of electricity, captured at first by the the Volta pile (invented by Alessandro Volta) at the University of Padua in 1809, this early battery predated Edison’s direct-current electricity, but with the convenience of 120v, 60Hz current flowing through wires having it’s advantage in providing electrical power at your fingertips, with no dead batteries to throw away, William Occam’s razor won out. Wait a second. (checking TED Talk notes)…
Tell ‘them’ (you) what you’re going to tell them
Tell them what you told them
Using active verbs and short words, communicating clearly to readers is a feature of writing well and the use of verbose language and ‘twenty dollar’ words are frowned upon by style manuals everywhere. In college I read Donald Hall’s books on writing, as well as the Strunk & White and the Chicago Manual of Style in the hopes of finding a formula to write better and to think more clearly about my subjects. I figured that if I could work out my ideas on paper first, then the finished product will be ‘complete’ in it’s argument. In the old days of writing with the typewriter (the IBM Selectric included), error correction was also very analog and writing outlines on actual sheets of paper was the only way to sketch-out our ideas, as engineers with tables, slide rulers and difference engines, the analogy is that logical words, sentences and paragraphs equal logical thoughts, actions and outcomes; as gears in a step process telling the correct time on the face of a clock, there’s ‘equality’ between the balanced, spinning cogs and the twelve numbers that associate with them. Whoops, now I’ve forgotten rule number one:
Donald Trump is an utter ignoramus and his decision-making has been an existential disaster for our great country. His corrupt, idiotic communication and policies are hurting our nation’s ability to retain the best scientists and because of this, we’ll suffer long-term consequences that’ll inhibit our ability to compete in the global marketplace of ideas. Okay, now that I got that out of the way, I suggest that the greatest mathematician ever to be born may come from Mexico, or perhaps Haiti or Indonesia or any of the other ‘shithole’ countries our president* denigrates on a daily basis. Donald Trump is a total imbecile who doesn’t think before he tweets or talks and the overall damage to US prestige and power after his ‘win’ in 2016 is beyond the set of all possible sets. How Vladimir Putin pulled it all off is an area for political philosophers to contemplate, but in the everyday world, the world of TV and the internet which brings us information at nearly the speed of light, it all seems so complex and distorted, yet there’s ‘nothing new under the Sun’ as my mom used to say. What we face today is no more complex than the problems faced by the beleaguered country of Poland, say, in the 1930s?
Poland was more an example of ‘Balkanization’ than any of the Balkans before WWII, the ‘reborn’ country was really a WWI war-prize (rather than a nation established by patriots, such as with Władysław Jagiełło, Józef Piłsudski or Lech Wałęsa before and after), these former German territories gave Hitler the first of his many wars of vengeance. By the time Germany swept across Poland in 1939 and then into France in 1940, the tide would only turn against the Nazis at the English Channel, the deserts of Africa and the ice and snow of Siberia. Now wait, I’m supposed to tell you what I tell you by this paragraph, so back in Poland in the early 1930s, long before the invasion began, Polish mathematicians were beginning to crack the Nazi Enigma code. In 1929, Mathematician Marian Rejewski attended a secret cryptology course conducted by the Polish General Staff’s Cipher Bureau, joining them in 1932. Rejewski was surrounded with an elite team of codebreakers who began their work on the ‘unbreakable’ German cipher with his famous ‘Bomba’ machine, which would then provide the keys to unlocking the most important intelligence victory of WWII, the enormously important work done at Bletchley Park in Britain matched with the equally brilliant Allied codebreakers stationed at Arlington Hall in the USA. The Rejewski-designed Bomba and Bomba II machines were two of the earliest mechanical computers, which deeply influenced the Allied codebreaking teams, where the first ‘Turing Complete’ computers were being assembled, but also in America an elite group of mathematicians and scientists, working at many top universities involving research on bomb trajectories, were re-tasked to calculate models for two devices then being assembled at the ultra top-secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, California nicknamed the ‘Little Boy’ and the ‘Fat Man.’
The 1930’s in America were gripped by the effects of the Great Depression, which hit us and the entire world hard, but around 1933 international events began to change the fate of a nation looking for a way ahead. The freedoms advertised by America would attract the greatest brain-drain in history, the diaspora of Jews across the globe, especially to America beginning after the Reichstag Fire Decree six weeks after Hitler’s election in Germany. These Jewish families brought with them their traditions of logic, history, science and most importantly, God-given talent to a new home with millions of new neighbors also facing the existential threat of Nazism. The 1920s were the original times of ‘irrational exuberance’ with limitless growth of the world economy following the Great War and it’s in the late 20s we reached what might be called a ‘bifurcation point’ in an information theory sense of the word following the Great Crash of 1929, where so much energy had been pumped into the economy — with huge advances in technology, especially — that the 1920s seemed a time of limitless hope in the impossible — and of course it was.
In the last Century in science, the first Solvay conference in 1911 at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels introduced the initial wave of international discussion on Radiation and the Quanta, which included Marie (Skłodowska) Curie (looking miserable in the photo, as usual), Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincaré, Max Planck, Maurice de Broglie, Ernest Rutherford and Albert Einstein. These participants were big-time genius know-it-alls and with those who took part in the more famous 1927 conference in Berlin, with he new subject of ‘quantum mechanics’ on the agenda with Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Heisenberg and Max Born joining the debate, which would unlock the very structure of the atom and the forces that power the Universe. Today, we find ourselves in the very same crisis as before WWII, with the weird science revealed at the quantum level, we have an ‘irration of disbelief’ that has it’s roots in those same areas of contemplation as before WWII: science, mathematics, politics and also philosophy. As American astronomer and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce lamented the ‘irration of disbelief’ facing mathematics and science way back in 1878, especially after the discovery of electro-magnetism that then challenged all the accepted laws of nature in his essay, ‘How to Make Our Ideas Clear’ for Popular Science Monthly, he began his quest for reason:
The very first lesson that we have a right to demand that logic shall teach us is, how to make our ideas clear; and a most important one it is, depreciated only by minds who stand in need of it. To know what we think, to be masters of our own meaning, will make a solid foundation for great and weighty thought.
Charles Sanders Peirce
Peirce (pronounced ‘purse’) was struggling with unexplained, yet real evidence in experiments with electricity revealed by scientists Michael Faraday, André Ampère, Heinrich Hertz and James Clerk Maxwell’s investigations, where ‘phase’ and ‘amplitude’ were introduced to explain the weird behavior of the electro-magnetic field, this fundamental force carrier that’s invisible to the human eye. Invisible gases disperse and combine in similar ways to this phenomenon, where Ludwig Bolzmann’s constant was as predictable as Max Planck’s in explaining kinetic energy states of atoms and molecules, (or groups of atoms) and the similarity of these forces is astounding. Our eyes ‘resonate’ at 18Hz, (18,000 times a second, according to NASA) and the part of the spectra that we can see — from around 420 THz (Terahertz) to about 750 THz — is a tiny part of the overall spectra, which is why can’t see much. The same goes for audio waves as well. Allow me to explain. We can’t hear ‘audio’ waves deeper than 19Hz, so unheard by (most) humans is the loudest sound ever, a black hole exploding (sucking?) in the Perseus galaxy, measured at a frequency around 220Hz, or a sweet b-flat, 57 octaves below C that’s so boomin’ loud it takes about 10 million years just to hear the whole damned sound, so we can’t hear this deafeningly loud noise of the Cosmos, because we tune it out.
