Polymathematics

[first published March 2011]

Francis Bacon, polymath and scientific theorist, would be proud to read that Timothy Gowers has adopted two of his own techniques in the seeking of an advancement of mathematical learning. The first is what is a sort of linguistic colonialism, that is, the taking of words with specific meanings, and the re-defining of them. Gowers re-draws the word polymath, changing it from a word indicating a wide-ranging (and approaching comprehensive) knowledge into a rather facile pun. Bacon did the same, taking words like ‘form’ and ‘metaphysicke’ and reconceptualising them so that he might bend them to his own will: ‘my Conception & Notion may differ from the Auncient, yet I am studious to keepe the Auncient Termes’.1 Bacon understood that words had power, and that in re-defining them he made them work for him and against their original coiners.

Bacon was also big on collaboration, as demonstrated in his New Atlantis and various other works, but more importantly, he invented what was, within the confines of the available technology, open-source natural philosophy. He was explicit in his suggestion that should a reader find an error in his work, they ought to change it, or at least suggest how to make it better. It worked. In Sylva sylvarum, Bacon write on the imitation of the human voice, noting en passant that ‘I have known a dog, that if one howled in his ear, he should fall howling a great while.’ Dutifully, one reader followed Bacon’s earlier prescription, writing these words in the book’s margin: ‘I hav tried this expt, but the dogg must love him who doth it.’2 Wisdom, indeed.

Bacon would, however, also be somewhat disappointed. He lost faith in the genius of his own times, and entrusted his thoughts to the future: ‘knowing well enough the nature of the things that I impart, I deal out work for ages to come.’ Open collaboration, especially at a distance, and the re-meaning of words was something Bacon recommended four hundred years ago, so when Jim Giles writes of Gower’s collaborative ‘polymathematics’ that ‘there are now tentative signs that science is catching on too’, he is just a little behind the times.

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