Thursday, 27 October 2011

And Yet it Moves! Part IV

Galileo before the Inquisition
This blog post is the fourth and final post in a series about the Galileo Affair. Click here for the first post, here for the second post and here for the third.

The whole affair has an air of tragedy about it, with the protagonists cursed by their own abilities and destroyed by their own inherent faults. The Church was initially agreeable to helio-centrism (which is true, just in case people were wondering) but the thought of being questioned on theology terrified them and to be faced with an arrogant layman who told them what to believe caused the clerics to strike back to protect the status quo. Galileo was a victim of his own ego. He repeatedly alienated potential allies because they showed signs of ability and he refused to admit the possibility that he was wrong to champion Copernicus’ theory.

Johannes Kepler
            What turns the tragedy into farce is that, while both sides were wrong, the answer had already been discovered if either side in the trial had bothered to read it. Johannes Kepler, whom we came across earlier, had been obsessing about perfect shapes affecting the planets which had by a convoluted process, allowed him to discover the laws of planetary motion. The flaw in Copernicus’ theory was that Copernicus, like the medieval philosophers, had simply assumed that all planetary motions were circular. By introducing elliptical orbits Kepler had saved the day and completed the revolution (if you’ll pardon the pun) that Copernicus had started. Kepler had helped Galileo with his work but when he sent a copy of his own book to Galileo, hoping for an endorsement from the great astronomer, Galileo ignored it. Kepler died in 1630 but his theories were already receiving tentative confirmation by 1631.The great showdown between Galileo and the Inquisition was not until 1633 and news travelled fast between scientists.

The church astronomers and Galileo should have been aware of Kepler’s ideas and discoveries (Galileo had actually had the book sent to him by the author). Another damning mark against Galileo is that Kepler had also published a theory of the tides, which Galileo viewed as being pivotal to helio-centrism. Kepler had an alternative idea, albeit a crazy one, that the tides were caused by the Moon’s movement acting at a distance. Galileo laughed at it as a “useless fiction.” Kepler was right. Galileo was wrong.

            The Galileo Affair was a clash of science against religion. It was also a clash of bad science against well, bad science. But it was mainly a clash of egos. Galileo was a great man. His work on falling bodies paved the way for Newton and was his greatest achievement but he was active in making discoveries in many branches of science. But, by refusing to admit that he could be wrong he drew the anger of the authorities on himself. The Catholic Church behaved poorly as well, and its dogged insistence on treating anything associated with opposition as heresy hurled it from being at the cutting edge of science to being (from a scientific perspective) hundreds of years behind the rest of Europe.

            And who was the real hero of the affair? Galileo was not the infallible man of science. There’s no real evidence that he ever muttered “Eppur si muove!” (And Yet It Moves!) and his conduct betrayed all too human failings. He was a genius and we can forgive genius a lot. But for a truly extraordinary man of science, one whom we should take as a role model, I believe that Kepler is the real hero of the tale.

The Old Geocentric Model: What we have left behind

Postscript: It should be noted that some people have told this tale with slight variations, some favouring Galileo more, others favouring the Church. I am roughly retelling, in a far inferior form, the historical narrative laid out by Arthur Koestler in his excellent book Sleepwalkers. If you want to read more about the events, times and people involved in the birth of the scientific revolution I would highly recommend it.

Monday, 24 October 2011

An Odd Archaeological Site

Every so often I come across something that doesn’t make any sense to me. This is good. It’s not a great thing to never have one’s ideas challenged. Recently a friend sent me on a link to this video. There are a number of little things wrong with the video but ignore the vast majority of what the speakers say and look at the footage.

It seems to show a very large megalithic site with sophisticated carving techniques that has been dated to thousands of years before civilisation, as we know it, began. I have yet to make up my mind as to what I think of it. Quite frankly, if the site is what people are claiming it is then a lot of our assumptions may need to be rethought but as a challenging archaeological site it is extraordinary. Keep an eye out for further work on this subject in the media.

P.S. Enjoy the video but please don’t take everything in it too seriously. I shouldn’t generalise but I am always sceptical of anyone who writes a book about Atlantis and then talks about archaeology. (Also note that Genesis does not state that the Ark landed on Mt Ararat and Biblical scholars are aware of the fact, even if this guy isn’t. Rant over.) Enjoy.

Friday, 21 October 2011

And Yet it Moves! Part III

This is a continuation from previous posts about Galileo and the rise of the heliocentric theory. Click here for the first post and here for the second.

