Nautilus

Euclid as Founding Father

Despite the man’s awkward gestures, unkempt hair, and ill-fitting suit, it was one of the most extraordinary speeches that Reverend John Gulliver had ever heard. It was March 1860, and the venue was Norwich, Connecticut. The following morning Gulliver struck up conversation with the speaker, a politician by the name of Abraham Lincoln, as he caught a train down to Bridgeport.

As the pair took their seats in the carriage, Gulliver asked Lincoln about his remarkable oratory skill: “I want very much to know how you got this unusual power of ‘putting things.’ ” According to Gulliver, Lincoln said it wasn’t a matter of formal education. “I never went to school more than six months in my life.” But he did find training elsewhere. “In the course of my law-reading I constantly came upon the word demonstrate,” Lincoln said. “I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not.” Resolving to understand it better, he went to his father’s house and “staid there till I could give any propositions in the six books of Euclid at sight.”1

He was referring to the first six of books of Euclid’s Elements, an Ancient Greek mathematical text. On the face of it, Euclid’s Elements was nothing but a dry textbook: There were no illustrative examples, no mention of people, and no motivation for the analyses it presented. But it was also a landmark, a way of constructing universal truths, a wonder that would outlast even the great lighthouse in

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus11 min readScience
A Novelist Teaches Herself Physics: To explore loss and mystery, Nell Freudenberger journeyed into the atomic world.
Helen Clapp, a professor of theoretical physics at MIT, recounted the biggest news of 21st century physics, the detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), an international collaboration of scie
Nautilus7 min read
Is Tribalism a Natural Malfunction?: What computers teach us about getting along.
From an office at Carnegie Mellon, my colleague John Miller and I had evolved a computer program with a taste for genocide. This was certainly not our intent. We were not scholars of race, or war. We were interested in the emergence of primitive coop
Nautilus5 min readScience
In Brain’s Electrical Ripples, Markers for Memories Appear
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. It’s very easy to break things in biology,” said Loren Frank, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s really hard to make them work better.” Yet agains