Opinionated History of Mathematics Intellectual Mathematics

 Mathematics
Cracking tales of historical mathematics and its interplay with science, philosophy, and culture. Revisionist history galore. Contrarian takes on received wisdom. Implications for teaching. Informed by current scholarship. By Dr Viktor Blåsjö.

Why the Greeks?
The Greek islands were geographically predisposed to democracy. The ritualised, antagonistic debates of parliaments and law courts were then generalised to all philosophical domains, creating a unique intellectual climate that put a premium on adversarialism and pure reason. This style of thought proved ideal for mathematics.

The mathematicians’ view of Galileo
What did 17thcentury mathematicians such as Newton and Huygens think of Galileo? Not very highly, it turns out. I summarise my case against Galileo using their perspectives and a mathematical lens more generally.

Historiography of Galileo’s relation to antiquity and middle ages
Our picture of Greek antiquity is distorted. Only a fraction of the masterpieces of antiquity have survived. Decisions on what to preserve were made by in ages of vastly inferior intellectual levels. Aristotelian philosophy is more accessible for mediocre minds than advanced mathematics and science. Hence this simpler part of Greek intellectual achievement was eagerly pursued, while technical works were neglected and perished. The alleged predominance of an Aristotelian worldview in antiquity is an illusion created by this distortion of sources. The “continuity thesis” that paints 17thcentury science as building on medieval thought is doubly mistaken, as it misconstrues both ancient science and Galileo’s role in the scientific revolution.

More things Galileo didn’t do first
What was Galileo’s great innovation in science? To give practical experience more authority than philosophical systems? To insist on mechanical as opposed to teleological or supernatural explanations of natural phenomena? To take mathematical physics as our best window into the fundamental nature of reality as opposed to just a computational tool for a small set of technical problems? No, none of the above. All of these things had been old hat for thousands of years.

Galileo was the first to … what exactly?
Was Galileo “the father of modern science” because he was the first to unite mathematics and physics? Or the first to base science on data and experiments? No. Galileo was not the first to do any of these things, despite often being erroneously credited with these innovations.

Galileo and the Church
Galileo’s sentencing by the Inquisition was avoidable. The Church had no interest in prosecuting mathematical astronomers, but since Galileo had so little to contribute in that domain he foolishly got himself involved with Biblical interpretation. His scriptural interpretations not only got him into hot water: they are also scientifically unsound and blatantly inconsistent with his own science.