Category Archives: Autobiographical

A 48-hour mind warp!

It all started some months ago with a decidedly odd email inviting me to take part in something calling itself the SciFoo Camp. My first reaction was this was some sort of hoax and that somewhere in the text I was going to be asked to part with some money or sign up for something weird. None of this happened so before deleting this very strange missive I decided to do some googling. The Internet, including a short Wikipedia article, informed me that the SciFoo camp was indeed something real and consisted of an exclusive, invitation only, unconference held once a year at the Googleplex in Mountain View in California. My second reaction was that they had sent the invitation to the wrong person. Come on, I don’t get invited to exclusive invitation only unconferences, or even conferences, anywhere, let alone in the Googleplex.

Intrigued, but now somewhat disconcerted, I carefully reread the email and discovered that the organisers where offering to pay for my hotel and full catering during the three days of this unconference but not for my travelling expenses. End of story! Some weeks I have difficulty finding the train fare to Nürnberg, a plane ticket to San Francisco is definitely not within my meagre budget. I don’t even possess anything I could pawn or sell to finance such an expenditure.

Having reread this exiting but in the end frustrating invitation several times I formulated a more than somewhat cheeky response. I stated that I had first held the email for a hoax and then, having convinced myself that it probably wasn’t, came to the conclusion that it had been sent to me by mistake, being intended for somebody else with the same or similar name. However in the unlikely circumstance that it really was for me I thanked them for their kind and generous offer but pointed out that I must reluctantly decline, as there was no way I could afford the airfare. I clicked the send button, with a metaphorical tear in my eye, and forgot about the whole thing. The last is not quite true, as one doesn’t usually forget something resembling the offer of a lifetime, but I didn’t dwell too much on the subject.

Imagine my surprise when about a month later I received another email saying, no it wasn’t a hoax and yes we did intend to invite you and under the circumstances we have decided to pay your airfare, if you want to come. Now it truly was the offer of a lifetime. I’m one of those people who grew up on West Coast Rock, City lights Beat Poetry and the writings of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey amongst others and here was somebody offering me a free return plane ticket to the Bay Area with a wacky unconference thrown in gratis. It didn’t take me long to accept. I still needed money to extend my stay in the Bay Area, I didn’t intend to just fly over for the conference, if I was going to fly that far I wanted to experience a little bit of that San Francisco and district magic. A very generous friend offered me an interest free loan against my inheritance (not very large but enough to pay of this loan), a very nineteenth century thing, to enable me to spend a few days in the Bay Area to recover from jet lag before the unconference and a few more playing tourist and visiting friends and acquaintances before I flew back home.

All was set. I flew over on Wednesday 24 June and due to the combined ineptitude of yours truly and the incompetence of both AirBnB and PayPal I arrived in San Francisco without a place to stay. Not a wise move, as I now know to my cost. After a couple of frustrating hours of finding nothing I finally capitulated and booked into a rather shitty motel room for one night for a little under $300 a rather substantial fraction of my shoestring budget. By this point I had been awake for 23 hours and had decided that sleep at any cost was the better part of valour. The following morning saw my plan-B fail dismally. Before leaving Germany I had transferred money to my PayPal account, PayPal having refused to make the necessary room bookings from my bank account. This transfer had taken six instead of the supposed one to two days finally taking place on the morning when I flew out of Germany. This was one of the reasons I still didn’t have a room when I left. I now intended to book a room online using this money. I quickly found several suitable offers on AirBnB and tried to make the booking. PayPal kindly informed that payment could not be made at this time! In Germany I had not been able to sort my problems with PayPal because their hotline had been out of service, now they had shafted me one more time. Fuck you PayPal!

I now turned to plan-C! Josh Rosenau from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) had suggested I should look in when I’m in the Bay Area. Having first ascertained the address and the nearest BART station I headed on over to Oakland hoping Josh would be able to help me out of my predicament. When I arrived at the NCSE Josh was in a conference but the truly amazing front of house lady Ninah Pixie (that’s her stage name!) gathered me up, waved her magic wand and solved all of my problems. With a friendly smile and apparently no effort Ninah found me an affordable motel room just around the corner from the NCSE, took me to the bank and helped me to get Euro changed into dollars and turned my evolving nightmare back into a dream.

