Last time, I noted that the 16th and 17th centuries began on the
of chaos. Nearly everything taken for granted in earlier
had changed, was changing, or was about to change. I talked about the
social, political, and religous changes that took place at that time.
Today and in our next class session, I'll talk about changes in
area: science. During this time, people's entire view of natural world
changed. I can't think of another time in himan history when people's
view of the physical world around them changed quite so much.
It's not surprising that these changes sometimes brought conflic,
often depicted as part of a larger conflict between science and
religion. As one
looks closely, however, one sees that this isn't entirely the
sometimes got in the way of scientific discovery, but it often
encouraged the development of the sciences as well. Opposition to
change often came from
the scientific community itself.
SCIENCE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
In understanding these conflicts, it's useful to go back a little
bit (well, more than a little bit) and look at science in the ancient
world. And, yes, there was science in the ancient world, and, no,
educated people in the
world didn't think the world was flat. Eratosthenes (a Greek scientist)
circumference of the earth within 200 miles--over 2,0000 years
And there were many other areas of achievement:
There's Galen, the 2nd century AD physician who did superb work in physiology and medicine--and whose works were studied by physicians for centuries.
There's Ptolemy whose work in astronomy and geography provided the main textts for study in these areas for 1500 years.
And, above all, there's the Greek philosopher Aristotle who left his
mark on every field of human endeavor and who made particularly
important contributions to biology, zoology, and physics--and whose
basic ideas (often) stand up even today (as NSU professor Ken
Blanchard's work shows. See the Encylopedia
of Science Technology and Ethics in the NSU library).
SCIENCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES
But while the ancient world produced some very impressive scientific
discoveries, the medieval period (AD 325-1500) produced almost nothing
new in the sciences. Why? Well in the Early Middle Ages (AD
325-1000), scientific research was difficult. A series of
barbarian invasions had destroyed the Western Roman empire, and the
economy collapsed. There was simply no money to subsidize
research of the publication of books.
Europe recover economically in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 A.D), and learning in many areas took off. We get great universities at Oxford, Cambridge, Bolgna, Sienna, etc., and, with the rise of the universities, one got an explosion of knowlege that still hasn't stopped. But while knowlege increased in many fields, there wasn't much going on in the sciences. Why? In large part, there was no advance in science because those who studied science thought they already had all the answers. Great thinkers had come up with what, for lack of a better name, I call the great Medieval synthesis of knowledge. This synthesis combined all the great ideas of the ancient world and dominated medieval thinking. This great system seemed to explain everything from movement, to disease, to theology, and it gave people the false impression that they basically understood everything there was to be understood. This created a blind spot for new discoveries and ideas, and left no incentive for looking for new explanations.
CHALLENGES TO THE MEDIEVAL SYNTHESIS
Columbus, whose voyage brough about so many other changes,
also indirectly helped break this synthesis
apart. He discovered
new continents. The ancients knew nothing about the Americas!
He also discovered new plants and animals. This showed Europeans that there was other stuff to be learned beyond what was had been known in ancient world.
[Columbus, by the way, was inspired by religion. He felt called by God to be "Christopher" (i.e., Christ-bearer), and it was his faith that kept him going when others would have give up. Scientists (ironically) hindered him. Scientists told potential sponsors that the proposed journey wasn’t possible--and given the technology of the time, they were right! Columbus underestimated circumference of the earth, and, had he not found two unexpected continents where he *thought* Asia was, he would have had to turn back with nothing! See these rather interesting selections from Columbus' diary.]
Once Europeans started looking, they began to discover many things unknown to the ancients. By the 17th century, scientific knowledge was growing rapidly. Robert Hooke discovered Hooke's Law, a law describing the behavior of springs, while Boyle and Charles discovered laws about the behavior of gasses, and Leeuwenhoek invents the microscope and thereby is able to discover a whole new world--the world of microbes!
Such discoveries could be accepted and spread without much
trouble. Far more controversial: William Harvey's discovery
circulation of blood. Harvey, court physician to James I and
Charles I of England, was viciously attacked by those who based their
work onthe old ideas of Galen. And no wonder! Many
physicans believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of fluids in
the human body including two types of blood. Common practice was
to bleed patients to try to restore health--and more than a century
later, they were still bleeding patients. George Washington was
bled to death by his physicians! Those who opposed Harvey were
reluctant to admit that they way they had been treating patients was
wrong, and they probably didn’t want to lose
patients to those who adopted the new ideas of Harvey. But the
old physicans also opposed Harvey because they (rightly) tended to
regard new medical
treatments as dangerous. There's a good reason to be a bit
when it comes to medicine! We remember the times when the
conservative old physicans got things wrong (as they did with Harvey)
but we ought to remember also that, often enough, they were protecting
their patients from dangerous quacks.
[Here's an account of the Death of George Washington.]
CHANGES IN ASTRONOMY
The most famous of the scientific conflicts in the 16th and 17th
century came about over changes in astronomy and physics--two fields
which had been basicly static for 1000 years but, all of a sudden
Before the 16th century, almost all Europeans accepted ideas of
who said earth stood fixed at the center of the universe and that
everything else orbited the earth. This was certainly not a
stupid idea! Hundreds of years of "scientific" observation
(including our own observations) would seem to suggest that this is
In the early 16th century, though, a Polish astronomer, Nicholas
Copernicus revived the old idea of the Greek philosopher Aristarchus of
Samos, arguing that the sun was center of a solar system. This is
called the Copernican or heliocentric
theory. This ideas wasn't at first a problem for the religious
community at all.
