Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Solvitur ambulando: Scientist, Catholic – and Hiker?

In speaking about Pierre Duhem as a man of science and man of faith, it is impossible not to think first of what may be his most memorable statement:
Of course, I believe with all my soul in the truths that God has revealed to us and that He has taught us through His Church, I have never concealed my faith, and that He in whom I hold it will keep me from ever being ashamed of it, I hope from the bottom of my heart.
Such were the words Duhem put almost at the very start of his long and famous essay, "Physics of a Believer." At its end Duhem registered the place, Peyreleau, where he wrote it, and the date, 9 September 1905, when he completed it. A year later, almost to the day, he was back in that quaint village and made a magnificent drawing of it as it is overshadowed by the almost vertical mountainside at the confluence of the Tarn and of the Jonte.

The famous gorges of those two rivers he chose repeatedly for his September hikes, his only form of recreation. Hiking kept him only from his writing desk, not from his constant reflections - scientific and philosophical. Duhem, who composed his writings in his head, found in walking a most effective help for his mind to find answers to many a problem.
[SLJ Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem 11]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why Duhem?

Duhem was unique among modern scientists with his penetrating insights into the method of the exact sciences, and in particular of physics, both on the conceptual level and along the vast and broad front of its use in history. In fact he did, what historians and historians of science were supposed to have done long ago: He discovered the true origins of Newtonian physics. That those origins are steeped in a culture, the Middle Ages, which for many is still the classic embodiment of obscurantism, could have but served as lèse majesté. But as if insult were to be added to injury, Duhem also spelled out the fact, with a vast and most original historical research that those origins are intimately connected with Catholic dogmas, such as the creation out of nothing and creation in time.
[SLJ Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem 9]

(Yes, I hope to continue with our study of SLJ's The Relevance of Physics, but not today. Soon, I hope. Dr. T.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Not appropriate to hold a conference on Duhem?

As you read that title, you may have wondered what is going on. Do you detect a certain sort of doubt, or perhaps a tone of sarcasm here?

I hope you did. It is hard to imagine what will happen in the next five years, though of course much depends on what you and I are able to accomplish in that time. I certainly hope there will be a conference - perhaps two, one on each side of the Atlantic. Certainly there needs to be some serious study of Duhem - I still wish to see an English translation of Le Système du monde and his study of Leonardo - indeed, a complete edition of his collected works, in both French and English - and there are several other lesser projects too. But without fail there must be some sort of meeting which must include a proper celebration.

However. And I say this with some childish delight, because as I am presently examining Jaki's study of Duhem, I learned something curious about Duhem which makes me wonder just how appropriate it would be to hold such a conference at all! Here, let me show you:
The day of Duhem's anniversary [of his death] was duly marked by the loyalty of his friends. One of them was the Abbé Lethellieux, director of the Revue des Jeunes, a bimonthly aimed at university students, who secured two contributions on Duhem. The first, to appear in the August 10 issue, was written by François Mentré who, as a specialist on Cournot's philosophy, was, as will be seen, very familiar with Duhem's works pertaining to the philosophy of science. Almost an entire shelf in his library, Mentré noted at the outset, was filled with Duhem's publications. Mentré had hoped to meet Duhem in person at the Congrès de philosophie et d'histoire des sciences in Geneva in 1904, but Duhem, who at the urging of Paul Tannery sent a paper, informed Mentré in a letter of his horror of attending such 'Babylons.' Whereas Duhem's dislike of congresses was fairly well known, it is only through Mentré that a precious glimpse of Duhem's reflections on the history of experimental method became available to the public. Mentré quoted from a letter, which Duhem wrote on October 24, 1913, in response to Mentré's congratulations on Duhem's findings about Buridan, Oresme, and others: 'Your letter,' Duhem wrote, 'showed me that you have been greatly preoccupied by a thought which has been haunting me for a long time. The progress of experimental method has been conditioned by the progress of industrial technique and, in particular, by the [progess of] the glass industry. This was, I believe, the topic of my last conversation with my venerable friend Jules Tannery... I would gladly know of an alert investigator who would do on this topic a research which neither you nor I can undertake. I bet he would arrive at interesting results.'
[SLJ Uneasy Genius: the Life and Work of Pierre Duhem 231, emphasis added]
Ah, doctor - so you think because "Duhem's dislike of congresses was fairly well known" we ought not have a conference?

No; I wanted to get your attention. Read that first line again:
The day of Duhem's anniversary was duly marked by the loyalty of his friends.
So I think it ought to be clear we should have the great Duhem Conference to include Wednesday September 14, 2016, with a solemn Mass and great anniversary talks and a banquet. We, his friends and students from all over the world, must mark the century with our loyalty.

God willing, let us plan for this.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Duhem and the New Year

Welcome to 2011, dear friends and scholars and members of our Duhem Society - and all interested and thinking men!

In just five years we shall see the centennial of Duhem's death and the semi-centennial of the appearance of Jaki's great The Relevance of Physics. With God's help I will try to get further into our projects and perhaps we shall see some more formal actions taken as we advance.

In a tiny attempt to assist my own work, I am re-reading Jaki's book on Duhem, which seems even more rich and fertile in ideas than it did the last time I read it. For today, just a tiny sample, but one which is joyful and revealing, as well as suited to the day:
Récamier pointedly recalled that Pierre found very amusing the Ecole's New Year parties and added that "he certainly collaborated in them." In fact he wrote the text for one of those parties, including the poems to be sung by the chorus.
[SLJ Uneasy Genius: the Life and Work of Pierre Duhem 59]
Here is my own challenge for our members, be you a physicist or philosopher or simple student: write a suitable poem - yes, one that might be sung, if possible.

If, come 2016, God will permit us to have an international conference, good. We ought to have scholarly lectures and seminars and symposia and publish formal proceedings. But if we are true to Duhem and Jaki we ought to have poems and songs as well. We must always recall that we are men, members of the human species, who eat and sleep - and yes, who rejoice at festive times. If we forget this, we could never be scientists:
Science finds its facts in Nature, but Science is not Nature; because Science has coordinated ideas, interpretations and analyses; and can say of Nature what Nature cannot say for itself.
[GKC The Resurrection of Rome CW21:358]
And sometimes it may be better said as a good old rousing chorus in a sort of drinking song... Let us wear lab coats, let us drink our beer from 750-ml beakers, let us rhyme elements and equations - let Science and Engineering join Art and Music and Literature in proclaiming the glory of God!