Jessica Gross | Longreads | Sept. 2019 | 14 minutes (3,556 words)
In his new book, Proof!: How the World Became Geometrical, historian Amir Alexander advances an audacious claim: that Euclidean geometry profoundly influenced not just the history of mathematics, but also broader sociopolitical reality. In prose that makes his passion for the material both clear and catching, he describes how Euclid’s Elements present a vision of a perfectly rational order, but one that was viewed as purely theoretical: There was no place for geometrical ideals in messy reality. In the 1400s, Leon Battista Alberti, an Italian polymath, upended that understanding, countering that the world was, in fact, fundamentally geometrical. Other thinkers, from Copernicus to Galileo, followed. And, as Alexander argues, this sea change had profound implications: If the world was geometrical—not only rational, but also hierarchical and permanent—then that was the divinely ordained social order, too. Euclidean geometry, that is, was used to justify monarchy.
Explaining the interconnectedness between mathematics and culture—how mathematical principles aren’t separate from or even just born into a culture, but profoundly shape it—is nothing new for Alexander, whose previous books include Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World and Duel at Dawn: Heroes, Martyrs, and the Rise of Modern Mathematics. When we spoke by phone in August, we discussed French gardens’ geometrical designs as propaganda; how cities’ structures advance their ideals; and how Euclidean geometry’s decline had as deep an effect as its rise.
Because I struggled with history in school, I am always curious when people choose to make it their life’s work. So maybe we can start there: What do you love about studying, writing about and now, at UCLA, teaching history?
I do love history, and I think it has something to do with growing up in Israel, in Jerusalem. There, it’s not just the one history, but layer upon layer upon layer of history—different histories, competing histories. Every stone and every building there has its own story. You can go back 100 years, you can go back 1,000 years, sometimes thousands of years, and everybody is very much invested in their version of history, often to the exclusion of others.
Also, especially the years that I was growing up in Israel, archaeology was huge because it was seen through a Zionist perspective. That is, you’re digging up Biblical history, you’re digging up the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. It was all around; the air was imbued with it. I think in some ways, whatever your politics—whether you’re a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, whatever your view of the occupation—in some ways, living there, you feel like it is just the latest chapter of a story that began a very long time ago.
So I think that was the origins of my fascination with history, although, as for my work, it went in a very different direction. Read more…