Esteemed thinker: James Smithson

Smithsonian InstituteTo preserve the past is to save the future, and though this observation may be heard by some as a contradiction, it is the very irony of its verbiage which makes it true.  Not all of the events of the past are positive and for that very reason we must not forget them. To discover, reflect, and evaluate what came before may help humanity not repeat its mistakes and crimes.  And so, what better place is there than a museum to learn about what it was like “before”. In glass cases and plexi-glass displays, on walls and  on pedestals are the gatherings of artifacts and relics, all of which made the world we inhabit today. Setting forth newly acquired facts in the fields of anthropology, biology, history, geology, technology, and the arts…they all are set before us with the intention of simply allowing us to ponder.

And so, I encourage you to take a walk and stroll through the corridors of any museum for surely there will be a bit of the world that will amaze you.

James smithson1

Today’s blog brings you the esteemed thinker: James Smithson (1765-1829) British scientist who willed his estate to the United States for the creation of what we know today as The Smithsonian Institute. Born in Paris, France, he was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie, a widow of royal blood. He was named James Lewis Macie at birth however, in 1800 following the death of his mother, he took his father’s name.

Because of his birth status, he was unable to pursue careers of most nobility at that time in the military or clergy, so he turned to the sciences. He went to Pembroke College at Oxford University, and there became interested in the natural sciences. He graduated as a mineralogist and chemist, devoting his life to research. He published at least 27 papers on chemistry, geology, and mineralogy in scientific journals and proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, not zinc oxides as popularly believed.

He inherited a great deal of land from his mother and his management brought him a great deal of money. Having never married, he left a portion of his wealth to his nephew, and “Under the arrangements of his will, the whole estate went “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” As such the reasoning was most likely his resentment over the circumstances of his illegitimate birth. He had once written, “My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten.”

Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, however in 1904, Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell brought Smithson’s remains to the United States to rest at the Institution he had established.

(In 1865 a fire at the Smithsonian Institute destroyed most all of Jameson’s published work)

First image: Rendering of the Castle Smithsonian Institute, 1840

Second Image: Painting of James Smithson by James Roberts, 1786

 

Esteemed thinker: Benjamin Banneker

math class Every day we use numbers and though they are part of our daily life we take them for granted. Yet isn’t it a curious notion that something we use so often is actually not a real or tangible thing but rather an abstraction? Numbers are a made-up concept. We can’t hold one, or touch one, or even eat one. Numbers are merely a representation of items. They represent the years we have lived, the amount of candy in a box, or how long it takes for a person to travel from one place to another.

Numbers are used in a calendar and on a clock whereby we can calculate another made up abstraction we call time. Time is a sequential relationship to events that mark the past, the future, or the present. The numbers are a collection of the events such as 24 hours in a day; which again represents a practical way of measuring a sequence of a specific duration. How chaotic would life be if we did not have numbers.

Which leads me to another very important integer, the zero! Yes, I know what ou are thinking, zero mean nothing…whereby I will remind those skeptics that the zero was a most ingenious invention as the universal place holder …let’s face it, without zero we would never get above 9………..

So the next time someone tells you that are not good in math, look upon them with a bit more empathy for after all, numbers are all just a bunch of made-up notations. (Might as well use x, y, and z…oh wait we do!!)

Benjamin BannekerToday’s blog brings to you the esteemed thinker: Benjamin Banneker (1731- 1806) African-American mathematician, surveyor, astronomer, and publisher of a popular almanac. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he was the son of a free woman and a former slave father. Banneker did not have much of a formal education, although he was taught to read by his grandmother, he was able to only briefly attend a Quaker school because he was needed to work on the family farm.

Banneker was a self- motivated and self-educated man who gained national acclaim for scientific work in the 1791 surveying the Federal Territory (now Washington, D.C.). In 1753, he built one of the first watches made in America, a wooden pocket watch. His interest in how the celestial world worked eventually gave him the insight to learned to predict lunar and solar eclipses based on what he absorbed from his learning and mathematical equations that he formulated.

His skills as a mathematician continued to dazzle when he published an almanac with astronomical calculations. (1792-1797).

I now bring to you a portion from his letter to Thomas Jefferson, where the correspondence between these two great men can be seen today at the home of Jefferson, Monticello.

