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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Aristotle and Millikan

"Civilization did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whsipered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense. We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn't discard, to reprocess what we couldn't use. garbage pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the logic and rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics."
-Don DeLillo, Underworld

In 1909, Robert Millikan took a capacitor, an atomizer and with the aid of a chemical battery, he determined the charge of an electron, as well as the fact that it is quantized. He recieved the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, for what has got to be the most painstakingly boring experiment in the history of the world. The catch, and what has been lost in the lore of the scientific past, is that Millikan's measurement was slightly off - he had failed to take into account some small variable, and while the main thesis and methodology of his experiment were sound, the fact remains that the number he came up with was wrong.

An interesting trend began to emerge in the decade following the experiment - as labs began replicating the exercize, as well as innovating new ways of measuring the electron's charge, they started getting a different result than Millikan. In fact, most if not all of them got the same result, but all of theirs were just slightly higher than the published number. What happened was, in reporting their findings, they assumed that they were the ones who had it wrong, and as a consequence they would put a number somewhere between Millikan's and theirs. It edged ever closer in published accounts to the actual value (now denoted as "e"), but it betrays a sad fact about how the intellectual institutions in our society work. It just so happens that in this case what was happening was extremely clear.

This is not confined to the likes of the twentieth century, it just happens to be starkly apparent when one is dealing with numbers. Aristotle, in 350 BC, began work on his theories of physics, explaining cosmology, optics and the laws of motion as he saw them. It took until John Buridan in 1328 before anyone began to really question the austere logic of the Greek philosopher, and then Nicole d' Oresme was the first to look to the stars and say what everybody seems to have subconsciously known - that Aristotle was wrong. Galileo cribs notes from the two Frenchmen, and just happened to be under the protectorate of nobility, allowing him to collect credit - but for seventeen hundred years people worked under a physics which was so manifestly wrong that it misplaced the planet on which we live.

For better or worse, our society is nothing but a vast collection of presumptions. We take the success or failure of any given way of life to be a validation of some and invalidation of others, but in the end, the civilizations are built upon a foundation of ideas; the discarded, the proven and the convenient. If Einstein had been born fifty years earlier, we wouldn't have had relativity. If Newton had been born in the time of Buridan, he'd have been put to death for suggesting the things he did. The geniuses who have changed how we view the world are almost categorically a product of circumstance more than their own abilities or mental prowess. That's the joke about venerating the visionaries - that, generally speaking, the world has to be ready, the ground prepared and fertile, in order for the prophet to plant the seed of what will grow to be the next revolution.

cranked out at 5:29 PM | |

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