Director's post: physical to moral sciences

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The Cambridge Science Festival, 14-27 March, is not far off and we’re looking forward to the inclusion within the Festival of our third Madingley Lecture. Dr Hugh Hunt will give a lecture on 'Dambusters and the engineering behind the bouncing bomb'. As well as being part of the Cambridge Science Festival, this Madingley Lecture is given in association with the Cambridge Society for the Application of Research (CSAR), with which we share the common goal of promoting a wider appreciation of the sciences. Hugh Hunt, Fellow of Trinity, is a spin-doctor in the real sense and has led the re-enactment of the raid for a Channel 4 documentary, which will be broadcast a little later in the year. I have blogged before about Hugh’s influence on my own research in the field of fluid dynamics, or aerodynamics, and the effects of rotation in particular … thanks to Hugh, I can still make a mean boomerang … it’s all about the physics and the flick of the wrist!

This week I was surprised to learn that Ludwig Wittgenstein, Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947 (also a Trinity man) and probably the greatest philosopher of the last century, started out as an aerodynamicist … kite flying and helicopters to logic and the philosophy of language. Wittgenstein has featured in our blogs before when Adrian Barlow went on a voyage of discovery to the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge to find Wittgenstein’s grave, but my own voyage of discovery is rooted in the development of a new one-day conference for teachers of A-Level Philosophy focused on Wittgenstein, scheduled for 18 June 2011 here at Madingley Hall.

The A-Level Philosophy Conference is modelled on our long-standing A-Level Law Conference, which is aimed at A-Level and AS- and A2-Level teachers of Law and gives the opportunity to update knowledge of recent developments in key areas such as Criminal Law, the English Legal System, and Tort. Tailored sessions allow for discussion of wider legal issues with expert guest lecturers and lecturers from the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law and Chief Examiners from the AQA and OCR examination boards. This year the A-Level Law Conference will run over two days on 31 March and 1 April, and for teachers in the state system (secondary schools or FE institutions) we have bursaries available, reducing the full fees by £280 – so sign up now!

The A-Level Philosophy Conference will help to demystify Wittgenstein … we hope making his appearance on the syllabus less worrying! It will cover topics such as ‘Wittgenstein and the Problem of Other Minds', 'Wittgensteinian Fideism', 'Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Mind’ and 'Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Psychology'. If you are interested in learning more about our Wittgenstein A-Level Philosophy Conference, please visit our website.

Back to my Wittgenstein discovery … he started out studying Mechanical Engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenburg, in Berlin, (now within the Technische Universität Berlin) but quickly decided to move to England in 1908 and enrolled at the College of Technology, Manchester, at an outpost in Glossop on the edge of the Derbyshire moors – perfect for kite-flying experiments. After a few months he registered at Manchester University’s Department of Engineering as a research student to work on the development of a ‘motorless’ aeroengine. He was pursuing the concept of an aeroengine without a conventional piston-engine drive but with the rotors providing the propulsion mechanism, driven by repulsion jets on the rotor tips fed from a combustion chamber at the central rotor shaft or at the rotor tips themselves. It seems that Wittgenstein was inspired by a proposition made in the 1st century BC by Hero of Alexandria for an Aeolipile, otherwise known as a Hero engine. In 1910 Wittgenstein registered his invention at the patent office: ‘Improvements in Propellers applicable for Aerial Machines’. Eventually, about 30 years later in 1943, further work led to development of a helicopter that was successfully tested.

The fundamental mathematics of his aerodynamics research interested him more than the application and he began to discuss the foundations of mathematics with colleagues and soon with Bertrand Russell in Cambridge, prompted by Russell’s book Principles of Mathematics (1903) and his first volume of the Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead (1910) – a milestone in the history of Logic – GE Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903) and Frege’s second volume of the Grundgesetze der Arithmetik (1903). Russell and Frege’s perspectives on Logic led to Wittgenstein’s ‘conversion’ to philosophy and to the start of his studies in Cambridge in 1911 under Russell. Wittgenstein joined the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club in 1912 and pretty much dominated form that point onwards.

A life of kite flying in the literal sense and the metaphorical …

If you are interested in philosophy, then have a look at our upcoming courses:

Philosophy of Space and Time

A history of early western science: Part I ancient science

Jewish and Christian responses to the Holocaust

Tragedy and philosophy

The origins of modern science: the scientific revolution

A history of science to the early Middle Ages

The other Middle Ages: the Islamic world and the Latin debt to Islam

Happiness in eighteenth-century literature and thought

Marx, Engels and the German Ideology

Thinking about thinking: an introduction to the philosophy of mind

Wittgenstein and the end of philosophy

The philosophy of art

Faith and understanding: themes in Philosophical theology

Plato's Republic