Friday, April 10, 2015

The Esperantist Physics Professor at Chicago

I wanted a picture of
Professor Mann. No luck.
In the early twentieth century, one of the major figures of the American Esperanto movement was Benjamin Pickman Mann (who typically went by B. Pickman Mann). He was an entomologist who worked at the Department of Agriculture (along with Karl Kellerman), and formed part of the group of Esperantists at the Department of Agriculture. His father was the prominent American educator, Horace Mann. But neither of them are related to the Professor Mann of the University of Chicago mentioned in the New-York Tribune on April 10, 1907. It’s a common name, and though Professor Mann’s ancestry does go back to New England, the lineages never seem to converge.

Professors in the Esperanto movement at the beginning of the twentieth century seemed to be pretty well divided between professors of language (which seems obvious) and professors of science (whose interest probably derived from having to slough through journals in a variety of languages—that was Wilhelm Ostwald’s claim). And so we’ve seen chemists, biologists, and now it’s time to add a physicist. Professor Mann was not a professor of languages, but was Charles Riborg Mann, who in 1907 was an associate professor of physics at the University of Chicago. As he was promoted to associate professor in that year, in April, he might have still been an assistant professor.

He started an Esperanto group. How it came to the attention of the New-York Tribune isn’t clear.

That Line Is Not Pied; It’s a Sample of Esperanto.
Chicago, April 9.—University of Chicago students, who have been burning midnight oil over their incantation—
I, ti, ki, neni and ci,
Then add a for qualitie,

and who have progressed far enough in the Esperanto “First Reader” to recite “En la mondon venis nova sento,” are about to test their wings in a new flight.

There is nothing like being up to the last tick of the clock, and to show how well they have got on in their studies they are going to produce an Esperanto play.

The cast will be made up from the membership list of the Esperanto Club, of which Professor Mann was the founder. The play is a translation from the Spanish, but up to date no one could be found about the Midway campus who could set one right on what the subject matter was.

“It’s just Esperanto,” was the only information that could be obtained.

The women will take part in the production along with the men students. The rehearsals have been going on for several weeks. The date of the performance is not yet announced, depending, it is said, on the proficiency with which the players master their parts.
The title of the piece is based on the grades of the Esperanto correlatives. While most of the language is a a posteriori transformation of the European languages, the correlatives, a series of related words, are largely a priori, that is to say, Zamenhof made them up. The little poem describes the set of adjectives that can be derived from this group. Zamenhof extended the group of interrogatives, demonstratives, and negatives with a general (some) and inclusive (all). The correlatives include pronouns and adverbs as well, all of which can be arranged on a tidy grid, much like the multiplication table.

The words referenced are ia, tia, kia, nenia, and ĉia, which are (as adjectives) “some kind,” “that kind,” “what kind,” “no kind,” and “every kind” (without the “kind,” it’s the series ending in -u) as in ia hundo some kind of dog, tia hundo that kind of dog, kia hundo what kind of dog (also “what a dog!”), nenia hundo, no kind of dog, and ĉia hundo every kind of dog. I’m not sure why they needed a poem for that.

Charles Riborg Mann doesn’t seem to have been one of the great figures of physics, although he certainly was a busy figure at the University of Chicago in the early twentieth century. The 1907 Annual Register of the University of Chicago, notes that he and another associate professor, one Robert A. Millikan , were each taking sections of a course on electricity, sound, and light. I hope this doesn’t mean that if you’re an associate professor of physics and you start an Esperanto club, you’re just never going to get the Nobel Prize for Physics.

He was born in New Jersey in 1869 (our newly-tenured professor was thirty-seven when he started the Esperanto club), the son of a clergyman, Charles Holbrook Mann. He studied at Columbia University and the University of Berlin (ah, there’s that foreign language influence), starting at the University of Chicago as a research assistant in 1896. He was the author of several books, and with Robert A. Millikan , translated Paul Drude’s The Theory of Optics from the original German. He died in 1942.

He is famous for one thing. His 1905 high school textbook Physics is the source of the question, “When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is near by to hear it, does it make a sound? Why?”
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