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Addressing the Challenges of the 21st Century

September 21, 2017

At the beginning of the 20th Century Lord Kelvin addressed the British Science Association in a speech that sought to expound the accomplishments of man and noted that "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.". Only 5 years later, Albert Einstein wrote three papers that redefined the whole of physical science and set in motion the discoveries that make it possible for this blog to exist and be shared.

 

Although this appears to discredit Lord Kelvin, the anecdote actually provides an insight on the passing of the baton from the era of the polymath to the Century of the Specialist. Einstein was the quintessential specialist - famous for a quirky dress sense, reclusive nature and comfort in a lack of understanding for much that common people took for granted. Lord Kelvin was one of the last recognised unifier's of disparate branches of science, a contribution encapsulated in his work published in 1867 with Peter Tait - 'Treatise of Natural Philosophy".

 

In the four centuries since Leonardo da Vinci exemplified the Renaissance Man, the advancement of mankind was linked to the attention of natural philosophers seeking a rounded, universal approach to knowledge. The success of this process however ultimately led to its demise - the more that was learnt, the less it was practical to be a universally aware 'scientist'. Specialism was born out of necessity.

 

The 20th Century became the most prodigious developmental period in history in part from the progressive specialisation of study and research. Yet, evidence abounds of the most valuable 'discoveries' over the past 100 years having been accidents rather than design. All too often the back story of the 'a-ha' moments are where specialists from one field accidentally discovering relevant and paradigm shifting content from another field that is often decades old.

 

To the learned of the 15th Century this delay in realising the potential of the knowledge of mankind would have been incomprehensible - in that era of enlightenment new knowledge was always integrated with all knowledge. In the 20th Century, the challenges facing society appear to have become more and more complex, a complexity that can be seen to be a product of greater detail without the context of it being integrated.

 

In was only twenty-one years on from his ground-breaking papers that Einstein wrote a letter to Max Born where in contemplating the nature of the physics of the atom he most famously noted that god does not play dice with the universe - it isn't actually a quote, but a more clear paraphrase of his rather odd way of expressing himself. In this Einstein was referring to an extremely complex concept call the 'Heisenberg uncertainty principle' - a principle that underpins the calculations which give rise to most of the technologies of the past fifty years and a principle Einstein never accepted.

 

It is not that Einstein was wrong, it is that as a child of the last days of the renaissance perspective he held a strong view that all pure knowledge was 'elegant'. That is, complex answers were incomplete and once fully explored and viewed in their correct context they would be clarified into a higher-order simplicity. There was no consideration not to embrace any complexity; there was no fear of complexity, only a certainty that the solutions to complexity were not complex in concept. 

 

Today, a stagnation of action, complacency for moderate goals and poverty of stewardship plagues our society. Boldness is only harboured in reaction. The meek truly are inheriting the earth, but an earth that without substantive change in the institutions of society will not be one worth inheriting. The result is that the challenges of today, the challenges of the 21st Century remain largely untouched in spite of our near two decades of focus.

 

The common excuse for this failure is purely that the challenges are complex. Instead of excuses, it may be time to consider the wisdom that dominated our society between da Vinci and Einstein, the wisdom that launched the prosperity of the modern era. That is, the wisdom that advancement arises from integration of knowledge and not siloed assessment of specialisations.

 

 

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