Posts Tagged ‘Galileo’

Radio 4 Programme on Science in the Dark Ages

November 15, 2017

Radio 4 are also broadcasting a programme next week, which intends to challenge the view that the Dark Ages were a period of intellectual decline with very little interest in science. The new series of Science Stories kicks off next Wednesday, 22nd November 2017, with ‘A Wold, a Goat and a Cabbage’. The blurb for this in the Radio Times on page 135 reads

Philip Ball looks at how the Dark Ages was a far more intellectually vibrant era than is often perceived-and the monk who was the prsumed author of mathematical puzzles.

I’ve written several pieces on this blog about how the Middle Ages in the West were a period of scientific and mathematical invention and discovery, far more so than is generally recognised. Scientists have been rediscovering and re-evaluating scientific progress in the Middle Ages science Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine. The previous view, which most people of my age were brought up with, that the Middle Ages were intellectually backward until the Humanists appeared in the Renaissance, has now been overturned.

James Hannam, a scientist of Christian faith, did a Ph.D. on medieval science about ten years ago, and his book, God’s Philosophers, shows how the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern Western science. These writers, who were largely Christian clergy, were very much aware of the faults of Aristotelian science. While they did not break with it, they did try to modify it so that it conformed more to what actually existed in nature, or offered a more intellectually plausible cause.

And rather than creating modern science, the Renaissance Humanists were actually a threat to its emergence. The Humanists insisted on a far more faithful return to the ideas as well as literary style of the great classical authors. Which meant a far more literal and dogmatic approach to Aristotle. In his Dialogue on the Two World Systems, Galileo spoofed the Humanists by making the character, who represented them, appear as stupid as possible. In one episode, a physician invites the Humanist to come to his house one evening and see him dissect a body. The physician intends to show him that it must be the brain, not the heart, that is the seat of intelligence. Pointing to the dissected corpse, the physician shows the far greater number of nerves passing into the brain, in contrast to the single, thin nerve running to the heart. This, he says, shows that the brain must be the centre of thought and reason. The Humanist replies that he would believe him, if the great Aristotle also agreed.

The Christian medieval authors were also aware of the debt they owed to the Arab and Muslim world for editions of classical works that had previously been lost to the West. One medieval poem describes how scholars headed to Toledo and other areas in Spain to consult the Arab scholars, who were masters of these new intellectual frontiers. One of the French chroniclers of the Crusades, either Joinville or Froissart, described how, during negotiations between King Louis and one of the Arab potentates, one of Louis’ nobles trod on his foot under the table. It was intended as a secret warning. The negotiations involved maths in some way, and the nobleman wanted to warn his liege to beware, as the ‘saracens’ were much better calculators than they were.

As for the reliability of science, the poem I quoted above also remarked of one scientific phenomenon, that its existence couldn’t be doubted as ‘it was proved by SCIENCE’.

Clearly, science and the investigation of the natural world was very much in its infancy in the Middle Ages, and ideas were subject to censorship if they conflicted with Christian dogma. But the Middle Ages were also a period of scientific investigation and were far more rationalistic than is often believed. For example, the theologian William of Auvergne, described the supposed appearance of a great of demons in one of the French monasteries. These devils proceeded down the corridor, until they disappeared into the privies, from which came a horrible stench. William was not surprised. He put visions like this down to poor digestion interfering with proper sleep. After too full a meal, the stomach hung heavy on the nerves, preventing the proper circulation of the humours and nervous fluids, and so creating nightmarish visions like the one above. Other writers seriously doubted the abilities of cunningmen and scryers to find lost or stolen objects. When they did claim that an article had been stolen by a particular person, it was far more likely that the individual was a known thief than that they had been shown it by the spirits.

I’ve been annoyed before now at the way the media has continued to present the Middle Ages as a period of dark superstition, with a few notable exceptions. One of these was Terry Gilliam and his TV series, Medieval Lives, which has appeared as a book, and his radio series, The Anti-Renaissance Show, both of which were broadcast by the Beeb. Now it seems that the Corporation is once more showing the other side of intellectual life in the Middle Ages.


More Anti-Science from Trump: Climate Denier to Head NASA

September 13, 2017

This is absolutely incredible. It really is like something from dystopian Science Fiction, but unfortunately it’s true. In this clip from the Jimmy Dore Show, the American comedian and his co-hosts, Ron Placone and Steffi Zamorano comment on a report from Democracy Now! that Trump has decide to appoint Jim Bridenstine as the new head of NASA. Bridenstine has no scientific credentials, and doesn’t believe in climate change. In fact, in 2013 he stood on the floor of the senate and demanded that Barak Obama apologise for promoting it.

