Sunday, November 22, 2015

November 22 2015. Great minds discuss ideas… It might be helpful if ordinary minds did as well.




Before I went to university (at the tender age of 16) I harbored the rather idealistic notion that much of our conversation there would be intellectual in nature, and appropriately stimulating. I don’t quite know where I got this naïve notion from, but it was almost certainly from reading.

Reading is a fine and wonderful thing—but it can be misleading until leavened by experience of real life. For instance, I had read numerous adventure stories featuring combat before I first came under fire—but I found the real thing decidedly different to the written word. I found much the same thing about falling in love—and sex—or firing a .50 heavy machine gun.

It is not that the written word is necessarily inaccurate. It is more that even the most brilliant writer has a hard time communicating the intensity of reality, the impact on your emotions, and the fact that the mental and the physical are so intertwined—and so extraordinarily had to control.

Reality—outside the mundane—has a tendency to be  intense, confusing, and physical to a level that reading can rarely match—no matter how good your imagination.

In practice, most of our dialogue at university was as banal and uninteresting as it tends to be in life generally—and focused more on pubs, sex, sport, cars, vacation jobs, and gossip, than whether communism could be made to work, or lasers invented.

As is the nature of social life, it was pleasant and convivial enough in a mild way (it is always nice to be socially accepted), but—at least as far as I was concerned—extremely frustrating. I longed for the cut and thrust of intellectual debate—but encountered it seldom.

I graduated at 20, and throughout the intervening 51 years still find the serious discussion of ideas to be a comparatively uncommon thing. Issues are discussed—but, when they are, there is a tendency for argument by assertion to take precedence over genuine debate.

Certainly it is entirely legitimate—to the point of being helpful—to merely exchange views, and it is less contentious, but I miss what I tend to think of as ‘the logic of the argument’ whereby another’s perspective, hopefully supported by fresh information, can bring fresh enlightenment, and perhaps even change your mind.

I enjoy having my mind changed. It is truly exciting when you are exposed to new evidence, or a different slant, and you suddenly realize, with a rush, that your assumption was wrong or flawed in some way. I tend to think of it literally  visually as light invading darkness—starting as a chink, and then flooding in. I guess many of us do given the frequency of the word ‘enlighten.’

I now realize that most people don’t really like discussing ideas in any depth. They take the view that most things can’t be changed, that the most practical approach is to accept things the way they are—and just get on with life, and, anyway, they are simply not used to exercising their minds in this way. They find the process uncomfortable.

I accept this reality—and have for many years—and fill the gap with reading, radio, and the internet, but it has made me wonder whether we might not all be in a better place if the social norm of not discussing ideas was changed.

I don’t profess to know the answer. My current view is that we could be taught to think much more effectively than we are—but, that is merely an opinion. For all I know there may be some genetic reason why we steer clear of serious discussion of ideas. Perhaps, indeed, we are not capable of it. Certainly, the quality of most comments on the internet is scarcely reassuring. On the other hand, the most extraordinary work is being done in the technological area. Some remarkable minds are out there.

It is a concept I am more than happy to discuss.

In writing this, am I implying that I have a great mind?

I’m making no such claim. In fact, I don’t quite know what a great mind is. It strikes me that although that is a neat phrase, the more general tendency is for people to excel in some ways, but be flawed in others. Certainly, I would come into that category.

I do think I have been gifted with an unusually interesting and creative mind, which a combination of circumstances, writing, my own intellectual curiosity, and my willingness to take career risks have enabled me to develop way more than I would have thought possible when I was younger.

I would almost certainly have had an easier life if my mind was more conventional—but I feel extraordinarily lucky that it is what it is. It is intense to the point of being exhausting—but I am rarely bored.

But, do I bore other people?

Not normally when I write. Suffice to say that though I love discussing ideas, I have learned to raise them conversationally with caution. I regret it—I’m pretty much driven by ideas—but that is just the way it is (and I try and avoid the glazed look that people get when a serious subject comes up).

Mind you, ideas don’t have to be discussed too seriously, though they have a tendency to evolve that way.

Since I mentioned the invention of the laser in this piece, I though I would look it up to see when it really was invented. Coincidentally, the year in question was 1960—the same year I started university.

Here is Wikipedia on the subject.

A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. The term "laser" originated as an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation".[1][2] The first laser was built in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Laboratories, based on theoretical work by Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow. A laser differs from other sources of light in that it emits light coherently. Spatial coherence allows a laser to be focused to a tight spot, enabling applications such as laser cutting and lithography. Spatial coherence also allows a laser beam to stay narrow over great distances (collimation), enabling applications such as laser pointers. Lasers can also have high temporal coherence, which allows them to emit light with a very narrow spectrum, i.e., they can emit a single color of light. Temporal coherence can be used to produce pulses of light as short as a femtosecond.

Among their many applications, lasers are used in optical disk drives, laser printers, and barcode scanners; fiber-optic and free-space optical communication; laser surgery and skin treatments; cutting and welding materials; military and law enforcement devices for marking targets and measuring range and speed; and laser lighting displays in entertainment.

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