The title is supposed to make you think of a typical article in the Daily Fail, Britain’s most obnoxious representative of the gutter press. It represents one of the dominant reactions by members of the Gnu Model ArmyTM to the Cosmos Bruno AffairTM. According to people such as Jason Rosenhouse and P Z Myer the persecution of such notable scientists as Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei by the Catholic Church has definitely hindered the progress of science and for good measure they or their supporters quote the words of wisdom of Über-Guru Neil deGasse Tyson that without religion science would be a thousand years more advanced. What an outrage, truly horrific the Church it seems has a lot to answer for, although I find it rather strange that they can’t dish up more examples than poor old Giordano and that universal symbol of Church oppression Galileo. I’m sure if they re-read their Draper-White they could manage to find some new names to beat the ignorant historians around the head with. I say ignorant historians because it was the historians complaining about the Bruno cartoon on the first episode of Cosmos that has brought out this charge by these stalwart defenders of scientific integrity.

Let us assume for a moment that Rosenhouse-Myer are correct and that the Catholic Church did in fact persecute Bruno and Galileo to block scientific progress does this necessarily mean that they were successful in their dastardly deeds? Did they truly manage to interrupt, slow down, or hinder the adoption, acceptance or acknowledgement of the heliocentric hypothesis or the belief in an infinite universe or the perception that the sun is a star or vice versa? No doubt about it, this is a serious charge and one that should definitely be explicated.

Now Myer and Tyson are both practicing scientists whilst Rosenhouse is a mathematician, all of them work in disciplines that require one, if one makes a substantial claim, to provide the appropriate evidence or proof to support that claim. What is with their claim that religion has blocked the advance of science in general or in the case of Bruno and Galileo the acceptance of modern astronomy and cosmology in particular? Have our scientific practitioners provided the necessary evidence to back up their claims? Do they provide a tightly argued historical thesis based on solid documentary evidence to prove their assertions? Can they demonstrate that if the Church had not intervened modern astronomy would have become accepted much earlier than it was? Given their outspoken support of the ‘scientific method’, whatever that might be, you would expect them to do so, wouldn’t you? Do they hell! They don’t waste one single word on the topic. No evidence, no proofs, no academic arguments just plain straightforward unsubstantiated claims in the style of the gutter press. A pretty poor showing for the defenders of scientific faith.

But could they still be right? Even if they don’t take the trouble to provide the historical discourse necessary to substantiate their claims, could it be true that the Church’s actions against Bruno and Galileo did in fact have a negative influence on the acceptance of heliocentricity and other aspects of modern astronomy and cosmology? Let us examine the historical facts and answer the questions that Rosenhouse-Myer and Tyson are apparently above answering, the truth being apparently so obviously clear that they don’t require answering.

To start with the poor Giordano, Bruno was one of those who advocated Copernicus’ heliocentric astronomy already in the sixteenth-century. He however went beyond Copernicus in a series of cosmological speculations and it is these that Cosmos thought to be so important that they devoted eleven minutes of a forty-five minute broadcast to them. I shall deal with the acceptance of heliocentricity separately later and only address Bruno’s cosmology now. Copernicus himself expressly left the question as to whether the cosmos is finite or infinite, as he said, to the philosophers, with good reason. This question was purely speculative and could not, with the evidence and possibilities available to the Renaissance astronomer, be addressed in anything approaching a scientific manner. To all intents and purposes the cosmos appeared finite and Renaissance scholars had no means available to prove otherwise. Bruno’s speculation was of course not new.

In his own times Nicolas Cusanus had already considered the question and earlier, in the first-century BCE, the Epicurean philosopher poet Lucretius, Bruno’s inspiration, had included it in his scientific poem De rerum natura. Lucretius of course did not invent the concept but was merely repeating the beliefs of the fifth-century BCE Greek atomists. All of this demonstrates that the idea of an infinite cosmos was fairly common at the beginning of the seventeenth century and nothing the Church said or did was likely to stop anybody speculating about it. The thing that prevented anybody from going further than speculation was the lack of the necessary scientific apparatus to investigate the question, a similar situation to that of the string-theorists and multiverse advocates of today.

This does not mean that astronomers did not address the problem of the size of the cosmos and the distance to the stars. Amongst others Galileo, Jeremiah Horrocks, Christiaan Huygens and Isaac Newton all tried to estimate/calculate the distances within the solar system and outward towards the stars. First in the middle of the eighteenth century with the transit of Venus measurements were these efforts rewarded with a minimum of success. It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that the first stellar distance measurements, through stellar parallax, were achieved. All of these delays were not caused by anything the Church had done but by the necessity of first developing the required scientific theories and apparatus.

Bruno’s next cosmological speculation was that the sun and the stars were one and the same. Once again there was nothing new in this. Anaxagoras had already had the same idea in the fifth-century BCE and John Philoponus in the fifth-century CE. Once again the problem with this speculation was not any form of religious objection but a lack of scientific theory and expertise to test it. This first became available in the nineteenth century with development of spectroscopy. This of course first required the development of the new matter theory throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a process that involved an awful lot of science.

Bruno’s last speculation and the one that bothered the Church was the existence of inhabited planets other than the Earth. Again this was nothing new and whatever the Church might have thought about it that speculation generated a lively debate in the seventeenth century that is still going on. We still don’t actually know whether we are alone or not.

Given my knowledge of the history of science I can’t see anywhere, where the Church hindered or even slowed down scientific progress on those things that Bruno speculated about in his cosmological fantasy. But what about heliocentricity, here surely the Church’s persecution of both Bruno and Galileo hindered science bay the hounds of anti-religious rationalism.

What follows is a brief sketch of the acceptance of the heliocentric astronomy hypothesis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is a subject I’ve dealt with before in various posts but it doesn’t hurt to repeat the process as there are several important lessons to be learnt here. To begin with there is a common myth that acceptance of ‘correct’ new scientific theories is almost instantaneous. To exaggerate slightly, Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915 and the world changed overnight or at the latest when Eddington confirmed the bending of light rays conform with general relativity in 1919. In reality the acceptance of the general theory of relativity was still a topic of discussion when I was being educated fifty years later and that despite numerous confirmatory tests. Before it is accepted a major new scientific theory must be examined, questioned, tested, reformed, modified and shown to be superior to all serious alternatives. In the Early Modern Period with communication considerably slower this process was even slower.

