“The Drive for Power”

Welcome to the eighth episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.

Ascent02

The Drive for Power

In Chapter Eight, Dr. Bronowski discusses the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution, which he thinks of as the “English Revolution” occurring alongside the French and American revolutions, began about 1760 in English countryside villages. It was perhaps initiated by overseas trade, which caused the economy to grow more competitive until rustic labor was no longer an efficient means of production.

Bronowski spends some time on the English canal system. It was built by practical men for practical purposes; education was not needed, since the English education system was only concerned with the Classics and religious conformity. On the other hand, in continental Europe, sophisticated mechanical devices were made as toys for nobility rather than practical purposes, and this is a reason the Industrial Revolution started in England.

He states that the ideals of the men of the Industrial Revolution are invention, material comfort, and raising the standard of living. He acknowledges that there were bad working conditions in factories, but says it was also bad in the earlier mines and workshops.

“We think of pollution as a modern blight, but it is not. It is another expression of the squalid indifference to health and decency that in past centuries had made the Plague a yearly visitation.”

The new situation with factory work is that laborers were made to keep pace with machines. Idleness became the most despised vice. Power became a focus in England: what did all the natural energy sources have in common? How do you change one kind of power to another? Even artists became interested in power. There was a shift from describing Nature to manipulating Nature. Importantly, heat was discovered to be a form of energy, and Carnot founded the field of thermodynamics in 1824. Richard Trevithick altered Watts’s steam engine to make it more powerful, suitable for locomotives. This started a transportation revolution.

Bronowski sees a connection between the Romantic Movement and the eccentric British scientists of the Industrial Revolution, but I’m afraid the connection escapes me.

Other topics discussed by Bronowski in this chapter include some aspects of the French Revolution and the personage of Ben Franklin.

Recent episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Seven

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Six

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Five

Mandelbulb3D_default render 07

Advertisements

“The Majestic Clockwork”

Welcome to the seventh episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.

Ascent02

The Majestic Clockwork

In Chapter Seven, Dr. Bronowski recounts the stories of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

“… science stood at a watershed: … [Isaac Newton] saw the crucial step from the descriptions that had done duty in the past to the dynamic, causal explanations of the future.”

(See also my earlier essay describing the shift from mere empiricism to explanatory and predictive laws conjectured by Newton.) Bronowski points out that Newton made science more precise and rigorous. His method was to write down a mathematical law and then derive predictions from it, though privately he devoted enormous effort to metaphysical and religious speculation. The description of Newton’s work and methods is quite detailed and interesting–this portion of the chapter is recommended reading.

Leibniz criticized Newton for assuming that space is absolute, which Newton was clear about from the outset. However, Bronowski mis-defines absolute space as “everywhere flat and infinite” which of course could apply to relative space just as well. If that is what Newton himself defined to be “absolute space”, then there would have been no disagreement between him and Leibniz (at least in regard to that notion of space).

There is more information content to Einstein’s Relativity theories compared to previous theories of gravitation, yet Bronowski spends less time explaining them than warranted. What Bronowski does say is rather cryptic: he mentions some concepts but does not adequately explain their derivation. At one point, he ludicrously implies that Relativity is the result of a thought experiment Einstein had as a kid! (Although this tale illustrates Einstein’s curiosity, it is not how Relativity was developed.) The concepts Bronowski discusses are surprising side-effects of the theory, but he does not manage to get to the core ideas. And, as is typical with these popular explanations of Relativity, Bronowski only mentions which measurements are relative, but fails to mention which are invariant. He also fails to mention that the Principle of Relativity, in its original form, was first expressed by Galileo.

In the last couple pages of the chapter, he psychologizes Einstein before drifting off into poetic fluff.

Recent episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Six

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Five

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Four

Mandelbulb3D_default render 06

“The Starry Messenger”

Welcome to the sixth episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.

Ascent02

The Starry Messenger

In Chapter Six, Dr. Bronowski recounts the story of Galileo. In the previous chapter, Bronowski posits that the reason astronomy was the first subject of science to be studied in detail, rather than medicine for example, is that the motions of celestial objects have an obvious regularity which lends them to mathematical study. The mathematics underlying other sciences, such as biology, is far less obvious.

Astronomy was developed in many cultures because of its practical use for calendars and navigation. In Europe, a gradual and painful overthrow of Ptolemy’s astronomical theory was instigated by a conjecture from Copernicus. The heliocentric conjecture, made for emotional reasons, was never tested by him.

Most of the chapter concerns the story of Galileo: his invention of the telescope, and his invention of the modern scientific method: tool creation, research and observation, and publication of findings. The trial and imprisonment by Pope Urban VIII and the Catholic Church. This is a good chapter with interesting historical details, and rather than rehashing the account, I recommend you read it.

