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Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

22 APRIL, 2013

14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge: A Timeless Guide from 1936


“Writing, to knowledge, is a certified check.”

The quest for intellectual growth and self-improvement through education has occupied yesteryear’s luminaries like Bertrand Russell and modern-day thinkers like Sir Ken Robinson and Noam Chomsky. In 1936, at the zenith of the Great Depression, the prolific self-help guru and famous eccentric James T. Mangan published You Can Do Anything! (public library) — an enthusiastic and exclamation-heavy pep-manual for the art of living. Though Mangan was a positively kooky character — in 1948, he publicly claimed to own outer space and went on to found the micronation of Celestia — the book isn’t without merit.

Among its highlights is a section titled 14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge — a blueprint to intellectual growth, advocating for such previously discussed essentials as the importance of taking example from those who have succeeded and organizing the information we encounter, the power of curiosity, the osmosis between learning and teaching, the importance of critical thinking (because, as Christopher Hitchens pithily put it, “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”), the benefits of writing things down, why you should let your opinions be fluid rather than rigid, the art of listening, the art of observation, and the very core of what it means to be human.


  2. Consider the knowledge you already have — the things you really know you can do. They are the things you have done over and over; practiced them so often that they became second nature. Every normal person knows how to walk and talk. But he could never have acquired this knowledge without practice. For the young child can’t do the things that are easy to older people without first doing them over and over and over.


    Most of us quit on the first or second attempt. But the man who is really going to be educated, who intends to know, is going to stay with it until it is done. Practice!

  3. ASK
  4. Any normal child, at about the age of three or four, reaches the asking period, the time when that quickly developing brain is most eager for knowledge. “When?” “Where?” “How?” “What?” and “Why?” begs the child — but all too often the reply is “Keep still!” “Leave me alone!” “Don’t be a pest!”

    Those first bitter refusals to our honest questions of childhood all too often squelch our “Asking faculty.” We grow up to be men and women, still eager for knowledge, but afraid and ashamed to ask in order to get it.


    Every person possessing knowledge is more than willing to communicate what he knows to any serious, sincere person who asks. The question never makes the asker seem foolish or childish — rather, to ask is to command the respect of the other person who in the act of helping you is drawn closer to you, likes you better and will go out of his way on any future occasion to share his knowledge with you.

    Ask! When you ask, you have to be humble. You have to admit you don’t know! But what’s so terrible about that? Everybody knows that no man knows everything, and to ask is merely to let the other know that you are honest about things pertaining to knowledge.

  6. You never learn much until you really want to learn. A million people have said: “Gee, I wish I were musical!” “If I only could do that!” or “How I wish I had a good education!” But they were only talking words — they didn’t mean it.


    Desire is the foundation of all learning and you can only climb up the ladder of knowledge by desiring to learn.


    If you don’t desire to learn you’re either a num-skull [sic] or a “know-it-all.” And the world wants nothing to do with either type of individual.

  8. You may be surprised to hear that you already know a great deal! It’s all inside you — it’s all there — you couldn’t live as long as you have and not be full of knowledge.


    Most of your knowledge, however — and this is the great difference between non-education and education — is not in shape to be used, you haven’t it on the tip of your tongue. It’s hidden, buried away down inside of you — and because you can’t see it, you think it isn’t there.

    Knowledge is knowledge only when it takes a shape, when it can be put into words, or reduced to a principle — and it’s now up to you to go to work on your own gold mine, to refine the crude ore.

  10. Any time you see something new or very special, if the thing is resting on the ground, as your examination and inspection proceeds, you find that you eventually walk around it. You desire to know the thing better by looking at it from all angles.


    To acquire knowledge walk around the thing studied. The thing is not only what you touch, what you see; it has many other sides, many other conditions, many other relations which you cannot know until you study it from all angles.

    The narrow mind stays rooted in one spot; the broad mind is free, inquiring, unprejudiced; it seeks to learn “both sides of the story.”

    Don’t screen off from your own consciousness the bigger side of your work. Don’t be afraid you’ll harm yourself if you have to change a preconceived opinion. Have a free, broad, open mind! Be fair to the thing studied as well as to yourself. When it comes up for your examination, walk around it! The short trip will bring long knowledge.