Copernicus published his De revolutionibus in 1543 and there were only ten people in the entire world, including Bruno but much more importantly both Kepler and Galileo, who accepted it lock, stock and barrel by 1600. This system had only one real scientific advantage over the geocentric one; it could explain the retrograde movement of the planets. However this was not considered to be very important at the time. There were some relatively low-key religious objection but these did not play any significant role in the very slow initial acceptance of the theory. The problematic objections were observationally empirical and had already been discussed by Ptolemaeus in his Syntaxis Mathematiké in the second-century CE. Put very simple if the world is spinning very fast and hurtling through space at an alarming speed why don’t we get blown away? Copernicus had the correct answer to this problem when he suggested that the atmosphere was carried round with the earth in the form of a bubble so to speak. Unfortunately he lacked the physics to explain and justify such a claim. It would take most of the seventeenth century and the combined scientific efforts of Kepler, Galileo, Stevin, Borelli, Descartes, Pascal, Huygens, Newton and a whole boatload of lesser lights to create the necessary physics to explain how gravity holds the atmosphere in place whilst the earth is moving.  This process was not hindered by the Church in anyway whatsoever.

There was a second level of acceptance of Copernicus theory, an instrumental one, as a mathematical model to deliver astronomical data for various applications, astrology, cartography, navigations etc. Here the system based on the same inaccurate data as the Ptolemaic one did not fair particularly well. Disgusted by the inaccuracy of both systems Tycho Brahe started a new long-term observational programme to obtain new accurate data. Whilst doing so he developed a third model, the so-called geo-heliocentric model, in which the planets orbited the sun, which in turn orbited the stationary earth. This model had the advantage of explaining retrograde motion without setting the earth in motions, a win-win situation.

The first major development came with the invention of the telescope in 1608 and its application to astronomical observation from 1609 onwards. The first telescopic discoveries did not provide any proofs for either the Copernican or the Tychonic models but did refute both the Aristotelian homocentric model and the Ptolemaic model. Around the same time a new candidate, the Keplerian elliptical astronomy, entered the ring with the publications of Kepler’s Astronomia nova in 1609. For a full list of the plethora of possible astronomical models at the beginning of the seventeenth century see this earlier post.

By 1620 the leading candidate was a Tychonic model with diurnal rotation. It should be pointed out that due to the attempts of Galileo and Foscarini to reinterpret Holy Scripture in favour of heliocentricity the Catholic Church had entered the action in 1615 and forbidden the heliocentric theory but not the heliocentric hypothesis. The distinction is important. The theory says heliocentricity is a scientific fact the hypothesis says it’s a possibility. At this time heliocentricity was in fact an unproved hypothesis and not a theory. This is the point where Rosenhouse-Myers step in and claim that the Church hindered scientific progress but did they. The straightforward answer is no. The astronomers and physicist carried on looking for answers to the open questions and solutions to the existing problems. There is no evidence whatsoever of a slowing down or interruption in their research efforts.

Between 1618 and 1621 Kepler published his Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae explaining his elliptical astronomy and his three laws of planetary motion in simple terms and in 1627 the Tabulae Rudolphinae the astronomical tables based on his system and Tycho’s new accurate data. It was these two publications that would lead to the general acceptance of heliocentricity by those able to judge by around 1660. Kepler’s publications delivered the desired accurate prognoses of planetary positions, eclipses etc. required by astrologers, cartographers, navigators etc.

At no point in the 120 years between the initial publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and the general acceptance of heliocentricity in the form of Kepler’s elliptical astronomy is there any evidence of the Church having slowed or hindered progress in this historical process. To close it should be pointed out that it would be another seventy years before any solid scientific evidence for the heliocentric hypothesis was found by Bradley, in the form of stellar aberration.






Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

Everyday Renaissance Astrology.

One of the joys of having run a moderately successful history of science blog for a number of years, and thus become somehow respectable, is that I occasionally get to review books; this is one of those reviews.  Regular readers will know that I tend to bang on a bit about astrology. This is not because I particularly like it or that I’m one of those people who won’t put a foot in front of the door without consulting their horoscope for the day but because of its historical significance. Justifying a popular lecture on the history of astrology that I held in January I said that astrology had played a central role in, not only the history of science but in the social, economical and political histories of Europe for a period of about two thousand years. The role of astrology was ignored by historians of every colour for a very long time. In the eighteenth century during what is commonly known as the Enlightenment astrology, along with alchemy, magic, witchcraft, etc., was consigned to the dustbin of human history. Following this degradation, historians applying a mixture of the Whig interpretation of history and presentism thought it was in order to ignore astrology as a historical error, which humanity had now grown out of. This attitude led to a crass falsification of history. In more recent decades historians became aware of this failure on their part and began to treat the history of astrology with the seriousness it deserves, although their first efforts concentrated almost exclusively on investigating the reasons for humanity, or at least the intellectual part of humanity, freeing itself from this pernicious superstition. This in its own way led to more perversion of history. There are quite a lot of texts out there pointing out how Pico della Mirandolla killed off the belief in astrology with his posthumously published Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem. The only problem with this claim is that astrology was still very much alive and kicking and occupying a central position in European discourse one hundred and fifty years later.

After a couple of centuries of total rejection and then a somewhat unfortunate initial phase I can happily report that the history of astrology has become a well established discipline producing some excellent work, even if quite a lot of academics still tend to reward it with nasty looks.  It is now generally recognised and acknowledged that astrology played a central role in Renaissance culture and most historians will make suitable comments in this regard when talking about the Renaissance. However what exactly was the day-to-day role of astrology during the Renaissance? Although we now have a growing pile of specialist academic literature on various aspects of astrology there has been up till now a surprising lack of general literature explain the role of astrology within the context of everyday life in the Renaissance. One important recent publication that attempts to fill part of this gap is Monica Azzolini’s The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan.[1]

THe Duke and the Stars


I will start off by saying straight out that this is an excellent book, if you have any interest in the history of astrology in the Early Modern Period obtain a copy of this book and read it! I guarantee you won’t regret it. So if you take my advice and acquire the book what do you get?

Azzolini deals with the problem of giving us an overview of everyday Renaissance astrology by presenting us with an extended case study of the use made of astrology by four Sforza dukes of Milan starting with Francesco Sforza (ruled 1450 – 1466) through to Ludovico (ruled 1494 – 1499). However before she starts in on the twisted family politics of the Sforza dynasty Azzolini introduces us to the world of the fifteenth century medical astrology. In her opening chapter Azzolini tries to reconstruct the corpus of books that a student of medicine would have studied at the University of Pavia in the fifteenth-century in order to acquire the necessary knowledge of astrology that he would need to exercise his profession as an astrological physician, what she terms a Corpus Astrologicum. This task is not made easy, as there are no surviving curricula or similar documents with a suitable reading list for the students of the medical faculty. Azzolini’s analysis is therefore per force speculative. However her speculations are always both well argued and solidly founded on the available indirect information that she has brought together to undertake this task. This first chapter alone repays the student of the history of astrology for having undertaken the task of reading this book.

