Cobbler stick to thy last

If you are a regular reader of my outpourings you can skip this post, as I shan’t be saying anything that you’ve not already read, probably more than once, because we’re back to the topic of astronomy, cosmology, Galileo and the Church at the beginning of the 17th century.

Rob Knop is an astrophysicist who blogs under the title Galactic Interactions as part of the Scientopia blogging collective. His most recent post bears the provocative title In Which I Compare the Slashdot Commentariat to the 17th-Century Catholic Church. This is an impassioned rant aimed at those Internet commentators who dare to cast doubt on the existence of dark matter, an unforgivable sin in Professor Dr. Knop’s opinion. He accuses them of holding the opinion that they do, because, unlike him, they are not qualified astrophysicists and therefore do not know what they are talking about. I refrain from commenting on this part of Rob Knop’s rant, as he would only dismiss anything I might say on the grounds that I also am not an astrophysicist. However I will comment on the following section of his rant stated in his imposing title. Here he equates those who question the existence of dark matter with those who initially rejected heliocentricity, and in particular the leadership of the Catholic Church, at the start of the 17th century. He writes:

Much as… the 17th century Catholic church (sic) just knew that Galileo (and others) were wrong about Heliocentrism, because it’s obvious to everyday observation that the Earth is still and the Sun is going around it. (Also, the Bible says so.) And, just as the leaders of the Catholic church (sic) completely discounted (and indeed refused to look at) Galileo’s observation of Jupiter’s moons orbiting Jupiter (and, crucially, not the Earth)…

 We are of course here in Draper-White territory, deep in the 19th century and the “war between science and religion”. It is indeed true that the Catholic Church rejected heliocentricity at this time because it conflicted with their theology but as I have pointed out more than once also because there was no proof for the heliocentric hypothesis and in fact serious empirical arguments against it. It is indeed obvious that the world in still and demonstrating otherwise proved to be very difficult, which brings us to the second half of the passage I have quoted above.

Galileo’s observations of Jupiter’s moons do not refute the Ptolemaic geocentric hypothesis or prove the Copernican heliocentric one, as Galileo well knew. In fact he was very careful never to claim that they did. What they do refute is the Aristotelian homocentric hypothesis, which is a completely different kettle of fish and which the contemporary Ptolemaic astronomers were not sorry to see go, as I have already commented long ago. Secondly the Catholic Church did not refuse to look at Galileo’s Jupiter observations, it is true that some senile prelate said that he did not need to look through a telescope to know that Galileo was wrong but one prejudiced fool in not the whole Church. In fact the Church in the form of Roberto Bellarmino, the leading theologian of the time, asked the astronomers of the Collegio Romano if they could confirm Galileo’s observations. This they could and did do, even inviting Galileo to a banquet in his honour to celebrate his discoveries. All of this Professor Knop he would have learnt as an undergraduate in history of astronomy 101 if he was a historian of science. This of course is the raison d’être for writing this post and for its title. Rob Knop criticises people who he considers to be unqualified for calling the dark matter hypothesis into question and then precedes to trample all over the history of 17th century astronmy a subject of which he is obviously totally ignorant.

As a sort of footnote I will point out that the German astronomer Simon Marius who discovered the moons of Jupiter one day later than Galileo, and whose observations of them were more accurate than his Tuscan rival’s, also rejected the heliocentric hypothesis preferring instead the Tychonic geocentric-heliocentric model with which the observations were totally compatible. My Internet friend and colleague Professor Christopher Graney is currently involved in a longer research project looking at which model of the solar system was more plausible in the 17th century given the available scientific evidence. Know what? His research shows very clearly that the evidence supports the Tychonic system over the Copernican!


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

25 responses to “Cobbler stick to thy last

  1. Pingback: Cobbler stick to thy last | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Ha perfect! When I read that part of the post I immediately wondered if you’ll find time to write something — thanks to the education through your posts I almost made a comment myself (but didn’t find the time).
    Thank you!

