It’s a Small World, department

Your Intrepid Reporter has counted himself, in writing, an élève whatever that means of the quondam Curator of Modern Physics at the Smithsonian Institution of Washington DC, which now retired under-appreciated critique [I almost said Kritiker but decided to limit myself to two  languages] des — soi-disant — mores academices seven years ago now wrote:

But primarily and preeminently the history of science will flourish as a popular literary genre practiced by writers and journalists and emulated by members of academic departments with and without the “history of science” label.

And necessarily so, for it is the very essence of the ongoing disciplinary disintegration, the very essence of our postmodern boundariless, all-on-one-plane flatland culture . . . that no line of demarcation dan any longer be drawn between intra-disciplinary and extra-disciplinary intellectual productions.

On the shelf of the Lloyd Center [the largest shopping mall west of the Mississippi when it was built] Barnes & Noble one finds if accompanying Your Intrepid Reporter in a drunken stupor, in paperback


Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World

published by an intellectual-property combine which advertises  Visit and I quote for exclusive updates on your favorite authors unquote, full stop.

This guy whutsisname D-O-L-N-I-C-K

ah, Louise Dolnick, you live again in freshest memory

the nape of your neck in the seat before me

As Koestler gave me the name of my firstborn

So he gave me Rubahshev’s secretary in Darkness at Noon

turns out to be the kid brother of the blooming rosebud of femininity who made social studies class . . . ah,

Jewish girls can’t date Gentile boys

the intelligent Sherin twin, Paula, told me that

(in my yearbook she wrote; “You are fortunate enough to have an inquisitive mind — Don’t be so so rude”)

and Louise was beyond earthly reach.

Now either I or someone whose name is M. Meo happened to have reviewed in the last year of the last century another book purporting to cover much the same material.  The so-called History of Science Society published (let us suppose it is) my review in its journal Isis.

Now, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum — it is a classical convention to lament having to speak ill of the dead — but in that published review I found the distinguished professor emeritus of Indiana University rather awkwardly relying upon a mis-reading to base his explanation of the scientific revolution.  I quote my self in extenso :

Christianson has remarked that he seldom has had the final say in the titles of his books, and in this case despite its title the book explains very little, if anything, of what Newton contributed to the Scientific Revolution: the methods of modern science are taken as unproblematic, even in 1660, and Christianson devotes less than two pages to Newton’s innovations in mathematics.  Descartes’s cosmology and philosophic work receive no mention at all, and Newton’s mechanics are interpreted as extensions of Galileo’s ideas.

Perhaps the low point in this telescoping of context into an inexplicable outpouring of genius occurs in the discussion of the Philosophical Notebook, which, Christianson informs us, begins with notes on the works of Aristotle.

Newton introduces a new topic with the following “revolutionary sentence”, which also makes an appearance in the title of the chapter: “I am a friend of Plato, I am a friend of Aristotle, but truth is my greater friend” (p. 22).

But as the Latin tag “amicus Plato, sed magus amica veritas” is a translation of a phrase commonly attributed to Aristotle (Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Oxford UP, mid-1990s, p. 26), Newton was more likely paraphrasing his textbook here than announcing a new program for looking at the world.

Well now, with that in mind let us turn to a close reading of the beginning of Chapter Eight, entitled “The Idea That Unlocked the World”.  I begin with the first sentence and work through, Mr Dolnick’s words in italic and my comments sans serif.

The Greeks had been brilliant mathematicians, but for centuries afterward that was the end of the story.

It appears that the contributions of the followers of the Honorable Prophet Muhammed have been left out of the story.  From al-Khwarizmi to al-Euclides, Islamic mathematicians need not apply to be included in said ‘story’.

Europe knew less mathematics in 1500, wrote Alfred North Whitehead, than Greece had in the time of Archimedes. A century later

It is, one usually assumes, the year 1600 that is considered “a century later” than the year 1500.

matters had begun to improve. Descartes, Pascal, Fermat,

that is, in the year in which Descartes was five years old, Pascal had almost a quarter of a century to go until he was born, and lucky Fermat had only a year to wait before his birth — in that year, one hundred years after 1500, things had begun to improve, and why?

and a small number of others had made genuine advances, though almost no one outside a tiny group of thinkers had any idea what they had been working on.

From subsequent sentences one finds it possible to put sense into the above by speaking of one and two-thirds centuries. I skip the dubious claim that decorates the remainder of the first paragraph.

As able as the Greeks had been, they never found a way around one fundamental obstacle. They had nothing to say about motion.

