Quick Links

Shelly Glashow is traveling around, giving talks bashing his childhood hero Isaac Newton (and noting that he was “surely one of the greatest intellects the world has known”). He’ll be at NYU tomorrow talking on The Errors and Animadversions of Sir Isaac Newton. For a copy of his talk, see here, (and here for a summary in Catalan).

Tonight is the Lawrence Krauss – Brian Greene string theory debate in DC, and next week in Berkeley Krauss is debating John Terning on the subject, at an event entitled Extra Dimensions and String Theory: Physics of the Future or Pure Mathematics? The event is organized by the FQXI funded organization Multiversal Journeys.

Krauss was at the cosmology conference that Tommaso Dorigo has been reporting on, giving a dinner talk dissing anthropic reasoning and pointing out that cosmology has a “miserable future”, since everything is receding from us. His main conference talk was evidently not very optimisitic about near-term prospects for learning more about dark energy or dark matter.

For more about non-commutative geometry and number theory, David Kazhdan is giving a talk at Harvard on April 18 with the following abstract:

Discussion of Alain Connes formulation of the Andre Weil’s theorem. [ the Riemann conjecture for the functional filed case]. Alain Connes found a very interesting way to interpret the results as a computation of an asymptotic of a family of operators of finite rank.

Lieven le Bruyn has a discussion of Plato’s cave and a recent paper Modular shadows and the Levy-Mellin infinity-adic transform, by Marcolli and Manin, who motivate their title by relating Plato’s cave and holography in AdS/CFT.

: The Washington Post’s publication Express has an article about Lawrence Krauss and the problems of string theory, entitled Frayed String.

Update: Science has a report on the debate. Also, there’s a report (with audio) from a blogger at the Hooded Hawk blog.

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16 Responses to Quick Links

  1. Chris Oakley says:

    Glashow’s piece slagging off Sir Isaac makes interesting reading. I was aware of the fact that Newton was not above petty jealousies or obsessions with alchemy, astrology and other less-than-scientific pursuits, but one does wonder about Glashow’s motivation in drawing attention to these … is he preparing the ground for some revelations about his own life, i.e. that he is a laudanum addict, a practising astrologer and necromancer and one who, despite the present evidence, secretly admires Superstring Theory? We should watch this space. Further revelations may be on the way.

  2. DB says:

    If his paper had included a proviso along the lines of “it’s easy to criticise from the vantage point of 350 years of hindsight” I might be inclined to indulge Glashow. Rather than speculate on how Newton would have conducted himself in the modern era, Glashow might be better advised to imagine how he himself might have fared in the mid seventeenth century. A pity there are no new insights in this article, other than to learn that Glashow’s childhood innocence has been cruelly undermined.
    Comparisons with Einstein are just silly. Einstein was no mathematician and no experimentalist, so why on earth compare them? And Einstein was no saint either! Instead of wallowing in the human defects of his subject, Glashow would serve his bright agenda (which I support) better by emphasising how scientific achievement enables humans to leave behind a legacy which outshines the feeble reality of their ephemeral personalities.
    By the way, Asberger should read Asperger (after Hans), somebody may be casting a spell!

  3. steveM says:

    Another of Newton’s bizarre beliefs was that the law of inverse
    squares was already to be found in Pythagoras. He was also
    the first physicist to go into finance when he became Master of the Mint and sent forgers to the gallows without a second thought. Despite his intellect Newton also made a huge blunder when he lost £20,000 in the stock market–a colossal sum in its day, and still quite substantial even today–specifically when the South Sea Bubble collapsed. He then remarked ” I can compute the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people”. The quote also suggests that dealing with people and the subtleties of human
    relationships was not his forte

  4. dan says:

    It’s been claimed Newton had Asperger’s Syndrome.

  5. Peter Shor says:

    Is attacking Newton for using way too many significant digits fair? The theory of and proper use of significant digits is second nature to scientists now, but I don’t think it’s a priori obvious, and I can’t believe it was actually around at the time.

  6. Kea says:

    Another of Newton’s bizarre beliefs was that the law of inverse
    squares was already to be found in Pythagoras.

    This is not bizarre. It is true.

  7. Chris Oakley says:

    Inspired by Glashow via Peter, I went to the antechapel of Trinity College, Cambridge today where there is a statue of Newton. He looks like a P.E. teacher. Maybe all this grouchy behaviour was only because he missed a vocation here.

