Monday, June 16, 2008

A Chink of Light In the Gloom ....

My youngest son played cricket this evening (they lost quite heavily), came back at gone nine, ate, watched the last few minutes of the footy, then teeth and bed. Someone mentioned Greenwich Mean Time - I can't remember why or in what context.

"Dad ?"

"Yes ?"

"How did they know what the centre of the world is - I mean going round - how did they know it was Greenwich ?"

A longish discussion/lecture followed, taking in how to reckon noon time (when the shadows are shortest), why there are sixty minutes in an hour and sixty seconds in a minute, the formation of the Royal Society and the Greenwich Observatory ...

"Where did language come from ? How is it we say 'wood' for wood ?"

"Who invented numbers ?"

"How was electricity discovered ? Who thought of it ?"

My middle son used to throw this kind of stuff at me when it was bedtime and he didn't want to go up - he knew that I could never resist an answer (and he's doing maths and science A-levels after his GCSEs) - and I can't. I'm delighted when they ask questions - especially largeish ones.

I try in answering to emphasise that there are very few giant leaps (the mp3 player did not appear out of nowhere), that each new step is usually based on what went before, that simple things which make other things possible - the wire, the screw - could only be invented given the work of predecessors. You can't invent wire before you've got metal.

It's asking questions and trying new things that's taken us this far. In the days when we were bashing animals (and each other) on the head with flint axes, who had the idea of crushing two types of rock together, mixing with sand, heating the lot then blowing air through the hot rocks ? Yet it's a good job someone did.

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.


Anonymous said...

James Burke used to be great at drawing out the links between developments like these, technological and otherwise. Whatever happened to him? Haven't seen anything like it since.

Anonymous said...

And the interesting thing is that for the vast majority of humanity's history, we used stone tools, and did not advance. The stone age started about 3m years ago, and we only started emerging from it 8000 years ago. 2,992,000 years of stone, then, bang. What happened? Why so long? And even then, things didn't change that much until a couple of hundred years ago.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Sadly, due to my bog-standard 'egalitarian' comprehensive education in the 1970s - and a failing memory, to be sure - I can't answer many of my sons questions without recourse to Google.

Tim Worstall said...

There's a lovely old story concerning the son of the physics professor.

Says he to a friend: "I remember as a boy asking my father that old question, "Why's water wet Daddy?". It wasn't until I'd got my own PhD in physics that I finally understood his answer."

Anonymous said...

The best answer is because "wet" is the word we apply to the principal sensation that water causes us. So the interesting questions are "why is petrol wet?"; "in what ways does the wetness of petrol differ from the wetness of water?"; "is honey wet?".

Anonymous said...

Laban, I sometimes entertain the notion that most of the great leaps forward were produced by kids with Aspergere's or even full blown Autism.

The kid sitting in the back of the cave obsessively bashing two bits of rock together. His mother goes to snatch the rocks away and cuts her hand to the bone. After the kerfuffle dies away, the chief realises that a sharp piece of rock might be useful in cutting up bits of dead meat, or even live meat.

Then there's the kid obsessively twisting bits of grass together and the tribe notices that these bits of twine are pretty useful. Then there's the tragic tale of the kid bashing rocks together near the pile of grass waiting to be twined together. Fire!

The tribes that prospered would be those that fed and kept their 'special' kids and thus the gene was passed down.

Kevin B

Anonymous said...

Sorry, rushed that last comment. I meant to say that the kid was bashing rocks together until he got the exact shape he wanted. Hand grip on one side and sharp edge on the other.

Incidentally, the kid who was tying the sharp bits of rock to the long stick married the girl who persisted in weaving reeds together to make baskets, and they all lived happily ever after.

Kevin B

Anonymous said...

Hugh Oxford, yeah it took a long time but don't forget a lot of advance civilisations were sent over the edge by global warming at the end of the last ice-age and possible ones before that too!
7 submerged wonders of the World

John Trenchard said...

just curious - have your kids ever played the computer game "civilisation".

a lot of these "small steps" towards bigger inventions is all covered in it - its tremendously educational, for a computer game...

it might help your kids join the dots, and ask the bigger questions that arent covered by the game.

just my two cents...

John Trenchard said...

"Kevin B

6:37 PM"

your observation is apt. i dont know if you know of the silicon valley rumour that Bill Gates has a mild form of autism. and look what he did to the world - whether you agree with it or not...

there might be something in your theory.

John Trenchard said...

