Monash University
July - November, 2012

Room 135, building 26
Clayton Campus,


Lectures on
The History of Science, Mathematics, Philosophy and Technology

Did you realise that the Ancient Greeks constructed vending machines, automatic doors and animated sculptures? What do 13th century science and religion have to do with modern day computer technology? How did Plato understand the functioning of the cosmos? What did Aristotle have to say about the behaviour of bees? These topics and many more will be discussed during the first series of seminars on the History of Science, Mathematics, Philosophy and Technology. The lectures, presented by internationally renowned experts from Monash University, RMIT University and elsewhere, are open to anybody keen to discover the roots of modern thought. Students and academics are especially encouraged to attend.

Attendance information.

Attendance is free! The presentations will be held in:

Faculty of Information Technology Seminar Room,
Room 135, Building 26,
Clayton Campus, Monash University.


Date + time Title Abstract Presenter biography
22 Aug.


Artificial Life in the ancient world

We have always employed our technology to construct replicas of life. In this presentation we look back to the technology of ancient Greece, Rome and the medieval Arab world to see how it was applied to the task of building living sculptures and decorative, animated water clocks. Alan Dorin researches artificial life, ecological modelling, biologically-inspired electronic media art and the philosophy and history of these fields. (IT, Monash University)

30 Aug.


Euler, Gauss and some one else – who got it right and who didn’t?

1. The so called Second Supplement to the Law of Quadratic Reciprocity answers the question: “If p > 2 is an odd prime, is there an integer x such that p divides x2 - 2 ?” or, in terms of modular arithmetic, “Does x2 ≡ 2 mod p have a solution?”

2. The question: “Does the equation x3 + y3 = z3 have positive integer solutions (x, y, z)?” is answered in the negative as a special case of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Who originally proved these statements, and who has been thought to have proved them originally?

Hans Lausch has a research background in algebra and the history of mathematics, particularly the post-war mathematicians who came to Australia from central and eastern Europe, some as refugees. (School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University)

05 Sept.


The philosopher and the bees: Aristotle on bee / flower constancy

[Monash news, "Most Clicked", Sept. 12]

In ancient Greece, Aristotle observed that individual honeybees tend to reliably forage from the same type of flowers. This phenomenon has been well observed over subsequent centuries. It greatly concerned Darwin since it gives the appearance of top-down altruistic distribution of pollen to the 'correct flower'. Indeed the relationship between bees and flowers has been a classic model for understanding how complex systems operate, and how evolution may produce surprising outcomes. The answers to these riddles appear to lie in understanding the limitations of how memory dynamics operate, and how neural responses in the brain can map flower properties depending upon their perceptual similarity. Adrian Dyer is a vision scientist seeking to understand the comparative physiology of vision and the possible useful applications that can be derived to improve human activities. (Media and Communication, RMIT)

19 Sept.


How can thirteenth century thoughts have contributed to computer science?

[Monash news, The Conversation]

Anachronistically, Ramon Llull (1232–1316) has been called the “first computer scientist”— a title that could apply equally well to al-Khwarizmi (who died after 846), the name commemorated in “algorithms”.

Nevertheless not only did Llull contribute many ideas that have become integral parts of computer science as we know it today, some of these lie directly on the historical path that leads from al-Khwarizmi, through Athanasius Kircher to Leibniz (1646–1716) and his computing machine.

I have identified seven specific contributions by Llull, but, in addition, his general approach was to integrate ontology with logic, which is very relevant today when we are very concerned about ontologies on the World Wide Web and elsewhere.

John Crossley has spent his career (and retirement) researching mathematics, logic, theoretical computer science as well as the history of these fields. (IT, Monash University)

Wed. 26 Sept. (Talk re-scheduled 26 Sept. -> 14 Nov) A history of Artificial Intelligence: AI as a degenerating scientific research program

03 Oct.


Plato’s Timaeus, a quasi-scientific explanation of the Creator’s activities

[Monash news]

