Friday, February 15, 2008

Scriptorium Gets It Right Again

There is an archetype seen most often in the history of science of the great or near-great man whose enjoys a period of renown, but whose stature diminishes over time as his ideas become outdated, unfashionable or obsolete. Consider Cuvier and his promotion of geological catastrophism , Joseph Priestley and his defense of phlogiston theory, or Louis Agassiz, whose legacy as the foremost American scientist of his day was tarnished by his ideas about racial inequality. I always chuckle at the story (alas, probably apocryphal) about Agassiz' symbolic "fall from grace" at Stanford during the San Francisco earthquake:

During the 1906 temblor, the stone shelf supporting a marble statue of Swiss naturalist and geologist Louis Agassiz ... failed, causing the statue to plunge into the ground below. There are several accounts of the outcome. One student wrote, “A big marble statue of Agassiz was toppled off his perch on the outside of the quad and fell foremost into the ground (right through a cement walk) up to his shoulders, and still sticks there, legs in the air and his hand held out gracefully. People came running from the quad with such sober faces, but when they saw him they couldn’t help laughing, and one fellow went up and shook hands with him"... President David Starr Jordan wrote, “Somebody—Dr. Angell, perhaps—remarked that ‘Agassiz was great in the abstract but not in the concrete.’”

In the realm of politics ideas rise and fall in more subjective ways based on public perceptions, marketability and the like. Right now the man of the hour is of course Barack Obama. But my friend John Mark Reynolds (who has been blogging the campaign heavily and well at Scriptorium) presciently points out that it Obama's moment in the sun is destined to be short-lived. John Mark has been blogging thick and fast during this current election cycle and deserves yet another plug (I think once a year is not too excessive).

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