Saturday, November 8, 2014

How the World Works: Great People or the People’s History?

I like to read different slants on topics.  I learned that from my father, an elevator operator, who brought home the discarded newspapers of the clients he took to their floors. He brought home the New York Times, the Daily News, the Herald Tribune, the New York Post, and PM. I learned there was a left, right, and centrist view on how the world worked, which included war news, business news, the events of interest to New York City, politics, and World News. I also liked the variety of political cartoons and comic strip pages. Some saw President Roosevelt as First Dictator of the Republic (FDR) and others as a saintly presence who cared for the laboring man and his family.  I enjoy reading books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I also enjoy reading biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft.  The historians bring out the human side of names that otherwise just test items on an examination.  Implied in Zinn’s history is that “We the people” are both participants and creators of that history.  We like to single out the few great names (Presidents, financiers, scientists, writers) but their work would have been impossible without the ordinary tinkerers in the arts, mechanics, farming, business, and politics. 

I know it is true that every word in this Blog had an individual inventor whose name is mostly unknown to us.  Who first used read, topic, elevator operator, newspaper, comic strip, historian, inventor, or family?   Was it first used in English or did it get translated into English? We could ask that authorship for even simpler words like but, the, a, how, of, in, or that.  We might track down “newspaper” but who first used “the”?  The same is true for the first shirt, underwear, socks, shoes, or hats.  Much of it might be prehistoric. The people’s history of a country or a field of knowledge (like science) brings out the practical people of unknown name who first used the stars to navigate, who figured out how to make fire, who figured out how to harden copper into bronze, and who discovered which herbs were of medicinal value and which were poisonous or inert. The authors of people’s histories also include the stories of who first made bricks or urns or blades from metal instead of from flakes of stone. At the same time, it becomes harder after the industrial revolution for ordinary people to enter science without undergraduate and college coursework and laboratory experience. No amateur could work out the structure of DNA without some knowledge of x-ray diffraction or biochemical familiarity of the nucleic acids and their chemical components. No amateur could work out the function of the mitochondria without some knowledge of how living things oxidize the digested foods we eat to produce energy, carbon dioxide, and water as outcomes of the process.  We still need tinkerers and amateurs to improve the original findings, devices, and theories which are often not quite as accurate as they are claimed to be.  Thousands of papers have been published since 1953 clarifying the mechanism and circumstances for DNA replication, structure, and function.  Biographies and histories of fields of knowledge and the arts give us a richer insight into many of the wonderful accomplishments of civilization.  It is not an either/or choice.  Read both. They enrich our understanding of how civilization works. 

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