They Were Ahead of Their Time

September 14, 2017

It is no secret that the great minds of history transcend time, although Pythagoras was a real stickler for punctuality. The issue is complicated. Society’s reactions to its visionaries throughout history has been mixed. At worst, they have been misunderstood and persecuted for their beliefs. Sometimes they have been put to death, as in the cases of Socrates, Joan of Arc, and perhaps, someday, Cher. At best they have been invited to party after party. In either case, such figures have often been said to be “outside of time” — although this is not to say that they “ignored” time, or “hated” it, but rather, that in “making their peace” with it, they somehow “escaped its strictures,” or “gave it the slip.” A few geniuses such as Galileo, Thoreau and Milton best effected their “transcendence of the temporal” while “doing time,” although Milton’s jailor often remarked that the great poet whined horribly when his mutton was overcooked. It is impossible to speak accurately of “transcending” time, and discussions aimed in this direction generally succeed only in producing a prose gagged with quotation marks. This is to be avoided and so we will proceed to some concrete examples almost immediately.

GALILEO GALILEI (1564 -1642)

Galileo’s experiences before the Inquisition in Rome spelled trouble from the beginning. He first found himself “in the papal doghouse” when he published his “Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” (1632), a work supporting the Copernican notion that the earth is not the center of the universe, although Galileo said not only is it not the center of the universe — it’s not even close. To make matters worse, he said that although he wasn’t positive, he thought we were at the edge of a galaxy called “The Milky Way,” and that if you looked at things from an intergalactic perspective, we’re “very peripheral, to put it mildly.” A prison sentence was suggested so that Galileo might have time to reconsider his ideas, and it was there, in the physical and intellectual poverty of his cell that Galileo returned to his work. At first his progress was slow, because no on was checking up on him, but in time, Galileo learned that he shouldn’t work to please other people, and everything proceeded swimmingly.

Now things began to click for him as they never had before, and he hoped that, in time, he would have something “really special for the Pope.” He did. After months of undisturbed effort, Galileo came to the unexpected conclusion that space is curved. This was something more than he had bargained for, and now, instead of something in the way of a simple clarification, Galileo faced the unpleasant prospect of having to explain a four-dimensional universe to the Grand

Inquisitor. A translation of the original Vatican transcript follows:
Inquisitor: Okay, Galileo. What did you find out?
Galileo: Please, call me Leo.
I: All right…
G: Leo.
I: Yes, yes… Leo… Let’s have it.
G: Er, I don’t know how to tell you this…
I: Eh?
G: Give me a minute…
I: (Impatiently) C’mon, c’mon…
G: Leo…
I: Okay… C’mon, Leo! Out with it!
G: (con brio) I don’t mean to get technical, but do the words “space-time curve” mean anything to you?
I: Very funny. Take him away.
G: But—!
I: Next!

In addition to his many other distinctions, Galileo has the notable honor of being the only contemporary of Milton’s included in the poet’s great epic poem, Paradise Lost. Milton had originally slated hundreds of friends and relatives for the verse epic, but the printer, fuming when he couldn’t find his name among them, bumped them all for what he later explained as “lack of space, pretty boy.” All, that is, with the one exception of Galileo, whom he mistook for a verb.

ISAAC NEWTON (1642 -1727)

Newton is considered by many to be perhaps the greatest scientist who ever lived. While still in his early twenties he discovered the law of universal gravitation — “it was right under our noses” — and began to develop the Calculus, although that eventually cleared up. His theory that light is composed of particles — large, furry particles, eight feet in diameter — was not well received, and this assertion is generally attributed to the natural hyperbole of youth. Newton’s more mature observations on light were published in his Opticks (1704), a work that dominated light theory until the nineteenth century, when the misspelling was discovered.

In 1708 Newton published a discursive sequel to his theory of gravity, entitled “A Theory of Levity”, in which he chronicled the meteoric rise and fall of comedian Lenny Bruce, who wouldn’t be born for more than two centuries. At first members of the Royal Society perceived the work as a brief but somehow necessary departure from his earlier theories, most of which were almost completely lacking in good jokes, but a blitzkrieg of similar treatises on the Marx Brothers (see Principia Gummo) — and then the monographs on Gallagher (1711) and Foster Brooks (1713) — seemed to signal something like a trend. It had, and on Good Thursday Newton was seen walking along the river Cam in a gorilla suit.

Sensing a drop in his credibility as president of the Society, Newton called a special meeting to be held at noon the following Wednesday, for the purpose of demonstrating his mysterious new “theories”. This was generally taken as a positive sign, but when asked whether he would arrive by coach or on foot, Newton shot back, “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get there,” and winked. On the day of the meeting Newton was nowhere to be found. Many members of the society feared he had only been kidding them, but at the stroke of noon precisely, a cannon blast propelled Newton across the public square, through an open window, and into his accustomed position behind the Society’s lectern — an entrance that, while unorthodox, illustrated an assured grasp of trajectory and projectile theory. Sporting goofy wax teeth, implausible floppy shoes, and a flamboyant orange ruff, Newton was the very picture of levity. Moreover, he had teased his already sizeable bouffant into a monstrous sphere — a hirsutely self-conscious parody of his own early theory on light particles.

