A Mathematical Rake’s Progress By
Ivor Catt, Electronics & Wireless World, jan86. http://www.ivorcatt.com/em_test04.htm Ivor Catt looks back on how he nearly became a maths addict In
my article of last November ,
I showed that Maxwell’s Equations, so long thought to contain the heart and
essence of electromagnetism, told us virtually nothing about the subject.
Then, in my December article, I discussed the academic mafia’s vested
interest in knowledge. Here I try to discover who this group of charlatans,
the maths pushers, are. (The Shorter Oxford Dictionary entry
for this word is particularly apt: Charlatan 1. A mountebank who descants
volubly in the street; esp. an itinerant vendor of drugs, etc…. 2. An empiric
who pretends to wonderful knowledge or secrets …. A quack.) How does a young student
grow up to become part of the social groups who live by mathematical nonsense
like Maxwell’s Equations, and who conspire to prevent the development of a
scientific subject in a proper, physical, way? Concern
about this question led me to look back on my own education. What pressures
were exerted on me to become a mathematical rake? My experience indicates that the slide is similar to that of the drug addict – a number of small, apparently innocuous, slips downward, culminating in total separation from reality. As we progress through school and college, we are fed a series of potions, each more heady than the last. The
process started with the calculus. My introduction to it, at the age of 15,
was worrying and disorienting. It was part of the great disaster which I
thought had overtaken me in my first few months in the sixth form. Whereas I
had always been good at maths, I found the first few months in the sixth for
confusing. Even though Sam Richardson was a very good teacher, and I had help
from my mother, a brilliant mathematician, at home, I couldn’t understand the
basis of what we were learning in mathematics, particularly the calculus. This
was a new experience for me. Previously, I had always found maths easy, and
scored high marks. Now, suddenly, it was different. This was serious, because
if I tried to retreat from maths into some other field, all nearby subjects
were based on maths anyway. There seemed to be no escape from my newfound
inadequacy in mathematics. As the first halfyear exams approached I became
more and more worried, because I still couldn’t grasp the basis of what I was
being taught. The
flaw in the calculus package is what I now recognise as the reductionist
fallacy; a misconception which underlies and undermines western philosophy. (Titus,
H., Living Issues in Philosophy,
American Book Company 1964, pp148, 527, 540 etc.) The error is to think
that ‘the whole is the sum of the parts’, no more; that lots of bits of
string are quite as useful (and the same thing as) a long piece of string.
Putting it another way, the problem of discontinuities was ignored. I was
right to worry. A
whole array of misleading, damaging concepts slipped in with I, or j as we
electrical engineers call it. “Two for the price of one”; if a + jb = c + jd,
then a = c and b = d; so we can do two jobs at once. Pretty, but a delusion,
similar to the illusion that we can drive better after drinking, and for the
same reason – our vision is blurred. Hot
on the tail of j came that awful array of cons under the appropriate descriptor
‘sin’. I shall not develop this theme fully, but only repeat that one FRS [Howie] went so far
as to say [to me] that “Physical reality is composed of sine waves”.
In fact, the sinusoidal wave, which is a camouflaged circle, is Ptolemy’s
pure, circular epicycles fighting back against Kepler’s less pure, more real,
ellipse. Kepler, who himself loved the idea of the ‘harmony of the spheres’,
saw a more pure ‘equal areas in equal time’ rather than a distinctly
unheavenly, earthy, (we would say ‘real’,) ellipse. The
Wireless World July 1981
editorial, ‘The decline of the philosophical spirit’, contrasts the
nineteenth century, when scientists were interested in and capable of
distinguishing between the physical real and the mere mathematical construct,
and today, when scientists no longer care about the difference, and have even
developed a philosophy of science which confuses them (Popper
K., Conjectures and Refutations,
R.K.P., 1963, p100.) An example of the destructive effect of sine is the way in which it suddenly appears, unannounced and without justification, on the second page of a text book discussion of the TEM Wave. In
the event, my first halfyear exams in the sixth form didn’t seem too hard,
and I felt that I must have scored over 50%, which would give me a breathing
space in which to replan my future. To my astonishment, I learned that I had
scored 99% and 92%. However
much I might think I didn’t
understand what was going on in maths, the marks I scored ‘proved’ otherwise.
