Pliny: it’s downright madness to concern ourselves with cosmology

February 14, 2021 Comments off

Author and Background

Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23-79), sometimes called Pliny the Elder but most often just Pliny, was a prolific Roman author. His book, Naturalis Historia, or Natural History, was a multi-volume encyclopedic compendium of his voluminous readings in the sciences, along with some of his own commentary and reactions to scientific claims. He published the first 10 Books of Natural History in AD 77 at the age of 53, but then died a few years later before putting out the rest of the Books, which totaled 37 in all. The latter 27 books were collected and finalized by his nephew (Pliny the Younger).


The world and this – whatever other name men have chosen to designate the sky whose vaulted roof encircles the universe, is fitly believed to be a deity, eternal, immeasurable, a being that never began to exist and never will perish. What is outside it does not concern men to explore and is not within the grasp of the human mind to guess. It is sacred, eternal, immeasurable, wholly within the whole, nay rather itself the whole, infinite and resembling the finite, certain of all things and resembling the uncertain, holding in its embrace all things that are without and within, at once the work of nature and nature itself.

That certain persons have studied, and have dared to publish, its dimensions, is mere madness; and again that others, taking or receiving occasion from the former, have taught the existence of a countless number of worlds, involving the belief in as many systems of nature, or, if a single nature embrace all the worlds, nevertheless the same number of suns, moons and other unmeasurable and innumerable heavenly bodies, as already in a single world; just as if owing to our craving for some End the same problem would not always encounter us at the termination of this process of thought, or as if, assuming it possible to attribute this infinity of nature to the artificer of the universe, that same property would not be easier to understand in a single world, especially one that is so vast a structure. It is madness, downright madness, to go out of that world, and to investigate what lies outside it just as if the whole of what is within it were already clearly known; as though, forsooth, the measure of anything could be taken by him that knows not the measure of himself, or as if the mind of man could see things that the world itself does not contain.

Source: Pliny. Natural History. Book II.I. (transl. by H. Rackham). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.


Pliny’s remarks here are somewhat convoluted. He mixes scientific claims with normative claims, and all of them are somewhat imprecise. Nevertheless, the overall message that he seems to want us to hear is this: do not waste your time on pursuing very remote things, when we have so much to learn right around us. And whatever is true here is likely to be what is true there, and since here is a lot closer than there, let’s stop speculating about what goes on there. And anyway, even if you do learn a thing or two about stuff far away, your questions will just keep going and you’ll never come to an end, so you might as well not start it.

But Pliny was wrong. Aggressive work to understand the workings of the heavens, in all its ways, was key to progress made in physics. Newton and others looked to the heavens, and in the process found useful laws for here on earth. To suppress intense curiosity and speculation about every aspect of the natural world in which we find ourselves is a prescription for a stagnate scientific society. And that’s exactly what Rome was at the time. For all the wealth and relative stability they created, they produced almost nothing of value in basic science. Few deep questions were moved along by the Romans. The ancient Greeks did much more. Even the most elegant of all Roman writings on science, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (circa 60 BC), was just an ode to Epicurus’s writings on atomism (circa 300 BC) whose earlier basis was in Democritus (circa 400 BC).

The Romans did almost nothing of value in science partly because they had too many Pliny’s in their society, who merely read the ancient Greeks, did no original work themselves, and then had the gall to make strong commentary on what is worthwhile and not worthwhile in science even when they didn’t really understand what they were saying. In other words, they substituted true scientific work with mere reporting laced with strong ignorant opinions.

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Galileo analyzes the cancel mob gathering against him

February 7, 2021 Comments off

Galileo reveals why he thinks cancel mobs form and what characteristics their leaders and followers have.

Galileo was under fire by theologians and academic philosophers who were against the heliocentric view of the universe that he espoused. Galileo worked in the court of Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany at the time. He wrote a letter in 1615 to the Duke’s mother, the Grand Duchess Christina, in hopes of gaining support and protection from the forces gathering against him [1]. It did not entirely work, because shortly thereafter in 1616 he was judged by Rome, in response to the many complaints against him, to be in conflict with Church views and his work had to be renounced and suspended. Galileo ultimately violated this injunction and was condemned by the Inquisition 17 years later in 1633.

