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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000706.txt from 2002/05

Subj: [kl] synesthesia, etc.
Date: Wed, 29 May 2002 18:50:55 -0400

I wrote:
>Still, scientists have been known to make mistakes
>once in a while, too ("The earth is flat," for instance).

Bill Edinger wrote,
>>As a scientist, I would like to ask you just who
>>the "scientists" were who said the earth is flat.

In case the question is Daniel Boorstin's philological trap (forgive me,
Bill, if it isn't!): My definition of "scientist" is based on what people do
(or did), not on what they are (were) called. I regard a scientist as any
person who uses (used) what we now regard as scientific method: who bases
(based) conclusions on observation and experimentation.

In his Introduction to _A Short History of Scientific Ideas to 1900_ (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, corrected ed. 1960, p. 3), Charles Singer illustrates
neolithic cave paintings in the Cavern of Maux in Southern France, ca. 25,000
B. C.. The paintings depict bison, with arrows sticking into their chests
in the region of the animals' hearts. The paintings may have religious
significance (as sympathetic magic), but whatever *else* they may have been,
they're correct instructions for bow hunting, based upon correctly observed
facts: Shoot your arrow *there* and your prey will fall seriously wounded or
dead. Therefore, Singer argues, and I agree, that these cave paintings
represent scientific method dating back to the dawn of humankind. He also
points out (p. 1) that, "The science of one age has often become the nonsense
of the next," but IMHO, the fact that much of early science has proved
incorrect doesn't make it unscientific.

The ancient Babylonians developed basic mathematics, including the basics of
geometry, ca. 1800-1600 B. C. and used this knowledge in astronomical
speculation based on measurements of position and movement. The Babylonians
of this period "conceived the earth as a disk rising into a central mountain
and ringed by a moat of ocean. Beyond the ocean was a mountain-wall
upholding a solid, hemispherical firmament." (Singer, p. 9. For a
fascinating, amusingly irresponsible exploration of early astronomy and its
relationship to superstition, by the way, see the 1922 silent film, HAEXAN:
WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, splendidly restored by The Criterion Collection.
Paired with the 1941 narrated re-release, alternate commentary track and
other extras, the restoration was released on DVD in 2001, as Criterion 134.)

A Greek explorer and scientist, Thales (ca. 624-565 B. C.), made numerous
astronomical observations and calculations, which he used, among other
things, to predict correctly a solar eclipse visible in his home town of
Milteus, in 585 B. C.. Thales believed the earth was flat. His student,
Anaximander, drew a map of the earth, showing it as "a flat disc in the
centre of all things. Sun, moon and stars are enclosed in opaque rings,
rotating with the earth as centre. We see them only through vents in these
rings." (Singer, p. 17.) Hecataeus, born ca. 540 B. C. in Miletus, was an
explorer and a religious skeptic, who regarded the ancient Greek mythology as
preposterous. Based on teachings of Thales and his own astronomical
observations, Hecataeus drew a map of the heavens. It, too, shows the earth
as a flat disc, surrounded by oceans.

These ancient astronomers came to some correct and some incorrect conclusions
about the earth and the heavens, based on observations made with the naked
eye and measurements made with hand tools. Were these men not scientists?
Aside from the modern advantage of 2500 years of additional tool-building and
preserved communication, how does the speculation of Thales differ from
modern string theory supported by observations made with the Hubble
Telescope? I don't think we're smarter than our Greek and Babylonian
predecessors. We've just had more time--including more time to invent and
build better toys.

We already know that the human brain contains redundant pathways, allowing
people to regain functions formerly performed by areas of the brain damaged
by strokes or even physically removed by surgery or injury. It won't
surprise me if, within my own lifetime, scientists determine that the
cross-wiring of the senses found in people with full-blown synaesthesia is
not rare at all, much less imaginary, but simply an extreme manifestation of
this life-protecting redundancy. Long live the blue note!



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