Archive for July 19th, 2011

Mantra Thinking: Screw the Details, Get the CONCEPT Right

About my age Benjamin Franklin began writing his autobiography.

It was, among other things, a farewell. Franklin was about seventy and he had done more different things than any other man we know of from his time.

Franklin had negotiated with the King and with Indians, supplied armies, made his fortune, and he was the only the third American to be a Fellow of the Royal Society. Almost every American knew quotes from him,,

James Watt and Adam Smith were personal buddies of his.

Just his incredible contributions to the science of electricity would have been enough for one man. “Positive” and “negative” and “battery” and a whole list of basic words we use today were his.

So by 1774 Ole Ben was feeling a bit used up. He was looking back on his life.

He never finished the book.

Some events caught up with him of which you may have heard. In fact, most people are not familiar with what he did BEFORE he started saying goodbye.

He had no idea what was about to happen in the troubles with Britain, but he had another historical blind spot.

Ben Franklin was fascinated by knowledge for its own sake. But, as a very, very practical man who had made his own fortune, he knew that electricity was fascinating but totally impractical. He would have laughed out loud at someone who theorized that there might someday be a PRACTICAL use for this barely theoretical force.

Yes, he proved lightening was electricity, but he no more thought of that as a practical discovery than he would of the idea that man is largely made of carbon, and therefore scientists could create a man.

I use to know the details of Franklin’s electricity. But that was back when I was a ham radio operator, and I was using a state of the art Morse Code key.

I remember that a “battery” was named for the way the glass jars looked like a column of men. It took a lot of glass jars being chemicalized and rubbed to put out a spark you could see.

I forgot the details, but since I am a Mantra Thinker, the CONCEPT stayed with me. It caused me to save a lot of science projects that Senator Proxmire was loved by mindless conservatives for attacking.

Proxmire just read the titles of the projects, which the average person would not understand, and denounce the $50,000 or whatever the grantee was spending.

Analog Magazine once made a list of some of the stunning advances these very basic research programs caused.

That was one of the two times I risked my job on principle. John Ashbrook had the NSF Grant list sent to me and asked me to find some projects to make fun of for publicity. I was the only person on his or the Committee’s staff who could understand what the titles meant, so I was the only one who could do it.

I did what a staffer NEVER does: I told him No. I told my boss this stuff was unworthy of him, and I would have no part of it.

No, I don’t remember the details of Ben Franklin and electricity.

But I got the POINT.


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