Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Speaking of Education ...

... yesterday I received a video I can't resist posting. Enjoy!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Self-taught Master, part 2

In this penultimate post about Benjamin Franklin, I want to quote at length a passage from the Autobiography.

The Quakers, having had outsized political power in the Pennsylvania Assembly at the start of King George’s War (War of the Austrian Succession), found themselves opposing, on principle, funding for the proper military defense of the colony including their own homes. Franklin recalls an exchange with the leader of a different sect whose approach to such matters impressed Franklin as much as it does this reader:
Those embarrassments that the Quakers suffer’d, from having establish’d and published it as one of their principles that no kind of war was lawful, and which, being once published, they could not afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of, reminds me of what I think a more prudent conduct in another sect among us, that of the Dunkers. I was acquainted with one of its founders, Michael Welfare, soon after it appeared. He complained to me that they were grievously calumniated by the zealots of other persuasions, and charg’d with abominable principles and practices to which they were utter strangers. I told him this had always been the case with new sects, and that to put a stop to such abuse I imagin’d it might be well to publish the articles of their belief and the rules of their discipline. He said that it had been propos’d among them, but not agreed to, for this reason: “When we were first drawn together as a society,” says he, “it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.”
This modesty in a sect [continued Franklin] is perhaps a single instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong; like a man travelling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears clear, tho’ in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them. To avoid this kind of embarrassment, the Quakers have of late years been gradually declining the public service in the Assembly and in the magistracy, choosing rather to quit their power than their principle.
Michael Welfare, observing the unsettled tenets of faith during the First Great Awakening, appears as skeptical and logical as a scientist, as humble as a saint. Franklin was obviously surprised by this confluence of cool rationalism and religious faith, but, brilliant writer that he was, doesn’t fail to provide a vivid (yet foggy) contrasting metaphor of human conceit. Franklin’s perspicacious judgment of the prejudices, inclinations, and motivations of his fellow man was his greatest asset, and the subject of the next post.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Self-taught Master, part 1

Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master. 
— Leonardo da Vinci

Much of Franklin’s self-education came from his own observations of the natural world and of his fellow man, but can’t be found in the Autobiography: even he refers us elsewhere for an explanation of his electrical experiments, and he is coy (but not silent) about his influence on others. For a better sense of his powers of discernment--scientific and otherwise--I have relied on Carl Van Doren’s excellent biography; Benjamin Franklin (1938), and the second volume of Isaac Asimov’s three-part Understanding Physics (1966). Today’s post is focused on the scientific.

The first fifty pages of Van Doren’s book are essentially the Autobiography with a few gaps filled in and added historical perspective. As it progresses the contextual infill is expanded, until 1757 when the Autobiography breaks off. The remaining two-thirds are based on Franklin’s other writings and the author’s own research.

Asimov’s book includes a technical explanation of Franklin’s experiments with electrostatics. His most famous demonstrated the equivalence of lightning to electricity, which seems obvious to us but was unproven for the scientists of the time (while for the common people, lightning still had an almost mythological aura). The famous story of the kite and the key is factual, but came after his conjectures had been proven.

The then-prevailing notion was that electricity came in two forms: “resinous” and “vitreous.” Charged resins would repel each other but attract charged glass tubes and vice-versa. Franklin’s insight was that there are not two but only one “electrical fluid,” and that the attractive or repellant forces are a result of a lack or surfeit of the fluid: a “negative” or “positive charge.”

According to Van Doren, Franklin coined terms common to us today:  armature, battery, brush, charge, charging, uncharged, condense, conductor, non-conductor, non-conducting, discharge, electrical fire, electrical shock, electrician, electrified, minus/negative, and plus/positive (BF.173). These last, said Franklin, like magnetic north and south are two aspects of the same thing. All objects have electricity, he said, but “uncharged” bodies are at equilibrium. Thus electrical charge can be neither lost nor destroyed, only in or out of equilibrium. When “grounding” static electricity, any excess electric fluid returns to the body of the earth, where it is so broadly distributed its presence can no longer be felt.

