"The Alphabet and the Lens" by Steven Pinker

This brief essay is in reply to the Question: "What was the greatest invention of the last 2,000 years, and why?"

It was asked by John Brockman, an author and publisher of the online science and ideas magazine Edge at www.edge.org in the year 2,000.


The Alphabet and the Lens

by Steven Pinker


As a cognitive scientist obsessed with language and vision,

I would have to choose the inventions that have immeasurably magnified the power of these gifts:

the alphabet and the lens.


The alphabet of course, is not an invention of the last millennium,

but that era has seen two grand expansions of its dominion,

the printing press (Gutenburg)

and digital coding (Morse, Hollerith, ASCII, EBCDIC, etc.)

the basis of telegraphy and text-based computing.

I can do no better in expressing the miracle of alphabet than Galileo did in 1632:


"But surpassing all stupendous inventions,

what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of

finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any person,

though distant by mighty intervals of place and time!

Of talking with those who are in India;

of speaking to those who are not yet born

and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years;

and with what facility,

by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page!"


(See our Alphabets - Page 1 for some artful examples...)


The lens similarly extends the power of our faculty of vision in time and space.

without the lens there is no light telescope,

hence no modern conception of

the nature of the planets, solar system, galaxies, or universe.

(See " VLT - Very Large Telescope" Youtube Video here at our wikispace)

There would be no light microscope,

hence no modern conceptions of micro-organisms, cells, chromosomes, genes, or brain.

There would be no still or motion photography (photographs, films, and videos)

and hence no perception of other places (and peoples) and times

except through the intervening minds of artists and writers.


Without these two inventions, our experience is laid out in feet and seconds;

with them, it goes from angstroms to light-years,

from micro-seconds to the age of the universe.

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STEVEN PINKER is a former Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT

and former Director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

He is currently the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

For further information you can start at the wikipedia link:

https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Steven_Pinker

and his multimedia link at:

http://www.stevepinker.com/

to be continued... Allen Berg