Isaac Newton, sha1, and the Semantic Web

by David Sklar

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Last night, I went to an exhibit at the New York Public Library about Isaac Newton and his scientific influence. The computer geek side of me reacted in particular to two things.

First, one of the items on display was a letter that Newton wrote to Leibniz in 1677. In the letter, Newton was describing some techniques he had developed that were similar to (or part of) his emerging fluxional calculus, but he didn't want to divulge the whole thing to Leibniz. So, he stopped short in an explanation and instead wrote an anagram, 6accdae13eff7i3l9n4o4qrr4s8t12ux, which represented his fundametal calculus theory.

Looking at this letter, I was struck by the similarity (both of purpose and visually) of Newton's technique and one of the things that we use hash functions for today. "Hey, Leibniz, I'm not going to let you read the document in which I lay out my amazing new ideas, but here's the results of sha1(file_get_contents('/home/isaac/discovery-27.tex')) just to prove I've done it."

Newton's secrecy and roundabout-ness, however, ultimately hurt his claim to have preceeded Leibniz in discovering (or "inventing", depending on your philosophical leanings) calculus. He sat on his unpublished innovations while Leibniz, a few years later, published his, leading to the bitter feud of calculus primacy.

Second, another aspect of the exhibit that struck me were these lines from the introductory accompanying text:

During a time when the mathematical sciences and natural philosophy were integral to a broader encyclopedia of knowledge, these domains set an example of so-called superior knowledge for other disciplines to emulate: the search for rational, universal principles became the modus vivendi for all researchers, regardless of field.

Which made me think: is the Semantic Web the 21st century equivalent of Diderot's Encyclopédie? What lessons have we learned (or not) from previous generations' attempts to taxonomify (and neologize? :) all information? What would Enlightenment philosophers make of OWL?

Is the Semantic Web the philosophical child of the Enlightenment?