  12. The world honors the man who is eager to plant new seeds of study today so he may harvest a fresh crop of knowledge tomorrow. The world is sick of the man who is always harking back to the past and thinks everything wroth knowing has already been learned. … Respect the past, take what it offers, but don’t live in it.

    To learn, experiment! Try something new. See what happens. Lindbergh experimented when he flew the Atlantic. Pasteur experimented with bacteria and made cow’s milk safe for the human race. Franklin experimented with a kite and introduced electricity.

    The greatest experiment is nearly always a solo. The individual, seeking to learn, tries something new but only tries it on himself. If he fails, he has hurt only himself. If he succeeds he has made a discovery many people can use. Experiment only with your own time, your own money, your own labor. That’s the honest, sincere type of experiment. It’s rich. The cheap experiment is to use other people’s money, other people’s destinies, other people’s bodies as if they were guinea pigs.

  13. TEACH
  14. If you would have knowledge, knowledge sure and sound, teach. Teach your children, teach your associates, teach your friends. In the very act of teaching, you will learn far more than your best pupil.


    Knowledge is relative; you possess it in degrees. You know more about reading, writing, and arithmetic than your young child. But teach that child at every opportunity; try to pass on to him all you know, and the very attempt will produce a great deal more knowledge inside your own brain.

  15. READ
  16. From time immemorial it has been commonly understood that the best way to acquire knowledge was to read. That is not true. Reading is only one way to knowledge, and in the writer’s opinion, not the best way. But you can surely learn from reading if you read in the proper manner.

    What you read is important, but not all important. How you read is the main consideration. For if you know how to read, there’s a world of education even in the newspapers, the magazines, on a single billboard or a stray advertising dodger.

    The secret of good reading is this: read critically!

    Somebody wrote that stuff you’re reading. It was a definite individual, working with a pen, pencil or typewriter — the writing came from his mind and his only. If you were face to face with him and listening instead of reading, you would be a great deal more critical than the average reader is. Listening, you would weigh his personality, you would form some judgment about his truthfulness, his ability. But reading, you drop all judgment, and swallow his words whole — just as if the act of printing the thing made it true!


    If you must read in order to acquire knowledge, read critically. Believe nothing till it’s understood, till it’s clearly proven.

  17. WRITE
  18. To know it — write it! If you’re writing to explain, you’re explaining it to yourself! If you’re writing to inspire, you’re inspiring yourself! If you’re writing to record, you’re recording it on your own memory. How often you have written something down in order to be sure you would have a record of it, only to find that you never needed the written record because you had learned it by heart!


    The men of the best memories are those who make notes, who write things down. They just don’t write to remember, they write to learn. And because they DO learn by writing, they seldom need to consult their notes, they have brilliant, amazing memories. How different from the glib, slipshod individual who is too proud or too lazy to write, who trusts everything to memory, forgets so easily, and possesses so little real knowledge.


    Write! Writing, to knowledge, is a certified check. You know what you know once you have written it down!

  19. LISTEN
  20. You have a pair of ears — use them! When the other man talks, give him a chance. Pay attention. If you listen you may hear something useful to you. If you listen you may receive a warning that is worth following. If you listen, you may earn the respect of those whose respect you prize.

    Pay attention to the person speaking. Contemplate the meaning of his words, the nature of his thoughts. Grasp and retain the truth.

    Of all the ways to acquire knowledge, this way requires least effort on your part. You hardly have to do any work. You are bound to pick up information. It’s easy, it’s surefire.

  22. Keep your eyes open. There are things happening, all around you, all the time. The scene of events is interesting, illuminating, full of news and meaning. It’s a great show — an impressive parade of things worth knowing. Admission is free — keep your eyes open.


    There are only two kinds of experience: the experience of ourselves and the experience of others. Our own experience is slow, labored, costly, and often hard to bear. The experience of others is a ready-made set of directions on knowledge and life. Their experience is free; we need suffer none of their hardships; we may collect on all their good deeds. All we have to do is observe!

