Gleanings from the Past #75

Coining New Words

sagan.jpg

Carl Sagan

Physicists had to invent words and phrases for concepts far removed from everyday experience. It was their fashion to avoid pure neologisms and instead to evoke, even if feebly, some analogous commonplace. The alternative was to name discoveries and equations after one another. This they did also. But if you didn’t know it was physics they were talking, you might very well worry about them.

— Carl Sagan, Contact, 1985

A Loftier Ambition

There is a loftier ambition than merely to stand high in the world. It is to stoop down and lift mankind a little higher.

— Henry van Dyke, The Open Door, 1903

Inexhaustible Mysteries

Fifty years ago, Kurt Gödel, who afterwards became one of Einstein’s closest friends, proved that the world of pure mathematics is inexhaustible. No finite set of axioms and rules of inference can ever encompass the whole of mathematics. Given any finite set of axioms, we can find meaningful mathematical questions which the axioms leave unanswered. This discovery of Gödel came at first as an unwelcome shock to many mathematicians. It destroyed once and for all the hope that they could solve the problem of deciding by a systematic procedure the truth or falsehood of any mathematical statement. {53} After the initial shock was over, the mathematicians realized that Gödel’s theorem, in denying them the possibility of a universal algorithm to settle all questions, gave them instead a guarantee that mathematics can never die. No matter how far mathematics progresses and no matter how many problems are solved, there will always be, thanks to Gödel, fresh questions to ask and fresh ideas to discover.

It is my hope that we may be able to prove the world of physics as inexhaustible as the world of mathematics. Some of our colleagues in particle physics think that they are coming close to a complete understanding of the basic laws of nature. They have indeed made wonderful progress in the last ten years. But I hope that the notion of a final statement of the laws of physics will prove as illusory as the notion of a formal decision process for all of mathematics. If it should turn out that the whole of physical reality can be described by a finite set of equations, I would be disappointed.

— Freeman J. Dyson, Infinite in all Directions, 1985

Blunders

Some years ago, the publishers of a monthly periodical, finding that the last day of the month sometimes happened on a Sunday, had a meeting at the London Coffee house, when to remedy the inconvenience, it was resolved that the publishing day should be the last day but one of the month, not thinking that it would as frequently fall on a Sunday as any other day. And though the English blame their neighbours, the Irish, for the commission of blunders, yet they sometimes fall into the same error themselves. A meeting was called of the inhabitants of Stepney, for the protection of the householders against the renewal of robberies which took place the year preceding. The lawyer who drew up the resolutions, put an advertisement into the newspapers, stating that the meeting was held to prevent the robberies which took place the year before.

— Montesquieu, quoted in T. P.’s Weekly, Vol. 8, July 20, 1906

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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is edmarklaw@learnfunfacts.com

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