As I have mentioned more than once on this blog, I served my apprenticeship as a historian of science working for ten years in a major research project into the external history of formal or mathematical logic. During the semester, we held a weekly research seminar in which one or more of the members of the project would present a talk on the current state of their research. These seminars were held early evening and afterwards we would all go for a meal at a local Italian restaurant. I think, I probably learnt more through the discussions during those meals than through any other part of my life as a student.
From time to time those research seminars would be graced by a guest lecture by visiting historians. Over the years I got to hear lectures by many of the world’s leading historians of logic and mathematics. More important was being able to talk informally with these luminaries of the discipline during those post seminar meals.
One of those guest lecturers was Martin Davis, not only one of the best historians of twentieth century meta-logic but also a world class logician in his own right, who died 1 January. He held an excellent lecture on the American logician, Emil Post (1897–1954), who published a paper in 1936 giving an almost identical solution to the Entscheidungsproblem as Turing.
It was the meal after the lecture that we will forever remain in my memory. Martin was travelling through Europe with his wife and the two of them were incredibly friendly and delightful diner companions.
Two things are particularly present in my mind. The first is being in full flow in my inimitable style answering a question that Martin’s wife Virginia had posed about something in logic, when I suddenly realised that I, a mere student, albeit a mature one, was sitting between two of the world’s leading historians of logic, who were listening intently to what I was saying. Feeling somewhat more than flustered, I somehow managed to finish what I was saying. Nobody said anything negative.
The other was an incredible display of generosity from Martin. Amongst his publications, was a book that he edited called The Undecidable, a collection of the original papers on the topic from Post, Turing, Gödel et al. During the course of the meal, I asked Matin if there were plans to republish it as it was out of print, and I couldn’t get hold of a copy. He asked what I was doing after the meal and if I had time to accompany him back to his hotel. I said yes. When we got there, he gave me his personal copy of The Undecidable. I was mind blown.
Many years later I gave it to my professor, Christian Thiel, who has a very impressive collection of logic books. I was sad when I read of Martin’s death yesterday, remembering a very kind and friendly man, who once did a student a very generous favour.
For those new to the Renaissance Mathematicus, we now enter a special time of the year with the Christmas Trilogy, during which I celebrate three #histsci birthdays, Isaac Newton on the 25 December, Charles Babbage on the 26 December and Johannes Kepler on the 27 December. For more details follow this link, also to link to the trilogies of Christmas pasts.
In 1965 the LA folk rock band, The Byrds, had a major international hit with a song written by folk singer Pete Seeger. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season):
To everything turn, turn, turn There is a season turn, turn, turn And a time to every purpose Under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die A time to plant, a time to reap A time to kill, a time to heal A time to laugh, a time to weep
To everything turn, turn, turn There is a season turn, turn, turn And a time to every purpose Under heaven
A time to build up A time to break down A time to dance, a time to mourn A time to cast away stones A time to gather stones together
To everything turn, turn, turn There is a season turn, turn, turn And a time to every purpose Under heaven
A time of love, a time of hate A time of war, a time of peace A time you may embrace A time to refrain from embracing
To everything turn, turn, turn There is a season turn, turn, turn And a time to every purpose Under heaven
A time to gain, a time to lose A time to rain, a time of sow A time for love, a time for hate A time for peace I swear it′s not too late
Text by Pete Seeger
It is based on the Bible text Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, as rendered in the King James Bible:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to gain that which is to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time of love, and a time of hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Seasons define our year and are the result of the fact that the ecliptic, the Sun’s apparent path around the Earth, is not parallel to the celestial equator but tilted by 23.4°. Viewed from the Earth in the northern hemisphere, during the year the Sun appears to travel from a point in the north in the middle of summer southwards to turn in the middle of winter, and travel back to the north. Those two turning points are the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south. Tropic comes to us from the Latin tropicus, which comes from the Greek tropicos both words meaning pertaining to a turn. Those points where the Sun turns on its annual journey are known as the summer and winter solstices. Solstice is a combination of sol(the sun) and the past participle stem of sistere meaning stand still. So, solstice means the sun stands still. The Sun never stands still but if you track the annual path of the Sun along a ridge, then when it reaches the turning point, it appears to stay in the same place on the horizon for a couple of days.