In the four subsequent chapters we get introduced one by one to the four Sforza dukes of Milan and to the use each of them made of astrology during their respective reigns. Through this device we get introduced to the various aspects of the art of astrology as practiced in this period in Renaissance Italy and to those practitioners who served the Sforza dukes.

Azzolini takes us in turn through medical astrology, natal astrology, the use of astrology in planning dynastic marriages and the timing of the consummation of the resulting partnerships, astrology used in political decision making and in the case of Ludovico astrology used daily for almost every single act in his rather turbulent life. At each stage in our journey through the Sforza family history Azzolini explains clearly and lucidly the social and political background to all that is taking place, as well as giving clear explanations of how the astrologers go about their tasks.

The book is very well written and a pleasure to read but it is so multi-layered and dense in detail that it pays to read slowly and with maximum concentration so as not to miss some nugget of information on a multitude of historical topics. Azzolini is a first class historian but she wears her scholarship with ease.

This book is an academic book and for me an academic book lives and dies on the quality of, what I term, its academic apparatus, i.e. foot- or endnotes, bibliography and index. In all three aspects this book is absolutely first class. Although I am on record as preferring footnotes to endnotes I feel in this case the decision to use endnotes is justified. The 212 pages of text are followed by a whopping 108 pages of highly detailed endnotes, enough to satisfy even the most pedantic citation fetishist. Endnote four to the introduction is in itself a masterpiece. We get presented with a multilingual list of books and papers on Renaissance astrology that would serve as a reading list for any university course on the subject. (However it does contain one of my few objections to Azzolini’s book. In this endnote she lists Claudia Brosseder’s Im Bann der Sterne. Casper Peucer, Philipp Melanchthon and andere Wittenberger Astrologen, now I personally think that all copies of this book should be collected in and ceremonially burnt in the courtyard of Wittenberg University, it’s that bad in my anything but humble opinion.)  The thirty-page bibliography more than matches the high standard set by the endnotes and up till now I have found no reason to complain about the comprehensive index. This is an all round excellent book, which is also, as one would expect from Harvard UP, nicely presented.

This is as I said an academic book and its first audience is of course historians of astrology, however it can and should be read by historians of politics, of medicine, of science, of the Renaissance and of general history at all levels from the undergraduate to the expert historian. All of them can learn much from this book and all would profit from reading it. Although I am now repeating myself, this is an excellent book, which deserves to become a classic and almost certainly will and I regard it as a privilege that I have been allowed to review it.



[1] Monica Azzolini, The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2013.


Filed under History of Astrology

Ad lectorum: Expectation is a prison.

When I first started writing this blog almost five years ago I was happy with the feeling that maybe a handful of people looked in from time to time to find out what I had been scribbling about. I was fairly sure that this would be the case, at least at the beginning, as I already had a slight reputation throughout the, then small, history of science Internet community because of my comments and guest posts on other peoples blogs. I figured if after this initial phase nobody bothered to look in anymore I could give up blogging and take up some other scintillating pastime such as trainspotting.

This turned out not to be the case and rather to my surprise the number of readers grew sort of steadily over the years, encouraging me to carry on polluting cyberspace with my views on the history of science. Occasionally that growth would receive a small boost when somebody, with more Internet clout than I, would, probably out of pity, utter some kind words about my feeble efforts to stem the tide of #histsci ignorance. Despite my best efforts to scare off my readers with kamikaze attacks on other denizens of cyberspace, who in my opinion had committed some horrendous crime against the facts of history or through, with swear words laced, tirades against freshly discovered inanities, my readership has continued to grow slowly but surely. Or at least the growth was steady and sure until yesterday. Suddenly I have a flood of people registering via WordPress to receive notification every time I choose to ventilate over some chosen history of science topic.

At first I was rather perplexed by this sudden surge of interest in my blogging activities then fellow history of science blogger, David Bressan (@David_Bressan), tipped me off on Twitter that somebody at WordPress had decided to promote my humble blog as being worthy of attention, probably an administrative error but it’s too late to correct it now and I have all these potential new readers hanging on my every spelling mistake and misplaced comma. In view of this influx of new hungry eyes I feel somehow obliged to address my readers directly with a post for the first time since I started my scribblings.

I have no idea what you are expecting by coming here but I feel honour bound to point out that the particular post highlighted in the recommendation, although it does represent one major aspect of my blogging is not, so to speak, the whole story. I do write and post other types of articles on a more or less regular basis. The one thing that almost all my posts have in common is that they are about some aspect or other of the history of science. There are, for example, as well as the post correcting others historical errors, post giving thumbnail biographical sketches of scientists you’ve probably never heard of and the reasons why you should have heard of them or general discussion of some aspect of the history or historiography of science and occasionally I write reviews of history of science publications. If you are indeed new here then I suggest you might like to take some time to look around and get the feel of the place. If you click the ‘About’ button at the top there is a very short introduction to our intrepid author with two links to more extensive descriptions of author and blog.  Not so long ago I celebrated my five hundredth post in this hallowed halls and to mark the occasion I posted a list of ten older posts that I think illustrate my endeavours well. This might be a good starting point for somebody trying to get the measure of the place.

By now attentive readers are probably wondering what all of this has to do with somewhat provocative title of this post. The answer is quite simple, whatever reason brought you here and whatever your expectations might be don’t expect me to fulfil them; I don’t write for my readers! In fact on the whole I don’t take my readers in to consideration in anyway what so ever when I sit down in front of my computer to write a post.  You may well ask, who do you write for then, if not for your readers? The answer is very simple, I write solely for myself. I write because some thought provokes me into doing so. I write to clarify what I think about a situation, a topic, a provocation… I do not write with any real awareness of that which I’m writing actually being read by another person. Of course I’m happy that people do read what I write and even happier when they respond to what I have written either here in the comments, on Twitter or on their own blogs. However, and this is the whole point of this post, I do not write to fulfil your expectations, whoever you are. If you come here to read with an open mind you are welcome. If you wish to comment you are welcome. However if you try to tell me what to write or how to write or what language to use or not, as the case may be, you are not welcome. If you don’t like what I do or the way that I do simply move on, I won’t try to detain you. This does not mean that I don’t react to the comments, questions or suggestions of my readers. I have two posts in the pipeline inspired by readers – one by a question the other by a suggestion – but I’m writing those posts because I wanted to not because somebody asked me to, a subtle but important difference. If you come here expecting me in any way to perform according to your expectations you will sooner or later be disappointed trapped in a mental prison of your own making.

As I seem to have acquired a rather large number of new readers it might be apposite to state the house rules. These have never been stated before but have developed as needed over the years and it’s about time that they were sort of codified. First off this is not a public forum, it is my space for thinking about the history of science in which you are cordially invited to participate, as you see fit. However I and I alone determine what is or what is not acceptable behaviour. Put another way: I am the God of this blog and it is my Temple. There is no democracy here. The rules are actually very simple and are based on a concept of common courtesy. Anybody is welcome to read anything on this blog and should the mood take them, to comment. Within limits, in those comments you can insult me, I have a thick skin and have lived through far worse things than a bit of name-calling. However should you do so, expect to be insulted back and I’m rather good at insulting people. You have been warned. Insulting other commentators is absolutely taboo! Anybody who insults another commentator will be warned once and should they repeat the offence banned. End of story. Do not use my comments to advertise your Steam Locomotive Preservations Society, your Astrological Advice Service or any other activity not relevant to the post you are commenting on. Should you do so, if the comment contains material relevant to the discussion it will be censored and the advertising removed, if not it will simply be deleted. Links to other pertinent blog post, articles etc are permitted and even welcomed. However if you include too many links WordPress will declare your comment spam and it will land in the spam filter. Sometimes I don’t notice this for a number of days and by the time I have released the comment from purgatory the discussion has often moved on. Shit happens!

Having now bored you all for a suitably long period I will just say that it’s kind of nice to have readers, both the old established ones and the freshly arrived, and I thank you all for taking the effort to read my meanderings and I hope some of you will stick around for a while because the trip isn’t over yet.

Post scriptum: The title of this post consists of two quotes. There will be a prize for the first person who can correctly name the sources of both quotes.


Filed under Autobiographical

Cartoons and Fables – How Cosmos Got the Story of Bruno Wrong

One of the joys of writing this blog is that I have a number of readers/commentators who are more intelligent, more knowledgeable, more erudite and above all more sensible than I. Every now and then I succeed in trapping, blackmailing, bullying or conning one of them into writing a guest post in order to give you the readers an alternative perspective on the world of the history of science and the chance to read something of quality. This time I have succeeded in acquiring the literary services of Tim O’Neill, historian and inexhaustible warrior against the misuse and abuse of the history of science. In his post Tim adds his tuppence worth to the debate raging far and wide about the Bruno cartoon in the first edition of the Cosmos reboot. Enjoy! 

A few months ago while visiting Rome I did something a tourist should not do in a strange city – I took a short cut.  Walking back from the Forum to my apartment over the Tiber, I should have taken the obvious route down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II toward the Castel  Saint ‘Angelo, but I decided I knew where I was going, so I took a more direct path through some back streets and soon became completely lost.  After winding my way through a maze of smaller laneways trying to find a major road I saw a piazza up ahead and so decided to use that to get my bearings.  I stopped under a statue in the middle of the square to get out a map, looked up at the statue and immediately knew where I was.  I realised I was in the Campo de’Fiori, because the statue was the famous monument to Giordano Bruno, raised on the spot where he was burned at the stake in February 1600.

Bruno 2013 Photo: Tim O'Neill

Bruno 2013
Photo: Tim O’Neill

Bruno is the poster boy of the Draper-White Thesis – the idea that science and religion have always been at war and an idea beloved by the New Atheist movement despite the fact it was rejected by actual historians of science about a century ago.  Try to engage in an attempt at intelligent discussion of the real and much more complex and nuanced interrelations between religion and what was to emerge as modern science in the medieval and early modern periods and Bruno is usually brandished as “proof” that the Church was the implacable and ignorant foe of early science.  After all, why else did they burn him for daring to say the earth wasn’t the centre of the universe and that the stars were other suns with planets?  For those who prefer simple slogans and caricatures to the hard work of actually analysing and understanding history, Bruno is a simple answer to a intricate question.  Nuance and complexity are the first casualties in a culture war.

So when I saw the first preview clips of the revamped version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, this time presented by Sagan’s genial protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson, and noticed an animated sequence of someone being menaced by Inquisitors and burned at the stake, I knew that the revived Cosmos was going to be presenting some bungled history.  This was also following in Sagan’s footsteps, I suppose, since in the original series he veered off into a mangled version of the story of Hypatia of Alexandria that fixed the false idea of her as a martyr for science in the minds of a generation, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

So when the first instalment of the new series – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey -  went to air last week, at its heart was an eleven minute version of the Bruno myth.  I often refer to the simplistic moral fable that people mistake for the history of the relationship between the Church and early science as “the cartoon version”, because it’s oversimplified, two-dimensional and reduced to a black and while caricature.  But in this case it really is a cartoon version – the sequence was animated, with the voice of Bruno provided by the series’ Executive Producer, Seth MacFarlane, of Family Guy fame, which seems to be why Bruno has an Italian accent of a kind usually heard in ads for pizza or pasta sauce.

The clichés didn’t end with the silly accents.  In the weirdly distorted version of the story the program tells, Bruno is depicted as an earnest young friar in Naples who was a true seeker after truth.  But DeGrasse Tyson assures us that he “dared to read the books banned by the Church and that was his undoing.”   We then get a sequence of Bruno reading  a copy of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things which he has hidden under the floorboards of his cell.  The first problem here is that Lucretius’ work was not “banned by the Church” at all and no-one needed to hide it under their floor.  Poggio Bracciolini had published a printed edition of the book a century before Bruno was born and it had never been banned when the medieval manuscripts Bracciolini worked from had been copied nor was it banned once his edition made it widely available.  The idea that the Church banned and/or tried to destroy Lucretius’ work is a myth that Christopher Hitchens liked to repeat and which has been given a lease of popular life via Stephen Greenblatt’s appalling pseudo historical work The Swerve, which somehow won a Pulitzer Prize despite being a pastiche of howlers.

The DeGrasse Tyson cartoon goes on to depict Bruno having his mind opened to the idea of an infinite universe by Lucretius’ book but then being kicked out of his friary by a mob of Disney villain-style Church types who turn up unexpectedly like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition.  This, of course, makes for a much better parable than the truth – Lucretius’ work wasn’t “banned by the Church” and Bruno actually ran away from his religious house and wasn’t thrown out for reading naughty books.