Previous episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Five

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Four

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Three

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Two

The Ascent of Man, Chapter One

Mandelbulb3D_default render 05

“The Music of the Spheres”

Welcome to the fifth episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.

Ascent02

The Music of the Spheres

In Chapter Five, Dr. Bronowski discusses arithmetic and geometry as it appeared in various ancient and medieval cultures. The story begins with Pythagoras of Samos, who made discoveries about geometry 2,500 years ago. He proved a general theorem, which “remains the most important single theorem in the whole of mathematics.” Bronowski emphasizes that it is a description of a certain kind of plane space, for “if plane space had a different kind of symmetry … some other relation between special triangles would be true.” As far as I can tell, this is a trivial statement, amounting to: if Pythagoras’s axioms had been different, his theorem would be different. But Bronowski does not think this is a trivial statement, because he goes on to say “… what Pythagoras established is a fundamental characterization of the space in which we move…. And space is just as crucial a part of Nature as matter is ….” But I would like to add that the kind of space in which we live is a question for physics; you can construct similar theorems for any type of space, but doing so mathematically does not indicate in what type of space you actually live. In any case, it is interesting to note that the Pythagorean Theorem was recorded and passed to us via Euclid of Alexandria in his Elements of Geometry, circa 2,300 years ago, a book more copied than any other but the Bible.

After tracing the spread of certain kinds of learning during the Arab conquests, Bronowski returns to the notion of symmetry and space. He says “There are only certain kinds of symmetries which our space can support ….” which can be explored by the tessellated patterns in Islamic architecture, and also by crystals found in Nature. I would like to compare this to Bronowski’s previous statements about spatial symmetry with which I disagreed; this one is more sensible to me. Drawing out or discovering which symmetries are possible is indeed a kind of empirical investigation of space, rather than the non-empirical, mathematical kind he mentioned earlier.

Bronowski closes the chapter by highlighting a shift in European thinking, from a focus on static, eternal forms to dynamic processes. This is exemplified first in the art and of perspective: earlier orthographic representations attempted to capture an eternal, God’s-eye view, whereas perspective representations capture the dynamic motions of real vision. Later, it was exemplified in the mathematics of differential calculus, in which time can be a variable.

Previous episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Four

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Three

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Two

The Ascent of Man, Chapter One

Mandelbulb3D_default render 04

“The Hidden Structure”

Welcome to the fourth episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.

Ascent02

The Hidden Structure

Chapter Four is mainly about humans’ discoveries while manipulating materials through trial and error. Understanding of how this manipulation worked came some time later. Though they are often in tension, themes of originality and tradition both play important roles in the development of material sciences.

About nine millennia ago, people in the Middle East began collecting and hammering copper into desired shapes. Then, seven millennia ago, people in Persia and Afghanistan figured out how to extract copper from ore with fire. People in the Americas began to smelt copper two millennia ago. Only in Eurasia did people use smelting to create new copper tools. But copper’s layered, crystalline structure makes it soft, so copper tools were not good at keeping edges. About 5,800 years ago, someone figured out that adding tin to copper makes it more durable in the form of bronze; probably this discovery happened serendipitously, as tin ores happened to be near copper ores in the area. Before 3,500 years ago, the use of bronze achieved its finest expression in Shang Dynasty China. This art created through bronze is an expression of technical mastery of the craft. Wide usage of iron began with the Hittites 3,500 years ago, and the manufacture of steel begins in India by 3,000 years ago. Working with iron came later than copper because it requires higher temperatures to melt and is more difficult to work with generally. For example, whereas copper can take a wide percentage range of tin to make bronze, only a narrow percentage range (less than one) of carbon can be added to iron to make good steel. The finest expression of steel-making emerged in the form of Japanese swords by 1,200 years ago.

Gold is often perceived to be aesthetically pleasing, but not until recently was it of practical use. In Europe, no one could find a way to chemically break it down, which they saw as symbolic of incorruptibility. It became seen as not just a symbol, but as a physical key to immortality in the theory of alchemy.

Alchemy seems naive now, but it was a scientific theory in its day which sought to find relations between living matter and non-living matter. However, Bronowski makes the dubious claim that “our [science of] chemistry will seem childish five hundred years from now” as alchemy seems to us today. I do not see this as likely. There are chemical truths which we know that will remain as true in five centuries as they are now. Perhaps the formalism of some notation will be different, but the underlying ideas will be the same. Chemistry will be refined as more is discovered, but it will not be thrown out as the main ideas of alchemy were (though its techniques developed into methods for chemistry). According to Bronowski, “Every theory is based on some analogy, and sooner or later the theory fails because the analogy turns out to be false.” I am doubtful of this claim because I can think of several counterexamples. While it might be true for most ancient and medieval theories, scientific theories in the modern sense are not constructed by analogy.

