Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Chapter 34 - "Don't You See The Electron?": Part 3 - "Don't You See The Electron?"

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.

When Korzybski first got to Pasadena, he anticipated getting help from E. T. Bell and others at Caltech. For the first month or so of his time there, he made a concerted effort to meet with as many people as he could in the Caltech community, as well as with other contacts and friends in Pasadena, Los Angeles, and Southern California. Bell, despite his busyness with his own work, certainly wanted to help his friend to do this. 
Eric Temple Bell

A few weeks after Alfred’s arrival, Bell and his wife invited him to dinner along with Caltech scientist Roy J. Kennedy, a young experimental physicist shortly to be moving to the University of Washington. It was the kind of connection Korzybski had hoped for. Kennedy—who had become known for reproducing Michelson and Morley’s famous 1887 results with a refinement of their ‘ether drift’ experiment—became friendly and interested in Alfred and his work and would eventually help with the editing of the book. In a letter written in 1934 to Selden Smyser, a professor at a small Washington state college, Kennedy described some of his first impressions of Korzybski:
...My first meeting with Korzybski was at a dinner arranged for the purpose by E.T. Bell of Caltech. I was promptly impressed by the two characteristics which still seem his most salient ones, an almost complete freedom from conventionalism in speech and manner, and a rather formidable store of nervous energy. There was no subject or person he didn’t feel free to discuss or evaluate for better or for worse and of course this trait is evident thruout his writing. No one could possibly call him prudish or politic. He lived in a modest cottage in Pasadena while writing his last book, and in heat of summer it was refreshing altho a bit startling to see him at his desk or answering door bell stript to the waist. 
In all my acquaintance with Korzybski I have never known him to exhibit a trace of fatigue. He once stopped at my office at noon; as afternoon wore on the conversation assumed more and more the character of a soliloquy and when at five he briskly departed, I was scarcely able to sit up much less reason or speak. I took him to a friend’s house one evening. He regaled us with many incidents from his broad experience, and about one o’clock got around to psychiatry. After sketching the treatment of a particular case of insanity, he said that finally a test of the patient’s recovery could be made in terms of his reply to a single question. “Sir”, said Korzybski to our host (a man of small vitality who had by that hour become terribly stupid), “I will put the same question to you.” The question was rather complicated altho it required only yes or no, and of course the wretched fellow gave the wrong answer.  
I have emphasized the bizarre in these few random remarks. Much could be said of the man’s fine qualities, his friendliness and his impatience with bourgeois morality, but that would be superfluous. (13) 

As for Bell, he seemed willing to continue advising Alfred on his manuscript, introducing him to potentially helpful people, and also trying to get a lecture opportunity for Alfred at Caltech. But Alfred had one apparent problem—Robert A. Millikan.(14) 
Dr. Robert Andrews Millikan
Korzybski and Millikan, the “Chairman of the Executive Council”, i.e., Caltech’s president, had known each other for a number of years and had had a distantly friendly relationship. But Korzybski had gotten the sense Millikan had developed some prejudice against his work, perhaps at least in part as a result of Mira’s pushing during her previous time in Pasadena several years before. And despite Millikan’s admitted brilliance as an experimentalist, Korzybski definitely had difficulties with Millikan’s formulating. Millikan had won the 1923 Nobel prize for measuring the charge of an electron using a cloud chamber apparatus with aerosolized oil droplets. Alfred was familiar with the work, having read Millikan’s book, The Electron. He had read with dismay Millikan’s Nobel lecture where the physicist had insisted, “He who has seen that experiment, and hundreds of investigators have observed it, has literally seen the electron.”(15) For Alfred, this seemed “too silly for words.”(16) However firmly experiments seemed to establish the existence of the electron, nothing seemed clearer than this: as a theoretical entity, nobody had ever seen an electron and nobody could ever see one. As he later wrote in his book:
...I have read an address by a prominent physicist in which he claims to have ‘seen’, and invites everybody else to ‘see’, an electron. He challenges his critics, and seems to feel like fighting—a quite usual result of identification [confusion of orders of abstraction]. Electrons represent inferential entities, and as such cannot be ‘seen’, but only inferred, which does not detract at all from the importance of the ‘electrons’. The ‘seeing’ business was good enough in the infancy of science, but not in 1933. We ‘see’ the stick broken in water, the camera records it as broken, and yet it is not broken. We ‘see’ the fan as a disk, the camera records it so, but there is no disk. We ‘see’ a ‘solid’ piece of wood or stone, which under the microscope proves to have a very different structure, . [, etc.] (17) 