A Renaissance armillary sphere, an instrument for teaching the parts of the celestial sphere. The celestial equator is the band with the Roman numbers. At an angle to it running between e and f is the ecliptic. At e it meets the Tropic of Cancer, the point of the northern hemisphere summer solstice. At f it meets the Tropic of Capricorn, the point of the northern hemisphere winter solstice.
The winter solstice 2022, the turning point, will take place at 21:48 UT (that’s GMT in astronomical talk) today. As I have said in the past I regard the winter solstice, where the old year comes to die, and the new year is born as a much better day to celebrate than the totally arbitrary 31 December-1 January. This being so, I wish all my readers a happy solstice and hope the ending solar cycle was a good one for them and the one now beginning will prove to be a good one. I thank you all for taking the time to read my scribblings and for all the comments and criticism over the last 365 days.
This year I would particularly like to say thank you for all of the kind and encouraging words both here on the blog and out on social media during my very recent and far too long bout of illness. As I was highly contagious, I was isolated in the real world and my Internet family came up trumps. Thank you!
On Tuesday a week ago, I started my second attempt to cure my middle ear inflammation with a new antibiotic and other bits and pieces. By then the symptoms of my original virus infection had largely disappeared. As the week progressed, I felt fairly optimistic, the pressure in my forehead began to disappear and the gunge stopped dribbling out of my ears. I was still deaf, but you can’t have everything.
Feeling stronger I began to write a new blog post. It was heavy going but I progressed gradually, paragraph for paragraph, and by Friday I had it about two thirds finished. A good weekend and I would have it in the bag, I thought foolishly.
On Saturday, my original virus returned with a vengeance. Since then, I have only, or better said I could only, blow my nose and try not to rupture something in coughing fits that go on literally for minutes. I keep having to interrupt this to reach for the next tissue.
I’m not making any prognostications anymore, as to when I’ll finally get back to blogging, but I’m really pissed off!
Two weeks ago, I wrote a short piece explaining why I hadn’t posted my usual weekly blog post the day before and warning that I might not have recovered enough to write one for the following Wednesday, and so it came to pass. Much too late, I noticed through the general fog of a heavy virus infection of the head that I was deaf in my right ear, so last Tuesday it was off to the ear, nose, and throat specialist. It turns out that I have a heavy middle ear infection/inflammation, so a new course of treatment and a return to the doctor a week later. Well readers it didn’t work. So new course of treatment starting yesterday.
For the last ten days, or longer, I’ve had tinnitus, I’m deaf on my right ear and not hearing too good on the left. My head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton wool and my sense of balance is almost non-existent. Not the ideal situation to write intelligent #histSTM posts. I’m actually feeling better than I did a week ago and, with the hope that the new course of medication is going to work, I am slowly working towards resuming posting next Wednesday.
Till then you’ll have to content yourself with reading some old one!
Some of you might have noticed that yesterday was Wednesday and there was no new substantive post here at the Renaissance Mathematicus. Did anybody notice, probably not. The explanation for this absence is quite simple, on the one hand pressure of work, on the other, I’m ill. I was to hold a public lecture yesterday, to which I will return in a minute, and was working hard to first decide what slides to make and secondly to make them and writing a blog post was definitely in second place on my schedule. Unfortunately, my health was deteriorating during the week, and I was running out of energy. By the time the weekend came round, when I might have written the planned post, I was definitely under the weather and had basically given up the idea of even attempting to write it.
By Monday, I was desperately holding on and hoping I would still make it to my lecture on Wednesday. On Tuesday morning, I realised that my lecture was not going to happen, so I told the promoter and asked the local newspaper, who had published an interview with me to advertise the lecture, to publish a notice on Wednesday morning announcing that it had been cancelled. By Tuesday evening, my throat felt like somebody had cleaned it with a cheese grater, I could hardly talk and had difficulties negotiating the way from my living room into the kitchen, all of five metres. Wednesday morning, a friend drove me to my doctor, I couldn’t have made it under my own steam, where my very sweet lady doctor decided it was a virus and not a bacterium and so no antibiotics. Instead, a list of over-the-counter medicines to relieve the symptoms that cost me €33! Some symptoms have alleviated but I still feel like shit warmed up.
