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In Context #3 (Spring, 2000, pp. 17-19); copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute

The Straitening of Science
Stephen L. Talbott

sun through clouds

The geometer's straight line, the line of infinitesimal width and unerring rectitude, does not exist in this world. Not as a material thing. Perhaps the closest we come to it is in the play of sun and cloud, when luminous shafts shape the razor-straight pillars of a temple celebrating the light's penetration of darkness. But this spectral architecture refuses our urge toward minute inspection and verification, forcing us to fall back upon our own conceptual finesse. Yes, we know that there are straight lines; but the reason we know is not that they are given to us ready-made in the world. We must cooperate in sending them forth.

We are not, however, always justified in doing so.

We Are Children of Abstraction

On the first day of the creation of modern science, Newton said:

Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.