BOOKNEWS AND REVIEWS
". . .someday they will just stumble on something stupid, like that Fleming. He left his food on his plate, and it moldered, and so he just stumbled on penicillin." Glenway Wescott, 1955.
CLEOPATRA'S NOSE: ESSAYS ON THE UNEXPECTED by Daniel J. Boorstin (Edited by Ruth Boorstin). (1994). Random House: New York.
The author, a former Librarian of Congress and Professor of History at the University of Chicago, has written a book of essays about the relationship between American culture and the history of discovery, creative endeavors and technology. The title refers to an observation made by Blaise Pascal (1623-62) that a small chance variation in Cleopatra's beauty would have changed the course of world history. Mistakes, going up blind alleys and accidental observations are all part of the art of discovery and creation. As Boorstin demonstrates in these essays, most of the important developments in the arts and technology are the result of chance occurrences. His discussions of these occurrences involve some fascinating ideas that can help gifted students to better understand the future direction of American society. Some of the author's major ideas related to producing this understanding are as follows:
The unification of the cultures of discovery and creation has been occurring for the last 500 years ("The Cultures of Pride and Awe," "An Odd Couple: Discoverers and Inventors"). This combining process has led to powerful developments in science and technology. The history of discovery has emphasized groups of individuals working toward common goals, while the history of creation has stressed the uniqueness of individual achievement in the arts, crafts and technology. Today we need individual creativity in all areas of society more than ever.
We have been living in "The Age of Negative Discovery" as illustrated by the astounding seafaring voyages of Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Captain James Cook. Some examples (page 7) of negative discovery from astronomy and modern space sciences are: the Earth is not the center of the Universe, the Sun in not the center of the Universe, and our galaxy is not the center of the Universe. In this age, the amount of data produced by scientific research has increased at an "ever-accelerating" pace, leading to "hosts of answers to questions not yet asked."
We are living in the Fourth Kingdom -- The Machine Kingdom ("Darwinian Expectations," "Statistical Expectations"). This kingdom, as contrasted with the animal, vegetable and mineral domains, is governed by the principle of "expatiation" which means to walk or wander freely. According to this principle, technological progress is unpredictable and largely due to negative discovery. Regarding the Fourth Kingdom, Boorstin says (page 153): "The career of Thomas A. Edison, paragon of inventors in the fourth kingdom, suggests that if there is a law of invention, it is not a law of evolution or linear advance. To expatiate -- 'to wander freely' and toy with the problem -- is the way of the inventor. . . ."
Major technological breakthroughs are in many cases by-products or unexpected offshoots of planned technologies such as the steam engine and telescope ("An Odd Couple: Discoverers and Inventors," "Statistical Expectations"). Boorstin emphasizes the idea of unexpected discoveries throughout his essays.
He addresses other issues concerned with the social and political history of the United States. Among these are:
Great writers have expressed concern for society through the Public Conscience and Private Conscience ("The Writer as Conscience of the World"). The author discusses how these concerns have influenced current politics, law and social behavior. In "Our Conscience-Wracked Nation" he shows how the modern conscience has led to extremes of rights without responsibilities, the lowering of academic and work standards, and the Balkanization of our nation. Additional matters he writes about are: the importance of the White House (the building itself) in American history, the role of the printing press in the adoption and dissemination of the United States Constitution, the design of the Capitol, Tocqueville's America, and the new machine kingdom that requires a search for the laws of the unexpected.
The concluding chapters on his roots, his father and his vision of the nation's future demonstrate a humbleness and optimism that encourage us to take pride in America's history, accomplishments and future. As a model for gifted students, Boorstin exemplifies the Yiddish idea of a "Mensch" -- an individual who cares about his fellow human beings. His vision of the United States is one of hope for our culture and technology. This book has significant implications for educating gifted students and for understanding the advanced industrial/technological age in which we live.
GREAT ESSAYS IN SCIENCE by Martin Gardner (Editor). (1994). Prometheus Books: Buffalo, NY.
BEST SCIENCE WRITING: READINGS AND INSIGHTS by Robert Gannon (Editor). (1991). Oryx Press: Phoenix, AZ.
