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A Personal Reflection by Squashed Philosophers editor Glyn Hughes

959 words, reading time 6 minutes

Dear Philosophers,

When I was very little we had art classes, and we learned how, with just three tubes of paint -red, yellow and blue- you could make any colour you wanted.

Trouble was, a lot of the colours we mixed didn't quite end up like they were supposed to. In theory mixing red and yellow made green, but sometimes it made sort-of brown, and mixing all the colours together was supposed to make black, but it didn't, it made sort-of-blue.

"Ah well!" The teacher explained, the problem is that the pigments in our paints aren't quite perfect. The theory, however, we were told, is entirely sound.

But it turned out that the theory wasn't sound. We were using the 18th Century colour theory of Moses Harris (Natural System of Colours, 1776) and Mr Harris' theory was wrong. Only slightly wrong, but wrong enough to give you wrong colours.

Moses Harris' Colour Circle, and Maxwell's experimental colour photograph

In the 1860's the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, researching colour photography, had realised that if you want to mix colours from just three, the three you need are are not plain yellow, red and blue, but yellow with a slightly bluish red we call magenta and a pale greeny-blue called cyan.

Well done Professor Maxwell. He published a paper about it, and wrote some articles and gave public demonstrations of his new colour theory - for physicists. But nobody bothered to tell the artists, which was why, a hundred years later I was being taught a wrong theory which demonstrably didn't work. And only in the 2000s did paint manufacturers catch up.

For a century fire-fighters had been puzzling over how buildings filled with smoke, the entirely inert results of combustion, would suddenly 'flash over', to use their term, and burst into flame. A real mystery, on which whole research centres were built and lifetimes spent in studying. If they'd asked the heating engineers we'd have told them that smoke is flammable, and we'd have explained to them how and why it sometimes ignites, because we've known all about that since the 1840s.

I know about this, because smoke is a particular speciality of mine. In fact, I'm so distinguished a smoke expert that an equally distinguished university asked me to help find out how to measure smoke, which they were really struggling to do. In fact the technique is simple, the instruments are cheap and stocked by every plumber's merchant in the Western World. How come a whole department of physicists and and chemists didn't know about a system which heating engineers and atmospheric scientists had been using for a century?

So, physicists don't talk to artists, and heating engineers don't talk to chemists. Then there's the doctors..

In 1540 a German botanist called Valerius Cordus discovered that heating alcohol with sulphuric acid made a new substance with a strange smell, 'sweet vitriol'. Then Swiss experimenter Paracelsus found that, if you gave it to chickens, they'd fall asleep and become insensitive to pain, and, when they woke up, they were fine. Yet it took three centuries before a physician, William T. G. Morton, found that this 'ether' worked on humans too, so you could make surgery painless. Is that amazing?

In 1854 John Snow managed to demonstrated that diseases like cholera are spread by water, not, as had been assumed, by 'bad air' - miasma. The message did get through to the doctors, but into the 1990s the British and Irish building regulations still required measures to stop miasmic fumes from getting into your house.

Isn't it astonishing the way disciplines don't talk to each other? How many more things are missed like that? How much more could we do and achieve if we got plumbers talking to ethicists and geographers to theologians? I don't know the answer to that, because the things we don't know about we, you know, don't know. Or even know about.

So, philosophy, I'm going to make you a job offer...

You were the 'Queen of Sciences', the bountiful mother who gave birth to all the others. You searched the heavens and created Astronomy, you ground things up and created Chemistry. You gave birth to Physics, to Geology, Sociology, Botany and all the rest.

Everything was 'Philosophy'. And one by one these children of yours have grown up, and they've left home to make their own way in the world. They've done well, for the most part, and you can be proud of them, but they're not so much a family any more. They're not talking to each other.

And what is left to Philosophy? Just about only the troubles of the mind, and you're losing that very fast to your children Neuroscience and Psychology. Logic has moved in with Computing and Ethics is being automated. No wonder that some people think it is time that the Mother of all Sciences was allowed to slip away.

It was always going to be this way. Successful philosophy means that it must eventually dwindle to nothing. Or, She can take it that Her collecting and dissecting phase is over and completed, and now it is time for the serous big job to start.

Time, is it not, for Philosophy to call her children home?

To create a new space where the family can get together. It's a job which needs doing, it isn't difficult, and only you can do it, because only you really known them all.

ISBN 9781326806781
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COPYRIGHT and ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: © Glyn Hughes, Tuesday 26 April 2022