Monday, August 27, 2018

J. B. Shank

J. B. Shank is Distinguished University Teaching Professor of history and director of the Center for Early Modern History and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World at the University of Minnesota.

His new book is Before Voltaire: The French Origins of “Newtonian” Mechanics, 1680-1715.

Recently I asked Shank about what he was reading. His reply:
Ten years have passed since Marshal last asked me to do this because that’s how long it has taken me to publish a second book. The delay was not entirely my fault. I had to fight for years with the anonymous philosophers of science chosen to approve my book for publication, readers who simply could not fathom publishing a completely contingent cultural history of calculus-based mathematical physics. This delayed publication in frustrating ways, but I persisted, and in the end my editor and the press allowed me to publish the book I wanted to write. Seeing it in print now after all those struggles is extra sweet, and I am looking forward to my sabbatical, which began on June 15, for some much needed post-publication refreshment and rejuvenation.

I have said everything that I have to say about Isaac Newton’s mathematical physics, but the history of mathematics continues to attract my interest. Lately I have been reading in the meta-literature about mathematics as a science and its relationship to human thought overall. Ian Hacking’s Why is there philosophy of mathematics at all? (Cambridge University Press, 2014) was the perfect antidote to my peer-review struggles with the philosophers of the “exact sciences” since, like many of Hacking’s books, it is a very smart, wry, and often irreverent interrogation of the unthought thoughts guiding our thinking about mathematics. Hacking pursues his title on two equally important levels. On the one hand, he wittily deflates the self-satisfied confidence of certain academic philosophers of mathematics, but on a more profound level, he also asks the question of his title in a deeply serious way, producing as a result a searching inquiry into what it is that gives mathematics its peculiar universal power and epistemological appeal. In this second vein, Hacking’s book intersects with Michel Serres’s “Third Book of Foundations” titled Geometry (the first two are Statue and Rome) translated by Randolph Burks and published in 2017 by Bloomsbury. In it, Serres unfolds a half century of thinking about the nature of mathematics and mathematical rationality – he’ll celebrate his 88th birthday this September – in search of the peculiar qualities that make geometry the perceived universal foundation that it is widely taken to be. What Hacking and Serres share is an appreciation for the peculiar difficulty of treating mathematics historically given its exceptional, and perhaps unique, claim to exist outside of time, space, and human being. In my work, I have generally treated mathematics as a human-made science like any other, and other works by Hacking and Serres have each served as models for me in this humanizing historical project. Their reflections here on why and how mathematics often resists such cultural understandings have therefore been very stimulating. In this same meta-mathematical spirit, I am also looking forward to finally reading David Foster Wallace’s essay-like book on the nature of mathematical infinity, A Compact History of Everything and More (W.W. Norton, 2004). Before Voltaire is precisely about the historical conundrums posed by the new infinitesimal calculus, and since I am a huge fan of DFW’s non-fiction – Infinite Jest and his shorter fiction are another topic – I am excited to follow his obsessively attentive and brilliantly precise and discerning mind into what Leibniz once called the labyrinth of the infinite.

My interest in mathematical thinking also led me to Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds (W.W. Norton, 2016). I have read many other books and articles by Lewis, all of them terrific, and as with many of them – The New New Thing, The Big Short, and Moneyball all come to mind – The Undoing Project is compelling on both an intellectual and a biographical-historical level. It tells the story of two exceptional Israeli psychologists who formed a partnership in the 1960s that led to a complete transformation in how scientists understand human cognition and decision making. The book offers a compelling personal story of their transformative collaboration amidst tumultuous academic careers in Israel and the post-war West, but Lewis is also very good at illuminating the complex scientific work accomplished by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, much of it involving the human capacity (or not) for logical mathematical reasoning. I was particularly drawn to Lewis’s account of Kahneman and Tversky’s work since it resonates with the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb as articulated in his trilogy of books: Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Random House, 2001), The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House, 2007), and Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Random House, 2012). What Tversky and Kahneman share with Taleb is an appreciation for the widespread overstatement of human rational capacities, and the hubris of thought leaders and experts in failing to incorporate this more pessimistic understanding in their assessments of the human capacity to comprehend and control cause-effect relations in the world. They also understand well, and expose for view, the all too human reasoning at work in what on the surface often look like examples of human irrationality. All three challenge wonderfully the pervasive overconfidence regarding the possibility for statistical analysis to serve as a predictive tool for managing human life. In Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2011), Kahneman extends this project by accessibly summarizing his and other research – he explicitly cites Taleb – in an introductory overview of the fundamentals of human cognition and judgement. Read together, these highly compelling books about the nature and limitations of human rationality, and the proper use of stochastic mathematical reasoning, offer insights useful for more informed modern living.

