Today, we learn why we've let physics intimidate
us. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Joseph Schwartz tells an
arresting tale of scientific compromise. It's a
tale about Galileo and Newton.
Galileo died, and Newton was born, in 1642. That
was a time of terrible religious persecution.
During their lives, 50,000 women were accused of
witchcraft and burned alive. Nineteen witch
hangings in Salem were small potatoes beside that
Meanwhile, Galileo's science drifted into conflict
with the Church. For years he'd attacked the
Church's Aristotelian science. He did all right
until late in life. Only near the end did the
sun-centered universe become too much for the
And the real question isn't, "Why did Galileo get
into trouble?" It is, "How did he stay out of
trouble for so long?"
Early in the game, Galileo learned a secret. He
knew his observations must not contradict Church
doctrine. But math was different. It was tool of
God. He could wield math with impunity.
In 1623 Galileo published his treatise, Il
Saggitiore. He took pains to say people
wouldn't be able to read it unless they mastered
its mathematical language. He got away with that.
He held the Church off for years by dressing
physics in math.
Sixty years later, Newton published his
Principia. It was a formidable exercise in
math. He wrote it in the near wake of Cromwell's
religious persecutions. English conservatives were
still attacking the new empirical sciences when
To avoid being baited by little smatterers in
mathematics, I designedly made the Principia
abstract; but yet as to be understood by able
A friendly theologian wrote Newton for help in
reading the Principia. Newton gave a
... it's enough if you understand the Propositions
with [a few of the easier] demonstrations.
You can, in other words, understand what
he has to say perfectly well without the math. He's
replaced one witchcraft with another.
So, Schwartz argues, physics took its modern form.
Of course what began as protective cover eventually
came to serve us. But we still know too many
scientists who can't say what they've done without
using math. Now they protect themselves, not from
religious persecution, but from intellectual
bullies. You hardly dare speak without mathematical
Someone once said, "Math lets fools do what you
must be wise to do without it." Math can be a
servant instead of a tyrant. It can truly be means
for clarifying instead of obfuscating.
That's why I remind myself daily that I use math
just because I'm no Galileo or Newton. Used
properly, math lets me deal with things my mind
couldn't hold otherwise.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds