Introduction Part 2: Beauty and the Origins of Electrophysiology, Telecommunications and the Global Theater

Circa 360 BCE : Plato and Aristotle – senses, form and illusion
360 BCE: Plato – we can have a concept of beauty, but we can’t sense beauty directly
360 BCE: Aristotle – we know something is beautiful when we experience it through our senses
1726: Marquise de Lambert – taste is the first movement and a type of instinct which draws us and guides us more surely than all the work of reason
1757: Hume – similarities between gustatory and aesthetic taste
1767: Sulzer – taste is a transition between thinking and feeling, stimulated by dissimilar metals on tongue
1790: Kant – critique of pure judgement
1794: Galvani – animal electricity
1800: Volta – develops battery, artificial electric organ
1820: Oersted – identified relationships between electrical current and magnetism
1827: Ohm – uses battery to discover ohm’s law
1831: Faraday – electricity and magnetism are two aspects of same thing
1849: Meucci – heard “screams” through an electric wire used to treat rheumatism with shocks
1864: Maxwell – concept of electromagnetic field
1887: Hertz – verified electromagnetic waves
1905: Einstein – principle of relativity
1941: Hedy Lamar – Frequency hopping “spread spectrum” wireless
1972: Ann Druyan – EEG on Voyager Spacecraft

Plato (428-348 BC) thought that sensory perception was completely illusory, in that what we perceive are simply copies of Forms.  Forms are the archetypes, real, true, objective models for things sensed in the world.  Forms are perfect and beauty, alone, is both a Form and a sensory experience.  Plato thought that people knew intrinsically about the Forms, and that learning is really recollection.  Plato did not think we learned by observation via our senses.

Aristotle’s (384-322 BC) thought that sensory perception acted in a manner such that the relevant sensory ability becomes like the thing perceived.  Aristotle used the terms “potentiality” and “actuality” to describe the process of perception.  Aristotle thought that the senses have the ability (potentiality) for receiving information about aspects of the environment and as soon as the senses are engaged, they change to adopt the same character (actuality) as the aspect sensed.  Less metaphysically inclined than Plato, Aristotle adopted a more scientific approach to investigate the phenomena of beauty.  Aristotle fit more of a present day definition of a scientist, compared to Plato, because Aristotle trusted in the senses to reflect an objectivity about the world.

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of art, beauty, taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.  Aesthetics is scientifically defined as the study of sensory-related values, which are judgements of sentiment and taste.  Marquise de Lambert (1647-1733), David Hume (1711-1776), Johann Sulzer (1720-1779) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), wrote extensively on these subjects.   Lambert, Hume’s, Sulzer’s and Kant’s ideas about taste, pleasure and the appreciation of beauty have contributed to the origins of psychophysiological thought, and less directly, to the origins of electrophysiology.

Modern philosophy widely associates appreciation of beauty with pleasure.  This association underwrites the use of taste as the foundational metaphor for aesthetic discrimination.  In Lambert’s  manuscript, “Reflections on Taste”, she declared taste as the first movement and instinct, that guides us more surely than all the work of reason.  In Hume’s essay, “Of the Standard of Taste” of 1757, he emphasized the similarities between gustatory taste and aesthetic taste.  Hume was one of many philosophers who extended taste as the guiding metaphor that designates the ability to discern beauty.  Furthermore, Hume felt that gustatory taste, and taste as applied to our appreciation of beauty, were more similar than different.  For Hume, the likes and dislikes associated with eating seemed parallel to the responses linked to aesthetic evaluations.  This is because the sense of taste almost always has a valence, namely one either likes or dislikes what is tasted.  Kant made a stronger distinction between aspects of gustatory taste and aesthetic taste.  However, in his “Critique of Pure Judgement” of 1790, Kant wrote that taste is the product of a public process in which opinions are openly expressed and exchanged.  And because the experience of beauty is necessarily collective, the appreciation of beauty is only possible in a society where it can be nourished and shared.  In fact, by developing our taste, we intensify our social identity because we become aware that others make the same judgements.  At the same time, a taste for art enhances our ability to share feelings and sensations.  This perspective could just as easily be applied to the appreciation of comfort foods, as it might apply to the visual arts.

Sulzer held that beauty is judged by a special feeling, taste, that he thought to be a transitional state between thinking and moral feeling.  Sulzer believed that taste is the intuitive capacity to recognize beauty and is also an aid to enjoying that recognition.  Sulzer was fascinated by the connection between gustatory taste and aesthetic taste.   For Sulzer, the search for understanding the nature of beauty led to the question of how the taste sense functioned.  This sense seemed connected, via analogy, to what was deemed beautiful.  Sulzer’s curiosity about the nature of beauty, as related to the sense of taste, led to his discovery that electricity had a taste.  In his “General Theory of Pleasures” of 1767, Sulzer noted that a person would experience an unusual taste if lead and silver were allowed to touch each other, and the tongue, simultaneously.  Sulzer thought the metals established a vibratory motion in their substance which excited the nerves of taste.  Unknowingly,  Sulzer had created a simple battery and he was the first to write about the taste of electricity, describing it similar to “green vitriol” (ferro-sulphate).  This line of inquiry opened the door to the field of electrophysiology.  Electrophysiology is concerned with the movement of electrons inside a subject’s body.  When Sulzer placed his tongue between dissimilar, and touching, metals he established a physical electrochemical process.  This process generated electron movement which acted via electrophysiological pathways to stimulate the taste buds in the tongue.