It would also have complicated this simplistic cartoon fable to note where Bruno got his ideas about a vast cosmos where the earth was not the centre, where the stars were other suns, where there was a multiplicity of worlds and where some of these other worlds could even have been inhabited just like ours.  Because this was not something Bruno got from Lucretius nor was it something he dreamed up himself in a vision, as the Cosmos cartoon alleges.  It’s something he drew directly from the man he called “the divine Cusanus” – the fifteenth century natural philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa.

If the writers of the series were actually interested in the real history of the origins of scientific thought, there are many people whose stories would have been far more worthy of telling than Bruno – people who actually were proto-scientists.  The writers of the show, Stephen Soter and Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, seem to have known enough about Bruno to know they could not present him as a scientist and DeGrasse Tyson’s narration does mention that he was “no scientist” at one point.  But they delicately skim over the fact that the guy was, to our way of thinking, a complete mystical loon.  In his defence of the criticism the Bruno sequence has since attracted Soter notes that several  other early science figures also pursued studies that we find abjectly unscientific, such as Newton’s obsessions with alchemy and apocalyptic calculation.  But the difference is that Newton and Kepler pursued those ideas as well as studies that were based on real empirical science, whereas Bruno’s hermetical mysticism, sacred geometry and garbled and largely invented ancient Egyptian religion were all of his studies – he did no actual science at all.

But if they wanted to be truly accurate they should have detailed or even merely acknowledged Bruno’s debt to Nicholas of Cusa, who expounded on a non-finite cosmos without a centre 109 years before Bruno was even born.  Here is Cusanus on the subject in his book De docta ignorantia :

” The universe has no circumference, for if it had a centre and a circumference there would be some and some thing beyond the world, suppositions which are wholly lacking in truth. Since, therefore, it is impossible that the universe should be enclosed within a corporeal centre and corporeal boundary, it is not within our power to understand the universe, whose centre and circumference are God. And though the universe cannot be infinite, nevertheless it cannot be conceived as finite since there are no limits within which it could be confined.”

That’s the insight that the Bruno cartoon attributes solely to Bruno.  So why not attribute it to “the divine Cusanus”?  Well, that would ruin the whole parable.  Because far from being kicked around by grim-looking Disney villains imprisoned and burned at the stake, Cusanus was revered and actually made a cardinal.  So that doesn’t lend itself very well to a moral fable about free-thinking geniuses being oppressed by dogmatic theocrats.

The cartoon then goes on to depict brave Bruno lecturing at Oxford, with grumpy and aristocratic-sounding scholars there objecting to his espousal of Copernicanism and eventually throwing fruit at him and driving him away.  Again, the reality wasn’t quite as worthy.  There is zero record of any objection to heliocentrism and the problem the Oxford scholars had with Bruno was actually his plagiarism of another scholar’s work.  But, again, that doesn’t lend itself to a fable about a pure and persecuted freethinker.

Throughout the cartoon the idea is that he is afflicted because he supports heliocentrism and the idea of an unbounded cosmos  where the earth is not the centre.  As we’ve seen, the latter idea was not new and not controversial.  By the 1580s Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis wasn’t particularly new either, though it was more controversial – virtually no astronomers accepted it because it was recognised as having severe scientific flaws.  The important point to remember here is that at  that stage it was not considered heretical by religious authorities, even though some thought it had some potentially bothersome implications.

Copernicus had not even been the first proto-scientist to explore the idea of a moving  earth.  The medieval scholar Nicholas Oresme had analysed the evidence that supported the idea the earth rotated way back in 1377 and regarded it as at least plausible.  The Church didn’t bat an eyelid.  Copernicus’ calculations and his theory had been in circulation long before his opus was published posthumously and and it had interested several prominent churchmen, including Pope Clement VII, who got Johan Widmanstadt to deliver a public lecture on the theory in the Vatican gardens, which the Pope found fascinating.  Nicholas Cardinal Schoenburg then urged Copernicus to publish his full work, though Copernicus delayed not because of any fear of religious persecution but because of the potential reaction of other mathematicians and astronomers.  Heliocentrism didn’t become a religious hot topic until the beginning of the Galileo affair in 1616, a decade and half after Bruno’s death.

Again, the Cosmos writers seem to be at least vaguely aware of all this and so do some fancy footwork to keep their parable on track.  In the cartoon’s depiction of Bruno’s trial we get the first hint that the Church’s beef with Bruno might actually have been to do with ideas that had zero to do with an infinite cosmos, multiple worlds or any cosmological speculations at all.  So the Disney villain Inquisitor reads out a list of accusations such as “questioning the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ” and a few other purely religious charges.  The depiction gives the impression that these are somehow less important or even trumped up accusations, when in fact these are the actual reasons Bruno was burned at the stake, along with others beside.  As horrific as it is to us, denying the virginity of Mary, saying Jesus was merely a magician and denying Transubstantiation did get you burned in 1600 AD, though only if you refused repeated opportunities to recant.

But the cartoon wants to stick to its parable, so they tack on the final and, we are led to believe, most serious charge – “asserting the existence of other worlds”.  As we’ve already seen, however, this was not actually a problem at all.  Here’s NIcholas of Cusa on these other worlds in the book that inspired many of Bruno’s beliefs:

“Life, as it exists on Earth in the form of men, animals and plants, is to be found, let us suppose in a high form in the solar and stellar regions. Rather than think that so many stars and parts of the heavens are uninhabited and that this earth of ours alone is peopled – and that with beings perhaps of an inferior type – we will suppose that in every region there are inhabitants, differing in nature by rank and all owing their origin to God, who is the center and circumference of all stellar regions …. Of the inhabitants then of worlds other than our own we can know still less having no standards by which to appraise them.”

Again, remember that Cusanus was not burned at the stake, he was revered, praised and made a cardinal.

The only mention of other worlds in the accusations against Bruno specifies that he believed in “a plurality of worlds and their eternity“.  It was that last part that was the problem, not subscribing to an idea that a prince of the Church had espoused a century earlier.

The cartoon concludes with DeGrasse Tyson’s caveats about Bruno being “no scientist” and his ideas being no more than a “lucky guess”.  Some commenters seem to think that this somehow absolves the whole sequence of its distortions and that it means the show depicts Bruno only as a martyr to free thought and a lesson on the dangers of dogmatism.  But the problem with the cartoon is that it makes up a silly pastiche of real history, fantasy and oversimplified nonsense to achieve this aim.  The real story of Cusanus would actually have been a much more interesting one to tell and wouldn’t have had the Draper-White inspired baggage of the Bruno myths.  But the whole sequence seems to have had an agenda and a burned heretic story served that agenda’s purpose in a way that a revered and untrammelled medieval cardinal’s story would not have.

