Archive for November 18th, 2010

The Tacit Dimension of Polanyi

November 18, 2010

I have known about Polanyi’s contributions to materials science — explanation of metal plasticity using the concept of dislocations. I have also heard from my friend Rajesh that Polanyi turned a philosopher later in his life. However, as I was reading The Tacit Dimension (the link takes you to the flipkart site where you can order your copy — and, yes, it is that recommended) of Michael Polanyi,  I associated the author with his son John who also won Nobel prize — primarily, because I did not know that Michael himself won a Nobel.

I enjoyed the book very much; I have already recommended the book to several of my friends (and, my father had read it too). I did find the read a bit slow and difficult at the beginning. The first chapter is called Tacit knowing; the second is called Emergence; the third — A society of explorers. The book runs into some 100 pages; my copy also has a foreword by Amartya Sen.

Whether one agrees with all of what Polanyi has to say or not, what is not questionable is the fact that this is a very thought provoking book. There are deep insights in the book which make you pause and think. It is also written in such a nice style that once you fall into the rhythm of the book, the reading is thoroughly enjoyable.

Here are some passages that I found interesting in the third chapter of the book — for your reading pleasure, and as a teaser:

[1] As late as 1914, the controversy over quanta was still sufficiently alive to serve as a joke at a dinner party in the home of the great Walther Nernst in Berlin. A graduate student named Lindemann (who later became Lord Cherwell), said of a fellow student who had just married a  rich girl, that he had hitherto been equipartitionist, but now believed in quanta.

[2] Quantum mechanics was discovered in 1925 by three authors so independent of each other that they were thought at the time to have given mutually incompatible solutions to the problem. Thus seen, the growth of new ideas appears altogether predetermined. The mind of those making discoveries seems merely to offer a suitable soil for the proliferation of new ideas.

Yet, looking forward before the event, the act of discovery appears personal and indeterminate. It starts with the solitary intimations of a problem, of bits and pieces here and there which seem to offer clues to something hidden. They look like fragments of a yet unknown coherent whole. This tentative vision must turn into a personal obsession; for a problem that does not worry us is no problem: there is no drive in it, it does not exist.

[3] Any tradition fostering the progress of thought must have this intention: to teach its current ideas as stages leading on to unknown truths which, when discovered, might dissent from the very teachings which engendered them. Such a tradition assures the independence of its followers by transmitting the conviction that thought has intrinsic powers, to be evoked in men’s minds by intimations of hidden truths. It respects the individual for being capable of such response: for being able to see a problem not visible to others, and to explore it on his own responsibility. Such are the metaphysical grounds of intellectual life in a free, dynamic society: the principles which safeguard intellectual life in such a society.

Have fun!