History Open Source Religion

Nineteenth-Century Open Source

Shaker chairNear where we’re staying on vacation there is a small but excellent Shaker museum. As a historian who in part studies nineteenth-century religion, I know a bit about the Shakers, one of the more remarkable and unusual revival Christian sects. (Note to those wishing to create a new sect that flourishes: eschew celibacy, even if you do make amazing furniture.) It is easy to think of the Shakers as from another age (or perhaps world), living in massive “families” of 50 to 100 “brothers and sisters” and focusing on the simple life of agriculture and crafts (in addition to very serious and often ecstatic forms of worship). But the museum brings to life the Shakers’ less well-known technological sophistication. They were innovators of the first order, constantly refining the efficiency of their families’ production (the simple lines of Shaker furniture made them easier to clean, important when your dining room seats 100).

What really struck me was their patented technologies. That’s right, the sect occasionally took advantage of U.S. patent law. The Shaker family near us invented a massive, semi-automated washing machine, among other things. And what they did with their patents is most interesting. They patented these machines so that no one would steal the designs, and then they licensed the designs for free to other Shaker communities, which did the same in return with their innovations. Sound familiar?

[Photograph of a Shaker chair by chrisjfry.]

History Mathematics Religion Victorian

Equations from God

“On September 23, 1846, the Berlin astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle scanned the night sky with a telescope and found what he was looking for—the faint light of the planet Neptune. Excitement about the discovery of an eighth planet quickly spread across Europe and America, generating a wave of effusive front-page headlines…Neptune was the first heavenly body found by mathematical prediction. Without peering into the sky at all, two mathematicians independently calculated the location of the planet through geometrical analysis and the laws of gravitation [after noticing] Uranus’s orbital irregularities [and told Galle where to look]…This remarkable aspect of the discovery of Neptune was not lost upon contemporaries. To many it signaled a new era of human knowledge [in which mathematicians were] potent sorcerers who conjured and commanded the supreme realm of Truth.” So begins Equations from God, my new book. I’ve been careful on this blog to stay on topic, i.e., only discuss digital matters, but as many of you know I also do work that is very much analog. And since one only comes out with a book once in a while, I’m taking the liberty of using the blog today as a platform to tell you why you might want to pick up a copy of Equations from God and read it.

Beginning with Plato and ending on the eve of the twentieth century, Equations from God tells the story of how and why so many Europeans and Americans came to see mathematics as a divine language, a way to ascend above the petty differences of mankind and commune with the mind of the Deity. Although it focuses on an ostensibly technical topic, it is written in a plainspoken way that makes the world of the mathematician accessible to a general audience, and it contextualizes that world within the religious, social, and political upheaval of the Victorian era. And it reveals surprising ideas from many unpublished works such as diaries, notebooks, sermons, and letters—ideas that remain remarkably relevant in today’s world. I think it also provides a good introduction to the intellectual and cultural debates and tensions of the nineteenth century.

Readers of this blog will likely find chapters and sections of interest, such as…

…the tale of George Boole, the brilliant, meek creator of the logic that runs our computers and our searches, who left England in his early thirties to teach mathematics in Ireland, only to find himself under siege during the Great Famine and the outbreak of Irish nationalism…

…the life of the greatest American mathematician of the nineteenth century, the pompous and cantankerous Harvard professor Benjamin Peirce, who refused to teach students who were insufficiently smart and who would end his math classes by exclaiming, “Gentlemen, there must be a God!”…

…the strange world of circle-squarers—amateur mathematicians who believed that pi was not what professional mathematicians said it was, and thought they had found its true value through mystical means…

…rare books such as The Lady’s Diary, a combination of astronomical knowledge, riddles, and math problems “designed for the use and diversion of the fair sex”…

…and much more. The book has been out for a few weeks now and so should be on bookshelves near you. While the list price is more for the “academic market,” as university presses like to call it (i.e., it’s listed at $50), through the power of the Internet you can find it for much less by looking at PriceGrabber or your favorite comparison site, or by going straight to A1 Books ($30), Barnes and Noble ($40 or $36 for members), or get it directly from The Johns Hopkins University Press ($40 with this special discount from the author).