    Observe! Especially the good man, the valorous deed. Observe the winner that you yourself may strive to follow that winning example and learn the scores of different means and devices that make success possible.

    Observe! Observe the loser that you may escape his mistakes, avoid the pitfalls that dragged him down.

    Observe the listless, indifferent, neutral people who do nothing, know nothing, are nothing. Observe them and then differ from them.

  24. Order is Heaven’s first law. And the only good knowledge is orderly knowledge! You must put your information and your thoughts in order before you can effectively handle your own knowledge. Otherwise you will jump around in conversation like a grasshopper, your arguments will be confused and distributed, your brain will be in a dizzy whirl all the time.

  25. DEFINE
  26. A definition is a statement about a thing which includes everything the thing is and excludes everything it is not.

    A definition of a chair must include every chair, whether it be kitchen chair, a high chair, a dentist’s chair, or the electric chair, It must exclude everything which isn’t a chair, even those things which come close, such as a stool, a bench, a sofa.


    I am sorry to state that until you can so define chair or door (or a thousand other everyday familiar objects) you don’t really know what these things are. You have the ability to recognize them and describe them but you can’t tell what their nature is. Your knowledge is not exact.

  27. REASON
  28. Animals have knowledge. But only men can reason. The better you can reason the farther you separate yourself from animals.

    The process by which you reason is known as logic. Logic teaches you how to derive a previously unknown truth from the facts already at hand. Logic teaches you how to be sure whether what you think is true is really true.


    Logic is the supreme avenue to intellectual truth. Don’t ever despair of possessing a logical mind. You don’t have to study it for years, read books and digest a mountain of data. All you have to remember is one word — compare.

    Compare all points in a proposition. Note the similarity — that tells you something new. Note the difference — that tells you something new. Then take the new things you’ve found and check them against established laws or principles.

    This is logic. This is reason. This is knowledge in its highest form.

The rest of You Can Do Anything! goes on to explore such facets of success as the fundamentals of personal achievement, manual and mental production, the art of the deadline, selling by giving, mastering personal energy, the necessary elements of ambition, and more.

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06 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Half-Life of Facts: Dissecting the Predictable Patterns of How Knowledge Grows


“No one learns something new and then holds it entirely independent of what they already know. We incorporate it into the little edifice of personal knowledge that we have been creating in our minds our entire lives.”

Concerns about the usefulness of knowledge and the challenges of information overload predate contemporary anxieties by decades, centuries, if not millennia. In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (public library) — which gave us this fantastic illustration of how the Gutenberg press embodied combinatorial creativitySamuel Arbesman explores why, in a world in constant flux with information proliferating at overwhelming rates, understanding the underlying patterns of how facts change equips us for better handling the uncertainty around us. (He defines fact as “a bit of knowledge that we know, either as individuals or as a society, as something about the state of the world.”)

Arbesman writes in the introduction:

Knowledge is like radioactivity. If you look at a single atom of uranium, whether it’s going to decay — breaking down and unleashing its energy — is highly unpredictable. It might decay in the next second, or you might have to sit and stare at it for thousands, or perhaps even millions, of years before it breaks apart.

But when you take a chunk of uranium, itself made up of trillions upon trillions of atoms, suddenly the unpredictable becomes predictable.. We know how uranium atoms work in the aggregate. As a group of atoms, uranium is highly regular. When we combine particles together, a rule of probability known as the law of large numbers takes over, and even the behavior of a tiny piece of uranium becomes understandable. If we are patient enough, half of a chunk of uranium will break down in 704 million years, like clock-work. This number — 704 million years — is a measurable amount of time, and it is known as the half-life of uranium.

It turns out that facts, when viewed as a large body of knowledge, are just as predictable. Facts, in the aggregate, have half-lives: We can measure the amount of time for half of a subject’s knowledge to be overturned. There is science that explores the rates at which new facts are created, new technologies developed, and even how facts spread. How knowledge changes can be understood scientifically.

This is a powerful idea. We don’t have to be at sea in a world of changing knowledge. Instead, we can understand how facts grow and change in the aggregate, just like radioactive materials. This book is a guide to the startling notion that our knowledge — even what each of us has in our head — changes in understandable and systematic ways.

