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American Foundations

Mark Dowie

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Will Wonders Never Cease?

Posted on Jun 30, 2012
Lapham's Quarterly

By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

All present were encouraged to learn and borrow from one another, to invent literally fantastic new materials to fit the trajectories of fanciful new hypotheses. Together with the manufacture of the laser and the transistor, the labs derived from Boolean algebra the binary code that allows computers to speak to themselves of more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in the philosophies of either Hamlet or Horatio.

Gertner attributes the epistemological shape-shifting to the mathematician Claude Shannon, who intuited the moving of “written and spoken exchanges ever deeper into the realm of ciphers, symbols, and electronically enhanced puzzles of representation”—i.e., toward the “lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters” that Faustus most desired. The correspondence is exact, as is the one to be drawn from John Crowley’s essay, “A Well Without a Bottom,” that recalls the powers of the Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim, a fifteenth-century mage who devised a set of incantations “carrying messages instantaneously… through the agency of the stars and planets who rule time.” Bell Labs in 1962 converted the thought into Telstar, the communications satellite relaying data, from earth to heaven and back to earth, in less than six-tenths of a second.

Between the 1940s and the 1980s, Bell Labs produced so many wonders both military and civilian (the DEW line and the Nike missile as well as the first cellular phone) that AT&T’s senior management was hard put to correct the news media’s tendency to regard the Murray Hill estate as “a house of magic.” The scientists in residence took pains to discount the notion of rabbits being pulled from hats, insisting that the work in hand followed from a patient sequence of trial and error rather than from the silk-hatted magician Eisenheim’s summoning with cape and wand the illusions of “The Magic Kettle” and “The Mysterious Orange Tree” to theater stages in nineteenth-century Paris, London, and Berlin.

The disavowals fell on stony ground. Time passed; the wonders didn’t cease, and by 1973 Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction writer believed by his admirers to be the twentieth-century avatar of Shakespeare’s Prospero, had confirmed the truth apparent to both Ariel and Caliban: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

As chairman of the British Interplanetary Society during the 1950s, Clarke had postulated stationing a communications satellite 22,300 miles above the equator in what is now recognized by the International Astronomical Union as “The Clarke Orbit,” and in 1968 he had co-written the film script for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening sequence—during which an ape heaves into thin air a prehistoric bone that becomes a spaceship drifting among the stars—encompasses the spirit of an age that maybe once was Elizabethan but lately has come to be seen as a prefiguration of our own.

The New World’s Magical Beginnings (and Endings)

New philosophies call all in doubt, the more so as the accelerating rates of technological advance—celestial, terrestrial, and subliminal—overrun the frontiers between science, magic, and religion. The inventors of America’s liberties, their sensibilities born of the Enlightenment, understood the new world in America as an experiment with the volatile substance of freedom. Most of them were close students of the natural sciences: Thomas Paine an engineer, Benjamin Rush a physician and chemist, Roger Sherman an astronomer, Thomas Jefferson an architect and agronomist.

Intent upon enlarging the frame of human happiness and possibility, they pursued the joy of discovery in as many spheres of reference as could be crowded onto the shelves of a Philadelphia library or a Boston philosophical society. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, colonist arriving from France in 1755, writes in his Letters from an American Farmer to express gratitude for the spirit in which Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod—“by what magic I know not”—was both given and received: “Would you believe that the great electrical discoveries of Mr. Franklin have not only preserved our barns and our houses from the fire of heaven but have even taught our wives to multiply their chickens?”

A similar approach to the uses of learning informed Jefferson’s best hopes for the new nation’s colleges and schools, and for the better part of the last two centuries it has underwritten the making of America into what the historian Henry Steele Commager named “the empire of reason.” An empire that astonishes the world with the magnificence of its scientific research laboratories, but one never safe from frequent uprisings in the rebel provinces of unreason.

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