Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

All (Hu)m(a)n(s) Are Created Equal?


I find it strangely fitting that this 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address is also World Toilet Day.  (Stay with me here.)  Lincoln spoke eloquently of a nation founded upon the premise that all men are created equal.  I love, love, love that he did this, because Lincoln's words stack a new layer upon our nation's founding documents, multiplying the effect of what I often tell my students when they reach that point of the term when they're totally depressed by all the bad things that have happened in American history: the most exciting thing about these United States is that men enlightened by the standards of their times issued universal declarations in language far, far more sweeping in its application than anything they could have envisioned in their time and place... and Americans have been able to use those promises to drag society (kicking and screaming, sometimes) toward a world of greater opportunity for all.  That--THAT--is awesome.  As in "awe-some," not as in surfer talk.

Lincoln was a great man; he was also a man of his times.  As many will point out today, his thinking on slavery and his conception of what the Civil War was about evolved over the years of his life and of the conflict.  That doesn't taint the deeper, broader truth of his words.  Perhaps he was prophetic, in the sense of speaking truths even he did not fully comprehend.  

We in the United States still fail to put into practice this truth that all (humans) are created equal.  Others will spend the day pointing out a litany of ills that continue to plague society, and they're right--but the promise endures, and that gives me hope.

On World Toilet Day, however, I'd suggest we take this promise one step farther.  Lincoln states that the United States was founded upon the premise that all people are created equal.  That statement is necessarily universal.  He didn't say all men in the United States are created equal.  Rather, all men--everywhere--are created equal.  There are 2.5 billion people in this world who do not have access to basic sanitation.  That's billion with a "b."  Lincoln's words apply to these folks, too.  Let's take this premise global.  We have an awesome inheritance--if we use it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Herschels

It's funny how interest and/or personal connection heightens awareness.  Our pastor owns a light blue Prius... despite the fact that there are roughly 2.3 million light blue Priuses (Priusi?) in the Portland metro area, I still look every time to see if it's him.  Same goes for red Focus wagons, charcoal Corollas and a zillion other cars.  Shoot, I still notice 13-year-old blue Honda Accords, and it's been two years since the other half drove one of those.

As with cars, so it goes with historical research subjects.  I'm sure you wondered how I planned to segue after that introduction.

I've been noodling around several potential profile subjects for a children's magazine at which I do a lot of freelancing.  One of them is a woman named Caroline Herschel, who was sister to William Herschel, a groundbreaking, self-taught astronomer who discovered Uranus, among other things.  Caroline overcame numerous childhood challenges to become a tremendously skilled astronomer in her own right, with a talent for discovering comets.  I've been sitting here checking my email and tending to my slightly under-the-weather offspring, and having finished other tasks I decided (as one does, if one's a history nerd) to Google this date in history.

Guess whose birthday it is?


Meet William Herschel!



Here's his sister, too, for the sake of equality.  Turns out that despite his amazing innovations in crafting new telescopes, his dogged commitment to research excellence and his aptitude for discerning the deeper truths underlying his discoveries (the notion of "deep space," for example, was something he made great strides in understanding), our man William couldn't have accomplished all this without his sister's assistance.  Caroline and William formed a team; she spent years' worth of nights carefully recording his observations, assisting with his groundbreaking telescope manufacturing, and conducting research in her own right.

The story of William and Caroline Herschel is a useful reminder of the limitations of the "great man" theory of history.  Some people are, indeed, uniquely endowed with talents and gifted with the capacity to use them.  William was one of these people.  Even these folks, though, rely on the support, the ingenuity, and the gifts of other people.  I hope my profile of Caroline Herschel will contribute in some small way to correcting such misapprehensions.

Wonder where else the Herschels will turn up?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

World Wide Web is 23!

Happy birthday to the World Wide Web!  Twenty-three years old today.  Here's a link to another blog I was reading this morning including a Writer's Almanac story on the development of the WWW.  It's hard now to imagine a world without the Internet in its modern and (mostly?) user-friendly form -- yet those halcyon days of my senior year in high school, when some friends and I spent part of the fall researching politics online for the very first time, came only 5 years after the Web's creation.  (This explains why it took 10 minutes for a crazy-basic site with a few shreds of information to load, even using the school's theoretically advanced server...)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Franklin and the Hydrogen Balloon

Benjamin Franklin, having observed the first manned hydrogen balloon flight: "Someone asked me--what's the use of a balloon?  I replied--what's the use of a newborn baby?"*

Franklin's foresight is astounding.  Successful innovations take two things: an original, compelling and and effective breakthrough, and an environment populated by a sufficient number of people who realize that something is a breakthrough (or, at minimum, by a few people of sufficient stature to convince the public).  Successful innovations are also much easier to see in hindsight.  Franklin was able to see and discern the significance of something as superficially frivolous as a hot-air balloon.  I wonder what innovations--and which insightful observers--will characterize the technological history of our age?

* quoted in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (NY: Pantheon, 2008), p. 132.