A rivalry for the ages –
Newton and Leibniz are like night and day, or derivatives and integrals.
Math teacher Ben Orlin writes and draws the (aptly named) blog Math With Drawings and is the author of a new book,Change is the Only Constant: The Wisdom of Calculus in a Madcap World. To mark its publication, he devised this entertaining accompanying quiz. You can read the Ars interview with Orlinhere.
Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz have a lot in common. Birthdates in the 1640 s. Fatherless childhoods. Colossal egos. Show-stopping wigs. Most of all, each had the honor of bringing calculus into the world. But when it comes to personalities, Newton and Leibniz are like night and day, or England and France, or derivatives and integrals. They’re rivals. Opposites, even. Do you belong on #TeamNewton or #TeamLeibniz? Take this quiz to find out!
What do you like to do online?
(a) Engage in civil debate with my fellow Wikipedia editors
(b) Write long, password-protected blog posts about my intricate conspiracy theories
(c) Go on social media; read the news; maybe watch some YouTube
What makes you feel the smartest?
(a) Explaining things so that everyone else understands
(b) Knowing things that no one else understands
(c) The smartest? I’m just happy not to feel the stupidest
Where would you rather live?
(a) A big, vibrant city full of interesting people
(b) A quiet backwater where no one will bother me
(c) Just someplace warm
How many different people did you text yesterday?
(a) 11 to 1, (0) (b) 0 to 1
(c) 2 to 10
How many browser tabs do you have open right now?
(1) 11 to 1, (0) (b) 1
(c) 2 to 10
How do you prefer to deal with your enemies?
(a) Persuade them to see the light
(b) Keep my hands clean while my friends annihilate them
(c) I try not to make enemies
What does your ideal wig look like?
(a) Curls of black smoke rising
(b) A cascading river of silver
(c) Honestly, I’d rather be bald
What is the solution to our current political troubles?
(a) Learn to reconcile and seek compromise
(b) Punish the bad actors and wrongdoers
(c) Stop paying so much attention to politics
What is the greatest embarrassment of your youth?
(a) The time I got canceled for saying we live in “the best possible world”
(b) The time I threatened to burn my mom and stepdad alive
(c) Youth is one big embarrassment, and I’m glad mine was not well recorded
After mathematics, what is your favorite subject?
(c) More mathematics
What are you procrastinating on, and what’s your excuse?
(a) A report for my boss. I’ve just got a lot on my plate right now, and…
(b) Publishing my ideas. Why bother? No one grasps my genius.
(c) More or less everything. I’m even procrastinating on my excuse.
Finally, and most important: when did you develop the ideas of calculus?
(c) I believe that trying to rank discoverers and establish priority does violence to the true, collaborative nature of intellectual progress. (Also: not first.)
If you answered mostly A’s, then congratulations: you are aLEIBNIZ!
You are a polymath, a renowned scholar, and one of those philosophers who loves to tell everybody how important it is to do philosophy. You’re not perfect — one time, you wrote in a think-piece that we live in “the best of all possible worlds,” an argument that Twitter nobodies are still dunking on 300 years later — but in general, your thinking is rich, bold, and abstract. You write beautifully and love to share ideas. You have a profound faith in collaboration and the impartial search for truth.
Unfortunately, you suck at academic knife-fights. Too naïve; too optimistic. Case in point: in your dispute with Isaac Newton, you accepted the British Royal Society as an impartial mediator, despite knowing that its leader at the time was literally Isaac Newton. Oh well. Your strategic stupidity may cost you in the short term. But sooner or later, history will appreciate your genius.
If you answered mostly B’s, then congratulations: you are a (NEWTON) !
You are viewed as an intimidating and extraordinary genius. Renowned poets are constantly dropping laudatory verses about you. Even when we know you’re wrong — like when you spent decades on crackpot theories of alchemy — we’re too awed to give you crap about it. You can also become, when the occasion demands, a stone-cold bitch. You refuse to lose any dispute, and you make quick knifework of your rivals (or, better yet, you have your loyal allies do the dirty work for you).
Is this ego run amok? Sure, in part. But it’s also single-mindedness. You’re not here to make friends; you’re here to solve problems and kick ass. It’s frustrating when “little baiters and smatterers” (your phrase, not mine) come pestering you with questions, or — even worse — trying to claim credit. You just want to think your thoughts. And even your rivals must admit: You think some darn good thoughts.
If you answered mostly C’s, then congratulations: you areONE OF THE MANY NAMELESS OTHERS WHO CONTRIBUTED TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF CALCULUS!
You lay the foundations for the Newtons and the Leibnizes. Or perhaps you extend and elaborate on their work. Or perhaps you solve the same problems, but in a different place, at a different time, as part of a different tradition. In any case, you’re a vital part of the history. Part of the history — yet not part of the story. A few heroes get starring roles; you get left on the cutting room floor. They get lionized; you get lost.
But hey, don’t let the cult of celebrity get you down. Calculus is yours as much as theirs. Ideas (like the ones that comprise calculus) are neither pure nor absolute. They draw their hues and shades from the intellectual context, the way crystals draw their color from trace elements. Each time a new person grasps calculus, something novel and irreproducible emerges; in short, calculus is discovered all over again.
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