The objective here was to make a point about free thought and dogmatism in the context of the culture wars in the US about Creationism.  That Bruno was a believer in God was an idea that was repeated several times in the cartoon, even though he was actually more of a pantheist than anything.  But he is depicted as an open-minded and unconstrained believer who is oppressed and finally killed by the forces of dogmatic literalism.  The cartoon Bruno’s cry to the fruit-throwing Oxford scholars  – “Your God is too small!” – is actually the point of the whole parable.  This entire sequence was aimed at the dogmatic literalists in the American culture war while still trying to appeal to believers, given the majority of the show’s American audience would have been theists.  That’s the framework of this fable and the writers chopped up bits of the actual historical Bruno story and then clumsily forced them into this modern message.

This sequence wasn’t history or anything remotely like it – it was politics, pure and simple.

Which brings me back to my encounter with the statue in the Campo de’Fiori.  The statue was created by Ettore Ferrari and erected in 1889 in the wake of the unification of Italy in the face of Church opposition.  The monument, raised by members of the Grande Orient d’Italia Masonic order, was a deliberate political symbol of anti-clericalism.  Atheists and free thinkers revere it to this day and commemorate Bruno’s execution on Febrary 17 each year.

Of course, anyone who points out that Bruno is a rather ridiculous icon for atheists, given his kooky mystical views and magical practices is usually ignored.  And anyone who has the temerity to point out that he was executed for purely religious ideas and not any speculation about multiple worlds or a non-finite cosmos is usually (bizarrely) told they are somehow justifying his horrific execution.  As I’ve often noted, for people who call themselves rationalists, many of my fellow atheists can be less than rational.  Unfortunately, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, Steven Soter and Seth MacFarlane’s silly Bruno cartoon will definitely not help in that regard.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Giants’ Shoulders #69: The Tunnel Edition

It’s that day again, 16th of the month and time for a new edition of the world’s best history of science, medicine and technology bog carnival, Giants’ Shoulders. Number 69 in our series has now been posted at her Something by Virtue of Nothing blog by ane pixestos. The Tunnel Edition is a true giant; in fact it might well be the largest edition ever. If you work your way through everything listed there you should be finished just in time for Giants’ Shoulders #70!

Giants’ Shoulders #70 will be celebrating Sir Hans Sloane’s 354th birthday at The Sloane Letters Blog on 16th April 2014, hosted by mega blogger Lisa Smith (@historybeagle). Submission as ever direct to the host or to me here at RM or to either of us on Twitter by 15th of the month at the latest.

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A strange defence

This week saw the broadcast of the first episode of the remake of the legendary television series COSMOS, originally hosted by Carl Sagan and now being presented by Neil deGasse Tyson. Although I have now had the chance to view it thanks to the good offices of the man for all things Darwinian, Michael Barton (@darwinsbulldog), I’m not going to blog about it as Tim O’Neill, Renaissance Mathematicus reader and commentator, and fellow invincible warrior in the struggle against bad history of science,  is writing a guest post on the subject, which if all goes well will appear here on next Monday. However this post is directly concerned with one part of the show.

The centrepiece of the episode was an anime style carton on the life and thoughts of infamous Renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno. This immediately led to a raising chorus of voices on Twitter wondering what my views on this would be. Having in the mean time seen it I labelled it on Twitter an “Anime Draper-White for the Twenty-First Century”. For anybody who doesn’t know John William Draper (1811 – 1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832 – 1918) are the two nineteenth century American academics who created the myth of a war (their term) between science and religion. A myth still unfortunately believed in by many a gnu atheist.  I’m not going to say anything more about this unfortunate piece of animated bollocks, as I’m sure that Tim will comment extensively in his guest post.

However the rest of the Intertubes has not remained silent on the issue and I can recommend the eminently sensible post on the subject by Meg Rosenburg (@trueanomalies) and the wonderfully provocative post by Becky Ferreira (@beckyferreira) “What ‘cosmos’ got wrong about Giordano Bruno, the heretic scientist, which contains the absolutely brilliant description of Bruno: “Bruno was a walking, talking shit storm, with a black belt in burning bridges”.  How I wish that I had coined that sentence!

The debate continued at Discovery Magazine with a blog post by Cory S. Powell, “Did “Cosmos” pick the wrong hero?”, in which Powell suggests that Thomas Digges would have made a better subject for the cartoon than Bruno. Personally I side with Meg Rosenburg who asks whether we need any heroes at all when discussing the history of science; a rhetorical question to which the answer is no.

Powell’s post finally provoked a response from the makers of “Cosmos” in the form of a post by Steven Soter, astrophysicist and co-writer of “Cosmos”, titled The Cosmos of Giordano Bruno (now with added response from Powell) and it is to this post that I now wish to reply, as it contains a number of very questionable statements.

In his second paragraph Soter writes the following:

Powell’s critique dwells on the well-known facts that Bruno was a mystic and an extremely difficult person. Well, so was Isaac Newton, who devoted as much time to alchemy and biblical numerology as to physics. But that has no bearing whatever on his good ideas.

I could write a whole post just about this one paragraph. First off Soter is putting Bruno a man who had one half correct cosmological idea during an intoxicating religious fantasy, that makes you wonder if he’d been hitting the magic mushrooms, with Isaac Newton who produced some of the most important new mathematics, astronomy, and mathematical physics in the history of mankind. That’s one hell of a lopsided analogy Mr Soter! Secondly as anybody knows, who is up to date on his Newton research, or who has simply read some of my blog posts on the man, Newton’s theology and his alchemy did have a massive bearing on his ‘good ideas’.

Soter then corrects Powell as to who first claimed that the universe was infinite, which to be fair Powell got wrong, although neither of them remarks that Lucretius, Bruno’s source, didn’t think of this himself but actually got the idea from the Greek atomists.

We now come to the core of the matter and the reason why Soter et al claim to have included the Bruno cartoon in their show:

Bruno’s originality lies elsewhere. He was indisputably the first person to grasp that the Sun is a star and the stars are other suns with their own planets. That is arguably the greatest idea in the history of astronomy. Before Bruno, none of the other Copernicans ever imagined it.

Leaving aside the hyperbole about ‘the greatest idea in the history of astronomy’, as he says the question is highly debateable, this paragraph still has several issues. Firstly the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras had already suggested that the sun and the stars were one and the same in the fifth century BCE, although he didn’t hypothesise the presence of other planets. Secondly if this was the real reason for including the Bruno cartoon in this episode, why was the main emphasis of the cartoon placed on the Church’s treatment of Bruno as a heretic even to the extent of presenting the Church officials as demons with red glowing eyes, I smell a rat.

