…but some are more equal than others

Seemingly the key default belief of any modern, respectable government and, indeed, a well brought-up child of the modern age, is that of egalitarianism- that all men are born equal. Numerous documents, from the US Declaration of Independence to the UN Bill of Human Rights, have proclaimed this as a ‘self-evident truth’, and anyone who still blatantly clings onto the idea that some people are born ‘better’ than others by virtue of their family having more money is dubbed out of touch at best, and (bizarrely) a Nazi at worst. And this might be considered surprising given the amount of approval and the extent to which we set store by a person’s rank or status.

I mean, think about it. A child from a well-respected, middle class family with two professional parents will invariably get more opportunities in life, and will frequently be considered more ‘trustworthy’, than a kid born into a broken home with a mother on benefits and a father in jail, particularly if his accent (especially) or skin colour (possibly to a slightly lesser extent in Europe than the US) suggests this fact. Someone with an expensive, tailored suit can stand a better chance at a job interview to a candidate with an old, fading jacket and worn knees on his trousers that he has never been rich enough to replace, and I haven’t even started on the wage and job availability gap between men and women, despite that there are nowadays more female university graduates than males. You get the general idea. We might think that all are born equal, but that doesn’t mean we treat them like that.

Some have said that this, particularly in the world of work, is to do with the background and age of the people concerned. Particularly in large, old and incredibly valuable corporate enterprises such as banks, the average age of senior staff and shareholders tends to be on the grey end of things, the majority of them are male and many of them will have had the top-quality private education that allowed them to get there, so the argument put forward is that these men were brought up surrounded by this sort of ‘public schoolers are fantastic and everyone else is a pleb’ mentality. And it is without doubt true that very few companies have an average age of a board member below 50, and many above 65; in fact the average age of a CEO in the UK has recently gone up from a decade-long value of 51 to nearly 53.  However, the evidence suggests that the inclusion of younger board members and CEOs generally benefits a company by providing a fresher understanding of the modern world; data that could only be gathered by the fact that there are a large number of young, high-ranking businesspeople to evaluate. And anyway; in most job interviews, it’s less likely to be the board asking the questions than it is a recruiting officer of medium business experience- this may be an issue, but I don’t think it’s the key thing here.

It could well be possible that the true answer is that there is no cause at all, and the whole business is nothing more than a statistical blip. In Freakonomics, an analysis was done to find the twenty ‘blackest’ and ‘whitest’ boy’s names in the US (I seem to remember DeShawn was the ‘blackest’ and Jake the ‘whitest’), and then compared the job prospects of people with names on either of those two lists. The results suggested that people with one of the ‘white’ names did better in the job market than those with ‘black’ names, perhaps suggesting that interviewers are being, subconsciously or not, racist. But, a statistical analysis revealed this to not, in fact, be the case; we must remember that black Americans are, on average, less well off than their white countrymen, meaning they are more likely to go to a dodgy school, have problems at home or hang around with the wrong friends. Therefore, black people do worse, on average, on the job market because they are more likely to be not as well-qualified as white equivalents, making them, from a purely analytical standpoint, often worse candidates. This meant that Jake was more likely to get a job than DeShawn because Jake was simply more likely to be a better-educated guy, so any racism on the part of job interviewers is not prevalent enough to be statistically significant. To some extent, we may be looking at the same thing here- people who turn up to an interview with cheap or hand-me-down clothes are likely to have come from a poorer background to someone with a tailored Armani suit, and are therefore likely to have had a lower standard of education and make less attractive candidates to an interviewing panel. Similarly, women tend to drop their careers earlier in life if they want to start a family, since the traditional family model puts the man as chief breadwinner, meaning they are less likely to advance up the ladder and earn the high wages that could even out the difference in male/female pay.

