Idolatry and Infinity

Of Art, Math, and God

by David R. Topper

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Synopsis

Some unwritten stories only exist in fragments. In this book, for the first time, the histories of the injunction against idolatry and the dread of infinity are uniquely woven into one.

The spectre of idolatry has haunted the three Western religions since the biblical prohibition. The story of iconoclasm runs from ancient times, where Jews largely ignored the ban on images, through the iconoclastic episodes in Islam and Christianity, and into modern times during the French Revolution. A perhaps surprising thesis of this book is that a conceptual and secular form of iconoclasm continued as the revulsion of illusionism in Modern Art. More recently it flared-up in the dynamiting of two large statues of the Buddha by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

The phobia of infinity arose from Pythagoras's discovery of irrational numbers and it runs through Zeno's paradoxes and Aristotle's philosophy, with only rare cases of defiance, such as Archimedes searching for pi. The angst over infinity continued through the Middle Ages with the theological encounter of an infinite God, as in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, only to be confronted in the Renaissance philosophy of Cusa. At the same time, infinity arose unexpectedly in visual art with the discovery of linear perspective where God was identified with the vanishing point. In the 17th and 18th centuries infinity further emerged not only in the very, very large (the cosmos itself), but in the very, very small (within calculus). This paved the way in the 19th and 20th centuries for the idea of different orders of infinity codified by Georg Cantor, where the concept mingled again with theology.

Math and science buffs familiar with some aspects of infinity may first learn of its link with art, as well as a long association with theology - right up to the present. With lucid visual aids for the uninitiated, this book may likewise grant the Art lover access into a previously uncharted territory - a math venture to stretch the mind.

REVIEWS

The first thing to say about this book is that it is not an easy read . . . Altogether it is a very worthy serious book, and a book that has my admiration.
Click to read entire review by Phil Dyke of Plymouth University at Leonardo Online.

About The Author

David R. Topper taught science history and art history at the University of Winnipeg for over 40 years, during which he was the recipient of two teaching awards. He is the author of two previous books: Quirky Sides of Scientists: True Tales of Ingenuity and Error from Physics and Astronomy (2007) and How Einstein Created Relativity out of Physics and Astronomy (2013).