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Tying Down the Facts

It seems unlikely that I’m alone in my desire for historical context. Whether it be philosophy, physics or biology that I’m learning about, everything just sticks so much better in my mind if I can tie it to people, places, times and movements.

Some disciplines are more explicit than others: anyone learning about Palladian architecture is learning not only about a certain style, but about certain times and places as well.

At the other extreme, I went through the whole of A-level Mathematics and Further Mathematics without so much as a mention of where these formulae and methodologies we were trying to wrap our heads around actually came from. They simply appeared, whole and entire, with no background or way to root them in some more familiar reality.

One of Alfred Tarski’s students later wrote that

There are teachers whose lectures are so well organised that they convey the impression that mathematics is absolutely finished. Tarski’s lectures were equally well organized but, because of the problems [he raised], you knew that were still things that even you could do which would make for progress.

Quantum mechanics became far more comprehensible to me once I absorbed its history, how it evolved as a theory from Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect through the work of Schrödinger, Bohr, Planck, de Broglie and all those many others, and how—just as importantly—the arguments and research are still ongoing.

The history of understanding also gives us a sense of our own place in the world. Without it, all we have is huge lists of observations and arguments, an intellectual burden we cannot absorb, crushing us beneath its bulk. How can we form a realistic picture of our own chance to contribute, without knowing how limited and slow to comprehend the thinkers of the past were, even in their genius?

Enlightenment may come suddenly, unexpectedly—but it never comes in the absence of hard, determined work over many years. Biographies of those you seek to emulate in terms of achievement are invaluable if only to communicate this fact: the human frailty and limitations of the truly great, and how hard-won their victories were.

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