Bell knew about Alfred’s feelings and indicated his concern about avoiding a fight. As it turned out, Korzybski and Millikan did fight—although they did it rather politely. Millikan sent a nice note to Alfred on May 26 inviting him to make himself “entirely at home” at the Caltech library and “in the Institute generally. I should be very glad to show you the oil-drop apparatus whenever you are about the Institute.”(18)  Korzybski accepted the invitation and went to see Millikan soon afterwards. In his 1947 memoir, he described what happened next:
…[Millikan] was very, very kind and he showed me his famous apparatus…there is a chamber with naphtha/kerosene vapors and there is an electrical apparatus which puts something, whatever, through that chamber of kerosene vapors and you see little clouds radiate and you can count those little clouds…[Millikan] asked me his usual question, “Don’t you see the electron?” Well, being truthful as usual, I said, “Yes, Professor, I see a lighted cloud, but I don’t see the electron, and that’s all.” He became my mortal enemy...and he prohibited his staff to have anything to do with me because I didn’t see the electron...This in a way twisted my whole plan. The staff, of course, after Millikan gave that order, were polite and nice to me, but literally they would have no contact with me, except casual and social…Bell didn’t want to have troubles with Millikan. Bell expected to have those lectures for the Institute by me. Now, this of course fell off. (19) 

In fairness to Millikan, Korzybski’s sense of being rebuffed by Millikan’s staff may have been strengthened by Bell who told him Millikan had no use for him. Korzybski also noted at the time that Bell seemed to have fallen into a sour, cynical mood about almost everything and had an extreme concern about not imperiling his position at Caltech. Is it possible that what Bell told Korzybski was colored by Bell’s bad mood and concern for Caltech politics? Even as late as November, a number of months after the incident, Alfred still reported in a letter to Keyser, “...in my face Millikan is always charming and extremely polite,...has given me the ‘freedom of the tech’, meaning library, club, laboratories, seminars etc. I use the library all the time, attend also important seminars but otherwise have little to do with the tech.”(20) It seems impossible to know if Korzybski spoke entirely fairly in later years when he attributed some degree of malice to Millikan. At any rate, after the incident Alfred didn’t want to risk his friendship with Bell by doing anything that might jeopardize the mathematician’s position with his ‘boss’. Alfred decided to tread lightly around Caltech.

Apart from Caltech politics, Bell also appeared to have fallen into a sour mood about the mathematics profession. Around the time of the electron incident, Alfred had been writing one of the core parts of the book—a long chapter on mathematics (or perhaps more accurately the psychology of mathematics). He showed some of it to Bell, who seemed to have a fit whenever Alfred said anything good about the field.(21) Bell’s head didn’t seem in the right place for him to give much help. Despite all this, the two men remained friendly and continued to visit each other occasionally.

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. 
13. Roy J. Kennedy to Selden Smyser, 1/21/1934. qtd. in Kessler, pp. 14-15. 

14. AK to MEK, 3/31/1928. AKDA 21.799. 

15. Millikan, p. 58. 

16. AK to MEK, 3/31/1928. AKDA 21.799. 

17. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 696. 

18. R. A. Millikan to AK, AKDA 21.189. 

19. Korzybski 1947, pp. 264-265. 

20. AK to C. J. Keyser, 11/1/1928. AKDA 20.208. 

21. AK to MEK, 5/15/1928. AKDA 20.17.

< Part 2      Part 4 > 

No comments: