Paul Johnson

Telford began working life, at age ten, as a stonemason—his 'mark' can still be seen in the bridge and doorways of the New Town the duke of Buccleuch created at Langholm. Telford went on to achieve a quantitative record in civil engineering roads, bridges, canals, viaducts, ports, and docks—which has seldom been equalled in history, and never for quality. But he always loved to work with his hands, in iron as well as stone, and his singular virtue was to combine superb craftsmanship, by himself and others, with a passion for the latest technology and formidable powers of organization in the completion of immense projects. Telford transformed northern Scotland with his immense Caledonian Canal, from the Atlantic to the North Sea; his docks; his ports; and 1,117 bridges. He built the fast new road from London to Holyhead (and Ireland) with its amazing bridge over the Menai Strait, which reduced the time to get from the capital from forty-one to twenty-eight hours. He planned, and wished to build, a national system of fast roads, bypassing the ancient towns—a concept 150 years ahead of its time. He was a great reader and close to men of letters: he cook with him, on a tour of his great works in Scotland, the poet laureate, Robert Southey, who wrote a fascinating book about it. Most of all, Telford ensured that all his constructions, from gigantic locks and dockyards to humble tollkeeper's houses and milestones, were designed with classical simplicity and occasional decorative features of the highest elegance - doing it himself or employing architects of genius.

Equally, Thomas Edison, the greatest inventor the world has ever known, with over 1,000 patents, scores of them of major significance, often worked closely with creators in the arts. One of his objects, in producing the first recording machine or phonograph (1877), was to hand down to posterity the voices of great singers and instrumentalists; and his improvements in electric lighting were of immense help to dramatists. He produced, with Tiffany, New York's first electric theatre, the Lyceum; and his spotlights made possible the career of the Chicago dancer Loie Fuller in the 1890s, who performed using son-et-lumiere effects at the Paris Folies Bergeres. Edison's research laboratories, first in Newark, then on a bigger scale at Menlo Park, were temples of creativity, often with a bohemian streak more characteristic of a painter's studio on Montmartre than a lab: Edison would sleep on the floor in his clothes when in an inventive frenzy.

Scientific research can be not only 'beautiful,' as Faraday said, but highly imaginative in almost the same way as literature. Einstein used to say, 'A scientist tells himself a story and then finds out by experiment whether it is true or not.' A hypothesis is essentially an imaginative exercise, and without a hypothesis a scientist cannot move forward into new territory of knowledge. In scientific storytelling, in forming a hypothesis, there is much use of the literary device of metaphor, which has the primary purpose of conveying meaning more clearly and srrikingly but the secondary aim of allowing thinkers (or writers) to loosen up their own mental processes in a variety of ways—broadening the topic under discussion, relating apparently disparate or distant ideas in a creative way, and jumping from the physical to the metaphysical and back again. The primary purpose was exploited brilliantly by Michael Faraday in his famous lectures at the Royal Institution (especially in his Christmas lectures to children, who love and need metaphors). He inaugurated a tradition, followed by Sir James Jeans, Lord Rutherford, Julian Huxley, and other leading communicators of scientific truth to the public. The second purpose can be illustrated by the work of many creative scientists, a notable example being Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979), who has been called the greatest organic chemist of the twentieth century. In all advanced sciences where the matter under discussion is too minute to be seen, metaphor is essential; and all diagrams are metaphors. The three-dimensional 'structures' (the word itself is a metaphor) used in organic chemistry are metaphorical lab apparatus and stimulate further metaphors in the worker. By introducing the word 'bonding,' with a range of metaphorical images flowing from it, Woodward was able to formulate the patterns governing the way electrons shifted in chemistry. What are now known as the orbital symmetry rules were a double product of metaphor, first in Woodward's mind, where bonding was a master metaphor, and then in his linked coloured balls, which formed his chief metaphorical laboratory tools. But scientists also use metaphoric tools that have no apparent relationship with their subject. In childhood Einstein, for instance, developed the habit of building card houses, sometimes as high as fourteen storeys, and he continued to build them throughout his life, explaining that they helped to develop the persistence, independence, and self-reliance essential for formulating and reformulating 'stories' or hypotheses. When a house of cards collapsed, indicating that the hypothesis was weak, the scientist instantly had to begin to build another house, or formulate a different hypothesis, until the hypothesis is rendered secure by experimentation. The fragility of the card house was itself a virtue, akin to the falsifiability principle which (as Karl Popper argued) was the great merit of a useful scientific hypothesis, and of which Einstein's special and general theories of relativity were outstanding examples.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.