Philosophy, science

Faces Turned to the Past

I have been listening to audiobooks and podcasts at work to pass the time, and have discovered that while I thought that audiobooks were far too slow, and narrator’s voices annoying, with further exploration I found some that work for me, by accelerating playback speed and choosing non-fiction. I do have one fiction I’m listening to, but it’s the pair of chemistry books that are catching my attention and amusing me as I listen to a chapter at a time interspersed with the other books or podcasts. One of them, Creative Chemistry by Edward Slosson (a Librivox recording) covers the history of chemistry, and the creative endeavours that led both to breakthroughs and uses of what were once waste products.

A phrase used in the chapter on aniline dyes, and their development from coal tar, caught my attention. “Their faces turned to the past” with the implication that the scorned personages stubbornly refused to consider the reality of the current state of science, but preferred the older ways, even though they were poorer quality and more expensive processes. Written as it was at the time immediately following the first World War, when the second was not even a gleam in the eyes of men dulled and exhausted by the efforts of that vast war in which chemistry played so large a role, I am unsurprised to hear Slosson speaking through the narrator of the great need for the US of A to adopt their own dye factories and processes, lest we be too dependent on others for that small part of everyday life – much less other more important chemical processes. I know, sitting here with my face turned to the past to study it and then to turn it forward into the time I am living in, that America did learn that lesson. We outproduced the world, once the vast industrial machine groaned and creaked up to full speed, when wartime came again.

That machinery did eventually slow to a stop, but never a full stop. What had been started couldn’t be shut off, only turned to a different process. From the protection of lives and liberty, to the mass production of affordable products for housewives (and much more). This was the era of booming industry, but it didn’t last – for a second time, it slowed to a near-stop. The jobs and factories moved from the expensive USA to the cheaper countries overseas where the workers hadn’t yet been paid for production of goods they would consume, until the pay they demanded for that production outstripped the profits that sales of those goods would produce. What work remains here is largely becoming more and more automated. Factories that once employed thousands lie silent and slowly combusting back into rust, a chemical process almost too slow to see with the naked eye, but obvious with the passage of time. I’m not advocating for this situation – looked at with eyes wide open and not focused on the glory days of the rust belt, what we have now are unions that exist to take money from workers and use it to prop up their political machines. Shades of Tammany Hall. Overseas, we have work being done in deplorable conditions for very little pay – there will not be another double-edged success like the one that drove the companies to take their production work overseas again.

If all that is done is to look at the past, and lament it’s lost glory – whether the retrogressive longs for the days before the Industrial Revolution, or the newly-underemployed bemoans the job situation while hunting for the made-in-the-USA label, we cannot move forward. Instead, look at what lies here, and now, and then extrapolate what the next few years will bring, and the next few decades… I’ll digress onto something else entirely. When I was trying, for the second or third time, to learn how to ride a bike, I was failing miserably at the tender age of twelve. My Uncle Mark noticed and came over to talk to me while I was nursing my scrapes. “Don’t look down,” he said, propping me up while I got ready to pedal. “Don’t think too much. Just remember that you’ll go where you’re looking.” He let go, I pedaled, and for the first time in six years since I’d first tried this, I succeeded in making the bike go where I wanted, and I didn’t fall over.

If we live with our faces turned to the past, we will never make forward progress. It’s important to be aware of where we’ve been, and how we got ‘here’ but it’s a 360° awareness, not a blinkered one. It seems obvious when I write it. Yet every day I see examples of people who have either forgotten what the past was, or who have never been taught. To come back to my original thoughts on chemistry and a fear of them, an ignorance of their development, and the movement to eschew chemicals: the very fabric of all matter. It’s silly, and ill-conceived, but yet… but yet it persists. Even a century later, the book rings truth as I’m listening to it.

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