Page from Galileo's Book "The Starry Messenger"
            Galileo continued to make discoveries about the planets but his writings about heliocentricity were beginning to attract unwanted attention. There are certain verses in the Bible that speak of the Earth remaining still. Galileo, anxious that the Church should endorse his ideas, began to interpret these as speaking in a strictly poetic sense (the verses are taken from books of what are essentially, poems) effectively saying that these verses were merely figures of speech, rather like the way that we continue to speak of sunrises, despite knowing that the sun does not actually rise. St Augustine, the great 5th century theologian of the West had made similar claims about these books so it was a valid interpretation. If Galileo had made these claims in the Middle Ages he would have gotten away with it. But when Galileo wrote, the Counter-Reformation was gaining strength. The Counter-Reformation was the response of the Church to Protestantism and the one thing that they were determined to prevent was individual scriptural interpretation. Even if this had not been ongoing, Galileo was not a theologian and he was told to stick to what he did best and not write about theology when he was unschooled in it.

Cardinal Bellarmine
            At this stage Galileo had had an earlier run in with the Inquisition in 1616 but was released after questioning with no ill effects or stain upon his character. The question then had been about the Copernicus himself, who was now long dead. Copernican theory was deemed technically heretical but it was done in such a way that neither the works of Copernicus or Galileo were banned. This was a warning but by 1630 Galileo was on terms of reasonable friendship with the new Pope. The Pope was interested in the heliocentric theory but, with the Church under attack by the Protestants, he was concerned that the Church should only commit to the theory when it was a certainty. The Pope urged Galileo to write a book dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of the different theories and the Pope even put forward some ideas of his own that he thought could contribute to the discussion. Galileo wrote the book.

Pope Urban VIII
            The book was a great success in terms of publishing but was not well received by the authorities. Galileo had ignored the Tychonic system and completely favoured the Copernican system over the Ptolemaic one. He had also put the ideas of the Pope into the mouth of a character (the book is a fictional conversation between three characters) called Simplicio, who as the name suggests, is consistently portrayed as an idiot. The Pope was furious and turned against Galileo. Now Galileo had to prove his case once and for all and he had to do it before the Inquisition.

            What about the astronomers of Europe? Intellectuals were given quite a bit of free rein in this age of intolerance. If there was a concerted plea from the learned, possibly Galileo would be spared. But Galileo’s skill at making friends had worked here as well. He would make demands for data from other scientists who by and large would share. But Galileo not only did not share his research, but also would often not even answer his letters. He would also occasionally write nasty papers about other people’s work. This was not uncommon unfortunately but it didn’t help him make friends. Worst of all he had made a declaration to the effect that only he could discover things using a telescope. So when any astronomer made a discovery Galileo would publish a subsequent paper saying that he had seen it first. This was downright intellectual theft and so when Galileo needed friends he found he had none.

Sketches of Imperfections on the Moon
            In 1633 Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition and he had to prove his case, firstly that he was in no way involved in independent theological reasoning and secondly that there was good proof for the Copernican theory. Galileo had what he believed to be a perfect proof; that the tides were caused by the motion of the earth as it orbited the sun.
Galileo Galilei
Thus armed Galileo faced his accusers. What destroyed Galileo was the fact that some of his adversaries were scientists as well. As you may have guessed, Galileo’s theory of the tides was completely incorrect and his accusers were able to point to glaring inconsistencies. The worst by far was that Galileo’s theory predicted the wrong number of tides. With no explanation for the planetary orbits and his theory of tides and motion in tatters, Galileo (who was now an old man) was hemmed in by the power of the Church, abandoned by his friends and scientists and lacking the crucial theories and proofs that would have cleared his name. Facing uncertain consequences he signed a document abandoning Copernicanism and helio-centrism. Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest, in relative comfort it is true, but he was nevertheless confined. His works were banned and helio-centrism was confirmed as heretical. The Catholic Church wavered no longer and judged helio-centrism to be contrary to Scripture and as a consequence was left behind by further progress of science. Galileo died in disgrace some years after.

Click here for the fourth and final post in the series. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Some Guidelines for studying History

Herodotus: Invented History
For those of you who are interested in history but have never studied it, the subject might appear a little daunting. But it’s easy to get into and you won’t go too far wrong with your ideas if you follow a few simple rules. These rules are completely authoritative. I should know because I just made them up.

Rule One: Things are never simple.

Firstly, just remember that history is fairly complicated. This is a good thing because it means that there is always more to learn and you will never get bored. As a general rule, when someone tells you a neat historical fact such as “Hitler caused WWII” just remember that, with a little digging, you will find out more. Sometimes you will find that the neat fact is simply wrong but more usually you find that the fact is only partially correct and with a little effort you can give flesh out a fuller picture of what happened. Think of the complexity of the world we live in and how every event has different causes and then consider that times past were no different. Treat history with the respect it deserves and if there is material available for study don’t settle for the first answer given.