Indeed, Arbesman’s conception depicts facts as the threads of which our networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity are woven:

Facts are how we organize and interpret our surroundings. No one learns something new and then holds it entirely independent of what they already know. We incorporate it into the little edifice of personal knowledge that we have been creating in our minds our entire lives. In fact, we even have a phrase for the state of affairs that occurs when we fail to do this: cognitive dissonance.

Facts, says Arbesman, live on a continuum from the very rapidly changing (like the stock market and the weather) to those whose pace of change is so slow it’s imperceptible to us (like the number of continents on Earth and the number of fingers on the human hand), in the mid-range of which live mesofacts — the facts that change at the meso, or middle, of the timescale. These include facts that change over a single lifetime. For instance, my grandmother, who celebrates her 76th birthday today, learned in grade school that there were a little over 2 billion people living on Earth and a hundred elements in the periodic table, but we’ve recently passed seven billion and there are now 118 known elements. But, rather than fretting about this impossibly rapid informational treadmill, Arbesman finds comfort in patterns:

Facts change in regular and mathematically understandable ways. And only by knowing the pattern of our knowledge’s evolution an we be better prepared for its change.

He offers a curious example of the exponential nature of knowledge through the history of scientific research:

If you look back in history you can get the impression that scientific discoveries used to be easy. Galileo rolled objects down slopes; Robert Hooke played with a spring to learn about elasticity; Isaac Newton poked around his own eye with a darning needle to understand color perception. It took creativity and knowledge (and perhaps lack of squeamishness or regard for one’s own well-being) to ask the right questions, but the experiments themselves could be very simple. Today, if you want to make a discovery in physics, it helps to be part of a ten-thousand-member team that runs a multibillion-dollar atom smasher. It takes even more money, more effort, and more people to find out new things.

Indeed, until very recently, no one was particularly interested in the increasing difficulty of discovery, but Arbesman and his team decided to examine the precise pace of change in just how much harder discovery is getting. He looked at the history of three specific fields of science — mammal species, asteroids, and chemical elements — and determined that size was a good proxy for ease of discovery: Smaller creatures and asteroids are harder to discover; in chemistry, he used inverse size since larger elements are harder to create and detect. He plotted the results and what emerged was a clear pattern of exponential decay in the ease of discovery:

What this means is that the ease of discovery doesn’t drop by the same amount every year — it declines by the same fraction each year, a sort of reverse compound interest. For example, the size of asteroids discovered annually gets 2.5 percent smaller each year. In the first few years, the ease of discovery drops off quickly; after early researchers pick the low-hanging fruit, it continues to ‘decay’ for a long time, becoming slightly harder without ever quite becoming impossible.

And yet:

However it happens, scientific discovery marches forward. We are in an exceptional time, when the number of scientists is growing rapidly and consists of the majority of scientists who have ever lived. We have massive collaborative projects, from the Manhattan Project to particle accelerators, that have and are unearthing secrets of our cosmos. Yet, while this era of big science has allowed for the shockingly fast accumulation of knowledge, this growth of science is not unexpected.

Arbesman highlights the practical application beyond the cerebral understanding of how knowledge becomes obsolete:

Scholars in the field of information science in the 1970s were concerned with understanding the half-life of knowledge for a specific reason: protecting libraries from being overwhelmed.

In our modern digital information age, this sounds strange. But in the 1970s librarians everywhere were coping with the very real implications of the exponential growth of knowledge: Their libraries were being inundated. They needed ways to figure out which volumes they could safely discard. If they knew the half-life of a book or article’s time to obsolescence, it would go a long way to providing a means of avoiding overloading a library’s capacity. Knowing the half-lives of a library’s volumes would give a librarian a handle on how long books should be kept before they are just taking up space on the shelves, without being useful.

So a burst of research was conducted into this area. Information scientists examined citation data, and even usage data in libraries, in order to answer such questions as, If a book isn’t taken out for decades, is it that important anymore? And should we keep it on our shelves?