  8. Uncle Enzo says:

    How come my comment was deleted?

  9. woit says:

    Sorry Uncle Enzo, but there are certain topics which, once broached, lead to large numbers of comments by tedious ideologues, so I don’t post about these and will ruthlessly delete comments about them. These include evolution, religion, climate change, and others I dare not even mention…

  10. Robert Musil says:

    Could Newton have been the model for Templeton the Rat in Charlotte’s Web?

  11. Robert Musil says:

    I was a little disappointed that Glashow didn’t mention any of the drubbing Newton took from Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. In fact, the original Frontispiece of “Gulliver’s Travels” [ a cartoon of Gulliver himself, reproduced here: http://www.jaffebros.com/lee/gulliver/morley/fp.jpeg%5D may be a likeness of Newton. [See: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0035-9149(199607)50%3A2%3C191%3AITFO'T%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6%5D

    Swift saw Newton as the essence of the immoral (or at least amoral), abstract reasoning scientist, and was especially annoyed at Newton’s scheme to debase Irish coinage, which Swift believed was immoral and callous. In the book, Gulliver travels to the Flying (Floating) Island Laputa (Spanish “la puta”: the whore – Swift considered excessive rationality to be whorelike). The inhabitants are distracted with very narrow interests – mathematics and music. Their clothes do not fit and are decorated with astrological symbols and musical figures. They listen to the music of the spheres, believe in astrology, worry constantly that the sun will go out and live in badly built houses. They are speculative and rationalistic philosophers who are pathetic failures as philosophers, reasoners and men. They are devoted to the most ethereal of abstract music and mathematics — but cannot play music well or figure accurately enough to build houses or tailor clothes (The tailor’s mistake is directed at Newton based on the mistake made by a printer in one of the figures Newton used in computing the distance of the earth from the sun). They are completely incompetent in practical affairs.

    Gulliver is then lowered from floating Laputa to Lagado, where the crops are poorly managed, people wear ragged clothing, and the houses are in bad condition – except for the house of the governor of Lagado. He tells Gulliver that 40 years before some Lagado residents visited Laputa and came away with a smattering of mathematics. They built an academy to carry out their projects they learned in Laputa. The Grand Academy of Lagado is a satire on the Royal Society, of which Newton was then President. At the Academy of Lagado, scientists are attempting to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, turn human feces back into food, erect buildings from the roof down, plow farmland with pigs, make marbles soft enough to stuff pillows and pincushions, breed sheep whose entire bodies are bald, and have students learn mathematics by swallowing wafers on which formulas are written.

    And there’s more.

  12. stevem says:

    I just read Glashow’s interesting article right through. Despite his flaws, or perhaps even because of them, Newton remains a fascinating character. Yes, he got a lot of things wrong and was into a lot of strange stuff, but every so often his immense intellectual powers would just come to the surface. In 1696 Bernoulli challenged his colleagues to solve the “brachistochrone problem”, which asked what is the curve between two displaced points along which a body acting under gravity alone would follow in the shortest time. The deadline for the problem was 6 months but Leibniz requested it be extend to one and half years. Newton, then 55, received the challange at 4pm on Jan 29, 1697. By the following morning he had invented the essence of calculas of variations, solved the problem and sent off the solution anonymously. But everyone knew who had solved it with Bernoulli remarking: “we recognise the lion by his claw”.

    Jonathan Swift’s attack on the scientific community you mention in the third book of Gulliver’s Travels arose from the discussions of the “Scriblerus Club”. This was a group of disgruntled Tory writers who formed themselves into a literary society, and which met in the rooms of St James’s Palace. The Scriblerus Club set out to redicule the learned societies of the day and Newton, being a big shot in the government establishment and the dominant scientific figure, was top of their hit list of course. A play in 1717 has a character called “Dr Fossile”, who is a pompous wig-wearing scientist and the jokes clearly suggest it is a satire of Newton. For example, he is asked by a foreign philospher/adventurer who can’t speak good English: “vat do you tink of de new methode of de fluxions of de quantity?”. To which he replies” the greatest quantity I ever knew was three quarts a day”. He is also asked if he can see a “star as big as the moon in the daylight”. Looking through his telescope he (Fossile) replies” I can spy no other celestial body but the sun”.

