A revisionist historian of science on the Scientific American Guest Blog.

Over the Easter Weekend the Scientific American Guest Blog posted a three-part essay by historian of science, Gennady Gorelik.  How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 1: The Needham Question, How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 2: source of fundamental laws, How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 3: Why Galileo didn’t discover universal gravitation? Having carefully read through this document I can only call it bizarre. If I had stumbled across this in the Internet and it stated that it had been written in 1965 I would have thought OK but we have moved on since then. However these are the actual thoughts of the author and I’m afraid I must label him a revisionist historian of science.

Gorelik, whom I had not previously heard of, is a historian of science at Boston University and the author of a book about Andrei Sakharov and he was motivated to write this essay by H. Floris Cohen’s most recent book How Modern Science Came into the World: Four Civilizations, One 17th-Century Breakthrough. Now Floris Cohen I have heard of and he is a leading Dutch historian of 17th century science. I have not yet read his weighty tome (it runs at just under 800 pages) but it has been high up on my infinite list of books to read since its publication was first announced a couple of years ago. Cohen believes he has found a solution to the Needham Question and apparently Gorelik thinks he is wrong and wishes to present us with his own solution. The Needham Question was asked by the eminent historian of Chinese science Joseph Needham and put simply it asks why did modern science evolved in Renaissance Europe and not in Ancient Greece, India, China or the Islamic Empire all of which appeared to be heading, at least scientifically, in the right direction. Originally Needham even claimed that the preconditions for the evolution of modern science in the Middle Ages were better in China than in Europe. Much has been written on this subject and now Cohen has added his 800 pages to the pile prompting Gorelik to contradict him. Interestingly although he makes it clear in his essay that he rejects Cohen’s solution Gorelik never really explains what exactly Cohen’s answer is.

Gorelik gets off to a very bad start as far as I’m concerned by making Galileo alone responsible for the birth of modern physics (he somehow reduces the evolution of modern science down to the single discipline of physics of which more later) even going so far as to call on Albert Einstein as his expert authority:

[] it was Galileo who had invented something profoundly new to prompt Einstein to title him the father of modern physics

Now regular readers of this blog will not need to be reminded why I totally reject the use of the phrase ‘father of’ and those who have been reading longer will also know that one of my most provocative posts in the past dealt with the mythical status of Galileo and his role in the evolution of science. I shall not repeat all of that here but for those who wish to refresh their memories please feel free to follow the links. Gorelik goes even further down this particular path when he accuses Cohen of not following him in recognising and honouring Einstein’s authority in this question:

Neither H. F. Cohen nor P. Harrison [I wont be dealing with Gorelik’s comments on Harrison’s book here] quoted Einstein’s words on Galileo as “the father of modern physics”, apparently thinking that an opinion of a physicist of 20th century is irrelevant for the science of 17th century. Indeed “presentism” (thinking about past in terms of modern concepts) is a common danger for historical considerations, but it is not so in the case when we are tracing the origin of MODERN physics. [Emphasis in original]

Now I’m a big fan of Albert E and spent a lot of time in my youth reading both his scientific and non-scientific writings as well as a truck full of secondary material on his life and work and whatever his qualities and qualifications are, both as a scientist and as a social philosopher, he is not a historian of science. Albert’s opinions on Galileo’s historical status carry no more weight that those of my hairdresser and have no place in a serious history of science discussion. In fact it has been observed on more than one occasion that the people who spout the most rubbish about the history of a scientific discipline are the scientists themselves. Einstein is no exception to this observation.

Gorelik thinks that what distinguishes Galileo from Archimedes (he doesn’t consider other predecessors) is that all of Archimedes scientific concepts were directly evident and evidently logical whereas Galileo worked with inevident and illogical fundamental notions quoting the vacuum and motion in a vacuum as examples. Claiming total originality for Galileo in the use of these notions. Strangely Gorelik points out that Aristotle had argued against the existence of a vacuum and the possibility of motion in one but ignores the fact that Aristotle’s arguments are part of a long philosophical discussion on the subject that both predates Aristotle and is carried on throughout the Middle Ages, right down to the time of Galileo, making Galileo’s originality on the subject somewhat different to that which Gorelik is claiming. What Gorelik is claiming, quoting Copernicus’ heliocentrism as another example, is that what distinguishes scientific thinkers in the early modern period is their ability to think outside of the box. Unfortunately for him the history of science prior to the early modern period is littered with examples of scholars thinking outside of the box both within Europe and outside of it. As a distinguishing criterion it fails dismally.

Before moving on to Gorelik’s second post and his explanation for Galileo and Co.’s ability to think outside the box I shall return to his reduction of the evolution of modern science to that of modern physics. Here, along with his placing Galileo on a pedestal, we have the principle reason why I have labelled him a revisionist. Early history of science concentrated on the changes in mathematics, astronomy and physics in the early modern period, in fact reducing the so-called scientific revolution to just these disciplines and even basing the whole of the philosophy of science and the so-called scientific method on them and their development. Since then researchers have shown that in the period between about 1400 and 1750 there were major changes in a very wide range of disciplines in the natural sciences, in the life sciences, in the humanities and even in the social sciences. Any attempt to explain this seismic intellectual shift in European culture cannot be restricted to just the mathematical sciences but must explain the evolution across the whole spectrum. Gorelik seems to be stuck in a time warp somewhere in the 1950s or 1960s if not even earlier.

