"Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?" Montaigne)
The first year of a new century always appears auspicious. The year 1900 was no exception. Americans welcomed it in with the three Ps: Peace, Prosperity and Progress.It was the culmination of some outstanding achievements and looked forward, with great confidence, to a century of continued progress. It certainly looked as if the twentieth century would be an age of knowledge and certainty. Ironically it ended in uncertainty and ambiguity. This book is the story of that change and of a major transformation in human thinking. It argues what while our new millenium may no longer offer certainty it does hold a new potential for growth, change, discovery and creativity in all walks of life.
On April 27, 1900, Lord Kelvin, the eminent physicist and president of the Britain's Royal Society, addressed the Royal Institution, pointing out "the beauty and clearness of the dynamical theory". Finally Newton's physics had been extended to embrace all of physics, including both heat and light. In essence, everything that could be known was, in principle at least, already known. The president could look ahead to a new century with total conviction. Newton's theory of motion had been confirmed by generations of scientists and it explained everything from the orbits of the planets to the times of the tides, the fall of an apple and the path of a projectile. What's more, during the preceding decades James Clerk Maxwell had established a definitive theory of light that also incorporated Newton's theory. Taken together these two theories appeared to be capable of explaining every phenomenon in the entire physical universe.
The cusp of the twentieth century presents us with an irony. 1900 was a year of great stability and confidence. It saw the consolidation and summing up of many triumphs in science, technology, engineering, economics and diplomacy. As Senator Chauncey Depew of New York, put it in, "There is not a men here who does not feel 400 percent bigger in 1900 than he did in 1896, bigger intellectually, bigger hopefully, bigger patriotically," while the Rev Newell Dwight Hillis claimed, "Laws are becoming more just, rules more humane; music is becoming sweeter and books wiser." Yet, at that very moment other thinkers, inventors, scientists, artists and dreamers, including Max Planck, Henri Poincare, Thomas Edison, Gugliemo Marconi, Nikola Tesla, the Wright brothers, Bertrand Russell, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford and Hermann Hollerith were conceiving of ideas and inventions that were to transform the entire globe.
1900 was the year in which flash photography was invented and speech was first transmitted by radio. Arthur Evans discovered evidence of a Minoan culture and the United States backed its paper currency with gold. Once the Gold Standard had been adopted, was there anything that could stand in the way of a greater degree of confidence in the future of their world?
1900 also represents the culmination of a period of rapid discovery. In the two previous years the Curies had discovered radium and J.J. Thompson the electron. Von Linde had liquefied air and Aspirin had been invented. Edison's Vitascope together with the magnetic recording of sound heralded the age of the movies.
Thanks to Nikola Tesla's inventions in alternating current, the city of Buffalo was receiving electrical power generated by Niagara Falls. Count von Zeppelin constructed an airship, the Paris Metro opened and London saw its first motor bus. Already the transmission of data by telephone and telegraph was well established by 1902 and the first faxed photographs were being transmitted.
1900 also saw a link between Britain's Trades Union Congress and the Independent Labour Party, a move that would eventually lead to the establishment of the welfare state. With such a dream of social improvement people could be excused for believing that the future would provide better housing, education and health services. Homelessness would be a thing of the past and, while those thrown out of work would need to tighten their belts a little, they would be supported by the welfare state and no longer face suffering and hardship.
Europe also experienced a great sense of stability in 1900. Queen Victoria, who had ruled since 1837, was still on the throne. She had become known as "the Grandmother of Europe" since her grandchildren were now part of the European monachy. Indeed all of the European kings and queens, as well as the Russian royal family, were a part of a single international family presided over by Victoria. It was for this reason, diplomats believed, there would never be a war within Europe.
On 18 May 1899, at the prompting Czar Nicholas II's Minister of Foreign Affairs, 26 nations met at The Hague for the world's first Peace Conference. There they established an International Court to arbitrate in disputes between nations. The Congerence outlawed poison gases, dumdum bullets and the discharge of bombs from balloons. Wars and international conflicts would be things of the past. The world itself was moving towards a new golden age in which science and technology would be put to the service of humanity and world peace
Yet when people look to a golden future they should not forget the role of hubris. Often our predictions return to haunt us. It is particularly ironic that in this same year, 1900, ideas and approaches began to surface that were to transform our world, our society and ourselves in radical and unpredictable ways. For while the twentieth century began with confidence and certainty it was to end in uncertainty and doubt.
