I am indebted to the online The Writer's Almanac for this birthday tribute to a remarkable man:
Today is the birthday of physician and philologist Peter Mark Roget, born in London in 1779. He was a physician, trained at the University of Edinburgh, and he helped to found the University of London as well as a medical school at the University of Manchester. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, served as its secretary for over 20 years, and invented a slide rule that was widely used until the invention of the pocket calculator. He was interested in optics, and published a paper in 1824 called "Explanation of an Optical Deception in the Appearance of the Spokes of a Wheel Seen Through Vertical Apertures." He was the first to notice something called "persistence of vision" -- the illusion of movement when looking at a series of still photographs in rapid succession -- which formed the basis for future motion picture technology.
But we remember Roget for his thesaurus -- which is the Greek word for "treasury" -- a little project he started in his retirement. It took 12 years to complete, but Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition has been in print continuously since its publication in 1852.
The Writer's Almanac cannot be blamed for not knowing that there was no such thing in Roget's time as the University of London. I suspect that Roget was one of the heroic non-conformists who, along with Jeremy Bentham, got together to start University College London, my alma mater, which - unlike the other old universities at the time - admitted women and did not require students to belong to the Church of England. UCL joined up at a far later date with other colleges to form the University of London. The reference to 'persistence' in the psychology of vision reminded me that at a meeting yesterday I suddenly remembered the psychological term 'learned helplessness', a very useful concept. I was tired, sitting passively and making fewer contributions than is my wont. It came to me that I was experiencing the thrill of 'helplessness' - in other words, letting other people do things rather than feeling I had to do them myself. A whole British generation has grown up experiencing this dangerously attractive sensation, an unintended side effect or byproduct of the welfare state.