Science and mathematics

Quite by chance, I’ve stumbled in the archive of Nature (alas, not freely available) on a paper by J. Sylvester (dated December 30, 1869) concerning, roughly, the status of mathematics among sciences. He says his text was a reaction to earlier talks and articles by Huxley (the biologist, not the limericks writer…). His esteemed opponent having stated

Mathematics “is that study which knows nothing of observation, nothing of induction, nothing of experiment, nothing of causation”, but knows only deduction,

Sylvester argues strongly in the opposite direction:

I think no statement could have been made more opposite to the fact,

and goes on to give examples from his own work, in particular, where conclusions were reached, and entire theories were constructed, based on simple apparently accidental remarks, by processes of observation, induction and imagination.

Besides this discussion, reading this paper is quite fascinating. Mostly, it must be said, because it is rather incredibly hard to read. Not only physically (the font size is small, and the footnotes even smaller, and printed 2-up, it really exercises your eyesight), but also because of the language, which I believe should cause many a lover of the English language to either faint or burst out laughing; the Gothic Victorian style (cleverly ridiculed by Jane Austen in “Northanger abbey”) is here put into overdrive for the purpose of scientific discussion. There are rather frightening mathematical terms which, presumably, a few living readers can still interpret,

canonisant, octodecadic skew invariant, invariantive criteria, amphigenous surface, a catena of morphological processes

and there are Latin, Greek and French quotations, untranslated, and a German one (which, strangely, Sylvester feels to be in need of translation). The following passage is quite typical:

Now this gigantic outcome of modern analytical thought, itself, only the precursor and progenitor of a future still more heaven-reaching theory, which will comprise a complete study of the interoperation, the actions and reactions, of algebraic forms (Analytical Morphology in its absolute sense), how did this originate? In the accidental observation by Eisenstein, some twenty or more years ago, of a single invariant (the Quadrinvariant of a Binary Quartic) which he met with in the course of certain researches just as accidentally and unexpectedly as M. Du Chaillu might meet a Gorilla in the country of the Fantees, or any one of us in London a White Polar Bear escaped from the Zoological Gardens. Fortunately, he pounced upon his prey and preserved it for the contemplation and study of future mathematicians…

But there are also interesting things, like a discussion of the status of higher-dimensional geometry, and indeed a forecast of Flatland (the book of that title was only published 15 years later):

for as we can conceive beings (like infinitely attenuated book-worms in an infinitely thin sheet of paper) which possess only the notion of space of two dimensions…

The follow-up paper is much in the same style (with beauties such as “the Eikosi-heptagram“, and flights of fancy like “my own latest researches in a field where Geometry, Algebra and the Theory of Numbers melt in a surprising manner into one another, like sunset tints or the colours of the dying dolphin” – this theory is that of “the Reducible Cyclodes”), and also quite insightful sometimes. For instance, there is en passant, the following very convincing footnote:

Is it not the same disregard of principles, the indifference to truth for its own sake, which prompts the question “Where’s the good of it?” in reference to speculative science, and “Where’s the harm of it?” in reference to white lies and pious frauds? In my own experience I have found that the very same people who delight to put the first question are in the habit of acting upon the denial implied in the second. Abit in mores incuria.

(Sylvester writes the “i” in the word “in” in the last quotation as a dotless i; I doubt it’s a typographical error, but I can’t find an indication that this is proper Latin grammar; does any reader here have an insight on this?)

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

3 thoughts on “Science and mathematics”

  1. This makes it all the more strange. In addition, the second “i” in “incuria” is also dotless, but I can’t find any others in the papers. I’ve seen on the web that ‘I’ was actually both a consonant and a vowel in Latin; maybe that explains this?

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