Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In the Home of the Enlightenment

I stepped out of my comfort zone today to attend a conference at the Royal Society of Edinburgh (founded 1783; Adam Smith was a founding member (he was already a member of the Royal Society of London since 1773; he was admitted as a fellow in 1767).

The occasion was the commemoration of the great Scottish Physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, by the unveiling of a statue to him in George Street, Edinburgh, just along from the RSE building. The RSE represents the prime members of the Scottish scientific community and I found the talks of immense interest.

Without the mathematics of James Clerk Maxwell on the electronic spectrum, the immensely practical work of others would not have been possible that took society into the electronic age. The maths are difficult, but the benefits have been enormous. Would that we could say the same about maths in economics; electrons and atoms are well behaved, but people are not.

I reflected while listening, and later while discussing with several scientists whom I recognised, on the wonder of James Clerk Maxwell's work that led to so much of great benefit all around us, compared to the predictions and policy reocmmendations of economists - the British Chancelor giving precise predictions of when growth will return to the UK in the third quarter of 2009, a prediction few are rash enough to be so precise.

Mathematics that assumes order where there is precious little evidence of it is no security that the predicted will happen. Economists who desparage history have cause to be more modest in their certainties.


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