Late on Friday evening, Renaissance mathematicus friend and star historian of medieval science, Seb Falk, posted a couple of paragraphs from an Oberserver newspaper interview with the physicist and self-appointed science communicator Michio Kaku, from April this year. The history of science content of those paragraphs was so utterly, mindbogglingly ludicrous that it had me tossing and turning all night and woke from his deep winter sleep the HISTSCI_HULK, who is now raging through my humble abode like a demented behemoth on speed. What was it that set the living history of science bullshit detector in such a state of apoplexy? I offer up the evidence:
How much, do you think, would Isaac Newton understand of your book?
I think he would appreciate it. In 1666 we had the great plague. Cambridge University was shut down and a 23-year-old boy was sent home, and he saw an apple fall on his estate. And then he realised that the laws that control an apple are the same laws that control the moon. So the epidemic gave Isaac Newton an opportunity to sit down and follow the mathematics of falling apples and falling moons. But of course there was no mathematics at that time. He couldn’t solve the problem so he created his own mathematics. That’s what we are doing now. We, too, are being hit by the plague. We, too, are confined to our desks. And we, too, are creating new mathematics.
This paragraph is, of course, the tired old myth of Newton’s Annus mirabilis, which got continually recycled in the early months of the current pandemic and, which I demolished in a blog post back in April 2020, so I won’t bore you with a rehash here. However, Kaku has managed to add a dimension of utter mind shattering ignorance
But of course there was no mathematics at that time. He couldn’t solve the problem so he created his own mathematics.
Just limiting myself to the Early Modern Period, Tartaglia, Cardano, Ferrari, Bombelli, Stiefel, Viète, Harriot, Napier, Kepler, Galileo, Cavalieri, Fermat, Descartes, Pascal, Gregory, Barrow, Wallis and many others are all not just turning in their graves, but spinning at high speed, whilst screaming WHAT THE FUCK! at 140 decibels.
The real irony is that not only did Newton not codify the calculus during his non-existent Annus mirabilis–he didn’t create it, it evolved over a period of approximately two thousand years–but when he wrote his Principia twenty years later, he used a modernised version of Euclidian geometry, which was created some two thousand years earlier, and not the calculus!
There is more to come:
There are many brilliant scientists whose contributions you discuss in the book. Which one, for you, stands out above the rest?
Newton is at number one, because, almost out of nothing, out of an era of witchcraft and sorcery, he comes up with the mathematics of the universe, he comes up with a theory of almost everything. That’s incredible. Einstein piggybacked on Newton, using the calculus of Newton to work out the dynamics of curved spacetime and general relativity. They are like supernovas, blindingly brilliant and illuminating the entire landscape and changing human destiny. Newton’s laws of motion set into motion the foundation for the Industrial Revolution. A person like that comes along once every several centuries.
Where to start? To describe the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries as “an era of witchcraft and sorcery” is simply bizarre. This is the highpoint of the so-called Scientific Revolution, it is the Augustan age of literature that in Britain alone produced Swift, Pope, Defoe, and many others, it is the age of William Hogarth, it is the age in which modern capitalism was born and, and, and… Yes, some people still believed in witchcraft and sorcery, some still do today, but it was by no means a central factor of the social, political, or cultural life of the period. This was the dawn of the Enlightenment, for fuck’s sake, the period of Spinosa, Locke, Hume and, once again, many others.
The “Newton is at number one, because, almost out of nothing” produces howls of protest echoing down the centuries from Kepler, Stevin, Galileo, Torricelli, Descartes, Pascal, Huygens et al
With respect to Steven Strogatz, I will grant him his hyperbolic “mathematics of the universe”, but Newton’s physics covers just a very small area of the entire world of knowledge and is in no way a “theory of almost everything.”
I should leave the comments on Einstein, to those better qualified to condemn them than I. However, I find the claim that “Einstein piggybacked on Newton” simply grotesque. Also, the calculus that Newton and Leibniz codified, which became the mathematics of Newtonian physics, although Newton himself did not use it, is a very different beast to the tensor calculus used in the general relativity theory. In fact, the only thing they have in common is the word calculus, I would expect someone with a doctorate in physics to know that.
One is tempted to ask if the Guardian has fired all of its science editors and replaced them with failed door to door vacuum cleaner salesmen. It’s the only rational explanation as to why the science pages of the Observer were adorned with such unfathomably dumb history of science. It is supposed to be a quality newspaper!
The HISTSCI_HULK has in the meantime thrown himself off the balcony into the snowstorm and was last seen stomping off into the woods muttering, The horror! The horror!