About the Author
BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF AKPAN JIMMY ESSIEN
BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF AKPAN JIMMY ESSIEN
Life is filled with treasures despite the trials we face. In fact, some trials turn into periods of pleasure, particularly so when life is tied to a cause for the benefit of all.. At my age, there is quite a lot to talk about, but I will limit it to factors that affect my books, whether a novel or a work of science. I hope that the information made available will help the reader assess in advance what my books have to offer.
I was born in Ikot Umiang Ede, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, in the 1940s. There were no records of birth or death in my little village lost in the Monsoon forests of Southern Nigeria. It is not surprising, therefore, that I have no birth certificate. Really, I rejoice that I did not need it to learn to farm or fish in the numerous rivers and creeks that adorned my birthplace and provided much of the sea foods enjoyed in the community.
Against this rural background close to nature was the obligation to go to school. Although I was forced to school, the distinguishing capacity of education in our society made me enjoy my stay in the Christian Church Missionary Primary School in the village. Any desire for higher education was a signpost pointing the way out of the village. That desire, too, was planted in me by my parents; I ended up in Lagos where I enjoyed Secondary School education at the Lagos City College, Yaba, Lagos. It was a highly populated co-educational institution, with sessions in the morning, afternoon and evening. The College satisfied the desire of aspiring leaders to educate everyone regardless of gender or age. I graduated in 1962, and gained the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (GCE ‘O’) issued by the University of London.
In 1963, I joined the Nigerian Railway Corporation. There, I was trained as a Traffic and Commercial Operating Staff―a position that involved everything in railway station management. Traffic operating was fascinating; my delight was the Morse Code in telegraphy. It introduced me into a different world in which verbal communication involving the mouth, lips, teeth, tongue, etc., was replaced with a metallic device that rattled away with dots and dashes, and yet they made sense. My father, though, did not share any aspect of that delight; he wanted me to be an architect or a civil engineer. To please him, I started a course in Architecture and Building Construction by distance learning at Bennett College, London, while preparing for the GCE ‘Advanced’ Level. At this time, the Biafran secession ripped Nigeria apart and plunged the different factions into a bloody civil war (1967-1970). My desire to leave the country for further education abroad was heightened, and I set about preparing my departure. I was out of the country in 1971 shortly after the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war.
I studied French for three months in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The speed at which I acquired the language was judged extraordinary—so good that the school chose me to play the role of a tourist in the school’s weekly drama on the Swiss Radio. On the basis of my General Certificate of Education (Os & As) from the University of London, coupled with my certificate in architecture and building construction from Bennett College, London, I was admitted to the College of Technology, Geneva, to continue with my studies in Architecture and Civil Engineering. I began to dream with my father’s eyes and mind. However, I came face-to-face with the inadequacy of my French for tourists when lectures began at the college of technology. My handicap was manifest to my mentor. At the end of the semester, my academic counsellor advised me to join the Faculty of Arts to improve my French comprehension, and to return at the beginning of the following academic year to continue with my course at the College. There was only one more lesson in civil engineering before the end of the semester. The subject of that last lesson was the resistance of materials to deformation. At the end of that lecture, I transferred to the Faculty of Arts with the hope to return, not knowing that the lecture on ‘the resistance of materials to deformation’ had shut the door behind me with no possibility of ever returning to the college. Let me explain.
The Department of Languages and Linguistics of the Faculty of Arts did not teach French language, but language composition and structures. There, students were taught the physiology and physics of the vocal tract in speech production, acoustics and sound transmission, auditory perception of speech and music, etc. I began to work in phonetics and phonology. At the research level, I chose to work on acoustic features and the perception of musical pitch and tone in tonal languages. There, I realized that I had stepped into a science with more questions than answers (if any answer there was). What was the problem?
Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, posited a mechanical theory of music known as the string ratio theory of musical pitch intervals. This theory is one of the most captivating theories of human auditory behaviour. Yet, it is perhaps the most controversial theory I know. It is one of those theories that work perfectly when examined in a test tube setting; but when taken out, it sifts through the fingers however hard one tries to hold it. Why? It is at this point my research and writings deviate from the rest of the world if I may say so this early. The theory was established upon random facts without a reference point to give it a scientific quality. In other words, the theory is devoid of invariance―a pivotal concept in all scientific analyses. The conversion of string ratios into frequency ratios in the study of music, speech, and hearing, only crowned the science of hearing with more problems than there are in any other science of human behaviour.