When the murmuring finally died down, Newton executed an expert backflip, and then demonstrated several incipient gags which seemed to anticipate the double-take, spit-take, and pratfall respectively — then one that seemed to anticipate all three at once. Indeed, a full two centuries before vaudeville, Newton had mastered most of the comic techniques of the twentieth century, not the least of which was an overblown and high-pitched Nazi accent. Next, armed with a seltzer bottle, joy buzzers, squirting carnations, and a golden blunderbuss that fired sneezing powder, he began darting about the room while shouting snippets from Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First?” routine, followed by a spirited pie-throwing exhibition that anticipated the foolery of future gagman par excellence Soupy Sales. In no time the room was in a state of pandemonium, and there appeared to be no end in sight. At several points during his fantastical demonstrations, Newton paused to carefully remove an egg from his mouth. The horsing around came to an abrupt halt, however, when Newton thoughtlessly gave the Marquess of Cleves a hotfoot, unaware that His Lordship’s parents had both perished in the Great London Fire of ‘66. Members of the Society were outraged at Newton’s insensitivity, although everyone admitted that, gag for gag, his timing had been excellent.


Wearing the various hats of author, statesman, printer, inventor, diplomat and scientist, Benjamin Franklin embodied the very spirit of early America — but in the grand vision that fueled these pursuits, he remained thoroughly unfettered to the constraints of the age: to wit, his fierce obsession with hitch-hiking.

We know from some early notebooks that no less than 150 years before Karl Benz completed his plans for a gasoline engine, the young Franklin was formulating a detailed system of hitch-hiking etiquette, the echoes of which are with us to this day. Some modern hitch-hiking aphorisms generally attributed to anonymous sources first appear in his Poor Richard’s Almanack in a slightly archaic form, such as the maxim from his Almanack of 1738:


As well as the niggardly admonition:


Hitch-hiking and the lure of the open road were interests that remained close to Franklin’s heart throughout his life. He was said to be intensely guarded and sensitive on these topics, and once, in a meeting of the Continental Congress, when James Madison made some disparaging remark regarding a scheme to market fuzzy dice and “other automotive gew-gaws” in the Louisiana territories, Franklin left Independence Hall in a huff. Not to be daunted by a little colonial heckling, he spent the last decade of his life working on a “low-flying kite in the shape of a thumb,” though no one was sure why.

It is for this famous experiment with a kite during a thunderstorm that Franklin is generally credited with “discovering” electricity, although what is usually not mentioned in the history books is that in the course of his rich and varied life, Dr. Franklin achieved similar successes with natural gas and hot water, for a utilities hat-trick.

ALBERT EINSTEIN (1879 -1955)

Einstein was always gaga about pop music, but it wasn’t until 1917, with the publication of his famous paper “On the Necessity of a Subatomic ‘Groove’,” that the world learned of his passion. In the beginning Einstein’s scientific colleagues greeted his musical explorations with skepticism, and then, later, with scorn and ridicule, but Einstein would not be quieted. He insisted that at the highest levels music and mathematics were intertwined, and he once told Niehls Bohr that late at night, while working out difficult quadratic equations, he felt an urge to dance.

By 1917 Einstein was already well-known for his advances in quantum physics, having published his Special Theory of Relativity (1905) and his General Theory (1916), but now the world saw a different Einstein — a “now” Einstein — an Einstein who, according to fellow Nobel-winner Enrico Fermi, “moved like a cat on the dance floor — and I mean moved!” Most people didn’t know what to make of the sudden change, and the publication of a subsequent paper, “Brownian Movement, Get Down, and Boogie”, (1919) only added to the confusion.

More and more he devoted himself to this passion, frequenting nightclubs and eventually purchasing a shiny tenor saxophone. When the sax broke Einstein turned to the familiar tools of mathematics and quantum physics, which he applied to contemporary music theory with typical Einsleinian gusto. In time he would predict nearly every musical development of the next century, including Mama Cass, Abba, and the Eurythmics. Many of his critics insisted that his predictions were purely theoretical, but time and time again the pop charts bear him out. His earliest efforts in this direction led him to the premature discovery of rockabilly, and then to the home Carl Perkins, who was only eleven at the time and building a tree fort. It is worth noting that in addition to his many Top 40 calculations Einstein ventured other speculations. For instance he ruled out as mathematical impossibility the existence of a fifth Beatle, and estimated to within millimeters the length of Kiss guitarist Gene Simmons’ tongue. Some of his more complicated calculations even postulated the probable existence of a sixth and seventh Jackson.

Throughout his life, Einstein suffered much humiliation at the hands of envious colleagues, most of whom couldn’t carry a tune, but at a Princeton faculty get-together in 1951, Einstein drew a favorable reception by successfully “moonwalking” backwards across a parquet floor and, for an encore, inverting himself and spinning on his famous physicist’s head. In his last years Einstein sought to bring together the disparate field of jazz, motown, and bebop, but in the end a “Unified Funk Theory,” as he called it, would elude him.


There are yet among us today certain individuals whose vision extends beyond the present, often into the very future itself. I am thinking again of Cher, as well as of various other vocalists. The most fascinating instances, however, occur when one of these visionaries looking into the future is able to “see” yet another visionary — a future visionary — who may be looking yet further into the future — something akin to a bucket brigade of prophesy. Such occurences are extremely rare, however, and thus far the only known instance of such an event involves an obscure Nostradamus quatrain on Ted Koppel.


N.B. This piece was purchased by the Atlantic Monthly in 1987. Publication pending.