The missed lecture was a personal disaster in more than one way. For many years I have been part of a group that organises a series of history of science lectures every autumn for the local adult education classes. I suggested this year’s topic, the history of the involvement of Nürnberg’s printer/publishers in the very early phase of the printed scientific book. Together with my friend Pierre, we planned the programme and found experts to deliver each of the lectures which took a fair amount of time and effort. The lectures started four weeks ago, and the first three background lectures–the invention of paper, the Chinese invention of movable type printing, and Gutenberg’s reinvention of movable type printing–were all excellent and now it was my turn to introduce Regiomontanus and the world’s first scientific press. As the title says Shit Happens!
I’m not sure if I will find the energy to write a blog post for next Wednesday, I’m struggling to finish this brief note, we will just have to wait and see.
Normal service is being suspended as I have to write an obituary for a friend.
Anybody who has read the autobiographical fragments on this blog will know that I have led a far from the normal life that is expected of a child from a middle-class English family–school, university, career, family, retirement. My path through life has been a chaotic labyrinthian path, with the feeling that for much of the route my legs were tied together, and I was wearing a blindfold. Along the way a handful of people have had a massive influence on the direction my wanderings have taken, one of those was Michael J “Mike” Pearson, also known to me as Mr P, who I have just discovered from a Guardian obituary has died. I’m devastated!
Before I can introduce Mr P, I need to go back to four years before I met him. As I already explained in an earlier blog post, my mother died of a massive heart attack on Christmas eve in 1966, just after I turned fifteen. An event that scarred me for life. In the school year 67-68 my father entered me as a boarder at the grammar school I had been attending for the previous four years. We had moved from the rural Essex village, where I grew up to London, and he thought it would be better not to interrupt my education by moving me to a new school. It was a mistake. I was miserable, lost and didn’t give a fuck.
The following year the school acquired a new headmaster, who took the adage “a new broom sweeps clean” very seriously. By the second term of what was my first year sixth, it was obvious to everybody that I was failing miserably, and I was summoned to the headmaster’s study. He asked me what I wanted to study at university, they assumed you would go to university, it was that sort of school. I answered truthfully, history. He then, not unnaturally, asked “why then was I doing science A-levels”–maths, physics, and chemistry? I, “because that’s what I’m good at”. He trying to be helpful gave the matter some thought and suggested that I could study archaeology with science A-levels. I initially rebelled against the idea, my father was an archaeologist, but during the Easter holidays I was packed off to my first archaeological excavation, a small Roman site in Chelmsford. I loved it and a very beautiful lady, called Jenny, persuaded me to go to the big Roman excavation in Usk, in South Wales, in the summer of 69.
Having been expelled from my illustrious grammar school at the end of the school year, I duly trundled off to Usk and the world of Cardiff University archaeology. I had a ball and immediately booked to return for the digging season the following summer, 1970.
I spent the school year 69–70 at, the then infamous, Holland Park Comprehensive, consuming vast amounts of drugs and basically not giving a fuck about anything. I naturally screwed up my A-levels, despite prognoses from my teachers that I was destined to get three straight ‘As’, I was good at bluffing. But I still got a place to study archaeology at Cardiff through indirect nepotism, one of the lecturers was trying to suck up to my father, a big name in those days in the world of anthropology. So, in the summer of 1970, I set off for a full season of digging in sunny Usk, knowing that I would be going up to Cardiff to study archaeology in the autumn. This is when Mr P entered my life.
In the late 1960s early 1970s the archaeological excavation at Usk were one of the largest in the UK. Each summer about 150 “volunteers” laboured away at the pink clay revealing the remains of a 55-acre Roman fort. A large number of those who worked there were Cardiff University archaeology students fulfilling part of the eight-week practical experience requirement of their degrees. Mike was one of the Cardiff University conscripts, a student at the end of his second year. A big lad, with thick blond locks from near Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire. We hit it off immediately. I need to introduce two other figures from that summer at Usk. Mike introduced me to his mate Steve, a Cardiff drop out turned printer and graphic designer, who came to visit him one day. I also met for the first time, Dave, who would go on to become my best friend, a Cardiff conscript at the end of his first year, who had never dug before and who was given into my tender care with the instruction, “teach him how to dig”! Having discovered that we had both come to Usk via the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in Shepton Mallet, Dave and I also hit it off immediately.
