Social change is gradual. Change occurs progressively like the energy transfer between a row of metal spheres. Quality in content triumphs; the social...moreSocial change is gradual. Change occurs progressively like the energy transfer between a row of metal spheres. Quality in content triumphs; the social equivalent of quality's triumph is a meritocracy. Character is the driving force behind behavior. We have been conditioned to accept this framework by the intellectual legacy of the 19th century: Darwin, Spengler, Marx, Weber – the great macro-theorists. Gladwell examines these assumptions through the lens of a focused framework of change based on the metaphor of epidemics.
Drawing from examples ranging from the popularity of Hush Puppies, the trajectory of STD's in Baltimore, teen smoking, and crime in New York City, he points out the role of three fundamental components: the Law of the Few, Stickiness, and the Power of Context. The Law of the Few is already firmly fixed in the popular mind by the 80/20 rule, and Milgram's identification of social “hubs.” Gladwell calls these hub people Connectors. Once we admit their importance as conduits of change, it is a corollary that social change travels at a geometric progression once a threshold is reached (the tipping point). Small changes can have huge effects.
Stickiness is also not a new concept. In advertising there is an old saying: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” The sizzle is what makes an ad message stick. The most interesting part of this section is Gladwell's discussion of non-verbal communication and it's effect on decision making. He cites experiments by William Condon on the subject of cultural micro-rhythms – a re-working of ideas of subliminal perception. Subliminal communication is an unexplored contributor to the “stickiness” of a message. As a result, decisions we might think we have come to independently may be heavily influenced by subliminal cues.
“Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.” is a memorable movie line implying that the context – Chinatown – is somehow responsible for a tragic turn of events, and thus absolves Jake from personal responsibility. Of course, our own sense of the world demands a morality of personal responsibility, so the viewer is left in an uncomfortable state of dissonance. Context and it's influence on decision-making behavior is the most interesting of all the areas Gladwell discusses. Zimbardo's “Prison Experiment” remarkably demonstrates the complete break-down and reconstruction in a short amount of time of personality based on context. Gladwell speculates that context (the dilution of a sense of personal responsibility) may have contributed to the Kitty Genovese murder. The reader, like the movie-goer, is left in an uncomfortable quandary: What of temperament? Contemporary child development theory has made temperament a cornerstone of the direction of personality growth.
Gladwell has written an interesting book that goes well-beyond the soft-science of marketing psychographics, and the glibness of pop-psychology. He provides an alternative view of society that will no doubt be refined by further experimental results. The interesting thing about social theory is that each new experiment highlights a previously overlooked variable. It is the question that is posed, and not the answer that holds our interest. Gladwell recognizes this. He also writes with considerable wit, as when he describes his changing experience of the Email. (less)
AMERICAN PROMETHEUS; THE TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY OF J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin could not be more aptly named as it attempts to i...moreAMERICAN PROMETHEUS; THE TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY OF J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin could not be more aptly named as it attempts to impart structure as well as historical insight into this heavily researched biography.
Historical insight is the dominant theme. A huge amount of space is given to Oppenheimer's associations at Berkeley, his sympathy for social causes, his interest in the plight of acquaintances fleeing Nazi Germany, and the wide swathe of people attracted to his circle by his passions in literature, music, foreign languages, philosophy and psychology as well as his own field of theoretical physics. The minutiae of these associations can appear excessive. However, the reader needs to be patient. All of this is to lay the groundwork for the post-Trinity period. The hysteria of the McCarthy era coupled with illegal surveillance and wiretaps were used by political enemies to smear Oppenheimer's reputation. Bird and Sherwin do more than draw on a hysterical Zeitgeist. They reveal an undercurrent of political conflict and personal vindictiveness.
For the wider scientific community, the persecution of Oppenheimer was a painful example of how their influence would be circumscribed from any public policy debate. Informed opinions and even petitions were indiscriminately classified not only to prevent public debate, but, at times, to isolate the President from the influence of dissenting advisers. This historical theme unmasks the harsh and convoluted gamesmanship that is the stuff of international politics. It is a reality that both the public and the press are still reluctant to acknowledge openly. The effect on the reader is both dismay and alarm. The politics of dropping the atomic bomb as well as the decisions paving the way for the nuclear arms race are re-opened to discussion.
As a pioneering theoretical physicist, charismatic intellect, and ambition-driven leader Oppenheimer unlocked the secrets of atomic energy and was punished for it. The intellectual thread of the story is even more challenging and fascinating than the historical thread. Oppenheimer was a pivotal figure in the history of science: Scores of top physicists including Nobel laureates built off his ideas. Given the technical nature of these advances in physics, the authors can only allude to the scientific achievements he inspired. Einstein, Bohr, Feynman, Heisenberg and dozens of others pass in and out of Oppenheimer's life at various points. These names are practically household words, but few of us could describe their exact scientific contributions. It is discomfiting to realize that Europe was the center of science in Oppenheimer's youth, and that the top scientific minds were attracted to the United States both because they were forced to flee Germany and because they were drawn by Oppenheimer's reputation.
This is a long book, but well worth the effort. It is both sobering and thought-provoking. Finally, it demythologizes a person who through his very public role has become a symbol in the public consciousness. This book refocuses attention on the shifting contradictions of a very human genius.(less)