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Ask Dr. Silverman 3 — Myths and Legends


Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Interviewees: Dr. Herb Silverman

Numbering: Issue 3: Mathematics, Counselling Psychology, and More

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: Question Time

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 1,165

Keywords: Herb Silverman, legends, mathematics, myths, philosophy, Scott Douglas Jacobsen.

Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. Here we talk about the myths, the legends, and the myths behind the legends, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: For girls and boys, they take in the stories of Einstein, Newton, and Curie. Singular minds achieving great things in science and mathematics. They are proper science and math legends, but they retain mythological status, too. What is the truth in the legends? What did each discover or create?

Professor Herb Silverman: Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Marie Curie certainly deserve to be honoured, though not deified, as innovative scientists.

Newton was a physicist and mathematician who developed the principles of modern physics, including the laws of motion and the theory of gravity. Along with the mathematician Leibniz, Newton is also credited with developing calculus. Newton said in 1675, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” He was saying what all scientists recognize, that they discover truths by building on previous discoveries. This idea extends beyond science. There is no such thing as a self-made person. We all benefit from what others have contributed. Learning is cumulative, built from what came before it.

Newton got many of his ideas after studying Descartes and astronomers like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. This is not to imply that people like Newton and others don’t deserve enormous credit for their groundbreaking contributions.

Einstein built on Newton’s concepts and the work of many others, especially Lorentz, to develop something greater and more general, and paved the way for modern cosmology. Lorentz derived the transformation equations underpinning Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Because Lorentz laid the fundamentals for the work by Einstein, this theory was originally called the Lorentz-Einstein theory. Einstein also said his work would not have been possible without the brilliant minds and the works of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.

The mathematician Hermann Minkowski is best known for his work in relativity, in which he showed in 1907 that his former student Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity (1905) could be understood geometrically as a theory of four-dimensional space-time, since known as the “Minkowski spacetime.”

Einstein said, “Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself anymore.” Einstein also made vain attempts to unify all the forces of the universe in a single theory, which he was still working on at the time of his death.

Marie Curie conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences (physics and chemistry). She was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She actually gave her life in the course of her scientific research and radiological work at field hospitals during World War I, dying from exposure to radiation.

Jacobsen: Following from the last question, what are the myths behind the mythology?

Silverman: One way that Newton was different from Einstein and Curie was that Newton believed in God, conforming to the time in which he lived. Newton’s religious beliefs were complicated, but he did believe a monotheistic God was a masterful creator whose existence couldn’t be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation. Newton also dabbled in the occult, including the study of alchemy. Newton’s writings suggest that one of the main goals of his alchemy may have been the discovery of the philosopher’s stone (a material believed to turn base metals into gold), and perhaps to a lesser extent, the discovery of the highly coveted Elixir of Life.

Albert Einstein, on the other hand, said in 1954, “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.” He added, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

Marie Curie abandoned her family’s Roman Catholicism to become an atheist as a teenager. She spent much of the remainder of her life pursuing her humanitarian goal of easing human suffering. She had a non-religious marriage to her atheist husband. Here’s one of her quotes that describes for her the difference between science and religion. “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Jacobsen: What would be a proper means by which to teach science and mathematics to encourage future generations of mathematicians and scientists?

Silverman: As far as advice to future generations of mathematicians and scientists, I would tell them not to expect to become another Einstein, but to listen carefully to what he said about himself: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Of course, he is being overly modest. He was really smart, but also spent a lot of time working on problems. As with all scientists, most of the time he was on the wrong track. But look what he discovered when he was right. So block out some time daily to think about the problems you are working on and how best to solve them. And remember, when you chase after knowledge, you strategically position yourself on the shoulders of giants. You may then one day be able to see what others have not seen.

Incidentally, the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” did not originate with Isaac Newton. It is attributed to a 12th-century French philosopher named Bernard de Chartres.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Silverman.

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