In his thoughtful work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn reflects on the revolutionary contributions of such giants as Copernicus, Newton, Darwin and Einstein. But he is quick to remind us that it’s often the scientists whose names we never hear of who make the vast majority of scientific progress. These hardworking men and women spend most of their waking hours doing “normal science” and their results are the heart and soul of our technological advancement.
Kuhn points out that science, like every intellectual endeavor, operates within a paradigm. A paradigm is an established system that is its own world. It tells the scientist what questions to ask, what tools to use, and what constitutes reasonable answers. The way it works is as follows: Someone poses a question that the paradigm deems valid, “accepted” methods are employed, and answers are achieved that are judged by the parameters set by the paradigm itself. So, as you can see, the entire system is self-verifying. This kind of intellectual trap reminds me of the logician’s dilemma when trying to prove the veracity of inductive reasoning by reasoning inductively.
An established paradigm can be both good and bad. It can provide a useful function by serving as a compass, directing us in our efforts as we strive to make new advancements. It can, however, set limits on our inquiries in that it is a self-contained system intolerant to deviations.
Occasionally, during our scientific explorations, an answer is achieved that doesn’t make sense given the set of norms that have been accepted by the scientific community. This is often excused as an anomaly. When these “anomalies” become too frequent, horror of horrors, the scientists are forced, reluctantly, to re-evaluate the paradigm itself. This type of intellectual revolution shakes the scientific community to its core and has only happened a handful of times. Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and others were leaders in such revolutions as they challenged the prevailing wisdom of the times. Old ideas do not die easily and each of these brilliant intellectuals experienced heated resistance. Eventually, their theories supplanted, at least for a time, the ideas that had preceded them to become the prevailing paradigm.
Challenges to the mainstream way of thinking are not limited to the scientific arena. All fields of human endeavor have been witness to bold innovators who are more than willing to push, and sometimes shatter, accepted concepts of their time. One such pioneer in the field of literature is author Tom Wolfe.
Tom Wolfe is one of the most extraordinary and interesting writers ever to put pen to paper. William F. Buckley Jr. called him “the most skillful writer in America—I mean that he can do more things with words than anyone else.” The creator of “New Journalism,” Wolfe’s style challenged the status quo by writing nonfiction in a new and compelling way, or, as he put it, “I could combine two loves: reporting and the sociological concepts American studies had introduced to me, especially status theory as first developed by the German sociologist Max Weber.”
His style is like no other. I was hooked the minute I picked up his 1968 work, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” The book is an account of his travels throughout California with Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters” as they spread the gospel of L.S.D. It wasn’t so much the subject matter but his masterful way of engaging the reader that was so striking. It compelled me to read all his other works.
In 1971, I had the honor of spending a weekend at the Toronto home of Marshall McLuhan, author, philosopher, professor and the first real media expert. McLuhan was in his heyday back then, but I had met him the year before, when he was a professor at Fordham. I was completely mesmerized by his groundbreaking ideas: McLuhan didn’t just deviate from the accepted thinking of his day, he shattered it. When I arrived at his stately home, I was informed that Tom Wolfe had just left. Wolfe had generously left behind, as a present to the McLuhan family, a weird box-like contraption that emitted light and sound at various intervals. As excited as I was to spend time discussing McLuhan’s rather startling ideas with none other than the professor himself, I couldn’t help but regret that I had just missed talking to one of the greatest literary minds of our time.
In the early 1980s, my disappointment turned to joy. Making my daily sojourn up the escalator of the old criminal courthouse in the Bronx, I spotted a finely dressed stately man, clothed in a white double-breasted silk suit, white vest, tie, and old-fashioned pleated pants. He was taking furious notes as he talked to anyone he could corner. Tom Wolfe was in my courthouse doing research for his next book, a novel. I finally did get to talk to him that day. His focus was to garner information about the various “characters” in our court system and he took notes as adroitly as any court reporter I’d ever seen.
Not long after our encounter, Wolfe published “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a novel that offered what the New York Times called “a sweeping, bitingly satirical picture of money, power, greed and vanity in New York during the shameless excesses of the 1980s.” His work was so fascinating that Mr. Dobell, an editor at Esquire, described the author this way: “He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel. He has a gift of fluency that pours out of him the way Balzac had it.”
As a society, we are truly indebted to all those among us who, in whatever field they toil, are willing to challenge the conventional way of thinking in the pursuit of excellence. Tom Wolfe, who passed away last week, was one such innovator. His ability to transform the way we look at nonfiction lives on in his many amazing contributions. For that, I salute and thank you, Mr. Wolfe. You will be missed.
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