An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Thursday, February 28, 2002
Technology without science
The other day, I saw something on the History Channel that gave me pause. The show was called Silent Service, and the particular episode was about the history of the torpedo. The self-propelled torpedo was the invention of a man named Robert Whitehead, an engineer from a long line of English engineers. He solved numerous technical problems associated with the creation of an unmanned underwater craft, not the least of which was the engine, which ran on compressed air. But the most amazing thing about his torpedo was its guidance system. By means of a weight on a pendulum and some levers, he kept the weapon’s path level. If the nose tipped down, the weight within the casing would shift forward, causing the lateral fins to steer the torpedo upwards. The mechanism was self-regulating, and made the torpedo the deadliest weapon in naval combat until the advent of the dive bomber.
What interested me is that, in celebrating Whitehead’s ingenuity, one of the experts interviewed said the most remarkable thing about it was that Whitehead had no formal mathematical or scientific training. If I may be so bold, the expert was guilty of an anachronism. For most of human history, the operations of technology and science have not gone hand in hand. In the 20th Century, the idea of the scientist leading technological progress became standard, perhaps because of projects like the building of the atomic bomb, in which even the mechanical mechanisms like the fuse that set off the explosion had to be designed by physicists. Such was not the case in 1868, when the self-propelled, unmanned torpedo first appeared.
Whitehead was working from a more or less Medieval technological paradigm—the engineer solves problems through hands on methods. For most of the last millennium, science was a hands off discipline—it’s really only when Galileo starts dropping balls off of towers that experiments begin to become part of scientific methodology. Prior to that, science was theoretical.
Technology, by contrast, has always advanced by trial and error, by refining techniques, by an experimental method. This paradigm was certainly in place among Medieval engineers long before scientists adopted it.
Wednesday, February 27, 2002
A Buchanan by any other name
I haven’t read Pat Buchanan’s new book, The Death of the West, and I should add that I’m unlikely to do so, so take these comments for what they’re worth. My sense though is that I’ve already read Buchanan’s book, or versions of it, before. He’s certainly not the first to have used demographic data to predict the decline of the west, and somehow I doubt he’ll be the last.
Jonah Goldberg does as fine a job as anyone in making this point, and I gather he even read the book. Goldberg cites as a predecessor to Buchanan Oswald Spengler. I think there’s another antecedent, a more ironic one in a way. I was reminded of it when a friend emailed me with a description of the premise of Buchanan’s book and asked me what I thought. I remembered a passage from one of my favorite novels.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, describes a similar book, in a conversation at the home of Pat’s namesake, Tom Buchanan:
Fitzgerald didn’t invent Goddard; in 1920 Scribner’s (Fitzgerald’s publisher) issued a book called The Rising Tide of Color by a Harvard professor named Lothrop Stoddard. Like Buchanan, Stoddard looks to demography when issuing his clarion call:
It’s interesting to note that the country that seems to have bothered Stoddard more than any other was Japan—both the demographic growth of the population of the nation and of Americans of Japanese ancestry in the United States. As Goldberg correctly points out, the Japanese are now, a mere 80 years after Stoddard's book appeared, one of the countries with an aging population and a birthrate below the replacement rate for maintaining population. Interestingly, while Stoddard spends a fair amount of time on Asia and Africa, Latin American populations are of little interest to him; from what I've read about Buchanan's book, that's a part of the third world which, he believes, will overwhelm the West. All of which suggests to me that Buchanan’s book and its dire predictions – all scientific stuff, I’m sure – probably won’t have the shelf life of Gatsby.
Tuesday, February 26, 2002
The Dark Ages weren’t entirely dark…
If there’s one refrain I’ve frequently heard in popular accounts of Islamic history since the terrorist attacks on New York City and Arlington County, Virginia (odd juxtaposition, that), it’s that the Islamic world from roughly the 8th to the 14th centuries was the center of learning and culture while Europeans were acting very much like the peasants in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This isn’t entirely an accurate picture.
I don’t mean to contradict the prevailing view of Islamic culture of the era. In mathematics, pure science, the writing of history, the invention of historiography, and the preservation and transmission of previous cultures, it far outstripped the folks running around calling out “Bring out your dead!” and “She’s a witch! Burn her, burn her!” In terms of religious tolerance, Islam was light years ahead, and would remain so well into the 18th century. True, religious minorities in the Caliphate and later empires were second class citizens (that is, if they were Christian or Jewish; polytheistic religions were still suppressed). But Christian Europe excluded Muslims altogether, and frequently drove out, converted through force, or even murdered its Jews. And, of course, Europe’s record on religious dissent wasn’t much better: Christian heretics were burnt at the stake, or massacred en masse in their towns (as the Cathars were, although some feel that Catharism was not a Christian heresy but rather an independent religion in its own right).
In another measure of civilization, economics, one could well say that the Islamic world created enough wealth to fuel even those distant infidels to the north. I vaguely recall that, during my undergraduate days, I read of something called the Pirenne thesis, which held that during the barbarian sackings of Rome in the 5th century and the subsequent barbarian kingdoms of the Lombards and what not, the economy of the Mediterranean carried on largely as before, and was only disrupted when the northern half of what had been the Roman lake was severed from Northern Africa thanks to the spread of the Caliphate. Archeological excavations from the period showed exactly the opposite: The chaos caused by the political disintegration of Rome and the comings of Vandals and Goths and Visigoths and Ultragoths (okay, I made the last one up) sent the Mediterranean economy into the toilet, and it was only when the armies of Islam restored a measure of order to the southern half of the formerly Roman lake did material prosperity return to the region.
