While working on a school project, Shouryya Ray worked out how to calculate exactly the path of a projectile under gravity and subject to air resistance. He won a research award and has been labeled a genius, but he ascribed his success to “curiosity and schoolboy naivety.”
Yeah, right. This kid learned calculus as the age of six. And as if trumping Sir Isaac wasn’t enough of an achievement, he also solved a second problem, dealing with the collision of a body with a wall, that was posed in the 19th century.
Which brings to mind an interesting point I had once read in a philosophy text (not sure, but it may have been Bertrand Russell). Over the past millennium, there have been two places in the world which have produced a disproportionate number of pure mathematicians. One is Western Europe with its offshoots like the United States, the other is India. I suspect that a keen interest in philosophy, with its attendant curiosity, questioning and speculation, no matter where it leads, underlies this reality. And this is also the reason why the Moslem world remains so far behind: in Islam, real philosophy (and therefore curiosity about the world) died a terrible death about a thousand years ago when A’sharite theologians destroyed the Mu’tazilite philosophical system that had been responsible for the so-called Golden Age of Islam.
There is a grim lesson in all this for radical theologians of all stripes: declare philosophy, research, speculation and science to be enemies of faith, and you all but guarantee the decline of your civilization. A secondary, but no less important, lesson is that scientific outreach to the Moslem world, à la Obama’s laughable commandment to NASA, is an extraordinary waste of time and effort. Before you can sow a field, it must be ready to receive the seed.