My high scores told me that I was
still good at maths, as I had always been. However, the nagging suspicion
remained with me that something was amiss. I doubted whether I could really
have misjudged the situation so badly. Today, I believe that I was correctly
judging the situation, and it was my exam marks that were wrong. I was being
brainwashed into the belief that understanding was unnecessary, even
impossible’ that success meant the ability to manipulate the symbolism of the
subject, not to understand it. I was being encouraged, the initial carrot
being high exam marks, to turn the handle of the mathematical barrelorgan,
and not to ask too may awkward questions. I
seemed to learn my lesson, and later on, when taking Alevels, I gained a
State Scholarship in maths although only 17 years old. This was a remarkable
achievement, and should have secured my loyalty to the administrators of the
mathematical myth. However, I was already questioning the usefulness of some
of this maths, particularly the interminable geometry (since dropped) in the
Cambridge Open exam, and so at Cambridge I decided to leave my strong
subject, maths, and read engineering. (I love the Heaviside
remark; “Whether good mathematicians, when they die, go to Cambridge, I do
not know.” – Heaviside O., Electromagnetic Theory, vol. 3, Dover, 1950.
(first published 1903.) My background must have made me particularly
sceptical. My mother had scooped the lot, gaining the top ‘first’ [=
the Lubbock Prize] in maths in London University [Enid Jones 1924], but the payoff
to her [or to anyone else] in benefits in later years proved minimal. The
next piece of blatant brainwashing occurred during my engineering course in
Cambridge. We had a lot of thermodynamics, which was very mathematical. One
day I asked my tutor, [the renowned] Professor Binnie, what
practical interpretation I could place upon an equation containing a collage
of terms involving the three e’s – energy, enthalpy and entropy. His answer
was that I should not bother to look for a physical interpretation, but
should merely regard it as a piece of algebra to be manipulated according to
the rules of algebra. I was shocked by this, and I remain shocked today. Had
I left maths and taken up engineering for nothing? Whereas
drawing, or draughting, was strong in the Cambridge Engineering Faculty and
seemed to occupy a large part of our time, being the only subject you were
not allowed to fail, electricity was weak, rating only one lecture a week, or
at most two. One suspects that conservative Cambridge of the 1950s hoped that
this newfangled electricity thing would prove a flash in the pan, and go
away soon. (Gaslight, I have been told, was very pleasant; much softer on the
eye than electric light.) We
did not cover Laplace Transform, and this set me apart from upstart graduates
from redbrick universities, who enjoyed discovering how backward Cambridge
was. I was lucky in this omission, because I now feel that transforming is
one of the destructive mathematical techniques in engineering that increases
the divorce from reality, and which is the legacy to engineers from
mathematicians. Whereas to me it was obvious from first principles that to
get a constant current through a capacitor you need a continually increasing
voltage, I recently found that for a student of Laplace this is the
conclusion of a lengthy piece of complex calculation. Thus
was the stage set for Maxwell’s
Equations , that phoney apology for electromagnetic theory, which held
sway for a century and so befogged the subject. There
is a similarity between the maths pushers and drug pushers. Both entice the
victim with promises of Elysium. Both gradually increase the dose. In both
cases, there is nothing at the end of the rainbow. http://www.ivorcatt.com/em_test04.htm 
"From a
long view of the history of mankind – seen from, say, ten thousand years from
now – there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th
century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.
The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison
with this important scientific event of the same decade." – R.P.
Feynman, R.B. Leighton, and M. Sands, Feynman
Lectures on Physics, vol. 2, AddisonWesley, London, 1964, c. 1,
p. 11. Oops! – Ivor Catt 
