On Sunday the 21st of September, I’ll be conducting a workshop in Bombay hosted by Meera Damji at her residence in Lower Parel. The duration will be from 10AM to Noon.
The theme of the session will be, as usual - the history of science.
However, this time we will try to identify some of the greatest works that have shaped human history over the last 5000 years, from ancient times to the 20th century. My friend Thony Christie warns that "there ain’t no such thing as greatest" in the history of science, and his views are always very enlightening. Influence is a tricky thing to quantify, so whatever works I choose to highlight are simply suggestions to introduce this vast subject.
This workshop will unfold as a popular guessing game called 20 Questions, along with a discussion on each answer. The participants are encouraged to carry an internet-connected device such as a phone or tablet to help them during the game. The venue will have wifi but since the provider is MTNL we cannot guarantee it will work.
This workshop is free, however- we can only accommodate about 15 people, so you have to register in advance.
How To Register
The invitation will be sent to the first 15 people who answer the following question correctly ( email the answer, along with your phone number to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject SEPT21GAME). If your answer is correct, and there are seats remaining, I will send you the details by Friday morning.
So drop whatever you’re doing and do this NOW!! ( Update: Only 9 seats left to go! )
What is the object shown here, and who designed it? ( See image below, and yes you can cheat. That’s the whole point. )
See you there!
As I discussed in a recent talk on Sir Isaac Newton, it may be of great importance to study original texts by scientists and mathematicians from the 17-19th centuries. My views found an echo recently in none other than one of the 2014 Fields Medalists - Manjul Bhargava, in this interview…
First conceived as a technological aid to astronomers by Napier, the logarithmic tables were a kind of printable analog computer. The logarithms are now 400 years old, and this is a good time to ponder about their role in the history of science.
It was not until 1614 that Napier’s first…
[Image: Torricelli with barometer, 19th C engraving]
I’ve never read any of Frederick Engel’s writings, but due to my interest in the history of science I was oddly pleased to see these words in his correspondence:
If, as you say, technique largely depends on the state of science, science depends far more still on the state and the requirements of technique. If society has a technical need, that helps science forward more than ten universities. The whole of hydrostatics (Torricelli, etc.) was called forth by the necessity for regulating the mountain streams of Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We have only known anything reasonable about electricity since its technical applicability was discovered. But unfortunately it has become the custom in Germany to write the history of the sciences as if they had fallen from the skies.
This is curious on many levels.
Firstly, what could be this technical need of a society that catapults its science forward?
Secondly, I think the following statement about Torricelli is very careless in its attempt to link the emergence of science with its natural context ( necessity is the mother of invention, etc ). Historians of science who know more than me would be quick to point that out.
Thirdly, Engels is very often applying metaphors and terms from physics as if they naturally apply to society. Here is an example from the same letter:
Under economic conditions are further included the geographical basis on which they operate and those remnants of earlier stages of economic development which have actually been transmitted and have survived – often only through tradition or the force of inertia; also of course the external milieu which surrounds this form of society.
I have observed elsewhere that the science of ‘statistical mechanics’ may have been the prime metaphor behind Marxism/communism itself. It is defined as:
the description of physical phenomena in terms of a statistical treatment of the behaviour of large numbers of atoms or molecules, especially as regards the distribution of energy among them.
Replace energy with money and that sounds a lot like economic theory. Society as an ideal gas, subject to the laws of thermodynamics as it were…whose status could be measured by some kind of barometer.
The metaphors of physics are worth delving into further because we are told elsewhere (pdf):
Marx wanted to develop a theory that explained the motor of history, i.e., the laws behind processes of historical change. It seems appropriate, then, that he should incorporate ideas of physical motion. The most common such idea in Marx’s work is found in Newton’s third law of motion, the Law of Conservation of Momentum, which says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This idea is most apparent in Marx’s overarching idea that capitalism brings about its own demise as the pushing down of the proletariat must lead eventually to its springing back up. The idea is expressed, though, in many details as well.
This relationship between political ideology and scientific worldview is very close:
The emphasis upon a specific field and a particular direction depends upon the needs, structure and superstructure of a particular society. There was, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an obvious connection between the concentration on astronomy and the development of world trade. There is an obvious connection between the present emphasis on atomic physics and the current imperialist military struggles.
So the question is merely whether we are approaching a point in history where scientific worldview and political ideology will completely merge into each other.
Will the laws of the universe then dictate the blueprint for laws of society? How?
"Prime Vérité" is a short film about the ZetaTrek expedition (est. 2011) where science and math hobbyists all over the world are trying to solve the Riemann Hypothesis. This video discusses some of the current research around this problem.