When I first entered the NCSE Ninah had asked me why I was in the Bay Area and I said that I would be attending SciFoo at the weekend and she said, “Oh, Genie’s going too! She’s coming in in a minute so you can meet her”. Genie is Eugenie Scott the legendary founder of the NCSE and leading warrior in the American struggle against the Creationists, Intelligent Designers and other forms of ant-science inanity, for example she is also heavily involved in the battle against the climate change denialists. I mention all of this because Eugenie is the type of person who gets invited to SciFoo. People who are nationally or even internationally famous and leading lights in the respective fields of science, which of course immediately prompts the question, “how the fuck did I ever get invited to this particular bun fight?” of which more later. Whilst I was at the NCSE I had interesting conversations with both Josh Rosenau and Glen Branch.

On Friday I took the Cal Train down to Palo Alto where I was booked into a hotel for SciFoo. My hotel room was bigger than my flat in Germany! Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Now I was just a couple of hours away from the SciFoo Camp my first ever unconference. So just what is an unconference, I hear you ask. An unconference is a gathering that has no predetermined theme and no set agenda. The content of the conference is determined by the participants, during the conference itself. I will explain in a little while how that functioned at SciFoo but first of all what is SciFoo. SciFoo is a yearly unconference organised by O’Reilly Media, Digital Science, Nature and Google. The Foo in SciFoo stands for ‘friends of O’Reilly’, O’Reilly being the principal initiator of this particular bun fight.

Around five o’clock I took the shuttle bus from the hotel to Mountain View and the Googleplex curious as to what was awaiting me. The first thing that happened after I arrived in Mountain View and had started tucking into the delicious buffet that had been set up to greet the participants was a soft American voice asking, “Thony is that you?” I looked up and saw Evelyn Lamb, University of Utah mathematician and Scientific American maths blogger. Evelyn and I read each other’s blogs with enthusiasm but we have never met. Unlike myself Evelyn had obviously read the list of participants and knew that I was going to be there. The weekend could not have had a more pleasant beginning. If you like maths and you don’t read Evelyn’s blog, Roots of Unity, you should!

The buffet was followed by the first of a whole series of excellent meals. In terms of food, drinks and snacks Google knows how to take care of its guests. I’m sure I put on several kilos over the three days of SciFoo. We then got introduced to the organisers and to SciFoo. Tim O’Reilly from O’Reilly Media, Timo Hannay from Digital Science, and Cat Allman and Chris DiBona from Google open source plus a lady whose name I have unfortunately forgotten introduced themselves and the SciFoo Camp. The emphasis of the whole introduction was informality and fun. The organisers permit themselves to invite about 250 top scientists from overall in the world to Mountain View for the weekend basically to have fun! Which brings us to the participants. They ranged from Nobel laureates to doctoral students. All of the participants had distinguished themselves in their individual fields and many of them belonged to the category ‘famous author’. I’m not going to name any names because it would be just name-dropping and I had just as fascinating exchanges with the non-well-known, as with the eminent. All of this of course raises the question, how the hell did I ever get an invitation? I remain convinced that it was some sort of administrative fuck up but Timo Hannay assured me that I was supposed to be there. Maybe he was just being nice.

After the introduction by the organisers, we the participants had to introduce ourselves with just three words or three short phrases. There was even a gong in case anybody tried to speak too long. It wasn’t needed. All entered into the spirit of the situation and there were lots of clever and amusing introductions. One lady historian of science (there were three of us all together) from MIT just said, “History Matters!”, which garnered a round of laughter and applause. A famous science writer introduced himself as a high school drop out. Yours truly was fairly boring, “history of science, myth-busting blogger”. An introduction that brought me a series of conversations over the weekend from those curious to know what I mean by myth-busting.

After the introductions the participants posted on a schedule board the topics that they would like to discuss. There were nine conference rooms with eight sessions on the Saturday and three on the Sunday making a grand total of ninety-nine sessions on offer covering a bewildering range of topics in science and science communication. The organisers encourage the participants to leave their comfort zone and attend session outside of their own expertise. Like almost everybody else I followed this advice and as well as attending session close to my own interests I was, for example, in sessions on the peaceful use of drones and on the use of psilocybin to help terminal cancer patients come to terms with their impending deaths. All participants had name tags with their first name written large and their family name written small and we were also encouraged to just approach somebody offer a hand, introduce ourselves and start a conversation. Everybody did just that during all the breaks and all the meals leading to many fascinating exchanges.