In 1882, Thomas Edison might just have heard the sound as he was working in his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey (in what is now Edison, New Jersey) at a time when America was really beginning to flex its innovative muscle, which would then spark the imagination of the world. The American Century — the 20th Century — began with limitless ideas and industry, yet the uneven progress that started around 1900 gave way to the landing place for the world wars that ravaged the planet, where the world’s educated elite flocked here because in the land of liberty, anyone with a good idea and a willingness to work hard could achieve greatness in their time. As today, dominated by the power and limitless opportunities offered by the advent of computers and the digital age, the early days of what we might call ‘modern’ technology sprang from men like Edison and the disruptive technology that so interested him was a natural phenomenon known as a ‘thermionic emission’ — where Edison had his own, close encounter with the ‘electron field.’
The Industrial Revolution had its seeds in railroads and coal mines but it was Edison’s electric shock, the controlled and elongated spark that was captured and stretched through a filament of bamboo (at first) which truly sparked the revolution of industry we see today. Edison, our greatest inventor, found that for his invention to truly take hold, he needed to power his new illuminated bulb efficiently– and by the time he built his prototype 2-wire electric generating station in 1882 at the Pearl Street Station in Manhattan — the first commercial power plant in the world, both electricity and electro-magnetism were barely understood. When Edison opened his third, world-changing, 3-wire power station in 1883 at the Edison Company Power Station in Brockton, Massachusetts, at about the same time over in Germany, both electricity and the forces associated with it were carefully being mapped out by a few dozen scientists and inventors, along with the remaining three forces, even now barely understood with electromagnetism — gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces — in what is called Quantum Field Theory (QFT). This ‘grand’ theory combines classical mechanics, special relativity and quantum mechanics all in one big, ugly package.
When we walk out of our homes into the bright and sunny day, we encounter waves of ‘photons,’ or particles spun and belched out from our radiating nuclear fireball floating in space known as our Sun. Neutrinos (or anti-electrons), like a visitor across the 8th dimension like tiny Buckaroo Banzais, whizz by (and through) us at lightening speed, which has a value in a vacuum, (approximately 300,000 kilometers a second) that’s the speed of light and nothing — NOTHING — can go faster than that. That’s what Einstein proved but superconducting, quantum computers might prove him wrong on this point, but compared to Einstein, I’m no Einstein. In grade school, we find out that our Sun is an average-sized red dwarf star and that there are billions just like it in the Universe, but this one is special. Earth is our very own spinning, floating magnetic ball, bathed in water and occasioned by dirt and rock known as the ground and the mountains and the oceans and the prairies and deserts. The perfect distance from the Sun for us to exist, there are probably many creatures out there in the Cosmos like us, but that’s where William Shatner takes you in Star Trek, but back here on Earth, in New Jersey around 1881, Thomas Edison was busy starting a revolution.
One of filmmaker Ken Burns’ finest, the Empire of the Air (1996) takes the story of American innovation from the early days of the ’spark-gap’ telegraphy of the 19th Century all the way up through to the advent of television and FM stereo in the 1960s. Radio spread throughout the world in the 1950s and ’60s as much as the internet and ‘5G’ is being upgraded today (as if it’s a new thing) and when Edison invented what would become known as the ‘Edison Effect’ in the discovery of his ‘in-candescent’ (no candle) bulb in 1875, he unwittingly unleashed the power of the ‘electron tube’ (or vacuum tube), sparking the imagination of another generation of scientists and inventors. Edison had discovered in his lab that heat converts directly to electricity, as a ‘thermionic emission’ that glows in the dark. He wasn’t the first to discover this phenomenon, as far back as 1803 inventors had been able to get certain gasses and substances to glow after electricity was sent through it, but nobody knew why this was happening and nobody, until Thomas Edison bought a Canadian patent in 1874 on an ‘incandescent light bulb,’ knew how to make any money with the invention.
