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Mystifying Marconi

A portrait of a man in suit and tie
Guglielmo Marconi in 1909

My attention was recently drawn to an article in the Provincetown Independent entitled The Marconi Mythology. This makes the claim that “His ideas were derived from spiritualism, a pseudo-religious movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries by which people sought to commune with the spirit world.” It also claims that Marconi believed that “sound never disappears from Earth” and that one could potentially construct a device to recover the sound of the angels singing in Bethlehem!

This last claim is the more extrordinary. But I can find no evidence that it is true. Not only can I find nothing to connect Marconi with these ideas, I can find nothing online to suggest that the possiblility of recovering “lost sounds” is even a known belief.

The idea that he might have been interested in spiritualism is at least plausible. A number of well-known figures of the day were receptive to the idea of communicating with the dead including Sir Arthur Conan Doyl, biologist Alfred Russell Wallace, and English physicist and radio pioneer Oliver Lodge. But Marconi does not seem to have been one of them.


Walking on Hypothetical Legs

On September 1st a number of news outlets published stories about the discovery of the skeleton of a whale with four legs. If true, this would lend support to the popular theory that whales evolved from a four-footed land animal which gradually adopted an aquatic way of life.

In most cases the story was illustrated by an artist’s conception provided by one of the discoverers of the skeleton:

Creature with crocodile like snout, body of a skinny elephant, and long tail dives to attack snark lurking on bottom

All of the news stories I read leave the reader with the distinct impression that the skeleton as found actually has four legs.


Where Did Sputnik Get its Name?

Postage stamp shows Earth in orbit around Sun with a man-made object in Earth orbit.

On October 5, 1957, the Soviet newspaper Pravda announced that the Soviet Union had launched a 184 pound object into Earth orbit. That first artificial satellite has since come to be known in the English-speaking world as Sputnik. In the West it is now widely assumed that the Soviets chose the word sputnik as the name for their satellite because it means “fellow traveler.” This is not what actually happened.


Darwin and Pasteur

Charles Darwin seated
Charles Darwin

On November 24th, 1859, the naturalist Charles Darwin published a book entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In it he offered his views on how God had created the living world. He summarized his overall view thus:

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.


Newton’s Views on Science and Theology

For the second edition of his Principia in 1713 Newton wrote an essay known as the General Scolium (introduction) in which he defends his views on several scientific and theological questions. There is an English translation of the expanded version from the third edition.

In this essay he hints at his theological views which during his lifetime were only shared in private. A few were published after his death, but the vast majority of Newton’s papers on all subjects except physics became available for scholarly study only in the middle of the 20th century, more than 200 years after his death.

His discussion of the meaning of the word “god” is considered a subtle dig at Trinitarianism. He argues that “god” is a title, not an intrinsic attribute of any person. A God exists when a superhuman being has a dominion. What he does not make explicit is his subordinationist christology: that Jesus, though “God”, is God only in the relative sense that he is a superhuman being and rules over a domain. But in Newton’s view this does not make him the Supreme Being or True God of monotheism because his domain is delegated to him. (He did make this understanding explicit in his unpublished writings.)

He goes on to argue that there is a supreme God who exists by necessity and has always existed. He sees the supreme God as a non corporal being, without a body or physical location. If this concept is impossible to understand, it is only because it is totally alien to human experience.