These questions, of course, strike very close to home given much of what makes my own heart sing is the excavation of near-forgotten gems that are at once timeless and timely, but that rot away in the dusty corners of humanity’s intellectual library in a culture conditioned us to fetishize the newest. In fact, contrary to what Arbesman suggests, those fears of the 1970s are not at all “strange” in the “digital information age” — if anything, they are, or should be, all the more exacerbated given the self-perpetuating nature of our knowledge biases: the internet is wired to give more weight to information that a greater number of people have already seen, sending the near-forgotten into an increasingly rapid spiral to the bottom, however “timeless and timely” that information may inherently be.

Still, The Half-life of Facts offers a fascinating and necessary look at the pace of human knowledge and what its underlying patterns might reveal about the secrets of intellectual progress, both for us as individuals and collectively, as a culture and a civilization.

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31 AUGUST, 2012

The Universe in a Nutshell: Michio Kaku on the Physics of Everything


The history of physics is the history of modern civilization.

How did humanity go from a tribe governed by superstition to a species on the hunt for the Higgs Boson and the deepest secrets of the cosmos? In The Universe in a Nutshell, theoretical physicist and prolific author Michio Kaku — who has previously helped us unravel the mysteries of time — explores why “the history of physics is the history of modern civilization.” From the Big Bang to E=mc2 to the latest bleeding-edge advances in string theory and quantum mechanics, Kaku offers a concise and accessible history of physics, while shining a light on the discipline’s promise to bring us closer to the secrets of existence.

Almost everything you see in your living room, almost everything you see at a modern hospital, at some point or other, can be traced to a physicist.

In contextualizing the role of physics in the development of modern civilization, Kaku quotes legendary science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke:

The video, originally created by Floating University, is available for free courtesy of Big Think.

The desk of Albert Einstein, photographed immediately after his death and featuring his unfinished manuscripts of the Unified Field Theory, a.k.a. The Theory of Everything, which aspired to summarize all the physical forces in the universe.

Kaku’s latest book, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, came out in February and is guaranteed to give you plenty of pause.

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29 AUGUST, 2012

The Forms of Things Unknown: A Timeless 1963 Meditation on the Role of the Creative Arts in Society


“Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.”

In 1963, English anarchist, poet, and culture critic Herbert Read penned The Forms of Things Unknown: An Essay on the Impact of the Technological Revolution on the Creative Arts (public library; public domain), exploring the role of art in society, both in relation to science and philosophy and as a singular expression of the human creative spirit, and offering a meditation on wonder and the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

Read begins with a historical lament:

A distinction which runs through the whole development of human thought has become blurred during the past two hundred years. Implicit in all ancient philosophy, acknowledged by medieval scholastics and the natural philosophers of the Renaissance, and even by Locke and Newton, is a difference of kind, if not of value, between wisdom and understanding. By wisdom was meant an intuitive apprehension of truth, and the attitude involved was receptive or contemplative. Intellectus was the name given to this faculty in the Middle Ages. Understanding, on the other hand, was always a practical or constructive activity, and ratio was its name — the power by means of which we perceive, know, remember and judge sensible phenomena. Philosophy was conceived as an endeavour to perfect this constructive power of the mind as an aid to wisdom. To clarify perception, excluding all distortions due to emotion and prejudice; to analyse statements so that our knowledge is consistent; to establish facts, so that our memory is consolidated; to bring the inquiring will into harmony with the intuitive intellect, so that our judgment is true and constant — such have been the aims of all who called themselves philosophers.

Read echoes Abraham Flexner’s fantastic insights on the usefulness of “useless” knowledge:

We may admit, with the logical scientist, that it is an illusion to assume that the human mind can have any direct access to truth — truth in Plato’s sense of a pre-established harmony waiting for our intuitive understanding. But what we must not admit is that knowledge is only knowledge when it is based on those elements of perception that can be reduced to measurements and verified in a laboratory — so-called functional knowledge. Science functions within the limits of its sign-system — that is to say, it must confine itself to the cognitive content of its particular kind of language; but beyond this scientific sign-system, quite apart from it, is the symbolic system of art, which is also a particular kind of language with a cognitive content.

