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Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

The following is based on part nine of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about evolution:

The theory of evolution was discovered independently by two men: Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace.

Both loved the English countryside, both loved beetles and both in their twenties found a way to make a living as a naturalist. There was a ready market in England for specimens of plants and animals from parts foreign. Both went to South America to pursue their profession.

Darwin went in 1831. For five years he served as the ship’s naturalist on board the Beagle, a survey ship of the British navy.

Wallace went in 1848 to the Amazon and for four years lived among the natives gathering plants and animals rare or unknown back in Europe. He set foot in a part of the world that no white man had ever seen before. He found 40 different kinds of butterflies in 40 days. But then, on the way home, the ship caught fire and he lost everything, the 40 butterflies, all of it, except for his watch, some shirts and a few notebooks – and his life. But two years later he set out for the Malay archipelago (Indonesia) and started all over.

Darwin saw the natives in South America as beastly while Wallace could imagine himself  becoming one, living the rest of his days in the Amazon where his children would be “rich without wealth, and happy without gold!”. To him they were not just a little above apes but just a little below philosophers.

Both Darwin and Wallace came back from South America persuaded that the species change: that lions and tigers, for example, were once just cats way back in time. But neither knew how the change came about.

Then one day Darwin read “Principles of Population” (1798) by Robert Malthus. Malthus said that more people are born than can possibly be fed, so some must die. That was it: only the fittest live to give birth to the next generation. That is how the species change.

In 1844, at age 35, Darwin wrote it all down in a book and told his wife to print it should he die and left it at that.

But then 14 years later, when Wallace himself was 35, lying sick on the island of Ternate in the Spice Islands, he read the same book and had the same idea. He wrote it up and sent it to Darwin for advice. Darwin’s hand was forced. He came out with his book, “Origin of Species”, a year later in 1859.

Neither Darwin nor Wallace had any idea of genetics. That came later. But in their time Louis Pasteur did prove that life is based on chemistry.

No one knows how life began but we do know that the chemistry that life is made from forms easily under the early conditions of the earth – and even, to a degree, in outer space where you can find, of all things, formaldehyde.

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Anatole Broyard in 1971 at age 51

Anatole Broyard (1920-1990), an American writer, was the first black literary critic for the New York Times – but the thing was, they did not know he was black! He passed for white. His daughter, Bliss Broyard, wrote about it in “One Drop” (2007).

Broyard was born in New Orleans into a Creole family that was a liberal mix of both black and white. Going by his daughter’s DNA test, Broyard was about 34% black and 56% white – a common mix for Puerto Ricans. Growing up in New York he got into fights because he was too black for the whites and too white for the blacks. In his high school picture in 1937 he looks black.

But then a year later on March 2nd 1938 he went to the Social Security office to apply for a government tax number so he could work. Right there on the form, which we still have, you can see him make his decision: he marks Negro but then scratches that out and then marks white!

Before he went off to fight in the Second World War he married a black Puerto Rican woman and had a daughter by her, Gala. But when he came back from the war he divorced her. He then proceeds to make a name for himself as a white writer, marries a white woman and moves to a white neighbourhood in a very white town and brings up his son and daughter as white. They had no idea he was part black till he was on his deathbed (though his wife and some friends knew).

The New York Times would not have hired him as a literary critic if they knew he was black: blacks, after all, can only write about “black” subjects! It is the same reasoning that Hollywood uses too: black actors can only play “black” characters. Blacks are not seen as “universal”, but whites are.

Broyard thought that he did not need to be black or white, that he could just be himself. But to succeed as a literary critic he had to present himself to society as a white man, which meant turning his back on his mother and two sisters, who lived as black (one sister could pass but not the other).

One time his mother wrote him a letter begging to see her grandchildren before she passed away. He let her see them – once. They did not understand who she was.

That makes him sound ice cold, but his daughter says he was a loving family man. She says the way he had to keep the two sides of his family separate tore him apart inside.

When his daughter found out she was part black she thought it was cool, but did not like how her father had kept it a secret from her for 25 years. She supposes that he wanted to spare her the pain he went through growing up.

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Remarks:

I love the words to this song.

