Category Archives: Autobiographical

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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Childhood, war games and becoming a historian.

This week’s A Point of View on BBC Radio 4 The Horror of War by Renaissance historian Lisa Jardine was truly excellent and well worth ten minutes of your time. From the starting point of having visited a war exhibition she discussed how museums sometimes/often sanitize war when presenting it attractively pre-packaged for the viewing public. Turning to the anything but attractive reality of war she ended her short piece with a very personal anecdote from the bringing up of her own children. She told how her five-year-old son came home from primary school wishing to be bought a khaki shirt. It transpired that a group of kids in his class had started to play war games, re-enacting the Second World War. I was slightly surprised that the initiator or this activity was a recently arrived German boy because one of the things that struck me when I moved to Germany more than thirty years ago is that German children, unlike myself and my friends in my childhood, don’t play war games; a legacy of the German guilt for the Second World War and everything that happened in Germany during the Nazi period. In fact many of my German friends who had spent time in Britain told me how shocked they had been by the war stories in English children’s comics. How Lisa dealt with her own qualms about her son’s wish to play war games I will leave you to find out for yourselves, I want to talk about my own childhood, the war games I played and how it led to me becoming a historian.

I grew up I the 1950s in the shadow of the Second World War; although I don’t remember it the bottled milk on which I was fed was still rationed. From about the age of four to about the age of eleven me and my best friend Pete (and yes grammar fascists I know that is grammatically wrong!) played war games; it was one of our principle activities.

We were Royal Marine Commandoes parachuting behind enemy lines in France to rescue some imagined imprisoned spy, we were Viking warriors slashing and pillaging our way through some imagined coastal settlement or sailing the high seas in our dragon boat, we were Roman legionaries battling the wild Pictish hoards to regain the Eagle of the Ninth (slightly ironic as my father was a lowland Scot!), we were members of the French Foreign Legion besieged by marauding Arabs, you name it if there was a war in history we fought in it.

We had a large storage cupboard, without doors in a loft above a stables on whose top shelf we sat back to back whilst flying our Lancaster bomber; Pete was the pilot and I was by turns the tail-gunner and the bomb aimer. We had an old coalbunker in the yard that was by turns our tank or Panzerkampfwagen (we knew all the right terminology), or our submarine. I had a real periscope that I had built myself with the help of my mother. We were always in the workshop building the accoutrements of war. We carved swords out of fence palings and made shields of every imaginable shape and form out of plywood. We built wooden Sten submachine guns and Bren light machine guns. We fashioned bows and arrows out of hazel wood saplings and constructed lethal crossbows. When we played inside we glued together vast fleets of warships and airplanes, as well as squadrons of tanks from Airfix plastic kits.

A large part of our lives was devoted to the pursuit of war but it wasn’t just practical, there was a strong and surprisingly deep theoretical side to our endeavours. We wished our war games to be as authentic as possible and so we devoted a large part of our time to studying war history. Whilst still at primary school I could detail every model of tank (Panzerkampfwagen) produced in Germany during the 1930s and 40s, including who had designed them, which company had built them etc. etc. I knew the ranks of all the members of a Roman legion, how many men constituted a cohort, a legion, where which legions were deployed and so on, and so on. Aided by my historian father, I had books on such things as Lancelot de Mole’s tank and the construction of Samurai armour. I was a war history junkie, but more importantly I was a practicing historian. I served my first apprenticeship as a historian whilst still at primary school learning, in detail, about all of the ways humanity had dreamt up to kill itself off.

By the time I was fifteen I had become the totally convinced pacifist I remain today but my passion for history had grown and would soon turn first to the history of mathematics and then later to the more general history of science but that passion has its roots very firmly in those childhood years where, in my imagination, I slaughtered thousands and, it should be pointed out, died a thousand spectacular deaths. Being able to act out an Oscar worthy death was an essential part of our war games.

I never had children and being old, set in my ways as a single and, as my contribution to contraception, sterilised I never will have, so I can’t say how I would react to a child of mine wishing to play war games. I can only wish that my reaction would have been as wonderful as that of Lisa Jardine.

 

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