The informality encouraged by the organisers led to a delightful phenomenon during the session that mostly took the form of discussions rather than presentations. You had on average about twenty people in a session and without anybody really directing the discussion everybody spoke without anybody interrupting anybody else. All the participants were friendly, courteous, thoughtful, restrained. As somebody emphasised during the closing session there was no hierarchy and absolutely no displays of ego. Given the nature of the participants a truly amazing experience.

So what about content? I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you on that. If I went into details this, already overlong, post would turn into a medium length book. All I will say is that it was one of the most intellectually intense, stimulating and exhilarating forty-eight hours in my life and I thank the Fates, Norns, Gods, forces of Karma or whatever that led to me being invited to this once in a lifetime experience. On Sunday afternoon, after it was all over, Eugenie Scott was kind enough to drive me back to Oakland on the other side of the Bay to the one I had travelled south on so my weekend included a panoramic round trip of a large part of the Bay Area. The Gods were truly being kind to me.

I spent another four days in the Bay Area playing at being a tourist. I did all the cliché things; I walked the full length of the harbour front in San Francisco (eating a Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia along the way), I wandered around Haight-Ashbury and looked at the Grateful Dead house (did I mention that I’m a Dead Head?) with my friend Darrel Rutkin, historian of astrology, who lives on Masonic and whom I first met on a country bus in Middle Franconia, whilst reading Monica Azzolini’s excellent The Duke and the Stars. I surveyed Golden Gate Park, at the entrance of which Jim Harrison, star Renaissance Mathematicus commentator, picked me up in his car and took me for an excellent Burmese meal. I met up with Twitter friend Shannon Supple, Berkley University’s Bancroft Library librarian for rare books and special collections, and went for a good Spanish meal in Oakland. I visited the legendary City Lights bookstore were I spent ten minutes debating with myself as to whether I should buy a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl (I already own one!) as a memento. In the end the cynic won against the fan and I didn’t! On my last day I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito, later taking the ferry back across the Bay to San Francisco. Here I had a true Bay Area experience because the fog was so thick you could only just see the water from the bridge. All my other days had been clear and sunny!

All of the people I met were kind, generous and friendly and my visit to the Bay Area despite its ominously bad beginning turned out to be totally positive and more than I could have ever hoped for. I own a huge debt to the organisers of the SciFoo Camp for having made all of this possible. I still don’t know why they did but they did and for that I thank them with all my heart.

For those who actually come here to read about the history of science, I already have a couple of things in the pipeline and normal blogging will recommence next week.

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The Renaissance Mathematicus Road Show 2015

 

At an ungodly hour next Wednesday morning I shall climb into the belly of the big metal bird and fly across the ocean of Athlant to the land of dreams, sunshine and water shortages, California. Why I’m leaving the seclusion and safety of my monk’s cell in Middle Franconia to visit the Bay Area will first be revealed in full upon my return. That is not the purpose of this post.

I shall be very busy over the weekend from 26 to 28 June, and no I don’t have tickets for Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara (sadly), but having taken a 9000 km and 9 hour flight upon myself I thought I’d hang around for a few days in the San Francisco area. If any of the readers of this blog, (are there any readers of this blog?) would like to meet up for a chat, drink (no alcohol), meal, walk or whatever I shall be freely available for such activities from Monday 29 June to Thursday 2 July and would be pleased to meet you, whoever you are. I love meeting my blog and Twitter friends in the flesh and all such meetings over the last six years or so have been both pleasant and stimulating.

If you are in the Bay Area that week and would like to meet up just drop me a line per email, in the comments or on Twitter and we can work something out. I have no fixed commitments over those four days so I’m very flexible.

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Now We Are Six.

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,

I was nearly new.

When I was Three

I was hardly me.

When I was Four,

I was not much more.

When I was Five,

I was just alive.

But now I am Six,

I’m as clever as clever,

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever[1].

