JF Ptak Science Books Post 2742
WIlliam Spottiswoode (1825-1883), an English mathematician and physicist, president of the Royal Society from 1878 to 1883, and of the British (Science) Association in 1878 as well, wrote a very appreciable piece on the state of Science in Nature in 1878. At 15 pages this was a one-percenter for Nature so far as length goes--the pagination sounds short, except that the text was printed in about 8-pt, 90 columns per page, double columns, so the article was no doubt 15k+ words. There were numerous nuggets in this review and state of affairs of the sciences and technology, including sections on mathematics, literature and art, physics instrumentation, manifold space, imaginaries, and so on, not the least of which was 1500 words on Non-Euclidean Geometry.
What struck me most in all of this was the half-column entry for “Mechanical Methods” (on page 413), which turns out to be “mechanical appliances”, or calculating machines/engines. It starts with an unusual assertion:
“Mr Babbage, when speaking of the difficulty of insuring accuracy in the long numerical calculations of theoretical astronomy, remarked that that “most accurate science” had become “inaccurate and uncertain in some of its results”.
Spottiswoode continues with an explanation and a dig:
“It is doubtless, some such consideration as this, coupled with his dislike of employing skilled labour when unskilled labour would suffice, which led him to his invention o the calculating machine”.
The author then makes another—again, to my experience—unusual observation, referring to the replacement of human thinking capacity by a machine:
“The idea of substituting mechanized for intellectual power has not lain dormant...”
It is a very short comment, but I think makes a strong if understated point.
The author then moves onto the “recent” machine of James Thomson (“by its aid it seems an unskilled laborer may, in a given time, perform the work of ten skilled arithmeticians...reduced to the simple process of turning a handle"), before finishing with a flourish, though it is easy to read through. In telling the story of Michael Faraday, who after muscling through some concept and determining that the next step would be to hammer it all out mathematically, would “irreverently “ say “hand it over to the calculators”, which at that point was a team of human calculators, arithmeticians, and perhaps more famously known now as "computers".
And the finish:
“But truth is stranger than fiction; and if he had lived until our day, he might with perfect propriety have said, 'Hand it over to the machine' ”.
It is a small statement with a lot of possibility. Even though this comes seven years after Babbage gave up the ghost in Marleybone, it still seems remarkably early to be talking about this sort of major impact in the conduct of the sciences, lending part of the process over to machines. The Industrial Revolution is well into it second century by this point, and human effort in all manner of manufacturing has been replaced by machines—except here the active part of the human experience in the creation of ideas is the thing that is becoming “machinized”.
This brought to mind an earlier piece in the same journal by James Clerk Maxwell, who also wrote an assessment of recent developments in science2.
What I find to be most interesting here is Maxwell pulling back the reins and directing the idea of clear scientific discourse by means of analogy. He does speak of "calculating" and "calculating machine", which is referring to human calculators and not mechanical ones--the issue being that "spending a season" doing this stubborn and consuming work could turn the person occupied with in into a "machine". He writes:
"What the man of science, whether he be a mathematician or a physical inquirer, aims to do, to acquire and develop clear ideas of the things he deals with. For this purpose he is willing to enter on long calculations, and to be for a season a calculating machine., if he can only at last make his ideas clearer."
"But if he finds that clear ideas are not obtained by the means of processes, the steps of which he is sure to forget before he has reached the conclusion, it is much better that he should turn to another method, and try to understand the subject by well chosen illustrations derived from subjects with which he is more familiar."
"We all know how much more popular the illustrative method of exposition is found, than that in which bare processes of reasoning and calculation form the principal subject of discourse..."
- SPOTTISWOODE, William. “British Association”, address on the state of the British Association by the president, in Nature, vol 18, no. 459, occupying most of the weekly issue, pp 403-425 in the issue of pp 401-428.
- MAXWELL, James Clerk. Mathematical and Physical Sciences--address to Section A of the British Association. London: 1870. Nature, vol 2, Sept 22, 1870. Maxwell addresses the British Science Association meeting in a long (for Nature) entry of about 4,000 words, over 4 pages.