Today is the 55th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. It was one of those days – like 9/11 – when you can remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news. And I was at school, and on my way out to take another look at Jupiter’s moons through the dusty old Newtonian telescope I’d found in the physics department. I never did manage to do that, after I was stopped outside the doors of the senior common room, and told the news. It was to be another 30 years before my interest in astronomy revived.
I think the world turned upside down that day. And next day’s English newspapers where full of photos, including, – amazingly – one of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a rifle. It didn’t seem amazing at the time, but it does now. How did they manage to solve the case in one single afternoon, and send the news to England too? For I’ve always remained darkly fascinated by the events of that day (e.g. the Storm Drain) . But 1963 was round about the time in the 1960s when the entire culture started being turned upside down.
The world is again being turned upside down these days. The smoking ban of 1 July 2007 was the day when my life (and many other people’s lives) in England got turned upside down, and it has remained upside down ever since. For ASH is now pushing for smoking to be banned in people’s own homes. How much more upside down can you get?
Isaac Newton, who invented the Newtonian reflecting telescope, also lived in an upside down world, a world that had just gone crazy. He was born on the 4th of January 1643, just four months after the start of the English civil war, which was to rage on until 1651. And that means that he grew up for the first 9 years of his life in a world at war, with soldiers marching everywhere, and probably grieving families in every town.
And probably young Isaac was struggling to make sense of the crazy world around him. And he spent the rest of his life struggling to make sense of it. For that’s what scientists are: people struggling to make sense of the world around them. If Isaac Newton had grown up in a placid England, he would have probably just become a farmer or something. Instead he constructed a picture of the world in which huge opposing forces of action and reaction were in motion everywhere. And in that world, dimly reflected, are the armed forces confronting each other everywhere.
Charles Darwin was another Englishman who was born (1809) in a time of war. In his case it was the Napoleonic wars. So the first 6 years of his life would have also seen lots of soldiers marching around, and lots of grieving families. And, rather like Newton’s universe, Darwin’s War of Nature was the dim reflection of the Napoleonic wars in which all Europe was then caught up.
The Great War of 1914-18 seems to have inaugurated another great burst of scientific discovery, with figures like Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, and many others. If you want to be a great scientist, arrange to be born in a time of extreme bad craziness. And the Great War was probably the worst piece of bad craziness in 500 years or more. In many ways, Europe has still yet to recover from it.
And was it any different in the past? The great mathematician Archimedes (most famous for his Eureka moment) was killed by a Roman soldier in Syracuse in 212 BC, after he’d told him not to disturb his circles (it always seems like a very stupid thing to do, to tell an invading soldier brandishing a large sword to not disturb your circles). So Archimedes was living during the Punic wars (Hannibal and co.) which convulsed the western Mediterranean.
Wars concentrate minds. Your newly invented phalanx or chariot or scimitar or depth charge must work well, because otherwise you’ll be dead in very short order. And that’s one reason why technological innovation proceeds apace in wartime. So WW1 and WW2 brought tanks, airplanes, rockets, and atomic bombs. In his time Archimedes was also a military inventor, constructing grappling hooks and huge levers to fight off the Roman fleet besieging Syracuse.
By contrast, in peacetime, there is much less of an incentive to think straight, and get things right. Can anyone think of the name of any famous scientist alive today? They don’t exist any more, as far as I can see. Instead, the 70 years since the end of WW2 have produced armies of charlatans. The current global war on smoking is the product of charlatans in Tobacco Control. And the Anthropogenic Global Warming scare is the work of charlatans in the climate science departments of universities. And the universities are full of charlatan post-modern (i.e. post-scientific) professors and lecturers. And there are innumerable cases of outright fraud. None of these people want to discover new truths: they all just want to win themselves tenure and funding in some university, and maybe a Nobel Prize too. They’re much more concerned with status than with truth.
So most likely it’ll take another war to concentrate minds again, and get people to start to think straight again. And when that happens, the universities will be scrubbed clean of antismokers and climate alarmists and post-modernist professors, because we simply won’t be able to afford to indulge them any longer. And lots of people will start thinking very, very hard to try to understand the crazy world around them. And maybe some of them will find out something new about it.