The Great Equations [Aloud]

Robert Crease in conversation with Larry Swanson, Appleman Professor of Biological Sciences, USC
The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg

Notes (taken on a receipt that I managed to scrounge up (didn’t have a notebook with me) for something purchased 02-06-10 for *5.00 and *0.49 tx, which I now remember was a Norton Critical Edition of Death in Venice from Counterpoint):

quote from the book comparing the growth of math to the growth of a city


  • inspiration for the book came from looking at a “e=mc^2” ornament — how equations have become symbolic and taken on cultural meaning
  • .

  • Pythagorean Theorem
    • symbol of a proof
    • c^2 = a^2 + b^2, rule known of well before Pythagoras, but the Greeks did the proof
    • first extant example of the proof in Plato’s Meno
    • people are still trying to discover new ways to prove this, there are hundreds of variations already; proving this anew is not about the contribution to mathematics but the joy of discovery
    • anecdote of when Einstein was 12 and first saw this proof, idea of universal rules


  • F = ma and gravity
    • Galileo as bridge between Aristotle and Newton; his idea that mass is something separate from weight
    • story of apple traced back to Newton himself
    • Newton would ask how? not why? (had to do with his theology)


  • e = mc^2 and general relativity
    • why we know it in this form (with the corrective amount left off) due to a book on the Manhattan Project after the bombs had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima
    • has become a symbol for knowledge itself
    • Einstein wanted to combine seemingly disparate ideas of Maxwell’s and Newton’s


  • e^(iπ) + 1 = 0
    • evidence in Los Angeles trial
    • (my note: see footnote pg. 199 Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea about Euler’s equation as the “paragon of mathematical beauty”)


  • entropy
    • referenced across disciplines in works, for example of Stoppard and Pynchon)


  • uncertainty Heisenberg and Schrodinger
    • Copenhagen play: Bohr vs. Heisenberg on making sense
    • uncertainty and quantum in popular culture — painting, literature, sculpture, theology, literary criticism, humor (A cop pulls Heisenberg over. “Do you know how fast you were going?” “No, but I can tell you exactly where I am.”)
    • people know that observations had an effect before Heisenberg


  • Maxwell’s equations
    • didn’t actually write the equations (as we know them) himself, Heaviside did that later


  • how equations changed through history
    • often given in words first, and becomes “catchier” later, such and Newton with F = ma
    • at some point “=” and “+” etc. had to be invented


  • Suggested reading: David Lindley’s Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science
  • .

  • side note: several of these equations are on the steps outside of LAPL
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2 Responses to The Great Equations [Aloud]

  1. p says:

    that must’ve been a pretty long receipt.

  2. admin says:

    i just took concise, small notes

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