Tuesday, September 14, 2004


When religion ruled the world, they called it the dark ages.

I just watched Infinite Secrets on PBS. This is one of the most moving documentaries I have ever seen.

Apparently, in about 300 BCE, Archimedes almost discovered calculus. Calculus is the key to modern science. Physics, chemistry, electronics, astronomy, you name it.

In high school, I happened to learn physics before I learned calculus. There were problems I could think of that I could not solve exactly. I knew that in principle I needed to sum up in an increasingly large number of increasingly small volumes. Calculus solved these problems. The first time I saw calculus was the first time I truly connected with mathematics. I could finally see solutions to problems I had already formulated.

Anyway, as far as I knew, credit for the invention of calculus is shared by Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Newton and Leibniz produced their works around 1670 CE.

Nova's Infinite Secrets tells of how Archimedes was murdered by the Romans in 212 BCE at the age of 70. When religion cast the classical world into the abyss of the dark ages, mathematics and science died. Around the 10th century, the last known copy of Archimedes "Method" was washed, cut into pieces and used as parchment for a prayer book (known as a "palimpsest").

In the 20th century, the palimsest was discovered, lost and then rediscovered.

Now, an international team of scholars is piecing together Archimedes work and finding that his mathematics was far more sophisticated than we thought.

The scene where three researchers, each from a different nation, work together in peace to learn Archimedes' work was pretty powerful.

The scenes re-enacting the destruction of the manuscript by a bunch of primitive screwheads made me apoplectic. Just imagine how many millions will have died for this almost 2,000 year delay in human progress.

Blood pressure slowly returning to normal...

P.S. I remember being similarly moved by Cosmos back in the 1980's when Carl Sagan described the destruction of the great library at Alexandria. BTW, Cosmos box set gets 5 stars at Amazon after 137 reviews. Game, set and match, Sagan.


Mister Underhill said...

It is amazing what was done in those times. In many ways it took 2000 years to catch up with the thoughts of ancient man.

I find the pythagoreans and their pseudoreligion based on mathematics to be very fascinating as well.

Just imagine what leaps of intuition and logic are required to build systems which no language at the time even supports.

Doctor Logic said...

Hey, that's pretty interesting. I didn't know about the Pythagoreans.

They sound like a strange lot, but their knowledge was impressive for the time, e.g., irrational numbers!

Pretty amazing considering they couldn't go look things up in books.