If you think I’m misinterpreting the message of the cartoon I offer this comment from Meg Roserburg’s post, Albeit says:

No offense, but I think you’re missing the point here. The moral of the story, as stated in Cosmos, is: don’t let your beliefs stand in the path of reality. Bruno’s necessarily oversimplified story is just a warning about anti-science and dogmatic thinking.

Throughout the Internet you can find similar interpretations, so either the message of the cartoon was other than claimed by Soter or they really made a balls up of scripting it.

Soter than attacks Powell’s suggestion that Thomas Digges should have been featured rather than Bruno, after all he did suggest that the universe is infinite before Bruno. Soter’s argument is a little strange he writes:

But Digges regarded the stars as “the court of the celestial angels” not as the suns of other material earths. And that was a big step backwards. In contrast, Bruno wrote, “the composition of our own stars and world is the same as that as many other stars and worlds as we can see.” His profound intuition had to wait three centuries to be verified by the spectroscope.

First off Digges’ claim that the stars were the court of the celestial angels is just bog standard medieval cosmology, so in that sense is not a step backwards. Secondly Digges wrote and published earlier than Bruno, so in that sense it is also not a step backwards.

That the composition of everything in the cosmos was the same is neither new nor original to Bruno. The Stoics had believed this in antiquity and there had been a major revival in Stoic scientific philosophy in the sixteenth century making Bruno considerably less original on this count than Soter would like to see him.

Soter is also guilty here of quote mining, selecting those parts of Bruno’s fantasy that fit with our modern concepts and quietly ignoring those that don’t. This is a form of presentism known as searching for predecessors. One takes an accepted scientific idea and filters through history to see if somebody had the same idea earlier, then crying eureka and declaring the discovered thinker to be a genius ahead of his or her times. This activity can best be observed in popular histories of atomism where everybody who ever believed that matter consists of some sort of particles are all swept up into one glorious heap and declared to be predecessors of John Dalton. In Bruno’s case one has to ignore the rather inconvenient fact that he thought that the whole of space was filled with identical solar systems placed throughout space at equal intervals, a conception that doesn’t quite fit with our actually understanding of the universe.

Soter now attacks Powell for saying that neither Kepler nor Galileo thought much of Bruno. Soter mocks and ridicules Kepler for believing in a finite universe.  This is ironic given that Soter thinks it is irrelevant that Bruno produced fifty tons of shit including rejecting the use of mathematics in science because he produced one tiny little diamond of thought.

Soter then quote mines again making Kepler to a supporter of Bruno. He correctly quotes a passage from Kepler’s Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo (1610) his response to Galileo’s telescopic discoveries.

What other conclusion shall we draw from this difference, Galileo, than that the fixed stars generate their lights from within, whereas the planets, being opaque, are illuminated from without; that is, to use Bruno’s terms, the former are suns, the latter, moons or planets?

Here Kepler is referring to the difference in the images of planets and stars when viewed through the new invention the telescope. Kepler would here be appearing to support Bruno’s theory and that is the impression that Soter wisher the reader to have but this is actually an illusion. Kepler says let us use Bruno’s term, he doesn’t say let us adopt Bruno’s theory. You might think I’m splitting hairs and that by adopting Bruno’s term Kepler is of course adopting Bruno’s theory but this is very definitely not the case. How can I be so sure? Because Kepler himself tells us so, he does so by evoking what is now known as Olbers’ paradox.  Kepler argues, as did Heinrich Olbers, a German astronomer, in the nineteenth century, that if the heavens were filled with an infinity of suns equally distributed in all direction, as Bruno claimed, then there would never be a night, these suns lighting up the skies twenty-four hours a day. His, incorrect but rational solution, to the paradox was that the Sun and the stars are fundamentally different and thus Bruno was wrong. Far from being a tacit supporter of Bruno’s hypothesis, as Soter would have us believe, Kepler actually refuted it with a good solid, if incorrect, scientific argument. A further irony in this situation is that Kepler was not the first to realise that an infinity of suns would lead to Olbers’ paradox, thus seeming to invalidate Bruno’s hypothesis, Thomas Digges, who hypothesised an infinity of stars before Bruno, also explicitly recognised the problem.

Having abused Kepler Soter now moves on to Galileo accusing him of plagiarism and cowardice, in the process again making a false claim:

Galileo never once mentioned Bruno’s name. Of course in the land of the Inquisition he had good reasons. But in his “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems” (the book that got him into deep trouble), he discretely accepted Bruno’s greatest idea, writing that the fixed stars are other suns.

Don’t let anybody tell you that being a pedantic history of science blogger is an easy life. Although I possess two different translations of Galileo’s magnum opus I don’t know it off by heart and was not aware of Galileo “discretely accepting Bruno’s greatest idea”, so I spent about four hours yesterday evening going through every single reference to star, stars or sun listed in the index to the Drake translation comparing with the Finocchiaro translation and searching for further information in five volumes of secondary literature. The only consolation for all of this effort was that I found the passage to which Soter is probably referring. On The Second Day in a discussion on the movement of the heavenly bodies Salviati makes the following observation:

Now behold how nature, favoring our needs and wishes, presents us with two striking conditions no less different than motion and rest; they are lightness and darkness – that is, being brilliant by nature or being obscure and totally lacking in light. Therefore bodies shining with internal and external splendour are very different in nature from bodies deprived of all light. Now the earth is deprived of light; more splendid in itself is the sun, and the fixed stars are no less so. The six moving planets entirely lack light, like the earth; therefore their essence resembles the earth and differs from the sun and the fixed stars: Hence the earth moves and the sun and the stellar sphere are motionless.

This passage is, like the Kepler quote above, very clearly based on Galileo’s telescopic observations of the stars and planet and their respective telescopic images and is not borrowed from Bruno. It is also clear that here Galileo is only referring to the stars and the sun both being self-illuminating, his discussion only treats of one attribute, lightness or darkness, but he doesn’t take the next step of saying that therefore they are the same. He might possibly have thought so but then again he might not. It is also clear here that with his reference to the stellar sphere Galileo s still accepting a traditional bounded finite cosmos.