Galileo’s letter was mostly an excellent theological defense of scientific freedom. But there were several parts of the letter that were focused on analyzing what today might be called the “cancel culture.” Here are six such passages, all quoted from [1]:

 I. Some years ago, as Your Serene Highness well knows, I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them in contradiction to the physical notions commonly held among academic philosophers, stirred up against me no small number of professors—as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences.

II. Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth, they sought to deny and disprove the new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments….

III. But some, besides allegiance to their original error, possess I know not what fanciful interest in remaining hostile not so much toward the things in question as toward their discoverer.

IV. Persisting in their original resolve to destroy me and everything mine by any means they can think of, these men are aware of my views in astronomy and philosophy [heliocentric universe].

V. They [leaders of the persecution] know that it is human nature to take up causes whereby a man may oppress his neighbor, no matter how unjustly, rather than those from which a man may receive some just encouragement. Hence they have had no trouble in finding men who would preach the damnability and heresy of the new doctrine from their very pulpits with unwonted confidence….

VI. And the smaller number of understanding men could not dam up the furious torrent of such people, who would gain the majority of followers simply because it is much more pleasant to gain a reputation for wisdom without effort or study than to consume oneself tirelessly in the most laborious disciplines.

What is fascinating in these extracts and in the letter as a whole is Galileo’s pain of realizing that people are not so much interested in arguing and discussing the pros and cons of the heliocentric view. They most wanted to silence him, Galileo the man, the “discoverer.” They wished to “destroy [him] and everything [his] by any means they can think of.”

Galileo also speculates something about human character in Extracts II and V. In Extract II he complains that many show “greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth” — a problem that has not abated over the centuries. In Extract V he says that it is natural for “such people” to want to gang up on an individual, and leaders that are after him know that very well. Thus, it is easy to have simplistic or wrong opinions and still incite a mob against an individual, because people are prone to want to join in such activities.

In Extract VI, which occurs near the end of the letter, he comes back to the theme of ignorant persecutors and is obviously bitter about the number of simpletons who have a “reputation for wisdom” but never exert themselves tirelessly “in the most laborious disciplines”, which one can presumably take Galileo to mean mathematics and natural sciences. And yet, these simpletons “gain the majority of followers.”

Of course, there is an element of Galileo’s approach to his persecution that contributed to the antipathy people had toward him. For example, Father Grassi, a Jesuit priest who was present at Galileo’s trial said of Galileo:

As for Mr. Galileo’s displeasure, I tell you most sincerely that I, too, am displeased. I have always had more love for him than he has for me. And last year at Rome [during the trial] when I was requested to give my opinion on his book on the motion of the earth, I took the utmost care to allay minds harshly disposed toward him and to render them open to conviction of the strength of his arguments, so much so, indeed, that certain people who supposed me to have been offended by Galileo . . . marveled at my solicitude. But he has ruined himself by being so much in love with his own genius, and by having no respect for others. One should not wonder that everybody conspires to damn him. (as quoted in [2])

If there is something to learn from the Galileo story regarding these issues it is this: heroes do not abandon their convictions because of threatening mobs; true scholars are tentative and teachable and do not “cancel” people but rather engage with the arguments or, at worst, ignore them (because there is only so much time in the day); be nicer to the simpletons than they deserve or their mob will gain strength and be further motivated to condemn you; but even being nice won’t necessarily protect you — you have to be prepared to suffer for your convictions and one day there might be a book about your discoveries and opinions, like Galileo [1].

It would seem difficult for people who are part of “cancel culture” to accomplish anything nearly as grand as Galileo. Their mindsets of rigid boundaries and complex no-go zones are very high maintenance and leave little energy or space for deep, challenging, and creative thought. Furthermore, their efforts to control the expressions of others, if successful, dull the minds of everyone around them in time.

The great English poet John Milton, Galileo’s friend later in life, warned of the same when in a speech before the English Parliament in 1644 he declared that limits on freedom in publishing doom society to produce only fustian drivel. According to Milton, the effect is devastating. He brought up the cancellation of Galileo as evidence:

I could recount what I have seen and heard in other countries, where this kind of inquisition tyrannizes; where I have sat among their learned men, for that honour I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of Philosophical Freedom, as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning amongst them was brought; that this was it which had dampened the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican Licencers thought. [3]

Soft-power licencers can be just as damaging. Limits on freedom are not only imposed by governments but also by pseudo-ecclesiastical petition mobs which can be just as devastating as any governmental decree that takes away people’s jobs and livelihoods, not to mention their dignity.