  13. anon. says:

    Newton isn’t necessarily the only physicist or mathematician under attack since Gulliver’s Flying (Floating) Island, Laputa, is powered by a loadstone (magnetite rock). This is satire on Kepler’s theory that the planets orbit the sun due to magnetism, not on Newton who came up with gravity. Ever since Gilbert discovered that the earth is a magnet in 1600, it had been assumed to be the force acting between planets. Descartes had Cartesian vortices filling space to account for the planetary motions, while Kepler moved a step forward by suggesting magnetism. Newton killed off Cartesian vortices by showing that the inverse square law of gravity based on Kepler’s planetary laws, supplied with Galileo’s data for acceleration at earth’s radius, correctly predicted the moon’s known centripetal acceleration.

    Newton’s fluxions, not his physics, came under attack from those who claimed it is irrational and religion. Bishop George Berkeley in 1734 wrote The Analyst; or a Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician: Wherein it is examined whether the Object, Principles and Inferences of the modern Analysis are more distinctly conceived, or more evidently deduced, than Religious Mysteries and Points of Faith.

    If you have a rectangular block height y and width x, then it’s area is the integral of y*dx over the range of x: area = N*y*dx = (x/dx)*y*dx = xy, where N is the number of slices. Although this works, there was an argument that it is effectively multiplying infinity (ie. x/dx) by zero (ie. dx) which seemed irrational.

    The full text of Bishop Berkeley’s attack is online: http://www.maths.tcd.ie/pub/HistMath/People/Berkeley/Analyst/Analyst.pdf

  14. Robert Musil says:

    stevem –

    One has to be a fascinating lion to have people fussing after 350 years over the mistakes and flaws – instead of just trying to remember the accomplisments!

  15. “Another of Newton’s bizarre beliefs was that the law of inverse squares was already to be found in Pythagoras”

    Besides being true, this is part of a much more interesting point: that Newton, for all his battles on priority, seemed to believes that he was primarily rediscovering the “secrets of the ancients.”

    Okay, his last published paper was on the Penny, that’s sensible, given his job in charge of the Royal Mint (and how nice for an alchemist to have access to all the nation’s gold!). But his last book was on the Secrets of the Pyramids.

    A fine novel with Newton as protagonist is:

    Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton: A Novel, by Philip Kerr

    # Paperback: 352 pages
    # Publisher: Three Rivers Press; Reprint edition (October 28, 2003)
    # Language: English
    # ISBN-10: 1400049490
    # ISBN-13: 978-1400049493

    Publishers Weekly review:

    Holmes and Watson provide the template for this very satisfying historical thriller from Kerr (The Grid, etc.), with Sir Isaac Newton acting as great detective and one Christopher Ellis serving as narrator. It’s 1696, and a series of murders are plaguing the Tower of London, where the middle-aged Newton has recently assumed (as in real life) the position of warden of the royal mint, with the younger Ellis (again as in real life) serving as his assistant. Like Holmes, the cold and cerebral Newton relies on rationalism the scientific method to solve the crimes, while Ellis, quick with sword, pistol and temper, brings the emotional counterweight provided by Conan Doyle’s Watson. The murders are accompanied by esoteric clues, most notably encrypted messages and alchemical references, that spur Newton to their resolution as forcefully as does his intense sense of duty, for the killings seem to involve not only a plot to disrupt a recoinage necessary to continue England’s war with France, but also a conspiracy to commit religious genocide against a backdrop of incessant tensions between Catholics and Protestants. The mystery elements of the novel provide a sturdy spine for the book’s main flesh: its robust recreation of life at the end of the 17th century. Ellis’s fluid narration sets the tone, illuminating a London beset by pestilence, poverty, whores and ruffians, noblemen grave or foppish, opium dens, brothels and grisly executions, and a bright array of historical figures including, in the role of blackguard, Daniel Defoe. There’s an erotic/romantic subplot involving Ellis and Newton’s niece, but the main focus is on the two leads. Both are well drawn, though Newton, ostensibly the novel’s center, is less compelling than Ellis’s full-blooded youth. That disparity, and an overly complex plot, are the drawbacks of what is, withal, a most gripping and well-appointed entertainment.
    Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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