Gorelik’s explanation as to why Galileo and Co thought outside the box, presented in his second post, turns out also to be more than somewhat dated he argues namely that they did so because they believed in fundamental laws of nature and that this is a result of their being devote Christians. He doesn’t actually explain why a belief in fundament laws of nature leads one to think outside the box, this part of his argument seems to have fallen down the crack between parts one and two. Now the argument that the so-called scientific revolution was driven by a belief in the laws of nature and that this in turn was motivated by Christian theological philosophy is anything but new. It also is at least at one level true. However as an explanation for the so-called scientific revolution it suffers from a fundamental flaw. The investigators of the natural world in both Ancient Greece and the Islamic Empire also believed that the world was created according to rational laws and that humans were capable of deciphering those laws. In fact as my friend John Wilkins, a bona fide philosopher of science, likes to point out this very concept in mediaeval Christian theology is actually borrowed from Plato so as an explanation for the evolution of modern science it is at best inadequate. One thing that I will credit Gorelik with is that he realises that the religious views and philosophies of the 17th century scientists were often at odds with each other so instead of saying that their belief in the laws of nature are a result of them being Christians he says it’s because they are all Bible readers. He then goes off on a long rambling explanation of how Bible reading was responsible for the creation and dissemination of modern science that I’m not going to discuss but he includes one gem that I can’t ignore.

Gorelik claims that modern atheism is also a product of what he calls this Bible culture and falls into the trap of quoting Edmond Halley as an example of an overt atheist. Halley was dammed as an atheist by John Flamsteed in their protracted feud, however to conclude from this that Halley was an overt atheist in the modern sense is a historical error. Halley did not measure up to Flamsteed’s own extremely devote standards of Christianity and so Flamsteed labelled him an atheist. The use of the word here is more like a generic insult and not to be taken literally. Although Halley was almost certainly a very lax Christian by Flamsteed’s standards he was almost certainly not an atheist. Points like this illustrate that Gorelik is not at home in 17th century science and that his knowledge of the material he is discussing is very superficial. This superficiality raises its head again in his claim that Galileo invented the two books trope, the Bible and the Book of Nature. In fact this trope had been in existence throughout the Middle Ages and Galileo was merely trying to use it to his advantage.

The third part of Gorelik’s essay goes completely off topic and he turns to the question why didn’t Galileo discover the law of gravity. I shall ignore his hypothetical argument attempting to show why Galileo should have done so and shall instead just comment briefly on his explanation as to why Galileo did not do so. Gorelik thinks Galileo failed to discover the law because he spent too much time on his form of popular-science writing! Galileo wrote two major books his Dialogo and his Discorsi. The second is one of the most important pieces of scientific writing in the 17th century but in fact Gorelik is referring to the first. Gorelik is apparently unaware that Galileo regarded his theory of the tides, the final section and crowning glory (the forth day) of his Dialogo, as being his greatest scientific discovery, a proof of heliocentricity! Now to dismiss this as time wasting shows a complete lack of knowledge of Galileo his work and his motivations and one has to ask why Gorelik thinks he is in anyway qualified to write about this period in the history of science. I also have to ask why Scientific American Blogs thought this very confused, ill informed, revisionist piece of writing was worth publishing?

The above by no means includes all of Gorelik’s bizarre claims and factual errors but to do so I would have to write a post even longer than his three-part epic and I don’t wish to subject my readers to that torture.

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Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

8 responses to “A revisionist historian of science on the Scientific American Guest Blog.

  1. Pingback: A revisionist historian of science on the Scientific American Guest Blog. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. I’m actually working my way through similar material at the moment for my next book, presenting a perspective on the history of gravity in order to discuss the nuts and bolts of materialism and mechanism. And it’s damn hard to shrink it all into a small chapter, precisely for this reason. There is no simple turning point, or epiphany, or individual mind that one can invoke to say ‘physics really started here’. Even Aristotle was contradicted (correctly) before he made such statements on the velocity of objects in freefall.

    My sticking point recently was in trying to figure the exact nature of Galileo’s inertia. It seems even over his lifetime, the connotation of his use of terms such as ‘impetus’ subtly shifted. I had a hard time pinning it down. Yet there was an evolution beyond Galileo that continued to change how impetus became described closer to our modern view of inertia, putting him in a continuum of understanding.

    I’m with you – ‘father of…’ is a term I think presents a very skewed vision of history.

  3. fusilier

    I cannot remember the fellow’s name – Stanley Janek (Jasik, or something like that) a catholic priest from Eastern Europe – who made similar arguments. I read one of his books about ten years ago and although it was written in the late 1980s, none of his references on Chinese or Islamic science dated after the 12th or 13th centuries CE.

    Odd, to say the least.

    James 2:24

  4. Thank you for this Thony – one would think there are more editorial checks and balances in place at a place like SciAm. The Cohen book is a fascinating read, I’m glad I have the much lighter pdf edition!

    “Father of” statements are often quite useless. I understand that journalists with a limited knowledge of a topic may like to trot them out but when the author is an academic/professional it makes it harder to swallow. It would be much easier to simply describe the impact they had on the field, rather than trying to sum it up with such a bland statement. An amusing parallel you’ll find in art history is over “who is the father of modern art?” – Depending on who you ask you will get answers ranging from Giorgione to Turner or Picasso!

  5. “Depending on who you ask you will get answers ranging from Giorgione to Turner or Picasso!”

    But agreement that the concept modern art exists and is definable. Role of these mythical creatures and foundation legends is demarcative rather than aetiological. It makes a difference; the origin or cause stressed is insignificant in-itself as is the history (these are mythic discourses rather than historical ones).

    The only role such things have is to fully establish a diffrence as different. Picasso, Giorgione, Turner, Bacon, Galileo, irrelevant what name or legendary veneer you use to move myth closer to history, the goal is simply to establish origin and diffrence.

  6. Jeb

    I should have cited properly as I ripped it directly from Levi-Strauss discussion on origin myths and totemism in the Savage Mind. Had just read the chapter yet again before reading the post

  7. Pingback: Mathblogging.org Weekly Picks « Mathblogging.org — the Blog

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