The words of Galileo and Milton speak to us four centuries later to remind us that a flourishing creative society depends on us embracing freedom.


[1] Galileo Galilei. “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”, 1615. English translation published in Drake, Stillman. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. New York: Anchor book, 1957.

[2] Moss, J.D. “Galileo’s Letter to Christina: Some Rhetorical Considerations.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol.36, No.4 (Winter 1983), pp.547-576.

[3] Allen-Olney, Mary. The Private Life of Galileo. Boston: Nichols and Noyes, 1870. The quote is originally from Milton’s Areopagitica (1644). I have modernized the spelling here. Italics are mine.

Milton visiting Galileo when a prisoner of the Inquisition. Solomon Alexander Hart, 1847.
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Calvin: my success was due to my teacher as a teenager, Mathurin Cordier (1550)

December 30, 2020 Comments off


Bernard Cottret. Calvin: A Biography (translated from the French by W.W. McDonald). Cambridge, UK: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.


John Calvin (1509-1564), the great Protestant reformer of the 16th century, had a rough start in his studies, but he was fortunate in his early teenage years to find himself in the classroom of Mathurin Cordier (1479-1564), one of the foremost educators in France’s illustrious academic history. They met in 1523 in Paris at the Collège de la Marche. Calvin was 14, and his genius needed someone like Cordier to nurture it.

Calvin never forgot the unequaled influence that Cordier had in his intellectual formation, not only in learning Latin but also in learning how to learn. So few knew how to do that back then, since imitation of the Greek and Latin ancients was the highest form of erudition among the elites at that time. Cordier even used French in his classroom. This was considered quite gauche since French was considered a brutish language among the elites at that time. Latin was the only language a scholar should publish in. Calvin would later translate his master work, Institution de la Religion Chrestienne (1541), into the French vernacular of the day, perhaps being inspired by the example of his teacher.

Years later, Cordier and Calvin reunited in Geneva, which was a safe haven for the reformists. This time Calvin was the master. Their respect for each other remained strong. They both died in the same year, 1564 — Calvin in May, Cordier a few months later in September. Cordier and Calvin are both buried in the Cimetière des Rois (Cimetière de Plainpalais now) in Geneva.

We know Calvin’s feelings of gratitude for Cordier from the dedication to his old teacher at the beginning of Calvin’s Commentary on The Book of Thessalonians. The extract below is from that dedication


It is with good reason that you also have a place in my labors, since having first begun the process of study under your conduct and skill, I have advanced at least to this point of being able in some degree to benefit the church of God. When my father sent me as a young boy to Paris, having only some small beginnings in the Latin language, God wished me to have you for a short time as my preceptor, so that by you I might be so directed to the true road and right manner of learning that I could profit somewhat from it afterwards. Since, when you had taken the first class and taught there with great honor; nevertheless, because you saw that the children formed by the other masters through ambition and boasting were not grounded in good understanding and grasped nothing firmly, but could only make an appearance with gusts of words, so that you had to start over and form them anew; being disgusted with such a burden, that year you descended to the fourth class. It was for me a singular favor of God to encounter such a beginning of instruction. And although it was not permitted me to enjoy it for long, since a thoughtless man, without judgment, who disposed of our studies at his own will, or rather according to his foolish whims, made us immediately move higher, nevertheless the instruction and skill you had given me served me so well afterwards that in truth I confess and recognize that such profit and advancement as followed was due to you.


Imagine Cordier watching the great Calvin preach to the masses at St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva, recalling back to that awkward young boy struggling through his Latin exercises, and knowing how instrumental he was in building the scholarly abilities of the young Calvin who later would change the world so profoundly.

A great teacher that can launch a youngster that reached such great heights indeed should be celebrated. So here’s to Mathurin Cordier, and all the other dedicated and fantastic teachers out there like him.

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Gaddis: historians operate more like natural scientists than do social scientists

December 20, 2020 Comments off


John Lewis Gaddis. The Landscape of History. Oxford University Press, 2002.


