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Saturday, January 23, 2010

PASHoM January meeting

Posted by tbartlow on 01/23 at 09:24 AM

Seventeen people attended the January meeting of the Philadelphia Area Seminar on History of Mathematics at which Eugene (Bud) Boman of Pennsylvania State University – Harrisburg spoke on “Ghosts of Departed Quantities: A look at Bishop Berkeley’s The Analyst and the scientific community’s initial response to it.”
Before the talk attendees enjoyed a light supper and light conversation touching on such questions as what Kurt Gödel had in mind when he asserted that dictatorship is possible under the United States Constitution and which mathematicians (and politicians) had names containing letters which were not initials (that is, not the first letter of a proper name).
In his talk Bud argued that Berkeley was primarily interested in defending revealed orthodox religion against the Deist or Free-Thinking religious movement of eighteenth century England. He attacked Newton’s mathematical arguments as being no more rational and no less based on authority than traditional religious doctrine. His mathematical discussions sometimes caricatured Newton but sometimes they were valid. The first to respond to Berkeley, James Jurin, a medical doctor in Cambridge, and John Walton of Dublin, sought to defend Newton and correct Berkeley’s mathematics, although mathematics was not Berkeley’s main concern. Later responses included sound treatises on the theory of fluxions by Benjamin Robins and Colin Maclaurin.
Discussion after the talk raised several questions and fewer answers. The whole debate described by Boman took place over a period of two or three years among participants widely scattered through the British Isles. What was the mechanism of communication that enabled this? James Jurin wrote under a pseudonym, Philalathes Cantabrigiensis, that seemed designed to disclose his identity. The use of pseudonyms by contending parties in a scientific or political debate seems very common but it seems that they rarely hide the identity of the author. Is this appearance correct and, if so, how can it be explained? Should the use of exaggerated titles such as “the Great Author” or “my esteemed colleague” before making a harsh criticism be understood as sarcasm or as conventional politeness? Some felt that Berkeley’s standing as a philosopher of mathematics had been slighted and recommended a book on the subject by Douglas Jesseph.

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