Sunday, November 15, 2015 12:12 PM
“Time Passes Slowly” was one of my favorite Judy Collins songs when I was a teenager—I only wish I could still sense that stillness of time. Here in my aged future, time passes far too quickly—and with less happening in it, to boot. At the moment, it seems last spring was only a few weeks back, that last summer was yesterday, that Halloween came and went while I was glancing at something else—and Thanksgiving is only seconds away, to be followed an hour later by Christmas. That’s what being old feels like (in between the groans and the wheezing, of course) a maelstrom of time that gives not a moment’s rest.
As promised, I purchased Amazon’s only listed biography of Joseph Henry, the American discoverer of electromagnetic induction (Michael Faraday is given the historical credit, in the cliff-notes version). If you remember, I wanted to discover why his name is so unknown today, when he was so revered by scientists for over a century. While that project is still under weigh, I have come up with one thought to share.
Joseph Henry was born in 1797—George Washington was still alive. Henry lived in Albany, New York—recently made the new capital city of New York State. Sloops made regular trips up and down the Hudson River to New York City though by 1807, Fulton’s “Clermont” was steaming over the same route—to be followed by numerous other steam-powered vessels throughout Henry’s youth. As a young teacher-to-be, he made a trip down to West Point to attend a teacher’s conference and learned there of a new invention for the classroom—a black board, which could be written on with chalk, then wiped down and used again—it was a breakthrough in classroom demonstration—the i-pad of its day, if you will.
Henry would continue his experiments with magnetism while teaching Chemistry—Physics would not be recognized as a separate study for some time. And native Americans still lived in the Albany area when he was young—many pioneers passed through Albany on their way west—the North American interior was still very much a separate world. Both the United States and science would grow, slowly but surely, over the years.
It occurred to me that science progresses quite slowly. Euclid’s geometry was written down in the third century BC. Alchemists would work with metalworking, refining, colored dyes, pigments, and other useful materials for centuries, providing the foundation for the Chemistry to come, while being hunted as Satanists. Medical science and astronomy would work through similar resistance from religious institutions to reach understandings of basic human anatomy or the course of the planets through the heavens. Men like Ben Franklin, Alessandro Volta, and Luigi Galvani would spend lifetimes studying electricity without even connecting it with magnetism.
Likewise, it would be almost a century before Henry’s own discovery of induction would produce practical devices such as Morse’s telegraph, Bell’s telephone, or Edison’s dynamo. All of science and technology would crawl along, taking years, or even centuries, to take a single step.
But here’s the thing—as a student in the 1960s and 1970s, I was taught all of these wonders in the space of a handful of semesters. They were not presented as a ‘story of us’—rather as a mere list of rules and functions. It would take me years more to discover the story of humankind implied behind the bare bones of chemistry, calculus, and physics as taught in school.
As I read history, I learned of the life stories of these men and women, of how they lived and died, of the cultures they inhabited while ferreting out these secrets of the universe. I saw the steps taken, one person standing on the shoulders of all who came before—and becoming a foundation for those who would come after. I imagined the changing lives of people who went from caves to indoor plumbing, from horses to steam engines, from papyrus to Gutenberg’s printing-press, from leeches to open-heart surgery.
But I also realized that these giants of human knowledge were all geniuses of some degree—that the principles, the formulas, the mathematics that make up the education of modern children take time to teach because they are all gems of perfect understanding, insights that only our greatest minds could reveal. Their greatness is obvious in the sheer effort required by mortal minds such as my own to grasp what they saw—what they had the genius to recognize and to communicate to the rest of the world (no small feat of its own).
So, yes, it takes time to acquire a good education—because we are climbing on the shoulders of a crowd of intellectual giants. Even so, we are only learning the barest highlights of what they did—without even the names of the people who mined this treasure, much less their stories, or the story of how this knowledge percolated through civilization to yield the wonders of our modern age—no wonder children ask why they need to know these things—they are never told of the richness of humanity’s struggle to wrest understanding from an opaque existence. It’s as if we are loading their knapsacks with gold bars—and never telling them of its value.
So, to begin with, the story of Joseph Henry’s invisibility is the same as the story of the death of a liberal arts education—many people don’t appreciate the context of information as being of equal value to the information itself. We used to teach scholars ancient Greek and Latin—dead languages with no apparent face-value—but when using these old terms, by knowing their origins, we are reminded that some things are as old as ancient Athens or Rome, and that the people of that time were no different from ourselves. Context is its own wisdom—its own information.
Now we are inclined to pare down education even further, by renouncing the creative arts—a sure sign that we don’t appreciate the connection between music and mathematics, painting and chemistry, or dance and physics. We are educating ourselves as if we are machines being prepared to be slotted into a job after our training is over—not as if we want to raise humans with hearts and minds that find fulfilment and wonder in the world around them. Context is everything. I will continue reading Joseph Henry’s biography and I’ll keep you all informed of what I find.
Had a windy day yesterday: