Stressout of the week was delivering the annual Erasmus Lecture, the venue being the Technological University of Darmstadt. The stress was exacerbated by the red-faced pilot who arrived late from his hotel to the Heathrow gate. This meant I arrived at the lecture hall only half an hour before kickoff.
Then the event’s host, the local Professor of Computer Science, refused for a while to accept my powerpoint demo because he did not believe that I was actually the person giving the lecture. (This happens a lot: I don’t look very intelligent and people—or rather men—who have only read my work are invariably disappointed when they meet me in middle-aged maternal person).
Prof. was punished by the she-gods, however. His computer broke down at the precise moment when he told the European Academy that his institution was At The Apex of World Computational Science. Someone had put a vase of flowers on the platform in a place which made it inevitable that the technician would kick it over. The water zapped the electricity. Prof. was at a loss how to mop up the puddle. I reached into my mumsy handbag and offered him a packet of tissues, explaining that Lo-Tech Is Sometimes Best. He never spoke to me again.
|Aristotle inventing Zoology on Lesbos|
But I ploughed on. Having been asked to ensure that my lecture could be enjoyed by the 90% of the audience who are scientists, I hit them hard with Aristotle. He is a tough read at the best of times, despite a few laboured Stageirite puns. But he did after all invent systematic Zoology, statistical analysis of volcanoes, self-conscious use of logical syllogisms, the concepts of Collective Intelligence, theory, and above all of potentiality and its actualisation—teleology.
|Greek Science made statues seem to move|
I explained what I like best about Aristotle—his application of everyday experience to elevated theorisation. When illustrating the moment that biological reproduction instils potentiality (what we would call the fixing of the genetic code or DNA transfer) the man from Stageira draws an analogy from temple cult. He has seen gadgets in the form of ‘wonderful puppets’ (automata) which trick people into thinking that gods’ statues are alive. They use hidden wheels that transmit movement to gears, edge-to-edge, through friction. The potential for the statues to move is created when the first wheel of the series is set in slow, grinding motion, some time before the potentiality is actualised.
You can go to see reconstructions of such wonder-inducing mechanisms, reconstructed by Kostas Kotsanas at his Museum of Ancient Greek Technology and Inventions in Katakolo, western Peloponnese. The museum, charmingly, is free of charge. So remember, when not marvelling at the ingenuity of the ancient Greeks in this ordinary seaside town, to eat out a lot and inject some money into the modern ones’ economy.