But statistics cannot quite cover anything- to use another slightly tangential bit of research, a study done some years ago found that teachers gave higher marks to essays written in neat handwriting than they did to identical essays that were written messier. The neat handwriting suggested a diligent approach to learning, a good education in their formative years, making the teacher think the child was cleverer, and thus deserving of more marks, than a scruffier, less orderly hand. Once again, we can draw parallels to our two guys in their different suits. Mr Faded may have good qualifications and present himself well, but his attire suggests to his interviewers that he is from a poorer background. We have a subconscious understanding of the link between poorer backgrounds and the increased risk of poor education and other compromising factors, and so the interviewers unconsciously link our man to the idea that he has been less well educated than Mr Armani, even if the evidence presented before them suggests otherwise. They are not trying to be prejudiced, they just think the other guy looks more likely to be as good as his paperwork suggests. Some of it isn’t even linked to such logical connections; research suggests that interviewers, just as people in everyday life, are drawn to those they feel are similar to them, and they might also make the subconscious link that ‘my wife stays at home and looks after the kids, there aren’t that many women in the office, so what’s this one doing here?’- again, not deliberate discrimination, but it happens.

In many ways this is an unfortunate state of affairs, and one that we should attempt to remedy in everyday life whenever and wherever we can. But a lot of the stuff that to a casual observer might look prejudiced, might be violating our egalitarian creed, we do without thinking, letting out brain make connections that logic should not. The trick is not to ‘not judge a book by it’s cover’, but not to let your brain register that there’s a cover at all.

Aging

OK, I know it was a while ago, but who watched Felix Baumgartner’s jump? If you haven’t seen it, then you seriously missed out; the sheer spectacle of the occasion was truly amazing, so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. We’re fairly used to seeing skydives from aeroplanes, but usually we only see either a long distance shot, jumper’s-eye-view, or a view from the plane showing them being whisked away half a second after jumping. Baumgartner’s feat was… something else, the two images available for the actual jump being direct, static views of a totally vertical fall. Plus, they were so angled to give a sense of the awesome scope of the occasion; one showed directly down to earth below, showing the swirling clouds and the shape of the land, whilst the other shot gave a beautiful demonstration of the earth’s curvature. The height he was at made the whole thing particularly striking; shots from the International Space Station and the moon have showed the earth from further away, but Baumgartner’s unique height made everything seem big enough to be real, yet small enough to be terrifying. And then there was the drop itself; a gentle lean forward from the Austrian, followed by what can only be described as a plummet. You could visibly see the lack of air resistance, so fast was he accelerating compared to our other images of skydivers. The whole business was awe-inspiring. Felix Baumgartner, you sir have some serious balls.

However, I bring this story up not because of the event itself, nor the insane amount of media coverage it received, nor even the internet’s typically entertaining reaction to the whole business (this was probably my favourite). No, the thing that really caught my eye was a little something about Baumgartner himself; namely, that the man who holds the world records for highest freefall, highest manned balloon flight, fastest unassisted speed and second longest freefall ever will be forty-four years old in April.

At his age, he would be ineligible for entry into the British Armed Forces, is closer to collecting his pension than university, and has already experienced more than half his total expected time on this earth. Most men his age are in the process of settling down, finding their place in some management company and getting slightly less annoyed at being passed over for promotion by some youngster with a degree and four boatloads of hopelessly naive enthusiasm. They’re in the line for learning how to relax, taking up golf, being put onto diet plans by their wives and going to improving exhibitions of obscure artists. They are generally not throwing themselves out of balloons 39 kilometres above the surface of the earth, even if they were fit and mobile enough to get inside the capsule with half a gigatonne of sensors and pressure suit (I may be exaggerating slightly).

Baumgartner’s feats for a man of his age (he was also the first man to skydive across the English channel, and holds a hotly disputed record for lowest BASE jump ever) are not rare ones without reason. Human beings are, by their very nature, lazy (more on that another time) and tend to favour the simple, homely life rather one that demands such a high-octane, highly stressful thrill ride of a life experience. This tendency towards laziness also makes us grow naturally more and more unfit as time goes by, our bodies slowly using the ability our boundlessly enthusiastic childish bodies had for scampering up trees and chasing one another, making such seriously impressive physical achievements rare.

