Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Franklin's Vision1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Franklin's Vision1

Article excerpt

ON THIS SPECIAL OCCASION of the Tercentenary, I am especially delighted to speak in honor of a polymath and an American icon, Benjamin Franklin (fig. 1). Since his death in 1790, Franklin has been revered, memorialized, and made into an educational, financial, and political icon. Through his collective work this sage has climbed to the apex of human endeavor in the sciences, public service, and statesmanship in international relations. Such great heights for a man of wit and wisdom are reached by very few in the world, both then and now.

I have real connections to Franklin, though not biological in nature. My first science home in America, the University of Pennsylvania, was founded by him; the pre-Nobel recognition I received from the Franklin Institute was the medal in his name; and election to this august society has indeed strengthened my bonds to Franklin's home of knowledge and to Franklinian ideals of "promoting useful knowledge." In my office I have his bust for a daily reminder of what it means to be a scientist in service of society and a citizen of the world at large.

For me personally, Franklin is a hero, not only for his unique and remarkable scientific contributions in the 170Os, but also for his humanitarian vision and his belief in the power of learning. He best used his own power as an accomplished scientist to influence world politics and peace. Perhaps the greatest of all of his achievements was his efforts to secure America's independence and peace with England. Today, it is Franklin's vision, with his spirit of compromise and eloquence, that we need in order to reach a dialogue and peace in our troubled world.

Some attribute the origin of calamity and conflict to a clash of civilizations. I do not. Being a cultural product of both "East" and "West" with a voyage (1) of confluence, not clash, I do not find a fundamental basis for the so-called "clash of civilizations." What is important is to emphasize cooperation, not confrontation, and to understand that we live in an interdependent "flat world" (in the words of Thomas Friedman) that cannot be peacefully sustained with huge disparities in wealth and conspicuously inconsistent policies (2, 3). Let me quote what Franklin said more than two centuries ago in Poor Richard's Almanac:

Who is wise? He that learns from everyone.

Who is powerful? He that governs his passion.

Who is rich? He that is content.

These words radiate vision, thought, and humor. Franklin added, "Who is that? Nobody." True, perhaps, but an important point is that being rich and powerful has meaning and responsibility, and that hegemony, if we are wise and learn from history, does not work in the end.

But this is not the "Franklin's vision" that I will be discussing in the remaining time. Rather, I would like to ask how, at the atomic and molecular level, did Franklin actually see?

Vision is the result of the conversion of light energy to an electrochemical impulse (fig. 2). The impulse is transmitted through neurons to the brain, where signals from all the visual receptors are interpreted. One of the initial receptors is a pigment called rhodopsin, which is located in the rods of the retina. The pigment consists of an organic molecule, retinal, in association with a protein named opsin. A change in shape of retinal, which involves the twisting of a chemical double bond, apparently gives the signal to opsin to undergo a sequence of dark (thermal) reactions involved in triggering neural excitations.

How does the complex system of vision render such a selective function? The speed of twisting is awesome. The primary motion occurs in 200 femtoseconds (one femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second; a femtosecond to a second is what a second is to 32 million years). Such rapidity indicates that the light energy is not first absorbed, then redistributed to eventually find the reaction path of twisting. Instead, the entire process proceeds in a coherent manner; that is, a packet of waves in the language of quantum physics. …

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