Bases of Knowledge

| January 2, 2014 | 0 Comments
"Look, guys, calculus!" - Isaac Newton photo credit: c@rljones via photopin cc

“Hey, guys, that looks like calculus!” – Isaac Newton
photo credit: c@rljones via photopin cc

I hear about famous scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, thinkers, and I feel like there were about a dozen people that discovered literally everything. It wasn’t enough for Michael Faraday to work with chemistry OR electricity OR magnetism (the latter two are essentially the same thing now, but not for Faraday). He has both a law and a unit in electromagnetism, and popularized the use of such basic terminology as “ion” in chemistry.

Go back a little further: Isaac Newton didn’t just get hit on the head with an apple. He came up with a set of laws that described the basics of all motion in the known universe. He invented calculus, a discipline that people spend years studying, because he needed more than the other math of his time could provide, and he used that new math to finally confirm that the sun was the center of the solar system. In his spare time, Newton was building improved telescopes, calculating the speed of sound, studying the composition of white light, constructing a relationship for how quickly things get cooler, and discovering math that wasn’t calculus.

Go back a little further still: Aristotle has his name attached to almost every major train of thought of the classical period. Philosophy, math, science, theology, politics, ethics, poetry, music were all explored by the ancient Greek, leaving me to wonder if other ancient Greeks calculated their Aristotle number like an Erdos number (the Bacon number of the academic community).

It makes sense that the longer ago someone lived, the easier it was for them to diversify their studies. The body of knowledge in any given field was much smaller than it is now. Every theory that Aristotle had about physics was something that Newton had to explore, giving him less time for poetry and music; Newton’s more complicated explanations had to be studied by Faraday, limiting him even more than Newton was limited. Now, there is so much information that it will take most scholars until their mid-20s to reach the basics of the cutting edge of their field, and possibly decades after that to extend the base of knowledge at all. Newton was starting to create calculus at 22, before he graduated from college, and by the time he was 24 he had come to significant conclusions about not just  math, but also optics and motion.

It’s easy to be impressed by people like Newton just by the sheer body of his work, but I think it’s crucial not to get caught up in a “things aren’t what they used to be” cycle. If you dropped a 25-year-old Newton into a graduate level math class in the 21st century, I’m not sure he would stand out quite like he did in the 17th century. Newton’s line of thinking was perfect for when he lived; it’s impossible to tell if it would translate well to any time before or after.

I wonder, though, how we’ll adapt to this ever-expanding base of knowledge a few centuries in the future. Will we have to start teaching quantum mechanics to 4th graders to make sure they are ready to push things forward in their 20s and 30s? Or, as students get older, do we sacrifice any kind of breadth of study for depth? I don’t like either of these scenarios, but the alternative is a lack of progress of any sort. And I don’t like that scenario either.

Progress is making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. photo credit: psiaki via photopin cc

Progress  (n): making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.
photo credit: psiaki via photopin cc

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Category: Philosophy and Religion, Science and Technology

About the Author ()

Jeff is currently a senior in SED and CAS, studying the fine arts of Science Education and Physics. Despite his outstanding good looks and charm, he's really a normal guy deep down. He enjoys cool science, a good cup of coffee, Batman, fedoras, British television, and BU hockey. He's accepted that he'll never think the knot on his tie is good enough. OK, so maybe "normal" is an exaggeration...

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