In 1884, the longest telephone line in the world was 235 miles long (or 380 kilometers) from Boston to New York by overhead line and back then electro-magnetic waves, traveling at the speed of light and propagating in direct and alternating waves of electrons (on the outside of the transmission wire, while the waves bounce around the inside) had yet to be tested or even understood, but with the dawn of the 20th Century, the advent of electrical power unleashed an ‘exponential’ expansion in technology that would not be seen again until the minicomputer arrived in the 1970s. The culmination of all this technology, so much shepherded and invented by Edison himself, led to every appliance in our homes, short the computer. This explosion in consumer goods would unleash a second, more nuanced wave of disruption in society that we have yet to understand. Edison and Bell, who then created what would become AT&T and ConEd and the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ to follow, the innovations that spread from these relatively small circles of inventors, scientists and industrialists created empires.
Germans, especially researchers at University of Göttingen, (formerly the Georg-August-Universität) were at the forefront of physics at that time and their investigations were encouraged by the widespread use of radio where electro-magnetism was being tested every day around the world. Many important discoveries were built on the work of these German scientists yet a little-known physicist and philosopher named Ernst Mach (as in, “Holy shit, we’re going Mach 1!”) sparked a passionate interest in a young physics student fresh out of the Federal Polytechnic Institute (then called ETH Zurich), unable to land a graduate teaching position, working at the Swiss patent office in Bern in 1902. His name, of course, was Michele Angelo Besso, Italian engineer extraordinaire from a wealthy and influential family from Rome, who befriended a weird-looking Al Einstein in their first year at college in Zurich because Al was an incomparable genius. While in college, Einstein summered at Besso’s family villa (two doors down from the famous La Scala opera house) and their lifelong friendship changed the way we understand the world. They would die within months of each other, Einstein writing the Besso family just after Michele died in 1955, after all it was their late-night discussions, the back-and-forth of two inquisitive and playful minds which helped Einstein develop his first, world-changing three-paper challenge to classical mechanics. Ernst Mach was a major figure in science and philosophy, an inspiration for Einstein and Besso’s delving into late-night discussions about relativism.
Mach’s genius was prodigious and his powers of thoughtful persuasion were legendary, one of his most compelling involves his famous ‘Mach bands‘ experiment highlighting the limitations of human sight. In the image, the left side is darker, correct? Yes and no. Mach knew that we only ‘perceive’ reality and the brain’s powerful ability to ‘fill in the blanks’ creates a persistent and undeniable anomaly, shown here as a thin, gradient image added to the very middle of the joined images – of exactly the same ‘luminescence’ or brightness. Don’t believe it? Put your finger over the ‘crease’ and immediately, your eye will adjust to indicate that the brightness of the image is the same on both sides. Our brains see ‘shade’ and assume that natural light must follow. If you relax your eyes you can just see the thin, gradient band in the middle.
This simple demonstration, a ‘thought experiment’ that demonstrates that what we think of as ‘reality’ is really just the sum total of our perceptions. A ‘Positivist’ of sorts as a philosopher, Mach recognized that what might be called ‘true’ can also, and always, be false. With the brilliant German mathematician David Hilbert at Göttingen, Mach’s ideas signaled the beginning of set theory, the math that under-girds computation and computer logic, and this theory was truly ‘put to the test’ in the 1930s and ‘40s, when the Manhattan Project’s John von Neumann was tasked to design a mechanical brain, or the first programmable computer, to handle the immense calculations needed to simulate atomic behavior. After the war, with his young and brilliant colleague Claude Shannon at Bell Labs, his ultimate challenge was the unfathomable task of building the first actual, workable methods of computation, inspired by David Hilbert and Gottlob Frege (founders of the Göttingen school’s reputation for genius) and also the Irish/English mathematician George Boole in rethinking the building blocks of logic and knowledge, but especially fellow mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel:
Kurt Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental—indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time… The subject of logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities with Gödel’s achievement.
