Archive for the ‘history’ Category

“He is a genius. And strange to say, I think he’s smarter than I am.”

March 22, 2009

Yale history professor David W. Blight photo

I’m now watching the third lecture in a Yale history class by professor David W. Blight about the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction Era (1845-1877). This particular lecture deals with the pro-slavery ideology. As a Canadian, a lot of this is new to me.

I think this passage says a lot:

But it’s amazing to read the letters and the language of slave traders when they write to each other, the complacency, the mixture of just pure racism on the one hand and just business language on the other. “I refused a girl 20-years-old at $700.00 yesterday,” one trader wrote to another in 1853. “If you think best to take her at 700, I can still get her. She is very badly whipped but has good teeth.” “Bought a cook yesterday,” wrote another trader, “Bought a cook yesterday that was to go out of the state. She just made the people mad, that was all.” “I have bought a boy named Isaac,” wrote another trader, “for $1100.00.” He writes this in 1854 to his partner. “Bought a boy named Isaac. I think him very prime. He is a house-servant, first-rate cook, and splendid carriage driver. He is also a fine painter and varnisher, and says he can make a fine panel door. Also, he performs well on the violin. He is a genius. And strange to say, I think he’s smarter than I am.” Truth always creeps through all of our language–it doesn’t always but sometimes–creeps through our language, doesn’t it?

I’m also four lectures in a MIT Physics class by Walter Lewin (8.01, classical mechanics), and it’s excellent so far. I also recommend it.

For more free online classes, have a look at Academic Earth.

Update: Another great resource is Youtube EDU.

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The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer

February 26, 2009

J. Robert Oppenheimer Portrait

I’ve recently started reading American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. So far it’s excellent.

While doing some online research on Oppenheimer, I discovered to my great pleasure that a 2-hour PBS documentary on with special focus on his 1950s McCarthy-like trial was available for free.

It’s fascinating and I strongly recommend it. The only thing that would have made it better was if it had included some references to Richard P. Feynman (who worked under Oppenheimer at Los Alamos).

Here is the link: PBS: The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Did You Know About the Other Time Hitler was Almost Killed?

February 12, 2009

Adolf Hitler Nazi photo

Failed Assassination Plot
Thanks to the big Hollywood movie Valkyrie (starring Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg), even people who don’t know much about history now know about the failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler in July 1944. We can only speculate how this would have changed the course of the war…

Car Accident
But there is a little known car accident that could probably have changed history even more if things had unfolded in a slightly different way.

Otto Wagener, a passenger in Hitler’s Mercedes on March 13, 1930, wrote in his memoirs (Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant, ISBN 978-0300032949) that the future dictator of Germany was almost killed in a car accident. A heavy trailer truck collided with the car, but the driver hit the brake quickly enough to avoid crushing the car. The insurance claim signed by Hitler was sold on eBay in 2000.

About this incident, Jared Diamond wrote: “Because of the degree to which Hitler’s psychopathology determined Nazi policy and success, the form of an eventual World War II would probably have been quite different if the truck driver had braked one second later.”

I wonder if the truck driver later realized that the man he had almost killed was Adolf Hitler.

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China’s Great Library of Alexandria

January 30, 2009

Quin Dynasty Book Burning image

Most educated people know about the burning of the great library of Alexandria, and what a tragedy for humanity that was.

But I suspect that fewer people – at least in the Western hemisphere – know about the Quin dynasty’s massive campaign of book burning in 213 BC.

The emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), at the suggestion of his chancellor Li Si (李斯), instituted book burning (he condemned “all previously written historical books as worthless and ordered them burned, much to the detriment of our understanding of early Chinese history,” according to Jared Diamond), the persecution of intellectuals (including the burying alive of many Confucians), and a restriction on formal education for the common people. I think this can fairly be described as proto-totalitarianism.

As with the great library of Alexandria, we can only speculate about what has been lost.

Just be Glad You Aren’t Pythagoras’s Student…

November 15, 2008

Raffaello Sanzio - Pythagoras photo

If anyone who reads this is part of academia and is frustrated by how conservative his chosen field is (“Science advances one funeral at a time”), this story should make you appreciate more the current scientific climate.

From Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh:

One story claims that a young student by the name of Hippasus was idly toying with the number √2, attempting to find the equivalent fraction. Eventually he came to realize that no such fraction existed, i.e. that √2 is an irrational number. Hippasus must have been overjoyed by his discovery, but his master was not. Pythagoras had defined the universe in terms of rational numbers, and the existence of irrational numbers brought his ideal into question. The consequence of Hippasus’ insight should have been a period of discussion and contemplation during which Pythagoras ought to have come to terms with this new source of numbers. However, Pythagoras was unwilling to accept that he was wrong, but at the same time he was unable to destroy Hippasus’ argument by the power of logic. To his eternal shame he sentenced Hippasus to death by drowning.

The ability to change our minds when presented with evidence that disproves our beliefs – even our most entrenched ones – is a hard habit to acquire, but it is extremely valuable. When you start doubting, don’t turn away. Look into the light until your eyes adjust, and see if there is something there.

As P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” See the Twelve Virtues of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Update: Apparently this story is apocryphal. There’s a discussion about it on Reddit (which, btw, linked this page here — welcome to all Reddit readers!).

See also: Untangling the Search for Social Status from the Search for Truth

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