The trio begin the clip by remarking on the evidence from the hurricanes to hit America that climate change is real. Before storm Harvey, only three magnitude 5 storms had hit America. They then show how ludicrous the decision is by stating that as Trump has appointed someone, who doesn’t believe in a scientific fact to head a scientific agency, then Richard Dawkins should be appointed to head the national prayer breakfast. Dore jokes that there hasn’t been a government this anti-science since Galileo. And the Pope has apologized for him. The papacy also acknowledges climate change. Which means the world’s most religious Roman Catholic is more progressive than Trump and his minions.

There’s no way this is anything other than an attempt by the Republicans and their paymasters, the Koch brothers, and the other big polluting industries, to hobble and silence research into climate change in America. One of the functions satellites carry out is weather and climate monitoring. Space research generally has also led to greater understanding of weather systems on Earth. For example, the massive storms that rage across Jupiter are driven by the same laws and forces as those, which generate similar storm systems on Earth. Countries like India have invested in their space industry for the promise it offers of monitoring the weather and the progress of crop diseases, which can be disastrous for a developing nation, much of whose population are subsistence farmers.

Dore’s wrong about the Pope’s treatment of Galileo, however. Yes, it was scandalous, but at the time Galileo’s own research was actually undersupported. And he didn’t help himself in his book, the Dialogue of the Two World Systems. He knew the pope was an Aristotelian, but deliberately made the Aristotelian speaker in the book appear as stupid as possible. Even so, the Church was not uniformly against him. He did have supporters within the church and amongst the cardinals. See James Hannan’s God’s Philosophers: Science in the Middle Ages.

But this is like something from Science Fiction. Stephen Baxter’s Titan is an alternative history, in which a rabidly anti-science senator becomes president of the US and closes down NASA. It’s because he’s a Creationist, and doesn’t believe in the Copernican heliocentric system, or the discoveries revealed by Galileo. What isn’t shut down, is given to the USAF and given over to defence instead, while the agency’s museum is shut, except for its museum. This is then altered to stress the religious experiences many of the astronauts had when exploring space.

This isn’t quite fair on the Creationists. Those I knew did not reject Galileo and they didn’t reject heliocentrism, although I’ve since come across people, who do on the Net. But there are still clear parallels between Baxter’s book and Trump and those who back him.

Yesterday I found an interview with the veteran comics creator, Pat Mills on YouTube. I’m going to have to write a piece about it, because Mills is very left-wing and a fierce critic of capitalism and Britain’s class system. In the video, he states that when he started writing for 2000 AD, he and the others were told to create futures, which people would live in. And now we are. He pointed out that there really were robots, which looked like Robusters, and we also now had Donald Trump, who was very much like something from 2000 AD’s often bleak view of the future.

And he’s right. Trump’s appointment of a scientific ignoramus like Bridenstine is almost exactly like something from Science Fiction. And Mills compared Trump himself to Judge Cal, the deranged Chief Judge of Mega City 1, who behaved like Caligula. He appointed his pet fish as judge, and had one of the other judges pickled. Oh yes, and he called in the alien Kleggs to keep the human population of Mega City 1 under control. Trump hasn’t made contact with an evil alien life forms yet, but the nepotism and corruption is all there. Even if he hasn’t made his goldfish senator. But given the fictional parallel drawn by Mills, Bannon, Kelly-Anne Conway and the others he’s got rid of should be glad he just had them sacked. The real trouble’s going to start when he starts ordering human-sized pickled jars.

The Sky at Night on the Vatican Observatory

June 14, 2017

Tomorrow evening, Thursday, 15th June 2017 at 11 O’clock on BBC4 the Beeb’s repeating its Sky at Night special on the Vatican, ‘Inside God’s Observatory’. This was first shown on Sunday at 10.00 pm.

The blurb for it for Sunday in the Radio Times runs

Maggie Aderin-Peacock and Chris Lintott have been granted rare access to the Vatican and its little known observatory, the Specola Vaticana, perched on a hill top 30 km outside Rome. They explore the observatory’s rich history, going inside the Vatican walls to visit the Tower of the Winds – a secret antique sundial that helped revolutionise the calendar – and the remains of a nest of telescopes, atop an old medieval church where the science of spectroscopy was born. (57).

