Would Newton Have Discovered the Calculus on Facebook?

March 11, 2008

This idea isn’t new at all. Especially not coming from me. Or even originating in me. But I thought I’d flesh it out. Just to give it a go.

I’m reading a book, PROUST WAS A NEUROSCIENTIST, and in one of the sections, the author goes on to talk at length about Laplace (a pretty famous mathematician) and his attempts to develop a ‘social physics.’ Other than the fact that this idea is totally trippy and something I would totally do if I were brilliant mathematician, my train of thought isn’t really going down that track.

Where my train of thought did travel was to the land of distraction. Often when someone comments to me about how brilliant Newton was (yeah, I know he’s brilliant, but a guy has to maintain his own dignity somehow), I say, “Well, yeah, but he had all that time during the Plague to kill [ooh, bad pun!]. If you were all by yourself for that long and had nothing to play with but mathematics, you could develop all of modern mechanics too!”

Obviously a bit of an exaggeration (how anyone comes up with half the ideas from higher mathematics, I don’t know!), but the general point still stands: the world was a much different place in 200 to 300 years ago. Isolation, lack of communication-based technology, and a general dearth of recreational time set the pot to boil near perfectly for geniuses like Newton.

Which raises the question, if Newton were alive today, would he be half as smart? Nevermind things like the Flynn Effect (apparently people are getting smarter over time… tell that to IDIOCRACY), I’m just wondering if Newton, with all the bright shiny distractions of today, could have come up with all of his brilliant ideas.

Think of it this way: if television is like pot, then the internet (with all its tentacles into the Facebook and the Google and the YouTube) is crack cocaine. We have a greater access to information than ever before, and yet I for one know that I do less creative thinking when I’m on the computer (more specifically, when I’m on the internet) than when I just sit down with a book or a pen and paper. The internet is REALLY good for one thing: entertaining me. Educating me? Not usually.

Of course, this fact stems largely from a misuse on my part. I’m not dumb enough to blame the system when I’m the one misusing the system. With all the information available to me, I could definitely use the internet in a positive way. But the fact of the matter is that I don’t. And I would guess that a great number of other youths don’t either.

So, would Newton, if he had to worry about the latest episode of LOST, or if he’s got a new wall post on Facebook, or if he’s seen all the funniest videos on YouTube, develop the calculus? Obviously science is moving forward still. So most of the Newtons of the day are doing their job (because of or in spite of the system?).

I guess it can’t be all that bad. Perhaps the modern internet is preparing us for something different than technology has in the past. I would imagine that young people today are much more flexible and versatile when it comes to handling and processing large amounts of data.

I don’t want to be too much of a Luddite. I guess I just get overly swept up in the wonders of technology at times, and then I have to step outside and grab a hold of the basics.

Post Script: I just realized that this post is just a different perspective on what Dave’s already said here and here. Hrmf. And here I thought I was being all original and stuff…

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One Response to “Would Newton Have Discovered the Calculus on Facebook?”

  1. […] I saw this after I drew this comic and WordPress auto-linked to it. Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

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