  3. Thony – I’d be keen to learn more about Professor Christopher Graney’s research. Just recently I was having a debate about the status of heliocentrism in Galileo’s time, with the other guy claiming that “only the Jesuits” were “still clinging” to any form of geocentric model and that the science of the matter was accepted as settled. This is clearly nonsense, but I found it difficult to quantify the support for the various models, especially in the face of people who simply didn’t want to believe there was any scientific basis to the Church’s postion at all and who wanted to stick with the “good science vs bad religion” black and white cartoon version of the Galileo Affair.

    • Tim, most of what Chris has published till now has been fairly bitty and fairly technical but he now has a major paper covering the topic in more general terms due to appear in The Journal of the History of Astronomy. As you might know with academic journals this might take some time. I will inform readers here when it does finally appear.

    • I came across Christopher Graney’s papers on the arxiv a while ago, by chance. I found them really very interesting, and I was wondering how the history of science community does react to them. So I am glad to hear that they are appreciated!

  4. Thanks very much for standing up for us poor, beleaguered historians of science. As your post clearly shows for the umpteenth time, we find ourselves in something of a predicament. On the one hand, we chose our profession because we admire scientists, we love science and we would love it even more, if actual scientists paid attention to what we have to say. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case. Most scientists, even very smart ones, happily ignore a hundred years or so worth of groundbreaking research in the field of their own history (something they would consider worse than a sin in their own profession), preferring to continue nineteenth-century hero worship of the most frumpish kind, firedancing around a select group of people such as Galileo and Newton. This state of affairs is quite distressing, and it’s made worse by the fact that some high profile scientists who are successful popularizers also believe they can be reliable historians of science just by spouting Draper-White-nonsense in their lectures and tv shows, contributing to the further ossification of tired old myths. In the world these people inhabit, there was simply no science before Galileo, not even astronomy, and picturesque anecdotes about dropping weights from the tower of Pisa are historical facts.
    How is the general public supposed to learn ANYTHING new about the history of science if top notch scientists themselves are not prepared to take the first step?

    • Baerista, you comment could have been written by me, expect for the fact that your grammar and spelling are both more reliable than mine. It’s nice to know that their are kindred spirits out there in cyberspace.

  5. Michael Fugate

    This doesn’t really surprise me, but it will be interesting to read his conclusions. I think you would be hard-pressed to say the tychonic system is geocentric; it is a hybrid with elements of both geocentric and heliocentric systems.
    I would be interested in some comments on what I think are unsupported assumptions from very early on that may have slowed astronomical advances.
    1) the distance to the stars – because they were assumed to be close and no parallax can be detected with the naked eye. This fact could have been explained by assuming greater distances, did anyone ever propose this? If so why was it rejected?
    2) the size of the earth in relation to the other heavenly bodies – this is related to the first and once again has no hard evidence to support it.
    3) circular orbits – this seems to be tied up with religious ideas of heavenly perfection, but I could be missing something else. Is there no evidence of any attempt at elliptical orbits before Kepler? With all of the complications of equants, eccentrics, epicycles and the like – it is interesting that his was not attempted. Or was it?

    Another thing that baffles me, maybe because I am just looking at it from centuries of experimental science, but did people really think that a moving earth would lead to things flying off? It just seems that someone had to notice that if you jumped or threw an apple into the air while in a moving wagon, you or the apple didn’t go flying out the back.

    Also there are the speeds needed to move the celestial spheres – talk about energy usage – the gods must have been pedaling hard….

  6. White’s Warfare of Science with Theology is certainly having a green old age despite its bad reputation among people who actually know something about the history of science. Giving it a serious read might be an interesting experiment, something like attempting to enter into the worldview of the Aztecs. I remember thinking the book was weirdly anti-historical when I read it as a kid–not that it was wrong about this, that, or the other thing but that it seemed to treat the past as an undifferentiated reign of error, a dark hallway illuminated at rare intervals by sparks of reason. I was impressed that the book was full of Latin quotations, but it bothered me that most of ’em weren’t dated. At fifteen, I didn’t know shit from shinola about the details of the Galileo case and other particulars; but even then I did get it that there was a difference between, say, the 4th Century and the 12th. I didn’t know much history, but I knew that there was such a thing as history.

