Part 1
1516, Erasmus and how to win a Nobel Prize

Desiderius Eramus.
That name should have reverberated throughout the year of 2016. Five hundred years ago, Erasmus published his most important book. It revolutionized the entirety of west European society.

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That exploit has much to tell us. It can explain to us

  • how to counter the all-enveloping propaganda and see through the fog of Fake News.
  • It tells us how to get to the truth of the matter as the world’s disinformation machines, Islamic, Chinese, Russian, commercial and ideological, all aimed to deceive.
  • It puts a spring in our step and leads us to the way of true happiness.
  • It shows us the way and the means to outclass those of dull eyes and closed minds.
  • It may even lead many to a Nobel Prize and will certainly increase any student’s chances of getting one.

Today Erasmus is more known as a university exchange programme. More than three million young adults have benefited from Erasmus. His name figures as part of their curriculum vitae. They are students. Some, in their turn, became professors. They are beneficiaries of a university mobility programme where students are able to be taught, not just at one university, but to take up learning across participating colleges and centres of learning in many different countries.

This programme reminds us that universities should be about learning not about indoctrination from a single source. Nor should they be about absorbing the latest faddish theories that, with modern global communications, are pollinated worldwide as if from mushroom spores.

Erasmus was known in his time as a wandering scholar. He was born in Rotterdam, Holland. He worked as a private secretary in Bergen, Brussels and Malines. He studied at the university of Paris. In 1499 he came to Britain, a country he visited four times. He was professor at Cambridge. He obtained his doctorate of theology at Turin. At the time Pope Julius II was brandishing his sword and leading armies against the French, he sought refuge from war in Florence whilst Leonardo da Vinci was there. In Switzerland, fountain of publishing and intellectual freedom, he published many of his works, editions of classics and translations by the great printing house of Froben. In Venice one of the great free printing centres of Europe, Erasmus published some works with the house of Aldus Manutius

To many students today Erasmus represents the freedom to move to another university to learn. In reality Erasmus represents much more. He was one of the handful of men that opened up critical learning and research. That is the basis for Europe’s spectacular rise as a powerful civilization of thought and technology after the “Dark Ages”.

The mobility that students presently enjoy is only a minor part of his legacy. Immobility is a relatively recent phenomenon. British scientists, like Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday, could visit France while the Napoleonic wars raged on the battlefields. The borders of countries were largely closed by two World Wars. Nothing is more isolationist than nationalistic wars where the civilian population is part of the target.

After WW2 the European Community brought in the idea of Erasmus scholarships. The Community had provided the means and the opportunity for a Single Market . The first single markets of 1952 were in coal, iron and steel. Workers could move freely. It was therefore logical that students should gain from this asset.

But what was the greatest achievement of the European Community? What made it all possible? Peace. The European Community brought an end to internal wars in western Europe. How did Robert Schuman come up with the intellectual conclusion about how to do it, integrate the right people and means to bring it about and, above all, have the political courage to devote his whole life to the project?

When around 1903 Robert Schuman had to choose where he would go to study, it was a perplexing choice. He was the son of a patriotic Frenchman who had fought in the siege of Thionville against the Prussian Germans. His mother was a Luxembourger. Robert was born in the Grand Duchy because his father refused to live in German-occupied Lorraine.

After having passed his High School exams with flying colours and determined his destiny, he was faced with the question: Where to go to study? He made an unusual choice. He decided to study at German universities. It required extensive extra studies to pass his entrance examination, the Abitur. The German-speaking states had only been unified by Bismarck in 1871 but the mobility of students to major university towns was still practiced. Schuman studied in Bonn, Munich, Berlin and finally Strasbourg where in 1910 he gained a doctorate cum magna Laude.

Before World War One broke out Schuman was an active agent among intellectuals and statesmen across Europe to prevent a catastrophic world war. He had but a few years for his activities in Germany, Belgium, France and in western Europe. In Berlin at the outbreak of WW1 four eminent scholars (among whom was Albert Einstein) published a “Wake-up Call to Europeans” calling for a supranational Community of scientists, philosophers, industrialists and workers to oppose war.

Schuman’s great achievement was not due to his ability to move from university to university. Nor was it due to the particular brilliance of any one of his teachers, although they were among the most brilliant of this golden age of intellectualism.

His main asset came from Erasmus. We live in an Age of Information. But it neglects Wisdom at its peril.

Peace in Europe owes a great debt still to Erasmus.

Part 2.
1517, Erasmus predicted the Golden Age to come

In 1934 Stefan Zweig in a biography said Erasmus represented the supranational ideal He used the term ‘supranational‘ many times throughout the book. What did he mean?

Robert Schuman declared on 9 May 1950 that peace could be built in Europe based on the same supranational principle. It brought an end to 2000 years of Western Europe’s internal wars.

Look back over the last 500 years since the great work of Erasmus in 1516, and we will see a world changed from top to bottom. Science and technology are the great dominant forces in society. We owe much of our comfort and prosperity and the fecundity of earth’s population to science and technology. So it would seem.

But the elements, the materials and the means to assemble the proponent parts of inventions existed throughout the history of mankind. Are we more intelligent today? Probably not, probably the reverse. Many of our everyday books on mathematics, philosophy, and politics originated one, two three millennia ago. How many people today could write from first principles a book on the geometry of conics or work out how to predict eclipses like the ancient Babylonians did?

Why is it then that only our last half-millennium was able to put the various pieces of these many different jig-saw pieces together to create a jet plane, satellite technology or a probe to the limits of the solar system and beyond? What sparked our scientific and technological revolution from around 1500? Up till then society plodded along at the same speed as the Romans.

