Well, with Barak Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize for, basically, being black and hoping that everything will work out fine, it’s clear that AA has now extended to this arena. Hence I bring you next year’s winner of the Physics prize: Ladies and gentlemen, meet William Kamkwamba.
Now I assume you’ve heard of William. If you haven’t you must have been in hibernation over the Summer. His breakthrough invention has lead to appearances on CNN, BBC, CNBC and even a fawning interview with Jon Stewart on the Today Show. He’s won a major book deal as the protagonist of ‘The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind” and been feted by climate change campaigners like Al Gore and business leaders the world over.
According to the BBC he’s even been invited to the “prestigious Technology Entertainment Design conference in Arusha, Tanzania”. (stop laughing at the back please!) They add “Mr Kamkwamba - who has been flown to conferences around the globe to recount his life-story - has the world at his feet” . One of the comments on the BBC (or was it CNN?) blog claimed ‘conclusive proof at last that intelligence has no racial component’.
Now what was the dramatic breakthrough that lead to all of this? Did he discover how complex physical phenomena emerge from simple ingredients? Has he solved the riddle of what happens far from states of equilibrium and why? Or maybe he’s made some major discovery in the nanoworld?
Well, no, I'm afraid his accomplishment has been a bit more modest. Specifically he’s invented a way to generate electricity by way of a windmill built from commonly available components. Now I must admit I was somewhat surprised when I saw this because going back a long time – it was before I moved to Chateau Savant, and that was thirty years ago – a friend of mine, take a bow Jim, seemed to do exactly that. Much to our amusement, he developed a windmill which generated electricity. Doing a discounted cash flow analysis I worked out that his investment would, over the course of twenty years, generate a net profit of four pence. We got a great laugh at that. But he still did it, and made a bulb light up, or something.
And then I'm aware from my travels that the gauchos down in southern Argentina have been doing the same thing since the middle of the last century. If you Google a string like ‘making electricity from windmill with common components’ you’ll get over one million hits.
So what's going on here?
Well, let’s go back to William. Apparently he found a book somewhere sub-titled ‘how to generate electricity from a windmill using commonly available materials’. He then, using the instructions in the book, went off and ‘invented’ a windmill using commonly available materials to generate electricity.
And, er, that's about it. So in effect, he read a book on how to do something, went off and did it, and, even though the same thing has been done around the world for decades, has become an international celebrity. I'm not being churlish or a curmudgeon, that's what happened.
The question is why. And of course we all know why. He’s black, wears a suit, hasn’t killed anyone, and has made some gadget after reading the instructions. Nobel Prize material for sure.
The paradox about this farce, and it is a farce, just like Obama’s Peace Prize, is that it unintentionally reinforces the black stereotype. Had this achievement been made by a white or an Asian it wouldn’t have attracted a flicker of attention. But an African doing something useful makes world headlines. Even thoughtful blacks realise that this is the ultimate, albeit unintentional, put-down. The tyranny of low expectations.
And an intersting coda: If you look at the myriad of comments on the various blogs you'll not find a single one which isn't gushing and tremelous at this stunning achievement. Truly, mass hypnosis has set in.