    I think I’ll actually scare up the book and give it a read one of these days–I still have the old Dover reprint around here someplace. Maybe my memory isn’t doing it justice. Alternatively, maybe it is; and rereading the thing will give me an opportunity to luxuriate further in the ineffable pleasures of snark.

  7. Roberto Bellarmino, the leading theologian of the time, asked the astronomers of the Collegio Romano if they could confirm Galileo’s observations. This they could and did do, even inviting Galileo to a banquet in his honour to celebrate his discoveries.

    You’re seriously going to leave that as your statement of the Church’s response to Galileo?

    No mention of, say, the house arrest in which Galileo spent the last decades of his life after conviction for heresy?

    Isn’t that, er, a rather cherry-picked version of the Galileo affair? If one is going to summarize the most important point very briefly, is it that there were some who celebrated him early on, or that he was tried and convicted of heresy and spent decades in house arrest? I mean, come on.

    My brief statement on it may have been oversimplified, but if you’re going to make a very brief description of what happened, “Galileo was celebrated at a banquet” obscures far more history than saying that Galileo got in trouble with the Church who refused his scientific arguments on cultural grounds!

    • Like a lot of people ignorant of 17th century history of science who still nurture a 19th century wish to see Galileo as a scientific martyr persecuted by the evil science hating church, having had your original completely false historical statements corrected you are now desperately trying to move the goal posts.

      You stated and have now restated that the Church’s rejection of heliocentricity was purely unscientific, as I have already said this is fundamentally false. If Galileo, or anybody else for that matter had been able to produce scientific evidence to support heliocentricity then the Church would have been forced to give way and would certainly have done so, as Bellarmino clearly stated in writing. However in the second decade of the 17th century heliocentricity was a highly dubious hypothesis that was contradicted by most of the then available empirical scientific evidence. That evidence would be delivered piece for piece over the next 150 years by scholars building on foundations laid down in part by Galileo.

      I corrected your false statements concerning the Church’s attitude to the discovery of the moons of Jupiter something that took place between 1610 and 1612. You are now ranting on about the trial of Galileo in 1633 twenty years later of which you made no mention in your original comment so why should I?

      If you had done so you probably would not have liked my correction of your false perceptions of that situation either. The trial of Galileo is a very, very complex historical affair and I estimate that if I placed all the monographs and papers that I have read on the subject next to each other they would occupy several metres of bookshelf. To try and deal with it in a comments column would be perverse to say the least.

      I will have make a brief and for you certainly provocative summary. Contrary to your own fairly uninformed viewpoint Galileo’s trial had very little to do with science, his or anybody else’s. Galileo was a professional courtier in an absolutist political system who made a mistake made by many court favourites both before and after him and he was very much a court favourite. He thought he was important enough to expose his court patron, the Pope, to ridicule and because he was so clever and admired for his cleverness get away with it. He couldn’t and didn’t.

      Before you make the mistake of accusing me of being an apologist for the Catholic Church, which you have already done on your own blog, I should point out that I in no way condone the Pope’s treatment of Galileo or the Church’s half cocked efforts to prohibit the progress of science. I’m a historian and the function of a historian is as far as possible to ascertain the facts of a given historical situation without passing judgement and that is what I, to the best of my ability, do. Your version of the Galileo story is largely a myth based on prejudice and ignorance and I find it sad that people like yourself insist on propagating that myth. I see you have linked to Open Parachute, you are in good company Ken’s ignorance of the history of science is just as great as yours.

    • No, Galileo was not convicted of heresy. He was vehemently suspected of heresy. Even if he were a heretic, that is a theological conclusion, not a scientific one. If you are a scientist, and you want to make scientific arguments, then the relevant issue would be the scientific arguments at the time, not the theological ones.

      It is just not true that the Church refused Galileo’s scientific arguments on cultural grounds. The Church gave valid scientific arguments.

      • What the heck would “cultural grounds” mean to anybody in 1633?

