"A Few Pebbles Picked up Along the Ocean Shore:" Some Stones I Have Gathered

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

Leo Lesquereux (1806-1889), the greatest paleobotanist of the nineteenth century, if not in Europe, then certainly in America, to which he had emigrated from Switzerland in 1848, held to the tenets of Lutheranism all his life. Humble, as one should be before God and man, Lesquereux has left to us a modest assessment of his remarkable accomplishments, especially concerning the study of fossils from the Carboniferous coal measures of Pennsylvania, but from the coal seams of several other states as well. Lesquereux put the matter thus: he and"other students of science [knew] each a little, but the whole of what is known [was] but fragmentary and insignificant--merely a few pebbles picked up along the ocean shore."

That observation, of course, comes from the"brave new world" of nineteenth-century science, but Niels Bohr (1885-1962), an atomic physicist, in some ways the equal, if not the superior of Albert Einstein (1879-1955), lends his support to Lesquereux with definitions for the expert and the philosopher, both of which, while they are humorous in tone, should also make us pause."An expert is someone who starts out knowing something about some things, goes on to know more and more about less and less, and ends up knowing everything about nothing. Whereas a philosopher is someone who starts out knowing something about some things, goes on to know less and less about more and more, and ends up knowing nothing about everything." Those disclaimers from Lesquereux and Bohr can be placed in overall perspective with a cogent reflection from the Pensees of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662): "Se moquer de la philosophie c'est vraiment philosopher," which translates into English, as"To ridicule philosophy is truly philosophical."

The three quotations, given above, it seems to me, ought together, if taken seriously, humble us all, especially those of us (including myself), who have two or three degrees beyond a high school diploma. That is--how much do we really know?; and, I would quickly add--are we really justified in the belief (and that is all it really amounts to), that all our learning, along with our theorizing, the latter often amounting to not much more than"sand castles in the sky," legitimate our inclination to"look down our noses" at what we too often consider as the limited minds of the lowly masses. I think, if we are truly honest with ourselves, the answer to those questions must be--to the first one,"not that much"; and, to the second, a resounding no!

To those questions I will now add a third--when might we date, if not, of course, to a particular year, much less a day, the coming into being of what Roland N. Stromberg in his European Intellectual History Since 1789 (1994), denoted as"The Great Divorce," a separation, or really more accurately a division, within societies into what one might call high and low culture? Stromberg contends that the break or divide came, so far as European cultures are concerned, with the close of the Elizabethan Age. For, as he remarks:"It seemed amazing to later generations that common people as well as the upper classes joined in understanding Shakespeare's plays" (p. 11). Having made that observation, Stromberg followed in the next sentence with what he thinks, and I believe correctly, brought a"screeching halt" to such mutuality. It was with the duality of the scientific revolution, which with the new Newtonian synthesis regarding the nature of the universe and its"laws' in the late seventeenth century, combined with the rise in Europe, including Great Britain, of a new urban elite, that intellectuals lost touch with the common people. And, the result of that was"The Great Divorce."

By way of amplification, let me offer another quotation from Stromberg's book:"Educated people would begin to ridicule the old village culture of unlettered people . . . Voltaire and Rousseau [of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment], both felt strongly that the uneducated masses should be kept from power, even that they were incapable of rational thought" (p. 11). With that in mind, I'm afraid, the line from Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night, which the History News Network so prominently displays on its homepage--"The Past Is the Present, and the Future Too," is all too timely.

Before concluding this essay, I have another"stone" or two which I would like to throw into the water. One pebble, as it were, which I hope will have a ripple effect, like unto the Butterfly Effect of chaos theory, developed from researches in the 1970s. For, from that decade, it became increasingly apparent that there were (and are) inherent difficulties in the way of making long-term predictions in such disordered systems as weather patterns and stock-market fluctuations.

