Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Complicated Triumph

The terrible simplicities of scientific reductionism was the very mother's milk of  all the horrible 'terrible simplifiers' of High Modernity (1875-1965): starting with Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and crossing the water to their gentler and kinder Anglo-American opponents.

For none of the big political ideologies of Modernity at all rejected reductionist science or damned it with faint praise - instead they clasped it to their bosom and then claimed it formed the spiritual foundations of their peculiar faith.

One Manhattan Project - the nuclear one - was very much of this ilk --- barefacedly claiming we'd soon see atomic electricity too cheap to meter and atomic planes and cars filling our skies and streets.

We're still waiting, because all three claims were based on a Big Lie (or two or three) and deep down these nuclear complexity over-simplifiers knew it .

WWII's Terrible Simplifiers rebuked by the Terrible Complicatedness of Reality

By contrast, the other Manhattan Project - the one based on natural penicillin for the wartime all - rejected the scientific simplicity that spoke of a single trajectory of life.

A simple single inclined pole of progress, with the smallest and oldest at the bottom left always the stupidest while the newest and the biggest life forms -  scientists from the biggest civilizations - invariably the smartest at the top right.

Instead Dr Martin Henry Dawson and his team suggested, that depending on the capability being measured, all life forms variously fell at the top, bottom and middle of literally hundreds of scales.

Theories of simplicity had to give way - once again - to the strong evidence of the sheer confounded complicatedness of reality.

So - and unexpectedly - when it came to making pure, cheap, abundant penicillin, the tiny slime fungi did a far better job than assembled thousands of the world's best synthetic chemists.

And if the microbial smallest and weakest showed such unexpected abilities, Dawson argued maybe, too, the smallest and weakest among humanity were also smarter and stronger than the best educated and healthiest of humanity - at least on some unexpected measures.

And so modernity shouldn't be so quick to write off either the fungal slime or the wartime 4Fs.

In a surprise reversal, one branch of the highly competitive Washington DC wartime bureaucracy (the New Dealish WPB) bought Dawson's arguments and bested another branch in Washington (the Republican-dominated OSRD/NAS) who fiercely opposed giving any wartime penicillin to the 'unfit' of the world.

And like Washington, neither the Axis or Allied worlds were in fact as single-minded as wartime Home Front bompf and piddle would have you believe.

And as a result, any accurate account of almost any WWII event need be a very complicated one.

So the tale of the unexpected wartime triumph of natural penicillin-for-all is a complicated one - with many an unexpected twist and turn.

But then so is Reality itself - reductionist claims to the contrary...

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