Because electrical charges can exist in isolation (unlike the poles of a magnet) and there is no general reference (as the earth’s magnetic field is for the compass), Franklin had no way to know which charged body held the excess electric fluid (for him, the “positive” charge), and which lacked the fluid (the “negative”)--so he was forced to guess. His odds were even, but he guessed wrong. Years later, once the electron was understood, it was determined that “positively” charged bodies in fact lack electrons; for this reason electrons--the movable electric fluid--are assigned a negative charge. (UP2.163)

Franklin also found that a spark moves through air more easily, and more quietly, towards a pointed object than towards a blunt one. Once lightning was shown to be electricity, the lightning rod became obvious. This simple device was adopted across the western world and within two decades removed this ancient danger to lives and property and earned applause from commoners and kings alike. Asimov suggests Franklin’s fame was particularly useful a quarter century later, when he was made ambassador to France of the newly independent United States, then fighting for its existence. (UP2.175)

Franklin held wide-ranging interests and an unremitting creative mind. He corresponded with experts in economics, biology, medicine, physics, geology, physiology, meteorology, and agriculture (he briefly owned a farm). Van Doren highlights a few:
  • He noted the different onset times of a major storm across the colonies and conceived of a macro weather pattern, dubbed the jet stream nearly two centuries later.
Appalachian Orogeny
  • He noted the marine fossils found at the highest peaks of the Appalachian mountains, and guessed that the world must be extraordinarily old. Franklin had no way to know it, but the reason for this oddity is found in the geology of plate tectonics.
  • Against Newton’s then-prevailing theory, he decided that light must be a wave and therefore must travel through a medium. It took Einstein to eliminate the theoretical need for an “aether” 150 years later.
  • He created the first flexible catheter in the Americas.
(all: BF.175-182)

Many of his observations and inventions arose from daily life. He saw the waste of heating a room, so to retain the heat of a fire and draw away its smoke  he created the cast-iron “Franklin stove,” eight times as efficient as the then-common open hearth. He got tired of changing his glasses from one pair to another, so he invented bifocals. Both sound obvious to us perhaps--perhaps as only what is now familiar can.

Franklin’s breakthroughs are so fundamental to our lives that they recede into the background; like the terms he coined, what was once mythological is now quotidian. As their provenance recedes further into history and their usage broadens evermore into the future, his contributions become each like a grounded electric charge: distributed uniformly across the Earth, yet perceptible hardly at all.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Franklin’s Absent Virtue

Franklin’s list of virtues (see last post) includes all but the most important ingredient to his success: education. Franklin’s education was not formal; he was a classic autodidact whose self-taught polymathy had three sources: 

First – Books. As a kid he read everything he could, spending all his extra money on books. As a printer’s apprentice he found every way to economize, becoming a vegetarian for example: saving on meat to spend money on books. He sold the books he’d read to buy others he hadn’t. He borrowed books from booksellers’ apprentices to read overnight, returning them early, before they’d be missed. The teenaged Franklin took his lunch breaks alone, with a slice of bread, some fruit, a glass of water, and the classics.  Dr Eliot no doubt approved.

Second – People. The best way to grow is to challenge yourself, and a good way to challenge yourself is to keep friends who will challenge you. In his twenties, an established printer in his own right, Franklin with a small group of friends created a study group:
I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth [argument], all expressions of positiveness [insistence] in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties. (HC01.059-060)
This tiny club was Franklin’s inspiration for the American Philosophical Society, founded by him in 1743 and still promoting the sciences and humanities today.

As Franklin became more occupied with worldly affairs he was there was less time for the Junto, but he never forgot his earnest friends. There were other conversations to be had though, and in time Franklin would hold ongoing conversation—correspondence mostly—with many of the great minds of his time, and at the highest level of “Morals, Politics, and Natural Philosophy,” because Franklin himself became a central figure in philosophy, diplomacy, and scientific discovery.

Thought, observation, and experimentation—what we discover on our own, untaught—together form the third source of Franklin’s education, subject of the next post.