February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Consider the Source: Convergence

Replica of first transistor invented in Bell Labs in 1947.

Replica of first transistor invented in Bell Labs in 1947.

By a lucky coincidence, I happen to be reading a set of books that looks at the same moment in history from three different angles. Taken together, the three titles offer a more comprehensive picture of a time of invention and discovery than we’d typically get from an individual book: one title focuses on a remarkable genius; another on a breakthrough invention; and the third title, which explores a transforming theory, is really best seen as a moment in which circumstance, individuals, and technology converge to make change possible. The genius, the invention, and the theory are no less crucial, no less thrilling, but seen in three-dimensions as part of a moment in time, they give us a broader sense of why they came along when they did—which also can help us to understand the here and now.

This particular column, then, offers both a bit of history and hopeful speculation about the present. The history? My men’s nonfiction reading group is tackling Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin, 2012), an engaging and clear history of the Bell Labs. On my own, I’ve been working my way through George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon, 2012), a fascinating though rather overwritten history of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study. The two titles overlap in tracing the key developments of the theory, inventions, and designs that created computers and ultimately led to the digital revolution—the entire tweeting, networked, world that we currently live in.

Marching in the two books through the 1940s—a decade that saw advances in radar, cryptography, and on calculating the impacts of the A and then H bombs; the invention of the transistor, which would replace vacuum tubes in computers; and the insights of Bell Lab’s Claude Shannon, who, seemingly out of nowhere, mapped out information theory and thus the entire concept of bits flowing through channels (bits that could be text, sound, image, or you aunt Matilda’s famous apple pie recipe)—for the first time, I understood how today’s digital world came about. Indeed, Bill Gates has said that if he could travel back in time, the first place he’d visit would be the Bell Labs in 1947—in the midst of this moment when ideas that were purely theoretical in the ’30s became the machines, the first real computers, of the late ’40s. The two books beautifully capture how, through applied science, the most advanced and abstract ideas eventually became the physical tools we all use.

Sitting atop the Gertner and Dyson books on my pile is Mark Peterson’s Galileo’s Muse: Renaissance Mathematics and the Arts (Harvard University Press, 2011), an intellectually stimulating though certainly academic book that argues that in Europe between the time of the Greeks and the 16th century, math, and in particular, geometry, had become an abstraction, a part of theology (think of the world of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” [Knopf] trilogy). Peterson demonstrates that through poetry (Dante’s vision of heaven); music (polyphony); art (perspective); science (astronomy); and architecture (I haven’t read that part yet), geometry once again became a tool for measuring and understanding the physical world. Just as in the 1940s, technology, funding, need, and brilliance converged to create the digital world, in the 1500s and 1600s, art and science merged through math to fundamentally shift how people in the West created, built, invented, and, indeed, thought.

What’s possible today? What does the overlap of our needs and resources give us the chance to accomplish that was obscure, or even invisible, just a decade ago? The grand turning of the academic wheel toward nonfiction, evidence, and argument, which is central to our nation’s new Common Core standards, is, at its best, like the applied science of the 1940s and the practical geometry of the Renaissance. It’s not that we turn K–12 education into vocational training, nor do we neglect ideas, psychology, philosophy, or literary subtly. But we bring into schools the creative friction with the demands of society, which has proven so fruitful in the past. You might say we’re creating applied education—so that we can answer that frustrated student who asks, “Why do I need to know this?” Indeed, we are building an elaborate educational structure to respond to precisely that question. And there’s more.

As I wrote in my last column, our shift to the Common Core is being matched by related shifts in other countries (such as Barcelona), where the focus is less on national history and experience and more on global connections and innovation. I ask all of you, why do fourth graders study their state’s history? How is that in any way meaningful? Nowadays, parents work anywhere and everywhere, so there’s a good chance those fourth graders will move on themselves. Why do we repeat American history, and treat that history as if it was about events within our borders, and not one that always involved people, ideas, and events throughout the globe? (I can’t wait to read Professor P. J. Marshall’s new book, Remaking the British Atlantic, The United States and the British Empire After American Independence [Oxford University Press, 2012], which claims we get U.S. history wrong by not recognizing how entangled in the world of British empire, stretching as far as India, we remained long after the Revolution). Why do we look at websites to learn about cities and sites overseas, instead of asking students there to exchange photo and video essays with our kids?

Our moment of convergence may be that as we reexamine how we teach, as we build common goals across states so that we can share best practices, as we connect the tasks in our classrooms with students’ future needs, as global connections become expected, not unusual, we create linked educational experiences for young people everywhere. Who knows what geniuses, inventions, and ideas might arise from that?

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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  1. There’s a bit in Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon” novel (which is partly set in the world of 1940s Bletchley Park, ULTRA, PURPLE, etc.), where Stephenson puts words in his Alan Turing character’s mouth that your post reminded me of:

    ‘There was this implicit belief, for a long time, that math was a sort of physics of bottlecaps. That any mathematical operation you could do on paper, no matter how complicated, could be reduced—in theory, anyway—to messing about with actual physical counters, such as bottlecaps, in the real world … when mathematicians began fooling around with things like the square root of negative one, and quaternions, then they were no longer dealing with things that you could translate into sticks and bottlecaps. And yet they were still getting sound results … Or at least internally consistent results … Meaning that math was more than a physics of bottlecaps.’

    If the modern requirement of mathematics being simply internally consistent was a reaction, as Alan Turing’s character says, against math seen as a “physics of bottlecaps”, then this latter notion would be a reaction against the Greek notion of math as philosophy (abstract and for its own sake). The Greek notion and the modern notion are more similar to each other in their irrelevanting of physics to math—very interesting!