Friday, June 08, 2007

the story of the old Jew from Odessa

My grand-father often tells this anecdote about an old Jew who lived in Odessa at the turn of the century (my grand-father, being himself an old Jew from Char'kov, holds the prerogative of telling stories about old Jews). Anyway, this old Jew had discovered all by himself Newton's laws of thermodynamics. Since he only spoke Yiddish, he did not know that Newton had in fact come up with these laws some years before him. When finally told, he was devastated.

I heard this story often when growing up, and I heard it again on our recent visit to Moscow. Each time I hear it, and once I get over the involuntary chuckle produced by the glee with which my grand-father tells the story, I ask myself the same question: why would this man be devastated? Clearly, it has something to do with whether the idea was 'his' or not 'his'.

The importance of the originality of thought. A big thing in the world we live in, and particularly in academia.

According to this view, the impact of thought lies not simply in what is thought, but also very much in who is thinking. The thinker and the thought together form the basic atomic unit of academic tradition, of science, of knowledge.

During my short career as an academic researcher, I remember the agonies I suffered as a result of this system. The constant pressure to come up with 'new ideas', the dread once you had a good idea that you might accidentally stumble on someone else, somewhere else, in some long-forgotten or hidden article, who had already had 'your' good idea. Which would of course instantaneously make your own thinking achievement null. The fear also that as a result of so much reading, you might accidentally have an idea which felt like it was yours, but was in fact simply your brain feeding back to you what you had fed it last week. Which in turn would make you a fraud.

Surely, this type of system is bound to lead to misery and cheating, surely it is bound to lead to blindness too. Once the thinker becomes dependent on the recognition of 'his' or 'her' thought, how can thought be free to move and evolve? But never mind the disastrous effects we are all familiar with, the worst of it is: it takes away all the fun of thinking.

And to be very honest, I just never quite understood it. Just like I do not understand the story of the old Jew from Odessa. Not really, not deep down.

I was telling the anecdote today to some of my students (I know, I know, I'm still sort of hanging around academia, but I like to think of myself as a very small grain of sand in the machine, and while teaching my students how to 'write clearly' in class, I spend all the breaks secretly attempting to make them into academic anarchists). And one of them said, 'had he known about Newton, the old Jew could just have read about it, and saved himself a lot of time. The result would have been the same.' And there it is. Right on the money. The result would have been the same. Maybe it is true, about the result. But whatever happened to the process? How can the knowledge acquired through reading a book ever be compared to the knowledge resulting from a process of years of thinking? Because only the result matters. How can this old Jew ever be seen as less of an original thinker than Newton? Because only the timing of the result matters. And when did thought, and knowledge, become equated with a random fixed stage in its development, i.e. the so-called result? On a black, black day, that's when.

I am no longer an academic researcher. And in the last few years, I have slowly but surely recaptured much of my joy in thought. I often fail to quote my sources, not out of rebellion but simply because my mind no longer makes the effort to record them. I just don't know where I get stuff. I don't know whether it came from me, or from you, or from some book I read. And I couldn't care less. I am delighted if you take my thoughts and makes them yours. They are bound to travel an entirely different path in your mind.

And if I ever have a good idea, and it then turns out some Newton already had this idea, either last week or many centuries ago, well, that just makes me happy. Both for myself and for the Newton in question. For the fun we both had. For our learning process.

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