I now turn to the implicit argument that Galileo didn’t reference Bruno because of the Inquisition, either through caution or, as I provocatively said above, through cowardice. This argument is not unique to Soter but has been used by numerous commentators in the Internet in the last few days. In the Roman Inquisition had, like the FBI, had a Most Wanted list, then during the first part of Galileo’s life Numero Uno on that list would have, without any doubt, been the Servite monk Paolo Sarpi (1552 – 1623).  To quote John Heilbron’s Galileo biography, “…the Servite Sarpi, would present the Vatican with a graver threat than Bruno”. During his years in the Republic of Venice, as professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, Galileo’s best mate and intellectual sparing partner was Sarpi, a fact that was publically well known. Unlike Bruno, who they regarded as a nuisance, the Venetian authorities, who were very proud of their intellectual rebel, Sarpi, who was Venetian born and bred, refused to deliver him to the Roman Inquisitions. Making him even more of a thorn in the side of the Church. Galileo’s close friendship to Sarpi was far more dangerous to his relations with the Church than any casual scientific reference to Bruno would have been. Galileo did not quote Bruno because he didn’t want to, not because he was scared of the Inquisition.

It is worth noting in this context that when Galileo applied for and was granted the position of court philosophicus and mathematicus to the Medici in Florence his Sarpian friends in Venice warned him against leaving the comparatively safe haven of thr Republic, where he was free to think and say almost anything he liked, for the shark infested waters of court intrigue and religious orthodoxy of Florence and Rome. However fame, fortune and social status were more important to Galileo than freedom of thought and speech so he ignored his friends’ warnings with the well known historical consequences.

To close this already over long post I would like to address a historiographical point related to Soter’s deification of Bruno in the history of science. Wirkungsgeschichte is a German term that refers to the historical impact of a scientific theory, invention, or discovery. Some ideas make little or no impact and disappear from the historical stage requiring them to be rediscovered at a later date. A classic example of this is the correct explanation of the cause of the rainbow. Theodoric of Freiberg discovered the correct explanation through empirical experiments in the thirteenth century. However his discovery had almost no impact and got lost, meaning that it wasn’t until the seventeenth century, when Descartes rediscovered it, that the correct explanation of the rainbow became generally known. Bruno’s lucky guess that the stars are suns or that the sun is a star had almost no impact and was largely ignored and forgotten. This makes him in a historical sense a dubious figure to elevate to the status of a scientific hero, as Soter apparently wished to do with his very strange animation in the COSMOS broadcast.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Where does the AD/BC dating convention come from?

I was already on record as expressing scepticism about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s forthcoming Cosmos television series, as I view his knowledge of the history of science as at least as bad if not worse than Carl Sagan’s was and that was pretty terrible. Yesterday evening my Twitter stream was full of people wondering what I would have thought of N dG T’s elevation of Giordano Bruno to the status of a great scientific thinker. Fortunately I can’t view Cosmos here in Germany and so I was spared this particular piece of history of science inanity. However I came across another wonderful example of N dG T’s fantasy version of the history of science today.

Massimo Pigliucci’s Rationally Speaking has a new podcast interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson on Why He Doesn’t Call Himself an Atheist. Tyson rejects the label atheist because of the expectations that radical atheists place on him, an attitude that I can more than sympathise with. The particular trigger for this discussion was Tyson being volubly criticised for using the expression god speed in a video, which he quite rightly regards as being an imposition. In the course of the discussion Tyson then goes on to list other Christian things that he likes, uses, accepts despite not believing in the Christian God. Again I have no argument with him in this. However he then let off a minor tirade about the calendar and those who reject the use of AD/BC.

Tyson’s argument was roughly as follows, The Gregorian Calendar is a great invention and should be respected. It was a Christian invention, created by Jesuit scientist. Accept it! (A paraphrase not a direct quote) This brief outburst contains a whole series of historical errors that are unfortunately typical for Tyson.

First off his main bone of contention the origins of the AD/BC dating system has nothing to do with Gregorian Calendar. The use of Anno Domini goes back to Dionysius Exiguus  (Dennis the Short) in the sixth century CE in his attempt to produce an accurate system to determine the date of Easter. He introduced it to replace the use of the era of Diocletian used in the Alexandrian method of calculating Easter, because Diocletian was notorious for having persecuted the Christians. Dionysius’ system found very little resonance until the Venerable Bede used it in the eight century CE in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede’s popularity as a historian and teacher led to the gradual acceptance of the AD convention. BC created in analogy to the AD convention didn’t come into common usage until the late seventeenth century CE. There is a certain irony in the fact that Dionysius miscalculated the birth of Christ who was most probably born sometime between six and four BCE. Whatever, the AD/BC dating convention has nothing to do with the Gregorian Calendar, although this did take it over.

Tyson’s little outburst however contains more historical errors. The Gregorian Calendar is indeed a Christian invention but it was not created by Jesuit scientists. First off to refer to anybody who existed before 1834 as a scientist is a historical anachronism to be avoided if at all possible. Personally I’m coming to the conclusion that the word scientist should be generally avoided, as it’s a highly ambiguous word, but that is the subject for another post. The people who created the Gregorian Calendar should be referred to as astronomers. Calendar creation and calculation has been the task of astronomers since the early years of antiquity.

Unfortunately for our intrepid science communicator the Gregorian Calendar was not created by the Jesuits. The original scheme for the calendar was worked out by Aloysius Lilius (vernacular either Luigi Lilio, or Luigi Giglio) who was a physician and astronomer from Calabria in Italy. Lillius was not a cleric of any sort let alone a Jesuit. His scheme was examined, contemplated and finally recommended by a committee that met irregularly over a period of more than ten years. The exact composition of this committee is not known, as it varied over the years, but nine members signed the final recommendation to the Pope of whom only one, the least significant member Christoph Clavius, was a Jesuit. Following the introduction of the calendar by the Catholic Church Clavius, at the request of the Pope, took over the defence of the new system of time measurement against its many critics, writing six books on the subject over the next thirty odd years, thus becoming closely associated with the calendar although he did not create it.

These are all facts that are easily accessible to anybody with use of a good library or who knows their way around the Internet (hint, hint Wikipedia!) and there is absolutely no excuse for Tyson to spout his fully incorrect version of history, which will unfortunately be accepted as gospel by his army of worshipers.

Addendum: Both the Jewish and the Islamic calendars are older than the Gregorian calendar so why should these two non Christian peoples accept the AD/BC dating convention? There are other older calendars in use in India, China, Persia, same argument. Also the Gregorian calendar is only a slightly modified version of the Julian calendar, which was distinctly non Christian and it was nothing more or less than the Egyptian solar calendar in use since about four thousand BCE, again anything but Christian.


Filed under Myths of Science, Renaissance Science