The World Turned Upside Down

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.

About Frank Davis

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20 Responses to The World Turned Upside Down

  1. Mark Jarratt, Canberra, Australia says:

    Another evocative and compelling post, with sound historical reasoning. Few issues focus the mind on innovation and creative solutions more than wartime.
    The Kennedy assassination is a psychology textbook case study of ‘flashbulb memory’ 📸according to my headshrinker wife, but the term was devised in 1977, and other cases are now used (e.g. death of Princess Diana, 911 US attacks).

    • Dirk says:

      See here,
      George Carlin said that during the First World War it was called “shell shock”, during the Second World War it was called “Battle fatigue”, during the Korean war it was called “Operational Exhaustion” (it sounds like something that might happen to your car) and then the War in Vietnam, when it was called “Post-traumatic stress disorder” and the pain is completely buried under jargon. At least “shell shock” sounded like an exploding grenade.
      And by the way, you should watch this:

      • Lepercolonist says:

        That Joe Pesci bit was always one of my favorites. By the way, Joe Pesci is a 75 year old tobacco user. More reason to love him.

  2. Dirk says:

    See 20th and 21st century physicists over here physicists.
    In peacetime, there is a lot of an incentive to think straight, and get things right. Physicists at CERN are currently busy figuring out how nature works, e.g. the Higgs boson, etc.
    And the first steps with regard to the atom bomb were made during the peaceful 1920s and 1930s by Heisenberg, Pauli, Fermi, Bethe, Feynman and others.
    Isaac Newton was a child of his time : In Newton’s long 1670s treatise on Revelation, the “old serpent” is the literal Satan. Citing an oriental source on dream symbolism, Newton
    concluded that “the Apocalyptic Dragon is a very proper emblem as well of the Roman Emperors & Empire which was so great an enemy to the Church as of the the Devil, that arch-enemy to mankind.
    When Kennedy was murdered, I was 12 years old. My teacher told the students that everyone should leave the classroom and go home because it was a sad day.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Physicists at CERN are currently busy figuring out how nature works

      Are they? I hope so. I sometimes wonder if they’re just another bunch of charlatans.

      • Joe L. says:

        I’m with you, Frank. It seems that during peacetime, “scientific” discoveries tend to be theoretical and spawn ideologies. There is far less focus on solving real, tangible problems, most likely because in the absence of a constant fear of death and destruction, the focus turns to the fanciful and many prospective “experts” simply want to make a name for themselves.

        The discovery of the Higgs boson (nicknamed the “God particle”–a not-so-subtle nod to the quasi-religious belief that it is responsible for all the mass in the universe) has yet to provide us with new clues as to how physics work. I also often wonder if CERN is just another bunch of well-funded charlatans.

      • Frank Davis says:

        A few years back I read Quantum by Manjit Kumar. It’s a very readable book about the development of nuclear physics from about 1900 onwards. I gained the impression that people like Einstein and Schrodinger became marginalised as the quantum physics of Planck and Bohr became dominant. So some physicists seemed to have thought that it had all taken a wrong turning somewhere.

        I also once watched most of a YouTube lecture on quantum physics by Richard Feynman, and gained the impression that although their physics worked (accurately predicting what would happen), they didn’t really know why it worked.

        I think that maybe the unified public face they present to the world conceals deep underlying divisions..

      • Joe L. says:

        Coincidentally, I just stumbled upon the following blog post from this past week discussing the lack of discoveries being produced by CERN and a general stagnation of the foundations of physics overall:

        The present phase of stagnation in the foundations of physics is not normal

  3. Bill says:

    I was four at the time of the Kenndy operation so it rather passed me by.
    I was forty at the time of the twin towers operation and heard it on the radio then watched it later on idiot box and the only recall is of concrete fountains wtf, the lying bastards.
    There has been war somewhere during every minute of my life on earth so the argument that it concentrates minds seems to fail as war is still raging as I type.
    Will definitely do so if it takes place near my gaff but other than that its the abject futility of war that comes through my contact with people who went through it.

