Newton, Leibniz, and Calculus; Or, How to Put the Beat Down on a Rival in the 17th Century

Hardly a cocktail party goes by anymore without someone asking, “Who invented calculus?” Some favor Gottfried Leibniz, that fetching man of Leipzig, while others maintain it was part-time alchemist Isaac Newton. But it’s not clear which is what, and setting the record straight is in order. So here we are then, back at the beginning.

It’s the seventeenth century and understand that Old Isaac, president of England’s Royal Society, the world’s grandest scientific organization, is shockingly famous already when this Saxon Leibniz (pronounced: Leibniz) stakes his own claim as the discoverer/inventor of calculus. (Think “fluxions” and you’ll understand where I’m going with this.) Newton tells him, we’ve got to settle this. So Newton sets up a committee in his very own Royal Society to “adjudicate” the competing claims to the invention of calculus. But, there’s this: he stacks the jury with cronies, Brits all. And, for safety’s sake, the old Applehead surreptitiously authored the committee’s report himself, not even trusting his hand-pickeds to wax sufficiently mathematical. Not good enough, though, double-rigging it? He didn’t think so either. Why not triple-rig it. He also favorably reviewed the published report in the Philosophical Transactions (anonymously) that he had written (pseudonymously). A huzzah for Newton. Leibniz is boned. Calculus goes to the Englishman. And Voltaire picks on Leibniz (as Candide’s irritant Pangloss) for all of eternity.

So we’re stuck with this: know forever and a day that you’ve got two choices — either accept that the true and sincere inventor of calculus still blows in the wind, or that two people devised very similar systems at about the same time, a feat not terribly surprising given the context of mathematics and Continental rivalry — and tell me why they can’t just get up a committee to define division by zero already?

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Lavoisier, Priestley, and Oxygen, Or, The Tyranny of Purity

You’re thinking oxygen is good. It tastes good. It is clear, clean, pure. You’re thinking it is infinite, eternal, ubiquitous. You’re thinking earth’s atmosphere here, of course, but I follow you. You’re also thinking Lavoisier v. Priestley, the fight for the discovery of that most lovable element (with all due affection to carbon). You’re also attuned to a certain cynical expectation by now, that what you thought you thought is not really what you think. Can’t anything get discovered without controversy anymore? You’re thinking this, I can tell. You’re up on phlogiston, true? Because if you’re not, then we’re done here. Because if you don’t want to come to terms with the fact that, for the chemical community, explaining why things burned before the 1780s was an exercise in measuring the phlogiston in a substance — the thing that made it burn — then where can this relationship go? If you’re thinking, I thought Lavoisier was a haberdasher, Priestley a milliner, or an actor in a teen nighttime soap opera, then we’re talking past each other. Because no. One was French. One was English. One was on his way to decapitation, Dr. Guillotine style. One was on the boat to America, get-out-of-dodge-because-I’m-a- religious-radical style. But in those glory days of the 1780s, before it all got trumped up, before the amber glow of a million bottled fireflies faded out, before, well, just before it all became so commercial, in those glory days, coming up with the idea of oxygen, an idea so crazy it took a revolution to pound it out, was all there was, man. Lavoisier was charming; Priestley, beautiful. They both wanted it, the title of discoverer of oxygen. In the end, think of oxygen as a language, not an element. There’s nothing twee in that. Sometimes answers aren’t what we’re looking for.