Quotation for the week: Swift

In the often-overlooked third part of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver finds himself on the flying island of Laputa, which is ruled by mathematicians. He isn’t altogether impressed:

Their houses are very ill built, the walls bevil, without one right angle in any apartment; and this defect arises from the contempt they bear to practical geometry, which they despise as vulgar and mechanic; those instructions they give being too refined for the intellects of their workmen, which occasions perpetual mistakes.  And although they are dexterous enough upon a piece of paper, in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider, yet in the common actions and behaviour of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music.  They are very bad reasoners, and vehemently given to opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right opinion, which is seldom their case…

But what I chiefly admired, and thought altogether unaccountable, was the strong disposition I observed in them towards news and politics, perpetually inquiring into public affairs, giving their judgments in matters of state, and passionately disputing every inch of a party opinion.  I have indeed observed the same disposition among most of the mathematicians I have known in Europe, although I could never discover the least analogy between the two sciences; unless those people suppose, that because the smallest circle has as many degrees as the largest, therefore the regulation and management of the world require no more abilities than the handling and turning of a globe.

Apparently Swift had certain contemporary members of the Royal Society in mind when he wrote this, but it’s possible that some of his observations still hold today…

(DP)

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