Seven Pillars of Wisdom: The Heritage of the Twentieth Century Science for the Twenty First Century

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Popular Discourse of Science in the Twentieth Century

The discourse of science in the twentieth century was dominated by understanding the atom, relativity, quantum mechanics, communication theory, space science and breaking the genetic code. Unfortunately some of the application of this science has been disastrous. It led to the atomic bomb, missiles and huge consumerism and waste of resources. It led to an unprecedented degradation of ecology, global warming and huge inequalities. So much so that today all life on our planet is endangered.

To be sure science alone was not responsible for it and was only a contributing factor. However it led some people to denounce science completely. At the same time some of the other achievements of science that this author feels are relevant to our times have been neglected or seen as exceptions only.

The objective of this article is to restore these other achievements of science to their rightful place in the public discourse and help the new generation to choose useful sciences for our times.

The Agenda of Science for the Twenty First Century

The twentieth century saw the destructive power of science and technology at its peak. True, as we have said above, there were great achievements too, but before all that, humanity and life on Earth has to survive. There were critics but they were muted. Today we have to pick up the threads from other achievements that were also great and are more useful today.

The science of the 21st century is not Physics, or Information Theory, but Agro Ecology – how to feed ourselves while saving ecology. The leader in this field is a tiny country called Cuba which developed it in the background of the collapse of the Soviet Union (1990) and the U. S. embargo (since 1963 until recently). Below we have chosen a small list of only seven books of the great scientists and great books of the twentieth century which we are finding useful today. We recommend them to young people today who have to shape the new world for themselves.

The Great Scientists and the Great Books of Twentieth century

  1. Kliment Timiryazev Life of the Plant 1878
  2. J. C. Bose Response in the living and non-living 1902
  3. Albert Howard An Agricultural Testament 1940
  4. Rachel Carson Silent Spring 1962
  5. William R. Catton Jr. Overshoot-the Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change 1982
  6. Margulis & Sagan Microcosmos 1986
  7. Joseph C. Jenkins The Humanure Handbook, 1996

Some General Remarks

This is one person’s list and has several limitations. It is limited by my knowledge and biases. Undoubtedly others will add more books and may delete some from this list. Most names are from the English speaking world though I am sure there are several great scientists from Europe, Russia and the rest of the world who will qualify to be included in this list.

The common thing about this list is that all the scientists are mainstream scientists and do not criticise science per se though of course they have a critic of earlier works, which is normal. All of them were well known and the books by and large are still in print.

A Brief Introduction to the Authors and the Books

  1. Kliment Arkadyevich Timiryazev (1843-1920)

We begin with Timiryazev who straddles both the 19th and 20th century. We include him because of the importance of the subject he studied-photosynthesis and also the fact he wrote a very popular book on plant physiology. The book consisted of 10 popular lectures, first published in 1878 and went through 9 editions in his lifetime till 1919, a year before he died. The book is still in print and is available as a pdf on the net.

Timiryazev, was a Russian botanist and physiologist. Timiryazev studied photosynthesis in plants, and identified chlorophyll as a crucial part of the process. In 1878, he published his classic book The Life of the Plant. In 1909, he was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Cambridge and the University of Geneva.

In 1861 Timiryazev entered the Saint Petersburg University and graduated with honours from the faculty of physics and mathematics in 1866. In 1871 he defended a Ph.D on spectral analysis of chlorophyll. His research work was devoted to photosynthesis-related phenomena. Timiryazev was a major proponent of the Evolution Theory of Charles Darwin in Russia. He also pioneered the use of greenhouses for agricultural research in Russia, which he initiated in the early 1870s. He was a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (since 1890), Royal Society (1911) and Botanical Society of Scotland (1911), and an honorary professor of the Saint Petersburg University, Kharkov University, University of Glasgow (1901) University of Cambridge (1909) and University of Geneva (1909).

  1. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, (30 November 1858 – 23 November 1937)

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a polymath-physicist, biologist, biophysicist, botanist, archaeologist, as well as an early writer of science fiction. Living in British controlled India, he pioneered the investigation of radio and microwave optics, made very significant contributions to plant sciences, and laid the foundations of experimental science in the Indian subcontinent. IEEE named him one of the fathers of radio science. He is considered the father of Bengali science fiction. He also invented the crescograph.

Born in Mymensingh, Bengal Presidency during the British Raj, Bose graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta. He then went to the University of London to study medicine, but could not pursue studies in medicine because of health problems. Instead, he conducted his research with the Nobel Laureate Lord Rayleigh at Cambridge and returned to India. He then joined the Presidency College of University of Calcutta as a Professor of Physics. There, despite racial discrimination and a lack of funding and equipment, Bose carried on his scientific research. He made remarkable progress in his research of remote wireless signalling and was the first to use semiconductor junctions to detect radio signals. However, instead of trying to gain commercial benefit from this invention, Bose made his inventions public in order to allow others to further develop his research.