“… Sir, although my sympathy and affection for my brethren hath caused my enlargement thus far, I ardently hope, that your candor and generosity will plead with you in my behalf, when I make known to you, that it was not originally my design; but having taken up my pen in order to direct to you, as a present, a copy of an Almanac, which I have calculated for the succeeding year, I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led thereto.
This calculation is the production of my arduous study, in this my advanced stage of life; for having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the secrets of nature, I have had to gratify my curiosity herein, through my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study, in which I need not recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages, which I have had to encounter…

I industriously applied myself thereto, which I hope I have accomplished with correctness and accuracy; a copy of which I have taken the liberty to direct to you, and which I humbly request you will favorably receive; and although you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its publication, yet I choose to send it to you in manuscript previous thereto, that thereby you might not only have an earlier inspection, but that you might also view it in my own hand writing…”

First image: Vocational Printing math class. 1916,Fall River, Massachusetts photographed by Lewis W. Hine

Second image: “Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer,” mural by Maxime Seelbinder, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C.

Esteemed thinker: George Field

20140715_124832 There are three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, and three secondary colors, orange, purple, and green, which are created by mixing one primary color with another. For example: if you mix a dash of yellow with a dash of red you will produce orange. For our youngest members of society, this in itself is magic. As we turn our colors from one shade to another, we can become more creative with the names. Dark blue, resembling the night sky, can have the moniker of “midnight blue”, while a more vibrant blend of blue and green may be referred to as “turquoise”.

But it was just recently; upon a re-voyage to the Caribbean Sea that I decided the names of the blues did not satisfy my request for identification of the water’s color. There seemed to be nothing on the “proverbial” palette that would announce such grandeur, such beauty, for as one would venture from wave to wave, the sun upon the surface changed the blues like a chameleon dashing from leaf to leaf.

And so, my tongue was tied to the usual color selections however, I know better than to hold such radiance hostage within the framework of the color-wheel.

NPG D20848; George Field by David Lucas, after  Richard RothwellToday’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker: George Field (1777- 1854), the British chemist, who helped alter British painting both aesthetically and practically. It was during the industrial revolution that an increased knowledge of chemistry allowed early nineteenth-century painters to benefit from the most dramatic increase in the number of new natural and synthetic pigments and refined color processing developments. Field, buttressed his theories with reliable information about light-fast, durable pigments, all based on his own scientific experiments and manufacturing processes.

In 1835, he published Chromatography, although already recognized by professional painters as London’s most important color-maker and supplier.

I now bring you a piece of his writing from FIELD’S CHROMATOGRAPHY; OR, TREATISE ON COLOURS AND PIGMENTS AS USED BY ARTISTS. From the essay, The relations of harmony and colour, here is something to ponder.

“Assured as we must be of the importance of colouring as a branch of art, colours in all their bearings become interesting to the artist, and on their use and arrangement his reputation as a colourist must depend.
Colour, remarks Ruskin, is wholly relative; each hue throughout a work is altered by every touch added in other places. Thus, to place white beside a colour is to heighten its tone; to set black beside a colour is to weaken its tone; while to put grey beside a colour, is to render it more brilliant. If a dark colour be placed near a different, but lighter colour, the tone of the first is heightened, while that of the second is lowered. An important consequence of this principle is, that the first effect may neutralize the second, or even destroy it altogether. …

We learn from these relations of colours, why dapplings of two or more produce effects in painting so much more clear and brilliant than uniform tints obtained by compounding the same colours: and why hatchings, or a touch of their contrasts, thrown as it were by accident upon local tints, have the same effect. We see, too, why colours mixed deteriorate each other, which they do more—in many cases—by imperfectly neutralizing or subduing each other chromatically, than by any chemical action. Finally, we are impressed with the necessity, not only of using colours pure, but of using pure colours; although pure colouring and brilliancy differ as much from crudeness and harshness, as tone and harmony from murkiness and monotony.

The powers of colours in contrasting each other agree with their correlative powers of light and shade, and are to be distinguished from their powers individually on the eye, which are those of light alone. Thus, although orange and blue are equal powers with respect to each other, as regards the eye they are totally different and opposed. Orange is a luminous colour, and has a powerfully irritating effect, while blue is a shadowy colour, possessing a soothing quality—and it is the same, in various degrees, with other colours …”

Second image: Portrait by David Lucas, after Richard Rothwell mezzotint, 1845 (1839)

Esteemed thinker: Jonathan Swift

Conversation_Marcel Duchahamp As we become more and more adept at using our fingers to transpose our thoughts, such as via emails and texts, so has the art of conversation become relegated to being much more succinct. However, there are times when longer conversations are a necessary tool , especially during an occasion such as at a party…which leads us to the reality that we all know those persons or person who engage us in conversation, only to drop us like a hot-potato when someone else, more to their liking arrives … leaving us standing idly by the cheese dip and hoping to strike up another conversation with an alternative guest.

Then there is the conversationalist that likes to jump into the exchange even before you may have completed your thought. For them the “me show “never has ended and is only at a pause while you are speaking. Makes you wonder if they are really listening to you; I would have to say not.

Having a conversation with yourself can also cause much confusion, as well as instigating particularly strange looks from others. This chat to yourself needs to be relegated to personal space, such as the car or shower.

Conversations on the telephone, this may be a safe bet, for not being able to see the party on the other end can keep you from seeing their eyes rolling. However, these conversations are too often cut short when it is interrupted by that all too popular noise…the click… meaning that someone will trump you…(Alas this reminds us of the party goers.)

And lest we not forget that there was a time when meals were accompanied by good food and good conversation; sadly only to be have been replaced by inanimate objects, the cell phone.

So… take heed for if you find yourself engaged in a conversation, do not get to used to this tête-à-tête because it most likely will be over before you even know it.

Jonathan_Swift_by_Charles_Jervas_detail_web Today’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) 18th century satirist and author of the great work Gulliver’s Travels. Born in Dublin, Ireland, his father died when he was only seven months old, his family relied upon relatives for financial assistance. In 1704 he published his humorous take on religion, A Tale of the Tub; becoming an active figure of the Dublin society and politics becoming a blunt critic in efforts of improving Ireland.

For your pleasure today I have snipped from his book The Battle of the Books, and bring you a portion of a most humorous essay titled, “Hints Towards an Essay on Conversation”. Although the mid 1700s was a time when people prided themselves as being conversationalists, we will soon learn from Mr. Swift that this art was not without its trials and tribulations during his time.

And now, without anymore interruptions, let us take a few moments for the illustrious writer, Jonathan Swift.

“…There are some faults in conversation which none are so subject to as the men of wit, nor ever so much as when they are with each other. If they have opened their mouths without endeavouring to say a witty thing, they think it is so many words lost. It is a torment to the hearers, as much as to themselves, to see them upon the rack for invention, and in perpetual constraint, with so little success. They must do something extraordinary, in order to acquit themselves, and answer their character, else the standers by may be disappointed and be apt to think them only like the rest of mortals. I have known two men of wit industriously brought together, in order to entertain the company, where they have made a very ridiculous figure, and provided all the mirth at their own expense…

There are some people whose good manners will not suffer them to interrupt you; but, what is almost as bad, will discover abundance of impatience, and lie upon the watch until you have done, because they have started something in their own thoughts which they long to be delivered of. Meantime, they are so far from regarding what passes, that their imaginations are wholly turned upon what they have in reserve, for fear it should slip out of their memory; and thus they confine their invention, which might otherwise range over a hundred things full as good, and that might be much more naturally introduced…”

First image: 1909 by Marcel Duchamp, pen and ink
Second image: Portrait by Charles Jervas

Esteemed thinker: David Hume

mic With each generation there comes change and with each generation there are those who look back at their elders as being rather antiquated. Changes within the generations are often parallel with technological advancements, relegating the elders into the unintentional but often considered outdated group. As change has ambushed the populations of the world so have many of the once heralded skills that have now been relegated as something one either does not partake in or “picks up” as they go along…such is the art of “eloquence”. Ahhh, a term that presently has been modified to mean something other than its original connotation, “a skillful way with words.”

There was once a time when the fine art of speaking, oration, was eloquence; when writing was eloquence, and those who attributed their time and learning to “eloquence” were looked upon with great regard. Yet rarely do we hear speakers of such finesse that we would call he or she an orator, and rarely in our day’s occurrences do we read anything which could be identified with such a title as eloquence, for with its meaning too has its execution been diminished.

So, for those who yearn for eloquence they will have to look back in time for certainly in the sound bites of today’s world, your “eloquent writing” would be snipped before you even got started …for after all… 140 characters is all you are allocated in a “tweet”!

David Hume Today’s blog takes us into the 1700s with the esteemed thinker: David Hume (1711-1776)born in Edinburgh, he was a Scottish philosopher , historian, economist, and recognized by contemporary philosophers as precursor to cognitive science. He was considered a skeptic regarding philosophy and relentless critic of religion and metaphysics. Although best known for his Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and six volumes on The History of England (1754 -1762), Hume made two other major lasting contributions to economics. One is his idea that economic freedom is necessary condition for political freedom. The second is his assertion that “you cannot deduce ought from is”—that is, value judgments cannot be made purely on the basis of facts.

