Unreasonable Effectiveness

I just thought I would link to a couple of classic essays today.  These deal with the slightly mind boggling link up between mathematics and physical theories – often we have some sort of (often rough) measurements and a nice, neat mathematical formula that fits them, then the formula will seem to give a “law of nature” that is hugely accurate beyond what we might reasonably expect.

Is this just an artefact of how we use mathematics, or is there really an underlying mathematical structure to the universe?  It gets towards something that Steven Weinberg described in the book I read recently – the idea of a Final Theory in physics.  I’m not sure where I would come down on this, but they make interesting reading.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics by Hamming

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Mendeleyev’s Dream by Paul Strathern

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This book isn’t exactly about Dimitri Mendeleyev, he only shows up 260 pages into a 295 page book, but there’s the old line “standing on the shoulders of giants”.  This is about the slow process the chemistry went through to develop from the rather haphazard work of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the modern science that it became with Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table.

For the most part, the book is full of tales of the various personalities that paved the way for Mendeleyev.  Big names like Issac Newton, Francis Bacon and Antoine Lavoisier are covered, as are lesser known figures like the unlucky Carl Scheele or the disreputable Johann Becher.  The first half of the book switches between a history of alchemy and a history of empirical science in general, as it needs to.  The later chapters focus more and more on chemistry, and particularly that which led towards the understanding of elements.

It’s a fairly light book, but Strathern does find time to weigh in with opinions – on the views of male scientists that kept it a boy’s club for so long, and on people who either had the right approach but wrong answer or vice versa.  This second point could have had more made of it – it is acknowledged that even good scientists will hold to their beliefs or opinions (Priestly and others trying to hold onto their theories about Phlogiston after Lavoisier’s identification of Oxygen) but it doesn’t really interrupt the sense of progress.

My only real disappointment with the book is the ending point.  Other than a brief comment on the success of the periodic table in the future, the book cuts out at Mendeleyev’s peak.  For what is basically a general history of chemistry, it would be nice to see where the subject went in its mature form.

Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling

The 17th century contained great political disruption throughout Europe, but also the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of a recognizably modern world.  In this book, the philosopher A.C. Grayling briefly sets out his view on the century.

First he runs through the Thirty Years War and Anglo Dutch Wars, with stops along the way for a few bits and pieces about what was going on elsewhere – flicking between Wallenstein and Robert Harvey, or from Gustavus Adolphus to scientific publications.  The narrative is short and told with confidence, but simplified (a necessary evil to cram the whole century into 300 pages, but it does lead to some irritating mistakes or assertions).

After this Grayling gets stuck into the various attempted paths to knowledge of the time – from the network of letters between natural philosophers to less rational sorts like alchemists, hermeticists, occultists like Dr John Dee, and the Rosicrucians.  There was often crossover between the developing modern way of thinking and the old irrational ways, but Grayling explains well how religious men like Mersenne or Descartes or occultists like Isaac Newton could still lead the way to a more rational methodology.

There is a brief section on language, society and politics that mashs up the likes of Locke, Hobbes and the Diggers.  There are lots of interesting facts throughout, and very enjoyable to read as Grayling jumps from one topic to another.  It does tend towards the same conclusion though, that the political situation of a post-reformation Europe left space for new ways of thinking to flourish.

The book isn’t really long enough to provide a solid argument for such a big thesis, and at times it feels like Grayling hasn’t really bothered.  The aforementioned sloppy mistakes are rife – at one point he wonders what it would be like if Britain still had control of land on continental Europe, somehow forgetting Gibraltar.  He perhaps overstates the role of the Catholic Church and understates the role of Medieval philosophers (it reminded me that I’ll have to post on God’s Philosophers by James Hannam at some point).  In its bold assertions and Whig history story of relentless progress, this book on the Modern Mind often feels rather old fashioned.

Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

There has been a bit of a gap in posts, but I had been doing a series of post inspired by Ethan Masood‘s book Science & Islam. I’m coming towards the final topics now, but certainly not to the least of them. Medicine could perhaps be picked out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic science. While some parts of science could come into conflict with religion, the treatment of the sick had a pretty easy start in the Islamic world – Muhammad himself said to make use of the best methods out there. This was seized on with some enthusiasm and, while it was far from the first culture to have hospitals and charitable institutions, advanced hospitals were common.

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Post 56: Science & Islam: Chemistry

As with most Islamic scholarship, the roots of the subject came from ancient Greece. Even the terms Chemisty and Alchemy are derived from ancient greek terms. At this early stage of Chemistry, there is still a huge mixture between what would correspond to real science (Chemistry) and what would correspond to utter nonsense (Alchemy) – similar to Astronomy and Astrology but possibly harder to discern. Despite the subject not yet being fully refined, there was still the beginnings of skepticism and a more structured scientific method. In practical terms there were great developments in equipment and results – particularly in the field of medicine.  To include the huge amount of discoveries, I would basically have to write a list of names and dates.  Therefore for the sake of readability I’m going to focus on just a few of the big names.