What is the Butterfly Effect though? Precisely this--that a butterfly, flapping its wings in Singapore, could in time through innumerable perturbations bring rain in Texas. Or, to put the matter prosaically, from a small beginning would result a big event (in the case of rain, like the results of other chaotic systems, being good or bad, depending upon the circumstances). From James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science (p. 23) comes a poetic expression of the principle, for the bad in this instance:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of a horse, the rider was lost;
For want of a rider, the battle was lost;
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost!

Having introduced the reader to Niels Bohr, I want to throw one last"stone" in the pond as an exercise in the epistemology of knowledge, as subsumed under the rubric of philosophy. As one of the founders of quantum theory, as"spelled out" in quantum mechanics, Bohr (and his colleagues) soon found themselves at the limits of the knowable. For one thing, they had discovered (much to their dismay) that all subatomic particles, including the photon (of light) had a wave-particle duality. In other words, depending upon one's vantage point (or, let it be said, one's point of reference), a subatomic particle behaved as either a wave or a particle! It would appear, no matter how sophisticated one's measuring instruments, or even how great one's knowledge, that this paradoxical fact,"like a dog worrying a bone," could never be" chewed"!

Such a mental, even let us say, philosophical dilemma, occasioned by what would appear to be inherent limitations on what even atomic physicists can"know," led Bohr, perhaps, more than any other physicist of modern times, to apply the lessons, if one could so call them, of quantum mechanics, to not only philosophy, but also to life in general.

In his effort to fashion a connection between the known in physics and apply it to philosophy, along with the age-old quest for meaning in life, Bohr resorted to literature. Paul Martin Moller, a nineteenth-century Danish poet and philosopher, produced a novel, which was published (though left unfinished in manuscript), as The Adventures of a Danish Student. As Bohr explicates a passage therefrom, we can see what the great physicist meant by a word he coined--" complementarity." For, as Bohr and Moller made clear, each in his own inimitable way, there is the complementarity (or simultaneity), as with the wave-particle duality, of what we term contemplation and volition. And, as Bohr and Moller both demonstrated, each person finds both modes of mind to be necessary and, at the same instant, inescapable. But, Moller, as Bohr relates in an address delivered (October 1960) before a Congress in Copenhagen for the La Fondation Europienne de la Culture, presented the problem, inherent in too much contemplation. In the novel two cousins have a conversation, which dramatizes that (and, it should be added, what is required by the mind, if one is to avoid a kind of paralysis). For, as one cousin (the licentiate) reflects:"My endless enquiries make it impossible for me to achieve anything." What thinker (humanist or scientist) would not sympathize with the cousin on that?

The fellow, as he expressed himself further, had become obsessed with an endless succession of"I"s, the sum total of which, not only prevented him from taking any action, but also had left him with"a terrible headache." To which introspection, the other cousin (the philistine) objected:"I cannot in any way help you in sorting your many"I"s. . . . My line is to stick to palpable things and walk along the broad highway of common sense; therefore my"I"s never get tangled up." As Bohr concluded, all of us face such a dilemma, specifically to contemplate, yet not (at the same time), so much as to preclude action (an exercise of the will).

The foregoing puzzle brings to mind another problem related to the one of complementarity, as given by Bohr and Moller. I will put it in the form of two related questions--don't we, as historians, spend too much time theorizing (developing new methodologies as well), which"fill" the historical journals? Instead, should we not begin to widen our audience (that is" cease and desist" from so much introspection with fellow historians, who make up almost entirely the readership of the professional periodicals) and, thus hopefully"open up" those journals to articles, which would engage the minds of non-historians (by that I mean people with little or no training in our discipline)? How much more should we, if you ask me, begin to write our books in history with a wider audience in view (by that I mean the general public through what I would, for lack of better wording, call"applied history"). That would, it seems to me, not only enliven historical study among academicians, but also broaden the base of such study by encouraging the lay public and students (both in high school and college) to do, as it were,"their own research." The result would be highly beneficial for our society--action over what I would call"inertia" in dealing not only with affairs of state, but also with such practical concerns as the environment and energy use. It would, at the same time, break down the barrier (too often in evidence) between intellectuals (thinkers) and the masses (doers).

