Friday, 25 September 2009

Who Invented Calculus?

There was a fascinating episode broadcast yesterday of In Our Time, the superb Radio 4 series hosted by Melvyn Bragg. It dealt with the often vicious intellectual battle over who invented calculus, Leibniz or Newton? The panel of guests were remarkably lucid: History Today contributor Patricia Fara, Simon Schaffer, Professor of History of Science at Cambridge and Jackie Stedall, lecturer in the History of Mathematics at Oxford. What made the episode such fantastic entertainment was the tension between Bragg trying to pin down the importance of the discoveries and the experts’ attempts to move way beyond the ken of the average listener. Listeners discovered that Newton approached the problem using geometry while Leibniz adopted the traditional European algebraic techniques. Being a non-scientist, I have always found this area a challenging one and this has become even more apparent of late as I have been editing an article by Michael Hunter on Newton’s great contemporary Robert Boyle for the November edition of History Today. But it is hugely satisfying when one begins to understand, even just a little, the nature of scientific advance. I recommend that you listen to the programme, which is available on BBC iplayer.

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