"One can consider the French revolution as the cradle of the systematic method in modern scientific endeavor," Professor Richard Courant, the eminent mathematician, told his Lowell House listeners Friday night.
Now Head of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences as New York University, Courant spoke informally on the post-revolution development of scientific education in European universities.
"A small elite of dedicated people carried on science in the eighteenth century he said. With only one scientific journal and no systematic teaching at all on the Continent, collaboration among scientists was limited to visits and letters. This lack of communication was an element which alowed the advance of modern scientific method.
"Intuition, divination, instinct, were as good for them as 'proofs' today," according to Courant. Only after the revolution did mathematicians inject rigor into their textbooks to guide the large numbers of people suddenly confronted with the chance to educate themselves.
"L'Ecole Polytechnique" Founded
The need for, and the absence of, skilled technicians in the French army led to the founding of L'Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, where "they spent several months of every year in examinations to weed out the weak and encourage the strong," said Courant. The Germans followed suit with a technical school in 1793, and both institutions collected the best minds of all ages. Napoleon drew on the Ecole for his Egyptian campaign, taking the celebrated mathematician Fourier along to decipher hieroglyphics, Courant related.
But the need for rigorous treatment led to the "deplorable" separation of mathematics from the teaching of the other sciences. "The change drove mathematics into isolation."