Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bloggers from the past

I have been reading Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh today in preparation for a workshop I'm attending in the London School of Economics in April. I bought the book for my husband a few years ago and although he said he'd enjoyed it I have not got round to reading it myself until now. I'm finding it extremely interesting and surprisingly entertaining. Basically it is about a theorem, or more correctly a conjecture, which one Pierre de Fermat (a seventeenth century judge and amateur mathematician) claimed to have proved in the margin of a book (specifically a Latin translation of Arithmetica by Diophantus). Unfortunately, because Fermat loved to tease (and was also too impatient to painstakingly write out his proofs) the actual proof was never recorded or found.

This is reminding me strongly of another genius I have just finished reading about in Genius in the Shadows by William Lanouette. He was called Leo Szilard, a twentieth century physicist who thought of many original things during his strange but fascinating life. Like Fermat he was always anxious to move on. One of his friends described him as being like a bumble bee, going from one flower to the next. In Szilard's case the sort of pollen he left was advice. He lived most of his life from two suitcases, refusing to settle down, hovering from hotel to rented room, living just for his work.

I am convinced that both of these people would be bloggers if they lived today. Fermat would post up his postulates and challenge the rest of the world to solve them; whereas Szilard would post up advice (which was generally sound) to anyone willing to listen. 'You should try a different sort of graphite,' he'd say, ' and keep the temperature low.'


Blogger genevieve said...

Clare, that is lovely. We had an article by Clive James in a publication here recently on much the same thing, about a Viennese writer called Karl Kraus. Apparently 'his basic technique was to write a couple of hundred words about something silly in the newspaper'. The article is called 'Bons Mots No Match For Nazi Bullets' - unfortunately News Limited hasn't put it online, but it's in the March 2007 Australian Literary Review.

Sat Mar 24, 11:32:00 pm  
Blogger Anne S said...

Hi Clare,

So pleased to see you return to blogging.

I love hearing about these eccentric old scientists or natural historians as they used to be known.

Sun Mar 25, 10:49:00 am  
Blogger chiefbiscuit said...

Two books I must put on the list of books to look out for - I am thinking ABM would find them interesting to read as well. Scientists tend to be interesting people with eccentric ways - a bit like bloggers? Ah, but can it be proved?

Sun Mar 25, 01:16:00 pm  
Blogger Dave Lull said...

genevieve may be referring to the article that is on Clive James' website and is entitled The Question of Karl Kraus:

'Though he had no computer on his desk, Kraus was essentially a blogger before the fact: his basic technique was to write a couple of hundred words about something silly in the newspaper. He sometimes wrote at length, but his admirers preferred him to keep it short. The kind of thing they liked best from him might have been designed to pop up on a Blackberry today. “An aphorism can never be the whole truth,” he once wrote: “It is either a half-truth or a truth and half.” Yes, but that’s an aphorism. So is it true?'

Sun Mar 25, 03:10:00 pm  
Blogger Matthew Cheney said...

I can't remember, Clare, if you read Lydia Millet's novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart -- it's got Leo Szilard as an important character. (A Leo Szilard transported from 1945 into our present, but Leo Szilard nonetheless.) Definitely a blogger!

Sun Mar 25, 03:35:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Hi Genevieve (such a gorgeous name, I am quite envious) - just been over to 'yours' and very interesting it is too. Another one for my bloglines. I see the 'Omniscient Wisconsin Librarian' (aka Dave Lull) has filled me in with the details.

Thank you Dave, and thanks Genevieve. How strange Clive James was talking about bloggers too - must be Zeitgeist.

Thanks Anne S - yes, the more I read about these people the more fascinating they sound. There are so many people that worked in quite difficult circumstances - heroic, really.

CB: Yes, I recommend those books - both fascinating in different ways. They're the sort of books that make you want to find someone just to tell the remarkable things you've found out.

Matthew: I keep hearing about that book. No, I haven't read it but shall definitely order it now. Thanks for the tip.

Sun Mar 25, 04:15:00 pm  
Anonymous marly said...

So clever of you to pick a Szilard quote that's multivalent. I shall look to my pencils!

And I think "Clare" a lovely name. It was on my "girl name" short list.

Mon Mar 26, 01:46:00 am  
Blogger Kirsty said...

Yes, Clare it is good to have you back, even if I'm a bit late catching up with your return.

There's a blog I subscribe to called 'Life of a Lab Rat' (if I knew how to put a link in, I would) from a scientist in Sydney who I find very funny esp. his alternative meanings for the names of Sydney suburbs. You would probably understand more of the science talk than I do.

I always thought that Dostoyevsky would have been a blogger, at least if you take Notes from Underground as a guide.

Thu Mar 29, 10:35:00 pm  

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