Newton vs. Leibniz: the wigs are off

Of course, the greatest scientific flame war of all time was the calculus priority dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This one had everything: intrigue, pettiness, hypocrisy, nationalism, and even hints of the physicist vs. computer scientist split that continues to this day.

In our opening talk at QIPC’2006 in London, Dave Bacon and I decided to relive the hatred — with Dave in a frilly white wig playing the part of Newton, and your humble blogger in a frilly black wig playing the part of Leibniz. We forgot to take photos, but here’s the script, and here are the slides for the … err, “serious” talk that Dave and I gave after dewigging.

Update (thanks to Dave and Viv Kendon):

17 Responses to “Newton vs. Leibniz: the wigs are off”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    LOL, when geeks go wild.

    Thanks for that!

  2. Jennifer Ouellette Says:

    But where are the pictures?!?

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Scott, while we’re at it, may I ask you to please, from now on, make your presentations available in PDF form as well? I know you’re fond of using animations and such, but a PDF with all animations stripped down would still carry all the relevant content, and it’d be fully enjoyable by your reader who dislike using proprietary file formats and applications (such as me).
    And, by the way, have you have ever considered switching to Open Office? 😉

  4. Jud Says:

    The presentation can be viewed using OpenOffice, but I get an inkling that I may not be getting all the rich chocolatey goodness of it when I read someone mentioning animations. (Animations? I hope there was one associated with the Perelman picture, preferably one with audio of a bad “Moose and Sqvirrel” Russian accent.:)

  5. Scott Says:

    Jennifer: Sorry!!

  6. Wim van Dam Says:

    Scott, while we are apparently at it, I have some dirty dishes left from last night, can you wash them for me?
    And, by the way, have you ever considered writing your articles in Spanish?


  7. Elad Verbin Says:


    I liked the slide about the Holographic entropy bound:

    “Holographic entropy bound: Any region of space can store at most 1.4*10^69 bits per square meter of surface area (not volume)”

    I’ve never seen that one, and it looks interesting.

    First of all, it doesn’t mean that, computationally, any two regions of space with the same surface area have the same computational properties. For example, a region with more volume might be able to perform more computations. So, for example, a surface with a larger volume might be able to solve a larger instance of the TSP. The only thing bounded by the holographic entropy is communication.

    So, I’d say that inside a region of space you can put a system with complexity proportional to the volume, but it can have an output that is of size proportional to the surface area.

    What I’m wondering is what this all means. Are you thinking of space in computational ways? What parameters do you care about? How is the Holographic entropy bound related to computer science? Can you give a reference?

  8. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: Specially for you, here’s a PDF version of the slides — sadly missing 95% of the “relevant content,” by which I mean the animations. (There was no audio.)

    Can OpenOffice do wacky animations as well as PowerPoint? If so, maybe I’ll switch. If not, I’ll wait.

  9. Scott Says:

    Sorry, Wim, I gotta draw the line somewhere…

  10. Douglas Knight Says:

    If open office can create animations, I’d imagine it could show the ones in ppt format. In fact, I thought I got it to do that, but I don’t trust that memory.

    royalsoc.pdf is a postscript file, not a pdf. The program “file” and my postscript viewer agree, although it eventually crashes my poscript viewer.

  11. Anonymous Says:


    I greatly enjoyed the Newton/Leibniz duel. (Although the one thing that that particular physicist/computer scientist pair can agree on is that you guys are wrong about the real enemy being mathematicians!)

    But, as a student of mathematics with a great deal interest in infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces, I had to wince at one of your slides (you’ll know which one). Besides the basic mathematical point that infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces are what make the concept of Hilbert space meaningful to begin with (after all, finite-dimensional Hilbert spaces already have their own name–they’re called “Euclidean spaces”), there’s also the more important “physical” point that quantum mechanics seems to require them (as I’m sure you already know!). Specifically, in the words of William Arveson (emphasis is his):

    “It is this noncommutativity of operators on a Hilbert space that provides a precise formulation of the uncertainty principle: there are operator solutions to equations like pq – qp = 1. This equation has no commutative counterpart. In fact, it has no solution in operators p,q acting on a finite dimensional space.

    So if you’re interested in the dynamics of quantum theory, you must work with operators rather than functions and, more precisely, operators on infinite dimensional spaces.”

    I must confess that I’m not quite sure what your beef with infinite dimensional Hilbert spaces really is; you’ve mentioned it a number of times, so perhaps the time is ripe to ask.

  12. Jud Says:

    scott said: “Can OpenOffice do wacky animations as well as PowerPoint? If so, maybe I’ll switch. If not, I’ll wait.”


  13. nic Says:

    You and dave rokked out! De-wig is my new favourite word 😉

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Anonymous: Specially for you, here’s a PDF version of the slides

    Thank you very much! And I’m sorry if my request sounded arrogant in its tone: I was just trying to give a suggestion, but the wording I chose may have been not the most appropriate one.

  15. Dave Bacon Says:

    Proof that Scott and I indeed did wig ourselves here

  16. Petar Hoist Says:

    Such an undignified display at the Royal Society is a sign of our decadent, irreverent times. The memories of men such as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz deserve more respect.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    The memories of men such as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz deserve more respect