Letter: Science students know their Newton

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The Independent Online
Sir: Tom Wilkie's article "What a week it was for ... Isaac Newton" (2 June) perpetuates the notion of the uncultured scientist uninterested even in the history of his own subject. To say that "it is unlikely that a single living scientist has ever read [Newton's Principia] professionally" is wide of the mark. Two of the world's greatest living research scien- tists, S Chandrasekhar and V I Arnol'd, have recently published books on the Principia; and many lesser scientists, such as myself, will have read substantial portions (mainly in Motte's English translation rather than Newton's Latin) with interest, profit and not a little difficulty.

Though "science students do not learn their trade from original texts", it does not follow that they are ignorant of the history of their subject. Many university mathematics departments offer short courses on the history of mathematics, and undergraduates derive benefit and enjoyment from preparing historical projects.

Though references in journal articles may well give the impression that "Science ... lives in a sort of perpetual present", the authors are not necessarily oblivious to the past. A forthcoming meeting on "Scotland's Mathematical Heritage", organised by the Edinburgh Mathematical Society and the British Society for the History of Mathematics, will involve both mathematicians and historians.

The inflated cost of rare books and of many modern textbooks is something that Tom Wilkie and I can agree on: students and staff alike now mostly make do with library copies.

Yours etc,


School of Mathematical

& Computational Sciences

University of St Andrews

St Andrews, Fife

3 June