I now bring you the words of Mr. Hume who will expound further about “eloquence” and which was eloquently snipped from his essay, so aptly titled “Eloquence” (1742).

“…in many respects, of an opposite character to the ancient; and that, if we be superior in philosophy, we are still, notwithstanding all our refinements, much inferior in eloquence…In enumerating the great men, who have done honour to our country, we exult in our poets and philosophers; but what orators are ever mentioned? Or where are the monuments of their genius to be met with? There are found, indeed, in our histories, the names of several, who directed the resolutions of our parliament: But neither themselves nor others have taken the pains to preserve their speeches; and the authority, which they possessed, seems to have been owing to their experience, wisdom, or power, more than to their talents for oratory. At present, there are above half a dozen speakers in the two houses, who, in the judgment of the public, have reached very near the same pitch of eloquence; and no man pretends to give any one the preference above the rest. This seems to me a certain proof, that none of them have attained much beyond a mediocrity in their art, and that the species of eloquence, which they aspire to, gives no exercise to the sublimer faculties of the mind, but may be reached by ordinary talents and a slight application….

One is somewhat at a loss to what cause we may ascribe so sensible a decline of eloquence in later ages. The genius of mankind, at all times, is, perhaps, equal: The moderns have applied themselves, with great industry and success, to all the other arts and sciences: And a learned nation possesses a popular government; a circumstance which seems requisite for the full display of these noble talents: But notwithstanding all these advantages, our progress in eloquence is very inconsiderable, in comparison of the advances, which we have made in all other parts of learning…”

Second image: Oil portrait of Hume by David Ramsay (1776)

Esteemed thinker: William Cobbett

lovers Advice is something we often receive freely even if we want it or not. Most people readily hand it over and wish nothing more in return except perhaps to be acknowledged that they are “correct”. It can be solicited without our intention such as through one’s appearance; “Your hair would look better combed,” or it can open up a world of advice by way of a simple question such as…. “Do you think I could wear this to the office?”

Advice is given in many forms. It can be written, spoken, and even offered as a gesture. For example rather than saying “my advice to you is ….” one may receive a “thumbs down”.

Those seeking advice have relied upon the famous such as Anne Landers and Dear Abby, the curious such as palm readers, and even the impersonal such as horoscopes. Yet no matter the advice one receives, no matter the way it is given, ultimately it becomes the decision of the seeker to make, and for that we bid “good luck!”

NPG 1549,William Cobbett,possibly by George Cooke Today’s blog introduces a lesser known English political journalist, the esteemed thinker: William Cobbett (1763-1835). Born in Farnham, Surrey County England, this author, satirist, journalist, and editor may not be a household name today, however it is to be noted that he was a champion of the people; fighting for reforms and exposing corruption in both the Church and Parliament during 18th and 19th century England. Through his writing in pamphlets, newspapers, and books he called for radical reform regarding poor working conditions for laborers and farmers.

Cobbett’s newspaper journal, The Political Register, was widely read by the working class people. As a result of his public outcries, he became an enemy of the government and fled to the United States in 1817 rather than being arrested for “sedition”. Here he lived on Long Island and wrote his most famous work, Grammar of the English language. Upon his return to England, in 1831 he continues to publish his radical newspaper and though running for the House of Commons, is defeated.

And so, we will now turn over the post to William Cobbett. The selection takes a bit of a turn from his political activism. From his series of Letters Advice to Young Men, and (incidentally) to Young Woman, you may be surprised to see that he too has some thoughts for those seeking love.

“… There are two descriptions of Lovers on whom all advice would be wasted; namely, those in whose minds passion so wholly overpowers reason as to deprive the party of his sober senses. Few people are entitled to more compassion than young men thus affected: it is a species of insanity that assails them; and, when it produces self-destruction, which it does in England more frequently than in all the other countries in the world put together, the mortal remains of the sufferer ought to be dealt with in as tender a manner as that of which the most merciful construction of the law will allow.

