Monday, August 27, 2018

What is J.B. Shank reading?

Featured at Writers Read: J.B. Shank, author of Before Voltaire: The French Origins of “Newtonian” Mechanics, 1680-1715.

His entry begins:
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...[read on]
About Before Voltaire, from the publisher:
We have grown accustomed to the idea that scientific theories are embedded in their place and time. But in the case of the development of mathematical physics in eighteenth-century France, the relationship was extremely close. In Before Voltaire, J.B. Shank shows that although the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1687 exerted strong influence, the development of calculus-based physics is better understood as an outcome that grew from French culture in general.

Before Voltaire explores how Newton’s ideas made their way not just through the realm of French science, but into the larger world of society and culture of which Principia was an intertwined part. Shank also details a history of the beginnings of calculus-based mathematical physics that integrates it into the larger intellectual currents in France at the time, including the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns, the emergence of wider audiences for science, and the role of the newly reorganized Royal Academy of Sciences. The resulting book offers an unprecedented cultural history of one the most important and influential elements of Enlightenment science.
Learn more about Before Voltaire at the University of Chicago Press website.

Writers Read: J.B. Shank.

--Marshal Zeringue