Bose subsequently made a number of pioneering discoveries in plant physiology. He used his own invention, the crescograph, to measure plant response to various stimuli, and thereby scientifically proved parallelism between animal and plant tissues. Although Bose filed for a patent for one of his inventions because of peer pressure, his reluctance to any form of patenting was well known. To facilitate his research, he constructed automatic recorders capable of registering extremely slight movements; these instruments produced some striking results, such as Bose’s demonstration of an apparent power of feeling in plants, exemplified by the quivering of injured plants. His books include Response in the Living and Non-Living (1902) and The Nervous Mechanism of Plants (1926).

Plant Research

His major contribution in the field of biophysics was the demonstration of the electrical nature of the conduction of various stimuli (e.g., wounds, chemical agents) in plants, which were earlier thought to be of a chemical nature. These claims were later proven experimentally. He was also the first to study the action of microwaves in plant tissues and corresponding changes in the cell membrane potential. He researched the mechanism of the seasonal effect on plants, the effect of chemical inhibitors on plant stimuli and the effect of temperature. From the analysis of the variation of the cell membrane potential of plants under different circumstances, he hypothesised that plants can “feel pain, understand affection etc.”

His book Response in the Living and Non-Living (1902) is still readable though not easily available. It has a lot of lovely line diagrams describing theories, experiments and his instruments. One can also read an account of his work in ‘Secrets of Plants’ by Tompkins. Surprisingly, Patrick Geddes, the town planner wrote a very readable biography.

  1. Albert Howard

Sir Albert Howard was the first pioneer of the organic method. The son of a Shropshire farmer, he studied agriculture at Cambridge University, and then expanded his knowledge in a lifetime of practical research and study in the West Indies, India and England. An Agricultural Testament, his exposition of his practice theories of agriculture, remains a landmark work nearly 80 years after its original publication.

“Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession-the fertility of the soil-is preserved?” he asked. “On the answer to this question the future of civilization lies.” The organic method can trace its roots to this question. Sir Albert examined the history of agriculture in many societies and in nature. He observed that those societies which most closely approximated nature’s methods of husbandry had the longest histories. In nature he noted that “the forest manures itself.” In India he observed that the natives with the healthiest crops and animals were those who eschewed chemical fertilizers for natural manures.

Sir Albert shunned the conventional-now almost traditional-forms of agricultural research for practical testing. He was opposed to research conducted by teams of specialists, each working on a fragment of the whole, each contributing an isolated splinter of knowledge. In his major experiment, conducted over a period of 25 years in India, Sir Albert Howard farmed 75 acres, observing and testing the parts and the whole. His work suggested a system of farming-the organic method-which offered what is still the best answer to his question.

(Inside cover note, Rodale Press edition, US, 1976)

An Agricultural Testament 1940

Since this book first appeared in 1940, it has been regarded as one of the most important contributions to the solution of soil rehabilitation problems ever published. More importantly, it has been regarded as the keystone of the organic movement.

The late Louis Bromfield called it “the best book I know on soil and the processes which take part in it.” Soil Science called it “the most interesting and suggestive book on soil fertility which has appeared since King’s ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries.’ And Mother Earth News recently called it “the most basic of all introductions to organic farming by the founder of the modern movement.”

The object of the book was to draw attention to the loss of soil fertility, brought about by the vast increase in crop and animal production, that has led to such disastrous consequences as a general unbalancing of farming practices, an increase in plant and animal diseases and the loss of soil by erosion. Howard contended that such losses can be repaired only by maintaining soil fertility by manufacturing humus from vegetable and animal wastes through the composting process.

“Howard’s work is based upon the premise that good agricultural practice is based upon the observation and the use of natural processes,” wrote farmer-poet Wendell Berry in The Last Whole Earth Catalog. “Howard’s discoveries and methods and their implications are given in detail in An Agricultural Testament. They are of enormous usefulness to gardeners and farmers, and to anyone else who may be interested in the history and the problems of land use. But aside from its practical worth, Howard’s book is valuable for his ability to place his facts and insights within the perspectives of history. This book is a

critique of civilizations, judging them not by their artefacts and victories but by their response to ‘the sacred duty of handing over unimpaired to the next generation the heritage of a fertile soil.'”

It was a reading of this book which led to the late J. I. Rodale to publish his first copy of Organic Farming and Gardening (now Organic Gardening and Farming), the bible of the now wide-spread organic movement in America. Howard’s work remains the keystone of that movement.

“In the reading of An Agricultural Testament, I was affected so profoundly that I could not rest until I purchased a farm,” wrote Rodale. “The reading of this great book showed me how simple the practice of the organic method could be.”

(Back cover note, Rodale Press edition, US, 1976)

  1. Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907– April 14, 1964) was an American marine biologist, author, and conservationist whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement.