In the 1790s, Luigi Galvani conducted a series of experiments with animals, beginning with dissected frogs.  Galvani’s experiments showed that muscular contractions were produced if the frogs were placed on an iron plate and if a brass hook, making contact with a nerve, was simultaneously pressed against the iron.  The effects were most pronounced if two dissimilar metals were used and with nonconductors, the effects did not occur.  Galvani came to the conclusion that the electricity produced, which stimulated the muscle, was inherent in the animal itself.  In 1791, Galvani established the term “animal electricity” to describe this phenomena.  Alessandro Volta did not accept Galvani’s idea of “animal electricity”.  Instead Volta thought that the observed electricity must result from physical processes as opposed to, specifically, biological process.  In 1794, Volta began working with dissimilar metals and electrolytes.  By 1800, Volta developed and named, an “artificial electrical organ”, the first battery.  Volta’s naming was inspired by the electric eel and torpedo ray, two aquatic creatures known to produce electrical discharges.  Volta thought that the electrical discharges produced by these animals must result from physical generating elements inside the animal.   The first battery, eventually called “Volta’s pile”, had a long cylindrical shape which mimicked the shape of the electric eel.

The dispute between Galvani and Volta spilled into the scientific establishment and two opposing groups were formed, the Galvanians and the Voltians.  Interestingly, aspects of both groups’ beliefs were accurate.  In the biological camp, Galvani held that animal and human organisms produce electric currents in their interior, as that which transmits the nervous impulses to the muscles.  In the physical camp, Volta held that the contact of two different metals yields an electrical potential.  Volta, a physicist, thought that electricity was simply due to the properties of inert bodies.  Galvani, an anatomist and biologist, was convinced that animals generated electricity by themselves.  The academic dispute between Galvani and Volta led to the birth of the field of electrophysiology and to the discovery of the battery.  Hans Ørsted used the battery, in 1820, to show that there was a connection between electrical current and magnetism.  The development of the battery was also instrumental to the seminal work performed by Georg Ohm, in 1827, to establish the relationship between voltage, resistance and current.  Further interpreting this work, Michael Faraday established the relationship between a changing magnetic field and electromotive force thus leading to the discovery of electromagnetic induction in 1831.

In parallel development, circa 1834, The Jacquard loom card system was adopted by Charles Babbage for his “Analytical Engine”, as an improved method to input data.  The Jacquard loom used a series of cards, each punched with a pattern of holes.  This set of cards controlled the pattern woven into the cloth. The holes and solid spaces in the cards operated like a binary code, controlling the hooks which individually raised and lowered the warp threads of the cloth for any pass of the shuttle.  Ada Lovelace met Baggage in 1833.  Babbage was impressed by Ada’s intellect and writing skills and called her “The Enchantress of Numbers”.  In her “Notes” of 1843, Lovelace described how the Analytical Engine could be programmed and she subsequently wrote the first computer algorithm.  Lovelace also anticipated how computers could be used to make music.

The discovery of electromagnetic induction birthed telecommunications.  In 1849, while in Cuba, Antonio Meucci was attempting to cure subjects of rheumatism with electric shocks generated from batteries.  In one session, a screaming subject’s vocalization was heard by Meucci through the vibration of the wires.  The discovery of this electrostatic telephone lead to Meucci’s work on the electromagnetic telephone, which culminated in a public demonstration in 1860.  At this point, for the first time in human history, the movement of ions in the human nervous system could directly control the flow of electrons, outside the body, at very high bit rates.  Prior to the development of the telephone, people could send long-distance messages by making loud sounds, sending a visual cue, writing letters or tapping a telegraph key.  All these methods communicated far less information, over a period of time, than the telephone.  The telephone increased the bandwidth of human long-distance communications by a factor of thousands.  Accordingly, worldwide telecommunication network growth was substantially accelerated and movement of information began increasing at an exponential rate.

Working from Faraday’s insights, James Maxwell developed a comprehensive mathematical framework for electromagnetic fields in 1862.  Heinrich Hertz clarified and expanded upon Maxwell’s field equations, and in 1886, Hertz was the first to conclusively prove the existence of electromagnetic waves using engineering instruments to transmit and receive radio pulses.  During WWII, Austrian actress and international beauty icon, Hedy Lamarr became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications.   In 1941, Lamarr and co-inventor George Anthiel, developed a “Secret Communications System” to help fight the Nazis.  The invention was precipitated by Lamarr’s fascination with player pianos which used a paper tape program similar to that of the Jacquard loom.  By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals, between transmission and reception, the invention formed a code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by the enemy.  Lamarr thought the classified code could be equivalent to the notes of a song.  If the transmitter and receiver both “played” the same song, with notes controlling the carrier frequency, the modulating message could be understood.  This invention was the first example of spread spectrum technology, which ultimately galvanized the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes the cellular phone and wireless ethernet possible.  With the advent of wired, then wireless communications, a step change in communication speed and network growth was underway.  Not so coincidentally, the worldwide rates of population growth and energy use paralleled the extreme growth in communication speed and spread.

