From a delightful review of a promising new book:
In Franklin’s day, lightning destroyed homes, barns and livestock, not to mention human beings. To 18th-century Americans, though, it was not merely an occurrence in nature but a form of judgment sent down by a disapproving God. The only way to appease divine wrath — and avoid lightning’s destructive effects — was to pray during thunderstorms or to ring specially “baptized” church bells whose sound might keep the lightning away.
After his kite experiment, Franklin realized that lightning was a form of electricity. He also discovered that electric current would surge through metal and follow its path downward to the ground. In the summer of 1752, he installed the world’s first lightning rods at the Pennsylvania State House and the Pennsylvania Academy. In 1753, he used the pages of “Poor Richard’s Almanack” to make the case for his invention, describing how a pointed iron rod situated atop a tall structure could draw lightning to it, making storms less dangerous. “Poor Richard’s” sold 10,000 copies, earning Franklin instantaneous fame.
But not everyone embraced his claim. By inventing the lightning rod, he was playing God, at least in the view of some of his contemporaries. They saw God’s handiwork in all aspects of life, from the divine-right monarchies that governed men to the storms that crashed overhead. Franklin’s invention, according to Mr. Dray, raised questions “of reason and faith, liberty and tyranny, science and superstition.” The French scientist and clergyman Jean Antoine Nollet was among the most vocal detractors. He contended that it was “as impious to ward off Heaven’s lightnings as for a child to ward off the chastening rod of its father.”
New Englanders, though, started to come around, especially as the authority of their early clergy began to wane in the mid-18th century. They became dubious of the notion that providence controlled nature in every detail. Some people, Mr. Dray notes, “favored the idea that, although God no longer gave daily attention to the world, he had at Creation pre-programmed natural catastrophes to occur throughout time as a way of reminding humanity of its frailty.”
In 1755, humanity seemed frail indeed. A massive earthquake hit Boston, sending tremors from Nova Scotia to South Carolina. An even greater earthquake in Lisbon a few days later killed tens of thousands. A renewed debate erupted over the cause of such destruction. Thomas Prince, a pastor of Boston’s South Church (who believed that he had saved Boston from a French attack in 1746 by calling on God for a sea storm), insisted that lightning rods played a part, sending electricity down into the ground, where it joined the large quantity already there and built up “subterranean tension.” John Winthrop, a professor of science at Harvard, argued that a “kind of undulatory motion” in the Earth, beneath the surface, caused earthquakes and that lightning rods had nothing to do with it. John Adams even joined the fray, siding with Winthrop.
In the end, Prince won in the court of public opinion, though Winthrop’s arguments had the virtue of being true. The use of lightning rods in Boston declined for many years thereafter. Luckily, a technological development in Europe — the increased size of field artillery — led to the acceptance of lightning rods on the Continent. Vaults under churches and other high buildings housed the gunpowder for such war machines. When lightning struck, the results were disastrous. But a lightning rod, it was discovered, kept nature’s spark away. St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice got one in 1766.
. . .
Mr. Dray’s book boasts a delightful secondary theme: the parallels between Franklin’s invention and America’s revolutionaries. Both were using reason to thwart what many perceived to be the natural order of things. Both were battling entrenched superstitions and dogmatic faith. Both were, in a sense, “playing God.”
Rachel DiCarlo. “Books: Block That Bolt.” The Wall Street Journal. (August 16, 2005): D8. (A review of: Philip Dray. Stealing God’s Thunder. Random House, 2005.)
Given the limited state of our knowledge of the process of technological change, we have no way to estimate what the upper bound on the feasible rate of growth for an economy might be. If economists had tried to make a judgment at the end of the 19th century, they would have been correct to argue that there was no historical precedent that could justify the possibility of an increase in the trend rate of growth of income per capita to 1.8% per year. Yet this increase is what we achieved in the 20th century. (p. 226)
Romer, Paul M. “Should the Government Subsidize Supply or Demand in the Market for Scientists and Engineers?” In Innovation Policy and the Economy, vol. 1, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001, pp. 221-252.
