Michael Lind is an economic historian who has recently written an excellent history of the United States. Lind divides the thread of American history as flowing in two parallel but competing directions. One thread belongs to the Jeffersonians who oppose central authority and value small government and individual economic initiative. The other belongs to Hamiltonians who favor a strong central government with broad governing powers.
Who wins in this battle? Lind's answer is clear - the Hamiltonians. After doing a careful study of all the institutions and policies that emerged in the United States since its founding, Lind concludes that one can see the sure hand of the Hamiltonians everywhere. He quite certainly does not discount the role of the Jeffersonians in creating private capital, entrepreneurship and innovation, but even these achievements could not have been carried out without an enabling framework set up by the Hamiltonians.
Lind's conclusions reminds us that although Jeffersonians Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Thomas Edison and John D Rockefeller have made this country the technological powerhouse that it is, we live and breathe the air of Hamiltonians like Franklin Roosevelt, Vannevar Bush, Louis Agassiz and Alfred Newton Richards. At the end of the day we are all Hamiltonians. Even when Jeffersonians play their great game of competition and innovation, it is on a Hamiltonian stage with its well-defined boundaries that they must perform.
A similar thought went through my mind as I was reading Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow's first-rate romp through the major ideas and intellectual events of human civilization titled "The Upright Thinkers". Mlodinow takes us through a sweeping trek through the last ten thousand years of science and technology, covering such major milestones as agriculture, mathematics, Greek, Arabian and Renaissance science, Galileo and the birth of modern science, Newton, the evolution of chemistry from alchemy into a bonafide science, all the way to Maxwell, Einstein and the quantum pioneers.
One of the paragraphs that really stood out for me however was one in which Mlodinow communicates the sheer ubiquity of Newton's way of thinking. There is a reason that even with people like Maxwell, Darwin and Einstein following him, Newton can still legitimately lay claim to being the greatest scientist in history. That's because, as Mlodinow says, Newtonian thought has not just pervaded all of science and life but it has become a metaphor for almost everything we do and feel.
"Today we all reason like Newtonians. We speak of the force of a person's character and the acceleration of the spread of a disease. We talk of physical and even mental inertia, and the momentum of a sports team. To think in such terms would have been unheard of before Newton; not to think in such terms is unheard of today. Even those who know nothing of Newton's laws have had their psyches steeped in his ideas. And so to study the work of Newton is to study our own roots."
This a point that should not be lost on us. Even though the tiny details of our life may be infused with quantum events like cooking, metabolism and reproduction, we are truly Newtonian creatures. Quantum mechanics underlies everything we do, but it's layered on a Newtonian stage of events, metaphors and emotions. These days nobody writes books on Newton's laws and everyone writes books on quantum mechanics and relativity, but the fact is that the weird reality described by these theories matters very little for the mundane things in our life. One of them applies to the very fast and the other applies to the very small, and most of our lives deal with objects in between.
Even today after Einstein and Heisenberg and Bohr, 99% of the things that matter to us unfold on a Newtonian stage. Every time we get up from the bed, brush our teeth, drive down the highway, type on our keyboards or fly in an airplane we are obeying the dictates of Newton. Even if our atoms obey the laws of quantum mechanics and dictate the biochemistry of our actions and thoughts, the emergent laws that arise from them and that bear a far more direct connection to our actions are all Newtonian. The fact that we are Newton's children is not just a tribute to the unbelievable sweep of his theories but also a resounding tribute to the limitations of strict reductionism.
Just like even an arch Republican like Nixon had to admit that "We're all Keynesians", even people who (improbably) might be rejecting Newton in 2015 cannot escape the reality that they're all Newtonians. The ubiquity of his thoughts holds us in its sweeping embrace as firmly as gravity holds us to the earth.
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