A few years ago, New Scientist interviewed the head of the observatory, Guy Consolamano, an American, who is a monk as well as an astronomer. There have also been other programmes on the observatory on the Beeb over the years. I seem to recall there being one in the 1990s on the radio. I’ve got a feeling the Observatory was set up by one of the popes as an attempt to undo some of the damage to the church’s reputation caused by Galileo’s trial for heresy. It was to show that the church wasn’t against science, and I believe that since then the popes have been very careful not to say anything about the scientific validity of scientific theories.

The Observatory’s also interesting because in the 19th century, its mathematical calculations were performed by nuns, who were referred to as ‘computers’. Which is obviously of interest for the history of women in science.

The Jesuits: Pioneers of Mathematics as University Subject

May 8, 2013

There were chairs of mathematics at the Italian Universities from the late fourteenth century onwards. There was a chair of arithmetic in Bologna in 1384-5. When Leo X reformed the University of Rome in 1514 he appointed two professors of mathematics. Pisa had a chair of mathematics in 1484. Galileo was appointed a ‘mathesis praeceptor’ at the University of Pisa in 1589 through the influence of Cardinal Francesco del Monte. Galileo’s own influence on the teaching of mathematics in Italian universities was immense. His pupils Benedetto Castelli and Bonaventura Cavalieri respectively held the chairs of mathematics at Pisa, the Sapienza in Rome, and Bologna. Evangelista Torricelli, one of Castelli’s pupils, succeeded Galileo as the court mathematician of the Dukes of Tuscany. Another of Castelli’s pupils, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli became the mathematics lecturer at Messina in 1635. Malpighi, Borelli and Borelli’s pupil Lorenzo Bellini introduced Galileo’s mathematical programme into biology.

It was the Jesuit Order, which made mathematics an explicit and integral part of the educational curriculum. The Order’s Constitutiones of 1556 stated that the Society’s aim was ‘to aid our fellow men to the knowledge and love of God and to the salvation of their souls’. The principal subject at the Jesuit universities was therefore theology, as the subject best suited to this. A wide range of other subjects were also taught in addition to it, including literature and history, classical and oriental languages, and the arts and natural sciences. These were included because they ‘dispose the intellectual powers for theology, and are useful for the perfect understanding and use of it, and also by their own nature help towards the same end’. St. Ignatius de Loyola himself stated that ‘logic, physics, mathematics and moral science should be treated and also mathematicss in the measure suitable to the end proposed’. The person, who was chiefly responsible for establishing Jesuit policy in mathematics and their achievements in the subject was Christopher Clavius. Clavius held the chair of mathematics at the main Jesuit university, the Collegio Romano from 1565 until his death in 1612. Clavius defended the role of mathematics at the University agains the doubts of other colleagues, establishing a school of mathematics at the Collegio. Clavius lamented the low value many pupils placed on maths and philosophy, noting that

‘Pupils up to now seem almost to have despised these sciences for the simple reason that they think that they are not considered of value and are even useless, since the person who teaches them is never summoned to public acts with other professors’. He also considered it a great shame and disgrace, that members of the order, who had little knowledge of maths, became speechless during conversations with leading men, who were much better educated mathematically. He artgued that a proper grasp of maths was necessary for understanding the rest of philosophy. He stated that

‘these sciences and natural philosophy have so close an affinity with one another that unless they give each other mutual aid they can in no way preserve their own worth. For this to happen, it will be necessary first that students of physics should at the same time study mathematical disciplines; a habit which has always been retained in the Society’s schools hitherto. Folr if these sciences were taught at another time, students of philsophy would think, and understandably, that they were in no way necessary to physics, and so very few would want to understand them; though it is agreed among experts that physics cannot rightly be grasped without them, especially as regards that part which concerns the number and motion of the celestical circles, the multitude of intelligences, the effects of the stars which depend on the various conjunctions, oppositions and other distances between them, the division of continuous quantity into infinity, the ebb and flow of the sea, winds, comets, the rainbow, the halo and other meteorlogical things, the proportions of motions, qualities, actions, passions and reactions etc. concerning which ‘calculatores’ wirte much. I do not mention the infinite examples in Aristotle, Plato and their more celebrated commentators, which can by no means be understood without a moderate understanding of the mathematical sciences…’

Clavius’ influence is strongly shown in the Jesuit ‘Ratio Studiorum’ – educational curriculum – of 1586 and 1599. This was strongly Aristotelian, except where Aristotle conflicted with Christian theology, and included the whole range of Aristotelian natural philosophy and mathematics. The section on mathematics in the Constitutiones argued it was included because

