Thursday, September 23

The ‘man’ of the Renaissance is us | Society


Albert Einstein in a loaned image.
Albert Einstein in a loaned image.Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

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Scientific specialization, someone I don’t remember said, consists of knowing more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing. Everyone admits that it is necessary, because the vastness of scientific and technical knowledge is overwhelming for a modest copy of ‘homo sapiens‘that the day before yesterday I was painting bison in the caves. And very well indeed. Thinkers envy the “Renaissance man” – inclusive language had not been invented – who could still afford to master a wide spectrum of learning, from art to mathematics, from engineering to literature. If you look at it carefully, it is a poisoned compliment, because it is equivalent to laughing at how little was known then. Today we know so much that we no longer fit in a liter and a half skull, and therefore we have to specialize.

The plot is not only true, but also obvious, but half the story is left out. If you want to be a good pianist, you have no choice but to spend eight years of your life pressing keys. But if you aspire to be a ‘great‘pianist, that’s not enough. For that, you have to convert all that data into knowledge. And knowledge is not a mere sum of all the information. It is a step of abstraction, like looking at the crowded street from the first floor. The not very long history of science reveals the validity of that principle with dazzling clarity.

The very trigger for the scientific revolution was a unification, which is what physicists call that step of abstraction, or going up a floor. Newton managed to synthesize in a simple equation all the data that were known then, thus revealing a new concept, gravity, which explained the fall of an apple to the ground, the rotation of the Moon on the Earth and the orbits of all the planets around it. from the Sun. Look up at the night sky and you will see that none of this is obvious at all. It is a consequence of data, yes, but also of turning it into knowledge, into an abstract concept that you can only see from the first floor.

The rest of physics can be interpreted as a staggered ascent to the fourth or fifth floor, and each of those conceptual leaps has consisted of a unification: between electricity and magnetism to discover the concept of electromagnetic force and the nature of light, apart from firing the revolution of electrical energy. Which, by the way, is not the work of Tesla, as certain secular religions seem to believe, but of the scientific geniuses who preceded him, with special emphasis on Faraday and Maxwell.

Einstein climbed several floors in one go and unified space with time, mass with energy, and gravity with geometry. His equations of general relativity can be written in half a page, and yet they cover the entire cosmos. Einstein formulated the theory in a precise mathematical architecture that predicts reality to lots of decimal places, but what got him there was his enormous creativity and physical intuition. Imagination reaches beyond knowledge, he said in an understandable fit of self-esteem after accomplishing the feat.

Genetics, which began in 1900 with the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, produced in the next half century such a pile of data that not even the best specialist could assimilate it. That changed at a stroke in 1953 with the discovery of the DNA double helix, which suddenly explained everything he knew in a simple and elegant molecular structure, the biological version of an equation. Since then the foundation of genetics can be explained to a child (and no, I’m not going to make the Groucho joke in ‘Goose soup’).

These leaps to a higher level rarely come from specialists who aspire to know everything about nothing. Rather, they are the product of the most creative and daring minds of every age. This does not mean that the accumulation of raw data is irrelevant, since science is not a disciple of genius, but a slave of the world. Let us remember that the devil dwells in the details. But that is not enough to climb the ladder. As Sydney Brenner said about the genomic information strata that bury biologists today, information must now become knowledge, in general principles, abstractions and new concepts. Otherwise we will end up knowing everything about nothing.

Should we envy Leonardo because he could know everything and we couldn’t? No way, because the ‘everything‘Leonardo was not even useful to fly two meters, let’s not talk about landing. The real ones’renaissance men‘ we are.


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