Science, Technology

Occasional Quote of the Day: On the Eternal Verities and Squaring the Circle

Our society is changing so rapidly that none of us can know what it is or where it is going. All of us who are mature feel that there are historic principles of behavior and morality, of things that we all believe in that are being lost, not because young people couldn’t believe in them, but because there is no language for translating them into contemporary terms.

The search for that language, the search for the ways to tell young people what we know as we grow older — the permanent and wonderful things about life — will be one of the great functions of this system. We are losing this generation. We all know that. We need a way to get them back.–Edwin H. Land, 1967

Edwin H. Land, was born on May 7 1909 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. After graduating high school from the Norwich Free Academy, he entered Harvard to study, leaving after his freshman year to go to New York City to invent things. Which he did. Without any financial backing or other substantive encouragement, Land scoured the resources of the New York Public Library system, “borrowed” Columbia University’s laboratory facilities late at night, and came up with a new and inexpensive polarizing light filter. (Originally conceived as a solution for automobile headlight glare, Land was more successful in selling his idea as a refinement for sunglasses and windows, particularly, to start with, those in passenger railcars.)

He returned to Harvard but formal education held little interest for him, so he left again before graduating, despite the best efforts of his wife, who would compel Land to work out the solutions to assigned problems in his head and tell her what they were, so she could write them down and turn in his homework for him.

Harvard University gave up the unequal struggle in 1957, and awarded Edwin Herbert Land, inventor, patriot, philanthropist, businessman and eccentric genius, an honorary doctorate in recognition of his contributions to science. By that time, Land had, among other things, invented “instant” photography, continued to refine his polarizing light filter research (from which the name of his company, Polaroid, was taken), worked with the federal government, throughout World War II and after, to improve photo reconnaissance and intelligence gathering techniques, and served as a consultant to President Eisenhower on science and what we’d probably call (brace yourself) “spying.” In later years, he developed a massive camera which he made freely available, in return for some of their prints, to professional photographers and artists, the likes of Ansel Adams, Robert Frank and Andy Warhol. The collection amassed in this process grew to some 20,000 prints, and was kept intact until 2010, when it was sold in lots. Land also founded the Rowland Institute at Harvard, a nonprofit, privately endowed research organization dedicated to experimental science.

There’s a fascinating biography of Land, and much other information as well, on the American Chemical Society website. It explains in terms even I can understand (but am not sure I can restate in my own words) the science behind some of his research, and the impact of his inventions.

Edwin H. Land died in 1991, and is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge Massachusetts. (On a personal note, I don’t usually put cemeteries on my “must see” list when I’m vacationing or visiting, but if you’re not familiar with this one or its history, it’s well worth a look.)

Today’s quote of the day comes from Land’s testimony before the session of Congress which was on its way to its passing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The “system” he’s talking about, the one that will find the language to “tell young people what we know as we grow older–the permanent and wonderful things about life,” was later formed into the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (CPB).

I’m pretty sure most of us would agree that a federally-funded communications behemoth (the mother ship for, among others, National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service), might not be, and hasn’t been, the best vehicle for promoting the eternal verities and passing along “historic principles of behavior and morality,” but I am very struck by Land’s message, fifty years on.

What is the “language” that can “translate . . . the historic principles of behavior and morality” into “contemporary terms” that young people can “believe in?” And once we find it (there have been some posts and comments here on Riochet, even quite recently, that have come close, I think), how do we get the word out?

I think that’s the circle we need to square. And soon.

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