What were those tiny seeds that were destined to blossom in such unexpected directions? In 1900 Max Planck published his first paper on the quantum and young Albert Einstein graduated from the Zurich Polytechnic Academy. A year later Werner Heisenberg was born. These two physicists would create the great revolutions of modern science. In 1900 Henri Poincare was working on an abstruse technical difficulty involving Newtonian mechanics. Over half a century later this would explode into chaos theory. Astronomers were looking forward to the opening of the great telescopes at Mount Wilson in 1904 and, in the decades that followed, Edwin Hubble would use these instruments to discover that the universe was far vaster than ever believed and, moreover, that it was continually expanding.
In 1900 biologists rediscovered the work of an obscure monk, Gregor Mendel. Ignored by the scientific community in the mid-nineteenth century, Mendel had examined the way physical characteristics are inherited when different varieties of garden peas are crossed. Who would have guessed that exactly a century after this rediscovery of the basis of genetic inheritance, the completion of the Human Genome Project would be announced?
This same year, 1900, saw the publication of Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. Much more rational that a Victorian dream book that flirted with divination and the occult, it demonstrated that dreams are "the royal road to the unconscious" and, in turn, that our waking lives are ruled by the irrationality of the unconscious. The potential for violence and human irrationality was to be powerfully demonstrated again and again during the twentieth century.
At the end of the nineteenth century Percival Lowell used his fortune to establish his own observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, with the aim of discovering life on Mars. In 1900 H.G. Wells, inspired by these ideas, published War of the Worlds with its image of the mass destruction of the human race. Ironically the real possibility of global destruction in the twentieth century did not arise from little green men from Mars but from human-made weapons of mass destruction.
1900 was the year when the young philosopher, Bertrand Russell, heard Guiseppe Peano speak at a conference in Paris. The lecture so inspired Russell that he devoted his life's work to the discovery of certainty in mathematics and philosophy. How this goal eventually subverted itself forms the core of Chapter 2.
In 1900, inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, Marcel Proust visited Venice. He abandoned the novel on which he had been working and, determined to seek some new way of expressing "man's" confrontation with eternity, he embarked on a master plan that was to terminate in one of the major literary works of the twentieth century. It was also the year that the 18-year-old James Joyce, after having had his first article published, decided to become a full-time writer. In this same year Picasso had his first exhibition and made a trip to Paris, an event that was to have a profound effect on art in the twentieth century. 1900 was also the year in which Paul Cezanne was working on his famous studies of Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The works he produced there had a revolutionary effect on painting and produced yet another form of doubt as he questioned the certainty of what he was seeing.
In the previous year Henry Ford had formed the Detroit Motor Company that would produce the famous Model T, a car that transformed American society. Add to this Ford's discovery of mass production through the assembly line and one understands in part why, when young Henry left his father's farm, only a quarter of Americans lived in a city, yet, when he died, well over half of them were city dwellers. In 1900 there were 8 thousand automobiles in the United States and 150 miles of paved road. Today the number of cars in the U.S. is close to one hundred million.
A few years earlier, in 1896, Herman Hollerith had created the Tabulating Machine Company to speed up the processing of data using a system of punched cards. In 1911 the company's name changed to International Business Machines. The radio vacuum tube had been invented (in 1904) and so both the physical components and the business infrastructure were already in place for the creation of the computer revolution.
In the same year as the creation of Hollerith's Tabulating Machine Company, Henri Becquerel discovered the radioactivity of uranium. A few decades later, while studying Becquerel's phenomenon, the German scientist Otto Hahn realized that the atom could be split. When knowledge of this process reached the United States, colleagues persuaded Einstein to write a letter to President Roosevelt recommending the building of an atomic bomb, out of the fear that Nazi scientists would do so first. And so was born the atomic age, and with it the possibility of the annihilation of all life one earth.
While the twentieth century began with certainty it ended in uncertainty. Never again will we have the same degree of pride in our knowledge. In our infatuation with science and technology we overestimated our ability to manipulate and control the world around us. We forgot the power of the mind's irrational impulses. We were too proud in our intellectual achievements, too confident in our abilities, too convinced that humans would stride across the world like gods.
Today we are wiser and more cautious. We are suspicious of great plans and global promises. We view with caution the sweeping proposals of experts and politicians. We savor unbounded optimism with a generous pinch of salt.
Above all we want a better world for ourselves, our children and our children's children. We have learned that ordinary people can have a voice. We will not put our lives blindly into the hands of politicians and institutions. We demand to be heard and we know we can be effective.
Now let us return in more detail to the twentieth century and discover the various ways in which certainty dissolved into uncertainty. Each chapter that follows tells us something about uncertainty in the worlds of art, science, economics, society, and environment. Each adds another layer to those increasingly complex questions: "Who am I?", "What do I know?" and "What does it mean to be human?"