Philosophy of scientific evolution resides in "mathematical magic," Grafton says

Oct. 25, 2002, 10:01 a.m.

Facing a society that was suspicious of innovations in math and science, scholars in early modern Europe resorted to illusion and magic to introduce legitimate new technologies, according to Anthony Grafton, renowned scholar of the Renaissance period and the Henry Putnam University Professor of History.

Grafton is also one of the creators of the Freshman Seminar, director of the Davis Center, chair of the Council of the Humanities and active in the Program in Jewish Studies.

Addressing a full auditorium and many colleagues and students who were left standing, Grafton gave a presentation entitled "Technica Curiosa: Technology and Magic in Early Modern Europe" on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the Friend Center for Engineering Education. University President Shirley M. Tilghman gave opening remarks.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, scholars would use optical devices and created fantastical automatons that resembled human or animal forms to tap into people's fascination with the unknown. At the same time, these devices tested real theories and helped legitimize the concepts of math and science.

"'Mathematical magic' is a world of replicable wonders," Grafton said. "From artificial birds singing to lanterns that terrified people at night, it set hard matter into motion and far surpassed itself among human performances and mathematical magicians."

Ecclesiastical authorities were beginning to see magic as diabolical and unnatural, and learned men who practiced what they thought as innocent forms of magic found themselves liable to prosecution for witchcraft.

"Soon mathematical magic established itself and worked wonders while it became fashionable to create devices and texts and practices of everyday life," he said. "City clocks, magnificent moving table settings and spectacular garden fountains brought mathematical magic into the everyday life of the European upper classes -- and set philosophers like Bacon and Descartes to thinking about nature in new ways."

This is the second year that the President's Lecture Series has been given to bring together faculty members from different disciplines. Two more lectures are scheduled for this year: Dec. 11 with Carol Armstrong, the Doris Stevens Professor in Women's Studies and professor of art and archaeology, who will discuss Manet and Cezanne, the "heroics" of modernism and a feminist alternative to the canonical accounts of their art; and March 5 with Vincent Poor, professor of electrical engineering, who will address the recent revolution in wireless communications that has led to a host of applications involving "anytime, anywhere" connectivity for the communication of voice, text and other media.

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601