While on sabbatical at Oxford, the eminent Cold War historian from Yale, John Gaddis, decided to give lectures on the methods of historical research. The resulting book is somewhat philosophical in nature. One of the key points he makes is that historians are more like natural scientists than social scientists, in that natural scientists and historians share the same conviction that there is no such thing as a big independent variable that must be found to account for the phenomena, but rather an ecology of variables that jointly feed into a complex system that may even be chaotic. As part of this argument he mounts several attacks on reductionist-oriented social scientists. The extract below is one such volley.


Students in the social sciences are often told to proceed “as if” these anomalies had not happened. Saving the theory is what’s important: it doesn’t matter if doing so “smooths out,” or even flattens, the facts. What this means, though, is that the social sciences are operating — by no means in all instances, but in many — at roughly the level of freshman physics experiments [with idealized, artificial set-ups]. That’s why the forecasts they make only occasionally correspond with the reality we subsequently encounter.

…. Hence, when social scientists are right, they too often confirm the obvious. When they don’t confirm the obvious, they’re too often wrong.


From the perspective of a distant scientist there might not seem to be a whole lot of light between an historian and a social scientist. However, as the extract above suggests, there can be deep divisions between the two once you get closer. The attack on social scientists fits into Gaddis’s larger picture that historians are much more like natural scientists (especially cosmologists, paleontologists, etc.) than social scientists. 

More broadly speaking, the book is interesting reading in that he explains the methodologies of natural science in order to make a more positive likeness argument that historians are more similar to natural scientists. I do not agree with all the characterizations, but it is quite clever and fascinating nevertheless.

Finally, another relevant point Gaddis makes in the book is that reflection on the methods in one’s field (what are your deeper goals and how do you propose get there) is a necessary exercise that all should do. I believe this to be true among physicists as well. There needs to be more reflection on goals and especially methods within physics — not just on short-term goals and the tactical methods to get there, which is rather easy, but also on the long-term grand goals and the strategic methods needed to get there, which is very hard yet critical to long-term success. This is what I tried to do in my recent book Discovery Beyond the Standard Model of Elementary Particle Physics, but there is much more to do and say in this realm.

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1952 Ronald Reagan film ridicules the value of university education

December 13, 2020 Comments off

Society is taking a very hard look at universities these days. With the huge losses they are suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic, scrutiny is being put on them. Do they have the value they presume? Are students well served by their years at University?

This has been a question that has been asked for a very long time, but in particular in the United States when enrollments exploded in the late 1940s. Americans had a lot of mixed feelings about becoming a nation of educated folks. We rapidly went from one of the least educated “advanced countries” to the most educated in a short period of time, as judged by fraction of population with college degrees. The United States no longer has that title — Canada is #1 now — but it is still in the top 10.

So is it new and alarming that Americans are questioning the value of investing in a college education? Part of me says yes, and I think universities bear some responsibility for that, but another part of me says no, it has always been that way in America.

I was watching an old movie recently starring Ronald Reagan: 1952’s “She’s working her way through college.” It’s about a former burlesque dancer, played by Virginia Mayo, who makes her way to Midwest State College and creates quite a stir for everyone, including a lowly Associate Professor of English and Theatre, played by Ronald Reagan. It’s a so-so film, but as a college professor myself I was fascinated by its portrayal of college life and college politics of the early 1950s.

The movie lambasts the Board of Directors of the university. It makes fun of football players who only want to take the easiest classes. It portrays the classroom as rather dull and suggests that extra-curricular activities are the real saving graces of college. These are all largely unfair but familiar themes even today.

And then about halfway through the film the student body sings a song called “We’re working our way through college” (see below for lyrics). It’s a song that more or less questions the whole value and absurdity of having to go through college. A major theme is that none of what they learn will be useful, and they are only wasting the “old man’s dough.” But they’ve got to do it since companies require college degrees even though they are useless for the job at hand. But it has a playful tone and suggests they are having fun anyway and are drinking the “midnight oil” rather than burning it.

In other words, nothing’s changed. And maybe nothing will change. Society will playfully make fun of universities for decades more to come, but universities will go on because underneath the good-natured teasing and sometimes malicious attacks, real value is recognized. That is my hope.


Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1937. Sung in 1952 movie “She’s working her way through college”, starring Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan.


