Tuesday, April 7, 2009

So Try This For Example

So try this for example. Try patting your head, rubbing your stomach, doing the foxtrot, and reciting Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s Illiad, all at once. All the way through.

Or try this. The year is 1905. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show is touring France for the second time. You know Buffalo Bill’s Wild West? Right? Cowboys from all over the world. Indians. American Indians. Sitting Bull was a performer in the show for a time. The overarching theme was the taming of the wild west. Making the west safe for white women and their families. Their children.

There was remarkable melodrama. Little real life dioramas illustrating the pioneers’ movement west. The Pony Express was enacted and exhibited. The Deadwood Stage was enacted and exhibited. The hardships. The danger because of the Indians. The heroic exploits of various and sundry. Including Buffalo Bill himself. Who concocted tall stories about his heroism and played them out in his shows. Little fictional accounts of real life events. Or was it real life accounts of fictional events?

The Battle of the Little Big Horn was play-acted out: It was called Custer’s Last Stand. The defeat of General George Armstrong Custer. Bill Cody played Custer. And so on. Little exempla. Little scenarios in which the story of heroic half-white half-savage men made the world safe from the wildness of uncivilized and ungoverned unwhite men. And these. These simulacra. Were how Americans came to know themselves, in part. How Europeans came to know Americans, in part.

It was life undefined, to a large extent. From the European point of view. It was life unrestricted. The American West was the free life. The life of danger and adventure and possibility. There was trick riding and lassoing and sharpshooting, for example. There were cowboys and Indians living in tents! Tents of all things. On the show grounds.

And so in 1905, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was playing at the base of the Eiffel Tower between April 2nd and June 4th. Toured all over France after that. But in Paris drew 3 million visitors during that 2 month period.

And do you know what was going on only 121 miles from Paris during this period? In Bern, Switzerland? Well our friend Albert Einstein is having a wonderful year. His best year yet. He is working at the Federal Office of Intellectual Property as an assistant patent examiner. And he is making babies with his wife. And he is writing and publishing papers. Remarkable papers. Four of them.

It is called Annus Mirabilis because of Einstein’s four papers published that year. 1905. So as Bill Cody was redefining what it is to be an American for the Europeans. As he is setting his simulacra of the American Story before millions of Europeans. As he is raking in the cash and making a name for himself.

There is little Albert Einstein telling his little stories about how the physical world works. Or the physical immaterial material construct we call the world. So one paper was on how we might think of light as many discrete quanta or packets rather than waves. Of course the idea of light as a wave was the popular idea of light among physicists at that time.

So another paper was an explanation of the small movement of tiny bits of matter as Brownian motion. This explanation of random movement traces its heritage at least as far back as Lucretius, a first century B.C. Roman poet and philosopher, who, in his poem “On the Nature of Things” or as it is sometimes translated “On the Nature of the Universe,” explains the random movement of dust particles in a shaft of sunlight as being caused by unseen atoms that cause the random movement of the dust. So this paper by Einstein reaches back to a poet to understand the possibility of the atom—again—and the possibility of randomness or indeterminacy resting at what was then newly (in this paper) considered the foundation of matter.

So another paper was on Special Relativity, which we in part have already touched upon in another post, along with some aspects of General Relativity, which was to come relatively later. Some years later. In his career.

So the fourth paper was on the equivalence of mass and energy and the theoretical possibility of the transmutability of the one into the other. This paper expresses for the first time this idea, and it expresses it in one of the more memorable locutions of the 20th century: E = MC².

So as Buffalo Bill Cody is rescuing a woman and her children in her prairie cabin from her Indian attackers in his Wild West show at the base of the Eiffel Tower, there is little Albert rewriting our understanding of the universe. Or parts of our understanding. Who knows, he might have even taken his young family over the border for a spring or summer excursion to see the splendor and panorama and wild good-naturedness of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

Can you hold both of these in your mind simultaneously? Can you imagine little Albert wandering around the show? Marveling at the. The. Oh, the fancy shooting, for example? At the Indians in their buckskins and their feathery headgear? At the rope tricks? At the trick horseback riding? And at the strangeness of it all?

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