Lyrics:

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell,
Blue skys from pain.
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

And did they get you to trade
Your heros for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

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The following is based on part eight of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about the rise of industry:

In the late 1700s there were three revolutions: one in France, one in America and one in England. In France and America they overthrew their kings and said that all men are created equal and born with certain rights. In England they did not do that, they did something even better: through the rise of industry they gave the man in the street a degree of wealth and freedom that in the past belonged only to kings and other top people.

We are still in the middle of that Industrial Revolution – or we better be because there are still plenty of things to get right. But despite all of its evils, the old days were far worse: many died of the plague or childbirth, ordinary people did not have soap, cotton underwear or glass in their windows – things we take for granted. We feel we can make of our lives what we want of them – in the old days it was hard work from sunup to sundown. Where would most of us be if we were born before 1800?

The revolution was made by men who thought in just that way:

  • that life is what you make of it: we are not ruled by the stars or fate;
  • that inventions should be useful for the man in the street, not just playthings for the rich;
  • that science is not just about the truth, as it was for Newton and Galileo, but about making society better.

A man in America in those days who was just like that was Benjamin Franklin. The Industrial Revolution began in Britain and not, say, in France, because it had far more men who thought that way and acted on it. Men like Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, who made china sets for queens and then made the very same thing (without the patterns) for the British midde-class.

These men did not go to Oxford and Cambridge. Partly because most of them could not: they did not belong to the Church of England. But also because the kind of men that Oxford and Cambridge produced did not think like that and would have never made an Industrial Revolution.

But the Industrial Revolution was more than just a certain way of thinking or even a bag of inventions, as important as they were. There were also changes in how people worked. For example, before 1760 craftsmen worked at home in villages at their own pace; after 1820 the common practice was to bring workers into a factory to make things there, working with machines.

It also led to a new view of nature that the Romantic poets wrote about. Wordsworth put it this way in 1798 in “Tintern Abbey”:

For nature then…
To me was all in all – I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion

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Joanne Chesimard (1947- ), better known as Assata Shakur, is a black American revolutionary and former political prisoner. She now lives in political exile in Cuba. The FBI says she is a terrorist, “armed and extremely dangerous”, offering a million dollars for information leading to her arrest. Congress asked Cuba to turn her over. The New Jersey police asked the pope for help in getting her back. She is the aunt and godmother of Tupac Shakur.

In 1977 she was found guilty of first-degree murder for the 1973 shooting death of a policeman on the New Jersey Turnpike. She was broken out of prison in 1979 and, after five years of laying low, made her way to Cuba in 1984. Her autobiography, “Assata”, came out in 1987.

On May 2nd 1973 she and two friends of hers were driving down the New Jersey Turnpike when the police pulled them over. The police said it was for a broken tail light on their car, but more likely it was for driving while black. She was asked to put her hands up. She did but then was shot twice and then in the back. One of her friends tried to protect her. In the shoot out both her friend and one of the policemen were killed. Another policeman was wounded and so was her other friend.

Four years later an all-white jury found her guilty of murdering the policeman even though her hands were in the air (the only way her wounds make sense) and there was no proof she ever touched a gun.

With no hope of justice and fearing that she would be murdered in prison, she escaped and got to Cuba where she lives today. Fidel Castro himself said he will not give her up.

She had been on trial six times before on other charges, mainly bank robbery and murder, but none of the charges stuck. The government had no proof for any of it, not even for what they got her on in the end: they just wanted to keep her tied up in court and in prison.

In the 1970s the American government cracked down on black revolutionaries. The FBI used the police, the courts and, indirectly, the press. Some they killed outright, others they put in prison or tied up in the courts.

Shakur belongs to the Black Liberation Army, which broke off from the Black Panthers. She believes violence is necessary for blacks to become free and equal: it is the only way whites will give up enough power.

But she believes education is also necessary: guns will not do the trick if black people remain brainwashed, by the schools and by the news:

The schools we go to are reflections of the society that created them. Nobody is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them…I am convinced that a systematic program for political education, ranging from the simplest to the highest level, is imperative for any successful organization or movement for Black liberation in this country.

