A Grand Unification Theory

In physics, the holy grail in the present moment is a theory which explains, with the power of prediction, the fundamental things. The things of the small universe (weak force, strong force, electricity, magnetism) the quantum world, and the things of the big universe – essentially gravity. The historical inspiration for this frenzy was the achievement of the Scotsman, James Clerk [pronounced "Goble"] Maxwell. Maxwell proposed a version of this business, which unites the formerly disperate understandings of electricity and magnetism:

Maxwell's Unified Theory

This is a rich explanation which both predicts and accounts for much of what happens in your daily life – from the operation of your cell phone, computer and television – to how your eyeglasses and contact lens behave.[1]

The hope for a single explanation of the small and large universes has so far eluded theorticians, but in a sense, it doesn’t matter at present. Practically, the two exist in separate worlds.[2] Gravity is of virtually no consequence in the micro-world. It is incredibly weak on these small scales and requires the invocation of relatively enormous masses to become significant. For instance, if you and I were floating in interstellar space, the gravitational effect of our two separate masses would tend to draw us together. But that force is so weak that were I to push you away (with that great strength I possess) we would both be long dead before our mutual attraction brought us together again (say 180 years assuming I’m really as strong as my wife used to think I am).[3]

While I’ve always found physics fascinating, I find a historiographical analogue just as interesting. Historiography has always struggled, and more so now than ever before perhaps, with a dual class system. I refer to the professional university trained historian vs. the interested invested amateur. Often (not always, to be sure) the distance is illustrated by the approach to doing history and theoretical scaffolding. But even that question is beyond what I want to address here.[4]

My own interests in history have been focussed both in the micro world and the macro (I’ll say, contextual) world. When I say “micro,” I mean the genesis of 19th century Mormon texts. In the macro sense I’m also interested in the trail of influence left by those texts and trail of influence on those texts and the trail of the text itself. That is, texts and their exteriors are influenced by writers, editors and readers and their interactions.

In the case of Joseph Smith, the bulk of those texts associated with him were only indirectly produced by him. For example, consider his most famous sermon, the King Follett Discourse. The most important genes of the text originate with two long-hand reports produced during the sermon. From those two reports there is a textual tradition beginning with a composition published in the Church magazine of 1844. The text bifurcates with a new edition produced the following year. That new (imprint) tradition continued intermittently until 1903. In 1856, a new text tradition began by taking the first bifurcation and editing in some (mostly redundant) material from a post-sermon reconstruction by a contemporary diarist. Various editions of this new tradition eventually bifurcated in the 20th century to form the commonly held text in Church imprints. The texts of this sermon, and their evolution, are intimately connected with a number of strands in Mormon history, including the beginning of Utah polygamy and formal community as well as the ending of those institutions, the impact of science on religion and the assimilation and retrenchment of Mormonism relative to American life, to name a few.

In the micro world of history, one deals nearly exclusively with “primary sources.” That is, roughly speaking the material of least distance to the subject.[5] In Joseph Smith’s case, that means the material produced by those who were witnesses to his words say, and best of all, those who recorded those words as they were spoken, to the best of their ability. All those things imply a coming together of ideal circumstances and should never be assumed. Just for fun, here are some example excerpts from a primary source associated with one of Joseph Smith’s sermons. First, to illustrate one practical disadvantage of a primary source, consider this word, appearing in one of those ideal texts: an on-the-spot report by a skilled long-hand reporter.

What is this?


The word is “translation” and illustrates the style and technique of this particular person when under the pressure of the moment. The same writer, with a much less hurried pen (and probably more than a decade later) wrote these two bits on the same manuscript – the first one at the beginning, the second at the end of the manuscript:


The writer has edited his own manuscript to indicate where and when the report was witnessed and the identity of the reporter.[6] His unhurried script is fairly characteristic and quite readable. (The faint shadow appearing on the first editorial insertion is not an erasure. The foolscap was folded in fourths and written on the quarters of both sides.) The same person, in a more careful mode:

From a Copy Made by Bullock of His Own Original Manuscript



Notice the small size of the script. This particular writer (Thomas Bullock) was capable of such compression he could write readable missives on the back of postage stamps or so the legend goes. The manuscript from which that excerpt was taken is difficult to reproduce in typographical facsimile.[7] The lines are just too stinking long to fit on an 8.5×11 inch page even in landscape mode.

T. Bullock, c1860. While not the ladies man like William Clayton a nevertheless productive polygamist


In any case, texts are a little like black holes. They form a kind of flash point where the the macro and micro worlds (and the roughly associated professional and amateur worlds) of history come together almost inextricably. The hard part is finding the useful balance. (Ok, the hard part is putting up with the tedium of tracking commas.)

Next time I’d like to display a bit of the genetic criticism of King Follett (it’s fascinating to geeks like me, but in fact it’s not the most interesting of JS’s sermon-texts “geek-wise” either).
—————–
[1] The robust explanation and details would make things unwieldy. This is not really about mathematical physics. If you are persistent, here is something I wrote a long time ago. Eat it up if you really want to. Kristine, you are not allowed to criticize my prose – assuming you’d want to be bored out of your skull.

[2] Assuming black holes exist, the two worlds are forced to intersect there. A black hole has the mass of a star, and presumably, the size of a subatomic particle. An ugly and beautiful place.

[3] I’m making the false assumption that the acceleration due to gravity remains constant with distance. Hence my kick could initiate escape velocity in reality. But you get the picture.

[4] I’ve been in the borderlands here because of my educational background.

[5] Imagine an original letter written by Joseph Smith of proved provenance. A primary source. Think of Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling. This is a “secondary” source.

[6] It may seem like unreasonable suspicion, but the claim of location (E of temple) should not be taken at face value. An intervening decade can result in fusion of memories,etc. Another independent contemporary witness would be of use here.

[7] A typographical facsimile is a reproduction (in “type”) of a manuscript, which preserves as much of the order, size, line length and other features (even hand drawn arrows and such) as practically possible. Most attempts at manuscript reproduction are referred to as “diplomatic” transcripts and regarded by purists as less then ideal, and by typesetters (at least classically) as much more desirable. I admit to a purist bent. If you have a copy of the recent Joseph Smith Translation manuscripts publication by the BYU Religious Studies Center, you have a good example of a diplomatic transcript. If you’ve seen Royal Skousen’s critical edition of the Book of Mormon (not the Yale edition, the Maxwell Institute volumes) you’ve seen typographical facsimiles. In the sermon book, I do typo facsimiles. (That’s unintentionally funny.)

Comments

  1. it's a series of tubes says:

    Ah, Maxwell’s equations. Beauty in one of its purest forms.

  2. I love this stuff.

  3. The physics is over my head, I’ll be honest, but I’m fascinated as soon as you get to primary sources and examples of that beautiful script. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I remember taking a detour in getting my history degree to take some stuff on the history of evolution and of science. It was great fun talking about the possibilities of a unified theory of physics (even got to talk to Steven Weinberg) and concluding, like a good liberal arts major (and doubtlessly, much to the chagrin of any more science or mathematically-inclined types who have to do the hard work) that the whole endeavor was a massive tautology. Good times. Anyway, back on the OP – look forward to the next one especially. Historiography is almost as much fun as picking apart other people’s disciplines ;)

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