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  • Simon Stevin 1548-1620: L'émergence de la nouvelle science
  • Rienk Vermij
Hossam Elkhadem and Wouter Bracke , eds. Simon Stevin 1548–1620: L'émergence de la nouvelle science. Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2004. 184 pp. illus. tbls. map. €37.74. ISBN: 2–503–51704–8.

Simon Stevin is counted among the foremost propagators of the mathematical sciences of the period ca. 1600. He earned his living mainly as a practitioner. He designed and built windmills and was an engineer in the army of the Dutch Republic. In his works, however, he aimed at combining practice with theory and engaged with pure mathematics as well. He made some notable contributions to science, especially in his works on statics and hydrostatics. Besides, he remains known for his propagation of decimal fractions.

Stevin's importance has long been recognized. He was the subject of a biography (in Dutch) by Dijksterhuis in 1943, of which an abbreviated English translation appeared in 1970. Moreover, a selection of his works was edited, with English translation and commentary, in five volumes between 1955 and 1966. These editions are by now rather old and somewhat dated. Since then, several studies have thrown new light on specific aspects of his work, but a general overview is lacking. The present volume is therefore quite welcome. It was edited for an exhibition at the Royal Library of Belgium, in both a Dutch and a French version. Potential readers of the latter should be alerted, however, that Dutch quotations (Stevin preferred writing in Dutch) are in most cases not translated. This will cause no problems for most Belgian readers, but may hinder others.

The volume encompasses a large number of topics and is generally up to date with the latest Stevin research. Some of the authors are concerned with biographical details, on Stevin's family, his manuscripts, and his publisher Plantin. [End Page 221] (Biographical information on Stevin himself is regrettably very scant.) By far most contributions deal with some specific topic Stevin wrote upon. So there are chapters on Stevin and pure mathematics, perspective, military architecture, water flow, astronomy, mechanics, navigation, politics, music, accountancy, and language. In some cases, Stevin's arguments are meticulously analyzed. As in the chapter on accountancy — which is largely new and where the various editions of Stevin's work are painstakingly compared — or in the chapter on perspective. (Curiously, Andersen's work on Stevin's theory of perspective is not mentioned.) Other chapters are more superficial. The chapter on Stevin's work on statics and hydrostatics merely summarizes his findings and reemphasizes their importance. In the chapter on astronomy, it is stated that Stevin rejected solid planetary spheres (86), which is definitely not true.

What is lacking, however, is a general chapter or introduction about the state of the art of Stevin studies: what is known, what is not known, and what are the main desiderata for research? From this volume, one would not get the idea that Stevin also was concerned with what we would call physical geography. Nor is there an attempt to sketch an overall picture of Stevin and his place in the history of science and learning. Most of the authors are mainly interested in the developments within their particular field of study. They describe Stevin's work as a contribution to modern science and mathematics or even as a step in the general process of rationalization — in several places, he is compared to Descartes. Understanding Stevin in the context of his time is admittedly difficult, but there are important questions to be asked. For instance, how did Stevin's life-long interest in language (well analyzed in the respective chapter) relate to his work in mathematics, and why did he, as a practitioner, choose to engage himself with theory? Only Rudolf de Smet, in his chapter on Stevin and humanism, tackles such a general issue. Stevin is not generally regarded as a humanist: his work is based in practice, he wrote in the vernacular, and the learned scholars at Leiden certainly did not count him as one of theirs. De Smet, however, makes clear that the common understanding of "humanism" is too simple, and that...


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pp. 221-222
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Archived 2009
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