Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Fermi and Newton. Yer Durn Tootin'.

The physics building at Columbia University in Manhattan, where Fermi worked.

The nuclear pile where Fermi instigated the first nuclear chain reaction.

A long time ago, way before the current Oppenheimer-mania, I read a book about Enrico Fermi, the Nobel-prize-winning Italian physicist. 

Fermi was having a conversation with some of his buds. And they were talking about some of their brilliant fellow scientists. One of them said, "Einstein is a once-in-a-thousand-year mind."

Fermi had never heard such a categorization. 

"What about me," Fermi asked. 

"Once-a-century," was the reply.

"Who else was a millennial mind," Fermi asked.

The answer came, "Archimedes and Newton."

Let me stick with Newton for a minute--for the purpose of this post, in any event. 

I can't fathom the complexity of Newton, but I can wrap my head around Newton's Third Law of Motion: "For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction."

To Newton, his law applied to the physical world. But I think--with a bit of stretching here and there, we can apply it metaphysically, as well. In fact, I think we can apply Newton's Third Law to much in our world. Though, for reasons of expedience, we usually prefer not to.

We prefer to believe, contrary to Newton, that we can get something for nothing. Something for nothing-ism is essentially the promise of medieval alchemy. We can turn base-metal into gold. 

Today, as a "culture," we seem to fully embrace nation-wide something for nothing-ism. We fight wars and kick-off major government programs. Then we pretend we can somehow afford them without paying taxes. 

We over-produce and over-consume. Then we pretend that the result won't be environmental calamity and despoilation.

In advertising, we believed that digital advertising would somehow influence people, getting them to buy, without a great deal of media expenditure.

We believe we can drink sweet sodas and not get fat. Or take a pill and lose all that weight. All with no side effects or unintended consequences.

READ this.

Right now, I'm 900-pages into Simon Sebag Montefiore's great history, The World: A Family History of Humanity.           Buy it.

As someone who's made a good living for a long time working on technology accounts, I've had to defend myself from a lot of "This will change everything" hype. From the metaverse, to crypto, to 3.0, to 3G 4G and 5G, electric cars, to, now, Artificial Intelligence.

Tomorrow, it may well be something else. Cold fusion. Quantum. Detergent that keeps your clothes smelling Springtime-fresh for up-to-two weeks.

My favorite writer, Mark Harris, once said, "The only hero is the person without heroes." I'd go a side-step further and assert,"the only hero is the person who doesn't believe in panaceas or saviors or miracles." Progress takes work. Work is always hard. Moving forward always involves stumbling backward.

England's dark, Satanic mills. Where life expectancy was 26. And child mortality was 50%.

The passage from Montefiore below was written about Manchester, England in the early 19th Century. But of course, it is universal. It applies as much today as it ever has.

We'll ignore it as much today as we ever have.

Just to be a dick about it, I'll repeat the part I loved.


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