The other description of lovers, with whom it is useless to reason, are those who love according to the rules of arithmetic, or who measure their matrimonial expectations by the chain of the land-surveyor. These are not love and marriage; they are bargain and sale. Young men will naturally, and almost necessarily, fix their choice on young women in their own rank in life; because from habit and intercourse they will know them best. But, if the length of the girl’s purse, present or contingent, be a consideration with the man, or the length of his purse, present or contingent, be a consideration with her, it is an affair of bargain and sale…

Let me now turn from these two descriptions of lovers, with whom it is useless to reason, and address myself to you, my reader, whom I suppose to be a real lover, but not so smitten as to be bereft of your reason. You should never forget, that marriage, which is a state that every young person ought to have in view, is a thing to last for life; and that, generally speaking, it is to make life happy, or miserable; for, though a man may bring his mind to something nearly a state of indifference, even that is misery, except with those who can hardly be reckoned amongst sensitive beings. Marriage brings numerous cares, which are amply compensated by the more numerous delights which are their companions. But to have the delights, as well as the cares, the choice of the partner must be fortunate…”

First image: The lovers: New York : Published by N. Currier, c1846 lithograph, hand-colored.
Second image: National Portrait Gallery UK Painted circa 1831 by artist George Cooke (1781-1834)

William Hazlitt and a moment in time

clock big ben Moments are tiny elements of time… a cough, a sneeze, a glance…if we were to calculate how long it takes to react or to perform one of these events it would be correct to say…”just a moment”. And so we see that such a modest allotment, however, can manufacture an enormous memory…a memory so grand and so big that you can carry it about with you and resurrect that instant back into the present. A chance greeting with a dignitary in a receiving line, a hug from grandmother, or even the first time you listened to the air circling about in a conch shell…a moment that has endured for such a long duration that if it had been a rose it would have lost its brilliance and dried into a petrified flower.

Walk by a bakery and the wisp of baked goods will linger yet it was but a brief encounter that set the olfactory in motion. Small pleasures in comparison to big events do not always leave the same mark for it is not always the largest occasion that leaves the most favorable memory. Rather, there are moments which were not trifles happenings, but in its place have severed a wound or engraved a wedge so profound that its removal seems overpowering… a quick glib, a sarcastic comment, an angry glare… the same amount of time yet its effects we wish or hope would disappear as quickly as they were created. Moments in time happen in day and night and its effects are as different as its counterparts light and dark…

How often have we heard someone say.. ”Oh, wait just a moment,” or “ it will arrive in just a moment.” Yet we know deep down that the accuracy of the statement is not truthful; for the calculated “moment” dwindles in a quagmire of reinterpreted time.
A moment -in -time is a constant measurement like the twenty-four hours it takes the Earth to rotate; it is always the same yet the impact we feel in a given moment can be small or big, tiny or enormous, it can leave us feeling light in thought or heavy with burden, so little like a whisper yet so strong like a hurricane….strange …isn’t it?

william hazlitt 2 Today’s blog invites you back to revisit our esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt, a Romantic era writer. This English author and philosopher turned criticism into an art form. His prose and essays were eloquent in style and language, although not without controversy for he was a most principled and outspoken in his thinking.

Let us now take “a moment of time” to read a portion snipped from his essay, “Great and Little Things” (1821) . Here is the ever so expressive Mr. Hazlitt…

“ … The great and the little have, no doubt, a real existence in the nature of things; but they both find pretty much the same level in the mind of man. It is a common measure, which does not always accommodate itself to the size and importance of the objects it represents. It has a certain interest to spare for certain things (and no more) according to its humour and capacity; and neither likes to be stinted in its allowance, nor to muster up an unusual share of sympathy, just as the occasion may require. Perhaps, if we could recollect distinctly, we should discover that the two things that have affected us most in the course of our lives have been, one of them of the greatest, and the other of the smallest possible consequence. To let that pass as too fine a speculation, we know well enough that very trifling circumstances do give us great and daily annoyance, and as often prove too much for our philosophy and forbearance, as matters of the highest moment. A lump of soot spoiling a man’s dinner, a plate of toast falling in the ashes, the being disappointed of a ribbon to a cap or a ticket for a ball, have led to serious and almost tragical consequences…

The truth is, we pamper little griefs into great ones, and bear great ones as well as we can. We can afford to dally and play tricks with the one, but the others we have enough to do with, without any of the wantonness and bombast of passion—without the swaggering of Pistol or the insolence of King Cambyses’ vein. To great evils we submit; we resent little provocations. I have before now been disappointed of a hundred pound job and lost half a crown at rackets on the same day, and been more mortified at the latter than the former…”

First image: Big Ben: London