Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Practical vs. theoretical knowledge

with 3 comments

Interesting, especially to the Family Classicist:


Harvard classics researcher Mark Schiefsky has shown that many great technical innovations of antiquity, such as the balance and steelyard, were created by craftspeople with no theoretical training in mathematics. A steelyard is a balance with unequal arms, whose operation is based on ancient mathematician Archimedes’ law of the lever. Schiefsky poo-poos the idea that you need a fancy law to make a steelyard, and in fact has proven that steelyards were in use long before Archimedes explained it.

Schiefsky discovered evidence from early Greek writings that craftspeople in the 5th century B.C. used steelyards in the agora, or marketplace :

People assume that Archimedes was the first to use the steelyard because they suppose you can’t create one without knowing the law of the lever. In fact, you can–and people did. Craftsmen had their own set of rules for making the scale and calibrating the device. If someone brings a 100-pound slab of meat to the agora, how do you weigh it? It would be nice to have a 10-pound counterweight instead of a 100-pound counterweight, but to do so you need to change the balance point and ostensibly understand the principle of proportionality between weight and distance from the fulcrum. Yet, these craftsmen were able to use and calibrate these devices without understanding the law of the lever.

Written by Leisureguy

3 October 2007 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Technology

3 Responses

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  1. Could it be argued that their use and calibration of said device was a theoretical understanding of lever laws . . . even if they hadn’t the vocabulary to call it such?



    25 August 2008 at 12:47 pm

  2. I would guess that the use and calibration were empirical: trial and error. But then the existence and use of the device, with its calibrations, could give the insight that led to the theory: measurement often produces such insights, which is why scientists love to measure phenomena.



    25 August 2008 at 1:00 pm

  3. The above is not surprising to me: Over time the experience and empirical observations needed to e.g. learn how to use a lever can easily be assembled. Math, physics, and the like may be needed when we move into less “everyday” realms or when it comes to truly shift a paradigm (instead of just slowly accumulating insight), but for so trivial things (comparatively speaking) they are not needed. Space flight, possibly even aeroplane flight, would be impossible without theory—a lever or a balance scale are not.

    As a similar example: In my childhood, I pondered the miracle that is glue. How could anyone come up with this idea? How was the correct recipe discovered? It seemed a near miracle to me. Today, I see glue as a more or less obvious idea for anyone who has done a non-trivial amount of cooking (in particular, if they cook like I do…)—and a not entirely unlikely idea from some other areas, including e.g. many cases of wet substances drying up.

    We should also bear in mind that the craftsmen of “yore” contained a very large proportion of the best-and-brightest: Today, the brainiac studies math, back then the crafts were often the most realistic place for someone with a bit of brain and without a rich family.



    10 March 2010 at 6:21 am

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