Opinionated History of Mathematics Intellectual Mathematics

 Science

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.

Did Copernicus steal ideas from Islamic astronomers?
Copernicus’s planetary models contain elements also found in the works of late medieval Islamic astronomers associated with the Maragha School, including the Tusi couple and Ibn alShatir’s models for the Moon and Mercury. On this basis many historians have concluded that Copernicus must have gotten his hands on these Maragha ideas somehow or other, even … Continue reading Did Copernicus steal ideas from Islamic astronomers?

Operational Einstein: constructivist principles of special relativity
Einstein’s theory of special relativity defines time and space operationally, that is to say, in terms of the actions performed to measure them. This is analogous to the constructivist spirit of classical geometry.

Review of Netz’s New History of Greek Mathematics
Reviel Netz’s New History of Greek Mathematics contains a number of factual errors, both mathematical and historical. Netz is dismissive of traditional scholarship in the field, but in some ways represents a step backwards with respect to that tradition. I argue against Netz’s dismissal of many anecdotal historical testimonies as fabrications, and his “ludic proof” … Continue reading Review of Netz’s New History of Greek Mathematics

The “universal grammar” of space: what geometry is innate?
Geometry might be innate in the same way as language. There are many languages, each of which is an equally coherent and viable paradigm of thought, and the same can be said for Euclidean and nonEuclidean geometries. As our native language is shaped by experience, so might our “native geometry” be. Yet substantive innate conceptions may be a precondition for any linguistic or spatial thought to be possible at all, as Chomsky said for language and Kant for geometry. Just as language learning requires singling out, from all the sounds in the environment, only the linguistic ones, so Poincaré articulated criteria for what parts of all sensory data should be regarded as pertaining to geometry.

“Repugnant to the nature of a straight line”: NonEuclidean geometry
The discovery of nonEuclidean geometry in the 19th century radically undermined traditional conceptions of the relation between mathematics and the world. Instead of assuming that physical space was the subject matter of geometry, mathematicians elaborated numerous alternative geometries abstractly and formally, distancing themselves from reality and intuition.

Rationalism 2.0: Kant’s philosophy of geometry
Kant developed a philosophy of geometry that explained how geometry can be both knowable in pure thought and applicable to physical reality. Namely, because geometry is built into not only our minds but also the way in which we perceive the world. In this way, Kant solved the applicability problem of classical rationalism, albeit at the cost of making our perception of the world around us inextricably subjective. Kant’s theory also showed how rationalism, and philosophy generally, could be reconciled with Newtonian science, with which it had been seen as embarrassingly out of touch. In particular, Kant’s perspective shows how Newton’s notion of absolute space, which had seemed philosophically repugnant, can be accommodated from an epistemological point of view.
Customer Reviews
Illuminating History of Mathematics
It’s great to hear an analysis of various historical treaties of math and science history with such clarity! Thank you! I hope there’s more to come. Looking forward to the next episode!
This is refreshing and illuminating
The season about Galileo is invaluable. I hope these facts make it into the mainstream writers of history, because it seems there is much, much more to the tale we’ve been told about him. Really great series to listen to. Finally, here’s someone who is not from the humanities department commenting on the history of math and science!
Brilliant
Brilliant, witty, and, highest compliment for a mathematician explaining occasionally complex matters, comprehensible to people who have virtually no background and thought provoking to those who do.