What sparked her imagination? A footnote on a page!

Dr Robyn Arianrhod of Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, is a writer and mathematician. Her passion for both literature and mathematics reflects her love of language. That love is evident in “Einstein’s Heroes: Imagining the World through the Language of Mathematics.” Published in 2003, it was reprinted three times in 2004.

But the reason she is here is the evidence of that love in the opening of her wonderful book for the general reader like me. Her opening chapter heading is A Seamless Intertwining. She opens with David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, a novel whose protagonist, Gemmy, loses his language. ‘Gemmy had been washed up on an Australian shore, a ‘scrawny. Illiterate, thirteen-year old.’ This is a very important novel for Australians. Language and identity go together. We will go on from this initial connection to her love of mathematics, an inclusive love.

Robyn Arianrhod does not fear connections.

In Einstein’s Heroes, Robyn Arianrhod takes us into a world many of us have lost, the world of mathematics. She takes us to the people who inspired Einstein. One is Michael Faraday. I love him. Look him up.  Another is James Clerk Maxwell, who was also a poet. [A poem of his is in Challenging the Divide: Approaches to Science and Poetry.] And, writing of the elegance of Maxwell’s electromagnetic equation – a quatrain – [p 227], Robyn Arianrhod draws a comparison with another quatrain, this time by William Blake with the opening line, ‘To see a world in a grain of sand’. She brings them together and, in the concluding paragraph of that chapter, returns to what Maxwell’s ‘quatrain’ gave us: ‘the blueprint for light and energy and therefore life itself.’ [p 228]. We are told we’ll ‘scream Eureka when we read it’. And I did. I was understanding so much. Not all but Robyn was expanding my horizon.

And here was the ‘seamless intertwining’ I am so often looking for.

Why should girls be told to give up love of language, art, history, music, to cross that abysmal divide to STEM?  Why not take that love with them to enhance their understanding in their chosen fields of discovery? It will save us from the danger of narrow minds. Let them have literature and all it offers as well as what the sciences, technologies, engineering and mathematics offer. Let there be STEAM.  Robyn Arianrhod has room for Malouf, Blake and Shakespeare. She brings in Othello.

Robyn Arianrhod’s next book was Seduced by Logic: Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution, published in 2011. A reviewer wrote: ‘from the acclaimed author of Einstein’s Heroes comes the gripping story of two of the most glamorous and influential women of mathematics.’ [ I apologise about the accents – can’t find them on my machine!]

Why is Robyn Arianrhod in my Sciences and Humanities blog today?

She has been interviewed by Robyn Williams of our wonderful ABC’s Radio National Science Show, Saturday, August 2nd 2019, about what has now ‘sparked her imagination’. And here it is Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science.

Robyn Arianrhod’s imagination refuses to be limited by acronyms.

Our world today needs women who refuse to be boxed in by this or that acronym. And we need teachers in all disciplines at all levels of education, who refuse to have the minds and hearts of their students boxed, stunted in fact, to this or that ‘silo’ or by this or that barrier or divide. Why are we in this global climate mess? For too many in powerful positions it is very profitable still. For others it is a system of schooling that separated too many women from supposedly ‘male’ subjects, limiting their focus. And then there’s religious bigotry. The children are crying out because adults are undermining their future.

Robyn Arianrhod’s curiosity about a footnote led her to Thomas Harriot, this Tudor Elizabethan polymath, the English equivalent of Galileo and Kepler, the precursor to Newton. And a linguist! A navigator. He voyaged to the New World. [See the information about him in the International Year of Astronomy 2009.]

Thanks to the time, effort, research, her willingness to go where the evidence and her love of mathematics has taken her, Robyn Arianrhod is taking me to science in Tudor England. With her love of mathematics has gone her love of literature and language. She spoke eagerly to Robyn Williams about Harriot’s discovery of binary numbers and what his working documents have given her about his approach.

Oxford University Press has published her book. Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science. Robyn Arianrhod is taking me into the heart of London, with all its ‘intersections’,* the political as well as scientific ramifications of its 16th /17th century world and, as a result, I meet a human being, among other human beings, not an abstraction. So, here’s to the humanities AND sciences, technologies, engineering, mathematics because it’s the humanities that remind us of the essential human connections in everything we decide to do.

Thomas Harriot – forgotten Elizabethan scientist comes to life

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