An Astonishing Year

December 27, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- In June 1919, statesmen in and around Paris were poring over, and improvising, maps as the Versailles Conference fabricated such perishable things as lasting peace and Yugoslavia. No doubt in December of that year the professional sifters and weighers of what is called ''news'' decided that what the statesmen had done was the year's most momentous story.

But also in June 1919, Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand physicist working in England, published results of experiments involving the bombardment of nitrogen with alpha particles, resulting in the transformation of nitrogen sometimes into oxygen, other times into hydrogen. What alchemists had dreamed of, Rutherford had done: the transformation of matter.

Few noticed, and fewer understood. In ''Brighter than a Thousand Suns: The Story of the Men Who Made the Bomb,'' Robert Jungk wrote that in 1918, when Rutherford was upbraided for missing a meeting of British experts studying defenses against submarines, he replied, ''Talk softly, please. I have been engaged in experiments which suggest that the atom can be artificially disintegrated. If that is true, it is of far greater importance than a war.''

The end of a year is a time for taking stock, an undertaking which, properly done, is chastening, particularly for people whose job is to decide what is, and to report, news. History teaches that history probably will conclude that we did not recognize what was really important about 1993.

At the end of 1809 the relatively few people informed about events probably thought the most important events were the Treaty of the Dardanelles between Britain and Turkey, or the French defeating the Austrians at Wagram, or Napoleon divorcing Josephine. They could not have known that the big news occurred on February 12, when both Lincoln and Darwin were born.

In 1922 Mussolini founded Europe's first fascist government. But did that event leave as lasting a mark as the publication that year of James Joyce's ''Ulysses'' and T.S. Eliot's ''The Wasteland''? The more journalism I read and do, the more convinced I am not merely that ideas have consequences, but that only ideas have large and lasting consequences -- behind every war there lurks an idea -- and that books are still the $H primary carriers of ideas, including books of poetry and fiction. News gatherers, like news makers, might be made agreeably humble by the definition of literature as news that stays news.

Very little other than literature lasts, least of all the everyday arrangements in which we are immersed and on which we plan to depend indefinitely. In the 1850s, American cotton was king, feeding the mills of England, but on a tonnage basis America's second largest export was . . . ice. John Steele Gordon, writing in American Heritage, says blocks of it were sawed from New England ponds and shipped, insulated under sawdust, to warm climes as distant as Calcutta. People probably thought that would go on forever. Nothing does.

A paradox defines a modern predicament. As new technologies in invention and communication accelerate processes of change, political elites seem more, not less, confident of their ability to anticipate and control change. This delusion is deepened by journalism which, while doing its everyday duty, concentrates on the here and now, encouraging the illusion that the future will be more of the same. But consider.

What, if anything, that happened in 1993 will stand, in 2093, silhouetted against history's horizon? If history is understood merely as political history -- what is done with state power -- perhaps nothing will. But there is much more to history than that. So perhaps a century from now notice will still be taken of what happened around midnight December 9, 1993, at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

A team of scientists operating a test reactor produced pulses of energy from controlled fusion, pulses of up to several million watts of power. Each pulse only lasted a second or so, and consumed more energy than it produced. But, then, the task of producing in New Jersey the process that powers the sun (which in turn powers New Jersey) is not to be sneezed at, considering that it involves temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius.

Some scientists were stirred almost to tears, understandably. They can reasonably hope that they have moved mankind toward the creation of abundant energy from a limitless supply of helium isotopes, without significant hazardous waste. If so, perhaps in 2093 the production of electricity by burning fossil fuels will seem to our great-great grandchildren as quaint as shipping frozen pieces of New England ponds to Calcutta. And they will envy the electricity of excitement they will assume we experienced in the astonishing year of 1993.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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