John von Neumann
Claude Shannon recognized that Boole’s math could form the basis of computation in the real world using crystals as circuits utilizing the ‘atomic lattice,’ and in 1937 Shannon’s master’s thesis at MIT demonstrated how ‘Boolean’ algebra could optimize electro-mechanical relays then used in all Bell telephone routing switches. Before WWII, the success of radio and telephony was already apparent and some of the earliest strides in programmable computing began within the ever-expanding Bell Telephone network, where how to handle the many callers and receivers connected by single, linear wires (usually connected by a lady named ‘Mabel’ that everyone in town knew). The first automatic switching device, which led directly to the first packet-switching networks that we have today was invented not by a mathematician nor an engineer but by a humble, yet jealous undertaker. Seems the dude was irritated that his usual flow of customers tapered off for reasons he couldn’t understand, until he heard through the grapevine that his competition in town, an upstart that had more business than made sense, recently had taken up with the local ‘Mabel’ telephone operator in town. This set our undertaker to work on putting his Lothario competitor out on the streets (and also millions of ‘Mabels’ as well) in one of the first tech jobs to be machine-replaced, Bell telephone’s ‘brushed exchange’ switchers became the standard connection protocol for over fifty years, so anyone who remembers the old rotary pulse-dialing phone, a suspicious undertaker is to thank for it.
John von Neumann collaborated with Claude Shannon on his thesis and together they mapped out the computer as we know it, from the bottom up, these incomparable geniuses dove right into the most contentious debate in logic since Liebnitz and Descartes after the classical philosophers introduced calculus during the Renaissance, von Neumann was uniquely suited to take on the biggest task in mathematics as the star employee of the biggest tech company in the world, his intelligence was the stuff of legends. He was asked at the time: is anything knowable? Thank God his answer was an emphatic yes, based on the assumption that what we know might add up to absolutely nothing at all (see the axiom of choice), but look at all the cool stuff you can do along the way! ZFC (Zermelo-Frankel set theory), the long answer to Russell’s Paradox (about a barber who cuts everyone else’s hair, but doesn’t cut his own?) was, with Alfred North Whitehead in their monumental work starting in 1910, Principia Mathematica (PM), the standard-bearer in math at the dawn of the 20th Century, however it isn’t used much today, where hundreds of pages are dedicated to the proof of 1+1=2, yet it was an important and necessary step in logic and the importance of symbolism as we know it today, or so they tell me.
The ‘circularity debate’ Charles Sanders Peirce talked about when he asked for clear ideas two centuries ago wasn’t put to the test until John von Neumann and Kurt Gödel embraced these ideas and the logical structure of the computer was created, and perhaps nature itself now can be mapped out on these elegant structures. In Peirce’s essay, he sums up where we also find ourselves, writing,
The principles set forth in the first part of this essay lead, at once, to a method of reaching a clearness of thought of higher grade than the “distinctness” of the logicians. It was there noticed that the action of thought is excited by the irritation of doubt, and ceases when belief is attained; so that the production of belief is the sole function of thought.
Charles Sanders Peirce
Before Newton, only Galileo Galilei and Leonardo Da Vinci were equal scientists in thought and craft, yet it was Nicholas Copernicus (Polish!) who supported the heavy mantle of science handed down by Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Euclid, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Democritus. His observations as an astronomer (a polymath as was Newton, Einstein and von Neumann) Copernicus knew the power of his world-changing theory would also change the way we understood the world since the Greeks pushed ‘earth, fire, air and water’ and pure geometry. It was Copernicus who began to unlock the intricate fine-tunings of nature, with his deep understanding of the way the planets move around us, he surmised that the Earth is not at the center of the Universe and this earth-shaking idea heralded changes for all the world’s institutions and religions. Heliocentrism would eventually cause a huge rift in the West, yet it was science itself that was turned on its head after Copernicus’ work became widely known. He kept the final draft of his life’s work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), a secret for 38 years for fear of what would happen to Galileo Galilei 75 years later — imprisoned for life for espousing the ‘heretical,’ true ideas. Now I borrow for the last time from C.S. Peirce,
After this tedious explanation, which I hope, in view of the extraordinary interest of the conception of force, may not have exhausted the reader’s patience, we are prepared at last to state the grand fact which this conception embodies.