He uses the stories of Paracelsus and Priestley to highlight tensions between originality and tradition, and the role of personality in searching for a theory. He ends with Dalton using chemistry to support atomic theory, closing with:

“… ask an impertinent question, and you are on the way to the pertinent answer.”

Previous episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Three

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Two

The Ascent of Man, Chapter One

Mandelbulb3D_default render 03

“The Grain in the Stone”

Welcome to the third episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.

Ascent02

The Grain in the Stone

“All imagination begins by analyzing nature.”

Dr. Bronowski opens Chapter Three by asking why civilization began in the Americas much later than Eurasia. His answer is that humans arrived in the Americas relatively recently, and therefore did not have enough time to develop before they were conquered. There is evidence for two distinct waves of migration from Siberia (across a land-bridge, before boats were invented) into the Americas during the last Ice Age. The first occurred 30 millennia to 25 millennia ago, and those people spread throughout North and South America. A later migration occurred 16 millennia to 12 millennia ago, and they stayed on the North American continent. When the Ice Age ended and sea levels rose, the bridge was gone, and so there was no going back. He speaks of the cities and architecture of the Native Americans before transitioning to the arches of Europe. This goes into some detail, but Bronowski wants to emphasize a metaphor: today we use the language of architecture to think about Nature.

“… the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation [alone].”

Architecture and science both involve an analysis of Nature followed by a synthesis of new structure. He makes a distinction between “molding action” and “splitting action” of the hand. Objects molded by hands directly reflect the shape of hands, whereas splitting objects with a tool reveals some internal properties of the split object. Reshaping materials with tools is an intellectual leap compared to shaping with hands. The step in the ascent at which theoretical science begins is when humans learn to find the hidden structure in matter to reshape it for their own needs.

In addition to architecture, Bronowski also uses the metaphor of sculpture. A sculptor often feels he discovers a sculpture within unhewn stone (analysis), and then extracts it (synthesis); likewise, a scientific discovery is found in Nature (analysis) then extracted in a particular way unique to the discoverer (synthesis).

“The monuments are supposed to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end the man they commemorate is the builder.”

Previous episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:

The Ascent of Man, Chapter Two

The Ascent of Man, Chapter One

Mandelbulb3D_default render 02

“The Harvest of the Seasons”

Welcome to the second episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.

Ascent02

The Harvest of the Seasons

Dr. Bronowski opens the second chapter with a striking comparison of scale: although two megayears separates us from the Australopithecines, all cultural separation that exists today between peoples is only twelve millennia in length. About ten millennia ago, corresponding to the most recent Ice Age, humans began to domesticate animals and grow crops. This marks the beginning of human civilization. Bronowski does not explicitly state it at this point, but it might be a helpful reminder that “civilized” means “living in cities”; a civilization is a city-dwelling culture. (Let us not attach moral-laden connotations, as in “civilized” versus “savage”.)

He spends some time describing nomadism, primarily using examples of the Bakhtiari and Lapps to get a feel for their lifestyle. The main point is that there is no time for innovation in a nomad’s life; all time is spent on concerns of immediate survival. This might be a primary reason why human culture changed so little for hundreds of millennia.

“The largest single step in the ascent of Man is the change from nomad to village agriculture.”

Agriculture seems to have been invented many time independently; for example, with maize in the Americas and with wheat several times in the Fertile Crescent. Before ten kiloyears ago, wheat was just another wild grass, not like it is today. In the new vegetation that spread at the end of the last Ice Age, the old form of wheat hybridized with another grass, twice, to create a form called bread wheat, which is fertile by one mutation. Its fruit cannot be blown by wind, and so needs human hands to spread its seeds. Thus wheat and humans entered a mutually dependent relationship. He notes that ten millennia ago, wheat-harvesting sickles were not serrated, since the seeds were wind-blown. But by nine millennia ago, sickles became serrated as the relatively heavy fruit of bread wheat could be easily knocked down in the act of harvesting.

The plow is one of the first applications of the principle of the lever. In the Americas, there were no draft animals, and therefore no plow and no wheel. Wheels are known to have been made in southern Russia over five millennia ago. Dogs were domesticated over twelve millennia ago, then food animals, then draft animals. Horses were domesticated five millennia ago for drawing carts and chariots, but they were not ridden by people until a thousand years after that. When humans did begin to ride, it allowed nomads to become war-makers, which is an anachronism in settled civilization. Human war-making is not based on instinct; it is a highly organized form of robbery. It began ten millennia ago when nomads would come to steal the wheat of the civilized harvesters. But robbers produce nothing; their life-style is not sustainable in the long-term. After conquering settlers, nomads adopt their way of life when there is no one left to plunder.

Previous episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:

The Ascent of Man, Chapter One

Mandelbulb3D_default render 01