Nearly every subject has a shadow, or imitation. It would, I suppose, be quite possible to teach a deaf ... child to play the piano. ... [The child] would have learnt an imitation of music, and would fear the piano exactly as most students fear what is supposed to be mathematics.I think that idea, of a shadow subject, will stick with me, and become more powerful for me over time.
What is true of music is also true of other subjects. One can learn imitation history - kings and dates, but not the slightest idea of the motives behind it all; imitation literature - stacks of notes on Shakespeare's phrases, and a complete destruction of the power to enjoy Shakespeare.
I've told my students logarithms were invented in a time when calculators didn't exist, and scientists were looking at lots of data about the planets, trying to discover patterns. Napier invented a way to do multiplication by adding and division by subtracting, a second application of which allows powers and roots to also become questions of addition and subtraction. I don't think this is enough of an introduction to this strange concept.
How did Napier dream this up? Sawyer gives us a glimmering of the sort of inspiration Napier might have had, with this marvelously concrete model for logarithms:
We are all familiar with machines which [we] use to multiply [our] own strength - pulleys, levers, gears, etc. Suppose you are fire-watching on the roof of a house, and have to lower an injured comrade by means of a rope. It would be natural to pass the rope round some object, such as a post, so that the friction of the rope on the post would assist you in checking the speed of your friend's descent. In breaking-in horses the same idea is used: a rope passes round a post, one end being held by a person, the other fastened to the horse. To get away, the horse would have to pull many times harder than the person.
The effect of such an arrangement depends on the roughness of the rope. Let us suppose that we have a rope and a post which multiply one's strength by ten, when the rope makes one complete turn. What will be the effect if we have a series of such posts? A pull of 1 pound at A is sufficient to hold 10 pounds at B, and this will hold 100 pounds at C, or 1000 pounds at D.
Thus, 108 will represent the effect of 8 posts. ... The number of turns required to get any number is called the logarithm of that number. ... So far we have spoken of whole turns. But the same idea would apply to incomplete turns. ... Accordingly, 101/2 will mean the magnifying effect of half a turn. ... The logarithm of 2 will be that fraction of a turn which is necessary to magnify your pull 2 times. (page 70)
I had to put the book down here, to ask myself why half a turn wouldn't magnify the pull 5 times - half of ten. As I thought about that, I wanted to know if there would be an easy way, either a thought experiment or a very simple physical experiment (i.e., no special equipment), to prove that this relationship must be multiplicative. That is, how do we know the friction of the rope doesn't just add to our pulling force, so that a certain amount is added at each turn? (Can anyone help me with this?)
If we've decided that the relationship must be multiplicative, then we know that two half turns must multiply to have the effect of one whole turn, and that would mean we need the number that multiplied by itself gives ten. To get to this thought, I had to imagine two posts near one another, with the rope halfway around one, and then halfway around the next.
Why haven't I seen this before?!
I haven't read any more of the book yet, because I keep needing to think more about this cool idea. I look forward to more pedagogical delights as I keep reading this book, and maybe others he wrote. (One list is at the bottom of this page.)
*W. W. Sawyer wrote this book in 1943, long before feminists began to analyze the effect of using the male for the generic. Although Sawyer uses 'man' and 'he' in a generic sense in other sections (which I've taken the liberty of changing in the second quote I've used), perhaps he was trying to avoid that in this story by calling the deaf child of his music example 'it'. I had real trouble with that, and didn't know how to fix it without messing with his meaning, so I left the meat of the example out. You can go here to see it.