June 06, 2013
This agrees with Peter Watson’s apologetic remarks in The Modern Mind (2000) that:
Whatever list you care to make of twentieth-century innovations, be it plastic, antibiotics and the atom or stream-of-consciousness novels, vers libre or abstract expressionism, it is almost entirely Western.
Worse still, practically all the inventing and discovering has been done by men. Only three gals show up in Hart and Parkinson’s lists, and all are joint awardees with a man: IrÃ¨ne Joliot-Curie (with husband FrÃ©dÃ©ric) for artificial radioactivity, Gertrude Elion (with George Hitchings) for the anti-leukemia drug 6-MP, and Jocelyn Bell (with Antony Hewish) for the discovery of pulsars.
That darn stereotype threat! Don”t be looking for reviews of The Newton Awards in any major outlets. Being literary editor of some niche magazine isn”t as much fun as working for the Heritage Foundation, but it’s just as vulnerable to the Thought Police.
Reading through these achievements, a number of things come to mind. For example: What part is played by luck in these greatest discoveries and inventions? Practically none, is the overall impression. Some breakthroughs were achieved when the scientist was looking for something else or for nothing in particular; but the confirmation, elaboration, and explanation of what had been found was still creative intellectual work of the first order.
The discovery of cosmic background radiation by Penzias and Wilson in 1965, for example, was certainly fortuitous: They weren”t looking for it, only trying to calibrate an antenna. Their diligence in isolating the unexpected phenomenon, though, and their collegiality in bringing in astrophysicists to provide theory, got them a well-deserved Nobel Prize.
Similarly with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who discovered microorganisms in 1674. The authors:
As Leeuwenhoek had not been deliberately searching for microorganisms, some books suggest that he was merely lucky. Our view is quite different. His discovery was a result of his carefully constructing scientific instruments of unparalleled quality, and then spending a great deal of time making observations with them. The combination of skill and hard work is the very opposite of luck.
Science and creative technology have, across the modern period, been the great glories of Western civilization. As that civilization yields up its lands to non-European peoples and ideologies of magic and unreason, pause to take a backward glance at the astonishing things we once accomplished: Order a copy of The Newton Awards.