Sound and Fury

Signifying nothing

God is better than Giants. Fact.

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I bought On the Shoulders of Giants today. I’m disappointed with the scope of it. It only contains work by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein. Not only is this a limited selection of people, but it is a limited selection of physics. To mention nothing of Aristotelian or Ptolemaic astronomy would be a big oversight if this were a book about astronomy. If it is a book about physics more generally, then that oversight can be forgiven, but then the absence of any work on quantum physics is inexcusable: surely the EPR paper and Bohr’s reply deserve a mention? Or extracts from Feynman’s popular science writing? Or Schrodinger’s  paper where he first describes his cat paradox? There is a lot missing from this collection, however you look at it. Maybe Hawking is setting himself up for a third installment of “Other people’s writing dressed up in a book with potted biographies by me and cover art by William Blake” which will cover quantum mechanics…

This is disappointing in the light of God Created the Integers. Look at the breadth of time and subject matter encapsulated in the writers from that volume: Euclid, Archimedes, Diophantus, Descartes, Newton, Laplace, Fourier, Gauss, Cauchy, Boole, Riemann, Weierstrass, Dedekind, Cantor,  Lebesgue, Godel and Turing. Even if this list has some disappointing gaps (Apollonius, Hilbert, Zermelo, Peano, Russell…) it is still a much better survey of the subject than Giants is of its subject.

I think what underlies this difference is an important differnce between maths and physics: the cosmological models that Copernicus overthrew are no longer useful at all. Copernicus was the first person whose work on astronomy is still relevant (OK, so Oresme and Burridan and maybe even some ancients suggested geocentric systems, but never mind them). In mathematics, older work is not superseded in the same way. The advent of non-Euclidean geometries did not invalidate or replace Euclid’s work. Mathematics is never proven wrong. It is only ever placed in a new bigger more general structure. That is probably due to the nature of the subject matter of maths as opposed to physics. Physics is about the world. Maths is..n’t. What maths is about is an open question, but whatever the answer is, it isn’t something which can contradict the results of mathematicians.


Written by Seamus

March 10, 2008 at 3:28 pm

Posted in maths, science

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