Thinking inside the Box

I recently finished reading A Budget of Paradoxes (1872) by Augustus de Morgan.

Now-a-days, we are most likely to encounter the word paradox as referring to apparent truth that seems to fly in the face of reason, but its original sense, not so radical, was of a tenet opposed to received opinion. De Morgan uses it more specifically for such tenets when they go beyond mere heterodoxy. Subscribers to paradox are those typically viewed as crackpot, though de Morgan occasionally takes pains to explain that, in some cases, the paradoxical pot is quite sound, and it is the orthodox pot that will not hold water. None-the-less, most of the paradoxers, as he calls them, proceed on an unsound basis (and he sometimes rhetorically loses sight of the exceptions).

A recurring topic in his book is attempt at quadrature of the circle. Most of us have heard of squaring the circle, though far fewer know to just what it refers.

I guess that most students are now taught to think about geometry in terms of Cartesian coördinates,[1] but there's an approach, called constructive, which concerns itself with what might be accomplished using nothing but a stylus, drawing surface, straight-edge, and compass. The equipment is assumed to be perfect: the stylus to have infinitesimal width; the surface to be perfectly planar, the straight-edge to be perfectly linear, and the pivot of the compass to stay exactly where placed. The user is assumed able to place the pivot of the compass exactly at any marked point and to open it to any other marked point; likewise, the user is assumed to be able to place the straight-edge exactly touching any one or two marked points. A marked point may be randomly placed, or constructed as the intersection of a line with a line, of an arc with an arc, or of an arc with a line. A line may be constructed by drawing along the straight-edge. An arc may be constructed by placing the compass on a marked point, opening it to touch another marked point, and then turning it. (Conceptually, these processes can be generalized into n dimensions.)

A classic problem of constructive geometry was to construct a square whose area was equal to that of a given circle. Now, if you think about it, you'll reälize that this problem is equivalent to arriving at the value of π; with a little more thought, you might see that to construct this square in a finite number of steps would be equivalent to finding a rational value for π. So, assuming that one is restricted to a finite number of steps, the problem is insoluable. It was shown to be so in the middle of the 18th Century, when it was demonstrated that π were irrational.

The demonstration not-with-standing, people continued to try to square the circle into de Morgan's day, and some of them fought in print with de Morgan. (One of them, a successful merchant, was able to self-publish repeatedly.) De Morgan tended to deal with them the way that I often deal with people who are not merely wrong but are arguing foolishly — he critiqued the argument as such, rather than attempting to walk them through a proper argument to some conclusion. I think that he did so for a number of reasons. First, bad argumentation is a deeper problem that mistaken conclusions, and de Morgan had greater concern to attack the former than the latter, in a manner that exhibited the defects to his readers. Second, some of these would-be squarers of the circle had been furnished with proper argumentation, but had just plowed-on, without attending to it. (Indeed, de Morgan notes that most paradoxers will not bother to familiarize themselves with the arguments for the systems that they seek to overthrow, let alone master those arguments.) Third, the standard proof that π is not rational is tedious to mount, and tedious to read.

But de Morgan, towards justifying attending as much as he does specifically to those who would square the circle, expresses a concern that they might gain a foothold within the social structure that allowed them to demand positions amongst the learnèd, and that they might thus undermine the advancement of useful knowledge.[2] And, with this concern in-mind, I wonder why I didn't, to my recollection, encounter de Morgan once mentioning that constructive quadrature of the circle would take an infinite number of operations; he certainly didn't emphasize this point. It seems to me that the vast majority of would-be squarers of the circle (and trisectors of the angle) simply don't see how many steps it would take; that their intuïtion fails them exactly there. And their intuïtion is an essential aspect of the problem; a large part of why the typical paradoxer will not expend the effort to learn the orthodox system is that he or she is convinced that his or her intuïtion has found a way around any need to do so. But sometimes a lynch-pin in the intuïtion may be pulled, causing the machine to be arrested, and the paradoxer to pause. Granted that this may not be as potentially edifying to the audience, but if one has real fear of the effects of paradoxers on scientific pursuit, then it is perhaps best to reduce their number by a low-cost conversion.

De Morgan's concern for the effect of these géomètres manqués might seem odd these days, though I presume that it was quite sincere. I've not even heard of an attempt in my life-time actually to square the circle[3] (though I'm sure that some could be found). I think that attempts have gone out of fashion for two reasons. First, a greater share of the population is exposed to the idea that π is irrational almost as soon as its very existence is reported to them. Second, technology, founded upon science, has got notably further along, and largely by using and thereby vindicating the mathematical notions that de Morgan was so concerned to protect because of their importance. To insist now that π is, say 3 1/8, as did some of the would-be circle-squarers of de Morgan's day, would be to insist that so much of what we do use is unusable.

[1] Cartesian coördinates are named for René Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650) because they were invented by Nicole Oresme (c 1320 – 11 July 1382).

[2] Somewhat similarly, many people to-day are concerned that paradoxers not be allowed to influence palæobiology, climatology, or economics. But, whereäs de Morgan proposed to keep the foolish paradoxers of his day in-check by exhibiting the problems with their modes of reasoning, most of those concerned to protect to-day's orthodoxies in alleged science want to do so by methods of ostensibly wise censorship that in-practice excludes views for being unorthodox rather than for being genuinely unreasonable. When jurists and journalists propose to operationalize the definition of science with the formula that science is what scientists doie that science may be identified by the activity of those acknowledged by some social class to be scientists — actual science is being displaced by orthodoxy as such.

[3] Trisection of the angle is another matter. As a university undergraduate, I had a roommate who believed that one of his high-school classmates had worked-out how to do it.

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2 Responses to Thinking inside the Box

  • Ludolph's ghost says:

    I recently read Underwood Dudley's "Mathematical Cranks", which devotes a section to modern circle-squarers. Of course, he has a whole separate book dedicated to the angle trisectors.

    • Daniel says:

      So if any reader wants a more recent catalogue, they know where to find it.

      Underwood Dudley seems to have his name switched back-to-front.

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