Geber and Pseudo-Geber

The source of much of this is Jabir Ibn Hayyan, otherwise known as Geber, a scholar from Persia in the 8th century. His name was so bound up with the subject of chemistry that there is even a so-called “Pseudo-Geber” who put out his own work under the name of the earlier scholar as “translations”. This, and the usual mysteriousness associated with the profession of Alchemy, can make it difficult to pin down the genuine works of Geber. Regardless of this, both Geber and Psuedo-Geber did much for the science.

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Post 48: Science & Islam: Astronomy

Book CoverA few weeks ago I posted a review of the book Science & Islam by Ethan Masood, a tie in with a BBC series from about five years ago. I felt that the book was a bit of a let down, but loved the topic and wanted to read more on it. As a follow up I then wrote a post giving a bit more detail on the Islamic contributions to Mathematics. I wouldn’t pretend that I’m a better writer than Masood, but I wanted to focus a bit more on some of the techniques and details of the work than he did. I do have a scientific background, but I don’t want to make this into a science blog so I’m attempted to strike a bit of an awkward line between the history and the science. With that introduction/disclaimer out of the way – here’s a short summary of the Islamic world’s contribution to Astronomy.

Looking at it now, Mathematics may be the headline grabbing topic for the Islamic golden age but Astronomy (and its unfortunate and misguided relative Astrology) were at least as important. Not only did they provide the motivation for a lot of the work in mathematics and physics, but they also did a lot of very underrated work in moving the topic forward from its ancient roots towards the early heliocentric model of Copernicus. Islamic scholars invented technologies like the astrolabe, published tables of data that later scientists would draw on, and worked out a lot of the mathematical difficulties for the later models. Unfortunately, the political and educational system in the Islamic world meant that they weren’t fully able to capitalize on this; the wonderful observatories were only ever short term institutions and the whole thing stagnated around the turn of the sixteenth century.

Continue reading Post 48: Science & Islam: Astronomy

Post 44: Science & Islam: Mathematics

Most people will probably know that the mathematicians of the Islamic world have played a big part in mathematics as we know it – terms like “algebra” and “algorithm” is a bit of a give away, and the invention of zero is a common bit of trivia. Not as many people may be familiar with the characters and setting behind these inventions or the full extent of their mathematical achievements. These weren’t just abstract creations either, they often had practical uses for both everyday life and for other academic arts. This post is a bit of a deviation from a book (Science & Islam by Ethan Masood) I reviewed in a recent post – I’ve given a bit of a general run through of the general history there if you want to check it out (please do, views are always nice to have), but I’ve tried to keep this post relatively self contained.

Why?

Why did they study mathematics? Well, much like anyone else it was a mixture of the practical and the academic. Some of these scientists and philosophers would investigate more and more complicated work for its own sake, but there were also more down to earth reasons. Al-Khwarizmi’s work on algebra was explained as a way to speed up the complicated process of Islamic inheritance, and work on trigonometry was needed for new techniques in navigation and astronomy (okay, maybe that last one is a bit less down to earth). The work was, as with more scientific work, generally funded by a patron or ruler.

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Post 42: Science & Islam

I recently read Science & Islam by Ehsan Masood, designed to accompany a BBC television series, and decided to put out a post on it. To spoil things up front, I found the book disappointing but the topic fascinating so I began writing a huge essay on it. So huge in fact that I’ve decided to split it into a number of posts. This first one will give a general history and my thoughts on the book itself, and it should be followed by a post or two on the science behind all this (something that I think the book struggled to deal with as much as I would have liked).

The Rise of Islam

When the Arab armies came storming out of the desert into the tired Byzantine and Persian Empires, their initially success was astounding. They soon found themselves in control of a vast empire containing a mix of religions and peoples in which arabs and Islam were a minority. This shift from military expansion to administration provided a set of challenges for the Caliphate to deal with – providing food for the population, minting coins, providing a central administration and building new cities and buildings. This began a boom in science and technology that would last for centuries, but it did not start from scratch – those christians, jews and zoroastrians that had populated the land before would lend their talents to this and techniques would be brought in and translated from outside the reaches of the empire. The universal adoption of the arabic language helped this process, providing easy communication between scholars from distant lands.

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Post 24: History of Alchemy Podcast

This podcast at historyofalchemy.com comes from Travis J Dow and Pete Collman, two Americans living in Prague who also work on the Bohemican podcast, documenting life and culture in the Czech Republic. It’s through this history of Prague (and particularly the Emperor Rudolf II, who we shall come back to later) that they developed an interest in Alchemy. This isn’t exactly a narrative podcast, each episode focuses on a single character and works as a stand alone feature, but some of the concepts explained in particular episodes will be recalled in later shows. The topic, the stand alone nature of the episodes and the presentation style help this to stand out from the crowd of podcasts as something that is a little bit different.

Continue reading Post 24: History of Alchemy Podcast