Posts Tagged ‘Philip Ball’

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.


Radio Programme Tonight on Bishop Grosseteste’s Medieval Big Bang Theory

June 14, 2017

Science Stories on Radio 4 tonight, `14th June 2017, at 9.00 pm is on ‘The Medieval Bishop’s Big Bang Theory’. According to the short description about it in the Radio Times, the programme’s presenter, ‘Philip Ball tells the tale of a medieval Big Bang Theory forged by Bishop Robert Grosseteste in the 12th century’.

Grosseteste was the 12th century bishop of Lincoln, and was one of the leading figures of the 12th century renaissance. As well as leading English churchman, Grosseteste was a pioneering natural philosopher. In his Hexaemeron, a theological and philosophical meditation on the first six days of creation, according to the story in Genesis, he worked out a theory that is surprisingly close to that of the modern ‘Big Bang’. In Genesis, the creation of the world begins when God separates the light from the darkness. Grosseteste believed that God had created the world beginning with a tiny point of light, which exploded outwards. Its expansion created ‘extension’, or space, and the material from which God subsequently created the material universe over the next five days.

A.C. Crombie, in his Science in the Middle Ages, Vol. 1: Augustine to Galileo (London: Mercury Books 1952) writes

The first important medieval writer to take up the study of optics was Grosseteste, and he set the direction for future developments. Grossetest gave particular importance to the study of optics because of his belief that light was the first ‘corporeal form’ of material things and was not only responsible for their dimensions in space but also was the first principle of motion and efficient causation. According to Grosseteste, all changes in the universe could be attributed ultimately to the activity of this fundamental corporeal form, and the action at a distance of one thing on another was brought about by the propagation of rays of force or, as he called it, the ‘multiplication of species’ or ‘virtue’. By this he meant the transmission of any form of efficient causality through a medium, the influence emanating from the source of the causality corresponding to a quality of the source, as, for instance, light emanated from a luminous body as a ‘species’ which multiplied itself from point to point through the medium in a movement that went in straight lines. All forms of efficient causality, as for instance, heat, astrological influence and mechanical action, Grosseteste held to be due to this propagation of ‘species’, though the most convenient form in which to study it5 was through visible light. (99-100).

This makes it sound very close to the modern theory that all the forces – gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces – were united at the Big Bang, and subsequently separated out from this primal Superforce.

Grosseteste was also one of the medieval writers, who first posited the Moon as the causes of the tides. The association between the Moon and the tides had first been made by the Stoic philosopher, Posidonius, who was born c. 135 BC. Crombie writes

Grossetest in the next century [following Giraldus Cambrensus in the 12th] attributed the tides to attraction by the moon’s ‘virtue’, which went in straight lines with its light. He said that the ebb and flow of the tides was caused by the moon drawing up from the sea floor mist, which pushed up the water when the moon was rising and was not yet strong enough to pull the mist through the water. When the moon had reached its highest point the mist was pulled through and the tide fell. The second, smaller monthly tide he attributed to lunar rays reflected from the crystalline sphere back to the opposite side of the earth, these being weaker than the direct rays. (126-7). It’s not quite right. The tides are simply caused by the Moon’s gravity acting on the oceans as a whole. Mist isn’t involved. Nevertheless, he was right in pointing to the Moon as the cause of the tides.

Which is more than can be said of Bill O’Reilly. Until recently, O’Reilly was the lead anchor on Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing news network over in America. The host of the ‘O’Reilly Factor’, he specialised in right-wing harangues which occasionally ended with him insulting and screaming at his guests if they dared to disagree with him. He did this to the son of one of the firefighters, who lost his life in 9/11. The lad committed the unpardonable offence of saying that his father would not have blamed all Muslims for the attack, and would not have wanted America to go to war over it. This was too much for the veteran newsman, who screamed at the lad that he was a disgrace to his father, and then had him thrown off the show.

He also showed himself massively ignorant scientifically in an interview with the head of American Atheists, the atheist movement, which I think was set up and headed for years by Madalain Murray O’Hair. Trying to refute whatever point the man was making, O’Reilly seized on the notion of the tides as something that was scientifically inexplicable. There are clips on Kyle Kulinski’s Secular Talk and other left-wing news programmes of O’Reilly repeating, ‘Tides go in, tides go out, you can’t explain it’. All the while the lad looks at O’Reilly with a bemused expression on his face, and simply comments, ‘Perhaps its the mighty Thor’. O’Reilly, however, didn’t get the hint that he was being justifiably mocked, and so simply carried on with his daft refrain.

O’Reilly’s comments and use of the tides shows that O’Reilly knew precious little science, and that Grosseteste had a better idea of what caused it 900 or so years ago, in an age when books had to be copied out by hand and western science was beginning the recovery of ancient Greek and Latin scientific and mathematical texts and learning from the great natural scientists and mathematicians of the Muslim world.

Given O’Reilly’s massive ignorance on something I can remember being discussed in some of the text books we had at school, it’s no wonder that American scientists, educationalists and the general public are seriously worried by Trump’s attack on science education in America, and particular in his attempts to cover up climate change.

As for O’Reilly, he was sacked from Fox News a few months ago after his sordid and vile attitude towards women finally caught up with him. Like the head of the network, Roger Ailes, O’Reilly used his position to try to exploit women sexually. In the early part of this century he was forced to settle a case brought against him by a female colleague to whom O’Reilly had made an uninvited and very unwelcome sexually explicit phone call. This was followed by a series of allegations by other female journalists at Fox News of sexual harassment. This got to the point where the advertisers on the network got fed up, and started taking their custom elsewhere, at which point the veteran reporter lost his job.

Bishop Grosseteste, however, remains one of great figures in the history of western science. While many scientists would not share his religious beliefs, and would question the grounding of his scientific views in them, he is nevertheless important as one of the leading medieval scientists, who contributed to the foundation of modern science through his study of optics, mathematics and the natural world.