http://t.co/h9CCSAaER0 #IsaacAsimov about #mathematics
As time goes on, nearly every field of human endeavor is marked by changes which can be considered as correction and/or extension. Thus, the changes in the evolving history of political and military events are always chaotic; there is no way to predict the rise of a Genghis Khan, for example, or the consequences of the short-lived Mongol Empire. Other changes are a matter of fashion and subjective opinion. The cave-paintings of 25,000 years ago are generally considered great art, and while art has continuously-even chaotically-changed in the subsequent millennia, there are elements of greatness in all the fashions. Similarly, each society considers its own ways natural and rational, and finds the ways of other societies to be odd, laughable, or repulsive.
But only among the sciences is there true progress; only there is the record one of continuous advance toward ever greater heights.
And yet, among most branches of science, the process of progress is one of both correction and extension. Aristotle, one of the greatest minds ever to contemplate physical laws, was quite wrong in his views on falling bodies and had to be corrected by Galileo in the 1590s. Galen, the greatest of ancient physicians, was not allowed to study human cadavers and was quite wrong in his anatomical and physiological conclusions. He had to be corrected by Vesalius in 1543 and Harvey in 1628. Even Newton, the greatest of all scientists, was wrong in his view of the nature of light, of the achromaticity of lenses, and missed the existence of spectral lines. His masterpiece, the laws of motion and the theory of universal gravitation, had to be modified by Einstein in 1916.
Now we can see what makes mathematics unique. Only in mathematics is there no significant correction-only extension. Once the Greeks had developed the deductive method, they were correct in what they did, correct for all time. Euclid was incomplete and his work has been extended enormously, but it has not had to be corrected. His theorems are, every one of them, valid to this day.
Ptolemy may have developed an erroneous picture of the planetary system, but the system of trigonometry he worked out to help him with his calculations remains correct forever.
Each great mathematician adds to what came previously, but nothing needs to be uprooted. Consequently, when we read a book like A History Of Mathematics, we get the picture of a mounting structure, ever taller and broader and more beautiful and magnificent and with a foundation, moreover, that is as untainted and as functional now as it was when Thales worked out the first geometrical theorems nearly 26 centuries ago.
Nothing pertaining to humanity becomes us so well as mathematics. There, and only there, do we touch the human mind at its peak.
Isaac Asimov from the foreword to the second edition of A History of Mathematics by Carl C. Boyer and Uta C. Merzbach