Carson began her career as an aquatic biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s. Her widely praised 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us won her a U.S. National Book Award, recognition as a gifted writer, and financial security. Her next book, The Edge of the Sea, and the reissued version of her first book, Under the Sea Wind, were also best sellers. This sea trilogy explores the whole of ocean life from the shores to the depths.

Silent Spring is an environmental science book by Rachel Carson. The book was published on 27 September 1962 and it documented the adverse effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation and public officials of accepting industry claims unquestioningly.

Silent Spring (1962) brought environmental concerns to the American public. Although Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. It also inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter.

In 2006, Silent Spring was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of Discover Magazine. Naturalist Sir David Attenborough has stated that Silent Spring was probably the book that had changed the scientific world the most, after the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

  1. William Robert Catton Jr. (January 15, 1926 – January 5, 2015) was an American sociologist best known for his scholarly work in environmental sociology and human ecology. Catton was known primarily for his 1980 book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Catton wrote three other books, including From Animistic to Naturalistic Sociology and his 2009 book Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse. In addition, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, book chapters and book reviews.

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

Overshoot was started during Catton’s three years in New Zealand, and completed after he returned to the US in 1973 to become Professor of Sociology at Washington State University. Overshoot was not published until 1980. During this period Catton, in collaboration with a fellow scholar, Riley Dunlap, produced a series of influential articles on ecological issues.

Overshoot continues to be a source of conceptual insight and existential inspiration regarding the ecological basis of human societies, especially to those who see a threat posed by peak oil, climate change, and other ecological pressures Catton either identified or anticipated. Years ahead of its time because of the clarity of formulation of a fully ecological paradigm, the book supplies scientific analysis.

  1. Lynn Margulis (born Lynn Petra Alexander March 5, 1938– November 22, 2011) was an American evolutionary theorist and biologist, science author, educator, and populariser, and was the primary modern proponent for the significance of symbiosis in evolution. Historian Jan Sapp has said that “Lynn Margulis’s name is as synonymous with symbiosis as Charles Darwin’s is with evolution.” In particular, Margulis transformed and fundamentally framed current understanding of the evolution of cells with nuclei – an event Ernst Mayr called “perhaps the most important and dramatic event in the history of life” – by proposing it to have been the result of symbiotic mergers of bacteria. Margulis was also the co-developer of the Gaia hypothesis with the British chemist James Lovelock, proposing that the Earth functions as a single self-regulating system.

Margulis was elected a member of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1983. President Bill Clinton presented her the National Medal of Science in 1999. The Linnean Society of London awarded her the Darwin-Wallace Medal in 2008.

MICROCOSMOS: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors.
By Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan.
Summit Books, New York, 1986. 301 pp., illus. $17.95.

As this new book, written with Dorion Sagan, makes clear, her many ideas are really of a piece. Collectively, they constitute a coherent world view that stands in sharp contrast to conventional wisdom about our planet and its biota. Although Microcosmos can be read with enjoyment as a slightly idiosyncratic chronicle of evolution, it is really a sustained argument in support of an alternative biology.

Microcosmos was written for a general audience, and it succeeds admirably in describing four billion years of evolution in accessible, of-ten elegant prose. I’ve spent most of the past decade studying Pre-cambrian rocks and microfossils, yet Margulis and Sagan’s evocative account of the early Earth is so fresh and beautifully constructed that in reading it I felt the excitement of entering a new world. It is hard to argue with the enthusiasm of the authors, who write that “life on earth is such a good story you can’t afford to miss the beginning.” Their brief exposition of Phanerozoic evolution is also enjoyable, approached as it is from their singular perspective of animals, plants and fungi as highly organized microbial collectives.

7. Joseph Jenkins

The Humanure Handbook was something of an accidental literary phenomenon. Jenkins began writing the book as a master’s thesis while attending Slippery Rock University’s Master of Science in Sustainable Systems program in north-western Pennsylvania in the early 90s. Not content with academic convention, but fascinated with the topic of humanure composting, Jenkins decided to convert the book’s language into a popular format and self-publish the thesis as a book.

The Humanure Handbook, 1996

“Forced to self-publish due to the ‘taboo topic, the unthinkable issue,’ of this publication, Joseph Jenkins’ Humanure Handbook has now become an international best-seller. It is presented with humorous cartoons, facts and diagrams, and Jenkins makes a compelling case for the composting of human excrement, in doing so questioning the very nature of what we consider ‘waste.’ With an unashamed tongue-in-cheek tone, Jenkins extols the virtues of new toilet systems, and yet he fervently believes in his argument, as do the thousands of converts to the cause, who themselves offer tips and anecdotes. The award-winning handbook stresses the importance of our ‘symbiotic relationship with our planet,’ and the fact that the addition of human waste will, in fact, significantly speed up the processes already at work in our composts. Whether we are all ready to subscribe to his ideology yet or not, Jenkins’ enjoyable and witty publication is a no-nonsense insight into the ‘dreaded ingredient.’ (Organic Life, January, 2006)

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: [email protected]


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