On a large archaeology site there is always a team of mostly lightly insane people, who take on the construction tasks that occur on such sites, building scaffolding photographic towers, or creating spoil heaps, these have to take up as little space as possible but the paths up to the top have to have a gradient that a volunteer pushing a wheelbarrow full of heavy soil can still negotiate them. At Usk I was a member of that team.
Having become friends, Mike knew that I would be going up to Cardiff in the autumn and spoke to me about a project he was planning. It turned out that he was the driving force behind a student theatre group and was planning a production of Euripides’ The TrojanWomen for the autumn term, to take to the NUS Student Theatre Festival in Southampton over the Christmas vacation. He envisioned a stage set constructed of scaffolding and ask me if I could construct it for him? Somewhat naively, I said yes.
In the autumn I set off to my student digs in Cardiff wondering what lay ahead of me. Mike P was sharing a flat with Dave and another Mike, Mike B, and I went to visit and to find out what I was going to have to construct. Today, with smartphones, blue tooth, and Airpods, it is easy to forget the time when music was consumed from vinyl albums on that high altar of hippie existence, the stereo system. Now, I, Dave, and both Mikes all had record collections but none of us owned a stereo system. I owned a fairly good quality turntable, for which I had built the plinth myself and which I had wired up mono into my valve radio at home. None of us had the wherewithal to acquire a fancy stereo system, so Mike P bought a serviceable stereo amplifier and a cheap set of do-it-yourself loudspeakers boxes, which I put together. Together, we now had a functioning stereo which resided on the sideboard in the living room of their flat, with our four record collections inside the sideboard. This meant that I spent a lot of time in that flat.
But back to The Trojan Women. By the time I got to Cardiff, Mike had abandoned his scaffold set concept and he and I together with other members of the cast worked out a new staging concept. There were four figures representing the four women of the play. These were open frame wooden pyramids with an approximately one and a half metre square base and standing about three metres tall, constructed out of planed two by one deal. I constructed these and they were dismantlable for transit. On top of the pyramids were papier-mâché heads about one metre high made by a member of the cast. Below the heads were two metre long one inch diameter rods thrust through as arms on which hung hands made of plaster of Paris filled plastic gloves. All-in-all, very impressive but also very grotesque figures. These were arranged facing inwards in the corners of a square, about the size of a boxing ring, that was surrounded by coils of barbed wire. It’s a play about war!
This set was placed, not on a stage, but on the floor in the middle of a large room surrounded by rows of stools for the audience on all four sides. The set was lit with four, five-hundred-watt Fresnel spotlights mounted on floor stands, which I also constructed, which were focused on the head of the diagonally opposite figure casting vast shadows on the walls and ceiling. I mention all this in detail because I was then eighteen years old and had never done anything remotely like any of this in my entire life. It was a case of make it up as you go along and hope it works. Did I mention that I’m good at bluffing.
Mike had reduced Euripides’ text to word fragment in a sort of vocal concrete poetry. This was recorded on tape by four actresses representing the four Trojan women. It was recorded in the universities small recording studio. Steve, who had some experience, was supposed to engineer the session but backed out at the last moment. He gave me a five-minute introduction to audio engineering and left me to it. Something new everyday
For the performance itself the recording was played, whilst the four actresses, dressed totally in black, sat motionless on their heels inside the barbed wire on the four sides of the square. In the middle, Mike, also dressed in black, with a lightning flash drawn in artificial blood across his face, mimed out the story, as the universal soldier. I sat at the back of the audience running the tape deck and turning the lights on and off depending on which of the women was featured in that moment.
Come the Christmas vacation we, Theatre in Transit, drove up to Southampton in a Ford Transit (pun intentional). Once there, I was in charge of putting up the set and sorting out the sound equipment, which the people in Southampton had arranged for us. Over the evening, I learned a lot about earthing loops and mains hum, finally getting the assorted heap of shit to work at about three o’clock in the morning. The performance was well received, all the effort seemed worthwhile, and I was now a bona fide stage carpenter and theatre technician.
A couple of years after this all began Dave, Steve, Mike, and I all lived in the same house. Dave and I in the first floor flat and Mike and Steve in the second floor flat. I would spend several years working on theatre projects with Mike under various different company names. Ritual and Tribal Theatre (RATT), Scarab, Cardiff Laboratory Theatre and whatever, as set and prop designer and builder, and as light designer and operator. By the time I stopped working with Mike, probably around, 1976, he was already am established name in Welsh alternative theatre or performance art as he preferred to call it. He would go on to become a major figure in European performance art.
