Raten: Intellectual Fodder

So every once in a while I buy more books for my library and indulge in a fervent reading craze. Over the past few years the desire to improve my intellect has grown, causing me to read and consume books that most would consider odd, or at least deem a strange way to spend my free time. My first serious purchase was Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica, considered the greatest treatise on mathematical logic– and some say philosophy– in history. This is not to be confused with Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica which is widely regarded as the most important work in the history of science. At any rate, logic has been a passionate past-time of mine and I continue to study it when I can.

More recently I’ve developed a growing interest in physics which has consequently nurtured a fascination for geometry which, after all, serves as its foundation. As a result of this interest I purchased two of the seminal works in the discipline, specifically Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. According to historians, Euclid’s Elements is one of the most widely published books in all of history with over 2000 editions, second to only the Bible. It was so well know that references to I.47 were automatically attributed as the 47th proposition of the first book of Euclid’s Elements, much in the same way we assume that 1 Kings 2:11 refers to the Bible.

At any rate, here is a list of my new reading material:

  • Euclid’s Elements Translated by Sir Thomas Little Heath
  • Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Newton
  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol. I: The New Millennium Edition: Mainly Mechanics, Radiation, and Heat by Richard Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands
  • Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman
  • Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Path by Richard Feynman
  • Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein
  • What is Life?: with “Mind and Matter” and “Autobiographical Sketches” by Erwin Schrodinger
  • One Two Three…Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science  by George Gomow
  • Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
  • Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics by William Dunham
  • Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms by D. Borror
  • The Evolution of Physics by Albert Einstein & Leopold Infeld
  • Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead
  • An Essay on the Principle of Population by T.R. Malthus

All of these should make for amazing reads. I hope to study Euclid’s Elements in depth for many, many months before getting into Newton’s Principia. Eventually I’ll make my way to Feynman’s famed lectures on Physics. In the meantime I’ll need to devote serious time studying these works in depth, working them out on paper, and reflecting about them in my journals before I gain any appreciable proficiency with which to call myself a master of the subject.

But you may ask, why on earth should I ever take up such a task? Why read such obscure books on such abstruse domains of knowledge?

To that I have two responses. The first is that I am not so concerned with acquiring the knowledge of these books as much as I am concerned with learning the process of acquiring. I recognize that mastery of these subjects offers little direct relevancy to my life at the moment, but I’m preoccupied with the ancillary benefits of undertaking such difficult pursuits. To read and understand these subjects requires the utmost of mental discipline, the highest exercise of intellect that very few people throughout history have attempted to undertake, save only the greatest. But those who did endure the crucible of this study were prepared to become the greatest, most powerful and influential minds this world has seen.

Regarding the study of Euclid’s geometry, aside from his obvious influence on scientists such as Newton and Leibniz or philosophers such as Spinoza and Cicero, the Elements influenced even mighty political figures like Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. It was said by Lincoln’s biographer, Carl Sandberg, that as a young lawyer Lincoln bought the Elements and carried the twenty-three hundred year old book in his carpet bag as he went out on the circuit. At night he would study Euclid by candlelight long after others dropped off to sleep. Many have noted that while Lincoln’s prose was influenced and enriched by the study of Shakespeare, his cogent and sound political arguments derived their character from the logical development of Euclid’s proposition.

Studying this material is good and well if you are interested in physics and engineering and anything requiring an entrenched understanding of analytic reasoning, that much is true. But I must believe, as many others did before me, that there is no greater exercise in intellect than to study the most logical of disciplines no matter what your domain of specialty. Even the earliest thinkers acknowledged the role of this training as a requisite for critical thinking. According to legend, etched across the archway to Plato’s renowned Academy read the words “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here”. Powerful.  There is a balance to be achieved as well, but I confess that for all my knowledge and experience I am lacking most proportionally in this type of training. And this is despite the years of educational training in mathematics and the rigorous application I encounter throughout my studies in economics and finance.

The additional advantage of studying this type of material is precisely the content, but not simply the content. I believe that metaphor is probably one of the greatest vehicles of semantics, of meaning. Metaphors allow us to transpose relations from disparate domains and uncover otherwise hidden relationships among a webs of facts. Despite their lack of linguistic flexibility and variegation, I believe that this holds true even for the rational disciplines such as mathematics, geometry and physics.

In sum, I’m excited to make these books apart of my past time studies the next few years.