When senior and applied mathematics major Emma Clifton registered for Physics 101, Philosophy 101, and a Latin philosophy class last year, she never thought she would find herself presenting a paper linking the three. A year later, however, Clifton did just that and presented her research in a paper, “Lucrescious’ Legacy in Mathematics: Past and Present Resonances,” before the Society for Classical Studies in D.C.
Clifton was one of only four undergrad students presenting at the annual Society for Classical Studies conference that brings together thousands of classicists, philologists, archaeologists. Almost every classics graduate student from around the nation and at least one representative from each graduate school with a classics department attend the conference as well.
Clifton’s presentation began as a term paper for her Latin philosophy class, but said she was inspired by all the other classes she was taking at the time. While reading Roman Philosopher Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things,” Clifton began to notice some resonances of mathematical concepts, which, after much research, led to her thesis: that Lucretius may have inspired both Newton and Leibnitz in their discoveries of calculus, and that the Roman philosopher was perhaps a precursor to modern mathematical concepts.
“There were similar themes coming up in all three classes. We read a paper by Newton in physics, and I ended up citing that in my Latin paper because Newton was referencing Lucretius,” Clifton said. “I hadn’t really planned to take these classes because they fit but it was neat how they ended up intertwining.”
Clifton explained that Lucretius’ relevance to modern science is a debated topic among academics, because his ideas weren’t “rigorously scientific.” He did not use mathematical notation or demonstrate his theories through experimentation. Instead of proving physical phenomena, he was interested in explaining what reality is like so that he could philosophize about how to live. He did, however, have some notedly innovative and relevant ideas, for instance, that the universe was made up of atoms.
In her research, Clifton did not find much scholarship about the mathematical ideas in Lucretius.
“It was exciting reading Lucretius and recognizing an idea from mathematics, like the idea that stability can arise out of a system that is seemingly chaotic. I don’t think I have seen this before in ancient philosophy,” Clifton said. “It was also cool the more I looked into Newton and Leibnitz the more I think that Newton thought Luctetius understood the concept of inertia. Newton was clearly thinking of Lucretius as a philosopher and physicist.”
Clifton’s advisor, Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Carl Young, helped her to revise her paper and encouraged her to submit it to the Society for Classical Studies.
“Emma’s paper was well-researched and very clearly written,” Young said. “And while this is not a completely original idea, Emma’s background in physics and mathematics combined with her knowledge of Latin allowed her to pick up on some aspects of Epicurean physics that do not often get noticed. Plus, she does a really good job of explaining rather difficult mathematical concepts.”
Despite her professor’s high praise, Clifton said that she “lost a lot of sleep” over the paper, and did not really think it was very good. She was surprised when her professor suggested she submit it to the Society for Classical Studies.
Yet, out of the hundreds of panels at the conference, only one was comprised of undergraduate students. Clifton, along with three undergraduate students from other colleges, presented at this panel before an audience of graduate students who asked questions and gave constructive criticism, according to Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Patrick Owens.
“Not rarely it ends up those are the best papers at the conference because they are so earnest,” Owens said. “When it is your first time there is energy and excitement, so undergrads have some of the best papers. It is a real feather in Emma’s cap.”
Despite her success in classics, Clifton’s post-graduate dreams include, not noble antiquities, but modern marvels. She plans to master in data analytics with some computer science “thrown in” and has already applied to three graduate programs.