Monday, June 12, 2006

Noam Chomsky and the Little Green Men

Some of those who follow the career of Noam Chomsky see him as an outsize figure, larger in scale than any of his contemporaries, a megastar in the American university galaxy.
To what academic figures of the past half-century might they compare him? To Linus Pauling of the California Institute of Technology, who won a Nobel Prize in both chemistry and peace, and who was a great scientist as well as a great humanitarian? Or perhaps to Albert Einstein, ensconced in Princeton University for a number of years, who won the Nobel for physics and who was also actively engaged in the great issues of the day?
Perhaps. One difference is that the works of Pauling and Einstein are considered to be vital, foundational and fully accepted by the scientific community.
With Chomsky…not so much. The hallmark of his work is transience and endless revision, with nothing in the field of theoretical linguistics that anyone can point to as a really lasting achievement. He certainly led a lot of people down the primrose path, fully expecting to one day arrive at some high moment of clarification. After fifty years, this moment has not yet arrived.
But I don’t think we have to look too far from home to find the most apt person to whom we might compare Chomsky. Exactly one century ago, in the summer of 1906, one of the most famous scientific figures in the world was working at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology, Chomsky’s long-time stomping grounds.
His name was Percival Lowell, and he was a professor of astronomy and the director of the Lowell Observatory at MIT. Professor Lowell was, according to the the July 8, 1906 edition of The World Magazine, a "member of many scientific societies, and…recognized throughout the world as an expert on the solar system and especially Mars."
And what exactly was Professor Lowell famous for? Dr. Lowell was the man who discovered that there were little people living on Mars who sustained themselves with the water which ran through the canals which they had constructed.
Dr. Lowell’s discovery confirmed the theories of the noted British science fiction writer H.G. Wells, who was thus quoted: "Professor Lowell told me many things that are simply amazing…Among these things, he states as a fact that the geometrical lines which are seen on the planet are canals constructed by persons of superhuman intellegence for the purpose of distributing water over the surface of the planet."
According to the article in The World, "Professor Lowell, together with many other astronomers of world-wide reputation, believes that Mars is a very living world subject to an annual cycle of growth, activity and decay."
Must have been a really exciting time to be alive.
Lowell, much like Chomsky, was most meticulous with his observations. Here’s an example of the detail of life on Mars which Lowell recorded: "…the landmarks of {a region of Mars} lay obliterated by a deluge; not directly, but indirectly. Probably the region was in various stages of vegetal fertility in consequence of a comparatively small body of water thus inundating it. The color of the dark areas was then and is now, to my eyes, a bluish green; quite unmistakably so."
Amazing how much detail Lowell could see, and how many important conclusions he could draw from scant evidence. What a seer! And when you consider how much Chomsky can see in language which nobody else can seem to find – the universal grammar, the transformations, the parameters, the deep structure – then you must realize the degree to which Chomsky truly is the intellectual heir to the genius of Lowell.
And what of the Martians themselves? "With the disappearance of the water from the surface of the planet the Martians will die."
Or was it as simple as that? Perhaps the real reason for the disappearance of the Martians was that the United States government had launched some sort of pre-NASA expedition to that planet for the purpose of expanding its empire and that, when the Martians resisted, they were starved and massacred by out-of-control U.S. troops. I see ‘book potential’, Noam.
At any rate, the idea that there was water on Mars and that it sustained some form of life was a very real idea which was kept alive throughout most of the Twentieth Century. Although such Hollywood productions as "The Three Stooges in Orbit" spoofed the idea, the fact that it was spoofed at all meant that the general public had been taught to believe that life on Mars was likely. In fact, it was only in the 1970s that NASA’s Mars Orbiter missions succeeded in obtaining enough data to prove definitively that Lowell’s theories were unfounded.
And so for three quarters of a century the fanciful ideas of Professor Lowell held considerable sway over both the popular and the professional understanding of astronomy. None of it was true, but that didn't stop just about everybody from believing it.
Lowell is now pretty well forgotten, his theories discarded. And whatever became of Chomsky?
Research source: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898 - 1911) Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano, Bulfinch Press, 2005.