Mike P, Mike B and Steve were all heavily involved in the Cardiff Students Union, and I slotted in there as well, working for the Union Events as a stagehand. As a theatre lighting technician, I also provided the light for a couple of concerts put on by the Students Union in Cory Hall, an old temperance hall from the nineteenth century. I did the lights for Loudon Wainwright III and Pentangle.
I dropped out of the university at the end of the academic year 1970-71, having decided that I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. What I really wanted to be was a historian of science, but I didn’t know then that it was even possible. However, I continued working with Mike and for the Students Union. I also worked as a stagehand for the Welsh National Opera and as either a lighting or a sound technician for the university’s Sherman Theatre when they were short a man. I was even theatre manager, that’s general dog’s body, in Chapter Arts for six months, an episode that ended badly. I toured Wales with a Welsh Language theatre company and learnt first-hand about the discriminatory and racist attitude that many of the English-speaking population have towards the Welsh speaking minority. I toured the South of England with a small independent opera company doing the lights for a Harrison Birtwistle opera with a really cool group of musicians, which included the cellist from Keith Tippett’s Ark, a wonderful lady, who took me aside to smoke a joint to calm me down, when I lost patience with a local BBC news crew, whose filming was preventing me from completing setting up the lights in a very narrow time frame.
In between working for Mike, I still took part in archaeological excavation at Easter and during the summer. Mike joining me for one final delightful summer at Usk, when we both needed the money. For Mike I worked at venues all over England and in the early seventies at what was then one of the biggest theatre festivals, the Festival Mondial du théâtre de Nancy, where the then current French Minister of Culture took Mike and I to tea in a vey posh café one afternoon.
Through Mike I became part of the professional world of theatre and music and when I left the UK and moved to Germany at the beginning of the 1980s, I drew on that experience to find my feet in my new home. I worked as a stagehand for big concert promoters, managed a jazz club for ten years, was evening manager of a culture centre for about fifteen years and was a sound and lighting technician for live music in that centre for most of that time.
Mike and I stayed loosely in touch over the decades and in the last couple of years that contact has been Mike first informing me that Steve had died and then last year that Mike B had also died. We talked about the fact that we should meet up again in person before one of us dies. Now, it is too late, and my heart is broken.
Mike’s simple question, asking if I could erect some scaffolding for him, inadvertently set me on the path that would shape a very large part of my adult life.
Today the Renaissance Mathematicus officially became a teenager, although I think it’s been one since it first emerged into the digital world thirteen years ago, snotty-nosed, stroppy, belligerent, argumentative, anti-authority, whilst at the same time oscillating between bursting with energy and sloth like behaviour. Did I mention self-opinionated and convinced it knows better than everybody else?
Thirteen is, in the Germanic languages, the first number with a compound name, three plus ten, eleven and twelve having single names. It is the sixth prime number and the second two-digit prime forming a twin prime with eleven, the first two digit prime.
In some countries, including the UK and the USA, thirteen is considered an unlucky number, with people going as far as to not having a thirteenth floor in a building or a room 13 in a hotel. This superstition has been given the wonderful name Triskaidekaphobia from the Ancient Greek treiskaídeka for thirteen and phóbos meaning fear. There are various attempts to explain the historical origins of this phobia but none of them can actually be substantiated. Friday 13th is considered particularly unlucky in these cultures and has the equally splendid name paraskevidekatriaphobia from the Greek Paraskevi for Friday, reiskaídeka for thirteen, and phóbos meaning fear. In the Gregorian calendar, Friday 13th occurs at least once every year and can occur up to three times. Although there is evidence of both Friday and thirteen being considered unlucky, the earliest reference to Friday 13th as unlucky is in the nineteenth century. Once again, the origin of the superstition is a mater of speculation.
One common occurrence of the number thirteen in the English language is the baker’s dozen. Whereas a dozen is a group of twelve, a baker’s dozen is a group of thirteen. The term dates back to the fifteenth century and refers to the habit of baker’s selling their wares in units of thirteen rather than twelve as the law required. As bakers could be fined for selling their wares underweight, it is thought that they included an extra item to avoid the risk of a fine.