The film features the project founder Rohit Gupta ( @fadesingh on twitter) and was directed by Aiman Ali of Asylum Films. The production crew consisted of Vidya Muralidharan, Surbhit Saxena, Divya Sharma, Nikita Mhatre, Ram (sound) and Amit Kumar Manikpuri.
A lot of the stuff I spoke about did not make the cut, and what did might require further explanation. So here it is.
The film essentially explores connections between prime numbers and physical reality. Because the primes are indivisible, they are like building blocks or atoms. But this metaphor is taken much further…
After starting off with the famous meeting between Dyson & Montgomery at Princeton, I mention the occurrence of prime numbers in the biological world. And this has been known for some time in the context of periodical cicadas.
So how do the cicadas know how to calculate prime numbers? They don’t. They’re cicadas. The pattern probably emerged as a result of Darwinian natural selection: cicadas that naturally matured in easily divisible years were gobbled up by predators, and simply didn’t live long enough to produce as many offspring. Those who, by chance, had long, prime-numbered life spans fared best, survived longest, and left the most offspring, becoming the dominant variation of the species. (There are now at least fifteen distinct populations of periodical cicadas.) As things stand now, cicada emergences are so tightly timed, with the bulk of the insects emerging within a span of a few weeks, that any cicada that tries to break the pattern is simply taking her offspring’s life into her own hands.
And then I go on to mention the departure patterns of Mexican bus drivers. This is a more recent idea and the whole article is worth reading.
The men handed over their used papers. When the researchers plotted thousands of bus departure times on a computer, their suspicions were confirmed: The interaction between drivers caused the spacing between departures to exhibit a distinctive pattern previously observed in quantum physics experiments.
Towards the end I talk about an atom bouncing around for infinity inside a circle, which is essentially an allusion to the circular billiards model. I also briefly talk about the prime numbers as a gas, or the “primon gas" system. So now, you have to think of a box of gas as a 3-dimensional billiards table with a very large number of particles. From prime numbers as atoms, we have arrived at the idea that an infinity of such numbers could behave like a gas.
This stuff is a little hard to grasp unless you’re familiar with statistical mechanics and something called a “partition function”, but here is the source of this idea.
And a very stunning explanation by Matthew Watkins from an interview:
"Imagine a fluctuating integer, where prime factors are coming and going all the time, joining and leaving, so the energy of that integer is going up and down, the more prime factors there are the higher the energy, and the less prime factors the lower the energy. The zeta function naturally becomes the partition function of such a system."
The solo exhibition “Thinking Matters” — which represents another step in Nikolaus Gansterer’s visual research — explores in detail the relationship between drawing, thought and action. His work is a true example of interdisciplinary studies; it is the result of a close confrontation between socio-humanistic, scientific and artistic disciplines from which the artist takes single methodologies and applies to these his unique, higly personal artistic language. The result of this work is an installation which occupies the entire space: the work is composed of autonomous elements which, contemporaneously, are tiles of a vaster mosaic which the artist has developed specially for the gallery space.
This manuscript page from 1665 shows a 23-year old Isaac Newton calculating the area under a hyperbola ( the curve drawn on the top left of the page).
He calculates no less than 55 decimal places, meticulously adding values from each term of an infinite series. The series emerges…
“I know of scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by the ‘Law of Frequency of Error.’ The law would have been personified by the Greeks and deified, if they had known of it. It reigns with serenity and in complete…
A strange fact about modern India is this - by a large majority of its people, the zero is not seen as the beginning of mathematics, but rather as its end. A large number of Indians feel that by inventing the zero, ancient sages had explained away everything that could be known, so that the generations after them would not have to. The more we regress; the tighter we hold on to our pride.
The history of science and mathematics is a global heritage; and while India has made its contributions - they are too far separated in time, and too few to merit any arrogance. The sooner we recognize and accept this, the faster we can make amends.
Instead of exaggerating the little that is known, perhaps more effort should go in re-assessing the vast corpus of pre-print manuscripts that lie ignored and unexplored in India. More than any other fundamentalist phantom of our culture, this is actually endangered. Vikram Chandra has quoted extensively some words by scholar Dominik Wujastyk in his recent book Mirrored Mind of which I reproduce here the most horrifying:
A back-of-an-envelope calculation based on estimated figures and attrition rates suggests that several hundred Sanskrit manuscripts are being destroyed or becoming illegible every week. It is inevitable that some of these losses will include unique, unknown, or otherwise important works.
