February 16, 2009

Saw a documentary about a 3rd-grade class in China. The students are voting for a class monitor; three students are candidates for the position. The documentary is called Please Vote For Me. It’s amusing and artfully made, I recommend it.

1. Spengler and the Second Law

According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, “a little energy is always wasted. You can’t have a perpetual motion device because no matter how efficient, it will always lose energy and eventually run down.”1 According to another version of the Second Law, entropy (disorganization) always increases; the classic example of this is ice melting in a glass. One might say that the Second Law is about irreversibility.2

It has been argued by Spengler and others that civilizations decline, lose energy, are subject to entropy, and this change is irreversible; in short, Spengler thought that civilizations were subject to the Second Law.3 I’ve argued the opposite, I’ve argued that decadence eventually gives way to renaissance, and the second renaissance has as much vitality, as much energy, as the first.

I admit, though, that there aren’t many examples of societies experiencing a second renaissance: Greek society never experienced another Periclean Age, Roman society never experienced another Augustan Age, English and French society never experienced another Renaissance, Dutch society never experienced another Golden Age, etc., etc. Perhaps the only example of a society experiencing a second renaissance is Italian society: if we view the age of Giotto, Dante, and Petrarch as a “first renaissance,” then the age of Leonardo, Michelangelo, etc. becomes a second renaissance.

I believe that the paucity of second renaissances isn’t the result of irreversible entropy, of Spenglerian decline, but rather of environmental factors — political changes in Greek society, Roman society, etc. that prevented a second renaissance. Absent these environmental factors, I believe that a second renaissance (and a third, and a fourth...) would have occurred in Greece, Rome, etc. I believe that a second renaissance is occurring now in England, France, and their offshoots (such as the U.S.), though I admit that this second renaissance may not be visible yet. Perhaps we can find second renaissances in societies with long histories, like China and Egypt.

My theory of history is about cycles of renaissance and decadence. Is decadence a kind of entropy? Perhaps the greatest student of decadence was Nietzsche, and his remarks on decadence remind one of entropy. Entropy has been defined as the disgregation of molecules (when ice melts, the molecules in the ice “come unglued”). Now listen to Nietzsche on decadence:

What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole — the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual.”4

Since Nietzsche’s politics are right-wing, he views the freedom of the individual as a kind of decadence.

It can be argued that in decadent periods, nations break apart into smaller nations (disgregation), while in renaissance periods, nations join together, usually through conquest, and become larger. In my book of aphorisms, I said, “Nations tend to expand during renaissance eras, and contract during decadent eras.” In a footnote, I quoted Ortega:

The history of a nation is not solely that of its formative and ascendant period. It is also the history of its decadence. If the former consists in amalgamation, the latter may be described as an inverse process. The history of the decadence of a nation is the history of a vast disintegration.5

So decadence can be seen as a kind of entropy, and was seen that way by Nietzsche and Ortega. Did these two thinkers agree with Spengler that decadence was irreversible? Or did they agree with me that decadence was followed by rebirth, (renaissance)? I’m not sure about Ortega; I don’t recall a Spengler-esque gloom in Ortega’s work, nor do I recall any confident predictions of rebirth.

As for Nietzsche, I think he was on my side, not Spengler’s. Nietzsche foresaw a “tragic age” in 100 years — that is, in our time. And for Nietzsche, “tragic” means “renaissance” (tragedy flourished in the Periclean Age and in the English Renaissance — that is, tragedy has flourished only in renaissance epochs).6 Nietzsche also foresaw a “Great Noontide,” a philosophical summit. And finally, Nietzsche speculated about the conditions of a second renaissance (implying that a second renaissance was possible).7 So Nietzsche didn’t regard decadence as irreversible; he agrees with me that the Second Law of Thermodynamics doesn’t apply to civilizations. Entropy is reversible, rebirth is possible.