      • I’ll just get out my Tardis and go ask 😉

      • I was just quoting Rob Knop with the “cultural grounds”. I don’t know why he would care so much about a finding of heresy anyway. Heresy is a theological conclusion. If he wants to make a scientific point, then he should criticize the scientific arguments that the Church was making.

      • There seems to be some misunderstanding. If I read his comment correctly, Knop is bringing up the suspicion/accusation of heresy as an illustration of the Church’s attitude and actions towards Galileo. So your comment below that

        “Heresy is a theological conclusion. If he wants to make a scientific point, then he should criticize the scientific arguments that the Church was making.”

        seems somewhat beside the point here. He (Knop) is not making a scientific point, but trying to make a historical one. None of this affects the substantive points made above by TC, of course

      • Knop was ultimately making an argument for the existence of dark matter, and comparing skepticism to the 17C Church. He then emphasizes that Galileo was convicted of heresy, with the emphasis on heresy. He seems to be trying to make the point that Galileo was punished for being theologically incorrect, rather than being scientifically incorrect. It is not clear why he should be so bothered by this, if he really wants to make an argument for dark matter.

  8. Otto

    By the way, what would be a nice, modern book about the Galileo trial?

  9. Jeb

    I don’t think this is an attempt is to make a historical point and I don’t think the argument is motivated by any interest in exploring and questioning the historical record.

    19th century legend’s deployed as a foundational support for 21’st century beliefs.

    It has all the hallmarks of a live cultural tradition.

    I think this is an example of a common feature observed in folk belief, termed ‘legendary proof’ rather than simply an example of bogus, false or simply badly understood history.

    If it was simply a case of poor use of history it would be much simpler to resolve by historical revision.

    This argument seems somewhat immune to that approach.

    From a historical perspective this argument appears to be a walking corpse and something of a dead end, from an ethnological perspective it is living and breathing and raises a range of interesting live question and issues that are central to the subject.

    • Yep. Comparative religion folks of my vintage used to speak about “sacred history,” which is pretty much the elaborated, often written down version of what you call “legendary proof.” Since people who care about cultural history are usually respectful of their object of study, talking about sacred history allowed them to take note of the factual falsity of the “things you are liable to read in the Bible” without embracing the Enlightenment theory of priestly fraud. The liberal Protestants who invented the higher criticism generally took this route.

      Maybe somebody can be found to tease out the contributions of the J and Priestly sources to the fables retailed in physics textbooks—Richard Feynman acknowledged that the history is such books was largely sacred narrative but defended it for its pedagogical utility. The funny thing is, if I’m right, the Manichean component of scientific folk history, in particular the version of the Galileo story invoked by Knop actually developed from Protestant sources, not from sweetness and light 19th Century liberal Protestants but from 17th Century fire-breathing anti-papist English Puritans and the famous Black Legend.

  10. Jeb

    A basic distribution map of its historical and geographical range would be useful.

    Once you can see where and when these things cluster they become far more easy to understand and clearly classify.

    Late 17th century origin is an interesting suggestion. Holds the possibility that a rather interesting pattern may unfold.

  11. Jeb

    p.s Jim

    “Feynman acknowledged that the history is such books was largely sacred narrative but defended it for its pedagogical utility. ”

    The migratory legend I’ve studied most which appears in 17th century natural history, turns up at first in the early monastic communities of the near east and the first monastic communities in the West.

    An American academic who was the first to engage on an extensive study of it’s origins described it’s original function in the monastery as primarily intended for moral education and entertainment.

    Strikes me its a description you can apply to the black legend and a lot of the science foundation- legends that have contemporary mass appeal.

    I start to suspect their is the possible potential to subtitle “Cobbler stick to thy last” with “Get Thee to a Monastery”

  12. p.p.s. Thony, William Whewell also notes on the Virgil mirror argument developing at this time and continued by A.D. White et. al.

    “which is circulated by Kepler and by more modern writers, is undoubtedly altogether false.”

    A wide web of interests supporting these legends

  13. Pingback: Change | Homunculus Argument

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