As usual the Renaissance Mathematicus blog anniversary is an occasion for reflection, looking inward and questioning, a period of introspection. Why do I do this at all? What is my motivation? What do I hope to achieve?
I’ve actually been thinking about these questions for sometime now. I am a self-confessed music junkie, who has spent a large part of my life working as a very small cog in the music business, as a stagehand, club live sound man, jazz club manager and chief cook and bottle washer. I also possess an obscenely large album collection, which I relativise by pointing out that other music junkies I know have much larger collections. One of my favourite rock guitarists is Robert Fripp, the genius behind King Crimson. Fripp is very philosophical for a rock musician and one of his sayings is, “don’t become a professional musician unless you can’t do anything else.” This statement is of course ambiguous. It could mean, if you are physically or mentally incapable of doing anything else or on the other hand you are so obsessed that nothing else comes into question.
I prefer the second interpretation and it neatly sums up my relationship to history in general and the history of science in particular. I have been addicted to history for as long as I can remember, history in general, history of mathematics, history of science, history of food… What ever else I’ve done in my life, I’ve always studied history simply because. However, as I have revealed in the past, I am an AD(H)Dler and this means I tend to get easily distracted in my studies, research, and readings. Oh look, there’s another aspect I could follow up over there and isn’t this fact interesting, maybe I could find out something about that! This means I have in my life a strong tendency never to get anything finished, because there are always twenty other different pathways I want to go down first. Forcing myself to write a weekly blog post helps me to stay focused, to concentrate, and get at least one thing finished. When I’m not writing blog posts my mind still wanders off in twenty different directions at once, but that’s OK; that’s have I come up with new topics for blog posts.
All of the above basically covers the first two of my questions, why and motivation and there isn’t really any other explanation. This still leave the third question open; what do I hope to achieve? I don’t really have a general answer to this. I don’t actually think I want to achieve anything in particular. Initially, as I have said in the past, I wanted to teach myself to write, and I think I fulfilled that aim some time ago. I wrote my, The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaicseries to prove to myself that if I wrote in slices; I could write a book. Another aim that I think I successfully fulfilled. I might even get around to turning it into a proper book manuscript and trying to find a publisher this summer! The RenaissanceScienceseries was just, you’ve written one long series, what could you write a second one about?
On the whole I try not to think about potential readers but to write just for myself. This is a safety mechanism to stop me putting myself under any sort of pressure, will I fill my readers expectations!? Of course, I’m happy that people do read my scribblings and some of them even appear to enjoy them. Truth be told, the actual number of people who regularly read this blog scares me somewhat, in particular the successful professional historians of science, who I know do so. Imposter syndrome, what moi? As I have been known to say on occasions, even my imposter syndrome has imposter syndrome. One very concrete thing that I have aimed to achieve with my scribblings since the day I started this blog, is to try and clear away at least some of the myths that plague the popular perception of the history of science. It’s a Sisyphus task but it helps to keep me motivated and focused.
Having mentioned my readers, I will close this anniversary post by saying I’m grateful for every person, who takes the time to read my weekly outpourings and I hope they gain something for the time taken. I’m also grateful to all those, who take the time to provide feedback, through comments: I thank all of you both readers and commentors and hope you stay on bord for the next twelve months.
A man that I’ve never come across before, Brett Hall, has taken me to task in, what he terms, a newsletter on YouTube for being rude to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Before somebody drew my attention to his comments, I had absolutely no idea who or what Brett Hall was. It appears he is an Australian, who, it seems, studied about seventeen degrees, I might be exaggerating somewhat, I lost count somewhere down the line in his litany of all the wonderful things he had studied. Anyway, if I understand him correctly, he now regards himself as a science communicator and has a podcast where he explicates and propagates the philosophies of Karl Popper and David Deutsch. He also has a blog and apparently, has recently added a newsletter, in the first edition of which he chose to criticise me.
I am well acquainted with the works of Karl Raimund Popper, he being one of my first two introductions to the philosophies of mathematics and science, the other was Stephen Körner. I read my first philosophy of science books by both of them in the same week many, many moons ago. I read a large amount of Popper’s oeuvre and a decade later studied him at university. Popper led me to Imre Lakatos, the biggest influence on my personal intellectual development.