2. Bryson’s Short History

A. Anecdotes

In the last issue, I criticized Bill Bryson for anecdote excess. I admit, though, that some of the anecdotes in Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything are wonderful, and I enjoy a good anecdote as much as the next person. For example, he tells us about the youth of Albert Michelson, who became famous for the Michelson-Morley experiment. Born in 1852 into a poor Jewish family, Michelson couldn’t afford college. He went to Washington D.C., loitered around the White House, and followed President Grant on his daily walk. Grant eventually noticed him, talked with him, and arranged a position for him at the Naval Academy. There Michelson studied physics, and went on to win a Nobel Prize.8

Bryson also tells us about Clair Patterson who, in 1953, determined the age of the earth (4.5 billion years) by studying the decay of uranium in ancient rocks. Patterson was so excited at being the first person to know the age of our planet that he thought he was having a heart attack, and asked his mother to take him to the hospital.9

I can’t resist one more anecdote. It’s about a French scientist, Guillaume Le Gentil, who, in 1761, was part of an extensive effort to measure the distance from the earth to the sun. Scientists were sent out to the four corners of the earth to observe the transit of Venus (that is, the passing of Venus in front of the sun); their measurements, it was hoped, could be used to calculate the distance to the sun.

Le Gentil was given the job of observing the transit from India, but his ship was delayed, and he missed the transit. He decided to go to India anyway (since he was almost there), and wait eight years for the next transit, in 1769. When the next transit came, Le Gentil had all his instruments ready, but a cloud obscured the sun, and he couldn’t take any measurements. So he packed up his instruments and set out for France, arriving eleven years after he had departed. There he found that a court had, at the behest of his relatives, declared him dead, and his property had been seized by his relatives.10

When I read stories like this, I think that truth, valuable though it is, isn’t worth the exertions that we make to reach it. Perhaps Le Gentil should have heeded the Chinese saying, “it is not truth that makes man great, but man who makes truth great.” Perhaps only a person with a rational-scientific worldview would make such exertions for the sake of measuring the distance to the sun.

B. The Wegener Theory

I recently read Bryson’s chapter on Continental Drift, one of the most important and successful scientific theories of the 20th century.11 Bryson points out that “continental drift” is a misnomer, since it isn’t really the continents that are moving, it’s the plates; the correct term is Plate Tectonics. At any rate, the person who is given credit for discovering the theory is Alfred Wegener, a German. Bryson says that an American, Frank Bursley Taylor, discovered the theory before Wegener. Wikipedia mentions a long line of people, going back to the Renaissance and including Benjamin Franklin, who noticed how Africa and South America fit together, and thought the continents might have once been united, and later moved apart.

One of the themes of Bryson’s book (and of the history of science) is that important discoveries are usually made by several people, not just by the person who gets credit for them. Another theme is that important discoveries often fail to gain attention, important essays fail to find a publisher. (One wonders how Einstein, an obscure patent-office clerk, managed to publish his early essays, and one wonders if he would have similar success today.) My hunch is that Wegener made his discovery independently, but later learned that several people had thought along similar lines.

If ever there were a scientist who went too far for truth, it was Wegener. At age 50, he froze to death while studying arctic air flow in Greenland. His assistant was so badly frostbitten that his toes had to be cut off with a pen knife. His sled dogs had no food, so Wegener had to kill certain dogs to provide meat to the rest.

Wegener published his theory in 1915. Like most revolutionary theories, Wegener’s theory didn’t have enough supporting evidence to silence its critics. It was necessary to smell the truth, to intuit the truth — to see it at a glance. The establishment, including leading figures like George Gaylord Simpson and Harold Jeffreys, generally rejected the new theory. Einstein wrote a glowing foreword to a book that poured scorn on Wegener’s theory.12 One essay about the new theory was rejected by a scholarly journal with the comment, “Such speculations make interesting talk at cocktail parties, but it is not the sort of thing that ought to be published under serious scientific aegis.”13 Even an advocate of Wegener’s theory, Arthur Holmes, had some lingering doubts about this bold new view of the earth; “I have never succeeded in freeing myself,” Holmes said, “from a nagging prejudice against continental drift; in my geological bones, so to speak, I feel the hypothesis is a fantastic one.”14 Opposition to Wegener’s theory persisted into the 1980s, but evidence accumulated, and eventually carried the day.