Pooh Sticks E H Shepard

Pooh Sticks E H Shepard

The Renaissance Mathematicus emerged in cyberspace on 11 June 2009 with the post Who Am I and Why Am I Here? Since then I have celebrated each anniversary with a special post for the occasion. If you click on the links in the numbers in A. A. Milne’s splendid little poem above, you will be taken to the post for the respective year. As is my wont I see such occasions as a time to reflect upon the blog and what it means to me to write it. Today I want to consider what the most important thing that writing this blog has brought me, apart from teaching me how to write at all, and that is membership of a worldwide history of science community.

When I first became interested in the history of mathematics, as a teenager, finding people with whom I could share my enthusiasm was virtually impossible, a situation that didn’t change appreciably as I grew older. This didn’t stop me from boring friends and acquaintances with, in my opinion, exciting tales of Archimedes, Isaac Newton and George Boole on all possible occasions. Finally in the 1980s, as a mature student in Germany, I became part of a small circle of lecturers, professors and fellow students who shared my interests in and enthusiasm for the histories of mathematics, science, technology and medicine, whilst at the same time serving my apprenticeship as a historian in a research project into the history of mathematical logic. In the 1990s I left the university because of health issue and lost my history of science discussion circle for many years returning to history of science isolation.

In 2002, on the occasion of my professor’s sixty-fifth birthday I returned to university circles and found history of science discussion partners, some old, some new. I also became involved in a history of astronomy group in Nürnberg. I’m still involved with the latter but it is very small and very specialised. My contract group at the university gradually dissolved. People moved away, others retired and again I found myself drifting into isolation.

Things first began to change as I entered the Internet and discovered web sites dealing with various aspects of the history of science and really took off when I began to blog myself. Over the last six years through this blog and my activities managing On Giants’ Shoulders the monthly history of science blog carnival, my presence on Twitter and in the last year as editor of the weekly #histSTM links list Whewell’s Gazette I have become a fully integrated member of a literally world spanning network of historians of science, technology, mathematics, medicine, cartography, alchemy, astrology etc. etc. Professionals and amateurs, professors and lecturers, students, postgrads and postdocs, passionate addicts like myself and people with a casual or even passing interest all are present and all are more than welcome. I can sit at my control centre, my trusty iMac, and whilst I drink my early morning tea communicate with the other members of this wonderful network in India, Australia, North and South America, Africa and all the countries of Europe. Whilst totally isolated in my small flat in Middle Franconia I am more connected to the world of #histSTM than I have ever been, in a way that I could not have begun to imagine thirty years ago.

The Internet #histSTM community is my extended family and I own all of its members more than I can ever repay. I won’t name names otherwise this will become my longest post ever but I will say thank you to each and everyone of you and I hope we will share many more anniversaries here at the Renaissance Mathematicus.

[1] A. A. Milne, Now We Are Six, Methuen, 1927

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On the trail of the Friends of Charles Darwin

This week I was on an expedition to the very edges of civilisation in the wilds of Northern England. On Tuesday I took a local stagecoach to Hebden Bridge, the fabled home of that legendary tribe, The Friends of Charles Darwin.

Hebden Bridge Stagecoach Fare Invoice

Hebden Bridge Stagecoach Fare Invoice

Upon arrival I was challenged by the irate leader of the tribe Richard the Carter,

An irate Richard the Carter

An irate Richard the Carter

who thought I was there to steal his crop of buttercups.

His buttercup crop

His buttercup crop

However I managed to placate him and convince him that my intentions were entirely peaceful. He invited me in for a cup of the strange local brew, Yorkshire Tea and we conversed intensely on a wide range on topics.

When I left he displayed his friendly side, wishing me well on my further travels.

A placated tribal leader

A placated tribal leader

It is possible to become an honorary member of this exotic British tribe just by filling out the Internet membership form.

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My Internet presence

Given the fact that I have somehow gained a substantial number of new subscribers to the Renaissance Mathematicus and an even larger number of new followers on Twitter I thought it might be apposite to explain my various Internet activities.

The Renaissance Mathematicus is home base and is the hub around which everything else revolves. It is a platform on which I express my thoughts about the history of science, which is the great love of my life. Mostly the things written here centre on the Early Modern Period and to a large extent the so-called mathematical sciences. However I am king of this here castle and I am free to wander where my fancy takes me and often have and will continue to do so, landing maybe in the nineteenth century or perhaps in Ancient Greece or Babylon. The types of posts I write are also quite varied. A lot of the time I react to bad history of science criticising and correcting rubbish which others have published on the Internet, in newspapers or magazines, or in books. This very often involves busting the myths that unfortunately have become the everyday bread and butter of popular history of science.

