Friday, July 11, 2014

On the shoulders of giants

One of the MOOCs I recently completed was On Strategy: What Managers Can Learn from Great Philosophers. While it is to date the most disorganized and worst prepared online course I've taken, the content and exercises were in fact very valuable.

One module focused on how all genius is built on the shoulders of giants. The assignment was take one or two "giants" of Luc de Brabandere's lecture (featuring Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Russell) and connect them with at least two others, not included in his model. We were to include at least one philosopher and one scientist. I further challenged myself to select women.


Hypatia of Alexandria was a fourth-century philosopher. As a Neoplatonist, she was heavily influenced by Plato and the Platonic tradition. As such, she valued and used logic and mathematical thinking. She taught the works of Plato and Aristotle in public lectures. 1

Although considered a pagan, she is significant for bridging classical antiquity to Christianity. Her murder heralded the coming dark ages. I think of her as a philosopher because she promoted a mode of logical thinking (based on Plato), but she contributed to the advancement of various geometrical concepts (also founded in Plato) and developed instruments for use in physics and astronomy. She assisted her father in the writing of his mathematical commentary, Euclid's Elements, which in turn influenced Newton.2

Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz later expanded on Hypatia's work.3

Ada Lovelace was a 19th-century computer programmer (i.e., mathematician and scientist) who worked with Charles Babbage in developing the Analytical Engine. Her study of mathematical and scientific concepts, in particular differential calculus (developed independently by Newton and Leibniz), framed by her poetical and metaphysical attitude, drove the conceptual leap to consider the possibilities of computing machines and their applications, far beyond the arithmetic of Leibniz's calculator.

"Whilst describing the revolutionary implications of Babbage's ideas, Lovelace wrote out the first computer programme […] and she made the sensational suggestion that such a device should be able to compose music if a suitable set of rules could be devised. She thus anticipated the development of both modern computing and artificial intelligence by more than a hundred years."4 Among the innovations she imagined (that would be realized only several generations later) were the subroutine (a set of reusable instructions), looping (running a useful set of instructions over and over) and the conditional jump (branching to specified instructions if a particular condition is satisfied).5 Certainly her own shoulders are broad enough for subsequent giants to stand on (such as Alan Turing). She desired also "to create a mathematical model for how the brain gives rise to thoughts and nerves to feelings ("a calculus of the nervous system"),"6 foreshadowing the entire field of cognitive neuroscience. [See also.]


I repost this assignment because Ada Lovelace seems to be in the air these days: she's been referenced on Halt and Catch Fire, which I've been watching; Melville House is publishing a book; and I get email from the Be Like Ada program the publisher mentions.

Someone outside of the course asked me, not why did I choose these women, but how I do even know about these women to be able to connect them with the other giants of history. The answer is, they're in the fiction I read. (I'll name, for example, All Men of Genius, by Lev AC Rosen, and Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan, as obvious references, but there are others.)

Because everything is connected.

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