Archive for leibniz

Marginal Notes – Are You For Or Against?

Posted in Books, History with tags , , , , on November 19, 2014 by telescoper

At the weekend I was listening to a programme on Radio 3 part of which was about the rise of the foreign language phrasebook over the last three or four centuries. It was a fascinating discussion, not least because it reminded me of an old Victorian English-Hindi phrasebook I found in a bookship in Pune (India). The book was intended for the use of well-to-do British ladies  and the phrases presumably chosen to reflect their likely needs as they travelled about India. I opened the book at random and found a translation of “Doctor, please help me. I am suffering from severe constipation”. In my experience as a Westerner travelling in India, constipation was the least of my worries…

Anyway, the real point of posting about this is that some of the old phrasebooks which were used to illustrate the programme had been heavily annotated by their owners. That reminded me of an discussion I’ve had with a number of people about whether they like to scribble in the margins of their books, or whether they believe this practice to be a form of sacrilege.

I’ll put my cards on the table  straightaway. I like to annotate my books – especially the technical ones – and some of them have extensive commentaries written in them. I also like to mark up poems that I read; that helps me greatly to understand the structure. I don’t have a problem with scribbling in margins because I think that’s what margins are for.Why else would they be there?

This is a famous example – a page from Newton’s Principia, annotated by Leibniz:


Some of my fellow academics, however, regard such actions as scandalous and seem to think books should be venerated in their pristine state.  Others probably find little use for printed books given the plethora of digitial resources now available online or via Kindles etc so this is not an issue..

I’m interested to see what the divergence of opinions is in with regard to the practice of writing in books, so here’s a poll for you to express your opinion:

The Shadow of Newton

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on November 7, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday I overheard some Electrodynamics students talking about the fact that all the famous names attached to pioneering laws or theorems in that subject seem to be either French (Biot-Savart, Laplace, Poisson..) or German (Gauss, Helmholtz…). Why are there no British names in this list?

Well, there was Faraday, of course. But Michael Faraday was primarily an experimentalist rather than a theorist, which sets him apart from the others already mentioned. So why is it that British theoretical was behind continental Europe in the early part of the 19th Century when all this important work on electricity and magnetism was being done.

There was also Maxwell, but he came along a bit later; he published his theory of electromagnetism in 1861/2. So why were the British so slow to enter this field?

Well, my theory of this is that it’s all the fault of Isaac Newton. I came to this conclusion when reading about the work of British mathematician and physicist George Green, who lived from 1793 until 1841, and who left a substantial legacy for modern theoretical physicists, in Green’s theorems and Green’s functions. George Green is also credited as being the first person to use the word “potential” in electrostatics. Green was the son of a Nottingham miller who, amazingly, taught himself mathematics and did most of his best work, especially his remarkable Essay on the Application of mathematical Analysis to the theories of Electricity and Magnetism (1828) before starting his studies as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge (which he did at the age of 30, after his father died, and he leased out the mill he consequently inherited, to pay for his studies).

Extremely unusually for British mathematicians of his time, Green taught himself from books that were published in France. This gave him a huge advantage over his national contemporaries in that he learned the form of differential calculus that originated with Leibniz, which was far more elegant than that devised by Isaac Newton (which was called the method of fluxions).

Great scientist though he was, Newton’s influence on the development of physics in Britain was not entirely positive. Newton was held in such awe, especially in Cambridge, that his inferior mathematical approach was deemed to be the “right” way to do calculus and generations of scholars were forced to use it. This held back British science until the use of fluxions was phased out. Green himself was forced to learn fluxions when he went as an undergraduate to Cambridge despite having already learned the better method.

Unfortunately, Green’s great pre-Cambridge work on mathematical physics didn’t reach wide circulation in the United Kingdom until after his death. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, found a copy of Green’s Essay in 1845 and promoted it widely as a work of fundamental importance. This contributed to the eventual emergence of British theoretical physics from the shadow cast by Isaac Newton which reached one of its heights just a few years later with the publication a fully unified theory of electricity and magnetism by James Clerk Maxwell.