I don’t however just post negative articles. The positive ones are oft in the form of potted biographies in particular of the less well known figures, who have made important contributions to the evolution of the sciences. Another form of post that can be either negative or positive are book reviews of which I have several in the pipeline at the moment. Occasionally I will write pieces on historiography or on the philosophy of science. From time to time, such as now, I write pieces about myself but I try to keep those to a minimum.

I have recently become very aware of the fact that over the years a relatively large number of posts on a fairly wide range of topics have accumulated here at the Renaissance Mathematicus. It has even reached the point where I sometimes find it difficult to find something I wrote in the past and can’t quite remember the ‘clever’ title I gave it at the time. On the other hand whilst searching in such situations I stumble across posts I had completely forgotten about and think, “Did I write that?” To improve the situation for both myself and others I intend to index the substantial posts sometime this summer (famous last words!).

My second major Internet presence in my Twitter stream (@rmathematicus), which shows up here on the right side of the blog. I am a serial retweeter! I tweet or retweet anything that has to do with #histSTM, that is the histories of science, technology and medicine. I also tweet or retweet some other stuff to do with my other interests in life like music for example. Anybody is welcome to follow me on Twitter, but on the whole I will only follow back if your tweets are somehow connected to #histSTM

My serial retweeting on Twitter does have another purpose, apart from informing people who follow me about the Internet world of #histSTM, and that is to serve as the principal source for my other blogging activity Whewell’s Gazette. Whewell’s Gazette is a weekly collated links list of as many #histSTM blog posts, articles etc. as I can find. It gets posted every Monday (if I get it finished in time!) on the Whewell’ Ghost blog site. Like my Twitter stream, I see this as a service to the wider #histSTM Internet community, spreading the gospel so to speak. If you are generally interested in some aspects of #histSTM go take a look! There are always lots of interesting things to read collected there.

I also have accounts on Facebook, Pinterest and academia.edu but these are largely inactive as I only opened them to gain access to #histSTM material posted there. All of my posts here and at Whewell’s Ghost get posted both to Twitter and to Facebook so if you prefer to follow me there feel free to do so.

When I first started this blog more than five years ago I didn’t think I would find enough to say to keep going for six months, however I’m still here and am still finding things to write about, so you’re more than welcome to stick around and read my pearls of wisdom (or festering heaps of rotting Dodo droppings, depending on your point of view). Also feel free to add your own views in the comments column, that’s what it’s there for. However be warned if you attempt to bite me, I am almost certain to bite back.

 

 

 

 

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In which I recommend some bedtime reading

Some time back the Pop Science Guy invited me to write a ‘10 Great History of Science Books’ list for his blog, to which I readily agreed. However being a professional procrastinator when it comes to writing anything I put it to one side and never got round to it. About a week ago PSG reminded me of my acceptance of his offer and this time I decided not to procrastinate any longer and finally write that list. On the day that I originally said yes I spontaneously wrote a list of the books I might include in my list, aiming mostly for books for the general reader rather than specialist academic texts and came up with thirteen titles and thought what the fuck “why are we so obsessed with lists of ten this and that?” and decided to stick to thirteen, a good baker’s dozen. As you will see I actually talk about more than thirteen books but then again why the hell not. Want to know what I recommend? Then go here and read your fill!

 

 

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The horror, the horror!

For those readers who might have wondered what The Renaissance Mathematicus looks and sounds like, you need wonder no more. There is now a video on Youtube in which I stumble and stutter my way through a very impromptu, not quite fifteen minute, lecture on the relationship between astronomy, astrology and medicine in the Early Modern Period. During which I indulge in a lot of arm waving and from time to time scratch my fleas. This video was filmed in the kitchen of the Remeis Observatory in Bamberg during a coffee break at the Astronomy in Franconia Conference last Monday, complete with the sounds of somebody loading the dishwasher.

The cameraman, who also puts some questions during this solo performance, was Chris Graney who requested my golden words for his students back in Louisville, the poor sods.

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