European Rationalism * "Our Pub" Library

How did pubs and cafes further
Europe's scientific success

by Witold Marciszewski

§1.Heisenberg's maxim exemplified
by German and Polish scientific achievements

Why is this blog titled OUR PUB? The answer can be found in some stories told in this essay. Werner Heisenberg's saying that knowledge arises from talks ("Wissenschaft entsteht im Gespräch") to much extent explains the enormous success of German physicists in laying the foundations of quantum theory. According to the memoirs of Heisenberg, their leader, they formed a friendly circle in which people continously talked about physics - in conference rooms as well as in cafes or during mountain trips. A feedback among so clever and active brains is bound to produce a high intellectual temperature to sparkle bright ideas.

A similar case is that of the circle of brilliant Polish mathematicians in Lvov (now in Ukraine), in the twenties and thirties of the 20th century, who every day met in "Szkocka" (Scottish) cafe to talk about mathematical problems. The solutions, not seldom of the highest rank in the world literature, were recorded in a special book kept by the cafe owner; every morning he pulled it out from a safe to hand it over to eager disputants.

Among the guests of "Szkocka" were Banach, Steinhaus, Ulam, Mazur, Kac, Schauder, Kaczmarz. Stan Ulam gave a paricipant's account of these events. Collection of these problems and solutions appeared later as a special volume: R. D. Mauldin, The Scottish Book, Mathematics from the Scottish Café (1981). The picture presents the building where at the ground floor the cafe was located.

§2. On how Enlightenment luminaries debated in Edinburgh taverns

It is hardly imaginable how much Europe's intellectual progress is due to parties held in pubs. If you do not believe, ask historians of the Enlightenment Age, especially those versatile with its Scottish branch. They will tell you the story on how the most eminent minds of this age, including the famous Adam Smith, loved to meet with each other in Edinburgh's pubs. E.g., read the following passage in A.Herman's Scottish Enlightenment, 2006 (p.183).

Many of the city's most important intellectual movements began with a gathering in the tavern. Discussion of a pressing political or theological issue without bottles on the table and loud gusts of laughter was inconceivable. "In vino veritas" (in wine the truth), as the ancient Romans said, and the people of Edinburgh did their best to live up to the maxim.

The salutary influence of drinks on intellectual performances, be it caffe, wine or beer, should not be underestimated. However, what matters most is an inspiring social atmosphere, aroused by good drinks, but mainly depending on participants' tempers. Indeed, in Edinburgh by the end of the 18th century the tempers of intellectual elite were excellent -- inquisitive, highly educated, good-humored, self confident, future-oriented. No wonder that some of them, who formed a circle of most eager inquirers, called the club they established "Select Society".

This inspiring phrase is a good clue to understanding informational approach to civilizational dynamics. Among key concepts of this approach we have "productive information processing". To see what "productive" means let us compare plain persons' small talks on weather, gossips etc. with talks of the mathematicians in Scottish Cafe. In both cases there occurs informatuin processing. For instance, Mary says that the sky is cloudy, and Peter responds hat this fact predicts the coming of rain. Here information in Mary's sentence gets transformed into that expressed by Peter; in this sense the latter is produced by the former. However, such productivity is estremely small when compared with that of mathematicians in Scottish Cafe, or members of the Select Society who might have been inspired Adam Smith to conceive his idea of "invisible hand".

Thus we may observe the following dependence which can be roughly stated in a law-like form: the productivity of information processing in a conversation is proportional to (i) the intellectual potentials of conversing parties, (ii) the degree of difficulty of the problem under discussion, and (iii) the intensity of the exchange of ideas and criticisms. This intensity may be roughly measured with degrees of concentration (a neurobiological feature), frequency of appearing new ideas, emotional tension (curiosity, polemical ardour, etc). Such phenomena are not so likely to appear outside conversation, and this to much extent accounts for the maxim due to Heisenberg. Let us see this in still other case, deserving our special interest, to wit London coffee houses in the 17th century, famous for their attending by Isaac Newton.

§3. London coffee houses attended by Newton and other celebrities

London cafes were places not only of scientific and philosophical discussion but also of running affairs, like in offices, by journal editors, merchants, and other men of bussiness. This displays in still other way the role of such spots for the progress of civilization, to which businessmen contributed not less than scientists, teachers, artists, politicians, lawyers etc. Here is a description of such actvities in London.

Different coffee houses acted as the meeting place for different groups of people. In fact many people would give a particular coffee house as the address where they might be contacted. For example Child's Coffee House near Gresham College, was frequented by the clergy. Lloyd's Coffee House, founded by Edward Lloyd of Tower street in the 1680s, had ship owners and merchants as customers and acted as a hub through which news about ships was passed. It moved to Lombard Street in 1692 and eventually moved into insurance and became Lloyd's of London.

However, in the present discussion we focus on intellectual actvities of men of science. H. C. Shelley in the book Inns and Taverns of Old London (Pitman, London, 1909) describes this phenomenon as follows.

Men of science as well as scholars gave liberal patronage to the [coffee house] Grecian. It was a common thing for meetings of the Royal Society to be continued in a social way at this coffee-house, the president, Sir Isaac Newton, being frequently of the parties. Hither, too, came Professor Halley, the great astronomer, to meet his friends on his weekly visit to London from Oxford.

[To be continued]