Patents, pensions, and printing

By Gordon Rugg

The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution are often portrayed as a flowering of bright new ways of thinking about the world, shaking off the dull orthodoxy of previous centuries. Well, in some ways that’s true, but there’s also a fair amount of unglamorous practical underpinning that usually receives less attention.

This article is about those underpinnings.

One of the striking things about technological developments before the Renaissance is how many of them spread slowly, if at all. Why was that?

If you look at the question from the viewpoint of a mediaeval inventor who has just come up with a bright new idea, then you start seeing the importance of various factors that don’t get much attention in popular history.

Unglamorous and glamorous views of how inventions happenbanner2

Continue reading

Grand Unified Theories

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re a researcher, there’s a strong temptation to find a Grand Unified Theory for whatever you’re studying, whether you’re a geologist or a physicist or psychologist or from some other field.

That temptation is understandable. There’s the intellectual satisfaction of making sense of something that had previously been formless chaos; there’s the moral satisfaction of giving new insights into long-established problems; for the less lofty-minded, there’s the prospect of having a law or theory named after oneself.

Just because it’s understandable, however, doesn’t mean that it’s always a good idea. For every Grand Unified Theory that tidies up some part of the natural world, there’s at least one screwed-up bad idea that will waste other people’s time, and quite possibly increase chaos and unpleasantness.

This article explores some of the issues involved. As worked examples, I’ll start with an ancient stone map of Rome, and move on later to a Galloway dyke, illustrated below.

bannerv2Sources for original images are given at the end of this article

Continue reading

Why are we being examined on this?

By Gordon Rugg

It’s a fair question, if it’s being asked as a question, rather than as a complaint about the cosmic unfairness of having to study a topic that you don’t see the point of. Sometimes, it’s easy to answer. For instance, if someone wants to be a doctor, then checking their knowledge of medicine is a pretty good idea.

Other times, though, the answer takes you into deep waters that you’d really rather not get into, especially if there’s a chance of some student recording your answer and posting it onto social media…

Why do some answers take you into deep waters? That’s the topic of this article. It takes us into history, politics, proxies, and the glass bead game.


Continue reading