The extremely rapid population growth since 1950 has largely been driven by the hyperbolic growth of the worldwide telecommunication system and the subsequently related electrical power distribution system.  Electricity-based networks precipitated the second industrial revolution, also known as the technical revolution.  Subsequently, the precipitated fusion of computational engines and electrical networks has a particularly powerful impact on human development due to the evolution of multiple and coupled abilities.  Significant abilities were the establishment of high speed communications, control systems, storage-processing-retrieval of data and generic problem solving.

Per capita energy use radically increased as people developed the ability to harness electricity, as a stable energy source, starting with the development of the battery.  Presently, large quantities of the Earth’s stored hydrocarbons are being burned to generate the heat required to produce electricity and support the development that electricity enables.  Considering telecommunication and electric power distribution systems, humans are now engaged in the process of rapid network growth, where the ions moving in human brains and bodies are now directly modulating the movement of electrons, in vastly greater numbers, outside of our bodies.  It’s as if people are growing nerve tendrils that wrap around the world, via our communications cables, and even to interstellar space via our radio transmissions and spacecraft.  The ongoing extension of our nervous systems, beyond our bodies, implies augmented human growth and increased resource demand to support that growth.  Our collective energy and material needs are climbing.  This increasingly networked, augmented, human nervous system expansion is stimulating the rapid consumption of the Earth’s anciently stored hydrocarbons.  As biological simile, humans are treating the earth’s energy resources as if they were stored body fat.  The human population appears to be burning up this fat in exchange for hyper-extended neurological growth and all that’s stimulated by such growth.  To further the comparison, metabolic studies show that 40% of an individual body’s energy budget (basal metabolic rate) is used to support the central nervous system.

According to communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), technologies extend our senses and abilities via nervous system expansion.  As technologies become pervasive we become less aware of their existence.  McLuhan held that what was pervasive was a “cliché”.  McLuhan considered that we accept these cliché technologies in the same manner that we accept our body senses.  Commonly used technologies create a persistent and enveloping environment which distracts our attention from the formative technological basis and the manner in which information is distorted by that basis.  McLuhan used the term “global village” to predict that electronic communication technologies will retribalize human beings, causing fundamental cultural changes.  Furthermore, McLuhan argued that the global village ensures maximal disagreement on all points because it creates more discontinuity, division and diversity as the village conditions increase.  To this point, McLuhan held that the term “global theater” was more appropriate.  Anybody or anything can be a player on the world stage, due to the prevalence of electronic telecommunications.  With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the idea of global theater was cemented in the public consciousness.

McLuhan ideas have a loose coupling to those of French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ (1881-1955).  Teilhard considered a “noosphere”, the third development in a sequence of Earthly phases, after the geosphere and the biosphere.  The evolution of the world begins with a geological phase, devoid of life, but ultimately establishes the substrate for biological life to take root.  The emergence of life transforms the geosphere and establishes the framework for the flowering of human cognition which has the potential to fundamentally transform the biosphere.  The noosphere is a consequence of the interaction of human minds and bodies and grows in synchrony with the increasing organization of the human population.  As social networks become more complex, the noosphere increases its awareness.  This concept is an extension of Teilhard’s Law of Complexity and Consciousness.  The law describes the nature of evolution in the universe and proposes that the noosphere is growing towards an even greater integration and unification which culminates in the “Omega Point”, which Teilhard describes as an apex of thought and consciousness.

Circa 2025, the interstellar spacecraft Voyager’s nuclear battery will run out of power and cease transmitting.  Until that point, Voyager 1 will represent the furthest physical reach of the extended human nervous system.  Even past that date of energy loss, Voyager will still carry the Golden Record, a compendium of human knowledge and nature.  Ann Druyan was creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Message Project that made the Golden Record and described it as a “Cultural Noah’s Ark”.  Druyan had an idea that someone’s EEG should be on the Record.  The impulse being that the EEG patterns register changes in thought, so perhaps it might be possible for a highly advanced technology, many millions of years from now to decipher those human thoughts.  Carl Sagan and others liked the idea, and volunteered Druyan to provide the brain waves.  The EEG was scheduled for June 3, 1977.  Druyan prepared a mental framework, consisting of ideas from certain historic figures that Druyan hoped to perpetuate.  Interestingly, two days before the scheduled EEG recording, Druyan and Sagan decided to get married.  During the hour-long neuronal recording session,  Druyan’s rational mind may have been reciting important ideas, but perhaps her emotional substrate was focused on her relationship with Sagan.

In 1950, the population on Earth was 2.5 billion.  The best United Nations estimates for future growth indicate a population of 9 billion in 2050 with a leveling off to similar numbers by 2100.  By this account, the period from 1975-2025 may encompass the most radical absolute increase in human population (4 billion added) in any single 50 year period.  Roughly during the period of Voyager’s travels from Earth to the beginning of interstellar space, the human population will likely have experienced the most impactful changes in its history.