Science doesn’t always work this way, but sometimes it does, and it would be good if it did more often.
The phonex had nothing on the ivory-billed woodpecker.
It is hard to keep track of how many times this near-mythic bird, the largest American woodpecker and a poignant symbol of extinction and disappearing forests, has been lost, and then found. Now it is found again.
Even the most skeptical ornithologists now agree. They say newly presented recordings show that at least two of the birds are living in Arkansas
Richard O. Brum, an ornithologist at Yale University and one of several scientists who had challenged the most recently claimed rediscovery of the ivory bill, said Monday after listening to the tape recordings that he was not “strongly convinced that there is at least a pair of ivory bills out there.”
Mark B. Robbins, an ornithologist at the University of Kansas, who had also been a skeptic, listened to the same recordings with a graduate students and said, “We were absolutely stunned.”
James Gorman and Andrew C. Revkin. “Vindication For a Bird And Its Fans.” New York Times (Tuesday, August 2, 2005): A10.
See also, the earlier: James Gorman. “Woodpecker Flies By and the Critics Soon Follow.” New York Times Section 1 (Sun., July 24, 2005): 1 & 21.
Schools: Save cash
Teaching intelligent design exclusively would allow us to sell off a lot of “scientific” lab equipment and get rid of all of our grossly overpaid “science” teachers.
Imagine the savings if we could hire people who had the common sense to answer that “God did that” to every scientific inquiry. We don’t need to limit intelligent design merely to the question of the origins of humanity, either. It’s such a tidy theory that it can explain just about everything.
It can explain the 250,000 humans killed by the December tsunami. It can explain AIDS. It can explain cancer. It can explain 9/11.
Why bother studying anything at all when we already have the answer?
Dan Mundt, Denison, Iowa
Source: “The Public Pulse.” Omaha World-Herald (Friday, April 12, 2005): 6B.
Both private and public developers make judgments about the future market for their projects. When private developers’ judgments turn out to be wrong, they lose their money. When public developers’ judgments turn out to be wrong, they lose your money.
The Omaha By Design plan adopted by the City of Omaha envisions 72nd and Dodge framed with eight 10-story buildings and other taller structures stretching to a large residential complex at 76th Street. The drawings don’t resemble Bourn’s strip malls.
Wilke said he has seen the plan.
“That kind of visionary thinking is fun to engage in, but I don’t think it’s market-based,” he said. Another developer might see that as possible, he said, and Bourn Partners likes to do that kind of high-density, mixed-use development, but the company doesn’t see this part of the Omaha market as ready for that yet.
“We think the suburban scale is still what the market wants in that area,” Wilke said. (p. 2D)
DEBORAH SHANAHAN. Market drives projects around 72nd and Dodge.” Omaha World-Herald (Tuesday, August 9, 2005): 1D-2D.
Business at the city-owned Hilton Omaha is expected next year to fall $2 million short of generating the cash needed to cover its costs.
When the city built the hotel, predictions assumed that hotel revenues – not tax dollars – would be sufficient to pay it off.
C. DAVID KOTOK. City expects its Hilton to come up shy. Omaha World-Herald (Tuesday, August 9, 2005) online edition.
These lands once belonged to the Kiowas and the Crows, but we whipped these nations out of them, and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of the Indians. We met the Kiowas and the Crows and whipped them at the Kiowa Creek, just below where we now are. We met them and whipped them again, and the last time at Crow Creek.
Oglala Lakota Leader Black Hawk, 1851; as quoted in a display at the Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, designed and built by the National Park Service, and observed on 8/13/05.
It is hard to come up with a case against air conditioning in August. But Burt Folsom managed to do so at a Young America’s Foundation gathering on 8/1/05 (broadcast on CSPAN-2 on 8/2) He pointed out that before air conditioning, the stifling heat of a D.C. summer drove Congress out of town. After air conditioning, Congress stayed in session longer, passing more laws.
