Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Idiot's Fugitive Essays

Clifford Truesdell was interested not only in mechanics, but also in the history and philosophy of science. Knowing this, I looked up the list of books he wrote. My intention was to find a reference that might tell me a little about the history of Riemannian ideas in continuum mechanics. I didn't exactly find what I was looking for; what I found instead was An Idiot's Fugitive Essays on Science: Methods, Criticism, Training, Circumstances. I went to the math library Monday afternoon, picked it up from the shelf, and started leafing through it, starting at the very end. The last article in the book consisted of three paragraphs written in Latin, a language in which I am decidedly deficient. The second-to-last article was entitled The Computer: Ruin of Science and Thread to Mankind.

Naturally, I checked out the book.

Few of the essays are so provocatively titled as that second-to-last, but Truesdell's pen was sharp and several of the essays are polemical. Even historical comments occasion outbursts, as when during a review of the works of Stokes, Truesdell writes (p.234)

The catastrophe that has befallen the language of science in the past hundred years is only the outer dress of the catastrophe to method and thought and taste in natural philosophy...

I wonder whether Mencken and Truesdell ever met? In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the crotchety attitude of the author, the book is informative, entertaining, and well-written. If you happen to be interested in the history or philosophy of science (and particularly of mechanics), I recommend borrowing a copy from the library.