Thursday, July 26, 2007

Quote for the Day

This is long, but amusing. It's from Richard Mitchell's The Gift of Fire:
I WENT TO TALK TO THE MENSANS. The members of Mensa are the smartest people in America, and I was intimidated. I was afraid that they might catch me in a circular argument or a lexigraphical fallacy. I was afraid that they would rise up, right in the middle of the pathetic little lecture I had thought up for them, and demolish my silly little premises, and then go, not storming, but laughing, from the room, to hold high converse among themselves, not even offering me any coffee and doughnuts.

The speech was meant to be the opener of a small convention, and scheduled to take place right after breakfast. I got there early, and was sent to join the Mensans in a room on the fourth floor, in an upper room, where they were standing around having coffee and doughnuts. I was relieved of at least one of my fears. But they were all watching television, and no one said anything to me. I stood around for a while and went back downstairs, where the brisk young woman who had sent me upstairs told me that I would have to understand that Mensans never did anything on schedule, and that I would have to wait till they came down, Soon, maybe.

I sat in the lobby and read some of the Mensan handouts that I found on the floor near the sofa. One of them was a sample test. To become a Mensan, you have to get high grades on some tests, and what I was reading was a kind of prep for those tests. It had some very interesting questions. One of them asked which diagram of a group of six would be generated by taking diagram C and subjecting it to whatever operations had transformed diagram A into diagram B. Or maybe it was the other way around.

There was a very good train question, whose details I can’t recall, but it had all the classical attributes of train questions—train A and train B leaving at different times from points C and D, moving at rates E and F, and meeting, at last, at the mysterious point X where ships also, I suppose, pass in the night. It really took me back. But the question I liked best of all went something like this:
Bob and Carol and Alice and Ted all took the Mensa test. Bob scored higher than Alice, who scored ten points lower than Ted. Ted’s score added to Carol’s score and then divided by the difference between Bob’s score and Alice’s score was either twenty points more or twelve points less than the average of all four scores. Which of the four made it into Mensa?
Well, I may have forgotten some of the less important details. But it was a great question.

I had planned to start my talk to the Mensans with some mention of Prometheus, and to quote a little from Aeschylus. It was the passage in which Prometheus, about to be chained down for quite a long time, makes a little recitation of the things he has done for humanity, and in which he does not mention at all what we usually think of—the gift of fire. He speaks instead of such powers as those of language and number, and, most important of all, the mind’s grasp of itself, in Locke’s words. It is the ability not only to think, but to think about thinking. Before humanity had that, Prometheus says, humans lived a random and aimless life, “all blindly floundering on from day to day.” I knew that the Mensans were people interested in their minds, as people should be, and I thought that I might encourage them in that interest, and, at the same time, give due praise to the great minds of the past who understood long ago that the mind’s grasp of itself is what alone makes possible the examined life, and thus the good life.

So I imagined myself in conversation with Prometheus, who had come back to find out what we mortals had managed to do with the astounding powers that he had given to us alone of all creatures.

"How fortunate I am to run into you," he began, "for I see by your rumpled clothing and your knitted brow that you must be in the mind business."

"I’m honored to meet you, Sir," I replied, "and I will confess that I am in the mind business, for I do no heavy lifting. Would you care to have some coffee and doughnuts with the Mensans?"

"Not just now, thank you. I have come, I must admit, not for social reasons, but on business. Long, long ago I gave you all the power of the mind’s grasp of itself, the fire by which you may burn and glow like no other mortal creature. That got me into a lot of trouble at first, of course, but since my release I’ve had long, long ages of time in which to wonder whether or not I had done the right thing. I have grown so curious, in fact, that I have now undertaken, as you see, a journey whose enormousness you can not imagine, and only for the purpose of finding out to what good uses you have put my gift."

"Aha," I said, "you have come not only to the right man, but to the right place, and also at the right time. There must be something to that Divine Guidance business. As it happens, I hold here in my hand the answer that you seek.

"What have we done, you ask. Just listen to this. Imagine a train leaving point A and moving toward point B at the rate of C. Imagine now another train moving from B to A at rate D, having set forth on its journey E minutes after the departure of the first train. Would you believe it if I told you that we -- well, some of us -- are able to figure out where and when those trains will meet? So how’s that for mind business?"

He looks at me steadily for a moment. He clears his throat. I begin to feel that I have not yet fully stated our case. I rush into the silence with six diagrams.
"And look at this, just look at this. You see these diagrams? Now this little one over here was made by doing something or other, maybe a little twisting or turning this way or that, to this other little diagram. Now, and this is the beauty part, one of these six diagrams down here got to be the way it is because the very same things, the twisting and turning stuff, you know, were done to this little diagram. Pretty neat, eh? Now suppose I were to tell you that we -- well, some of us -- by the power of the mind alone, can say exactly which of these little..."

At this point, Prometheus silently rises and begins to walk off. I get the impression, probably through Divine Guidance, that he is going to go back and chain himself to the rock for another long sentence.

"Wait, wait," I call after him, now heading through the door and out into the street. "Let me tell you about Bob and Carol and Alice and Ted! They all took this test, you see, and... and..."

But Prometheus is gone. I begin to wonder whether the nature of his gift is such that he can take it back.


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