And then there’s the activity itself; skydiving, and even more so BASE jumping, is also a dangerous, injury-prone sport, and as such it is rare to find regular practitioners of Baumgartner’s age and experience who have not suffered some kind of reality-checking accident leaving them either injured, scared or, in some cases, dead. Finally, we must consider the fact that there are very few people rich enough and brave enough to give such an expensive, exhilarating hobby as skydiving a serious go, and even less with both the clout, nous, ambition and ability to get a project such as Red Bull Stratos off the ground. And we must also remember that one has to overcome the claustrophobic, restrictive experience of doing the jump in a heavy pressure suit; even Baumgartner had to get help from a sports psychologist to get over his claustrophobia caused by being in the suit.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. Red Bull Stratos was a culmination of years of effort in a single minded pursuit of a goal, and that required a level of experience in both skydiving and life in general that simply couldn’t be achieved by anyone younger than middle age- the majority of younger, perhaps even more ambitious, skydivers simply could not have got the whole thing done. And we might think that the majority of middle-aged people don’t achieve great things, but then again in the grand scheme of things the majority of everyone don’t end up getting most of the developed world watching them of an evening. Admittedly, the majority of those who do end up doing the most extraordinary physical things are under 35, but there’s always room for an exceptional human to change that archetype. And anyway; look at the list of Nobel Prize winners and certified geniuses on our earth, our leaders and heroes. Many of them have turned their middle age into something truly amazing, and if their field happens to be quantum entanglement rather than BASE jumping then so be it; they can still be extraordinary people.

I don’t really know what the point of this post was, or exactly what conclusion I was trying to draw from it; it basically started off because I thought Felix Baumgartner was a pretty awesome guy, and I happened to notice he was older than I thought he would be. So I suppose it would be best to leave you with a fact and a quote from his jump. Fact: When he jumped, his heart rate was measured as being lower than the average resting (ie lying down doing nothing and not wetting yourself in pants-shitting terror) heart rate of a normal human, so clearly the guy is cool and relaxed to a degree beyond human imagining. Quote: “Sometimes you have to be really high to see how small you really are”.

SCIENCE!

One book that I always feel like I should understand better than I do (it’s the mechanics concerning light cones that stretch my ability to visualise) is Professor Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. The content is roughly what nowadays a Physics or Astronomy student would learn in first year cosmology, but when it was first released the content was close to the cutting edge of modern physics. It is a testament to the great charm of Hawking’s writing, as well as his ability to sell it, that the book has since sold millions of copies, and that Hawking himself is the most famous scientist of our age.

The reason I bring it up now is because of one passage from it that spring to mind the other day (I haven’t read it in over a year, but my brain works like that). In this extract, Hawking claims that some 500 years ago, it would be possible for a (presumably rich, intelligent, well-educated and well-travelled) man to learn everything there was to know about science and technology in his age. This is, when one thinks about it, a rather bold claim, considering the vast scope of what ‘science’ covers- even five centuries ago this would have included medicine, biology, astronomy, alchemy (chemistry not having been really invented), metallurgy and materials, every conceivable branch of engineering from agricultural to mining, and the early frontrunners of physics to name but some. To discover everything would have been quite some task, but I don’t think an entirely impossible one, and Hawking’s point stands: back then, there wasn’t all that much ‘science’ around.

And now look at it. Someone with an especially good memory could perhaps memorise the contents of a year’s worth of New Scientist, or perhaps even a few years of back issues if they were some kind of super-savant with far too much free time on their hands… and they still would have barely scratched the surface. In the last few centuries, and particularly the last hundred or so years, humanity’s collective march of science has been inexorable- we have discovered neurology, psychology, electricity, cosmology, atoms and further subatomic particles, all of modern chemistry, several million new species, the ability to classify species at all, more medicinal and engineering innovations than you could shake a stick at, plastics, composites and carbon nanotubes, palaeontology, relativity, genomes, and even the speed of spontaneous combustion of a burrito (why? well why the f&%$ not?). Yeah, we’ve come a long way.

