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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Arithmetic divinity

When I was in England decades ago, researching the history of the British scientific elite, I loved visiting Trinity College, Cambridge, although I was green with envy of its students. It was, and is, a matchless centre of mathematical and scientific achievement. It has also produced half a dozen prime ministers, and many great writers and poets. But it was above all the college of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Ernest Rutherford (and 31 other Nobel prize winners), and the mathematician-philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. Trinity was also attended by trio of gifted mathematicians in the early 1900s: two Englishmen, G. H. Hardy, J.E. Littlewood, and the even more talented, physically frail Indian, Srinivasa Ramanujan. Their friendship and close collaboration in the years 1913-1920, especially that between Hardy and Ramanujan, is a remarkable story familiar to mathematicians for many years, and Ramanujan is a national hero in India, but their tale was little known to the general public before the appearance of a good 1991 biography of Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity. Now Matthew Brown has made a film based on the book. I went to see it as soon as it opened at the Forum multiplex, not sure it will be around for long. Despite a good script, fine performances by the three leading actors, and an important story, I doubt if this film will compete in grapevine buzz with the more melodramatic portrayals of brilliant mathematicians in A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game. Both of these used a reliable mythic formula, the tale of suffering and misunderstood genius on the borderland of saintly madness, set against the backgrounds of World War II and Cold War cryptography. Brown's film is set in the years of World War I, but that war has only occasional relevance… Read More

Tribulations and triumphs in commercial aviation

Fierce free market business analysts like Kevin O'Leary have been raining curses on Bombardier for at least two decades now. The losses! The share price! The government handouts! The family-dominated ownership structure! However, while I understand the accounting ratios, and have no personal interest in Bombardier, I think bean counting doesn't tell the full story in dealing with innovations in science and engineering, sometimes mistaking diamonds for beans. Makers of military and civilian aircraft, and their equally important power plants, are almost bound to be condemned: not only Bombardier and Pratt&Whitney, but the tight little field of their surviving giant competitors. All these firms often have terrible quarterly financial numbers, but they are not composed of spendthrifts or incompetents. They are doing difficult things that are not easily timetabled. People forget this, when overcome with taxpayer or shareholder rage. I am less censorious. I started getting a different outlook when living in England over forty years ago. First of all, I was studying the contributions of British scientists and engineers to winning World War II; secondly, I was watching the near-death agonies of Rolls-Royce from the end of the 1960s through the early 1970s. The war research was showing me that all kinds of potential innovations were understood in principle much earlier than many popular histories assume to this day. Talent and dedication were available, and some government willingness to assign high priority and adequate resources, but specific 'bottlenecks' still brought unavoidable delays. When Churchill, for example, asked his scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann to explain, early in the war, what jet engines were all about, Lindemann wrote him a concise memo with an accurate description, but pointed out that the immediate problem was in obtaining new alloys that could withstand the very high temperatures the turbines produced. The earliest reverse… Read More

The politics of egomania

The Quebec archives recently released the TV speech that Jacques Parizeau recorded in advance of the 1995 Referendum, intended for broadcast in the event of a triumph for the "Oui." The speech was broadcast on French networks a couple of months ago, but only became available on the English ones at the start of April. It was well over half an hour long, and a full half of it was in English, largely an attempt to reassure Quebec anglos that their rights and political future would be made secure in the new "sovereign" Quebec. I watched the entire address, less because I thought it had much enduring importance than out of nostalgia. I always thought Parizeau was the most dangerous individual to rise in Canadian politics in the 20th century, but I never much disliked him personally. He was intelligent, cultivated, invariably courteous, candid to an amazing degree, and could be quite funny. I found these qualities gave him some charm, not of the superficial kind displayed by most professional politicians (outside of Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair), but coming out of his immense and unshakable self-confidence and intellectual conviction. This charm I observed at close range did not much move Quebec's general citizenry, or even some of his PQ colleagues. Many saw him as arrogant, never forgetting – as he never played down – that he was born to great wealth and privilege. His family had been multimillionaire potentates in banking and insurance for over a century, giving him an aura not counterbalanced by his radical absolutism ["pour la souveraineté tout court") and his academic and bureaucratic distinctions. But he almost always seemed completely impervious to his cool reception by the general public, just as he was impervious to the storm he raised with his notorious, one time only, politically… Read More

A tory perspective on American presidential politics

The ancient Romans distinguished between res gestae – the things being done, say by Augustus – and res gestarum historiarum – what is told or written about what has been done, sometimes by the doers themselves, but more often by humbler scribes. Understanding the relationship between these entities keeps growing more difficult, as continuing revolutions in communications have provided more and more gestarum historiarum. This process was not much observed before the 1950s. The two epic World Wars still made the res gestae appear directly comprehensible, even if mediated by print, radio, and movies. But television changed everything in the 1960s, in ways still only half-understood.. The early pop gurus of a new dispensation have been largely forgotten or discredited, even the genuinely perceptive Marshall McLuhan. Politicians have engaged in pragmatic adaptation to TV for half a century now, but have resembled nervous people lighting matches in a flooding cave. The best example of all the more forgotten gurus was Charles Reich, a gay Yale law professor, who became briefly famous with a 1970 book called The Greening of America. It sold millions of copies, and received many rave reviews. But it also was given a brilliant and devastating dismissal, in Encounter, by Henry Fairlie, an English tory with far more good sense. The 1950s to the 1980s were good years for Fairlie's kind of intelligent political journalism. Remaining memories of the 1930s and World War II, and the grim realities of the Cold War, gave depth and gravitas to political reflection. Newspaper and periodical readers, and then TV watchers, could soak up Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal; the ubiquitous Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith; and the house Democrat historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Even many liberals enjoyed the witty right-wing cannonades of William F. Buckley. Hardline anti-Communists, largely ex-Marxists, contributed… Read More

Jesse Owens: Memory, Myth, and History

Commercial television, broadcast for only a few hours a day, was still a novelty in 1950s Canada; federal authorization of the national CTV network came only in 1960. However, by the mid-1950s, Calgary had a local commercial station providing daily shows, including an hour-long Sunday afternoon one called "Youth and the Questions," on which four students from the city's four high schools spent the first half hour discussing issues of the day, and the second half interviewing miscellaneous guests. The students were recruited by an employee of the station, who was himself still attending my high school half-time, and he recruited me. I found most of the discussions pretty feeble, but I enjoyed doing the interviews, in which the moderator gave me a leading role. Thus it was that, in the spring of 1956, just short of sixty years ago, and then just twenty years after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, I interviewed Jesse Owens, also chatting with him before and after we were on air. Old men forget, as Shakespeare's Henry V sagely observed. But I am reasonably sure that my recollection of that Owens interview has stayed with me accurately, for two reasons: the impact of the man himself, and something surprising he had to say. As to the man, all of us knew that Owens had won astonishing quadruple Olympic gold medals in sprinting, relay racing, and jumping, and had accomplished this in in front of Hitler and other top Nazis. For all of the following twenty years, Owen had been one of that tiny group of athletes at the pinnacle: admired and idolized, not only for performing their particular sport superlatively well, but greatly increasing the overall prestige and participation in that sport overall. Owens was to track and field what Maurice Richard was to hockey or… Read More
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