We’re working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we’ll probably never ever use again.
It helps a lot to know
You’ve got a nice diploma,
But will it pay the mortgage on the home sweet home-a?
We’re getting an education
To run a filling station,
For they never take anyone but college men.

Oh, you’ve got to know your Cicero,
Your Hannibal and Caesar,
To turn the crank
And fill the tank
And say, “How many, please, sir?”
And the mathematics is the thing we’ve gotta know,
Working our way through college on the old man’s
Dough, re, mi fa, sol, la, ti…


We’re working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we’ll probably never ever use again.
And do we study, do we toil?
Don’t you think it!
And do we burn the midnight oil?
No, we drink it!

The study of economics
Will never fill our stomachs
If we finally have to be insurance men.
Oh, the Sigma Chi may rate you high
And ask you to their rushes,
But no one’s gonna ask you when
You’re selling Fuller brushes.
Hooray for history and Greek and algebra!
We’re working our way through college
With a Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!

REFRAIN 3 (added for 1952 film)

We’re working our way through college
To get a lot of knowledge
That we’ll probably never ever use again.
It’s swell to tell
What parallel
And parallax is,
But after graduation
Will it pay our taxes?

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Pitkin: itch to understand and the whole art of learning (1931)

December 6, 2020 Comments off

Sometimes students come to me and ask how can they know if they are well suited to a life of scholarship, to be a professor or professional researcher for decades and decades. I tell them that if they love the process of learning and research, and if they have dozens of questions they are bubbling over with enthusiasm to get to the bottom of no matter how long it takes to do so, and they wake up each morning with eagerness to tackle them that day, then they can know.

I stumbled across a question that is very much related: how do I know I have it in me to master the art of learning, which is so critical to a successful life of scholarship? The passage below is the answer provided by Walter Pitkin, former undergraduate student at University of Michigan (class of 1900) and later professor of journalism at Columbia University from 1912-1943. In summary, you must “itch to understand”. I fully agree with Pitkin.


When all is said and done, your success as a learner depends enormously upon your philosophy of life. Your perspective determines what you are going to do about it; and the energies which emerge in your attitudes and emotions give vigor and scope to your ways of learning.

Do you see life as a mere struggle for money? Then you will shun all study which pays no quick cash dividends.

Do you look upon yourself as a creature of blind chance, helpless in an all-engulfing chaos of futility? Then you will probably find no pleasure in well directed intellectual effort.

Do you consider this world of yours and all its creatures simply as a curious, lovely, alarming, grandiose, noisy, gaudy, thrilling spectacle, which you contemplate as an innocent bystander? Then you remain forever an esthete and contemplative, uninterested in the deeper forms of learning.

Do you itch to understand every machine you see, every odd act of a friend, every absurdity of politicians and actors and debutantes, every obscure news item, and every strange light in the night sky? Then you have it in you to master the whole art of learning.

From W.B. Pitkin, The Art of Learning. McGraw Hill, 1931.

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Beauty and truth in theoretical physics

January 16, 2020 Comments off

There is some controversy about what is meant by a “beautiful theory”. Dirac and many others talked about beauty being a key property of good theories. But what does that mean? Some have countered that the ideas of beauty in physics are worthless mumbo jumbo and should be dispensed with. Although I do not think it is ever necessary to use the word “beauty” within physics, I think there is an important sense in which beauty can be used, has been used, is being used, perhaps subconsciously by some and consciously by others, wherein beauty has meaning and leads to truth.

The risk of a theoretical physicist defining what is meant by “beautiful theory” is that it tends to focus on properties of theories that the individual theorist making the definition finds important, which devolves into a self-serving empty exercise of technicalities.

Let us then look to the long tradition of human expression for beauty outside the narrow realm of physics theories. There is within the practical art world — not just among philosophers of art — a long-revered definition that attempts to generalize the notion of beauty. It comes from Owen Jones’s “Grammar of Ornament” from 1856, a very influential art and design book out of London that has never been out of print these last ~164 years.

In one of his foundational propositions Owen defines beauty to be what is present when the mind reposes through lack of want:

“True beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want.”