I first encountered Taleb’s work thanks to my book group, which meets every few months, and includes a team of published writers and poets, one an English professor by day and the other a conservation ecologist employed by an environmental design company. Their collaboration, Nature, Culture, and Two Friends Talking: 1985-2013 was published in 2015 by North Star Press of St. Cloud. Also active with me in what we have come to call the Etoile du Nord Society for Practical and Theoretical Magic is a forester recently retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He now resides mostly in his cabin on Leo Lake off the Gunflint Trail in northern Minnesota adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and many a meeting of our society has occurred in that spectacular natural setting. The name of our group is adapted from Susanna Clarke’s fantasy masterpiece, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which remains an absolute favorite and one of the most amazingly realized works of literature I have ever read. Think of a grown-up Harry Potter book that turns the entire modern history of the European Enlightenment, especially as it relates to technology and culture, fantastically upside down in a work of uncannily insightful imaginative impact. Our group is often drawn to scientific/magical works of supernatural and fantasy fiction like this, and we recently read and enjoyed Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, which adapts and transports Mary Shelley’s nightmare to twenty-first century Iraq. Taleb became a focus for us because of our ongoing interest in critical science studies, and what unites many of our discussions is the nature-culture divide as it relates to modern society and the environment. Our assignment for the coming months is Richard Powers’s novel The Overstory (W.W. Norton, 2018), which also touches on another frequent focus of our discussions: the relation between the imagined two cultures divide of the natural sciences and the arts and humanities. Our interest in these relations led us years ago to the holistic literature-science of Alexander von Humboldt, and since we all found perceptive Laura Dassow Walls’s The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (University of Chicago Press, 2011), many of us, including me, are interested in reading her Henry David Thoreau; A Life (University of Chicago Press, 2017), in which she returns to the subject of her first two books on Thoreau, Emerson, and the art-science of early nineteenth-century American Transcendentalism.

I still try to keep a philosophical-historical novel going as part of my quotidian reading, but recently I have struggled to find content to fill this channel. I continue to feel the absence left by the death of the great W.G. Sebald, but recently I found a very satisfying substitute in Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014). Salman Rushdie calls it “an everything book,” and it is indeed a masterful performance of storytelling and philosophical reflection, all set in the historical-psychic space of South Asia and the post-9/11 West, especially Britain and its former colonies of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In this brilliantly conceived and written first novel, the struggle to sustain post-colonial identity meets the British class system, the U.S. war against Al Qaeda, the housing bubble and 2008 financial crisis, and abstract mathematical philosophy, including Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. It is not to be missed. In the same vein, my fellow Etoile du Nord magicians and I are proud to have discovered Marlon James’s epic postcolonial novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Books, 2014) before it won the Man Booker Prize, and this novel also filled the Sebald hole for me. We were helped in our discovery by the fact that James teaches at nearby Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, my hometown, but the fact that he lives in the neighborhood didn’t make his complex account of contemporary Jamaica, with its brilliantly rendered characters and complex interconnecting storylines, any less harrowing artful, or historically insightful. I thought Michiko Kakutani’s captured the work perfectly when she described it as, “like a Quentin Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come, but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by William Faulkner, with maybe a little creative boost from some primo ganja. It’s epic in every sense of that word.” I have also loved all the Friedrich Kittler and media studies inspired novels of Tom McCarthy, but I have not seen anything from him since Satin Island (Knopf, 2015). Maybe I’ll fill the hole by finally reading Orhan Pamuk, which I have been meaning to do for years. Or maybe you have some suggestions?
Learn more about Before Voltaire at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue