Tuesday, April 2, 2013

L. f*cking Ron Hubbard!

     Let me begin on an appropriately dreary note. Like it or not, California’s community colleges have long struggled with unflattering preconceptions and prejudices. Among these is the notion that CC faculty are sometimes, or even often, subcollegiate, more suitable for high school audiences than college audiences.
     Don't think so.
     Gosh, it doesn’t help when the community is invited to a special lecture, provided by Acme Community College (headed by Prez Rocket J. Squirrel), by one Professor Gypsy Rose Lee, who belts out a lecture putatively about science, but that is really a superficial rendering of embarrassing and eccentric factoids about three high-larious Science Types.
     Nope. It doesn’t help at all.

* * *

     The IVC Academic Senate sponsors both a “faculty lecture series”* and a “distinguished academic lecture” series. That's admirable (unless you screw it up).
     —“Let’s showcase our talent!” somebody shouts, in the distance. "Yeah, Acme's got talent!" Go Lasers!
     Recently, I noted ads for two of these lectures and I was pleased to discover that they seem to relate to the themes of my Introduction to Philosophy course! Monday’s “faculty lecture,” as it turns out, concerned Isaac Newton. That’s right, the Newtster, Mr. Classical Physics himself! What could be better than that!
     Here’s the ad for the lecture, which appeared in the OC Register:
Irvine Valley College Faculty Lecture Series 2012-2013
Today 4:00p to 6:00p
Irvine Valley College…
April 1, 2013 – John Davison, Chemistry 

Real-Life Mad Scientists: Issac Newton, Nickola [sic] Tesla and Others
Come and hear an engaging and interesting lecture sponsored by the IVC Academic Senate 
Irvine Valley College
Public Welcome 
Free lecture….
     By 4:00 p.m. yesterday, the title of Davison’s lecture had become more specific: “Real-Life Mad Scientists: Issac Newton, Nickola [sic] Tesla and John Whiteside Parsons.”
     That sounded pretty good. I urged my students to attend this lecture and another one in May about "believing," a “distinguished academic lecture” by the Skeptic Society’s Michael Shermer.
* * *

     For what it’s worth, many of my students showed up for the “Mad Scientist” lecture yesterday in BSTIC 101. Some of 'em even loved it.
     I don’t regret sending them. But maybe I should. The lecturer, chemistry instructor John Davison, sure was entertaining. He knows where the laughs are, boy. He knows how to mug or quasi-leer for the audience. He had 'em eatin' out o' his hand, baby!
     I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of Davison's remarks. I mean, beyond the jokes and mugging, he actually said things about the lives of Newton, Tesla, and Parsons. Those things were probably true, more or less.
     Still, as I sat there listening to his presentation, I felt uncomfortable. I kept thinking of a gathering down at the Elk’s Lodge or maybe down at the church basement. I mean, Davison's presentation was kind of superficial. —Or maybe even down at the high school?! Heavy on sizzle, light on steak, know what I mean?
     “Here’s your pal and mine, Hank Sunshine, science buff, and he’s gonna tell you all about some of those wacky people we call scientists! Heeeeeeeere’s Hank!”

