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Parsha Mitzvot: Vayechi: The Messiah: Can One Man Change The World

Jacob wanted to reveal the ‘end,’ the time of the Messiah. A question to consider: Can one person really change the world? In the progress of the scientific revolution (1543 to the present), all individuals were replaceable, and it was instead the incremental progress of hundreds and then thousands of individuals that led to each breakthrough achievement:

“It is natural to describe key events in terms of the work of individuals who made a mark in science– Copernicus, Vesalius, Darwin, Wallace and the rest. But this does not mean that science has progressed as a result of a string of irreplaceable geniuses possessed of a special insight into how the world works. Geniuses maybe (though not always); but irreplaceable certainly not. Scientific progress builds step by step, and as the example of Darwin and Wallace [who independently established the principle of evolution at close to the same time] shows, when the time is ripe, two or more individuals may make the next step independently of one another. It is the luck of the draw, or historical accident, whose name gets remembered as the discoverer of a new phenomenon. What is much more important than human genius is the development of technology, and it is no surprise that the start of the scientific revolution ‘coincides’ with the development of the telescope and the microscope.

“I can only think of one partial exception to this situation, and even there I would qualify the exception more than most historians of science do. Isaac Newton was clearly something of a special case, both because of the breadth of his scientific achievements and in particular because of the clear way in which he laid down the ground rules on which science ought to operate. Even Newton, though, relied on his immediate predecessors, in particular Galileo Galilei and Rene Descartes, and in that sense his contributions followed naturally from what went before. If Newton had never lived, scientific progress would have been held back by a few decades, but only by a few decades. Edmond Halley or Robert Hooke might well have come up with the famous inverse square law of gravity; Gottfried Leibnitz actually did invent calculus independently of Newton (and made a better job of it); and Christiaan Huygens’s superior wave theory of light was held back by Newton’s espousal of the rival particle theory.”

John Gribbin, The Scientists, Random House, Copyright 2002 by John and Mary Gribbin, pp. xix-xx

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