The Caliphate was more than the best state going at the time intellectually, it was also the richest, and fueled the global economy (yes, there was one, even back then, even reaching briefly to the coasts of North America). For a few centuries in the darkest of the dark ages, the Norse ran a fairly travel-intensive trade business. They would travel from Scandinavia through Russia, collecting timber on the way, which they sold in markets controlled by the Caliph for Muslim silver. Then they’d travel back, and swing over to a series of towns in northern France to buy finished manufactured goods – pots, pans, swords, and what not. The commerce of these towns was heavily taxed by the Carolingian and pre-Carolingian kings, who used the money to pay for soldiers who held the line in the Pyrenees against further incursions by Moslem armies into Europe. In a sense, via the group that would one day become the Vikings, the Caliphate was financing the armies checking its expansion across Europe.
Norse trade in this period was extensive; silver coins minted by Muslim rulers have been found buried – or cached – throughout Scandinavia. One Norse trader even buried a silver idol of the Buddha, cast as I recall in India (but perhaps it was Chinese, I can’t recall at this point) that he’d no doubt picked up on a trading mission and stashed for safekeeping. I think the idol dated to the eighth century, but was buried some time in the ninth. Like the modern economy, the global economy of that period went through periodic ups and downs. When the Caliphate began to split into different polities, and the ensuing political chaos disrupted the economy of the region, then the Norse could no longer count on silver from Baghdad to fuel their operations, and the raids on Ireland, England, and northern France turned into the period of Viking terror. (I wrote a lengthy paper on the subject of Viking silver caches and economics when I was in college.)
Life in Europe at the time was certainly nasty, brutish and short for the bulk of the population, some 90 percent of whom were in business of growing barely enough food to support themselves and the 10 percent that could barely rule the rest of them. But even in the darkest of the dark ages, when Europe really was a remote backwater not worth bothering about (the Muslims themselves, according to Bernard Lewis, were far more interested in conquering Byzantium than tangling with the Franks), the Western technological revolution was underway.
Not all the innovations were domestic. The stirrup and the horse collar (unknown in the classical world) were probably imports. The heavy plow and the three-field system of agriculture were Northern European innovations. The Romans used water wheels; in the Middle Ages, water power was harnessed to an unprecedented extent. To give one example, paper was a Chinese import, but unlike the Chinese, Europeans mechanized its manufacture by using waterpower to produce it. Eyeglasses and soap were Medieval European inventions.
The late Lynn White, who’s my source for much of this information (along with Jean Gimpel, about whom I’ll write more another time), was one of the pioneers in the field of the history of Medieval technology. In Medieval Religion and Technology, he noted that in 1925, when he suggested studying the subject of science in the Middle Ages, he was told there wasn’t any, and Roger Bacon got persecuted by the Church for working at it. There is a general sense that the Middle Ages, particularly the Dark Ages, was a period of stagnation. In The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Bernard Lewis quotes a passage, written in 1068 by Spanish Moor by the name of Sa’id ibn Ahmad, describing the Northern Europeans:
The other peoples of this group who have not cultivated the sciences are more like beasts than like men. For those of them who live furthest to the north, between the last of the seven climates and the limits of the inhabited world, the excessive distance of the sun in relation to the zenith line makes the air cold and the sky cloudy. Their temperaments are therefore frigid, their humors raw, their bellies gross, their color pale, their hair long and lank. Thus they lack keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence, and are overcome by ignorance and apathy, lack of discernment and stupidity…
Of course, in a mere 600 years, those “beasts” would be writing similarly dismissive accounts of the people they encountered on their voyages of exploration and conquest, but that’s beside the point. In Europe, a technological revolution was well under way that, among other things, eliminated slavery, created a new social system, and harnessed energy to free men from labor. Why this happened in Europe of all places – given the political and economic chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire and the various barbarian migrations that followed – is a subject of some debate. There were several factors, including poor climate (the little ice age created hardships that had to be overcome), and the fairly constant warfare between European states and against outsiders. There was also the inheritance from the classical world, with which, contra Ahmad, the Medieval man hadn’t entirely lost touch. And finally, that much-maligned ideology, Christianity, had something to do with it as well. I think Lynn White puts this best in his essay “Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages:
The labor-saving power-machines of the later Middle Ages were produced by the implicit theological assumption of the infinite worth of even the most degraded human personality, by an instinctive repugnance towards subjecting any man to a monotonous drudgery which seems less than human in that it requires the exercise neither of intelligence nor of choice. It has often been remarked that the Latin Middle Ages first discovered the dignity and spiritual value of labor—that to labor is to pray. But the Middle Ages went further: they gradually and very slowly began to explore the practical implications of an essentially Christian paradox: that just as the Heavenly Jerusalem contains no temple, so the goal of labor is to end labor.
Generally, we think of the Middle Ages as an age of faith, and to some extent it was. We think of it as an age lacking reason, but in a crucial field for human development, applied mechanics, the Middle Ages are surpassed only by our own for technological innovation.