PBS ran a piece last night about "On the Method," a work by the mathematician Archimedes discovered on parchment that had been reused as a medieval prayerbook. New technology allows people to read the underlying text and discover how close Archimedes came to inventing calculus in 300 BC.
What was interesting about the show was the "voice of God" narration, which was all about how wonderful and strange it is that somebody sooo long ago had come up with an idea that is fundamental to rockets and microwave ovens. There was also a lot of exclaiming going on about how we'd be on Mars maybe, if the Renaissance guys had had had this text to build on, in developing their mathematical ideas. All that was sort of fun, but it seemed to me to miss the point. A germ of the idea of calculus was already there in the well documented efforts of Archimedes to find the value of pi, by sneaking up on it with ever closer approximations, from two different directions. What's interesting is not the final result but the point at which somebody gets the first whiff of a different way of thinking about a problem, or the first glimmer of the idea that there is a problem of a certain sort. And the excitement contained in a new work by somebody like Archimedes is not simply historical. It is surely possible that he happened on fundamental approaches that will be new to us, that he might be not only ahead of his time but also importantly ahead of our time. The sense of ancient wisdom reborn that characterized the Renaissance is just palpable with a discovery of this kind, and it is truly astonishing that the documentary writers could see nothing beyond historical interest in this discovery.
Last night, also, running parallel to Infinite Secrets, was a piece about Newton called Newton's Dark Secrets, about the alchemical and theological questions that occupied the major part of Newton's attention for some years. Here again, I think, more sympathy and humility might profitably be invoked: what has to be of primary interest with respect to extraordinary intellects is not their finished products but their intial intuitions and starting points, their favored strategies. It would take a very sensitive commentary to address those matters.
I have on my bookshelf A History of Mechanical Inventions by Abbott Payson Usher. It treats the really fundamental mechanical discoveries: wedges and plows and pulleys. I have always suspected that there might be new ideas contained in these old inventions, if one could just push back behind the practical application to the fundamental insight. These two documentaries give me just the same delicious anticipatory thrill.Posted by shea0017 at June 21, 2006 1:35 PM