Sunday, May 2, 2010

Edmond Halley, the Board of Longitude, and Harvard's Veritas

Not many vessels have captains as distinguished as H.M.S. Paramour, a sixty foot sailing pink in His Majesty's service at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Peter the Great commanded her on her sea trials in 1694; Edmond Halley (of comet fame) commanded her on a voyage to chart the tides and magnetic variance of the English Channel in 1701. It was, as far as I can tell, the first true scientific voyage sponsored by the Royal Navy, although Captain Cook's Endeavour and Charles Darwin's Beagle are far more famous.

Halley was studying the problem of navigation, which was a serious problem at the time. While observations of the sun at noon gave decent knowledge of latitude (distance north or south of the equator), sailors had no good way to measure longitude - east/west location. Indeed, six years after Halley's voyage, a Royal Navy fleet returning from the Mediterranean was wrecked off the Isles of Scilly at the mouth of the English Channel, with the loss of 2000 souls including the Admiral's. They thought that they were safely west of Ushant, the traditional boundary marker for entrance to the Channel.

They weren't.

Thirty years later, Halley was Astronomer Royal, and the problem of the longitude was still the most serious facing the Royal Navy. Parliament had established a prize of £20,000 - perhaps $5M in today's money - to anyone who could find a solution. Astronomers across the realm were working on way to calculate position based on celestial readings, particularly lunar readings. The Royal Navy's Board of Longitude was set up to be final judge on an acceptable solution - one that could land a ship within 30 nautical miles of its destination after a trans-Atlantic voyage.

One day, Halley found a young clockmaker by the name of John Harrison on his doorstep. Impressed by the young man's ideas, although partial to astronomical methods himself, he introduced him to "honest" George Graham, the preeminent clockmaker of the day. With Graham's support, Harrison began creating chronometers - clocks designed to be taken to sea and which were accurate enough to reveal the secret of the longitude.

Harrison's story is told in Dava Sobel's incomparable Longitude: of Harrison's four brilliant clocks, each a unique design (he was perhaps the John Moses Browning of horology); of the superb performance of his inventions (his fourth clock, H4, was accurate to within ten miles in a voyage to Barbados); of the Board of Longitude's refusal to grant him the prize, which they believed should properly go to astronomers; and of Harrison's struggle with His Majesty's government for justice.

In the end, it took His Majesty himself to right things. George III was himself an amateur clockmaker, and when Harrison told him of his travails, the king exclaimed, "By God, Harrison, I'll see you righted!" Mostly, he did. While the Board was partial to the lunar methods, the truth - that a mechanical device could be made to work as well or better - ultimately came out.

It may be too simplistic to think it was just motives. Ours is a nuanced age, and to jump too quickly to motives is to risk the charge of simplisme. But it is simply undeniable that astronomers in general, and Nevil Maskelyne (Halley's successor as Astronomer Royal) had a stake in the outcome. Lunar methods required astronomical training, chronometers didn't. The scientific search for truth contains its own shoal waters.

And thus to Harvard, and the uproar over one of its law students who may or may not have written in an email that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites. The student has rushed to apologize, the Dean has released a memo full of right-thinking chin-pulling, and The Usual Suspects are calling for the student's expulsion. What's interesting is not what has been said: as far as I know, there are almost no credible scientific studies on the matter, but there are a metric ton of discredited studies from back in the day when racism was not ashamed to show its face in public.

What's interesting is that Harvard has once again shown Immanuel Kant's dictum to be true: All our knowledge falls with the bounds of experience. Harvard University, proud pursuer of truth, once again finds certain types of scientific experience to be anathema. First Larry Summers found study of sex-related mathematical abilities to be verboten, now this.

Harvard has no knowledge of these matters, because they flinch from a scientific measure of them. Their "truth" is already established, complete, serene. As Kant would say, these topics cannot be discussed, or even thought about. That won't keep them from teaching about it, though, as they are doing right now.

The Left's conceit that they are the defenders of truth and science is a perennial source of hilarity. It comes, of course, from the flinching of the Intellectual Class from the truth that they simultaneously want to occupy the moral high ground as well as use that revealed science to crush their intellectual enemies. And so we see a modern judenwissenschaft attitude that would have had Johannes Stark nodding in approval.

And yes, this is a Nazi reference. No, Godwin doesn't apply. Both the Nazi and the Harvard cases are assertions lacking any solid scientific data, both cases are the result of political environments that preclude real scientific study of the matter, and in both cases a particular political group benefits.

At the end of the day, I doubt that there's much difference between the races (if that term even means much in this day of blending; the Nazis rightly considered America to be inhabited by a mongrel race). I'm less skeptical (although unconvinced) about math differences between the sexes: while there doesn't seem any difference around the mean, it appears that men's abilities may diverge further from the mean than women's - on both sides (both brilliance on the high end and autism on the other end). But that's all beside the point - nobody knows what the situation really is, because nobody's allowed to study it.

And that was Larry Summer's point. It's not allowed to be studied at Harvard. Their Board of Longitude (as it were) already have a comfortable explanation, one that helps further the interest of the astronomers Progressives. It's not nuanced to ascribe motives today any more than in Harrison's time, but there's no King to see this right.

Veritas is latin. Truth. Sic transit gloria mundi is also latin, but it means something very different.


Anonymous said...

The truth shall set we free, once we set free the truth.


ASM826 said...

Sic transit gloria mundi

I have that painted on the back of my roll around tool box. I put it there when I worked for Gulfstream Aerospace back in the 1980s.