Working backwards from current theories and practices in hearing research, I examined the tenets of theories in psychoacoustics, Helmholtz and the Resonance theory (1877), Ohm’s Law (1843), etc. I found that all these laws were founded on the Pythagorean string ratio theory. A careful and critical examination of the mechanical foundation of the Pythagorean theory revealed its deficiency in the fact that Pythagoras did not consider the resistance of materials to deformation in his formulation of the fundamental law of hearing. Obviously, when a science operates on an incomplete foundation, no one expects that science to make any progress in the right direction. I was convinced that the Pythagorean foundation for hearing sciences was wrong, but I did not know how to integrate my know-ledge of the resistance of materials to deformation into hearing research. First, there were many research challenges. The most difficult was the absence of necessary mechanical facilities for the study, or methodology to follow. Second, I would have to contrive everything to pursue a course that had a set time to finish. Third, and most important, I feared that the idea, which rejected everything in theory and practice in a field of research such as hearing, would not find supporters. Finally, I decided to give up on that project because my fears were being borne out when one of my mentors went red in the face because I naively disagreed with a point she had raised in her post-doctoral work!
After my M.A. degree in acoustic studies of tone at the University of Besançon, France, I returned to Nigeria. I took up lectureship at the University of Jos, Nigeria. I was granted the unexpected privilege to set up a laboratory for phonetic studies, and to run it as the Head of Department. I saw myself among the blessed ones in this world. However, at the point to acquire the basic equipment I needed to start the laboratory, the Nigerian Government banned the purchase of everything, not even books or journals, in the effort to balance the nation’s economy. I was incensed, to say the least. The weight of this economic measure, in a country that prided itself as the sixth exporter of petrol in the world, was too much for me to bear. I consulted with the bursar, the head of my Department, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, then then I visited the Minister of Education in person, and discussed my situation with him. Everything sounded good when I was instructed to return to my Department and await the reply from the Hon. Minister of Education. The Minister of Education replied to my request with a letter authorizing me to foreign exchange so that I could use my money to go abroad for my research in the absence of equipment in my university. How would that arrangement contribute to balance the economy? I did not see any need to remain at the university. I walked out of the campus, leaving almost everything behind, never to return. The only thing I took away was the disappointment which inspired me to write Giant of the Cemetery (1985).
I had no option but to return to Europe against my desire. I did my M. Phil degree at the University of Human Sciences, Strasbourg. The first experiment produced dramatic results, showing that when we hear pitch or tone, we do not perceive the physical representation of the sounds in terms of acoustic signal, particularly in terms of frequency level or modulations. I proposed to pursue the investigation as a Ph. D. project. In the second year of the project, the director of the laboratory called me into her office. After a short discussion of my experimental results which continued to refute one theory after another, she ordered me to leave the institute because my research was bent on proving that every other person except me was an “idiot.” I was devastated. I walked out of the university, and took with me my M. Phil degree in acoustic phonetics.
I applied to the University of London (1985). I was accepted at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) for the M. Phil/Ph. D program. My supervisor, Natalie Waterson, had an open scientific mind. She encouraged me to invest everything I knew into my contribution to hearing research. So, I introduced drums into the study, and devised methods to integrate the resistance of materials to deformation into the work of Pythagoras, and applied the results to the production and perception of tones in a tone language. The data clearly explained the categorization of pitches into tone according to the tension of the membrane, and the plurality of pitches that elicit the perception of the same tone offered succinct explanation for the co-existence of tone and intonation in a tone language without compromising the intelligibility of the message. This has been a complex and controversial issue since the work of Christaller (1875). My supervisor was so excited over the work that she
organized a seminar for me to present my findings to professors, lecturers, and researchers from other schools and colleges of the University of London. Judging by the number of questions asked and answered, and the promises of co-operation I received from many technical experts, I could see my dream becoming a reality someday. I hardly realized, though, that I was driving the last nails into the coffin of my academic career. Why?
My thesis became the subject of disputes outside academics or science —everyone loved the theory, the experimental results, and the revolutionary contribution to tone language analysis and hearing research. Sadly, though, no one, among the appointed examiners, wanted the thesis. Many charges were raised against me:
(1) I was not at the university to teach anyone anything but to learn.
(2) I was charged with castigating my predecessors.
(3) I was punishable with failure for ignorance of physics and acoustics because my work rejected the work of Pythagoras.
(4) Helmholtz, it was claimed, had resolved all the problems of hearing, therefore, my research was unwarranted.
On those charges (among many others), filed by Prof. B. S. Rosner from Oxford University, the thesis was thrown out by the Senate of the University of London. I was compelled to leave the United Kingdom, this time with nothing, not even a listening ear although the injustice was placed before all governmental authorities in the United Kingdom up to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Sadly, the Queen “does not interfere in matters of academic judgment,” was the reply from the Privy Council. At that, I returned to France, this time to Sorbonne University, Paris.
