PBS NOVA ep: Infinite Secrets

in General Discussion edited January 2014
Holy Cow! Archimedes was a genius on the level of Newton. I had originally thought not, but the show has changed my views. Having gone so far is to develop rudimentary methods inherent in calculus in the 3rd Century B.C.E is a mind-bender. The question posed by the show was how much the world would have changed if mathematicians could have gotten hold of Archimedes' manuscripts and developed calculus centuries before Riemann, Newton, Liebnitz et al did. It would have changed the world unimaginably.

Infinite Secrets

The PI approximation alone is very impressive, but a methodology for summing infinite amount of numbers is pure genious. It's sort of ironic how the preservation of Archimedes' text, a paper copy, was washed over by a 12th century monk in order to use the paper for a prayer book.


  • Reply 1 of 4
    If you like this you should check out the new neil stephenson book "QuickSilver"

    its a sort of fiction wrapped around many of these early math and philosophers..
  • Reply 2 of 4
    pfflampfflam Posts: 5,053member
    it was a good show. Just think if the Dark Ages and Christianity had not figuratively and literally obliterated ancient scientific texts what kind of misery could have been avoided in history

    What kind of scientific progress would have been made if it had started from Archemedes timesrather than the loss of knowledge which began with teh decline of Rome and the anti-science of the dark ages
  • Reply 3 of 4
    There are numerous examples in history where calculus was "almost" invented. Democritus (who "proved" the existence of the atom) is one. Kepler came very close much later, when he developed a method for measuring the volume of barrels.

    It is probably true that if the library at Alexandria had not been destroyed, calculus would have been discoverd much earlier. Western mathematics languished during the Dark Ages until the rediscovery of the Greek texts.

    Calculus was discovered at the same time by two different individuals because the knowledge available at the time necessitated its development. Similarly, the theory of evolution was developed independendently at the exact same time by another individual, who stood on the podium with Darwin when they announced their findings. James Burke writes very eloquently about these "coincidences".
  • Reply 4 of 4
    Archimedes also came up with a very elegant experiment that proved the surface of the Earth is curved. He was able to calculate the diameter from the data to within a few hundred miles--unbelievable precision, given that the devices he was measuring with were sticks of equal length.

    The ancient world prior to the Romans had a remarkable scientific sophistication. Roman rule essentially amounted to scientific stagnation, and the Dark Ages virtually wiped out all the old knowledge. Most of what survives from that era comes from the Eastern Roman Emprie, the Arab world, which had some very excellent libraries in Spain, and from manuscripts meticulously copied by monks, in monasteries. There was, unfortunately, nothing like the internet, or the printing press; human knowledge didn't truly explode until the printing press. The effect of the internet is unclear to me--it seems to be a remarkable engine for spreading disinformation. \

    Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy and another Hugo winner, "A Canticle for Leibowitz", both deal with the idea of the fall of civilization, and the preservation of knowledge in secluded enclaves. Recommended.
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