06 June 2013

Meatless Friday Thursday: Looking for a Different Kind of Book Edition

I read an article by John Derbyshire today that recommended a book I wouldn't have ordinarily come across-- and I pass the tip on to you.  

The book is a non-fiction work titled The Newton Awards, by Michael Hart and Claire Parkinson, a tribute to the great scientific breakthroughs of the last 400 or so years.

What first piqued my interest was a reference to A Canticle for Leibowitz:

...In a society such as the modern West, where intelligence is declining, where fertility trends are dysgenic, where cognitive elites enforce assent to feel-good ideological claptrap and the mass of citizenry is absorbed in frivolities, science hovers always on the edge of extinction. Saint Leibowitz was martyred following a nuclear Armageddon; on present evidence the Armageddon won’t be necessary. We’ll be barbecuing scientists for the fun of it when reality TV and smartphones begin to pall.


Under these sorry circumstances I feel obliged to do what I can to help keep the guttering flame of dispassionate empirical enquiry alight for at least a while longer. In that spirit I recommend to you a forthcoming book titled The Newton Awards by Michael Hart and Claire Parkinson, now available for preorder from the publisher

The original idea of the authors was to expand the concept of Nobel Prizes to all areas of science, technology, and math, and to award once prize per year from 1600 to 2000 AD for achievement in those fields. This couldn’t be made to work exactly as planned. For the first 275 years of the period there weren’t enough advances for one prize a year; for 1976-2000 there isn’t yet enough perspective for good judgment. So only for 1876-1975 is there one Newton Award per year; elsewhere the awards are for 5- or 10-year periods. 

The authors end up with 140 Newton Awards for the 400-year span, to 172 named awardees. Some awards go to more than one person (e.g., the Wright brothers); some persons get more than one award (e.g., Edison for the phonograph, light bulb, and distributed electricity). 


Political correctness is eschewed completely, which probably accounts for the book being put out by a small publishing house. Every one of the awardees was a white European raised in Europe or one of the British-settler nations (Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand). Just four nations have more than ten awards each: the USA, Britain, Germany, and France.

This agrees with Peter Watson’s apologetic remarks in The Modern Mind (2000) that:
Whatever list you care to make of twentieth-century innovations, be it plastic, antibiotics and the atom or stream-of-consciousness novels, vers libre or abstract expressionism, it is almost entirely Western.

Reading through these achievements, a number of things come to mind. For example: What part is played by luck in these greatest discoveries and inventions? Practically none, is the overall impression. Some breakthroughs were achieved when the scientist was looking for something else or for nothing in particular; but the confirmation, elaboration, and explanation of what had been found was still creative intellectual work of the first order. 


Science and creative technology have, across the modern period, been the great glories of Western civilization. As that civilization yields up its lands to non-European peoples and ideologies of magic and unreason, pause to take a backward glance at the astonishing things we once accomplished: Order a copy of The Newton Awards.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dead on. Read A Canticle for Leibowitz for our future and Fahrenheit 451 on our present.

My question: How did Ray Bradbury know, 60+ years beforehand?

Jim Cole