Rule Two: Know Your Biases

Thucydides: A Better Historian than Herodotus
When it comes to history, as with everything else, you are biased! Don’t worry too much about it, everyone is! But you can save yourself a lot of heartache if you sit down and go through your ideas. What do you believe about religious matters? What are your political opinions? What country do you come from? Then when you look at a topic from history, take a bit of time and see if your beliefs have any relevance to the debate? There is a danger that your beliefs may cause you to view the subject in a non-neutral way. Think of a judge asked to judge a case. If it turns out that the judge is related to the accused the judge will be asked to let someone else judge for fear that they may not be neutral. For topics that are near and dear to you, there is the possibility that you may not be neutral in judging them so treat them with caution. Don’t avoid them necessarily, just, know your biases and tread carefully.

Rule Three: Think of it as a Story

History is the simplest of all subjects to learn. I’m biased because I like history but hey. I find it the simplest to learn because you can treat it like a story. If you just learn a string of dates “Battle of Hastings happened 1066 AD” etc. then you will find it hard to remember. But think of your friends and family and try and piece together what they have been up to over the last few years. Now you could try and learn a list of dates, marking off what a particular person did on a particular day. If you can do that and remember it I salute you! But if you can’t you might be better to try and think of one person and think in terms of stories. Stories are a great way to remember the tale. Even if you forget the dates you will remember the overall sequence of events and that’s half the battle. As a general rule, computers are very good with tables and lists of numbers. Humans generally are not, but we are quite decent with stories.

Rule Four: Learn a few dates

Sima Qian: First Chinese Historian
Ok, Rule Three was a little tough on dates. I have nothing against dates, I merely think that to try and learn huge lists of them is a bad idea. But to make your stories work you need to have a few dates. Right, imagine that you have a fair idea of some of the main stories of the French Revolution. To make it fit together and to give the story a place in the timeline it would help to know that it started in 1789. You don’t need to know every date, but if you don’t learn at least one you’ll make errors when you try and fit the story into other stories. Plus, if you get the dates really, really wrong, then you run the risk of making yourself look silly if you tell the story at a party or reference it in a college essay or something. So, moral of the story, learn just enough dates to hang the framework of the story on.

Rule Five: Know Your Sources

Edward Gibbon: Famous Historian
This is a little more in-depth so I’ll explain it with an analogy. Imagine five or six of your friends go on holidays without you (the wasters) and they have an interesting time. Imagine that you talk to them about it afterwards. If you talk to one of them you’ll probably get a good idea of what happened, but to really get the gist of what went on, wouldn’t it be best to talk to all of them? Everyone will have their own perspective so to get the best picture you need to understand as many perspectives as you can. Just numbers aren’t enough. Supposing you hear a story from five of your friends about some event but it turns out that none of them saw it; that in fact they all heard it second-hand from another person. This doesn’t count as five “sources”. It is five second-hand retellings of a single source. Another thing to watch for is time. The best time to hear your friends talk about the holiday is shortly after they have returned. If you wait a couple of years, memories may have faded. One last thing to watch for is bias. If one of your friends is as ginger as myself they may have disliked the holiday to the Canaries because they got horribly sunburnt. They may have had a horrible time and tell you that the holiday was a disaster. They are telling the truth from their own perspective but their experience may not have been shared by the others.

            Ok, so the “holiday” is a historical event. Your sources of information are books, carvings, newspaper articles etc. To get the best picture of the event you need to find as many sources as possibly, make sure that they aren’t simply copying each other and give priority to those sources that are fairly close in time to the event that they are describing while keeping an eye out for the biases of those who wrote it.

Rule Six: Know a little theory

Lastly, there are theories of history that historians have come up with over the years. These are not explanations of particular events but grand frameworks of ideas that they use to try and understand all of history. Some are better than others but if you read one of their works and don’t realise that there is a grand overall theme (that they may try and force the data to fit) you may be misled by them. You don’t always see it but it happens often enough that it’s worth spending an hour or so reading up on it just so you won’t be caught out next time you watch the History Channel. There is a brief list of theories here.

That’s it! You’re now fully qualified to tinker about and read some history. If you have anything you feel I’ve missed or said wrong please leave a comment below.

And Yet It Moves! Part II

This is the second post dealing with Galileo and the shift from geo-centrism to helio-centrism. Click here for the first post.
Copernicus had completed most of his calculations and his work was nearly ready to be published. But Copernicus delayed. One might assume, looking backwards at history with our modern notions, that he was concerned about religious persecution by the Catholic authorities but in actual fact, the papacy were very interested in the document and the cardinals wrote to Copernicus urging him to publish. The main religious opposition came from the Protestant side, with both Luther and Melanchthon (Luther’s most notable pupil and a crucial figure in the history of Lutheranism) writing against helio-centrism. But Copernicus was well beyond the reach of any Protestant authorities. So why did he not publish?

            As usual, we can’t really be sure, but it would seem that Copernicus was unhappy with his own ideas. He didn’t have any decent proofs of his own work that would stand up to scientific scrutiny, and as he was not using any advanced scientific equipment, even by the standards of the day, he was unlikely to find any. If he published a work without proof he would have to defend it to the world and he may not have felt equal to the task. His pupil, Rheticus, took it upon himself to publish the book while Copernicus was on his deathbed and the great secret that everyone already knew, was out.

