Some Dead White Males worthy of admiration

March 01, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

I approach a trip to a book nook with the eagerness of a child on an outing to the toy store. At the Bibelot book shop on Reisterstown Road, I scurry about from aisle to aisle.

I stop at a new biography of Elijah Muhammad, the 40-year leader of the Nation of Islam who was succeeded by either his son Wallace or Louis Farrakhan, depending on whose history you believe.

"It's timely and long overdue," I say to myself about the Muhammad biography, but I decide to pass on it, as I do on biographies of Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith and jazzman Louis Armstrong. I head for the history section.

"Honor and Slavery" is a title that catches my eye. Written by Kenneth S. Greenberg, a Suffolk University (Boston) history professor, the book describes the language used among the antebellum South's "men of honor." The key to understanding such men, Greenberg argues, is in deciphering the language they used. Thus slave masters regarded slaves who stole from them, faked illnesses or broke tools as deceitful, not as resisting slavery, as they were.

When John Randolph of Virginia invited a man to dinner and then told the man through a closed door "Sir, I am not at home," it actually confirmed his status as a man of honor, Greenberg contends.

"That he so obviously was at home only served to confirm the extraordinary power of his word. He could create a reality and have it honored even when it was clearly false."

The old Southern, slave-owning aristocracy creating a reality, eh? It sounds familiar.

I decide to buy "Honor and Slavery" and read for myself how much value Southerners placed on the notion of honor. Did it lead to secession and the Civil War? Did these folks nearly honor themselves out of existence? Read the book and judge for yourself.

I pick up "The History of the Second Seminole War," just to see if the author -- John K. Mahon -- made the connection that it was more an African and Seminole war than just a Seminole war. He did, sort of, pointing out the "strong connection between the Second Seminole War and slavery." I decide to get this one, too.

Then one title stops me dead in my tracks: "Five Equations That Changed The World." I'm further entranced by the subtitle: "The Power and Poetry of Mathematics." Can the little bit of mathematician that remains in me (and believe me, it's not much ) pass on this one? As it turns out, the little math guy lurking in there can't.

I rush home with all three books and dive right into Dr. Michael Guillen's "Five Equations." The ABC-TV science editor and professor of physics and mathematics at Harvard University sure doesn't write like one. This seems like clear, simple English he's writing here. What gives?

The first chapter is on Sir Isaac Newton. My man! Isaac Newton! Fellow Capricorn. A man about whom if you used the word "genius," you'd probably be understating the level of his intellect.

But in the early part of Guillen's essay about Newton, the author reveals something I never knew: It seems young Isaac Newton did poorly in grade school. He was a whipping boy -- literally -- and butt for jokes of his classmate Arthur Storer. That is until the day Newton handled Storer in a fistfight. But he was still behind Storer in his classwork. Newton had a plan for that, too.

He discovered an ancient technique that had been known to dramatically improve the grades of low-achieving students. He applied it assiduously and soon surpassed Storer academically. The technique has survived down to this day.

It's called "studying."

Newton went on to develop calculus at roughly the same time as German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and discovered the equation that gave the relationship between the gravitational forces of planets, moons and stars. It was Newton's equation, Guillen reminds us, that allowed NASA scientists to put astronauts on the moon in 1969.

The other four equations in Guillen's book are Daniel Bernoulli's law of hydrodynamic pressure, Michael Faraday's law of electromagnetic induction, Rudolf Clausius' second law of thermodynamics and Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity.

While reading Guillen's book, I look at the names Newton, Leibniz, Bernoulli, Faraday, Clausius and Einstein and wonder what they have in common. Aren't these all Dead White European Males, the ones we're all supposed to hold in scorn when they are introduced into our educational curriculum?

Maybe DWEM's received so much attention in the past because they deserved it. In an America whose educational system is fast falling behind those of Europe and some Asian countries, it might be time to give DWEM's a second look.

Pub Date: 3/01/97

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