On the logic of art:

I can think of no criteria of truth in science that do not apply with equal force to art. Art has its language of symbols whilst science has a language of signs, but a symbolic language also has its strict system of rules, based on convention. The creative imagination has a logic no less strict than the logic of scientific reasoning, and the same ideal of clarity is held by both activities. Further, there is no sense in which verifiability is a necessary constituent of scientific method in which it is not also a necessary constituent of artistic creation. Great works of art do not survive through the centuries as expressions of desire or as valuations of behaviour. They state such universal truths as the artist is capable of creating; they search for no certainty and express no ideal. They are constructions, concretely physical. Emotions may be inserted into them: they may be clothed in appearances of good and evil, of tragedy and joy; but these expressive functions are not the verifiable content of the work of art. What is verifiable is a perceptible form which communicates a notion of being, a man-made piece of reality.

Some of Read’s points, however, fall short of a necessary understanding of how art and science complement one another: He considers the sense of wonder an exclusive property of art and philosophy, one nearly destroyed by “intellectualism,” but we’ve heard such great scientific minds as Richard Feynman (“The purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more.”) and Robert Sapolsky (We will never have our flames extinguished by knowledge. The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.) eloquently claim it as the heart of science:

Philosophy, according to Plato, is based on wonder. ‘The sense of wonder,’ he said, ‘is the mark of the philosopher.’ ‘It is through wonder,’ explained Aristotle, ‘that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and the sun, about the stars and the origin of the universe.’ We are all perhaps ready to admit the historical independence of philosophy, but what we forget is that philosophy must be continually renewed by this sense of wonder, and that wonder itself is what I would call a liminal awareness — that is to say, sensation stretched to its physical limits. The arts are the exercises by means of which we stretch the intelligence to these limits, and at these limits renew the sense of wonder.

If this sense of wonder is not renewed we get a mental cancer which might be called conceptualism or intellectualism.

(For a related meditation, see Milton Glaser on the arts and the capacity for astonishment.)

Still, Read adds beautifully to some of history’s most memorable definitions of art and of science:

Art is the composition of perceptual experience into meaningful or significant patterns, and all knowledge and intelligence is a reading or interpretation of such patterns. A myth is a reading of ritualistic patterns, and from myth arises all religion and philosophy. Magic is a reading of animistic symbols, and from magic arises all knowledge of the external world, all science.

He then makes a case for creativity as a kind of social glue:

To be able to break down the barrier of space between self and other, yet at the same time to be able to maintain it, this seems to be the paradox of creativity.


A society in which every man would be an artist of some sort would necessarily be a society united in concrete creative enterprises: in a single creative enterprise, because in such a society the arts are unified.


Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.


A culture is a creation of time, of a time in which the icons made by the artist so work on the imagination of man that they precipitate ideas, communicate feelings, establish human bonds.

Read speaks to the contemplative value of the arts in the face of “the absurdity of existence”:

It is difficult to conceive a humanism that is not a literary and retrospective humanism, litterae humaniores, and by definition culture implies calm, withdrawal from distractions, leisure, contemplation. A work of art is something we can contemplate, and we contemplate it not to escape from ourselves, nor to escape from the world in the contemplation … of an autonomous or independent world, but to be reconciled with ourselves and with the absurdity of existence. The greatest works of art, as I have already said, have always been images or myths of reconciliation.


The great artist is not the one who unites mankind on a basis of feeling — that is a recipe for the rabble-rouser — but the one who by transcending personal feelings discovers symbols for the universal archetypes of the psyche. These are no doubt residues of the emotional experiences of the human race, forged into shape and significance by mankind’s sufferings and longings for peace of mind and immortality.

He concludes with a sentiment about culture, shared by other creators — including Brian Eno, who argues culture is created as “we confer value on things” and it is “the act of conferring that makes things valuable,” and Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom “culture is developed from within”:

One dogma is implicit in all I have said. A culture must rise spontaneously from the collective unconscious through the fiery hands of our lame Vulcans. Culture is a created work, not an idea. It is the patient accumulation of many works, and responsible for each work is a Vulcan, beating the constituent metals on his anvil. The instinct that guides his hand is a sure one, the movement not consciously calculated, but responsive to intimations that are beneath all sensations, primordial.

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