Copernicus had a Catholic education, taught in a Catholic school, and
dedicated his book to the pope, thinking that the Pope would find his
valuable or at least interesting. Copernicus' own
what led to his theory in the first place. The heavens, he
were the realm of God’s perfection. They must be built on the
shape (the sphere) and on perfect motion (regular spherical
Ptolemy's ideas also involved "perfect" heavenly spheres, but the
of the planets made his theory somewhat complicated. Retrograd
motion and the odd way the planets appeared to move through the various
constellations were very hard to expalin! Copernicus came up with
the heliocentric idea because it seemed to simplify things.
Copernicus' ideas weren't immediately accepted. Other scientists
found the ideas intriguing,
not convining. There wasn't enough observational evidence to back
him up. Quite the reverse: Ptolemy's ideas were better supported
by the existing evidence than the Copernican theory.
But there was soon to be new evidence. The Danish astrromer Tycho Brache (1546-1601) provided considerable additional data. Like Copernicus, Brache got his scientific training at a church-sponsored insitution--in this case, a Lutheran university. He put together a team of observers who made more accurate observations of the planets and their paths in the heavens than had ever been made before. But there was a problem. The new observations didn't match either the Copernican or Ptolemaic view. Brache cam up with a new theory of his own: the sun goes around the earth, but all other planets around the sun. A complicated theory, but what do you expect from a guy who fights a duel to prove that he's a great mathematician and who has a nose made out of gold, silver, and copper?
The man who finally read the riddle right: the German astornomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Kepler took Brache’s data, studied it intently and, in the end, discovered three laws of planetary motion. Particularly important, Kepler concluded that the planets travelled in *eliptical* orbits around sun with the sun at one focus of an elipse. Note why answer was so hard to come up with! The dominant paradigm--accepted by those who followed Copernicus as well as Ptolemy-- said things in the heavens traveled in spherical orbits. Tycho Brache also stuck with that idea. How did Kepler break paradigm? He claimed it was divine intervention--that he could never have succeeded by his own efforts. He said he constantly prayed to God "that he might succeed if what Copernicus had said was true."
In Kepler's case, then, religion was a great help to his scientific
discoveries, not a problem at all. So why, then. do we constantly
here about a 17th century conflict between science and religion?
Well, that's almost entirely because of what happened to the next great
figure in this controversy, Galileo.
The Italian scientist Galileo (1564-1642) did
important work in physics, finally breaking away from Aristotle's
theories. He did work with falling bodies, and with mechanics,
other things) the working of the pendulum. His work
Newton's great discoveries later in the century. Galileo was also
the first to use telescope for astronomy,
and the first to see all sorts of stuff including the moons of
His book, the Starry Messenger was well received and encouraged by the
church. Galileo received a private audience with the Pope!
But his observations made him think perhaps Copernicus had been on the
Galileo collected evidence on both sides, and presented it
in a new book, his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. The book
gives the edge
to Copernicus over Ptolemy--and makes those who Galileo called the
"academic philosophers" and
angry! When they couldn’t prove him wrong with scientic evidence,
they accused him of HERESY. Because of church problems with
Luther, Calvin, and the Anglicans, the Catholic church at this time was
expecially sensitive to
for division. The Jesuits, in particular, were zealous in their
of traditional belief--and with good reason! Look at the
wars of the 16th and 17th centuries! It did seem that religious
was something to be worried about. Galileo was tried for heresy,
and given the choice of condemnation or recanting his teachings.
He recanted. And went on to other things. Scientific truth wasn't
enough to die for--and Galileo knew that, sooner or later, scientific
truth was bound to triumph anyway--as it did by the end of the 17th
The key figure in eventually resolving the conflicts over astronomy
and phyics was Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newton was an
English mathmatician and scientist, the inventor of both calculus
and what we now call classical physics. Newton's ideas broke away
from the old ideas of Aristotle, and came up with a radically different
picture of the way things worked in this material world. The law
of universal gravitation, the laws of motion, most of what you studied
in your high school physics class all came from Newton. Alexander Pope
said, "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night; God said, Let Newton
be! and All was Light."
Newton proved Kepler correct, showing not
only that the planets move in eliptical orbit around the sun, but
exactly why they did so. Newton, like Kepler, inspired by
His strong belief in a law-giving God was made him seek God's laws for
the material universe. His "Optics" sometimes reads like a
text, and Newton spent his last days in intense study of the books of
and Revelation. There was a Newton's theology a potential
to earlier notions, and some of Newton's ideas could be construed as
heretical, but there's certainly no overt conflict with the
No. The opposition to Newton came from within the scientific
in particular, from Robert Hooke. Hooke, probably the 2nd
scientist in England at the time, was intensely jealous. He kept
claiming that he had discovered Newton's ideas before Newton and put
Newton in various ways. Newton, who was shy and dreaded conflict, left
much of his work unpublished for fear of Hooke's challenges. Only
the encouragement of his friend Edmund Halley got Newton to publish his
Principia--the most important scientific work ever written.
Newton didn't publish his "Optics" until after Hooke's death so that
Hooke wouldn't have a chance to criticize it.
And perhaps Newton was vindictive. When Newton became
president of the Royal Society, the only portrait of Hooke disappeared
as did a collection of Hooke's papers.
[See this account of the
unfortunate consequences of the Newton/Hooke conflict.]
At the heart of the dispute between the two men, arguments over the
nature of light. Newton thought of light as a particle.
Hooke as a wave. Which one was right? Well, as it turns out they
were both right: and both wrong. No wonder they had trouble with one
another. Like the blind men of Hindustan, they had hold of a part
of the elephant:
The Blind Men and the Elephant
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a snake!
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain, quoth he;
'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!?
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a rope!
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!