The Copernican Model
            Copernicus’ work provoked a great deal of debate in Europe, but did not produce a scientific revolution per se. Astronomers, scientists and theologians all agreed that it was an interesting concept but many disliked the idea and most withheld judgement about it. This was not because the intelligentsia of the time were necessarily bound to tradition but because Copernicus’ theory was just, well, a theory. It was a theory without proof, a model of how the heavens moved. The problem was that, while it simplified some of the equations and provided a decent model for celestial movements, it suffered from many of the same defects as the Ptolemaic model.

            Copernicus had represented the Sun as being in the centre of the Universe around which the planets moved in perfectly circular orbits. From this one could work out the positions in which the planets should appear in the night sky. After all, this was in an age when space exploration was undreamt of and the night sky was all that the astronomers had to go on. And the helio-centric theory was wrong. Interestingly, the word planet derives from the Greek word for “wanderer” due to their unusual tracks in the sky. The planetary positions did not fit at all and Copernicus had to introduce epicycles to try and make it work. But even with these, the orbit of Mars meandered aimlessly and until a theory could be found to reconcile these anomalies, the thinkers of Europe withheld judgement. Copernicus was now passed away and now the challenge had been laid down to either refine and prove the ideas of Ptolemy or Copernicus or come up with a third theory.

Tycho Brahe

            A Danish scientist called Tycho Brahe took up the challenge. He came up with a theory where the Earth was at the centre of the Universe and the Sun revolved around the Earth but where the planets revolved around the Sun, rather than the Earth in the Ptolemaic sense. This theory had problems as well but Tycho Brahe made an effort to solve them by setting up a small island full of machines and observation towers to map the sky with unparalleled clarity and prove his theory. There is a modern tendency to ignore Tycho Brahe’s work (we now know that he was incorrect) but it should be remembered that Tycho’s measurements were probably the finest measurements ever carried out without the aid of telescopes and large volumes of data were collected with the help of his
Tycho Brahe's Island
assistant, Johannes Kepler. But still the theory didn’t quite work. Tycho Brahe died hoping that his assistant would continue to work on perfecting the Tychonic theory but it was not to be. Kepler became obsessed with the mystical notion of perfect shapes (circles, triangles, etc.) that, if their radii and lengths of sides held a certain proportion, could give the right figures for the orbits of the planets in a Copernican system. This sounds like a pretty silly notion to us, and it is actually nonsense, but it was to have important consequences. 

Kepler's Initial Vision of the Universe
            The political situation of the time was changing. The rapid spread of Lutheranism had pretty much stopped and the second wave of Protestantism (Calvinism) had begun. The Catholic Church had reasserted doctrinal points in the Council of Trent and had begun to combat the spread of Protestantism effectively. The Inquisition in Italy and Spain and the newly founded order of the Jesuits were crucial in this retrenchment of Catholicism. The old haphazard tolerance of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance disappeared as the champions of Reformation and Counter-Reformation kept watch for any deviation from the doctrines of their particular church.

            There are certain passages in the Bible that seem to suggest that the Earth remains in place. When Copernicus’ work was first published no one in the Catholic Church objected to it, but after a few years minor clerics began to question whether Copernicus could be reconciled with Scripture. The Protestants, who had no central authority anyway, became more amenable to the doctrine but it wasn’t considered important enough to really merit discussion from the pulpit. The Catholic Church made no official decision regarding Copernicus and whether his text was heretical but the Inquisition was examining any belief that deviated from the norm and it was possible that helio-centrism might be a cover for heresy. This uneasy situation, where helio-centrism was tolerated but could attract suspicion, lasted for a number of years. 

Galileo Galilei
Meanwhile, an Italian scientist by the name of Galileo Galilei (finally, we get to Galileo) heard of a Dutch invention, which we now refer to as the telescope. Galileo is often credited with the invention of the telescope but in fact he merely refined it. However, he was probably the first person to use it to look at the sky. Galileo discovered the larger moons of Jupiter fairly quickly and became enamoured of the heliocentric theory. If the planets had moons then possibly the earth, which had a moon, was also a planet. At the time philosophers believed (from Aristotle) that the celestial bodies were perfect and almost of a different order of being from earthly objects. Galileo discovered the imperfections on the Moon’s surface and speculated that the heavenly objects were in fact of the same order as the earthly ones.

            These were important discoveries but still very far from proofs. Galileo had become a strident advocate of Copernican theory. Unfortunately this confidence in his ideas was to bring the Church authorities against Galileo and trigger possibly the most famous confrontation of science and faith in history. 

