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Ekim, Yrag, and Bob

October 26, 2001

To protect their privacy, I’ll call them Ekim, Yrag, and Bob. What they have in common is a willingness, if not propensity, to examine the world.

Ekim is a fabricator. He makes things out of wood, metal, plastic, fiberglass. He gets excited about a new tool or new stuff from which to make more stuff. He can’t wait to try something new and see if it works.

Yrag is a physicist. As a marksman who loads his own ammunition, he weighs each bullet, each powder charge; measures the brass; writes it all down. For his car, he always buys $10 of gas, notes the gallons and mileage in a log book, page after page, year after year. After a backpacking trip, he recorded how much food we used.

Bob is a mathematician, and when faced with with moisture and circulation problems in a small basement, he couldn’t help but study it. He placed remote sensors in strategic locations, recorded temperature and humidity changes, discovered patterns.

What these three do, as professionals and amateurs, is observe. They collect information and reconsider it.

This is how science works, in part. You have taken the same approach yourself in many situations, without considering it scientific. It takes patience and resolve, but most importantly, it takes a willingness to be wrong.

Now, you may never be inclined to spread sensors around your house. An impatient person, with different criteria for accomplishment, might judge Bob harshly and call him “impractical.”

There is ample precedent in America for this attitude. In the nineteenth century, most regarded science as a hobby, and rather useless, whereas the creation of industry and wealth was greatly admired. Americans are a practical people.

Even though American science was looked down upon by Europeans for being insufficiently speculative and theoretical, for Americans it was not practical enough.

Although poorly funded, scientists were wary of government support because they were suspicious of government control. They also labored under an inferiority complex before their established European counterparts, as much of America did.

Add to this the burden of popular antipathy because science was a “subversive, anti-religious force” that questioned Genesis, and one wonders how it got off the ground. Enthusiasm, for one, plus success.

The biography “Joseph Leidy: the last man who knew everything” is also a social and intellectual history of nineteenth-century America. Leidy was the ancestor extraordinaire of Ekim, Yrag, and Bob, in that he was an incessant and meticulous observer of the world.

Few know of him now, but he was the most respected American scientist of the 19th century. His encyclopedic knowledge, even at a young age, impressed Americans and Europeans alike. He was the first in many things (elucidation of Trichinosis, pioneer of forensic medicine, expert microscopist, father of American parasitology, reknowned paleontologist, etc., etc.).

He was also an artist. His father bemoaned the loss of a talented sign painter to a career as a profitless physician. Leidy studied medicine as the only real career option for a scientist at the time, but he abhored the medical practice and fled it.

Leidy was as focused and as inoffensive as he could be, and yet still he was accused of things from apostasy to ignoble birth. He lamented: “Is this the 19th century, and do we really live in a land of civil and religious liberty?”

This made me smile. If you’re concerned that my examples are all male, it’s only because the story of Enaj was too long.

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