Science Book a Day Interviews Amir Alexander

amir-alexanderSpecial thanks to Amir Alexander for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World

Mini-bio: Amir Alexander is a writer, historian, and mathematician living in Los Angeles. Amir has taught history, philosophy, and the history of science at Stanford and UCLA, served on the editorial board of the journal Isis, and published extensively in academic journals. He is a contributor to the New York Times’ ‘Science Times’ section, and his many popular articles on space-related topics have been extremely successful with the general public and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. – From

#1 – What was the impetus for Infinitesimal?

I wrote Infinitesimal to show how critical mathematics is to our society, our culture, even our politics. Many people today admire mathematics from afar, but think of it as completely irrelevant to their lives. Mathematicians are regarded as “geniuses,” brilliant to be sure, but with their heads so far in the clouds that they have lost all touch with reality. Infinitesimal shows that mathematics is, in fact, at the center of human history and experience. In the 17th century the theory that a line is composed of infinitesimal building blocks was the focus of a fight that pitted rigid order against pluralism and autocracy against freedom. At stake was the shape of the modern world, and it hinged on mathematics.

#2 – How did the idea of indivisibles mark a change in thinking about mathematics?

Before indivisibles higher mathematics was studied because it stood for absolute certainty. At its center was Euclidean geometry, which was thought the most perfect science because its results were absolutely true and unchallengeable. Those results were also 2000 years old, but that was considered a positive because it showed that mathematical truths were eternal and unchanging. Indivisibles, in contrast, were puzzling and paradoxical, potentially unsound, but were studies even so because they opened up new mathematical vistas. With indivisibles mathematics changed from representing a fixed “rock of certainty” to being an open-ended “voyage of exploration,” in search of new knowledge. And that is what mathematics has been ever since.

#3 – How you go about your research of the ideological feud? How did you research the main players of this feud?

Researching this book was like unravelling a mystery. Years ago I came across a complaint by the Italian mathematician Stefano degli Angeli that he is being persecuted by Jesuit mathematicians. This seemed curious, to say the least. I couldn’t understand why a religious order whose goal was to save souls would take a stand on a technical mathematical question. Once I started investigating I discovered that Angeli’s charge was just the tip of the iceberg, coming at the very end of a decades-long single-minded Jesuit campaign to eradicate infinitesimals. Looking into the roots of this campaign took me back to the founding of the Jesuits in the midst of the Reformation crisis, and on to the turbulent days of political struggles and religious wars. It also pointed me towards a parallel fight over infinitesimals in England, where the issues were similar but the results very different. It took a lot of detective work before the pattern began to emerge and the facts – which were mostly out in the open – started to make sense.

#4 – Reviews have referred to your book as “a real-world Da Vinci Code”. How do you feel about this comparison?

I love it. Infinitesimal is a mystery tale that reveals an untold chapter in the history of the Catholic Church, and goes to the heart of some of its most cherished beliefs. The methods employed by the Jesuits in the fight were often secretive and – when necessary – ruthless, as when they moved to suppress a rival order that sheltered the champions of indivisibles. All of this is reminiscent of the Da Vinci Code, and so are the stakes involved: the fate of the Church, and the shape of modernity. So I think the comparison is entirely appropriate.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Yes, I am researching a book about the ancient science of geometry, and how it was used to shape our world. But it’s in the early stages, and much can still change.

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