As I seem to be in rant modus at the moment I thought I would comment on a couple of history of science remarks that pissed me off today. In the morning after walking the dog or being walked by the dog, I drink my morning tea whilst listening to BBC Radio 4’s news magazine “The Today Programme” and making my first daily exploration of the intertubes. At 8.50 local time, that’s 7.50 in GB, I leave the house for Sascha’s daily trip to town. At this time whilst I’m lacing my shoes the Today Programme has a short three minute segment called Thought for the Day in which a representative of some religious direction or another gets the chance to sell his vision of the world. This morning whilst pulling on my shoes someone was wittering away about taking risks I wasn’t really paying attention so I don’t know if today’s salesman was trying to persuade me to become a Hindu, Methodist, Humanist or whatever. However I perked up when I heard him say the following:
If James Watt’s mother had kept him away from the boiling kettle to avoid the risk of him scolding himself then I suppose he would not have observed the kettle and we wouldn’t have the steam engine.
Oh fuck I thought how can someone get so much wrong in one sentence? That James Watt was inspired to work on the power of steam by observing the steam raise the lid of a kettle is a myth that is so cheesy it ought to be prohibited by law. Even worse Watt’s interest in steam engines was sparked when he was asked, as instrument maker at Glasgow University, to repair their model Newcomen steam engine invented in 1712, 24 years before Watt was even born. Even earlier in 1698, the year Watt’s father was born, Thomas Savery was granted a patent by the English parliament for his steam engine. Just for the record James Watt did not invent the fucking steam engine and we would have had steam power even if Watt had stuck to making musical instruments and never used a kettle for anything other than brewing his tea.
Shortly before this confrontation with the myths of steam power I had thrown a quick glance over the new Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Kurt Gödel, thanks to the tweet advertising same from Brian Leiter of the Leiter Reports. The very first line of this article contained the following claim:
Kurt Friedrich Gödel (b. 1906, d. 1978) […] founded the modern, metamathematical era in mathematical logic.
I’m not going to bore you by recapitulating the history of metamathematics but suffice it to say it was established well before Gödel stated producing results in the discipline. The author compounds his error by actually discussing the metamathematical results of Löwenheim and Skolem who both preceded Gödel.
I know that it’s hopeless but I wish people would think and maybe check the facts before writing or speaking about the history of science and then maybe, just maybe, we might start to rid the world of the myths of science.