Ending today, was a fantastic series from BBC Radio 4 titled ‘A History of the World in 100 objects’. In conjunction with the British Museum; this programme explored objects which gave an account of human history through the objects we use. From objects such as the Olduvai axe, we see objects as enablers. While objects enable, innocation also broadens the scope of potential experiences. Beyond mere survival humanity becomes far more sophisticated; rituals and values emerge around sexuality, or the nature of our contact with others and our relationship with nature.
One thing I found particularly interesting is the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which is also referenced in Hawking’s latest book ‘The Grand Design’; is that early mathematics came about as a system for administering resources such as paying workers or distributing and storing grain. Perhaps a contradiction in the human condition is the drive to consistency and organisation; against the ‘freeness’ of creativity by breaking said rules.
Creating systems, not just of theories, but of how we organise ourselves; is really a great human endeavour; whether one needs to keep the technology infrastructures working, or the support infrastructures or even the economy; the strive for consistency is one of the vital human impulses that allows for human survival, and things as mundane as keeping warm during colder months, or organising travel.
The objects towards the end of the series were particularly emotive and powerful. While most of the objects speak about the human past. Many reflected some of the battles ongoing against sexual and gender prejudice. The last two objects, a credit card, and solar panel; truly hit at the heart of the present day. The issues of scarcity and sustainability will likely be
objects that will define the immediate and distant future (if there is to be any of the latter) of humanity. It was a fascinating programe.
Last night I saw a documentary about 4 individuals; three of them were mathematicians, the other, a physicist. The documentary was about their reaction to a world where the classical view of the world of certainties, absolute laws, and clarity about the universe slowly faded away; and as well as the fact that people are just human, they suffered terrible lives and suffered for their craft.
The first individual was a mathematician named Georg Cantor; Cantor was working on a notion of infinity, and his work was rejected in his day. Cantor sought to establish a perfect mathematical system which was missing a key element that unified them all together; the illness he suffered was in some resepect a result of his labours to find a so-called “Continuum Hypothesis”; this hypothesis comes up later on in the program
The second individual was a physicist named Boltzmann; Boltzmann challenged the putative view that the understanding of the physical world was by a set of laws prescribed by God; but rather, we must understand physical behaviour as probabilistic and not in terms of the grand scheme of things like laws and God, but in the micro-phenomena of the world. As many rejected his suggestion he kept labouring to defend his claim, eventually writing books and treatise which eventually just kept saying the same thing. Boltzmann was around his enemies constantly and was an object of derision from his peers, such as Poincare and Mach.
The last pair of stories involve Alan Turing, and Kurt Godel. I find these particularly interesting as they hit close to home. What seemed most poignant of these stories was the price that their mathematics had on their minds, and more importantly, their mortalities.
Some of the stuff in Cantor I found particularly interesting; like a relic of his past that he carried on him constantly; a letter from his father that speaks of his father’s pride in his son; and his secret wish to be a musician, instead of a mathematician; and soon after the death of his son, whom which he wanted to be a musician, he gave up living. All of these individuals died through suicide. Poisoning, starvation, hanging…tragic ends for noble minds