We plumb the depths of boundless history of science stupidity 

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!

10 Comments

Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

10 responses to “We plumb the depths of boundless history of science stupidity 

  1. “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.”

    The answer in one word is “Yes”. The answer in two words is “Katharine Viner”, who has taken what was a fine newspaper under Alan Rusbridger and dumbed it down in all respects, not just its science reporting.

    Kaku is just a well-known example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    • I’m very much aware of this. I had for several decades a subscription to the Guardian Weekly, an excellent weekly digest of the Guardian, Washington Post, and Le Mond, then they changed it into a wannabe life style magazine and lost me as a subscriber. However, in defence of Katharine Viner, she is doing what the Scott Trust Limited appointed her to do, to try and stem the loses.

      • Once in a blue moon they reprint an article from “The Conversation” which stands out because of the quality of its writing and the understanding of its author. Why they don’t reprint at least one a week, I cannot understand; it cannot cost them that much. [1] I can’t really believe that the articles under ‘Occam’s Corner’ or ‘The H Word’ cost them much money either. I would be happy to pay for reading Guardian articles, if only I knew that the money went to the journalist who wrote the article and was not spread around a horde of columnists who seem to ‘phone-in’ their copy.

        [1] The i newspaper quite frequently reprints articles that first appeared in the Financial Times.

  2. Alia

    I don’t know if Kaku is a good scientist, but I read a book of his and I can say with utmost certainty that he has no imagination and not a trace of common sense. His description of two-dimensional beings showed, to put it mildly, a palpable lack of thought, and it was based on self-contradictory assumptions.

  3. John Kane

    But of course there was no mathematics at that time.

    While this was not literally true there was a regression from the Roman Era in Western Europe. The move from open-toed sandals to closed boots in the 8th & 9th centuries imposed severe restraints on Medieval abilities in applied calculations.

    Newton’s laws of motion set into motion the foundation for the Industrial Revolution.

    Definitely correct. James Watt would never turned that tea kettle into a locomotive without Newton’s work on gravity.

    • Bob Page

      You couldn’t be more wrong and your comment illustrates the fact you’re never read this blog before. Thonyc has gone into great detail on this subject but Europe was already well advanced past the Greco-Roman era in mathematics and “science” by the 17th century and the discoveries in Newton’s work usually attributed solely to him were already being developed before he was born by other thinkers within the scientific side of the European “Republic of letters” among them Isaac Beeckman, Christiaan Hyugens, Ismaël Bullialdus, etc. Bullialdus for example came up with the inverse square-law for gravity before Newton and gravity itself was built on the theory of impetus which came from Byzantium after the western Roman Empire had collapsed. That theory then was built upon in the middle ages first by the Muslims like Avicenna and then the Oxford Calculators in Merton College followed by French physicists like Jean Buridan in the 14th century. They were discussing concepts of motion that didn’t even exist in the Greco-Roman period and which were far beyond any of the physics of the ancients. Newton himself openly acknowledged work by Bullialdus, Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley, and Christopher Wren on gravity in letters so to pretend Newton was some lone figure and that the industrial revolution was impossible without him is nonsensical.

      James Watt didn’t even create the locomotive engine that was Richard Trevithick, Watt’s engine was only an improvement on an earlier steam engine invented by Thomas Newcomen who invented an engine needed to drain water out of mines.

      I’d try reading this blog before you make any more fallacious claims.

  4. DAVID L DILAURA

    Michio Kaku figures prominently in “Alien Planet,” a 1-1/2 hour ‘docufiction’ on the Discovery Channel. Here, as elsewhere presents the same, self-certain, grandiose figure of science-authority. And here, as elsewhere, he’s in over his snorkel.

    • “And here, as elsewhere, he’s in over his snorkel.”

      🙃🙂🙃

    • One of the wisest statements that Richard Dawkins ever made is in the end-notes to chapter 4 of The Selfish Gene (I think the end-notes appear first in the Second Edition of the book). He wrote: “Publishers should correct the misapprehension that a scholar’s distinction in one field implies authority in another. And as long as that misapprehension exists, distinguished scholars should resist the temptation to abuse it.” What applies to publishers applies equally to TV programme producers.

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