To facilitate the opening of a dialogue (and hopefully a reconciliation) between the elite of academia and the humble masses, one could do much worse than heed the advice, as sung so well by Donna Fargo, the great country/western star:"don't mean to bring you down, or speak to you unkind, but you can't be a beacon, if your light don't shine." Or, as with the title of an old hymn,"Brighten the Corner Where You Are." Doing that would indeed have a Butterfly Effect for Good!

Bibliographical Note:

The interested person might well begin a study of Niels Bohr's life and thought by reading selections from A. P. French and P. J. Kennedy, eds., Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985). Therein, Victor F. Weisskopf's,"Niels Bohr, the Quantum, and the World" (pp. 19-29), is particularly relevant to this article. Another indispensable work is Abraham Pais's Niel Bohr's Times, In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) from which I quoted (pp. 420-21). But, see as well (pp. 309-16), headed"Complementarity: A New Kind of Relativity." It should be noted here too that Pais first met Bohr in 1946 and continued to develop a friendship with him until almost the year of the latter's death in 1962. Then too, as a physicist of some renown himself, Pais's discussions of Bohr's ideas on quantum mechanics and other subjects are authoritative. It is also worth mentioning that Pais worked for a number of years after World War Two with Einstein as well. As a consequence, he was able to write a fine biography "Subtle is the Lord . . .": The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982). For a sampling of the writings and/or addresses of Bohr on quantum mechanics and his philosophy consult Essays 1958-1962 on Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge (Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay and Co., 1963)."The Unity of Human Knowledge" (pp. 8-16), where Bohr dealt with Poul Martin Moller's The Adventures of a Danish Student, provided much"grist for my mill."

The title of this article, I borrowed from Edward Orton's eulogy for"Leo Lesquereux," in Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications 4 (Columbus: John L. Trauger, 1895):278-91. Orton, it should be understood, was a great scientist himself. He served as Ohio's state geologist from 1882 until his death in 1899. Besides, his superlative treatments of the Lima-Indiana oil and gas trend, discovered in 1884, made him one of the three greatest petroleum geologists of the nineteenth century. Only I. C. White of West Virginia and John F. Carll of Pennsylvania then were his equals.

For chaos theory the interested student should begin with James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science (New York; Viking, 1987). But, a good (albeit brief) relation of the theory can be found in Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil's Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (New York: Doubleday, 1991), pp. 18-19. For their highly readable attention to the wave-particle problem as well, see pp. 70-71. Here, in passing, let it be said--Bohr resolved how one might also express the problem--as the wave-particle paradox. He did that in the following manner, as given in Pais's Niels Bohr's Times (cited in full above):"The quantum physicist will say: whether an object behaves as a particle or a wave depends on your choice of experimental arrangement for looking at it" (p. 314).

Last, but not least, if one would like to rest the mind, after all this philosophy, don't fail to enjoy listening to The Best of Donna Fargo (Los Angeles: ABC Records, 1977), in which she sings 12 songs, including one of my all-time favorites"You Can't Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don't Shine).

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robert a paul - 6/3/2004

I am looking copy of Paul Martin Moller's 1824 "The adventures of a danish student" in English (preferred), French or German translation and in the original Danish. Any clues, please send to robert.paul@eoascientific.com

robert a paul - 6/3/2004

I am looking copy of Paul Martin Moller's 1824 "The adventures of a danish student" in English (preferred), French or German translation and in the original Danish. Any clues, please send to robert.paul@eoascientific.com

robert a paul - 6/3/2004

I am looking copy of Paul Martin Moller's 1824 "The adventures of a danish student" in English (preferred), French or German translation and in the original Danish. Any clues, please send to robert.paul@eoascientific.com