In previous issues of GEN-P we have highlighted books that exemplify excellent science writing. Here are two that include many outstanding essayists in all areas of science, medicine and technology. Gardner's book has high-powered writers such as Isaac Asimov, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Stephen Jay Gould and H.G. Wells. Their topics cover such areas as the sphinx (Francis Bacon), the influence of Darwinisn on philosophy (John Dewey), reflections on a grain of salt (Carl Sagan) and seven biological wonders (Lewis Thomas). Gannon's book is a unique collection of award winning essays on a variety of topics -- for example, the function of the liver, orthopedic surgery, studies of the geological features of the western states, deceptions in psychological research, and chaos theory. An important feature of this volume is that it contains descriptions of how each author works and how they gathered information to write their essays.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AND ANNOUNCEMENTS
DISCOVER: THE WORLD OF SCIENCE -- The January 1995 issue contains an astounding article entitled, "Beast in the Belly: A Strange Tale of Medicine and Faith" by Sherwin Nuland. The author is a surgeon at Yale University-New Haven Hospital and a winner of The National Book Award. He is one of the greatest medical writers of our age with a strong literary-humanities bent. Write to Discover Magazine Science Program at the following address to learn about this science education resource: 105 Terry Drive, Suite 120; Newtown, PA 18940-3425.
THE NEW YORKER -- Read the remarkable story of an autistic child who is a highly talented artist in the January 9, 1995 issue. The author, Oliver Sacks (another M.D. with a world renowned reputation as a medical writer), relates his observations and ideas on neurological dysfunctions to the humanities. This article provides some excellent insights into the nature of creativity in the visual arts such as the idea that it involves extraordinary technical skills combined with strong individual initiative.
BY MICHAEL E. WALTERS NEW YORK CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS
"A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer his own solitude with sweet sounds . . . ." From A Defence of Poetry (1821) by Shelley.
It is not only his lyrics that sing and inspire us, but his unique sensibility that enriches us. The Modern Library-College Edition (Random House, 1951) of Shelley's poems has an introduction by the literary critic, Carlos Baker, that describes this wonderful sensibility and its eternal wisdom. Baker did not delve into the biographical details of Shelley's life, but sought instead to analyze his profoundly poetic awareness. Shelley warned that society has a habit of confusing words with thoughts, and it is essential to understand what "poetic" means to appreciate his works. We may know the dictionary definition of this word but lack understanding of the poetic concept. Baker described the cultural-spiritual development of Shelley who began his career as the enfant terrible of the Enlightenment. Shelley developed a Platonic concept of mind and spirit. The manifestations of this spirit were first intellectual beauty, and then cosmic love. He believed the latter would help to solve major political and social problems. The final thrust of his ideas was that poets are the moral legislators of humanity.
Shelley expressed his poetic philosophy in an essay he wrote in 1821, A Defence of Poetry -- the most significant exposition of sensibility since Aristotle's Poetics. Teachers of the gifted and their students would find it illuminating to read and study this essay for insight into the link between giftedness and sensibility. There can be no denial that Shelley was highly gifted. Simultaneously, it cannot be denied that sensibility is the key to understanding giftedness. The term sensibility is not educational jargon; instead it is crucial to understanding the style and thought of this great genius.
Ironically, Shelley would be considered very politically correct by today's standards. One of our major conceits is that we have invented new concepts rather than rediscovering older wisdom. Shelley was a spokesperson for feminism, e.g., many of his poems criticize patriarchal dominance of society (Queen Mab). However, his goal was to unify feminine and masculine components of the human psyche (Prometheus Unbound). Other poems were based upon his response to events such as liberation struggles versus oppression -- for example, Ode To Naples depicts the Italian revolt against the Austrians, and Hellas describes the Greek rebellion against the Ottoman Turks. Shelley also had an avid concern for the preservation of nature (To A Skylark). Here is my lament to his premature demise at 29 during a sailing expedition: A good wind means nothing when you lack a port of destiny,/Crossing the lake -- passing the inlet shrubbed, hard shiny pebbles,/Sparkle in the pathos of ebbing daylight,/Soon a squall approaches,/Racing for the shore if you arrive too late,/The awaiting ceremony is burnt heart./Adonais is the port of entry.
Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, February-March 1995