Will the crap ever stop?

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.

6 Comments

Filed under Myths of Science

6 responses to “Will the crap ever stop?

  1. The Godel claim doesn’t bother me that much. Before Godel, there were a lot of ideas floating around, but Godel helped construct a lot of the very major stuff and the major proof techniques that were used after. So the comment is inaccurate but not egregiously so.

    • thonyc

      There were not just ideas floating about but systematic studies in metamathematics being conducted by several logicians such as Löwenheim, Skolem, Post, Tarski etc. Also many of the proof techniques used by Gödel existed well before he used them.

      • I’m going to agree with most of that claim and disagree with the notion that the pre-existing work was that systematic. There were individual theorems, but very little of it fit into a very broad framework (although I have some inclination to think that metamathematics didn’t really have a good broad framework until possibly the 1950s.) And a lot of the work they did was based off of stuff that Godel did. Tarski’s most famous metamathematical result- the undefinability of truth, used Godel’s ideas.

        Of the logicians mentioned, if I had to pick any of them as the father of metamathematics, Godel seems to be the best. He’s not a great fit, but he’s a better option than most of the other possibilities. (It would probably be better to just call him preeminent or something like that.)

        (The fact that the author of the article talks about results due to others is of course still unexcusable.)

  2. Sorry, one other related thought: Do you think it would be fair to call Newton the father of physics even though Oresme, Galileo, Rheticus and others were doing work well before Newton? I don’t think that Godel is in the same category as Newton in this regard, but it seems like a statement that is useful to gauge how much is required in your view for this sort of claim to be in the realm of the marginally reasonable.

  3. Jenny Unglow’s book, the Lunar Men, has a chapter on Watt and the struggles he went through getting his version of steam power to work. The chapter could be subtitled Hassling with the Engineers. I haven’t vetted its accuracy, but I find myself thinking of Unglow when I looking around for an example of an author who writes about the history of science in an engaging and entertaining fashion without tarting everything up or cheating, at least obviously cheating.

    • I don’t do hero worship but if I did Jenny Uglow (there’s no ‘n’ BTW) would be high up on the list! I heartily recommend “The Lunar Men” to anybody who wants to know how to write good popular history of science.

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