I think this definition can apply fruitfully to theories within physics. The eye and affections are satisfied through the inscrutable but worthy intuitions of a serious and successful physicist (like a Dirac, and many others) who has experienced the delight of writing a new theory that explains more and is correct. And the intellect is satisfied through the “absence of any want” that a great theory accomplishes when at that time the main questions are answered and the main desires of the theory are fulfilled. For a time, one reposes and says, “Yes, this is good. It is beautiful what I now see.”

This reaction is an archetypal reaction manifested since the beginnings of recorded history. Even the author of Genesis says, “And God saw every thing that he had made and behold, it was very good … and he rested.”

It is another question whether beautiful theories correspond to ultimate truth, but I think they unambiguously correspond to solving conundrums of their time and station. And inasmuch as we believe there is progress in science — that solving the identified problems of a particular time generally pushes us forward and not haphazardly — we then can reasonably hold that beauty’s arrow arcs toward truth.

[Image below is one of the color plates Owen included in his book. source:]


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Nietzsche: blessed are the scholars (1882)

August 28, 2019 Comments off


Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science [Die fröhliche Wissenschaft], 1882.


The Gay Science is one of Nietzsche’s most interesting books. It is mostly an ode to free thinking, the scientific mindset and rigorous intellectual approach to life.


Almost always the books of scholars are somehow oppressive, oppressed: the “specialist” emerges somewhere—his zeal, his seriousness, his fury, his overestimation of the nook in which he sits and spins, his hunched back; every specialist has his hunched back. Every scholarly book also mirrors a soul that has become crooked; every craft makes crooked.…Nothing can be done about that. Let nobody suppose that one could possibly avoid such crippling by some artifice of education. On this earth one pays dearly for every kind of mastery.…For having a specialty one pays by also being the victim of this specialty. But you would have it otherwise—cheaper and fairer and above all more comfortable—isn’t that right, my dear contemporaries. Well then, but in that case you also immediately get something else: instead of the craftsman and master, [you get] the “man of letters,” the dexterous, “polydexterous” man of letters who, to be sure, lacks the hunched back—not counting the posture he assumes before you, being the salesman of the spirit and the “carrier” of culture—the man of letters who really is nothing but “represents” almost everything, playing and “substituting” for the expert, and taking it upon himself in all modesty to get himself paid, honored, and celebrated in place of the expert.

No, my scholarly friends, I bless you even for your hunched back. And for despising, as I do, the “men of letters” and culture parasites. And for not knowing how to make a business of the spirit. And for having opinions that cannot be translated into financial values. And for not representing anything that you are not. And because your sole aim is to become masters of your craft, with reverence for every kind of mastery and competence, and with uncompromising opposition to everything that is semblance, half-genuine, dressed up, virtuosolike, demagogical, or histrionic in litteris et artibus—to everything that cannot prove to you its unconditional probity in discipline and prior training.


Most of the serious experts in the world have zero tolerance for the wide-ranging generalists (“polydexterous men of letters”) in the world. Their inadequacies are too transparent to them. Generalists are often the ones put in charge of companies, universities, and governments — in other words, the bosses — which brings additional scorn and resentment. Great scholars are crooked, and damaged, and mistreated, but they have something the generalist will never have: the incomparable satisfaction of attaining “mastery and competence” and of belonging to the proud guild of scholars who see and understand what few others ever will. Well, I think there is some exaggeration by Nietzsche with these sentiments, since it takes a lot of different types of people to make this big world of ours, but it does let off a little “scholarly steam” for those feeling under appreciated at times.

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Hugh of St. Victor: shameful to grow torpid in laziness (12th century)

August 28, 2019 Comments off


Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141). From C.H. Buttiner, ed. Didascalicon. Washington: Catholic University Press, 1939.


Hugh of St. Victor was the leading Saxon theologian of the 12th century. He was a thinker and a scholar and an all around productive, impressive and interesting chap.


It is one thing when you cannot learn, or to speak more truly, cannot easily learn, and another when you are able, and do not wish to know. For just as it is more glorious, with no facilities at hand, to attain wisdom by excellence alone, so it is more shameful to be vigorous in mind, to abound in riches, and to grow torpid in laziness.


All great achievers agree on one thing: you cannot be lazy. You can be brilliant and talented, but you still have to get it done. If you want to be productive, competitive and achieve something, get to work and don’t let up. Dedication to achieving something worthwhile becomes intoxicating in time, and even more enjoyable than that stultifying new video game you just downloaded.