Bryson points out that there are still many unanswered questions about the surface of the earth. “Mysteriously and over millions of years, it appears that Denver has been rising, like baking bread. So, too, has much of southern Africa.... Nothing in the theories of tectonics can explain any of this.”15 Our knowledge of the earth is as mobile, as impermanent, as the earth itself.

C. The Alvarez Theory

The next chapter of Bryson’s book, which deals with the danger of asteroids striking the earth, is as fun to read as the chapter on Plate Tectonics. Only in the last few decades did scientists become aware of the danger of asteroids, and the frequency with which asteroids have struck the earth in the past.

Bryson talks about Meteor Crater in Arizona, “the most famous impact site on Earth and a popular tourist attraction.”16 And he says that, in 1994, Chesapeake Bay was recognized as an impact site. Bryson discusses Walter Alvarez who, in the early 1970s, “grew curious about a thin band of reddish clay that divided two ancient layers of limestone — one from the Cretaceous period, the other from the Tertiary.”17 This is known as the KT boundary, and it coincides with the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Alvarez showed some of this clay to his father, Luis, who had won a Nobel Prize in physics.

When the chemical composition of the clay was studied, it showed an unusually large amount of iridium, an element that is rare on earth, but more common in space. Those who were testing the clay were so surprised that they thought the test must be flawed. Later, however, they became so excited by their findings that they worked 30 hours straight. They tested KT clay from all over the world, and found high levels of iridium in all of it. The Alvarezes concluded that an asteroid or comet had struck the earth 65 million years ago, causing the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Like the Wegener theory, the Alvarez theory wasn’t entirely new; others had suggested the same, or similar, theories, but their evidence wasn’t as solid as the Alvarezes’, and their theories didn’t receive as much attention. While the Wegener theory had been anticipated as far back as the Renaissance, anticipations of the Alvarez theory only go back a few decades.

Like the Wegener theory, the Alvarez theory was initially rejected by the establishment, especially by paleontologists, who were inclined to think that the earth, and life on earth, changed gradually, not suddenly. This view was known as gradualism, or uniformitarianism, as opposed to catastrophism, which had been popular in the early 1800s. Catastrophism had been championed by Cuvier, uniformitarianism by Hutton and Lyell. Doubtless Cuvier would be pleased if he knew that the Alvarez theory supported his beloved catastrophes.

In the last issue, we saw how the optimism of Plotinus was reborn in the philosophy of Leibniz. Now we see the catastrophism of Cuvier reborn in the Alvarez theory. Lovejoy describes how old ideas are reborn in new theories: “The seeming novelty of many a system is due solely to the novelty of the application or arrangement of the old elements which enter into it.”18

After the Alvarezes announced their theory, people began looking for impact sites — places that had been struck by asteroids — hoping to find the site of the asteroid that had extinguished the dinosaurs. They studied an impact site in Manson, Iowa, but decided it was too small, and 9 million years too early. In 1991, it was decided that the KT impact occurred at Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. In 1994, scientists observed a comet striking Jupiter, and realized that the force of such a collision was greater than they had thought — great enough to cause the KT calamities. “It was the final blow for critics of the Alvarez theory.”19

If, however, an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, why didn’t it cause the extinction of all animals? Bryson doesn’t try to explain why many animals (including mammals, birds, insects, fish, etc.) survived the KT calamity. Why were the dinosaurs especially vulnerable?

Bryson concludes the chapter by discussing the enormous speed and power of an asteroid approaching the earth, the difficulty of detecting its approach, the difficulty of averting disaster even if you manage to detect it, and the catastrophic effects that such a collision can have. Something else to worry about!

D. Yellowstone

Just when it seemed we had enough to worry about, Bryson’s next two chapters give us even more. These chapters are about earthquakes and volcanoes, and they’re as interesting, as surprising, and as alarming as the chapter on asteroids. Bryson says that Tokyo is the city most vulnerable to earthquakes. “Tokyo stands on the boundary of three tectonic plates in a country already well known for its seismic instability.”20 In 1923, Tokyo had an earthquake that killed 200,000 people.