The basis for all this change occurred during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. The precise cause of this change somewhat unknown- there was no great upheaval, but more of a general feeling that ‘hey, science is great, let’s do something with it!’. Some would argue that the idea that there was any change in the pace of science itself is untrue, and that the groundwork for this period of advancing scientific knowledge was largely done by Muslim astronomers and mathematicians several centuries earlier. Others may say that the increasing political and social changes that came with the Renaissance not only sent society reeling slightly, rendering it more pliable to new ideas and boundary-pushing, but also changed the way that the rich and noble functioned. Instead of barons, dukes and the nobility simply resting on their laurels and raking in the cash as the feudal system had previously allowed them to, an increasing number of them began to contribute to the arts and sciences, becoming agents of change and, in the cases of some, agents in the advancement of science.

It took a long time for science to gain any real momentum. For many a decade, nobody was ever a professional scientist or even engineer, and would generally study in their spare time. Universities were typically run by monks and populated by the sons of the rich or the younger sons of nobles- they were places where you both lived and learned expensively, but were not the centres of research that they are nowadays. They also contained a huge degree of resistance to the ideas put forward by Aristotle and others that had been rediscovered at the start of the revolution, and as such trying to get one’s new ideas taken seriously was a severe task. As such, just as many scientists were merely people who were interested in a subject and rich and intelligent enough to dabble in it as they were people committed to learning. Then there was the notorious religious problem- whilst the Church had no problem with most scientific endeavours, the rise of astronomy began one long and ceaseless feud between the Pope and physics into the fallibility of the bible, and some, such as Galileo and Copernicus, were actively persecuted by the Church for their new claims. Some were even hanged. But by far the biggest stumbling block was the sheer number of potential students of science- most common people were peasants, who would generally work the land at their lord’s will, and had zero chance of gravitating their life prospects higher than that. So- there was hardly anyone to do it, it was really, really hard to make any progress in and you might get killed for trying. And yet, somehow, science just kept on rolling onwards. A new theory here, an interesting experiment here, the odd interesting conversation between intellectuals, and new stuff kept turning up. No huge amount, but it was enough to keep things ticking over.

But, as the industrial revolution swept Europe, things started to change. As revolutions came and went, the power of the people started to rise, slowly squeezing out the influence and control of aristocrats by sheer weight of numbers. Power moved from the monarchy to the masses, from the Lords to the Commons- those with real control were the entrepreneurs and factory owners, not old men sitting in country houses with steadily shrinking lands that they owned. Society began to become more fluid, and anyone (well, more people than previously, anyway), could become the next big fish by inventing something new. Technology began to become of ever-increasing importance, and as such so did its discovery. Research by experiment was ever-more accessible, and science began to gather speed. During the 20th century things really began to motor- two world wars prompted the search for new technologies to enter an even more frenzied pace, the universal schooling of children was breeding a new generation of thinkers, and the idea of a university as a place of learning and research became more cemented in popular culture. Anyone could think of something new, and in that respect everyone was a scientist.

And this, to me, is the key to the world we live in today- a world in which a dozen or so scientific papers are published every day for branches of science relevant largely for their own sake. But this isn’t the true success story of science. The real success lies in the products and concepts we see every day- the iPhone, the pharmaceuticals, the infrastructure. The development of none of these discovered a new effect, a new material, or enabled us to better understand the way our thyroid gland works, and in that respect they are not science- but they required someone to think a little bit, to perhaps try a different way of doing something, to face a challenge. They pushed us forward one, tiny inexorable step, put a little bit more knowledge into the human race, and that, really, is the secret. There are 7 billion of us on this planet right now. Imagine if every single one contributed just one step forward.