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Glorious geeks

I have been reading a remarkable book about a remarkable period in British history – the mid- to late 18th century – when a group of entrepreneurs, gifted amateur scientists and political radicals helped create the foundations of much of our modern industrial world.

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow, looks at the lives of a small but amazingly influential group of men, particularly the ceramics genius Josiah Wedgewood, pamphleteer and scientist Joseph Priestley, engineer Matthew Boulton, steam engine king James Watt, and medical doctor Erasmus Darwin. What jumps off the page is these men’s tremendous sense of drive and enthusiasm for acquiring and sharing knowledge. They were great polymaths, seeing no division between the pursuit of abstract knowledge and practical concerns of money making.

Most of these men were consciously outsiders, eccentrics and radicals ill at ease with the Anglican establishment. That sense of being ‘on the outside’ I think partly explains their drive to succeed. Most of them notably were unable for religious reasons to attend the main English universities of Cambridge and Oxford, often attending Scottish academies instead or bypassing such places altogether. And I was also struck by the sense of limitless possibility afforded by a country which at the time imposed very few restrictions and taxes on the public. 18th Century Britain was a bit like the Silicon Valley of the 1990s, with powdered wigs. Of course there were restrictive practises such as merchant gilds and duties on some imports, but that period surely came about as close to a genuine model of laissez faire capitalism as we have ever seen in our history.

There was much that was very bad and ugly about that period in our history, but also a great deal worth preserving and emulating today. The entrepreneurial gusto of these men is something we could surely use today. Glorious geeks indeed.

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3 comments to Glorious geeks

  • Chris Josephson

    I find it sad that we can’t acknowledge both the great and the horrid in history. All the attention seems to be on the horrid things the Western nations did to the exclusion of the great.

    It warps a person if you always remind them of what they did wrong and never acknowledge what they did right. I see this happening to citizens of many of our countries. They have been taught all the bad things done by their country and hardly any of the great and wonderful.

    I think we need to look at Western history and see the wonderful things done by the nations throughout history. It may help us deal with some of what we face today if we realize what our ancestors accomplished and the conditions they lived under while they accomplished these things.

  • Too much of the world today is so hostile to polymaths that it’s gotten to the point where it’s hurting society.

    The polymaths cited tended to be broad thinkers who didn’t let anything limit where their thoughts took them. This kind of behavior is antithetical to the smooth functioning bureaucracies (whether public or private). And, for that matter, it can quite upset small groups of fanatics. Both bureaucracies and fanatics don’t readily accept error. Polymaths tend to notice error more quickly than other humans.

    Creativity depends in part on the willingness to try new ideas and things. And also to reject the new things if they’re not working out as hoped for.

    One of the things that disturbs me about contemporary society is the “all or nothing” way too many things are done. To use an American example, we went from racially segregated schools in a lot of areas to bureaucratically integrated schools within the period of a generation or less. There was to my way of thinking too little experimentation with multiple ways of achieving a desireable goal — the end of oppression based upon skin color. We scrapped neighborhood schools (with their problems) in favor of large, centralized schools that upon examination appear worse than what they replaced — at least in many ways. Imagine how those 18th century polymaths would have done it.

    Will we get back to an era like that? Almost inevitably if the human race is to survive. Creativity, flexibility and freedom aren’t just fun — they are essential for our very survival. And, I must note, bureacracies and fanatics do, in anything but the short term, tend to be self destructive.

  • Doug Collins

    There was one other characteristic of that period which has not had a parallel until the present: The structure of cultural authority was circumvented.

    The main English universities were, I understand, still bastions of Aristotelian Scholasticism. For example Trinity College, when Newton studied and taught there, was the only Cartesian school – all the rest followed Aristotle. As a consequence of all this, the scientific revolution bypassed the universities altogether. It took place in the journals, the societies and the coffee houses (which I was recently bitterly disappointed to learn were actually coffee warehouses – cheap meeting spaces – rather than the pleasant cafes with brilliant conversation that I had always visualized.) And you are correct about the lack of any distinction between ‘academic’ and ‘practical’ subjects.

    I said there has been no parallel until the present. The advent of blogging on the internet is part of that parallel. Another is the development of prepublication websites where most scientific papers are now being ‘published’. (Try http://arxiv.org/ if you want to see an example.) The older cultural authority has been the universities and the industrial research centers. The accepted medium has been the refereed, ‘peer reviewed’ journals. Joao Magueijo has an excellent discussion of the deadening effect of this ‘refereeing’ on any innovations outside of the accepted limits.
    He also sees the internet as a revolutionary opening of the scientific culture.

    And none too soon. There are questions of the nature of consciousness, of nanotechnology and economics, and of the nature of time and space that may be having practical effects on our lives very soon. When the eighteenth century scientists you mentioned were doing their stuff, England was not the power that she came to be later. Had their accomplishments been made elsewhere, history would have been very different. We may be facing a similar fork in the road now. Many of our scientific dogmas are rooted in logical positivism, which has served us well for the past century, but may be limiting our thinking now. Some fresh air may be revitalizing for Western Civilization.