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H.G. Wells: scientific people know that time is only a kind of space (1895)

August 25, 2019 Comments off

SOURCE: H.G. Wells (1866-1946). The Time Machine. 1895.

SETTING: The “Time Traveler,” as he is referred to in the novel, is explaining to a group of esteemed acquaintances his conceptualization of time as a fourth dimension, which according to him is the first step toward understanding that going back and forth in time is no different than going back and forth in space.


Filby became pensive. “Clearly,” the Time Traveller proceeded, “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.”

“That,” said a very young man, making spasmodic efforts to relight his cigar over the lamp; “that . . . very clear indeed.”

“Now, it is very remarkable that this is so extensively overlooked,” continued the Time Traveller, with a slight accession of cheerfulness. “Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time. There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it. But some foolish people have got hold of the wrong side of that idea. You have all heard what they have to say about this Fourth Dimension?”

“I have not,” said the Provincial Mayor.

“It is simply this. That Space, as our mathematicians have it, is spoken of as having three dimensions, which one may call Length, Breadth, and Thickness, and is always definable by reference to three planes, each at right angles to the others. But some philosophical people have been asking why three dimensions particularly—why not another direction at right angles to the other three?—and have even tried to construct a Four-Dimensional geometry. Professor Simon Newcomb was expounding this to the New York Mathematical Society only a month or so ago. You know how on a flat surface, which has only two dimensions, we can represent a figure of a three-dimensional solid, and similarly they think that by models of three dimensions they could represent one of four—if they could master the perspective of the thing. See?”

“I think so,” murmured the Provincial Mayor; and, knitting his brows, he lapsed into an introspective state, his lips moving as one who repeats mystic words. “Yes, I think I see it now,” he said after some time, brightening in a quite transitory manner.

“Well, I do not mind telling you I have been at work upon this geometry of Four Dimensions for some time. Some of my results are curious. For instance, here is a portrait of a man at eight years old, another at fifteen, another at seventeen, another at twenty-three, and so on. All these are evidently sections, as it were, Three-Dimensional representations of his Four-Dimensioned being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing.

“Scientific people,” proceeded the Time Traveller, after the pause required for the proper assimilation of this, “know very well that Time is only a kind of Space. Here is a popular scientific diagram, a weather record. This line I trace with my finger shows the movement of the barometer. Yesterday it was so high, yesterday night it fell, then this morning it rose again, and so gently upward to here. Surely the mercury did not trace this line in any of the dimensions of Space generally recognised? But certainly it traced such a line, and that line, therefore, we must conclude, was along the Time-Dimension.”

“But,” said the Medical Man, staring hard at a coal in the fire, “if Time is really only a fourth dimension of Space, why is it, and why has it always been, regarded as something different? And why cannot we move in Time as we move about in the other dimensions of Space?”

The Time Traveller smiled. “Are you so sure we can move freely in Space? Right and left we can go, backward and forward freely enough, and men always have done so. I admit we move freely in two dimensions. But how about up and down? Gravitation limits us there.”

“Not exactly,” said the Medical Man. “There are balloons.”

“But before the balloons, save for spasmodic jumping and the inequalities of the surface, man had no freedom of vertical movement.”

“Still they could move a little up and down,” said the Medical Man.

“Easier, far easier down than up.”

“And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.”

“My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. Just as we should travel down if we began our existence fifty miles above the earth’s surface.”

“But the great difficulty is this,” interrupted the Psychologist. ’You can move about in all directions of Space, but you cannot move about in Time.”

“That is the germ of my great discovery. …”


This novel was written in 1895, well before Einstein’s theories of relativity (1905/1916) and before Minkowski’s 1908 formalizations of spacetime, with time being a fourth dimension on more or less equal footing as the spatial dimensions. However, there had been earlier discussions about the fourth dimension, and also thinking of time as that extra dimension, by others, including Lagrange, Kant, Riemann, and perhaps most relevant to H.G. Wells, the popularizing British mathematician Hinton. Wells does not mention any of these people in his novel, and he is of course too simplistic with the analogies. Nevertheless, it is a particularly eloquent and passionate advocacy for time being viewed as the fourth dimension by a brilliant novelist.

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