The third post on the subject can be found here.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Original Sources

 Both writer and readers are probably a little sick of writing/reading blog posts that are extremely long. So this is a short post: Like, really short. When studying history it is vital to look at the source material. You can learn an awful lot by watching documentaries, reading encyclopaedias or summaries (or blogs) but nothing beats reading the source material in its full form.
            So I’m posting a link to one of my favourite sites, which you can view by clicking here. It is one of the nicest collections of translations of rare primary documents that I have ever come across and it has material from remotest antiquity to modern documents. There are entire genres of literature that I didn’t even know existed until I spent time on this site. Some content is more useful than others and there are a few dead links as it is an old site but no matter what your area of historical interest it should have something for you. If you were to spend your time reading original historical writings and never looked at my blog again I would be delighted (although maybe you can do both?) so off you go now to check it out! Go on now! Shoo! Hope you enjoy it and maybe see you back here some stage in the future!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

And Yet It Moves! Part I

Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei was a great man, a brilliant thinker and a pioneer of astronomy, physics and science in general. He was described by Stephen Hawking as “… responsible for the birth of modern science,” and by Einstein as the “father of modern science.” He has also become an icon for the struggle of science against faith. The tale of his conflict with the Church; of how he was indicted by the Church for the heresy of claiming the earth moved and brought before the Inquisition to answer for his beliefs. The tale recounts the fearless disputation where Galileo pitted science against blind dogmatic faith but was forced to silence the truth after the aged astronomer was faced with the torture. The final scene in the saga tells of the scientist, who has been forced to gainsay his conscience and say that the earth remains the motionless centre about which the celestial objects move, hobbles out of the court, murmuring under his breath in a whisper that echoes throughout history “Eppur si muove” (translation from the Italian “And yet it moves”).

           It is a compelling tale and is undeniably based on historical reality. But whenever we come across a wonderful tale from history, with clearly defined heroes and villains, we must suspect that the reality is more complex.

Martin Luther
            In the early 1500’s the Renaissance was in full swing. The Catholic Church, far from prohibiting the new learning and arts was in fact the largest patron of them. However, political tensions and concerns about the increasing corruption within the church meant that when Martin Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses and started a revolution against the church, the church was unable to stop him. The German princes, concerned about the growing power of the Habsburg Emperor (who was supposedly their overlord) sheltered the fugitive from papal and imperial power and the Reformation began. Europe now became a virtual and, in many cases, a literal, battleground of ideologies and religious beliefs. This time of struggle (like most times of struggle in actual odd fact), combined with the new learning of the Renaissance, proved a backdrop for a major increase in learning.

            Science was in an interesting state at that time. For hundreds of years, all across Europe and the Middle-East, the works of Aristotle had been held to be almost entirely true and the sheer brilliance of the Greek thinker had fooled many scholars into thinking that between Aristotle and the other Greek philosophers, every thing worth discovering had been discovered. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest philosopher of the Middle Ages, had codified Aristotelian learning in such a way that it had become (and still is) the official philosophy of the Catholic Church, and one of the things Aristotle had said was that the earth was the centre of the Universe.

            Previous Greek thinkers had speculated that the Earth might revolve around the Sun but Aristotle had “disproved” them with a simple thought experiment. I’ll give a version of it here. Imagine you are driving at speed in an open top convertible and you throw an object directly up in the air. Does it land behind you or back in the car? (Aristotle used a chariot for his example but the principle is the same.) Common sense says that it lands behind you. Yet when we stand still upon the surface of the earth and throw an object straight up into the air it reaches its zenith and then falls directly downwards. Aristotle reasoned that if the earth was moving then the object should fall hundreds of feet (or maybe even miles away) because of the speed of the earths rotation, therefore, the earth cannot move. I should mention that this example is taken from my dodgy memories of undergraduate college, so if there are any experts on Aristotle out there who feel that this is inaccurate, I would welcome any clarifications or corrections.

There were a number of other astronomical arguments against heliocentrism as well. For the earth to be in constant motion, the stars should be observed to shift position according to the Earth's rotation. The Greek conception of the Universe found it difficult to imagine that the stars could be located at such immense distances from the earth as to make these shifts indiscernible to the naked eye. I should take a brief moment to clarify that Aristotle was very clear about the earth being a sphere. In fact the Greeks had clear knowledge of the spherical nature of the earth from around 240 BC when Erastosthenes provided an empirical proof. The whole notion of people fearing Columbus would fall off the edge of the world is total nonsense.

Claudius Ptolemy
            The problem with the Earth being at the centre of the Universe is that it makes astronomy very awkward but Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek mathematician, had provided a model that allowed the Moon, Sun, Planets and Stars to rotate around the Earth on basically circular orbits. Simple circular orbits would require the planets to move in perfect, regular orbits in the night sky but instead, they “regress” or appear to track back on themselves in their orbits. This was explained by using “epicycles” which were conceived as mini-spins that the planets would do at a certain period of their orbit that would explain their apparent backwards motion.

The Ptolemaic system (i.e. the system first invented by Ptolemy) was refined throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. As astronomy improved it became clear that more epicycles were needed and that in fact, the centre of the orbits was not the earth but some point in space near the earth. The system was based on notions that the celestial bodies moved in perfect circles and yet had to have odd spins at seemingly random points of their rotations. The Earth was at the centre and yet not at the centre. The system was extremely complicated and complex and yet it provided a very poor model for predictions about planetary motions. As the brilliant minds of the Renaissance thinkers pored over the data, a new theory that would better explain the appearances was sought and the stage was set for a scientific revolution.

Enter Copernicus. Copernicus was an astronomer from what is now Poland. He became convinced that there was a simpler way to explain the data. For a variety of reasons he believed that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the centre of the Universe. He began work on a book entitled “On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres” where he argued his point. At that time writers and thinkers all over Europe communicated closely through letters, so even though Copernicus refused to publish his work, the secret could not be kept and soon all the world of the intelligentsia was abuzz to hear that (as the Protestant theologian Melanchthon put it) there was an “astronomer who moves the earth and stops the sun.”

There is quite a bit of background needed to provide a backdrop to Galileo’s work so click here for the second post about the subject. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Protagoras of Abdera

Ruins of the City of Abdera
Protagoras was a Greek Sophist who came from the city of Abdera (on northern coast of the Aegean Sea) and who lived roughly between the years of 490-420 BC. I thought that I would write a short piece about his work because, even though I disagree with most of it, it is very seldom given the credit it deserves.

            Protagoras had the misfortune of not having his works preserved so all that we know about him comes from some extremely loose collections of stories collected six or seven hundred years after his death or from the writings of those who vaguely knew him but disagreed with him (Diogenes Laertius was the story collector and Plato was the opponent). So we have only hearsay and bias to work with. According to what can be gleaned from Diogenes’ “Lives of the Philosophers” and Plato’s Dialogues, Protagoras was the first Sophist.

The Acropolis in Athens
            Many Greek cities at the time were democracies (of sorts). These democracies had no parliaments. Anyone and everyone could stand up in the assemblies and shout a speech to the assembled voters. If they liked your speech they could vote on your proposal. Someone who had the confidence and delivery (and lung power) to make good speeches continually could effectively rule a city as large as Athens! So, the ability to speak well gave power and was valued above almost anything else.

            Protagoras claimed that for a large sum of money he would teach the young people to speak well. He would teach them ways of delivering a speech effectively while demolishing the arguments of their opponents. Few people believed his claims so, upon entering a city, Protagoras would stand in a public place and deliver a ridiculous speech, proving that black was white or some such, awing the locals with his verbal abilities and immediately landing contracts to be taught to speak like him. Those who claimed to teach this power of perfect speech became known as Sophists.

            Naturally, this claim annoyed a lot of people. The traditional ruling families of cities saw their ancestral positions of status threatened. Defenders of traditional morality became very worried that these thinkers, who laughed at the old ways of doing things, would corrupt the youth and lastly, those who were convinced that things like “Truth” and “Courage” had specific meanings were deeply disturbed when someone claimed sufficient verbal ability to argue both sides of an argument and win. Central to the Sophist ideal (according to their enemies) was that there was no true answer to a question but that whatever position the speaker chose could be defended to the last.

            Protagoras himself had two famous quotes, which are presented as follows taken from Diogenes Laertius’ work Lives of the Philosophers, IX 50-56:

“Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.”

“Concerning the gods, I am not in a position to know either that they exist or that they do not exist; for there are many obstacles in the way of such knowledge, notably the intrinsic obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”

It’s hard to know if these were actually beliefs of Protagoras or if these were the catchy sentences that he would start his show arguments with. One of the later Sophists (Gorgias of Leontini) once stated that Being is impossible, that even if something existed that we could have no Knowledge of it and that even if we could know Being, we could never communicate this knowledge to anyone. You have to suspect he was showing off, so Protagoras may have been doing the same here. We are fairly sure that he was one of the first thinkers to study the structure of language for the purposes of argument, which must have made him formidable indeed.

Renaissance painting of the death of Socrates
            In the year 399 BC an Athenian by the name of Socrates was put to death by the state on the of “corrupting the youth”, while at his trial he was allegedly accused of “making the weaker argument appear the stronger”. Socrates was put to death for doing the things that Protagoras started, but one of Socrates’ students, a young man by the name of Plato, was convinced that his teacher had not been a Sophist but had tried to find truth, real truth, not the mere conventions of Athens, by challenging the Sophists at their own game. Maybe Plato was deluded about Socrates, we’ll never know, but he wrote a series of books where Socrates is a heroic debater, struggling to understand reality and truth. His foes in these debates are sometimes the arrogant and foolish city leaders who think they know the meanings of Courage or Piety, only to be shown up by the questioning of Socrates. But the serious debates that Plato describes are against thinkers like Critias or Gorgias or the leader of the Sophists Protagoras, where Socrates argues for a system where words have a fixed relation to reality and can truly be known by people, as opposed to the shifting, fluid belief systems of the Sophists.

Bust of Plato
            Plato’s anti-Sophistic quest led him to found the first Academy where the brightest minds of his day gathered and produced such thinkers as Aristotle (who invented the disciplines of Logic and Biology and wrote on every subject then known to man). It’s hard to know what exactly Protagoras really believed; perhaps he was only trying to make money. But the unintended reaction to his ideas kick started the Greek Enlightenment, which continues to influence us today.

I will leave you with the following tale (probably a tall one) about the man. The story goes that a poor pupil came to him and told him that he was desperate to learn rhetoric but could not afford the fees. Protagoras took pity on the young Euathlus and promised to teach him on the understanding that Euathlus would repay him once he had won his first lawsuit. Euathlus proved a brilliant pupil, but upon completing the training, Euathlus not only refused to pay but refused to plead cases before the courts. Protagoras did what every good teacher should do and took him to court. He reasoned that he couldn’t lose his fee because “… if I win the case, I should get the fee because I have won it; If you win the case, I should get the fee because you have won it!”

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Tenth of October

I found myself stuck for a topic and decided to browse Wikipedia’s homepage to see what happened on this day.

I discovered that this day, the 10th of October, which I had previously thought to be a rather mundane day, has seen it’s fair share of historical interest (unlike my birthday, which is depressingly uneventful considering that history is long and there are only 365 days per average year).
Anyway, on this day in the year 680 AD, Husayn Ibn Ali took on the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate in a hopeless gesture where he and all his troops were killed. He is viewed as a martyr by the Shiite Muslims and revered as a great man by many Sunnis. The death of Husayn deepened the split of Islam between Sunni and Shia, sowing the seeds for future civil war in the Caliphate. The battle took place in Kerbala in present day Iraq and the city is a site of pilgrimage for Shiite Muslims, although the commemorations of the battle change days due to the lunar Islamic calendar. Al-Qaeda and their affiliates, who view Shiites as non-believers, have often attacked the commemoration festival of this battle.

On this day in 732 AD, the forces of the Frankish kingdom fought and eventually defeated the forces of the Ummayad Caliphate at Tours. The Franks were commanded by the interestingly named Charles Martel (meaning Charles the Hammer!) The armies of the Arab Caliphate had swept over Egypt, Northern Africa, through Spain and were pushing into southern France. The great historian Gibbon has this to say,

“A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”  Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 52

It sounds like a fairly dramatic scenario (see below for a much later romanticised picture of the battle that includes a Celtic Cross and a topless woman for reasons best known to the artist) but most historians now consider the attack to be a glorified raid. There was a rich church of St Martin’s at Tours and the Arab commander seems to have planned to raid it but it is highly unlikely that a conquest of all of Europe was actually planned.

On this day in 1938 the Munich Agreement came into effect (OK, it's not actually "ancient" history, but pretty intriguing all the same). It had been signed earlier but today was the day that the German troops actually occupied large sections of what is now the Czech Republic, neutralising their armies, taking most of their steel production and paving the way for a later takeover of the whole country, a Nazi-Soviet alliance and World War II.

For those of you who are whiskey lovers, we may take a moment to remember Jack Daniel, the founder of the Jack Daniels distillery who passed away on this day in the year 1911.Even if you aren't a fan of his actual whiskey, surely some appreciation can be had of a man who allegedly died of an infection caused by a broken toe, which in turn was caused by trying to kick open his own safe.

Enjoy the day!

2012 and the Mayans?

“And such was the instruction they gave when all the Under-worlders had been finally defeated. And then the two boys ascended this way, here into the middle of the light, and they ascended straight on into the sky, and the sun belongs to one and the moon to the other. When it became light within the sky on the face of the earth, they were there in the sky. And then the Four Hundred Boys climbed up, the ones who were killed by Zipacna. And so they came to accompany the two of them, they became the sky’s own stars.”

From the end of the Third Part of the Popol Vuh, describing the destiny of the Hero Twins.

A double-headed jade serpent
There are theories floating around presently about the end of the world that will supposedly happen in the year 2012, specifically, in or around the 20th of December of 2012. Is there anything to this or is it a misunderstanding?

            I should firstly say that the scientific community has been fairly sceptical of these claims. However, my vague interest in matters scientific do not qualify me to talk about this from a strong scientific perspective but if I come across any good online resources I will post links to them. I can however deal briefly with some historical aspects of this prediction.