* * *

     Notoriously, Isaac Newton was a great scientist—seriously, breathtakingly great—who nevertheless embraced a pseudoscience, namely, alchemy—mostly on the sly.
     That factoid is, to say the least, interesting.
     Professor Davison, however, had nothing to say about it beyond simply noting it. Nothing.
     Neither did he make any effort to describe Newton’s scientific achievements. Essentially, he only mentioned them without explaining them.
     —Newton invented calculus. He did the math proving elliptical orbits. He insisted on the particulate nature of light. He reformulated Kepler and Galileo's laws. 'Nuff said.
     What Davison did do was draw attention to Newton’s eccentricities and neuroses. Newton, we learned, might've suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Newton was a hypochondriac. Newton experienced a series of personality conflicts. He refused to join the Royal Society until a prominent member—and his nemesis—Robert Hooker, had croaked. Then he showed up and immediately became president. He hated his mother. He hated his father. For a while, he cleaned chamber pots. He blew a cork. Imagine!
     What does it all mean? Who knows. Davison wasn’t interested in discussing the matter beyond leading the audience in a laugh. Newton, he tells us, choreographed a dubious Royal Society pronouncement that Leibniz, his Continental rival, had plagiarized from him! Imagine that! Har har! Wadda nut!
     Professor Davison’s presentation was entertaining, I suppose. I mean, poor Isaac evidently died a virgin (eyes roll). Poor freakin' Isaac! Har har. With material like that, Johnny, you really can’t miss!
     Now, I’m no scientist—just a philosopher—but I wouldn’t have offered a litany of embarrassing Newtonian quirks, foibles, virginitudes, or ridicularities. Nope. Maybe it’s just me, but I would have zeroed in on the mystery of how the Great Scientist could simultaneously be the great Pseudoscientist!
     And is that even so? Was there something about Newton’s alchemy that somehow reflected the genius exhibited in his astounding mathematics and physics and optics? Might we be in too great a hurry to assume that his dark alchemical adventures were utter foolishness and folly? Can sense somehow be made of the two sides of Apple Boy: candy and rotten?
     In any case, how do you get a guy who knows the value of careful and exact experimentation to reside in the head of a guy who believes in ideas with no empirical basis? Riddle me that, Bat Man!
     Inquiring minds wanna know. Professor Davis, however, doesn’t wanna know, and his audience, taking his lead, didn’t wanna know either. They were happy with the juicier stuff about chamber pots and sex cults.
     Now, I don’t want to be a nit-picker, but Davison hardly discussed what the Newtster achieved. He mentioned that Newton boldly opined that planetary orbits are elliptical. Well, yeah, if you say so, but Lucy, didn’t Kepler already ‘splain that elliptical thing seventy years earlier down at the Copacabana?! Yep, I’m nearly certain of it. OK, so just what did the Newt achieve? How does this all add up? I’m confused.
     I didn’t get much clarity on that from Professor Davison, who, as I said, sure does know how to deliver a punch line—and, hey, don’t be devaluing that. It’s important. More important, I guess, than actually having anything to say.
     Oh wait. Davison did have one thing to say about the Great Scientist’s secret life of alchemy: it was illegal. Yep, that’s right: the Newt was a measly scofflaw.
     —Well! 'Nuff said!
     Golly. It's a good thing that Professor D put some o' these science guys in perspective!

* * *
"Tesla had wacky ideas. He sure was a nut."
"I guess so. So what's your point?"
"No point. I'm a college professor, is all."
     Davison treatment of Tesla and Parsons was similarly heavy on—i.e., almost exclusively about—embarrassing or eccentric episodes and factoids. Parsons, it seems, was a pal of L. Ron Hubbard’s. Davison clearly regards this as an embarrassment. QED!
     But why exactly? How is that of interest? He doesn’t say. Is it interesting or telling that one of the founders of the JPL hung around with the founder of Scientology? Listening to Professor Davison will advance us not an inch with regard to that question—or, really, any other question.
     I do believe that, on one of Davison’s slides, written underneath a portrait of L. Ron, was this caption: “the L stood for lunatic.”
     Funny, I guess. “I guess these college types are just like us, after all. Props for Prof D! He sure does know how to put up a guy for ridicule, that’s fer sher! L. f*cking Ron Hubbard! Yikes! Ouch! Ha!”
* * *

     Now, in fact, at the end of his presentation, Professor Davison revealed that his lecture was based on his having read three books, each a biography of one of his subjects. He helpfully flashed a slide displaying them.
     His lecture was, in fact, a book report. As near as I can tell, it was only and exactly that.
     Wow. No wonder there was such a sense of victory and accomplishment at the end of his presentation! I do believe I saw lots of big smiles and one or two high fives!
     I just love it when our little college is a success!

*Rebel Girl reminds me that at least some participants in the faculty lecture series have provided impressive and sophisticated lectures of a quality of which our college can be proud.


Anonymous said...

This is often what passes for knowledge these days: snarky remarks. Too bad.

Anonymous said...

It is too easy to snicker like this at the podium and impress students that gossip is now scholarship. They fall for it because it makes them feel better and because this is the way the whole culture is going. Gossip.

Anonymous said...

Davison did emphasize these scientists' eccentricities; I wouldn't say he emphasized gossip or engaged in gossip. My biggest complaint isn't so much what he talked about but what he failed to talk about: matters of intellectual interest or importance, such as perhaps a link between spiritual motivations and motivations qua scientist. Might it be that Newton's scientific passions would not have existed without his spiritual/metaphysical or arational passions? Was the pattern of his scientific explorations directed by his extra-empirical concerns? As a college, we should project intellectual curiosity, but this lecture exhibited a seeming systematic avoidance of that. --RB

Anonymous said...

This is really too bad, indeed. Sorry to hear it.

Did I understand, though: is Michael F---ing SHERMER coming to your campus this May? That will be extremely cool, if so--though it doesn't make up for this, uh, nonintellectual lecture.

Thanks for another great post, RB.


Roy Bauer said...

It's true. Shermer's coming on May 9

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