Oh, really? I suppose Mr Dolnick will concede Aristotle was a Greek, and a rather prominent one. Let me pull down from the shelf the standard English interpretation (there’s another recent one, but Mr Hippocrates Apostle’s commentaries are more myopic than those of Joe Sachs) of the Physics [Rutgers UP:1995], page 78:

Nature, of which the entire inquiry of the Physics is in pursuit, was defined as an internal cause of motion and rest in that to which it belongs primarily. The things that have natures have been determined to be the animals and the plants and the cosmos as a whole. The internal cause that gives each of them its nature has been shown to be form, understood as the being-at-work for the sake of which any of them does all that it does.
Once motion has been defined, the definition of nature will have been fully unfolded.
Aristotle is perhaps the only thinker who has ever attempted to define motion, rather than merely describing it or denying it. His definition has been called one of the great achievements of human reason, and it requires work to understand it.

Well now, whether I agree or disagree with this fellow Aristotle’s definition of motion, that I can understand discussing: but not a discussion which denies the existence of Aristotelian thought. To continue directly with our author,

But if mathematics was going to describe the real world, it had to find a way to deal with moving objects.

Certainly a reasonable statement, and the implementation in practical terms of which begins perhaps in the keeping track of the appearance of Venus in the pre-Classical civilizations of the Ancient Near East, as was said once when the Far East was beyond De Lessups’ Canal.
To recall, they (the orbits of Venus) were given over blocks of time, and in the form of a histograph, with a recurring up and down motion. So, consequently, the first study of motion. Give a tip to the astronomer at the door on the way out.

If a bullet is shot into the air, how fast does it fly? How high does it rise?

emphasis, as they say, in the original. It does seem harsh to task two-milennia-ago Greeks for not thinking about the speed of gunpowder-propelled missiles. The latter had not been invented for about the next thousand years. Oh, and let it be noted, when it was invented, bullets and canon balls and the rest, it wasn’t by a European.

Alone on his mother’s farm,

— enter, with rhetorical flourish, the Great Man Interpretation of the history of mathematics, 2012 edition:

twenty-three-year-old Isaac Newton set himself to unraveling the mystery of motion (his mother hoped he would help run her farm, but he ignored her). Newton’s self-appointed task had two parts, and each was imposing.

Now here it comes; this is the author’s “take” (if you will) on what constitutes the essence of the Scientific Revolution (hey man, this is the Idea That Unlocked the World)

First, he had to invent a new language, some not-yet-known form of mathematics that would let him translate questions in English into numbers and equations and pictures.

Hm. I wonder what algebra, the invention of those not-acknowledged-here guys, was supposed to do? I had thought the chap from Central Asia who died in circa 830 Anno Domini had some valuable ideas about how to translate the questions in English. . . .
Well yes, that is, no, he did not speak English, Your Honor.
I guess I have to concede the point to Mr Dolnick, for what it’s worth.

Second, he had to find a way to answer those questions.

It was a colossal challenge, but the Greeks’ silence

— it would be more correct to speak here of the author’s ignorance of what the Greeks said on motion, in place of this irritating but wholly imaginary “silence”

on the topic spoke more of distaste than of confusion. To the Greek way of thinking, the everyday world was a grimy, imperfect version of an ideal, unchanging, abstract one.

This doctrine we call Platonic requires the ideal world of mathematics to ‘save the phenomena’ of the actual right-here world.

Mathematics was the highest art because it was the discipline that, more than any other, dealt with eternal truths. In the world of mathematics, nothing dies

except the contributions of those who write in Arabic

or decays. . . . [one sentence omitted] To try to create a mathematics of change would be purposely to introduce impermanence and decline into the realm of perfect order.

To create a mathematics of change would simply be, of course, to carry out the Platonic imperative of saving the phenomena of the night sky.

So much for the historical value of Chapter Eight. Let us turn now to that immediately preceding it, Seven: God at His Drawing Table. On p. 35 our author begins to probe deeply.

The founding fathers of science

Well, tough shit, Archimedes. Sorry about that Hipparchus. You may have demonstrated some modest ability to solve problems, but the science of nature eluded you; it was invented by a group of Northern Europeans living between 1660 and 1700.

looked more or less like us, under their wigs, but they lived in a mental world nothing like ours.

Now that, surely, is an unusual tack for a historian to take: we make the past more mysterious than it is; we emphasize its strangeness, and hope by that means to explain it. Sounds contradictory when you write it out like that, doesn’t it?

