Monday, February 23, 2009

Emanuel Swedenborg - Part I : Enlightenment Era Mathematician,Scientist, Philosopher, and....what the hell?

There are the big names in the history of science and math - Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Einstein, to name a few - and there are peculiar names in the history of science and math. One of the more peculiar and interesting of these names was a Swedish man known as Emanuel Swedenborg, born in 1688, died in 1772. He lived in the midst of what is known in Europe as the Age of Reason, a time when science and math toppled the tower of authority of the church and yanked mankind forever from the center of the universe (well, Rush Limbough is still there in his own mind, but that's another topic). It was an exciting and heady time for those who had the privilege of education and access to books, for the explosion of discovery and discussion under the umbrella of unbridled reason was explosive and far-reaching. It was this era that laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution, the quantum revolution, and our current technological revolution. Emanuel Swedenborg was the right man at the right time and place - a brilliant, curious and passionate spirit who latched onto the possibilities and ran a very, very long way.

Swedenborg was privileged, born to a politically ambitious Bishop who had married into money, and received not only the best available education of the day, but also the ability to travel and study abroad. From a young age he was obsessed with the possibilities of mathematics and science, and dove headfirst into every topic he could get his hands on. He read voraciously, apprenticed with instrument makers so he could build his own laboratory equipment, searched out all of the greatest minds of his day so he could engage in direct dialogue with them, and generally sopped up everything he could wrap his brain around. Swedenborg never married (though reportedly had many lovers), so was never tied down by the responsibilities of family life and devoted himself entirely to his studies. He spoke nine languages fluently, including Latin and Hebrew (Latin was the language of all published works of that day). He wrote extensively - his volumes of published works in the fields of mathematics, biology, engineering and anatomy take up three full shelves at the Denver public library.

To get an idea of the brilliance of this man, one need only look at his work in human brain anatomy. In his fifties, settling down after a long brilliant career, Emanuel decided to study brain anatomy and traveled to Paris to work with the, then, most learned brain anatomist (this involved, ugh, dissecting dead people's brains, but what the hell). He proposed, from his studies, theories about the function of parts of the brain that were only to be proven 200 years later by neurologists having sufficiently sophisticated equipment! This man was a brilliant synthesizer, able to put together his own investigations and the discoveries of others and make them into wholly new and groundbreaking conclusions.

Then, at the age of 56, angels started talking to him.

To be continued.....

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