For the last 15 years the New York City subway has featured “Poetry in Motion”, which places extracts of poetry in subway cars. Starting next month this program will be expanded, joined by Train of Thought, which will add “short quotations in history, philosophy, literature, and science chosen by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.” I gather that my colleague Henry Pinkham, a mathematician now dean of the Graduate School, is responsible for this. Of the first two quotations to go up next month, one is dear to my heart, from Galileo:
The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. Its symbols are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is impossible to understand a single word; without which there is only a vain wandering through a dark labyrinth.
Here is a quote from Feynman that is also in the genre of refutations for the trope about being able to explain your theory to your grandmother:
“… it is impossible to explain honestly the beauties of the laws of nature in a way that people can feel, without their having some deep understanding of mathematics. I am sorry, but this seems to be the case.”
This is actually a great idea. My personal favourite from Galileo:
or in english (freely translated):
Galileo is of course right. But those who overindulge in mathematical ratiocination (like string theorists) should remember the more sceptical view of Mark Twain:
“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment in fact.”
Life on the Mississippi
Men can do nothing without the make believe of a beginning. Even science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his;since Science, too, reckons backward as well as forward, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock finger at Nought really sets off in Medias res.
Why Galileo was speaking German?