The point is not that they took for granted countless features of everyday life that we find horrifying or bewildering

and what, precisely, might that be? what do “we” recoil before as incomprehensible?

criminals should be tortured in the city square and their bodies cut in pieces and mounted prominently around town, as a warning to others;

to me it is inconceivable that Mr Dolnick should find torture beyond comprehension, since his country — one presumes Mr Dolnick to be native-born and consequently by jus soli a citizen of the United States — has been discussing official torture of several hundred if not a thousand on up, of prisoners for some years.

an excursion to Bedlam to view the lunatics made for ideal entertainment;

if one looks for a pattern between the first and the second of the examples offered of “horrifying or bewildering” acts, it is the privacy violation that is shared in prisoner torture [this is now done in private] and the viewing of lunatics [who are now on display on every public urban street, instead of in private].

soldiers captured in wartime might spend the rest of their lives chained to a bench and rowing a galley.

One wonders how long those involuntary residents of that black hole of jurisprudence, to use the words of the London-based prestigious journal of the prospects of world capitalism, Guantanamo will have to remain to match the “rest of their lives” which so horrifies and bewilders Mr Dolnick.

The crucial differences lay deeper than any such roster of specifics can reveal,

our author continues directly:

On even the broadest questions, our assumptions conflict with theirs. We honor Isaac Newton for his colossal contributions to science, for example, but he himself regarded science as only one of his interests and probably not the most important. The discovery of gravity cut into the time he could devote to deciphering hidden messages in the book of Daniel. To Newton and all his contemporaries, that made perfect sense

which were it the case would seem to make the great lengths to which Mr Newton went to keep his religious affiliation quite secret rather unnecessary

the heavens and the Earth were God’s work, and the Bible was as well, and so all contained His secrets.

the last six words seem a fair approximation of Albert Einstein’s public apology for doing physics. It is too bad Mr Dolnick seems unaware of Mr Einstein’s several publications on the topic. Well, if Dolnick has assimilated Einstein then he by the criteria laid down in this text must regard this world-girdling thinker as not “modern” enough.

To moderns, it is as if Shakespeare had given equal time to poetry and to penmanship, as if Michelangelo had put aside sculpture for basket weaving.

Certainly the reader gasps as two famous men who lived in the century before Newton are held as examples of people more modern than he; and then the reader has to wonder how to address the fact that Michelangelo did, to quite good effect, put sculpture aside for the pursuit of poetry. His complete poems — Michelangelo’s, that is — translated by one of the most distinguished translators alive, John Frederick Nims, appeared in 1998 under the imprint of the University of Chicago; Number 20 includes the lines

When I peek down, eye hefting each bazoom,
I dream a dream of bulgy punkins sacked.
Like punk they light my fuse — hiss, szzz, ka-BOOM!
pooped as I am barn-cleaning. That’s a fact.
If I still had, as once, my manly bloom,
for you I’d snub the loveliest — on your track
puff like a drooling pooch. Could marble match you,
you can bet your boots I’d whomp out one helluva statue!

That may have gotten its author more company in bed than whatever else he had going for him at the time.
And Pascal, to take one example of it among early modern thinkers whose ideas live still, did write on 10 August 1661 to Fermat [well I could give it in French, from p. 60 of L. Goldmann’s 1959 book Le Dieu caché. Étude sur la vision tragique dans la Pensées de Pascal et dans le théatre de Racine, but I will try to help out the reader by providing my own translation]

Speaking to you quite frankly about mathematics, I find it the highest possible exercise of the spirit; but at the same time I know it to be so useless that I see little to choose between a man who is nothing but a mathematician and one who is an able artisan. Thus I call it the most marvelous craft in the world; but in the end it is nothing more than a craft; and I say that it is good to make an effort in but not to invest ourselves entirely.

in other words, it is as if Blaise Pascal, who deduced the ocean of the atmosphere and whose name graces the unit of pressure in the metric system, were to regard mathematical physics as not worth single-minded devotion.

Look only at scientific questions, and the same gulf yawns. We take for granted, for instance, that we know more than our ancestors did, at least about technical matters.

the meaning of this assertion depends entirely upon the content of “science” and “technical matters”.

We may not have more insight into human nature than Homer, but unlike him we know that the moon is made of rock and pocked with craters.
Newton and many of his peers, on the other hand, believed fervently that Pythagoras, Moses, Solomon, and other ancient sages had anticipated modern theories in every scientific and mathematical detail. Solomon and the others knew not only that the Earth orbited the sun, rather than vice versa, but they knew that the planets travel around the sun in elliptical orbits.

