(Partly edited and reorganized--9/03/13)


Last time, I noted that the 16th and 17th centuries began on the brink of chaos.  Nearly everything taken for granted in earlier centuries had changed, was changing, or was about to change. I talked about the many economic, social, political, and religous changes that took place at that time. Today and in our next class session, I'll talk about changes in another 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, conflicts 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 case.  Religion 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 within the scientific community itself.


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 ancient world didn't think the world was flat. Eratosthenes (a Greek scientist) guessed circumference of the earth within 200 miles--over 2,0000 years ago!  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).


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.


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 of  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 conservative 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.]


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 change dramatically

Before the 16th century, almost all Europeans accepted ideas of Ptolemy 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 exactly the case!!! 

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 even dedicated his book to the pope, thinking that the Pope would find his ideas valuable or at least interesting.  Copernicus' own religious/philosophical ideas were what led to his theory in the first place.  The heavens, he believed, were the realm of God’s perfection.  They must be built on the perfect shape (the sphere) and on perfect motion (regular spherical motion).  Ptolemy's ideas also involved "perfect" heavenly spheres, but the motion 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, but 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 very important work in physics, finally breaking away from Aristotle's theories. He did work with falling bodies, and with mechanics, investigating (among other things) the working of  the pendulum.  His work  paved way for 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 Jupiter.  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 right track. 

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 professors 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 potential for division.  The Jesuits, in particular, were zealous in their defense of traditional belief--and with good reason!  Look at the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries!  It did seem that religious division 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  important 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 century.

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 rightly 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 explaining exactly why they did so.  Newton, like Kepler, inspired by religion.  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 theology text, and Newton spent his last days in intense study of the books of Daniel and Revelation.  There was a Newton's theology a potential challenge to earlier notions, and some of Newton's ideas could be construed as potentially heretical, but there's certainly no overt conflict with the church.  No.  The opposition to Newton came from within the scientific community--and in particular, from Robert Hooke.  Hooke, probably the 2nd greatest scientist in England at the time, was intensely jealous.  He kept claiming that he had discovered Newton's ideas before Newton and put down 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!