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.
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Opinionated History of Mathematics podcast
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 non-Euclidean 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”: Non-Euclidean geometry
The discovery of non-Euclidean 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.
Rationalism versus empiricism
Rationalism says mathematical knowledge comes from within, from pure thought; empiricism that it comes from without, from experience and observation. Rationalism led Kepler to look for divine design in the universe, and Descartes to reduce all mechanical phenomena to contact mechanics and all curves in geometry to instrumental generation. Empiricism led Newton to ignore the cause of gravity and dismiss the foundational importance of constructions in geometry.
Cultural reception of geometry in early modern Europe
Euclid inspired Gothic architecture and taught Renaissance painters how to create depth and perspective. More generally, the success of mathematics went to its head, according to some, and created dogmatic individuals dismissive of other branches of learning. Some thought the uncompromising rigour of Euclid went hand in hand with totalitarianism in political and spiritual domains, while others thought creative mathematics was inherently free and liberal.
Maker’s knowledge: early modern philosophical interpretations of geometry
Philosophical movements in the 17th century tried to mimic the geometrical method of the ancients. Some saw Euclid—with his ruler and compass in hand—as a “doer,” and thus characterised geometry as a “maker’s knowledge.” Others got into a feud about what to do when Euclid was at odds with Aristotle. Descartes thought Euclid’s axioms should be justified via theology.
“Let it have been drawn”: the role of diagrams in geometry
The use of diagrams in geometry raise questions about the place of the physical, the sensory, the human in mathematical reasoning. Multiple sources of evidence speak to how these dilemmas were tackled in antiquity: the linguistics of diagram construction, the state of drawings in the oldest extant manuscripts, commentaries of philosophers, and implicit assumptions in mathematical proofs.
Euclid spends a lot of time in the Elements constructing figures with his ubiquitous ruler and compass. Why did he think this was important? Why did he think this was better than a geometry that has only theorems and no constructions? In fact, constructions protect geometry from foundational problems to which it would otherwise be susceptible, such as inconsistencies, hidden assumptions, verbal logic fallacies, and diagrammatic fallacies.
Created equal: Euclid’s Postulates 1-4
The etymology of the term “postulate” suggests that Euclid’s axioms were once questioned. Indeed, the drawing of lines and circles can be regarded as depending on motion, which is supposedly proved impossible by Zeno’s paradoxes. Although whether these postulates correspond to ruler and compass or not is debatable, especially since Euclid seems to restrict himself to a “collapsible” compass in Proposition 2. Furthermore, why did Euclid feel the need to postulate that “all right angles are equal”? Perhaps in order to rule out non-flat surfaces such as cones.
That which has no part: Euclid’s definitions
Euclid’s definitions of point, line, and straightness allow a range of mathematical and philosophical interpretation. Historically, however, these definitions may not have been in the original text of the Elements at all. Regardless, the subtlety of defining fundamental concepts such as straightness is best seen by considering the geometry not only of a flat plane but also of curved surfaces.
What makes a good axiom?
How should axioms be justified? By appeal to intuition, or sensory perception? Or are axioms legitimated merely indirectly, by their logical consequences? Plato and Aristotle disagreed, and later Newton disagreed even more. Their philosophies can be seen as rival interpretations of Euclid’s Elements.
Consequentia mirabilis: the dream of reduction to logic
Euclid’s Elements, read backwards, reduces complex truths to simpler ones, such as the Pythagorean Theorem to the parallelogram area theorem, and that in turn to triangle congruence. How far can this reductive process be taken, and what should be its ultimate goals? Some have advocated that the axiomatic-deductive program in mathematics is best seen in purely logical terms, but this perspective leaves some fundamental challenges unresolved.
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Everything you didn’t know you needed plus math
This podcast is so easy to listen to! There is no stress and no nonsense. The topics are interesting and oftentimes funny. The way he explains some of...
At once highly entertaining and soothing, this podcast is like meditation except that you get to learn something, and have food for thought to chew o...
Plato was a loudmouth?
The pod about the role of diagrams in geometry was quite wonderful, although I get into a bit of trouble toward the end. Woke up family with my laugh...
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