As far as I know, no university accepts for examination a work that was written elsewhere. I had to repeat all my experiments and re-write the thesis in French under the loving supervision of Prof. Jacqueline Vaissière, Phonetics Laboratory, Sorbonne University, Paris III,. Besides, I had as counsellor Prof. Sinji Maida, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris. When I think of the harsh treatments I had received at the hands of my examiners at London, and the encouraging, sympathetic, and self-sacrificing co-operation lavished upon me by my supervisors at Sorbonne, it is sometimes very difficult for me to accommodate the idea that the contrasts exist in this same world. Interestingly, as we were discussing examiners for my work, my professor of Phonetics at the University of Besançon―Prof. Gabriel Konopszynsky―was standing in the hallway in the laboratory. She recognized me and expressed her surprise to find me at the laboratory in Paris. She turned out to be the Chief examiner for my thesis. The thesis was accepted in February 2000 after 17 years. The work though, was not over.
Really, the mission was not yet accomplished. As I mentioned above, the Pythagorean foundation was not scientific in the absence of invariance. As figures. 1 and 2 show, studies based on these illustrations are relative (or qualitative). We have to compare one thing with another to access one thing in relation to another. The psychophysical task needed to be accomplished consisted in measuring the amount of force, whether in the strings in figure one, or in the membrane in figure 2, such that we may express the values as quantities, e.g. 8 kg, 15 kg, or 22 kg for strings A, B, and C, respectively. Rather than work with fractions and ratios as offered by the Pythagorean principle, we would work numerically as stipulated by Fechner in his Elements of Psychophysics (1860). I had challenges: I was no longer in a laboratory with research facilities, and even if I were, the facilities were not available; I had to contrive them.
Figure 3: The experimental string tuner. Three strings in different densities are under tension. The balanced-force exerted on each string is recorded in kg by a spring balance for each string. A ruler permits reading off the effective length of string at the position of each mobile bridge. A hi-fi sound recorder was plucked into the integrated pick-up socket to capture the tones produced on the strings.
To that end, my knowledge of architecture and building construction was helpful: I converted a room in my London apartment into an anechoic (soundproof) chamber. I designed the device illustrated in figure 3 and got it constructed by a manufacturer of musical instruments in the London West End. This apparatus permits measuring the force exerted on a string and across strings for the same musical tone. The core experiment has been published in the
American Journal of Modern Physics, 2018, Vol. 7.1, pp 1-13. All this was put together to form The Ecological Foundation of Hearing Sciences, (2017). The title turned out to be too heavy for readers whether scientist or layman. Therefore, it was revised and republished under the title: Sound Sources: The Origin of Auditory Sensations. There is quite a huge amount of research yet to be done at the sound production, transmission, and perception level. The research rejects unequivocally the psychoacoustic contention against the existence of underlying mechanical invariance in auditory analysis. The investigations contribute to the concept of Direct Auditory Perception, whereby we perceive characteristics of excited sound sources as auditory attributes of sound, such that if a body does not possess a given mechanical quality, it cannot produce the sensation associated with it―a powerful argument for the existence of mechanical invariance in auditory perception.
Was it worth the trouble? Absolutely! Although self-centered authorities in universities stood in the way of my thesis, today, it is public property. Furthermore, if I had succeeded easily, I believe that I would have missed the greatest treasure that I cherish today—the privilege to know the harmony and constancies in nature despite the variability we observe all around us. Also, I got to know God and the source of all injustices. Otherwise, I could never understand why scientists, having searched for some 25 centuries for the answer to a long-standing problem, would reject the answer when it was found. Now that I can see clearly ahead of me, there is no reason to look behind. Yes, I left the College of Technology in Geneva and did not return; I walked out of the University of Jos without looking back, I was shown the door out of the University of Strasbourg in the absence of room for the truth; the University of London dismissed my work because the authorities would not like to lose their hard-earned though false laurels. Finally, my success at Sorbonne University confirmed to me the existence of two categories of humans in this world.
Finally, had I been left in my hut to lead a life outside of this world’s “city lights”; had I not been forced to school to discover the elusive chase after happiness and contentment as an educated one, I might have had some satisfying moments in life as a peasant.
Analysis of my experiences in life cannot hide their impact on my writings. When I look back at 17 years spent in writing my Ph. D. thesis, at the tortuous road I have followed till now, and the satisfaction of achieving one of my goals in life, I can heartily re-echo the words of the Reginian Prof. Odibe in Giant of the Cemetery, saying, “I fell, but I did not fail.”
Akpan Jimmy Essien
23 April 2021