Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chapter 3 - A Good Engineer: Part 3 - The Machine of Alfred Korzybski

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish

All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

In his coursework, Alfred continued the pattern he had found so useful at the realschule for getting by with a passing grade. He attended classes consistently, following his teachers’ lectures closely, taking notes, participating in labs as needed, and building for himself a comprehensive view of the various subjects. Outside of class, though, he continued to pursue his own reading and barely touched his textbooks, except to cram for examinations. Such cramming sessions often took place on the day of the exam. His lack of preparation led to some ‘interesting’ situations. He had already learned how to successfully take shortcuts on exams based on his understanding of the underlying principles of a subject. This had allowed him to deal with test problems whenever he had failed to learn a specific formula and other significant details, or whenever he felt he could save time and effort. He probably had perfected this method at the realschule.

The instructor of one mathematics class there had given the students a difficult problem and told them he wanted them to solve it using only algebra. At Rudnik, multi-lingual Alfred had sometimes accomplished his troubleshooting by translating between speakers of different languages. His method for solving the algebra problem followed this method of translation. Alfred first solved the problem by using differential calculus—ultimately simpler than using algebra, if one knew calculus—then translated what he had done back into algebra. He not only passed the test but, in addition, gained something even more important. Having to translate between algebra and calculus gave him greater insight into the interconnections between these two branches of mathematics. Furthermore, a sense of mathematics as language seemed to have taken shape in Alfred’s awareness. His experience with algebra and calculus as forms of language provided a clear example of the fact that different modes of expression could serve a particular purpose with different degrees of usefulness.

At the Polytechnic, Alfred discovered that his failure to adequately prepare for lessons could backfire and that his subsequent need for 'short cuts' might actually result in having to take a longer way around. During one final examination in higher mathematics, he needed
some formulas he hadn’t memorized. So before he could solve the test problem, he had to derive the formulas from scratch. He finished the test—thirteen hours later. The instructor, though livid, had allowed him to complete it. Alfred passed but realized the professor had justification to fail him. 

In order to graduate, Alfred also had to pass an oral examination for a physics/mechanics course. As he remembered it years later:

I was told to build up a machine or instrument by X,Y,Z. Some famous stuff. Now I knew the principle of the…machine, but I didn’t know the details. …I knew what the machine was supposed to do. Oh, it took me an hour or two to do that on the blackboard, but I did it. And the professor in the meantime was busy with somebody else…Then the professor [asked] “What is it?” and I say “Well, this is the machine of XY.” “What! XY. I’m sorry. There was never a machine like that.” My answer was “But, professor, this machine is supposed to do so and so.” “Yes,” answered the professor, “But this is not the machine of XY. This is the machine of Alfred Korzybski.” I say, “Never mind, the machine does work.” The professor say[s], “Prove it to me.” And damn it, I went on to prove it to him that the machine does work…The professor told me…that it has nothing to do with the machine of XY, but he approved that the machine worked. So I passed the examination.
 In the meantime somehow I was not feeling so well about the machine so at home I began to verify my machine, not XY machine, but my machine, and I came to the conclusion that the machine does not work. The professor…also felt uneasy about it. He sweated all night on that machine and discovered that the machine did not work. Several days later I met the professor after the graduation and all that successfully. And we were then no more in the relation of student and professor. So he told me “You certainly are a so and so. You kept me awake all night verifying your damn machine…But I’m not sorry that I passed you in the examination because you have shown by independent work that you are fit to solve problems." Of course, granting the mistake, the professor praised my independence. He was a very big man.(5)

Alfred had successfully graduated. Yet afterwards, he did not look for engineering work. Indeed, for the remainder of his life he never held a formal job as an engineer—chemical or otherwise. In spite of this, as he later said, he continued to operate with the attitude of an engineer: “I was always a good engineer. I had always to do with engineering of some sort. Practically I was. ”(6)

Like Leibniz, another scientific-philosophical synthesizer, Alfred's early desire to "grasp the whole" by finding underlying connections, included the necessity of connecting theory with practice.  His time at the Warsaw Polytechnic refined his natural way of behaving by socializing him into the professional engineer’s ethos of making things work by applying what we know. He had not completely wasted his time there. 

At the Polytechnic, Alfred also had gotten a thorough grounding in the technical details of the physical science of 1898–1902, a period in the midst of great changes. This helped prepare him for his later assimilation of relativity, quantum theory and other innovations in 20th Century science and mathematics, which had such importance for his own formulating. His Polytechnic experiences also confirmed for him his sense that he could solve problems. In relation to this, he had gained an increasing respect for what he later called “the miracles of mathematics”. His seat-of-the-pants troubleshooting experiences since childhood were now supplemented by an even greater appreciation of the ‘magic’ in a mathematical approach to problems, where and when one could employ exact methods. Indeed, the exactness of mathematics, which seemed to assure agreement, became an ideal for him that he would struggle to understand. What stopped it from being extended to areas that seemed beyond the reach of traditional mathematics?

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 

5. Korzybski 1947, pp. 44-45. 

6. Korzybski 1947, p. 32.

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