  4. garyk30 says:

    Interesting ideas; but, Einstein is not to be included. He was born in 1879 and had his seminal works published in 1905.
    I am amused by the World shaping events that did not touch the 1/3rd of the World’s population that lived in China and India and the hundreds of millions that lived in other portions of Asia or in Africa or in central and South America.

    I do not think that JFK’s death was an Earth-shaking event to those multitudes.

  5. John says:

    People currently feeling pressure to conform to totalitarians were warned over a decade ago that they would be targeted the same as smokers were and that SHS Fraud was just that – FRAUD – BUT, they refused to listen and mocked smokers giving them the warnings.

    Now, like clockwork, decades later, it ALL comes back to haunt the MOCKERS of smokers, who will now be the ones mocked and made illegal and destroyed.

    People should have listened to the early warnings smokers gave them decades earlier, as it is, I have NO more pity left in me for those who will soon be suffering as the net expands to catch more into what began as anti-smoking hatred based on a LIE and what is going to come soon over the entire western world as it destroys itself while forgetting, all the while, they were WARNED this would happen. WARNED.

    Michael Moore: Racists, Misogynists Should Be ‘Shunned’ Like Smokers 20 Years Ago

    Wednesday on MSNBC, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore called on society to treat racists and misogynists the same way smokers were treated 20 years ago so they will disappear and “build a better country.”

    “You can’t build a bridge to a racist or a misogynist. You know, they have to be shunned and treated like we treated smokers 20 years ago, 10 years ago,” Moore told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi. “I walked down the street the other day with my sister and I said, ‘Let’s just see how long we can go before we see somebody smoking.’ Not the people sitting outside the building, desperate to grab five minutes. But we’re literally walking down the street, we walked 10, 20 minutes, there was never a smoker.”

    He added, “Racists and misogynists shunned, but conservatives, Republicans, whatever, who do care about this country, and are not bigots, they’re just rightfully angry, we can reach out to them and say, ‘Come on, give us a chance, we’ll create this good America, and it’ll look like a real America.’ Congress now does look more like that on the Democratic side. We’ll build a better country.”

  6. In a way though we ARE (unhappily in some views, happily in others obviously) in the midst of a new technological spike of warfare — shades of Ender’s Game and some of the visions of dystopian battle-scarred landscapes patrolled by nothing but heavily armed drones.

    The US, like every other country in the world used to have to worry about the human and home-political cost of sending its young boys into wars to be butchered.

    No more. Now we just spy from the sky, send messages to the Enders in their darkened subterranean caves where they’re sitting in front of glowing monitors… and… SHAAZAAMMM!!! Hellfire rains from the skies!

    Hopefully only upon the truly evil and utmost guilty… but of course mistakes are always waiting to be made and bridal parties and Christenings (or the Islamic equivalents) get taken out by error sometimes as well.

    It’s become all-too-easy to smooth over an irritation or hurt feelings by ordering some buttons to be pushed and a few dozen or hundred lives to be snuffed out with our current analogue to Death Beams From Outer Space Starring Ed Woods ‘n Bela Lugosi with Donald Trump as Boris Karloff and Hillary Clinton as Vampira. (Feel free to fill in appropriate Brit personas there, though I think you’ll have a hard time Trumping Donnie ‘n Hilly.)

    Do our drones keep us from wars taking millions of lives instead of mere hundreds or thousands?


    Or maybe not.


  7. Rose says:

    Another one for the Graveyard, Frank.

    “Cooper Riswick, from Canada, was at the Vale Resort in Hensol on 10 August when he fell from the roof after climbing out of his bedroom window to smoke a cigarette.
    He and his family were staying at the hotel for a wedding.

    Coroner Andrew Barkely recorded the death was an accident contributed to by alcohol.

    Mr Riswick sustained fatal head and chest injuries in the fall.”

  8. Mark Jarratt, Canberra, Australia says:

    Reminds me of the tale of the Higgs-Boson particle who wandered into a huge neo Gothic cathedral…just looking around, admiring the hand of God, when the parish priest exits the confessional booth, aggressively accosting the Higgs-Boson particle, saying “OI YOU, rack off, we don’t want your kind here!” 

    Higgs-Boson particle replies “But without me, you can’t have mass”.

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