Belaboring the obvious

Annus Mirabilis

Is there a silver lining to pandemics? No, not really. Knowing my skinny old ass could be dead of this #%&@4$ disease in the next 6 months tends to color my thinking on the matter. Still, pop sci authors, working from home, have been quick to point out a potential bright side.

In 1665 Cambridge University sent its students home to continue their studies in an effort to protect them from the plague (according to Wikipedia the bubonic plague stemmed from China – quelle surprise – in 1331). Among the students fleeing Cambridge in 1665 was one Isaac Newton, then in his early 20s. Over the next year+, referred to as his annus mirabilis, he revolutionized our understanding of the universe. The key ingredients leading to this revolution were:

> Genius (well, duh);

> Isolation (no cheery faces poking in the door wondering if you want to join the crew for a trip to their favorite pub);

> Focus (same as above – I mean, what else are you going to do out in the boonies? Molest sheep?);

> Ripe times (an international atmosphere brimming with ideas, all waiting for the right brain with enough time to make sense of them);

> A la Feynman, a willingness to disregard the opinions of others (much easier to disregard the tyranny of other voices when they are stilled by distance; but you also need to carry an independent streak with you, for without it, intellectual pollutants clinging to your mind from your non-quarantined life will mar the brew);

> A population of thinkers and researchers in your field not overwhelmingly large, powerful and persuasive (directed cacophony is difficult to ignore, even if one is in seclusion).

Absent any of these ingredients and you run the risk of succumbing to the herd, and producing nothing remotely original. Newton’s annus mirabilis is the archetypal example of genius in isolation producing a paradigm shift, but there are many others. Hell, just an obstinate proclivity to yield to one’s own maverick instincts can lead to a variety of isolation from the herd. The herd has a kind of inbuilt antibody response to nonconformist thinking. This manifests as a cloud of nudge-nudge-wink-wink derogatory remarks aimed at the offending individual, rapidly followed by a circling of the wagons, with all eyes steadfastly focused only on ideas and people within the circle. Newton’s great advantage was being both isolated for a year, and having the kind of bona fides others in the field could not ignore; and the time was right. Just ask Herr Leibniz. (Keep in mind, pointing out self evident human foibles will not bring about change, for they are self evident in being part of human nature.)

Anus Mirabilis

Speaking of humanity and its imperfections, let’s pause for a second and discuss homicidal tyrants, with which our history is replete. (This is always fun.) Accounts of their atrocities will generally lead off with something like this: “Stalin killed millions”. (I just did a google search and found an article with that in its title.) Ok, pause for another second. Look at a fluffy cloud, if one is available, and cooly reflect. Did Stalin kill millions? No, of course not. No one kills millions. There isn’t time. They need to eat, poop, sleep, and in general brush up on their copies of “12 Easy Rules to be an Effective Tyrant”. No, the writer of the article put the blame on Stalin because the truth would come dangerously close to blaming the writer him or her self. See, the actual deaths were caused by minions, many of whom were just average Joes, malleable and compliant when confronted by Stalin, and the times that produced him. It was minions (people) who imprisoned Galileo for heresy, tortured thousands during the Inquisition (again with the heresy; a pattern is forming), and sent millions to be retrained in the name of Mao. Anyway, as Pogo summed up more than half century ago: “Yep, son. We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Tyrants are shepherds; people – the herd – they’re the actual freedom deniers and death dealers.

Newton’s FOMO

Ok, gosh. Humanity is imperfect. Scarcely an indigestible notion, or new, so let’s carry on.

Among the things listed above as – well, not really required for, but certainly aiding and promoting the possibility of some genius having an annus mirabilis while isolated and otherwise socially distanced during the present pandemic – focus on the last one. There are just too many people doing physics nowadays, and the clamorous tyranny of their bleating is enough to dull the maverick tendencies of all but very very few. And even when not, their collective voices – appearing as journal articles and pop sci pieces – will easily drown out any voice calling plaintively from the wilderness.

But now, late in March, 2020, that is the least of the things missing from the list. You can go live in the country, separating yourself physically from the rest of humanity for however long you want, but if you don’t shut off the internet, you will never be truly isolated, free from the pollution of the herd. Yes, academics the world over are presently physically more isolated than they’ve ever been, but intellectually they are no more isolated than the Borg, and like the Borg they each are subservient to the whole – to groupthink. The internet makes originality extremely unlikely.

Had Newton had the internet, a blessing and a curse – well, the mind boggles. Failing to develop calculus and a theory of why things fall down, we’d likely have fallen back on the notion that all things that don’t fall down long ago drifted into space, ergo … Personally I’d be happy in a world that believed that. But it’s wrong. Probably.

Anyhow, Newton didn’t have the internet. He had his brain, and time. However, had he come back from isolation to the presently huge population of physicists, all of whom were content with the status quo, his ideas would likely not have failed, but gaining traction may have taken much longer.

Ok, so, he didn’t have those problems, and he became a titan. History records it thus. The end. Another pointless screed in which I say in slightly different terms things I’ve been saying for years. Perhaps I should get help. One or two sessions per week should suffice.