Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nuh uh

So, I just finished reading my group's book, "Gulliver's Travels". I found it a quick read and quite entertaining. Additionally, the book was online! For free! I found this a wondrous advantage.

The premise of the book is so unusual (Gulliver travels to four different nations, where the inhabitants of each nation greatly resemble people in many ways but differ in some important regards unique to each nation) that children with a reasonable vocabulary could find it entertaining, but those with a better understanding of the cultural context of the book could find a deeper meaning.

Here, for this post, I just wanted to comment on one aspect of the book. In the third nation Gulliver visits, the people of the nation are consumed by theoretical knowledge, which frequently turns out poorly in application. (However, the experiment should work, so the people never revert back to their previous ways in fear of being despised by all the other, more enlightened citizens.)

One example of such an experiment is to use cucumbers to trap sunlight rays. The book cited many such absurd experiments, which I initially assumed were all made up. However, not so! Some research into the background of the book yielded this interesting information:

When Swift wrote this section of the novel, most of the experiments and theories espoused at Laputa's Lagado Academy, including extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, had actually been carried out or proposed by the scientists of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, a society founded in 1660 which as of 2006 continues under the shortened name, the Royal Society.

Ha ha! Oh my goodness! We studied this society in class, and people actually tried this experiment. It makes me wonder sometimes about university knowledge. Some of the things we do sound as absurd as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers. Sometimes they work though. But not always. Fortunately, I think our society is sufficiently focused on practical knowledge that the absurd ones don't come through so often. What's the most absurd legitimate experiment you've heard of? Let's hear it.

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