Bryson says there are two kinds of volcanoes, regular ones and “supervolcanoes.” The regular ones are what we usually think of as volcanoes — mountains with a sawed-off peak, and a hole or vent, through which smoke may occasionally rise. Supervolcanoes aren’t like this, they’re flat and almost invisible. They’re far more powerful and destructive than regular volcanoes.

Most supervolcanoes are on islands, the only one in the middle of a land-mass is Yellowstone Park. Over the last 16 million years, Yellowstone has erupted about 100 times (perhaps we should call it “Old Faithful”). The last eruption covered the whole western U.S. with ash. Yellowstone has numerous hot-springs and geysers because it’s an active, living supervolcano. If Yellowstone erupts again, it would not only devastate the western U.S., it would have a dramatic effect on weather worldwide.

Even regular volcanoes affect weather worldwide. According to Wikipedia, “The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora [in Indonesia] occasioned mid-summer frosts in New York State and June snowfalls in New England in what came to be known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’ of 1816.” This wintry weather triggered crop failures, and the worst famine of the 19th century. The eruption of Yellowstone would have an even more dramatic effect on climate; it would probably reduce the population of our species, and of other species, significantly. Something else to worry about!

As you can probably tell, I’m enjoying Bryson’s Short History. Usually, I look forward to finishing a book, but not this time; I wish this were a Long History. What I said before about Gladwell’s Blink I’ll repeat now about Bryson’s book: “Since I’m a champion of the classics, I hate to admit how enjoyable a contemporary bestseller can be.”

3. Actions and Reactions

Newton’s Third Law of Motion is often summarized, “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This law seems to apply to human relations. When we’re well-disposed toward someone, and treat them well, they react in kind. In an earlier issue, I quoted Sherwin Nuland:

When we treat people with kindness, we expect a certain response, and when we treat them with hostility, we expect another — we usually get what we expect. Our problems in relating to people do not as a rule arise from a lack of predictability of the other so much as they do from a lack of our own conscious awareness of the motivations and messages we transmit to him.... Most of the time, an unexpected response from someone is not caused by his mishearing of the message, but by his hearing very clearly a message we did not realize we were sending.

If we have a positive attitude toward life in general, good things happen. The First Law of inspirational literature (self-help literature) is “positive thoughts lead to positive outcomes.” Intellectuals usually despise inspirational literature, supermarket literature, but it contains a deep truth. Newton’s Third Law of Motion applies to human relations, and to life in general.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. Bryson, Short History, ch. 5, p. 77, footnote back
2. Wikipedia: “There are many versions of the Second Law, but they all have the same effect, which is to explain the phenomenon of irreversibility in nature.” back
3. I’m not suggesting that Spengler stated explicitly that civilizations are subject to the Second Law, I’m suggesting that Spengler’s view of civilization might be described as an application of the Second Law to civilizations. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if Spengler explicitly said that civilizations were subject to the Second Law (he seems to have been versed in all the sciences). back
4. The Case of Wagner, ch. 7 back
5. Invertebrate Spain, ch. 1 back
6. “Let us look ahead a century; let us suppose that my attempt to assassinate two millenia of antinature and desecration of man were to succeed. That new party of life which would tackle the greatest of all tasks, the attempt to raise humanity higher, including the relentless destruction of everything that was degenerating and parasitical, would again make possible that excess of life on earth from which the Dionysian state, too, would have to awaken again. I promise a tragic age.” (Ecce Homo, “The Birth of Tragedy”, #4) back
7. Human, All-Too-Human, #244 back
8. Ch. 8, p. 118 back
9. Ch. 10, p. 157 back
10. Ch. 4, p. 54 back
11. Ch. 12 back
12. Ch. 12, p. 173 back
13. Ch. 12, p. 180 back
14. Ch. 12, p. 177 back
15. Ch. 12, p. 184 back
16. Ch. 13, p. 191 back
17. Ch. 13, p. 195 back
18. The Great Chain of Being, Ch. 1, p. 4 back
19. Ch. 13, p. 202 back
20. Ch. 14, p. 213 back