I must admit, because I gave up trying to keep up with all the developments in modern physics quite some time ago, that until about two weeks ago I had never heard of David Deutsch. So that you don’t have to go look, he’s a big name in quantum physics and especially in the theory of quantum computing. Purely by chance, the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, had a long interview with him a couple of weeks ago about his views on epistemology and what he sees as the correct approach to the future and development of scientific thinking. Mr Hall will probably come down on me like a ton of bricks for saying this but, for me, it came across as fairly vacuous, a lot of waffle and pie in the sky. But I’m probably just too stupid to understand the great maestro!
But back to Mr Hall and good old Neil deGrasse Tyson. Mr Hall bemoaned what he saw as increasing rudeness in debate in the Internet age, a common and widely spread trope, and cited my latest diatribe against NdGT, as an example, misquoting the title of my piece, claiming that I had said that Tyson “knows nothing”, whereas I in fact wrote “knows nothing about nothing”, a wordplay on Tyson’s topic the history of zero. There is a substantial difference between the two statements. He then went on to quote correctly that I accused Tyson of “spouting crap.” Strangely, Mr Hall calls me a science historian, whereas the correct term is historian of science. There is a whole debate within the discipline, as to why it’s the latter and not the former. Even more bizarrely, he states that he is not going to name me and then provides a link to the post on my blog that of course contains my name! I have no problems in being named, I’m old enough and ugly enough to defend myself against all comers.
Mr Hall goes on to explain that he also does not always agree with the theories of NdGT, but that there is no reason not to treat him with respect when stating your disagreement. I have no objection to this statement; however, it misses the point entirely. NdGT is not stating a theory in astrophysics, which is, or rather was, his academic discipline. If he had, I almost certainly would not have commented in any way whatsoever, as I’m not an astrophysicist and so not qualified to pass judgement. No, NdGT was doing something entirely different. On a commercial podcast, for which, given his popularity, he is almost certainly extremely well paid, he was mouthing off extemporaneously about the history of mathematics, a topic about which he very obviously knows very little. He was, as I put it, and there really is no polite way to express, spouting crap, with all the assurance and authority that his prominent public persona gives him. He was literally lying to his listeners, who, I assume, mostly not knowing better believe the pearls of wisdom that drip from his lips. That is serious abuse of his status and of his listeners and deserves no respect whatsoever.
I would also point out that he is a serial offender and regularly delivers totally ignorant speeches about the history of science and/or mathematics. For example, he regularly repeats, with emphasis, that Newton invented calculus in a couple of weeks, on a dare, which, not to put to finer point on it, is total codswallop. Newton developed his contribution to the evolution of calculus over several years having first read, studied, and digested the work of Descartes, Fermat, Wallace, and Barrow. One can point these things out to NdGT but he simply ignores them and carries on blithely spreading the same tired out falsehoods. He has long ago wilfully squandered any right to be treated with respect, when talking about the history of science and/or mathematics.
Returning to Brett Hall’s basic thesis that academics have jettisoned common decency, politeness, and good manners in the computer age as a result of social media, he expounds on this for the whole of his newsletter, claiming that this behaviour from academics put young people off from entering academia to study the sciences. Like NdGT, Mr Hall appears to have very little knowledge of the history of science. Academics/scholars/scientists, or whatever you want to call them, have been slagging each other off, both publicly and privately, since the first Egyptians put brush to papyrus and the first Babylonians wedge to clay.
Just to take the era in which I claim the most expertise, the emergence of modern astronomy in the Early Modern Period. The two Imperial Mathematici, Tycho Brahe and Nicolaus Reimers Baer laid into each other in a way that makes the HISTSCI_HULK look like a cuddly kitten. A half generation later the next generation, Kepler and Longomontanus, attacked each other with slightly less expletives, but just as much virulence. Galileo laid into anybody and everybody, that he perceived as his enemies and there were many, with invective that would cause a drunken sailor to blush. Moving to the other end of the seventeenth century. Isaac Newton, Lucasian Professor, treated John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal, like a doormat. In turn, Flamsteed refused to even utter the name of Edmond Halley the Savilian Professor of geometry. Newton and Robert Hooke, demonstrator of experiments at the Royal Society, abused each like a couple of fishwives. Hooke had blazing public rows with virtually every notable scientist in Europe. You get the picture?
