Simon Schaffer is not only a leading historian of science but also a great teacher. He is without peer in his ability to illuminate how thinking about the natural world developed into our modern understanding of physics, often in ways unknown to most physicists today. In this lively interview with Graham, recorded in Cambridge last December, Schaffer describes the beginnings of the interplay between mathematics and investigations of the world around us. He begins with a bravura account of the impact made by Newton’s epoch-making publication of his Principia, on 5 July 1687.

Schaffer also stresses the crucial contributions of continental mathematicians and natural philosophers to the completion of the Newton programme for understanding the Solar System, using the law of gravity and mathematical techniques that were then brand new. Finally, Schaffer turns our attention to the challenge of understanding electricity and magnetism in terms of a theory set out in terms of clear principles and precise mathematical language. The most successful of these theories was discovered by the great Scot, James Clerk Maxwell, one of the key figures in The Universe Speaks in Numbers.

This is the third of twenty interviews given by world-class experts to Graham on some of the themes he explores in The Universe Speaks in Numbers. A new interview will be posted weekly.

Among the interviewees are Nima Arkani-Hamed, Michael Atiyah, Ruth Britto, Simon Donaldson, Freeman Dyson, Val Gibson, Michael Green, Juan Maldacena, Michaela Massimi, Martin Rees and Lenny Susskind.

Universe Speaks book cover
Published on 2 May in the U.K., 28 May in US and Canada