A few days ago, I posted this quote from Nikola Tesla, the enigmatically brilliant inventor responsible for so much of what we take for granted today:
“Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.” -Nikola Tesla
I considered it a revolutionary and thought provoking statement, not one that denigrated the importance of mathematics to all scientific inquiry.
In fact, Tesla understood and appreciated mathematics of the highest order. He himself was an astoundingly brilliant mathematician.
But Tesla had talents and abilities that few others possessed. His ability to precisely envision his ideas and create working versions in his mind were perhaps unprecedented. It provides, to my understanding, the meaning behind his quote above.
An article at MathematicsMagazine.com (linked to at bottom) is truly a fascinating look into his unique genius. It’s really worth reading.
Comments on the quote from two long-term parts of my life, my friend Steve and my brother Bruce, both highly intelligent people who appreciate science and the scientific method, basically said that even geniuses can say crazy, ridiculous things. They felt that this was one of those examples.
They both seemed to view the quote as an attack on the importance of mathematics in scientific experiments, and perhaps even on the scientific community itself. I’m not quite sure. Just guessing.
It seemed to me they might be dismissing Tesla’s statement almost out of hand.
I know them both as open-minded and willing to discuss important issues. We’ve done it for years.
As I thought about their views on the quote, it occurred to me that perhaps, just perhaps, this was at least a metaphorical example of everyone’s temptation to deride or dismiss certain ideas that may conflict with one’s current world view (in this case scientific, but it could apply to any issue we face today).
Here’s my response to their comments (which I always highly value), as a way of completing my thoughts on the subject of the radical Tesla:
Bruce and Steve, it’s great to have you both comment on the Tesla quote. In answer to Steve’s first comment that Tesla’s quote was wrongheaded, I replied: “You and I agree on this issue, I believe. What do you think Tesla meant by this statement? He certainly understood what you expressed.”
You guys would get along wonderfully, as I have with both of you for decades. The reason I started the blog, and post those things on Facebook, is two-fold. First is to fulfill a desire to express myself. The second is to promote discussion, since respectful discussion between people with different and legitimate world views is so important these days. It seems that’s becoming a lost art in today’s highly charged political atmosphere.
I’m not sure what either of you think the hidden meaning was behind my posting the Tesla quote, if any. I’m curious about that. I thought it was an intriguing perspective by a legitimate and eccentric genius (not just some smart ass blogger). My intention was to promote discussion, not just to provoke.
What I got from the article I referenced to Steve was not what Tesla said as much as his unique style of genius, one that pushed him to explore new approaches to scientific discovery. He truly was a different kind of scientist who challenged the orthodoxy of the day!
The validity of his individual utterances aside, it is clear he made great contributions to 20th century progress. If I posted only quotes with which everyone clearly agreed, that would get kind of boring.
I appreciate Bruce’s exasperated compliment about his little brother being no dummy, yet being a victim of right-wing-indoctrination, but I differ with both appraisals. I’m no genius for sure. And the indoctrination part must refer to the Hitler Summer Youth Camp I attended after my junior year in high school. LOL
What I seriously take issue with, though, is the underlying assumption that those who hold a different world view have somehow been hijacked by forces of stupidity or evil or insanity or whatever.
I have been a conservative for my entire adult life, and even before that. I see the world from that perspective, a perspective that’s shared by many people much smarter than I am.
The ability to civilly discuss such issues with both of you over the years is one of the many reasons you have always commanded my great respect. Such discussions have always been based upon mutual respect, not the premise that the other has been programmed or lobotomized.
There are millions of people out there who have swallowed the talking points “hook, line and sinker”. It’s true of both sides. But I think I’m at least smarter than that, and I know you are.
My best to both of you!
The article about Tesla below is mind-bending, to say the least. I hope you’ll read it.