On July 1-3, 2005, the Communist Party held their Quadrennial Conference in Chicago’s plushly decadent Palmer House Hotel, as if to say: “Proletariat? We don’t need no steenking proletariat!”
From Debreu’s Presidential Address before the American Economic Association:
In the past two decades, economic theory has been carried away further by a seemingly irresistible current that can be explained only partly by the intellectual successes of its mathematization.
Essential to an attempt at a fuller explanation are the values imprinted on an economist by his study of mathematics. When a theorist who has been so typed judges his scholarly work, those values do not play a silent role; they may play a decisive role. The very choice of the questions to which he tries to find answers is influenced by his mathematical background. Thus, the danger is ever present that the part of economics will become secondary, if not marginal, in that judgment. (p. 5)
Debreu, Gerard. “The Mathematization of Economic Theory.” American Economic Review 81, no. 1 (1991): 1-7.
Mark Blaug as a young tutor at Queens College in New York, endorsed a student petition protesting the firing of a left-wing tenured professor for having refused to co-operate with the Un-American Activities Committee. Less than a day later, Blaug received a note from the President of Queens College, telling Blaug that his choice was either to resign or be fired. He resigned.
Fortunately, he received a grant from the Social Science Research Council to complete his dissertation, after which, again seeking employment, he obtained a job interview at Yale:
(p. 77) In the course of the interview, I felt impelled to explain how I had lost my previous teaching position at Queens College. I always remember how Fellner cut me off, saying: ‘We don’t want to hear about that. This is a private college and what transpired at a public university a few years ago is of no concern to us.’ I never had a better demonstration of Milton Friedman’s thesis that a free market, by multiplying the number of probable employers, is more likely to secure liberty for the individual than a socialist system in which the state is a monopsonist.
Blaug, Mark. “Not Only an Economist: Autobiographical Reflections of a Historian of Economic Thought.” In Reflections of Eminent Economists, edited by Michael Szenberg and Lall Ramrattan, 71-94. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2004.
A long time ago (30 or 35 years) I attended some sessions on film and ideology at a week summer conference sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. At one session they screened Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and then the faculty panelists, with help from the audience, proceeded to thoroughly trash Capra for left-wing, anti-capitalist, populist bias. I sat and frowned and fumed, but the session ended without me having the courage to defend Capra. What I wish I had said was that Capra may have been a left-leaning populist; his economics may have been all wrong; but if that’s all you say, you miss the main point. The main point of Capra is loyalty, and persistence, and courage and good-humor. One can reject Capra’s implied economics and still love his movies.
Well on the night of Friday, July 15, 2005, with my wife and daughter, I hung out at the local Border’s book store with a huge crowd of other fans, waiting until the stroke of midnight to be allowed to purchase Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Similar scenes played out all over the country, and in other countries as well. Apparently the book, like its predecessor, is setting all kinds of sales records.
And analyses have begun to appear about Harry Potter’s economics and politics. (The July 15, 2005 Wall Street Journal ran a piece suggesting that Dumbledore is Winston Churchill and Voldemort is Adolph Hitler.) They too miss the main point.
The main point is that the leading heroes of the Potter books display loyalty, and persistence, and courage, and good-humor. And the characters are constructed as real people who we come to care about. And the books are well-written. And plot matters too–you need to find out what’s going to happen next.
Still, if you want to play the socio-political-economic interpretation game with the Potter books, I suggest the following facts might be relevant. Two of the minor heroes of the books, Fred and George Weasley, are successful entrepreneurs. The heads of the governmental Ministry of Magic are at best ineffectual, dishonest, pompous buffoons. And the seed money for Fred and George’s successful enterprise is provided by that most famous of venture capitalists: Harry Potter.
[Details on WSJ article: Jonathan V. Last. “History According to Harry: Appeasement Fails with Warlocks Too.” Wall Street Journal (Friday, July 15, 2005)]