This picture of history was completely false, but Newton and many others had boundless faith in what they called “the wisdom of the ancients.” (The belief fit neatly with the doctrine that the world was in decline.)

Ah, well, perhaps I can insert here that I am and have been for some years a calculus teacher, and the translator of Karl Marx’s history of the differential calculus. I mess around with different manners of presenting the ideas Mr Dolnick is here attempting to describe, and, as a professional, I subscribe to learned journals in the profession — the profession of mathematics.

In the United States the premier research journal in mathematics is the so-called Notices of the AMS (the American Mathematical Society, not to be confused with the teaching opposite number, the Mathematical Association of America), which in May 1998 published the following in a book review:

In The Forgotten Revolution the author, a probabilist at the University of Rome II and a professional classical philologist as well, sets out to reconstruct Hellenistic science between the foundation of Alexandria in 331 BC and the first closure of the Museum in 145 BC. . . .

The book is a comprehensive and in-depth review of Hellenistic science.

Its first conclusion represents an innovation, even with respect to classics such as Otto Neugebauer’s Exact Sciences in Antiquity or Thomas Heath’s History of Greek Mathematics : the Hellenistic scientists were no simple ‘forerunners’ or ‘anticipators’ of modern science and technology, able maybe to go far on particular issues through sophisticated arguments but basically amateurish, unlike the present-day professionally-trained scientists and technologists.

On the contrary, they were real pros: the Hellenistic civilization was largely based on a scientific revolution amounting to the introduction of today’s scientific method and scientific technology, including much of today’s mathematics, in today’s formulation (viz., Euclidean geometry, real numbers, limits, definite integrals) and of solid and fluid mechanics (whence civil, mechanical, naval engineering), optics, astronomy, anatomy, physiology, and medicine.

The second conclusion goes even further: in the same way that the Renaissance was based on the recovery of classical culture, the post-Renaissance scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was basically due to the conscious recovery of the Hellenistic science [emphasis added — MM] — not even to its full extent, reached only in the second half of the nineteenth century with Dedekind’s and Weierstrass’s isolation of the real number concept directly out of Euclid’s definition of proportion. Unlike artists and humanists, however, the scientists (e.g., Newton) . . . did not pay the debt due to their true sources.

. . . . [This] Hellenistic scientific revolution was forgotten precisely because that scientific method was abandoned in antiquity and its recovery was exceedingly slow.

For example, coming back to mathematics [this is a mathematics journal — MM], Newton was still far below the Hellenistic level of rigor, as evident from comparing his argument about the ratio of infinitesimal quantities (in Principia, book I, chapter I) with Archimedes’ work On Spirals, where infinitesimals of different orders are introduced. In essence, Newton lacked the limit concept which Archimedes possessed; the full recovery of the Hellenistic way of doing mathematics had to wait for Cauchy and Weierstrass.

That is, ladies and gentlemen, since 1998 it is no longer possible to say that “that picture of history was completely false.” On the contrary, the assertions by Newton that he was uncovering what the Ancient World knew of the mathematical description of motion was exactly correct and honest.

If Mr Dolnick could not have been expected to consult Lucio Russo’s widely-heralded examination of science circa 300 BC then he ought to have made himself aware of the English-language translation, which was published by the prestigious house of Springer-Verlag in 2004. On the blurb we find Heinrich Guggenheimer, in the Zentralblatt für Mathematik, writing “This is an important book and it is to be hoped that historians, both of science and of general history, take notice of it.”

Let me return to quoting Mr Dolnick, with the sentence which in his account follows the announcement that an fairly accurate view of the history of mathematics and natural sciences was “entirely false”:

The notion is both surprising and poignant. Isaac Newton was not only the supreme genius

when that word appears in a history of science, hold on to your wallet . . .

of modern times but also a man so jealous and bad-tempered that he exploded in fury at anyone who dared question him. He refused to speak to his rivals; he deleted all references to them from his published works; he hurled abuse at them even after their deaths. But here was Newton arguing vehemently that his boldest insights had all been known thousands of years before hiss birth.

Poignant! I’ll say: here is Newton accurately and honestly characterizing his work, and the historian finding him strange because the historian refuses to believe him.

At this point, dear reader, we certainly have shown enough detail to support the conclusion that we have here what retired curator Forman called, you remember, back at the beginning of this book review, “a popular literary genre.” It gets published by HarperCollins and reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.

Mr Christianson’s treatment, that of a professional academic, we have seen to have been rather weak in logical structure; that of Mr Dolnick, whose sister I have probably alienated forever, has no historical value whatever.

Quod scripsi, scripsi.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
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