The Classic Mayan city of Tikal
            The prediction is based on the Mayan Long Count Calendar. The Mayans were a people (politically organised in loose groupings of opposing city-states) who civilisation fluorished in Southern Mexico and Guatemala from around 200 AD to 1000 AD. After this date the major cities were abandoned for unknown reasons and new cities emerged. But the new cities were on a smaller scale. From the early 1500’s onwards these remaining states were attacked by the newly arrived Spanish conquistadores and the last Mayan city was finally conquered in 1697.

A stele of a Mayan King from Copan
            The Mayans did not merely leave monumental architecture but they also left writings. Many of their books were destroyed in the Spanish conquest but some Spanish monks and friars preserved the books they could find. From these books we can see that the Mayan literate class were very concerned with the timing of events and had created multiple calendars to mark the passage of events.

One of these calendars (there were several others) involved having a 360-day year that would be counted in cycles of 20. These cycles were then also counted in cycles of 20 (usually 20, but sometimes 18 according to some scholars). This was known as a Bak’tun. When 13 Bak’tun’s had passed the cycle would repeat and the calendar would revert back to the first Bak’tun. If there are any astronomers reading they’ll be quite angry about the 360-day year but what the Mayans did was to refer to each day using a number of terms, which would cycle over and allow them to keep track of deviations from the solar calendar until the cycle was complete. It was not the first system I would have devised but it was complex enough to use “zero” as a number (i.e. better than Greek or Roman maths) and was of use in the keeping track of constellation movements as well so it’s an impressive enough piece of work.

The reader may wonder what this has to do with the end of the world. The date given in the theory for the day the world ends is simply the date that the 13th Bak’tun ends on. According to most theories the 1st cycle begins on the 11th of August, 3114 BC so we are approaching the date where the calendar rolls over so to speak. So did the Mayans feel that this was the date that the world ended on?

Well, the date picked for the beginning of the cycle appears somewhat arbitrary. It predates their civilisation and there are no known inscriptions for the first three thousand years of the system. It might have been borrowed from an earlier civilisation like the Olmecs but this is speculative. So, if we have no idea why they chose to start their calendar at one point, it makes understanding the end point difficult. Some scholars believe that there are inscriptions that deal with orders higher than the Bak’tun or even thirteen Baktun’s, which, if true, suggests that the Mayans did not view time as being contained within the cycle. Scholars also speak of Long Calendar dates being spoken of after the turning of the cycle, suggesting that the Mayans didn’t believe the world would end in 2012.

Statues of warriors from Tula
It should be noted that the Mayans had no telescopes that we know of to predict anything about “galactic shifts” or discover hidden planets or anything. If they had some method of predicting the future it did not help their civilisation. Their civilisation went into chronic decline around 900 AD, suffered definite attacks from the Mexican city of Teotihuacan and a possible invasion from Tula before having their cities taken over completely by the Spanish. If the Mayan priests could really see the future then they were spectacularly bad at acting on their knowledge. This is a bit of a cheap shot at a culture that I greatly respect but I am sick to death of hearing New-Age stuff about mystical Mayan knowledge.

Mexican City of Teotihuacan
Having a nice long calendar allowed them to place events in a framework that remained constant for centuries and allowed them to neatly predict both agricultural seasons and astronomical events. There are very few prophecies recorded from Classic Mayan sites.

Cover page of the Popol Vuh
Mayan culture does become rather prophetic later on but I believe this to be a result of European influence. The Popol Vuh, the most famous of the Mayan books, was at least partially written after the Spanish had arrived. It gives a Mayan creation account that has a number of incomplete creations, each destroyed before a new creation, with the last destruction being by a great flood. Now this could be seen as a series of catastrophes marking the completion of a separate Long Count cycle, meaning that the Mayans saw a catastrophe for the year 2012 even if the world didn’t end. But by the time the Popol Vuh is written, the Long Count is no longer used and an equally sophisticated but different way of marking time is given. No dates are given for the creations or the catastrophes and, although far from unparalleled in world mythology, the universal flood wiping out an initial creation sounds suspiciously like the Popol Vuh has been influenced by Catholicism.

There are late Mayan texts called the Books of Chilam Balam specifically dedicated to prophecy. These are books ascribed to a legendary sage who prophesies the coming of the Spanish. But they are all written in the Colonial era and back-prophecies if you will, where a community deals with a catastrophe by inventing a text to cope with it and view it as part of a greater plan (see the prophecies of Myrddin Wyllt, even conspiracy theories could be viewed as community attempts to rationalise the irrational). The idea that the world will end is notably absent even in these most prophetic of all Mayan texts (although there are quite a lot of them and I haven’t read them all so I may be wrong on this).

So will the world end in 2012? Possibly, as we can never predict the future with total accuracy, but I’m betting that it won’t (and giving good odds if anyone’s interested). I’m also betting that the Mayans had less than no intention of predicting the end of the world when some of their priests decided to use a particular method of counting that started at an arbitrary date. Roll on 2013!

Mayan city of Chichen Itza