The incredible task of organizing all those tiny electrical circuits on computers, created with a silicon wafer at the molecular level, these quantum-level interactions are, as Erwin Schrödinger predicted, very tricky for scientists to truly understand and utilize; similar to mathematical models of the forces that result from the splitting of a hydrogen atom and John von Neumann figured out both problems on a cocktail napkin at a dinner party, or so goes the legend, when he came upon the idea of ‘sampling’ and with Gödel, a finite axiomatization (really just math language and symbols) of set theory. John von Neumann’s other hobbies included designing self-replicating life systems with (pre-computer) Cellular Automata along with the great mathematician and colleague Stanislaw UIam (Yup, also Polish).
Ernst Mach famously doubted the conventional concept of the ‘atom’ then being advanced for the first time and with current inspection of atoms revealing chaotic, chiral spin-hybridizations of SP-3 orbitals in a Einstein-Bose condensate, perhaps Mach was more accurate than he was given credit for over two hundred years ago. The simplest idea of the ‘atom’ was first postulated by the Greeks and the ‘man of the people,’ Democritus, was really the first to get the idea that the super small is super important. Ernst Mach’s expansive knowledge bridged both popular and hard science, sparking passionate hatred in some, one of which was Vladimir Lenin himself, who called ”the Machists’ a bunch of nihilists intent on tearing down history and science itself. Vlad would know, it all turned out. Back in 1905, it was Einstein’s best friend Michele Besso who encouraged him to take his first job as a patent examiner and the lifelong correspondence between these two friends is priceless (in 2017 these letters and others to and from Einstein were auctioned by Christie’s for $1,234,625 million) but you can read the entire collected papers of Albert Einstein for free, a treasure of playful wisdom maintained by Princeton University since 2014 as part of the Digital Einstein collection.
Here, you might begin to understand the problem Einstein had with quantum mechanics, or ‘spooky action at a distance’ as he called it in another of his famous papers, also auctioned by Christie’s in his so-called ‘God letter’ where he conjectured that ‘God doesn’t play dice’ after apologizing again to his correspondent for not writing more often. The Digital Einstein collection is an incredible resource, even for folks who hate science, and historians especially can gain perspective about world events through Einstein’s real-time ‘hot takes’ (in these private letters to friends) that give wry detail and subtext to many important events of the 20th Century. The disruption in physics heralded by Einstein was squared against the towering achievement of the greatest scientist that the West ever produced before that, Sir Issac Newton, who codified and mapped the laws of nature in such intricate and insightful ways that even today, we’re still revealing the awesome beauty of nature as described by his laws. I weigh about 785 ‘newtons,’ which sounds like a lot, but while we can argue about what happens in a ‘mole’ of Germanium at zero kelvin temperature, almost everything else is pretty much figured out and explained by Newton (with credit due to Robert Hooke, Svante Arrhenius, Johannes van der Waals, Antoine Lavoisier, Anders Ångström and a few others) so just for fun, did you know that 32 feet per second equals about 22 MPH? You can ride a bike faster than you fall, no matter how big boned you are. Sorry about that, anyway, Newton gave us many handy tables that we can add up to determine all those forces while waiting for the doctor in the emergency room. So now, I’m going to tell you what I told you.
The reason that Galileo found himself in the same position as Socrates before him and thousands of Jewish scientists, many killed, more abandoned from their homeland such as Einstein or the German mathematician and philosopher Moritz Schlick, member of the Vienna Circle who was murdered by a zealot for ‘corrupting the youth’ of Nazi Germany; Galileo suffered the affliction of being a human ahead of his or her times, where the heresy they spoke, in Galileo’s case that the Earth is not the center of everything, was something that could not be tolerated by those with nothing to gain from the mere fact. Galileo and Kepler were tasked by the Church to figure out the biggest scientific problem of their day (actually, it’s the same problem as today, it turns out) what, exactly, is the time? That was especially important back in those days because the Julian Calendar, in use since the time of namesake Julius Caesar, had to be updated because it was so inaccurate that Easter was coming up in December and Christmas was pushing later and later into summer. Something had to be done, and in trying to establish a standard time and date, the very heavens gave the Catholic Church fits. With Galileo’s interpretation of Copernicus’ orbitals proving more correct than false, and with the precision of Huygens’ pendulum, the Catholic Church took hold of the gravity of the situation and promptly threw Galileo in the clink. Galileo, Kepler and Huygens discovered that the perfect circles that Copernicus described were actually ellipses, with Galileo using eyeglasses to fashion the very first telescopes.
Watch a great, old TV show about Galileo’s achievement narrated by the physicist Philip Morrison called the Ring of Truth (1987) that I remember as a geeky 20-year old (some things never change) and this episode on Galileo really highlighted what a good science show on PBS could be. I have to admit that I still think there’s never been a better science-based TV series since Carl Sagan’s great Cosmos (1980), but that was a long time ago. Professor Morrison was one of the best scientists on the Manhattan Project, he also driving the Dodge that delivered the first test bomb to the Trinity test site, he was also an incomparable genius, part of an Allied team that included the very best scientists in the world, all attracted to the US and Britain to escape the Nazi crackdown on what they called ‘Jewish Physics’ in Germany, or the very physics that won the war. Professor Morrison was Jewish — raised in Brooklyn in the Good ‘ol USA — where almost half of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project during WWII were Jewish and it’s not a stretch to suggest that these scientists saved us all from extinction.
Professor Morrison also narrated one of the best short documentary subject films ever made, for IBM in 1977’s Powers of Ten where ‘exponents’ are explored in a way that’s as compelling as anything ever made on the subject of scale. The vast space between we here on Earth and the edge of the known Universe is approximately the same ‘distance’ in scale down to the microscopic, quantum level and the ‘discreteness’ of matter at the atomic level, where even light is carried on single, photon ‘packages’, might be seen as the lightest ‘mass’ on the Periodic Table of the Elements, brilliantly discovered by Sergey Mendeleev (not Polish, but close!) The elusive ‘graviton‘ particle, the discrete, physical manifestation of gravity might upend the world yet again where symmetry it seems, is at the heart of the laws of nature which we reveal more of every day. The similarity of a Bravais lattice and a crystal molecule, the basis for computation and the study of logic, also the basis for algorithms of self-replicating systems, as was DNA discovered by Linus Pauling in the US and Rosalind Franklin in Britain, or the almost impossible symmetry (or chirality, meaning left and right symmetry) of nature, shown in the quantum world was also understood by the artist MC Escher and the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, eloquently described by science writer Douglas Hofstadter in one of my favorite popular science books, 1979’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Godel Escher Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid. We’re heading toward a greater understanding in the future that, although we might never know what’s true and valid today might turn out to be false and invalid at a future time and date, we must still build ever pragmatically toward a greater whole that we cannot hope to understand with our feeble eyes, ears, nose and brain. The hope is that someday we might as a species figure the whole thing out, but until the graviton is unlocked and your battery-powered car can go Jetsons-style to the SkyMall outside the ionosphere, I’ve told you what I told you.
October 1, 2019
PS: In 1997, based on a tip from his psychiatrist, Rather’s attacker was identified as William Tager, later found guilty of manslaughter after he returned to NBC’s Today Show where he killed a technician named Campbell Theron Montgomery after Tager was refused entrance to talk about the frequency, so it turns out the guy really did just want to know the frequency. Even though Mr. Tager still hears the sound that drove him mad (perhaps the loudest sound ever?), according to the parole report when released in 2010, Tager blamed the news media for beaming signals into his head and thought if he could just find out the correct frequency, he could block the signals that were constantly bothering him. Somewhere, Donald Trump is smiling.