We have electricity – a force that propels much of our traffic. It sparks our internal combustion engines. It propels our electric cars, some of which now drive themselves without the aid of a human. Electricity activates tiny splodges of metal on boards made from the same silicon material as seaside sand. We call them our computers. It also makes our light for us to see at night. It powers our ability to communicate as I am doing right now. Artificial intelligence answers our verbal questions.

What lies behind this great change of society, this supranational innovation that changes the way we live and think? Was it the genius of one man? Do we owe all this to someone like the practical Michael Faraday or the mathematics of James Clerk Maxwell?

Here we are confounded by the facts of history. Our west European society was not the first to have electricity. We may have been the first to exploit it on such a wide scale.

Parthian Battery
Two thousand years ago, the Parthians, that great super-power that rivaled and defeated the Roman Empire many times, possessed the electric cell. The construction of it implied that they used the cells in series to create a stronger current of electricity. They may have used the electricity to electroplate base metals with gold or for other uses we know not of.

But they did not, as far as we know, create semi-conductors as the essential elements for digital computers.

Some intellectual impulse far greater than the life-and-death battles, that the Romans fought on the Euphrates, in Israel and Greece, ignited and motivated our western society. The Parthians had abundant wealth, wealth so great that it provoked the covetous Romans to try vainly to conquer them.

The Parthians also debunk a common assumption of today’s Erasmus programme of student exchanges. The presumption is that students will gain from cultural exchange. Science will progress because one set of students or scholars interact with another who approach a problem from a different cultural point of view.

Parthia map-X
Yet the Parthians had global reach in their cultural interactions. They traded with the Far East. It was probably the Parthians who in the first century introduced silk from the Far East to the Romans in their Far West.

Yet despite all this cultural exchange neither Romans or Parthians had aeroplanes. The native brilliance of Parthian rulers established a rich and long-lived empire that confederated different tribes and competing religions for nearly 500 years from 250 BCE to 226 CE. Neither Romans or Parthians produced a scientific society like our own. Why? The Romans on the contrary may have destroyed the early roots of it.

One can perhaps excuse the Roman Empire for its lack of accomplishments in these areas. It was for most of its time involved in a bloody struggle to attain the peak of a military dictatorship. Once they had reached the emperorship, many of the emperors gave themselves over to sexual excess and the persecution of dissenters.

What of the great engineering accomplishments of the Roman Empire? These have been much vaunted by too many of the West’s historians who still live under the Stockholm symptoms of the Roman conquest of their lands. Many of the most extraordinary achievements of the so-called Roman Empire were in fact due to engineering skills that existed prior to Roman conquest. Take for instance, the building of harbor at Israel’s Caesarea, the largest port in the Roman world. Jewish engineers set huge limestone blocks 15m by 2.7m by 3m exactly in place, one exactly on top of the other, in 60m depth of seawater. Figure that out.

Then look at the great fort of Jerusalem, Antonia. How would you manoeuvre a polished limestone oblong block 13.6m x 3m x3.3m still in its foundations? How would today’s engineers, smooth it to perfection and place it exactly within millimeters? It weighs an estimated 570 tons.
Masada stamp

Look high to the mountain fortress of Masada where a city and a palace with its Roman baths were created in what many would today say was barren, arid Dead Sea.

In the west Keltic Britons built hundreds of astronomical circles and ellipses to measure the calendar and examine the stars. Hero of Alexandria, Egypt, created a steam engine but neither he nor the next generation built a locomotive. Hero Aeolipile

The Antikythera Mechanism was a fished out from a vessel sunk off the Greek island. It contained an amazing array of cogs and delicate settings. What was its purpose? it was a mechanical computer able to predict the movement of the planets, eclipses and dates based on the 19-year Metonic cycle that controls our seasons and religious festivals.

Our last 500 years has not just seen great engineering achievements and computers, it has seen together with the microscope the realization that human beings are composed of cells. Further, for the proper functioning of the human body, we call on 100 trillions of bacteria and other creatures. Each human is really a community of living organisms. Scientists have explored the material components of the cell such as its DNA and the part it plays in genetics.

Antikethyra Mechanism

Why did ancient societies not investigate these vital matters themselves? Were the microscope or the telescope too complex for a society that could create the Antikythera mechanism around 100 BCE? Not at all. Did the microscope require the intervention of a highly educated scientist and advanced optics?

Leeuwenhoek_Microscope x
A century-and-a-half after Erasmus, the Royal Society in London was amazed at the extraordinary sketches of microscopic creatures coming from a correspondent, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, in the Netherlands. From 1670s he wrote more than 500 letters to the Royal Society about his discoveries. This self-educated, independent-minded businessman invented a single-lens microscope that could render visible unicellular bacteria, sperm, blood, and minute water life.

Today we know that the human body is composed of nearly 100 trillion cells, with more than half independent uni-cellular bacteria etc. This type of life makes up most of what we are, not our own flesh! With specimens attached to the spike he could examine the various types of life on this planet — some of these forms were eternal — and they did not need sex to reproduce.

Leeuwenhoek_Microscope lens
Yet Leeuvenhoek, “the father of microbiology” created his single lens from a small sphere of glass. And glass has been around for 4 or 5000 years. It was a recognized profession and trade. Ancient Egyptians made multi-colour glass vessels that compete with the finest Venetian glassware. Where were the ancient Leeuvenhoeks in antiquity who looked through a tiny ball of glass? Why don’t we have an Egyptian name for the father of microbiology?

From around 1500 all areas of knowledge, science and technology flourished all across Europe. What was the motor? Did Erasmus know in 1516? What was the secret that Erasmus spoke of, when in 1517 — 500 years ago, he wrote:

” At the present moment I could almost wish to be young again for no other reason but this — that I anticipate the near approach of a golden age.”

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