‘without mathematics our academies would lack a great ornament, iindeed they would even be mutilated, since there is almost no fairly celebrated academy in which the mathematical disciplines do not have their own, and indeed not the last, place; but much more because the other sciences also very much need their help, because for poets they supply and expound the risings and settings of the heavenly bodies; for historians the shapes and distances of places; for the Analytics examples of solid demonstrations; for politicians admirable arts for good administration at home and in time of war; for physics the forms and differences of heavenly revolutions, light, discords, sounds; for metaphysics the number of spheres and intelligences; for theologians the main parts of the divine creation; for law and ecclesiastical custom the accurate computation of times; not to mention what advantages redound to the state from the work of mathematicians in the care of diseases, in navigations and in the pursuit of agriculture.’

Dawkins and the other militant atheists have sneered at the idea of people of faith as teachers. But the great pioneers in teaching mathematics at university the level were the Jesuits, who taught it as a vital aid to faith, and as a vital and indispensible tool for the other sciences. They were certainly not unaware that improving the standards of maths teaching in the order would also raise their status in contemporary society. Neverthless, they did much to establish maths as a suitable and necessary subject for Christians to study. Some of these early Jesuit mathematicians were also friends of Galileo. They included Clavius’ pupil and successor at the Collegio, Christopher Grienberger. Despite the aim of the Society to promote Roman Catholic Christianity, Jesuit scientists also co-operated and corresponded cordially with Protestant people of science. Recent Jesuit historians have noted that the Jesuits in West Africa collaborated with their Dutch scientific counterparts in their exploration of the region’s wildlife, and contacted Scandinavian scientists in Norway or Sweden for the scientific information they had. Their science was still strongly aristotelian, but they were despite this able to make valuable contributions to science.


‘Mathematics and Platonism in the Sixteenth-Century *Italian Univrsities and in Jesuit Educational Policy’ in A.C. Crombie, Science, Art and Nature in Medieval and Modern Thought (London and Rio Grande, Ohio: The Hambledon Press 1996).

Protestant Appreciation of Catholic Achievements in the Scientific Revolution

May 7, 2013

For many people, the trial of Galileo demonstrates the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s hostility to science, and has become part of the view that somehow religion is intrinsically opposed to scientific investigation and progress. Yet historians of science, from Pierre Duhem, A.C. Crombie and James Hallam have noted how the medieval church had an active interest in science, and that many of the achievements of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century were actually solidly based on those of their medieval predecessors. Some sections of the Church defended Galileo, such as the friar, Thomas Campanella. Historians have also pointed out that the trial was not simply about the science itself. One important factor was Galileo’s highly critical tone towards the Aristotelians, which included the then Pope. Another factor was that at the time the heliocentric system was underdetermined – it lacked the scientific evidence to make an absolutely convincing, watertight case. Roman Catholicism was also not alone in rejecting the new, experimental science. The 16th century Lutheran Church in Germany still remained strongly Aristotelian in its scientific philosophy, and part of it continued to reject the heliocentric theory until the 18th century.

Although many of the Protestants, who did accept and promote the new experimental science, saw Galileo’s trial as evidence that the Roman Catholic Church had been hostile to science, they also recognised that parts of the Church had also embraced it and promoted it. Thomas Sprat, the author of the History of the Royal Society, also acknowledged the Roman Catholic Church current scientific activities and achievements. He wrote

‘The Church of Rome has indeed of late look’d more favourably upon it (experimental knowledge). They will now condemn no man for asserting the Antipodes: The severity with which they handled Galileo, seems now very much abated: they now permit their Jesuits to bestow some labours upon natural observations, for which they have great advantages by their travails; and their clergy may justly claim some share in the honour, as long as the immortal names of Mersennus and Gassendus (Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi) shall live’.

The Jesuit Order was particularly active scientifically. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius de Loyola, the Order’s founder, urged his followers to contemplate God as the Creator of the natural world, whose activity sustained it and caused it to operate. Point 2 of the ‘Contemplation for Obtaining Love’ in the fourth week of the Exercises commands the reader to ‘consider how God dwells in the creatures: in the elements, giving them being; in the plants, giving them growth: in the animals giving them sensation: in men, giving them understanding’. Point 3 further advises the reader to ‘consider how God works and labours on my behalf in all created things … as in the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, flocks’.

The Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages and 16th and 17th century was thus certainly not as hostile to science as those who consider religious faith to be opposed to science believe. Despite the trial of Galileo, some Protestant scientists, such as Sprat, recognised the Church’s positive attitude to science in their time, and readily praised the achievements of Catholic scientists.