"What happened? Why so long? And even then, things didn't change that much until a couple of hundred years ago."

hugh - there are many theories. one is population - you need a certain mass of population to develop cities, and then with cities you can get accelarated development as ideas are passed around, tried out, and the good ones succeed.

with a low gene pool of only 100,000 people worldwide.. scattered into various tribes of say 50 to 100 strong (as it was pre-cities) , you just dont get that sort of rapid development.

another theory is more simpler - the receeding of the ice caps as the last ice age ended - which happened about 12,000 years ago. our oldest cities date from around 8000 B.C. , which is roughly about 1000 years after the end of the last seriously big ice age (we're talking about 2 mile thick ice caps as far as London...)

then again, some of the oldest cities were started in the non-ice cap areas of Iraq and India - so my guess , if i was a betting man, is just mere population levels. a tipping point is reached where a city just takes off , and thus you get all the economic and inventive development.

Anonymous said...

Kevin B; you have to be careful with that line of reasoning. You might end up noticing that there are tribes who have a lot more of those genes than others.

And you would be wrong.

We all know the reason the tribes of Africa have not invented the wheel or the computer, its the perfidious actions of white racists.

John Trenchard; Bill Gates is a businessman, his computer geekery is a long time in his past and Im not aware of any particular innovation on his part. He allows the idea that he is some sort of techno guru to circulate, fooling the likes of Tony Blair, but I hope no-one else buys into that.

Anonymous said...

What happened? Why so long? And even then, things didn't change that much until a couple of hundred years ago.

We have a modern day myth that prehistoric man lived in harmony with nature and peacefully with his neighbours. This is nonsense.

Where primitive tribes still can be found on earth today the reverse is true. Life is nasty, brutish and short. Hunter gatherers have to move on to survive. The group cannot get too big or it will not be sustainable. Wars between groups are common.

Thus such a lifestyle creates limits on development because (a) there isn't time to invent and (b) everything that can't be carried is useless.

It's no surprise then that the critical development in mankind's history is agriculture. Once available, mankind was free to stop moving and to start accumulating. Most importantly it granted free time to devote to making things better than before.

It seems that the last two hundred years have seen an accelerated development but I wonder how much that is true. Might not a ancient Roman have looked back and said exactly the same thing. I would suggest that every age has seen an acceleration and this is entirely in keeping with Laban's thesis, that ideas feed off earlier ideas. This must lead to exponential growth.

The implication is that (given freedom) the next two hundred years will be faster than the last.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, and a thought provoking thread to follow.
Dave's comment re ancient civilisations submerged by an earlier round of global warming needs to be taken with a pinch of salt however.The Bay of Cambay ruins story that he links to(allegedly showing evidence of a 10,000 year old civilisation off the coast of Gujerat)is more than a bit suspect, for reasons not entirely unrelated to resurgent Hindu nationalism.

Alfie said...

I did the same with my Dad. Years ago, when 'Signal' toothpaste was launched (early 60's I think), I asked my Dad how come the paste came out all stripey? I asked the question just as I was brushing my teeth before going to bed. Before you could say 'Barry Bucknall', he'd gone for his tool box and there and then cut the half-full tube to bits to find out....

That night, a great conundrum was solved, a hell of a lot of toothpaste was deposited all over the bathroom floor and the rest of the family didn't have any toothpaste to brush their teeth....

John Trenchard said...

i read in today's paper that us taxpayers are going to have to fork out 500k per year to keep a terrorist scumbag in an MI5 safe house.

i really do wonder why the fuck i bother paying taxes in this country.. maybe i should seriously consider leaving.

couldnt MI5 just call in the Met Police swat squad, and save us all a bit of money?

Anonymous said...

John - I suppose the cynical reason would be that if we dont lets of terrorists run loose (and allow the communities they arise from to settle) then how are we going to justify 42 day detention and lots of other goodies. The rainbow multicultural state wont just build itself you know.

Unknown said...

It's all about Critical Mass.

People though, rather than fissile materials.

The larger the population the greater the number of isolated geniuses to come up with another good idea to drive things forward - if they're not killed as a threat by the people in charge of course.

A further idea comes from the book I'm reading at the moment. The original "natural" group size for humans was only around 30 individuals, (c.f. other simians), and co-ordinating such a group can be handled by gestures and simple sounds.

The part of our bodies that has experienced recent explosive evolutionary growth are those to do with language, enlarging the potential group size further and enabling the co-ordination of the first sizeable settlements of hundreds of people or more.

Julian Jaynes suggests that human beings only became fully conscious at the dawn of recorded history, prior to that having a "split" mind with an acting part and an advisory part, (the language centres are on one side of the brain only).

I can't do his full theory justice in a handful of sentences but I highly recommend the book "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" which goes into considerable detail of all the evidence in history and the state of people's minds even now.

Genuinely fascinating and very readable.