"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants"

The following essay was contributed by a commenter, Zenster.

I am glad he did not charge me late fines for how long it took me to edit his work and get it up for you to read.

Some months are more like molasses than others. I kept looking at it, just needing to finish two paragraphs.

Obviously Zenster obviously has the patience of a saint — and here, finally, is “Giants”.

Anyone who has ever experienced a severe earthquake understands the feelings of shock and dismay that arise when terra firma is no longer quite so firm. So it is in our age of modern technology. We casually surf the web, stare into color flat panel displays, employ gigahertz speed CPUs and typically wield more data storage capacity than existed on our entire planet just a few short decades ago. This seemingly sturdy platform of solid-state technology quivers so seldom that we plant confident footsteps while surveying vistas unimaginable to the average individual just twenty-five years ago.

‘whose genius surpassed all human kind’Few people comprehend that – as we explore this brave new cyber-world – all of us are borne upon the shoulders of intellectual giants so far ahead of their times that they remain, even today, unsung heroes of the information age. Were even one or two of these unseen – and too frequently unknown – Atlases withdrawn from their supporting roles, our technological world would be rocked to its foundations.

Sir Isaac Newton, the father of classical mechanics, is familiar to us all. Many people recall what he wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke:

If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

On the other hand who can summon up the name of Philo Farnsworth, much less that of Sir William Crookes? Yet it is these two geniuses — for better or for worse – who are responsible for the ubiquitous television set. Farnsworth’s raster scan technique harnessed the display capability of Crooke’s cathode ray tube and the rest was (and remains) obscure history. Meanwhile, we use this incredible invention to watch Oprah tell us what to believe.

What science fiction fan hasn’t read Jules Verne? His readers can tell you that Verne framed the earliest designs for a nuclear submarine. The USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was named in honor of Verne’s vision. But only a select few also know that Verne predicted the fax machine, and imagined future Parisian streets thronged with automobiles.

Lady Augusta Ada Lovelace is more obscure, but no less worthy of attention. Ada, daughter of Lord Byron, was a mathematician and scientist. By chance she was introduced at a dinner party to Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine. When Lady Lovelace later translated a short monograph by the Italian military engineer, Menabrea, she mentioned Babbage’s device. In the appendix, she speculated how an Analytical Engine might be capable of non-numerical object-oriented processing — much like any modern electronic computer. She went on to observe:

In studying the action of the Analytical Engine, we find that the peculiar and independent nature of the considerations which in all mathematical analysis belong to operations, as distinguished from the objects operated upon and from the results of the operations performed upon those objects, is very strikingly defined and separated.

… Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

Thus did Ada Lovelace anticipate computer generated music, and digital graphics, and even artificial machine intelligence over a century before the advent of such technologies. It is only recently, with the completion of a fully operational and successfully computing Analytical Engine, that Ada Lovelace’s life and contributions have been given their overdue credit.

One argument claims that the mere exposition of an idea’s potential does not equal its actualization. However, credit must be given for those whose genius breathes sufficient life into a concept that those who follow are inspired to bring such nascent ideas into reality. No inventor begins with the wheel.
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An ability to predict the ramifications of a potential device or process can lend both urgency and impetus to a concept that otherwise might have languished in obscurity. The keenness of mind required to fully assess a novel idea and project it upon the world’s future is a particular kind of creative intelligence that often gets lost in the fog of history that precedes the advent of an invention. Thus, devices appear suddenly, as though from Zeus’ head, and we never delve deeply enough to understand their beginnings.

So it was while rummaging through the Internet for the purpose of investigating display technologies that a most curious article found its way onto my monitor. Titled “Electronic displays for information technology”, this IBM research paper encapsulated the astonishing vision of Vannevar Bush (Vannevar rhymes with “achiever”).

In the Roosevelt administration, Bush had become head of the NDRC (National Defense Resource Committee). With World War II engulfing much of Europe, the need became clear for an umbrella organization to steer wartime research by combining the efforts of both science and industry.

One group which came under that umbrella was the Uranium Committee. Their task was to study the feasibility of an atomic bomb. Despite his personal concerns that the chances of building such a device were “remote”, Vannevar Bush put aside these reservations to examine evidence to the contrary. Among his resources was the MAUD Report, written by a group of British Scientists. After listening to leading experts who thought the weapon was feasible, Bush concluded that, “the result in the hands of Hitler might indeed enable him to enslave the world. It was essential to get there first”.

As chairman of the Military Policy Committee he steered the creation of America’s Manhattan Project. This unparalleled effort was one of the most intensive and momentous scientific projects in all human history. Its end result was the abrupt and successful conclusion of a bloody Pacific Theater campaign that had promised to consume at least another hundred thousand American lives.

Military historians have almost unanimously concluded that America’s use of nuclear weapons averted further GI casualties and saved innumerable Japanese lives as well. In a similar manner, the post Cold War era, may have also demonstrated that MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) also averted an even more horrific loss of life.

One thing is assured – even if Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons R&D hadn’t been successful – if America had foregone the development of nuclear weapons, Soviet Russia most certainly would not have stopped their own research and development of atomic weapons. A world in which communist Russia alone held the trump card of nuclear weapons would have meant untold destruction

Thus Vannevar Bush is also another unsung giant whose perception enabled America to harness her vast natural resources and human capital. Nor can there can be no doubt that the American doctrine of assimilating diverse cultures into its fabled “melting pot” played a critical role in banding together Jewish refugees like Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd along with Italian and Danish scientists like Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr. This gathering of geniuses harnessed to Yankee resources set America on a course destined to make it the world’s preeminent and abiding superpower.

As the Western world is confronted with yet another global threat, it becomes ever more disturbing that the top echelons of political leadership seem to be almost devoid of visionary leaders. Where individuals from diverse and even humble backgrounds once filled these ranks, current membership in the leadership of our political system derives almost exclusively from practitioners of the legal trade or career civil servants. These people have never toiled to manufacture or construct or produce anything. Nor do they evidence any appreciation for people who can accomplish these things.

A singular lack of inventiveness and innovative thinking now permeates Western governments.

If Britain is “a nation of shopkeepers”, then it may well be said that America has become a nation of lawyers and civil servants. The disturbing notion that this world’s technological and industrial engine is being converted into a paper mill has profound implications.

Lawyers are merely part of a service economy. Civil servants serve their respective bureaucracies. Both are parasites searching for ever greater numbers of hosts. Through the generation of more laws they suck blood from the body politic but they add no value.

There are avenues of creating wealth. Mining, agriculture, manufacturing and construction are just some of the ways of doing so. These are the people into whose hands our future should be placed, for it is they who know how to create opportunity for themselves and for others.

We have chosen instead to entrust the coming times to the functionaries who couldn’t run a business, meet a payroll, or devise a better product that people actually want.

People who grow wealthy by massaging the legal system are not innovators; they are manipulators. Where among them shall we find the shoulders of new giants to stand upon? As our quality of leadership erodes in the name of short term self-interest and outright greed, who will be left to guard the primacy of Western ideals? How will they be sustained? May we expect nearsighted careerists (whose sole purpose is retention of their incumbency) to lead us anywhere, save into a box canyon?

For any of you who doubt the astonishing prescience of Vannevar Bush – with his ability to shepherd America through conflict and towards its enduring glory – I give you this final example of the ease with which he parsed difficult concepts:

In July 1945, at the end of the Second World War, the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Vannevar Bush, wrote an article entitled “As We May Think” for the Atlantic Monthly. The article exhorted the scientific and technical communities which were ending their work on weapons to develop new technologies to “give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages.”

In the article Bush describes the Memex, “a device in which an individual stores all his books, records and communications.” The Memex would allow its operator to link together pieces of information and to send sets of this linked information to other people. This is now widely recognized as an early description of hypertext. The information displayed by the Memex would be visible on “slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading.” Bush based his prognostication on the use of microfiche for data storage and envisioned that memos, letters, drawings, photographs, magazines, and newspapers would be stored in the Memex.

Thus, at the first dawn of our world’s new information age did one amazing individual discern the advent of the laptop computer. Having secured the freedom of a nation devoted to liberty, Vannevar Bush gazed still deeper into the future of information processing and its promising benefits.

Now, confronted as we are with an even greater peril than that of World War II, what would we give to have even a small fraction of our current civil servants possessing Vannevar Bush’s genius.

Where are they?

The author would like to gratefully acknowledge the editorial contribution made by Dymphna.

4 thoughts on “"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants"

  1. Ciao Zenster,

    A very nice essay, well written (and edited) but, not to be a Bastian Contraire, I must in part disagree.

    What’s lacking and where leadership (or inspiration) would be required is not in the realm of science, with its necessary (and even precious) indifference – science and technology which are anyhow sailing on triumphantly and invading every aspect of life, but the warmth of moral courage.

    We don’t need grand visions but smaller and more local ones.

    Perhaps already 150 years ago, someone might have predicted TV with a 1000 channels streaming over the airwaves. Today – not me – but plenty of you here with the technical smarts could create your own Internet TV channels, meaning potentially 1 channel for every human being on the face of the earth. A grand vision come true and even surpassed!

    But what was not predicted was that families, instead of eating together, would have each member nuking some food and rushing off to his room to either receive or broadcast.

    Courage not science, small visions or perhaps a new vision grand enough to also include the smallness of province, region, country, family, season.

    The advances of science always work both ways. They increase the potential of both good and evil. Before you were hoodwinked by the sleazy guy on the street corner, now you get phised by some kid in Rangoon.

    It is this very empowerment which has shifted – IMHO – the emphasis away from knowledge to the realm of morality, where for many reasons, Gramsci, sex revolution, consumerism and others, we are being turned into eternal adolescents, de-fibred, frightened.

    There will be no scientific invention capable of solving problems of courage, fidelity, solid families, temperance, patriotism, journalistic fairness.

    I’m afraid that’s a pious illusion. Or perhaps my insistence on pressing the key of virtue is a pious illusion. But as shown by the Global Warming debate (among scientists) it is ultimately moral integrity which matters.

    Want a grand vision? You can get all you want from books and movies. Grand visions have become a major industry. My own prediction? In 50 years everyone will have a chip implanted in him both for health monitoring and remote thought reading.

    (Oh-Oh! Conservative Swede is at it again! Bzzz!)

    Call me a Luddite, but I don’t see inventions solving our problems. Do you ever have the impression that the traditionally smartest countries have become the dumbest? A bit like profiling in Minneapolis, where the old school marm with purple hair and flabby arms is checked with the same rigor as a young Achmed from Saudi Arabia.

    I look forward to change. Figurati, we’re at the dawn of nanotechnology, but I’d prefer a reawakening of the spirit. I’m happy that the entire contents of what was once the Enyclopedia Britannica can be relayed to that kid in Rangoon faster than a drunkard’s burp. I love it, but it’s not the answer.

    I keep thinking that the place where grand-visions-come-true are (in due time) rewarded – the Nobel Committee – gave its peace prize to the father of modern terrorism.

  2. Ioshkafutz–

    We have to have moral leaders on the larger national and international stage, too. The local exemplars are crucial, but so are those who inspire us from a larger arena.

    Mother Theresa is one such person. Her childhood beginnings didn’t presage her eventual role as a moral example to the world, though.

    Isn’t it strange that often one can’t extrapolate from a person’s childhood to their later role in life?

    Our family had one who didn’t become famous beyond her own community, but there was no one who crossed her path who ever forgot her.

    My aunt “Dodo” (her little brothers couldn’t say “Doreen”) was a Franciscan nun. She grew up in the midst of a large Dublin Irish family; the stories told about Dodo’s childhood weren’t particularly saintly. She was known for climbing trees higher and faster than anyone. Her favorite trick at dinner was to say to the younger children: “let’s see who can finish their dessert first” — at which the kids would dig in, gobbling up every last bite. Their older sister would then eat her own dessert slowly and decorously while the other children were forced to watch until she was done. Only then were they permitted to leave.

    Dodo didn’t plan on being a nun. She went along on the interview because her friend was shy and wanted company. Whatever they said left its mark. Dodo went home to break the news; she was leaving Dublin to join the Franciscans. Her friend stayed home.

    She was a nun for 60 years. In that time Dodo, now Sister Celine, studied in Rome, got her master’s degree in Maths at Columbia, taught school in Brooklyn’s Italian section (and thereby hooked me on Torrone nougat candy). She lived her vow of poverty to the fullest, though my uncle claimed he never saw a ten dollar bill snatched from his hand so quickly and placed beyond his reach in the burrows of her Franciscan habit.

    She was transferred to Georgia for her health. Our Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ elementary school teacher, the one who pushed him to excel, was her best friend. Sister Virgil taught in Savannah; Celine (my aunt) was the principal of a small school in near-by Tybee Beach. I was to spend part of my honeymoon at Saint Michael’s.

    By now graduated to “Mother Mary Celine”, she went to Augusta Georgia just in time to head a school which integrated backwards. Instead of black children being sent out of the parish to while schools (the usual pattern) she had white children come to her. And the kids prospered under the watchful eye of Mother Celine’s high expectations.

    On “retiring”, she took on the task of getting Social Security benefits for poor, often illiterate, women who slaved as day maids for white families who paid five dollars a day plus bus fare. She had no illusions about any virtues accruing especially to the poor, but she did have high hopes for everyone. Celine pushed any number of children beyond their own expectations.

    The city of Augusta held a dinner in her honor; the mayor presented the ceremonial key to the city. I have no doubt she used that “key” to influence the city fathers to upgrade the infrastructure within her parish boundaries.

    When she died hundreds of people came from everywhere to say farewell. It was an integrated funeral service. Black and white people worshipping together probably remains a rarity in Georgia, but it never was where Aunt Celine presided.

    Believing that part of life was being prepared to leave it in order, she cleaned her room every blesséd day. Thus it took ten sad minutes to sort her “belongings”. Having lived so simply she left little behind. I have her sewing set, a crucifix, her prayer book – each now a memento mori.

    Ah, so many stories of this ordinary saint who touched so many. Her ready laughter was legendary. I was amazed when a stranger in Boston’s airport recognized me as her relative because we shared that laugh.

    So much to tell about her, but I’ve long passed my own 500 word limit. Mother Celine would have something to say about that transgression.

    Mea culpa, Dodo.

  3. It is not that we need more vision in government, but less. Let us not point to what speghetti stuck to the New Deal wall to encourage still more taxpayer funded food fights.
    You do not get government vision without Algore as Commissar.
    You want vision? Envision that.

  4. An excellent view of the philosophy of science , Zenster , truly we all stand on the shoulders of giants .
    Follow that with Dymphna’s moving story of her aunt , a life spent in the service of others . We can only try to live up to the example set for us by such good people .

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