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The following is based on part seven of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This part is about the physics of Newton and Einstein:

Newton was born on Christmas Day in the year that Galileo died, 1642.  He got his university degree at Trinity College, Cambridge  but then came the plague years: 1665 and 1666. He went to live with his mother in the country. There he made his great discoveries in physics and mathematics.

From his notebooks we know that he was badly taught: he had to work out mathematics for himself. But along the way he discovered a new form of mathematics: calculus. It became his secret weapon.

Copernicus and Kepler told us how the planets move but could not say why. Newton could: gravity. With his law of gravity he could work out how fast an apple fell from a tree and how many days it took the moon to go round the earth. Utterly amazing.

But none of it was made public till 20 years later. In the meantime Newton made his name in optics: he showed how white light is made out of coloured light. He became a professor at Cambridge and a leading light of science in Britain.

Then one day Edmund Halley came to Cambridge to ask Newton a question about physics. Halley loved his answer but then asked, “How do you know?” Newton said he would send him the proof. That proof took three years and was so long it became a book: the “Principia” (1687). It laid out his physics. Our idea that there are laws of nature comes from that book.

Newton’s physics was a wonder of the age, yet it assumed that time and space are absolute, that they are the same for all observers. Still it stood for 200 years. Then in 1881 Michaelson found the first hole in it: light always went at the same speed no matter what. No one knew what to make of it until Albert Einstein came up with his theory of special relativity in 1905.

Einstein would think about stuff like this: Suppose you get on the tram at the town clock to go to work and your tram went the speed of light. What would you see? If you looked back at the clock you would see that time had stopped – and yet for the people on the street the hands of the clock are still moving! Strange. That means the closer you get to the speed of light, the more time slows down. Time is not absolute. Nor is space: if you push the example further you find that the tops of the buildings will look like they are bending over the street and passers-by will look tall and thin.

Einstein worked out his physics along those lines and, while his conclusions were strange, he was proved right in the course of his life. Even the bit about the edge of a phonograph record ageing more slowly than the centre.

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The following is based on part six of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about astronomy up to the time of Galileo (pictured):

Cultures all over the world have some knowledge of astronomy – if only to know when to plant. But often it never goes beyond that.

The Mayans, for example, had the number zero before Europe did and a much better calendar too, yet they did not study the motions of the stars.

Easter Island was the same: people came there by accident but had no way of leaving because they had no model of the heavens. They were stuck there as the stars passed overhead, their secrets unread.

It seems the New World lacked a model of the heavens because they lacked the wheel. The Greeks built their model on the wheel: wheels within wheels, forever turning. It was Ptolemy who wrote down that  model in all its glory in about the year 150. It stood for over a thousand years.

In 1543 Copernicus put the sun, not the earth, at the centre – for sound Renaissance reasons. To the man in the street it seemed unnatural.

Then in 1609, a lifetime later, all that changed when Galileo in Venice, Italy pointed a telescope at the stars. What he saw proved Copernicus right.

The Catholic Church at the time was battling against the Protestant heresy. Taking a hard line, it believed that faith should rule. Galileo believed that truth should persuade.

In 1611 the Vatican starts to keep a file on him. In 1616 they tell him he can no longer hold or defend the Copernican system as proven fact.

Galileo waits till a more intellectual pope came to power, Pope Urban VIII in 1623. He is the one who hired Bernini to work on St Peter’s. But he is also the one who had the birds in the Vatican gardens killed because he did not like the noise.

In 1624 Galileo came to those gardens and had six long talks with the pope. He asked the pope if he could teach Copernicus. The pope said no. But Galileo continued to believe the pope was on his side. He was profoundly mistaken.

Galileo returned  to Florence and wrote “The Dialogue on the Great World Systems” (1632). Because the book did not present Copernicus as fact but merely debated his ideas, Galileo thought he was safe. But just to make sure he got four imprimaturs from Church censors.

It did not work. The pope stopped the presses and tried to buy back all the copies. Then in 1633 he called Galileo before the Inquisition. They threatened him with torture, twice, and forced him to state that Copernicus was wrong. Silencing him, the Church banned his book for over 200 years.

That all but killed science in Catholic countries. Now the cutting edge of science moved to the Protestant north. Indeed, in the year that Galileo died, in 1642, on Christmas day was born Isaac Newton in England.

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