His paper also shows that the number of manuscripts that need attention is mind-boggling:
How many Indian manuscripts are there? The National Mission for Manuscripts in New Delhi works with a conservative figure of seven million manuscripts, and its database is approaching two million records. The late Prof. David Pingree, basing his count on a lifetime of academic engagement with Indian manuscripts, estimated that there were thirty million manuscripts, if one counted both those in public and government libraries, and those in private collections.
For anyone coming to Indian studies from another field, these gargantuan figures are scarcely credible. But after some acquaintance with the subject, and visits to manuscript libraries in India, it becomes clear that these very large figures are wholly justified.
The Jaina manuscript library at Koba in Gujarat, which only started publishing its catalogues in 2003, has an estimated 250,000 manuscripts. The Sarasvati Bhavan Library in Benares has in excess of 100,000 manuscripts.There are 85,000 in various repositories in Delhi. There are about 50,000 manuscripts in theSarasvati Mahal library in Thanjavur in the far South. Such examples are easily multiplied acrossthe whole subcontinent. And these are only the public libraries with published catalogues. Aone-year pilot field-survey by the National Mission for Manuscripts in Delhi, during 2004 2005,documented 650,000 manuscripts distributed across 35,000 repositories in the states of Orissa,Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and field participants in that project report that they only scratched the surface.
- Aspects of manuscript culture in South India, by Peter Richardus
- Indian Manuscripts, by Dominik Wujastyk
- Was the zero really invented in India? an excerpt from the recent book by Sidin Vadukut
We are now one day away from embarking on a nine month journey, as you may have heard. So here are some clarifications and new facts.
The workshop is being hosted in the ZetaTrek mailing list which has been active for three years. One might ask, but what the hell is ZetaTrek? Okay, so a quick recap.
In short, it is a collective of non-specialist people ( some might call them amateurs or laypersons) who have been trying to solve the mathematical puzzle known as Riemann Hypothesis. It has about 65 people from 12 countries and growing. It is like a citizen science project, but a lot more insane and long-term ( it has no deadline for 10,000 years at least). If you have more time, the reference links contain more information on this.
The new Age of Re:discovery workshop has been talked about at length in the previous few posts on this blog. In short, it is about applying the ideas from history of science to space travel and contemporary urban living. I know that doesn’t mean much, but go and read the posts…that will clear up a lot of things.
Late registrations for Re:discovery
We already have over 20 new registrations from 5 countries, apart from the 43 members of ZetaTrek. You can still register by tomorrow, before we start. The details for that are here. After tomorrow, late registrations are also acceptable. The motivation for that is simple, all who register for this workshop become eligible for a lifetime membership of ZetaTrek. These are all highly interdisciplinary and long projects, so we encourage you to join even if you’re late.
Scholarships ( Already awarded, please do not apply now. )
We have received a donation to sponsor two worthy candidates for the 9 month workshop. The benefactor is Benedict Noel - a long time ZetaTrek member, with the intent to promote the public understanding of science. Especially for aspirants who may be financially challenged.
The scholarship basically means that your workshop is free if you’re selected. There is no stipend. It just means you don’t have to pay the $180 fee. Nor does it make you eligible for a lifetime membership of ZetaTrek.
Anyone from anywhere of any age, country or sex can apply for this. All you have to do is write me a mail in 150-250 words about yourself and why you’d like to join, and how you will contribute to the project(s). The email address is mentioned below. The deadline for these two openings is Feb 1. 2014. So hurry!
Your subject line should be: The yellow-green orangutan, flip flops in a brick-walled city.
Quite unexpectedly, people have begun asking me if we offer employment. No, we don’t because we means essentially one full-time employee ( that is me, a.k.a Rohit Gupta, @fadesingh on twitter or Compasswallah ) and we cannot afford to pay salaries yet. We can barely fund our own frugal life of a “flea in the blowtorch of history”.
*sigh* Never mind.
However, one such student has been offered an internship in exchange for a free workshop and a couple of books. As an intern, you are expected to share at least some of my workload, which is huge. The first intern is Ajinkya Kulkarni from BITS, Goa ( @junkicide on Twitter. ) Congratulations to you and to us!
For any other offers of partnership, suggestions, or queries please email me directly on the Gmail ID “fadebox”.
Starts: January 29, 2014
Ends: October 19, 2014
To register email: email@example.com
For additional details: http://compasswallah.tumblr.com/
Excavation of the past and contemplation of the future are the same intellectual undertaking. - Maharaja Sawai Jaisingh II of…