In case Mr Hall should argue that modern academics weren’t like that before the advent of the Internet, I could entertain him for hours with anecdotes about the invectives that leading academic archaeologist launched at each other in the early 1970s. One stated that an excavation report by another was about as useful of a mid-Victorian museum guide. The offended party then opened legal proceedings for libel but withdrew them when the offender expressed joy at the prospect of being able to prove his statement under oath in a court of law. I could go on but…
Let us return to myself and my alter ego the HISTSCI_HULK, why do I launch my notorious rants?
One of my favourite musicians, Robert Fripp, says that one shouldn’t become a professional musician unless one can’t do anything else. This statement is, to say the least, ambiguous. It could mean you lack the ability to do something else, or the compulsion to create music is so great that nothing else comes into question. I have always assumed he intended the second meaning, and this is exactly why I’m a historian of science. The fascination with numbers, number systems, and their origins started very early, at most about five years old, and has simply grown ever since. I can’t explain rationally why I’m fascinated, intrigued, even obsessed by the history of science, I simply am. I have a compulsion to investigate, discover and learn about the history of science so great that nothing else comes into question.
On a personal level I have always been taught, more by example than anything else, that if one is going to do something then learn to do it properly and then do so. I am from nature a pedant, and I don’t regard pedantry as bad, and a perfectionist. Over the years I have had the good fortune to meet and learn from several excellent teachers, who have helped me to channel that pedantry and perfectionism into my studies and not to accept anything but the best possible.
The history of science is very much a niche discipline within the academic hierarchy and has to battle constantly to justify its existence. There have been and are many excellent historians of science, many of whose books line the walls of my humble abode and nourish my unquenchable thirst for a depth of understanding in the history of science. As I have documented elsewhere, I have a multiple addictive personality and my greatest addiction is without doubt the history of science.
The commercial world of books and television is not interested in the complex and difficult web that is the real history of science, but pop history of science sells well, so they commission not historians of science but scientists to produce pop books and television programmes about the history of science. I mean, after all they are scientists so they must know about the history of their discipline. The results are all to often a disaster. There are exceptions, my friend Matthew Cobb is a professional scientist, who also writes excellent history of science books, several of which adorn my bookshelves. However, the majority of popular history of science books and television programmes are badly researched, shallow perpetuators of myths and inaccuracies–in the Middle Ages the Church opposed science and people believed the world was flat, Newton had an Annus mirabilis and created calculus, and modern optics, physics and astronomy all in one year during the plague, Galileo was persecuted by the Church because he proved that the Earth goes around the Sun, which contradicted the Bible, Ada Lovelace created computer science, and, and, and… A classic example was the original Cosmos television programme from Carl Sagan in which his presentation of the history of astronomy and cosmology was a total and utter cluster fuck, which influenced his tens of million viewers in a very bad way. Whenever I say this on the Internet, I get screamed at by Sagan groupies.
Because I love and live for the discipline, the abuse that it suffers at the hands of these popularises hurts my soul and sets me in a rage causing the HISTSCI_HULK to emerge and go on a rampage. One of the reasons that I do this is because established historians of science are very reluctant to subject these perversions of their discipline to public review. Somehow, they seem to think it is beneath them to engage and point out that the product in question is so much bovine manure. Nobody pays me to be a historian of science, I have no position, no status, and no academic reputation to lose, so I weigh in with all guns blazing and say what I really think. I have a message for Mr Hall and anybody else, who feels offended by my approach, nobody says you have to read it!
As I have explained over the years, being a historian of astronomy, for me, the year does not end and restart on the very arbitrary 31 December/1 January, but, in the Northern Hemisphere, with the Winter Solstice, when the Sun reaches the furthest point on its journey southwards, turns, and begins the slow climb towards the north and the summer solstice.
I wish all of my readers a happy solstice and may you enjoy whatever seasonal events you participate in. I personally don’t celebrate any of them. I thank all of you for your engagement, for reading my verbal outpourings, for your comments and your criticisms and hope you will continue to do so in the year to come.
If your philosophy of [scientific] history claims that the sequence should have been A→B→C, and it is C→A→B, then your philosophy of history is wrong. You have to take the data of history seriously.
John S. Wilkins 30th August 2009
Culture is part of the unholy trinity—culture, chaos, and cock-up—which roam through our versions of history, substituting for traditional theories of causation. – Filipe Fernández–Armesto “Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration”