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Posts Tagged ‘history of science

“Night Time Is the Right Time”*…

An architect based in Boston by day, Andrew Thomas Shea is a photography hobbyist at night and his latest project, Neon New England, celebrates a beloved common fixture across the Northeastern United States… vintage neon signs.

More of Shea’s sumptuous work at “Nocturnal photographs of New England’s famous American neon signs.”

* song written and first performed by Roosevelt Sykes (1937), bt better known in subsequent versions by inspired many subsequent versions, including hits by Ray Charles, Rufus and Carla (Thomas), and James Brown


As we reflect on reflection, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851 that Léon Foucault famously used a pendulum suspended from the top of the dome in the Pantheon in Paris to demonstrate that the earth turns on its axis. (He used a technique developed by Vincenzo Viviani, though it was Foucault’s “experiment that caught the public’s attention.) The following year, Foucault used (and named) the gyroscope in a conceptually simpler experimental proof.

(Several years later he also helped take the first photo of the sun.)



“Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things”*…

Freeman Dyson was a translator: he turned physics into math, and those subjects into English for the general public.

Mathematics, like life, is complicated. But, for those who do mathematics, it is a source of joy. “The main thing is just astonishment that there’s such a rich world out there—a wonderful, abstract, very beautiful, simple world,” [John] Conway said. “It’s like Pizarro standing on the shores of the Pacific or whatever. . . . I can sit here in this chair and go on a voyage of exploration. A very different voyage of exploration, but, still, there are things to be discovered, things to be seen, that you can quite easily be the first person ever to see.”

So many of us now sit in our rooms, bound in space while time drips away. It can be a bit of a comfort to know that, as long as you are able to sit still and think, your creative spirit can be an engine of exploration. On their journeys, these playful, curious mathematicians discovered Monsters and numbers so large that they can hardly be written down. We’re grateful for the lively stories of their expeditions, and for the thinkers who led them. They’ll be missed…

John Conway, Ronald Graham, and Freeman Dyson all explored the world with their minds. Dan Rockmore (@dan_rockmore) celebrates “Three Mathematicians We Lost in 2020.”

Special bonus: an interview with an heir to Dyson– that’s to say, an important mathematician who’s also a gifted “translator”– Steven Strogatz.

* Henri Poincaré


As we share their amazement, we might we might spare a thought for Max Born; he died on this date in 1970.  A German physicist and Nobel Laureate, he coined the phrase “quantum mechanics” to describe the field in which he made his greatest contributions.  But beyond his accomplishments as a practitioner, he was a master teacher whose students included Enrico Fermi and Werner Heisenberg– both of whom became Nobel Laureates before their mentor– and  J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Less well-known is that Born, who died in 1970, was the grandfather of Australian phenom and definitive Sandy-portrayer Olivia Newton-John.


“The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope”*…

After this post, your correspondent is heading into his customary Holiday Hiatus; regular service will resume in early 2021. In the meantime, a piece to ponder…

“Civilizations with long nows look after things better,” says Brian Eno.  “In those places you feel a very strong but flexible structure which is built to absorb shocks and in fact incorporate them.”undefined  You can imagine how such a process could evolve—all civilizations suffer shocks; only the ones that absorb the shocks survive.  That still doesn’t explain the mechanism.

In recent years a few scientists (such as R. V. O’Neill and C. S. Holling) have been probing the same issue in ecological systems: how do they manage change, how do they absorb and incorporate shocks?  The answer appears to lie in the relationship between components in a system that have different change-rates and different scales of size.  Instead of breaking under stress like something brittle, these systems yield as if they were soft.  Some parts respond quickly to the shock, allowing slower parts to ignore the shock and maintain their steady duties of system continuity.

Consider the differently paced components to be layers.  Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.

From the fastest layers to the slowest layers in the system, the relationship can be described as follows:

All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure.  It is what makes them adaptable and robust…

Stewart Brand (@stewartbrand) unpacks a concept that he popularized in his remarkable book How Buildings Learn and that animates the work of The Long Now Foundation, which he co-founded– pace layers, which provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing feedback throughout the system.  It is in the contradictions between these layers that civilization finds its surest health: “Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning.” Do click through and read in full…

* Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1872 that HMS Challenger set sail from Portsmouth. Modified for scientific exploration, its activities over the next four years, known as The Challenger Expedition, laid the foundation for the entire academic and research discipline of oceanography.

The Challenger


“Those who wish to know the art of calculating, its subtleties and ingenuities, must know computing with hand figures”*…

Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, 1237 [source]

The House of Wisdom sounds a bit like make believe: no trace remains of this ancient library, destroyed in the 13th Century, so we cannot be sure exactly where it was located or what it looked like.

But this prestigious academy was in fact a major intellectual powerhouse in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age, and the birthplace of mathematical concepts as transformative as the common zero and our modern-day “Arabic” numerals.

Founded as a private collection for caliph Harun Al-Rashid in the late 8th Century then converted to a public academy some 30 years later, the House of Wisdom appears to have pulled scientists from all over the world towards Baghdad, drawn as they were by the city’s vibrant intellectual curiosity and freedom of expression (Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars were all allowed to study there).

An archive as formidable in size as the present-day British Library in London or the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, the House of Wisdom eventually became an unrivalled centre for the study of humanities and sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, philosophy, literature and the arts – as well as some more dubious subjects such as alchemy and astrology.

To conjure this great monument thus requires a leap of imagination (think the Citadel in Westeros, or the library at Hogwarts), but one thing is certain: the academy ushered in a cultural Renaissance that would entirely alter the course of mathematics.

The House of Wisdom was destroyed in the Mongol Siege of Baghdad in 1258 (according to legend, so many manuscripts were tossed into the River Tigris that its waters turned black from ink), but the discoveries made there introduced a powerful, abstract mathematical language that would later be adopted by the Islamic empire, Europe, and ultimately, the entire world.

Tracing the House of Wisdom’s mathematical legacy involves a bit of time travel back to the future, as it were. For hundreds of years until the ebb of the Italian Renaissance, one name was synonymous with mathematics in Europe: Leonardo da Pisa, known posthumously as Fibonacci. Born in Pisa in 1170, the Italian mathematician received his primary instruction in Bugia, a trading enclave located on the Barbary coast of Africa (coastal North Africa). In his early 20s, Fibonacci traveled to the Middle East, captivated by ideas that had come west from India through Persia. When he returned to Italy, Fibonacci published Liber Abbaci, one of the first Western works to describe the Hindu-Arabic numeric system.

When Liber Abbaci first appeared in 1202, Hindu-Arabic numerals were known to only a few intellectuals; European tradesmen and scholars were still clinging to Roman numerals, which made multiplication and division extremely cumbersome (try multiplying MXCI by LVII!). Fibonacci’s book demonstrated numerals’ use in arithmetic operations – techniques which could be applied to practical problems like profit margin, money changing, weight conversion, barter and interest…

Fibonacci’s great genius was not just his creativity as a mathematician, however, but his keen understanding of the advantages known to Muslim scientists for centuries: their calculating formulas, their decimal place system, their algebra. In fact, Liber Abbaci relied almost exclusively on the algorithms of 9th-Century mathematician Al-Khwarizmi. His revolutionary treatise presented, for the first time, a systematic way of solving quadratic equations. Because of his discoveries in the field, Al-Khwarizmi is often referred to as the father of algebra – a word we owe to him, from the Arabic al-jabr, “the restoring of broken parts”—and in 821 he was appointed astronomer and head librarian of the House of Wisdom…

Centuries ago, a prestigious Islamic library (tragically burned in the the Siege of Baghdad) brought Arabic numerals to the world; its mathematical revolution changed our world: “How modern mathematics emerged from a lost Islamic library.”

For more on The House of Wisdom– and the sad stories of other libraries and archives that have been destroyed through the ages– see Richard Ovenden‘s remarkable new Burning the Books- a History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.

* Leonardo da Pisa, known posthumously as Fibonacci [see here]


As we count our blessings, we might spare a thought for John Pell; he died on this date in 1685.  An English mathematician, he is perhaps best remembered for having introduced the “division sign”– the “obelus,” a short line with dots above and below– into use in English.  It was first used in German by Johann Rahn in 1659 in Teutsche Algebra; Pell’s translation brought the symbol to English-speaking mathematicians.  But Pell was an important influence on Rahn, and edited his book– so may well have been, many scholars believe, the originator of the symbol for this use.  (In any case the symbol wasn’t new to them:  the obelus [derived from the word for “roasting spit” in Greek] had already been used to mark passages in writings that were considered dubious, corrupt or spurious…. a use that surely seems only too appropriate to legions of second and third grade math students.)


“I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque”*…

Looney Tunes without Looney Tunes: “Looney Tunes Backgrounds.”

[TotH to This Isn’t Happiness]

* Bugs Bunny


As we contemplate context, we might send uncertain birthday greetings to Werner Karl Heisenberg; he was born on this date in 1901.  A theoretical physicist, he made important contributions to the theories of the hydrodynamics of turbulent flows, the atomic nucleus, ferromagnetism, superconductivity, cosmic rays, and subatomic particles.  But he is most widely remembered as a pioneer of quantum mechanics and author of what’s become known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”

During World War II, Heisenberg was part of the team attempting to create an atomic bomb for Germany– for which he was arrested and detained by the Allies at the end of the conflict.  He was returned to Germany, where he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, which soon thereafter was renamed the Max Planck Institute for Physics. He later served as president of the German Research Council, chairman of the Commission for Atomic Physics, chairman of the Nuclear Physics Working Group, and president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Some things are so serious that one can only joke about them

Werner Heisenberg


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