Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Genius and Genies

     Very early in the 20th Century after handling the routine duties of his job, an obscure clerk working for the Swiss patent office sat at his desk one afternoon, and (as was his habit when he had time on his hands) he caught himself wondering once again about the speed of light. The idea that the speed of light was a constant 186,000 miles a second bothered the clerk in the same way a grain of sand will bother a pearl-producing mollusk. The clerk wondered what would happen if he were traveling at the speed of light, and he tried to look at his reflection in a mirror. Would the light traveling from his face have to travel faster than the speed of light in order for him to see himself? If he were holding the mirror in front of his face prior to reaching the speed of light, what would happen when he hit the speed of light? Would his face freeze in the mirror, disappear, or continue to look exactly the same? Nearly a century later, comedian Stephen Wright incorporated this same idea into his standup comedy routine by asking, "If you are in a spaceship that is traveling at the speed of light, and you turn on the headlights, does anything happen?"
     Working in the Swiss patent office gave Albert Einstein time to think and time to write about what he was thinking. In 1921, less than twenty years after sitting at his government-issued desk and pondering the nature of the universe, the power of his musings provided Einstein with a Nobel Prize in physics. In 1905, while working at an ordinary desk without any special laboratory equipment or machinery, Einstein was able to think his way through some of the thorniest mental challenges of theoretical physics and publish four academic papers that both revolutionized scientific understanding of light, matter, and energy, and established his reputation as one of the greatest scientific minds in human history. Today, more than 50 years after his death, Einstein's name remains a synonym for genius.
     As a reader, writer, and scholar, I admire Albert Einstein for a variety of reasons. Although this may sound counterintuitive, perhaps the quality I like most about his thinking is how much of it is over my head. I cannot even begin to predict how much of Einstein's theoretical explanations for the motion of small particles or the relative nature of time are beyond the capacity of my limited intelligence to understand them. I like science, especially physics and astronomy, and I have read a small bookshelf of texts written to explain quantum mechanics, string theory, and special relativity to curious (but mathematically challenged) science groupies such as myself. And this leads me to the rhetorical topic I'd like to broach in this week's post: the issue of expertise.
     If Einstein says that the speed of light is consistent, but spans of time and lengths are not, then I just have to take his word on that. From what I understand, the physics at the atomic scale just do not play by the same rules Newton came up with to explain the physics of our everyday, apple-dropping planet. When I read Einstein, I can get a fuzzy gist of his arguments, but the details are as indecipherable to me as Chinese astrology. Of course, the good news is this: if I can trust in Einstein's intellect, then I don't necessarily need to understand it to accept it. I can take Einstein's explanations for how photons behave because all the other people who do understand the math can attest that his calculations verify the theory.
     Is such an acceptance of Einstein's reality a matter of faith in science or magic? Is Einstein as much a genie as he is a genius? How wide is the line between understanding space and time as dualities on a single mathematical continuum and understanding the interconnectedness of disparate lifeforms through transcendent spiritual connections? The line between the magical and the mundane maybe thinner than you think.
     Once upon a time, shortly before humans gained the ability to write things down, brutish local kings began the practice of demanding a portion of their subjects agricultural output as payment for keeping other brutish thugs from killing the farmers and pillaging everything they worked so hard to grow. As territories were established through tribal warfare, indigenous shamans appeared and began convincing these local potentates that every region had its own set of invisible deities who could be coaxed into either helping or hindering the efforts to make war with their nearby rivals. For a small share of the royal gleanings from the food producers, the shamans offered to mollify the nearby spirits and cajole them into assisting their king's military endeavors. The kings – who were looking for any advantage they could find in annihilating their enemies – accepted the shamans' magical assistance, and eventually they decided the priesthood under their employment as spirit-handlers could serve another important function beyond merely keeping the neighboring gods happy; they could also make themselves useful as trusty tax collectors. Here's why: first, sending the king's own warriors to collect the food tithing meant being several warriors short if they were suddenly invaded by their enemies, and second, the kings wondered whether it might be a mistake to trust their warriors not to cut separate deals with the food producers who could then turn around and use the payments they collected to finance their own rival regimes.
     Ironically, when shamanic priests began working as tax collectors in these early civilizations, their need to keep annual records of how much food was delivered by individual farmers actually served to increase their reputation as mediums of the supernatural. Although it may not strike you, for whom literacy may seem as ordinary as breathing, that writing would be regarded as extraordinarily magical, imagine how mind-boggling it would have been to ancient peasants to have some stranger know exactly how much grain you gave the king the year before and the year before that. At first, the lines etched on clay tablets (which would later be replaced with paper made from papyrus) were nothing more than marks that indicated a one-to-one correspondence with the measure of grain that had been collected; however, in one of the greatest intellectual leaps the human race ever made, some priest/tax collector had the brilliant idea that if a small mark can represent a number, a difference small mark could actually represent what type of grain had been collected, and the whole concept for writing as a symbolic act of representation became the priesthood's greatest secret. When asked, “How can you possible know what we gave to the king last year?”, the answer “It's a magic known only to our initiates” only served to solidify and enhance the priesthood's reputation as sorcerers and necromancers.
     Arthur C. Clarke, an influential British science-fiction writer, once postulated “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” By this he meant that if someone has no idea how a technology could work, it might as well be considered magic. Imagine, for instance, if you could travel back in time a mere 100 years and demonstrate the capabilities of your smart phone to an obscure clerk working in a Swiss patent office. Even the smartest person on the planet would have to wonder if shown a small device the size of a bar of soap that you could record video images and sound or ask it random questions and get answers, if there might be an actual genie confined within. Travel even further back to the earliest stages of human history, and you would see just as much amazement from people by merely demonstrating how you could record their thoughts on paper.
     The point of the story here is this. Given the human inclination to accept magical explanations for natural phenomenon, we need to be cognizant when one type of expertise is conflated with another type of expertise. Science, for instance, can give us tremendous insights into the workings of everything from electrons to star systems, but the expertise of science is limited by its dependence on a methodology that can only make pronouncements regarding physical, measurable phenomenon. The cultural spheres of ethics, laws, morality, and art are entirely beyond the measure of science because they are manifestly not physical phenomenon. This means while Albert Einstein may have been the world's smartest person when it came to theorizing the quantum energy that could be unleashed by splitting atoms, it does not mean he would be any smarter than any of the rest of us when it comes to making the political decision to actually use a nuclear weapon to achieve a vital social objective. By the time Einstein, late in his life, argued the necessity of doing away with nuclear weapons, that genie had already escaped his bottle once and for all.


  1. It doesn't take much imagination to see these concepts in modern politics and religion. Pacified by fear and lack of understanding. We trust our party's figurehead to digest huge amounts of data and binders full of legislation that would take years to read through.

    Not entirely related, but your post also reminds me of a Mark Twain Quote that I think about from time to time
    I think it is an excerpt from "Life on the Mississippi".I find that, in most circumstances, greater understanding actually increases my enjoyment.

  2. Just as science can be viewed as the supernatural by those with limited expertise, the supernatural can be dismissed via scientific means (i.e. be viewed as science). There was an NPR story on someone's book where they attributed a part of the brain to spiritual/supernatural experience...Presumably, when we pray or see ghosts or fall of our horse and see/talk to god or have near death experiences a particular part of our brain is active. This science can be used to explain the supernatural...or another view is that it merely correlates with supernatural/spiritual experience. If you believe Einstein based on his expertise (ethos), can you imagine a type of spiritual or supernatural expertise that could also be credible? Is there an Edgar Cayce or Dalai Lama or someone out there that is comparable to Einstein?


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