By watching TV the viewer might get the impression that George Bush, Oprah, Paris Hilton, and the sports hero of the moment are leading figures in the development of civilization. It is imputed that they are worthy of objects adulation by the benighted billions when the reality is that they are passing glimpses of the trivial side of human existence and have no lasting impact. Western civilization was created by people of greatness, the product of towering genius that once strode the Earth. Towering because so few have had such a great impact on so many and geniuses because their achievements require a measuring stick that is beyond our ability to create.
Here are the three figures, in chronological order of birth, I consider most significant to the daily lives of 6 billion living, acting human beings: Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Ludwig von Mises. Their impact on life dwarfs those who shine in the sterile and pallid light of fleeting mass media celebrity
Isaac Newton was born a yeoman in England in 1642. He showed early signs of intellect and was sent to attend Cambridge University thanks to his mothers' connections. While at Cambridge he invented the sciences of the Calculus, Optics, Mechanics and Gravitation, the core of physics, with little more than the power of his mind and whatever he could fabricate by his own hands. Newton single-handedly brought mankind from the Age of Faith into the Age of Reason by proving that the scientific method can explain the natural world with far greater accuracy than rituals of faith.
Albert Einstein was born to a bourgeois family in 1879. He was a bright child, but did not display signs of great intellect until after his formal education. Between 1905 and 1915 he revolutionized physics with the quantum theory, special and general relativity. These theories have been proven true by a vast number of experiments conducted worldwide over the last century.
Einstein's theories broke the barrier between human intuition, perception, and the underlying physical reality. His quantum theory proved the world of the very small (atomic scale and less) is vastly different from the macroscopic vista which human beings can perceive. Relativity broke the perceptual link between the world that we see, one of low mass and low velocity, with the actual Universe where mass increases with velocity, time is relative between observers, and the geometry of Space which is elastic. The transistor, upon which digital electronic technology is based, was a direct result of the quantum theory, as is nuclear power. The Global Positioning System requires Einstein's General Relativistic corrections for the mass of earth and sun for accuracy.
Ludwig von Mises was born in 1881 in what was then Austria-Hungary (now the Ukraine). It was a time of great upheaval in social ideology. The battlefront between socialist and classical liberal economic theory were forming between European countries that were embracing variations of each. His genius created two works that revolutionized the intellectual battlegrounds in this war. Socialism was published in 1922, just 5 years after the October Revolution that reverberated around the world. This book directly explained the how and why of the failure of this blight on human existence. He equated Socialism with death, accurately predicting the demise of 100 million souls that perished under Communism, which was socialism's most fervid exponent.
In 1949 Human Action was published. This book used the power of deductive logic to provide a rigorous demonstration that the Austrian Theory of economics correctly describes human interplay in the market economy. Like the works of Newton, and Einstein, the impact of this work is immense and affects virtually all of humanity.
Newton demonstrated that physical reality is bound and understandable in the language of mathematics. Einstein showed that human perception is weak, limited and error prone. Von Mises with the iron rigor of his deductive logic illuminated the rules that prove how human desire backed by action are the seat of all cultural achievements.
Modern governments throughout the world provide the framework for the prosperity of their citizens by the degree of their adherence to the principles of human action through economic activity that von Mises elucidated. Conversely the more these principles are refuted, ignored, or outlawed, the greater the poverty, misery and human degradation of that state's subjects: government's are the Dark Prince of Earthly misdeeds.
The accomplishments of these Giants of Human Intelligence will be felt by mankind for as long as it exists. They provide the foundation and framework of our modern society that allows billions via concerted human action to live safe, secure and prosperous lives. Most of us cannot fathom what is necessary for their creation but we can all bathe in their reflected glory.
Turn off the TV, and the false glorification of its trivial and sallow miscreants. You can join these noble souls, these intellectual giants, in creating a more prosperous future for all of mankind. Bask for free at your public library.
Isaac Newton: Never at Rest
Albert Einstein: Subtle is the Lord
July 11, 2006