Tuesday, July 23, 2013


1. "Great Men."

The most enduringly popular theory of history -- always assuming we're not being total lunatics to imagine that history could possibly have a "theory" -- is the Great Man theory, in which extraordinary individuals rise from the general population to change the courses of nations. What makes this theory popular is that historians can't seem to write history in any other fashion. Yes, they focus on political figures, but that too appears to be a built-in bias of their trade.

This morning, in a departure from the usual breakfast banter, I asked my wife whom she would nominate as the greatest figure of the Twentieth Century. After we agreed that "great" does not mean "good" but rather "doer of widely and deeply influential deeds," we immediately discarded the great majority of the persons historians would write about. Politicians so seldom actually do anything that to consider them "great" seems wrong.

Over the past hours, I've winnowed my list of candidates down to the following:

  • Thomas Edison
  • Nikola Tesla
  • William Shockley
  • Charles Drew

That's right: three engineers and a physician. All of them can lay claim to personal achievements that have directly affected many millions of lives. No politician who comes to mind can say anything comparable.

Whom would you nominate?

2. Idiots.

Many an idiot is treated as a great figure by those who share his idiocy. I have a particular one in mind at the moment:

This particular idiot has a mass audience and is regularly hailed as being highly intelligent. But what sort of idiot would wear tampon earrings in protest against a law that bans the murder of viable unborn children?

Clearly, the privilege of committing pre-indemnified infanticide has warped quite a lot of female minds. Of course, some come warped right out of the box, so to speak, but few of those get their own television shows.

3. "Futures."

I've received a number of comments and emails effusively thanking me for this recent post. My thanks in return, Gentle Readers. I can seldom say what touches off a cri de coeur such as that one, and I'm always a wee bit anxious about the response it will get, if any. But what becomes plain in the aftermath is just how many readers are hungry for that sort of material. Indeed, one correspondent begged me to go on in that vein every day.

I'm afraid I can't do that. Some sorts of pieces can only emerge when the Spirit is upon me. That's not often the case...and that's probably a good thing. I must live most of my life in this world, attentive to its immediacies and focused on the challenges it throws at me. I'm not the sort of otherworldly mystic who can utterly disregard the mundane in favor of a full-time focus on things of the spirit.

However, I promise I won't suppress the urge when it arises.

4. Book Notes.

No one who attempts creative work can ever be certain where he gets the ideas or the energy that make it possible. Were it otherwise, there would be a standard remedy for writer's block. (Probably a controlled substance sold only under doctor's prescription.) The range of sources of progress are forever surprising me.

One of those is another writer's statement that reading my fiction has made her writing more fluid and productive. I received a note to that effect recently. Not only did it warm the cockles of my spiny little heart, it also propelled me forward in my work on Freedom's Fury, the conclusion to the "Spooner Federation" trilogy begun with Which Art In Hope and continued in Freedom's Scion.

Fiction writers' viewpoints on political, social, and cultural matters vary greatly. Many of us attempt to embed our convictions in our stories. Sometimes the result is an unreadable polemic screed. Other times -- rarely -- it ignites a fire that illuminates or incinerates the world. But there can be nothing but good in assisting other writers, individually or severally, in finding their own stories and the energy with which to tell them. And what the hell, eh? If one produces another Mein Kampf or Protocols of the Elders of Zion we can always hunt him down and kill him, right? Right?


Mark Alger said...


Possibly also:
Shockley, Kilby, Noyce, Moore, Grove (tie)

Perhaps in addition to yours.


Matthew Wennerlund said...

Norman Borlaug. He created semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. Credited with saving over a billion people world-wide from starving.

Alex VanderWoude said...

I second the nomination of Norman Borlaug. But perhaps some consideration should be given to Tim Berners-Lee.

HIstorian said...

Crick and Watson, for the discovery of the double helix


John Browning

Anonymous said...

I would nominate:

Alan Turing - perhaps the most influential man in our lives today, and one almost no one knows.

Anonymous said...

Owsley Stanley

Bob Dylan

SiGraybeard said...

It's funny how everyone tends to think of people in their field. I can see the guys you picked. And Kilby, and Noyce, Goddard or Tsiolkovsky.

In terms of the sheer number of people he influenced, it's hard to top Borlaug who developed that semi-dwarf wheat, no matter how wretched it is and how many people have problems with celiac or related syndromes from it. But that's a "first world problem". If you starve to death as a child, you don't get celiac later in life. Similar to how sickle cell anemia survives as a gene mutation - it gives survival advantage against malaria.

Virtually all modern radio was developed by Edwin Howard Armstrong. Virtually everyone alive has been touched by those ideas, and going back farther, everyone who has listened to a radio, watched TV, benefited from radar or thousands of other inventions has been touched by Armstrong.

My wife, with two artificial hips, asked how about the guys who invented that. It certainly improved her quality of life a thousand percent.

Joseph said...

Albert Einstein
John von Neumann
Kurt Gödel