Plato's Timaeus is often regarded as an early exercise in a kind of mathematical physics. It is also a work that tells us about the gods that are visible in the heavens (otherwise known as the stars and planets) as well as the divine living creature that the universe as a whole supposedly is. So it is also a work in theology in a sense. The scientifically minded might like to take the former more seriously than the latter. In this talk I'll suggest that is a mistake. Both aspects of Plato's work find their place in its ethical purpose. We should seek to understand the cosmos in order to become like it, for in becoming like it, we become god-like. This is happiness or well-being according to the Platonists. We moderns (many of us at least) do not share the Platonic view that happiness consists in becoming god-like. But Plato's scientific-theological-ethical treatise nonetheless provides us with an opportunity to consider how and why understanding the world makes scientists happy. Dirk Baltzly's expertise lies in ancient Greek philosophy, metaphysics and virtue ethics. (Philosophy, Monash University)

17 Oct.


What it meant to understand mathematics in WWII-era number theory

How does the desire to understand the mathematical universe drive mathematicians to try to prove certain theorems, or compute certain objects? How do mathematicians choose their goals, and how does their work improve our understanding of mathematical phenomena?

In the time around WWII, number theorists like Erich Hecke and Helmut Hasse (among many others) entertained two more or less opposite answers to these questions, one involving the quest for the highly general, the other the quest for the highly specific. I will examine the differences between these two points of view, their history, and what they tell us about the meaning of mathematics.

Steve Kieffer recently completed a Masters degree in the history of algebraic number theory at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He's now pursuing a PhD in graph drawing with the visualization group in the Faculty of IT at Monash. (IT, Monash University)

31 Oct.


A history of computing in Australia (at Monash University)

[Monash news, Monash memo]

The Monash Museum of Computing History (MMoCH) started in 2000 to preserve Monash University's computing history. A number of pieces of early computing equipment distributed around the corridors and cupboards of the Faculty of Information Technology provided the core for the collection. The collection has grown since, with regular donations from university staff and elsewhere. Judy Sheard (Director), and Barbara Ainsworth (Curator), will discuss the beginnings of the museum and its role as well as a guide to the current collection, the physical exhibition, public programs and future development plans.

Why have a museum at all? Why collect historical material? Does this have any bearing on modern computing activities? An historical perspective is an important aid to understanding the present and predicting and managing the future. This is particularly difficult to achieve in IT where the fast evolution of computing has encouraged rapid discard of technology and focus on new developments.

Museums have a number of core activities and obligations including to collect original material (physical or virtual), care for it and undertake research on this material. It should also have a public program to provide access to the collection and support information dissemination. Many of these activities are interconnected. We will look at how the MMoCH approaches these activities. The collection has some particularly important computers and technology relevant to computing at Monash University. We will also highlight a number of case studies which are part of our current research.

The MMoCH display is open to the public during normal weekday university opening hours (Building B, Caulfield campus).

Judy Sheard & Barbara Ainsworth. Judy’s interest is in the area of computing education. She is also director of the Monash Museum of Computing History. (IT, Monash University)

07 Nov.


W. Grey Walter’s cybernetic tortoises Grey Walter's electromechanical tortoises are generally considered to be the first autonomous robots with machine learning. Modern popular science publications tend to gloss over the rich functionality these tortoises exhibited. This presentation will describe in full the complex behaviour exhibited by these relatively simple creatures. Reuben Hoggett has has had a life-long interest in robots, particularly those of the cybernetic era. He is author of the online resource,, a history of cybernetic animals and early robots. (Telstra)

14 Nov.


A history of Artificial Intelligence: AI as a degenerating scientific research program

[Monash news]

(Rescheduled from 26 Sept.)

The goal of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a discipline is to produce an Artificial Intelligence as an artifact. The motivations for producing an AI are many and diverse. One motive that is powerful and pervasive is to better understand ourselves, what we are made of intellectually. And that may explain why the man who invented computer science, Alan Turing in 1936, shortly thereafter also invented the discipline of Artificial Intelligence, putting the problem in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in 1950. Since that time many thousands have worked on one or another aspect of the AI research program. But has there been progress, or stagnation, or degeneration? Kevin Korb’s research is in artificial intelligence and the philosophy of science and the interrelation between the two, and especially the automation of scientific induction, or causal discovery. (IT, Monash University)


For further information on these lectures, please email Alan Dorin (alan _dot_ dorin _at_ monash _dot_ edu).

Page updated: 10 Oct 2012.

Att. 50, 20, 30, 15 (poor timing), ?? .. ?? 10, 15, 30 [170]