The decades before World War I marked the upheaval of many previously held scientific ideas. Mathematics, especially, became a more abstract concept that moved farther away from the real world. Oftentimes, ideas developed out of nowhere simply because they could plausibly solve some problem, not because they were actually in existence. However, as in the case of physics, facts were found and analyzed through legitimate observation. The idea of eugenics developed before genetics, but both were extremely politically charged because they were seen as directly relating to the innate superiority of certain races or classes of people. Evolution also fed into this political theme. Marxism was therefore the only major science-related ideology that continued unmarred, although the upheaval in thinking really only directly affected a minority of people. Inevitably, the spread of science and reason, along with the rise in social sciences, led to a conflict with religion. This was emphasized by an increase in pushes toward revolution, which actually succeeded in some of the less stable nations (the Ottoman Empire, Russia, etc.). A world war quickly became inevitable, although a straightforward cause is unrecognizable. Capitalist development and imperialism were both blamed. The arms race was extremely exciting, especially since the possibility for a major economic shift according to the outcome of the war was highly likely. Overall, World War I was unexpected, even by those who participated. Patriotism rose to a new level as millions of citizens enthusiastically responded to the call to arms. Later, nearly everyone would wonder what had happened to the era of peace and progress to make such a major shift occur.
To me, the change in thinking that occurred in the field of mathematics greatly reflects the overall change that occurred in society’s mindset around that time. Leading into the 1920’s, priorities vastly shifted, at least in America. Everything became more airy and removed, while at the same time, it became more extravagant. This again reminds of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In the novel, the characters were extremely focused on fulfilling the “American Dream,” which consisted of having an excess of money and time so that one could enjoy their leisure through elaborate parties and celebrations. Hobsbawm describes how mathematics became increasingly distant from the “real world” and centered more on its own rules. I found it interesting that the general shift in society seemed to be toward the same ideology.
Along the lines of my previous paragraph (meaning society’s viewpoint), I would have been very interested to learn how pulling away from the church inadvertently led to such a drastic change in society. Hobsbawm describes the emergence of “sexologists” and Sigmund Freud, who created a stir among the accepted beliefs related to impulse. It makes sense to me that people would be more open to exploring “taboo” topics as they grew farther away from church and religion, but I would have liked to know why the Church did not employ more preventative measures. Did the Church not learn that it loses when it tries to go against popular notions? I realize that proclamations against birth control and other similar topics might be seen as such endeavors by the Church, but I would have thought that some attempt to reconcile science and religion would have been made. I wish Hobsbawm had more fully explained the reaction of the Church to science and the effect this had on society as a whole.