Dear Stu, you might be a good novelist but you’re a lousy historian.

The latest Guardian science blog by Stuart Clark contains a piece of history of science stupidity that can only be explained by assuming that he hit the Kool Aid before putting finger to keyboard.

Like many science bloggers Dr Clark has decided to add his voice to the mighty chorus crying shame over the more than somewhat bizarre court judgement in the Italian earthquake case. Also like several of his Internet colleagues he has chosen to draw parallels with the equally notorious case of Galileo Galilei from 1633. This is in my opinion an unwise move. In general trying to draw comparisons across centuries of history is not usually a very good idea. Put simply circumstances change. The social and political contexts of the two cases are completely different. Just to take some simple points; the one case is in a democratic country in a civil court in the twenty-first century, the other is in an absolutist state, in an ecclesiastical tribunal in the seventeenth century. It’s not even a case of comparing apples and oranges, more like comparing apples and orang-utans!

Having said all of that Clark actually makes some fairly valid and intelligent points. Having established that the earthquake case is one of bad science communication and not one of bad science he then goes on to claim that Galileo’s case was also one of bad science communication. This is only partially correct as the case had several dimensions of which the bad science communication was only one and not necessarily the most important. However given the usual rubbish that people spout when talking about the trial of Galileo, Clark certainly earns quite a few Brownie points. He then even improves on his own performance by pointing out that Galileo was actually making scientific claims that he couldn’t back up with evidence, never a very smart move. So far so good.

So why have I called the good Dr Clark a lousy historian? Am I just being mean spirited? No! The sting is in the tail. Having actually written a reasonably sensible article he then goes and spoil it all in his third from last paragraph with some statements of breath taking stupidity as he steps in it with both feet.

In 1633, the punitive treatment of Galileo eviscerated the practice of astronomy in Italy for centuries. He was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life and although the conviction was for miscommunication, astronomy itself became toxic. Even the staunchly Catholic Society of Jesus moved its astronomical efforts to the far east (sic)  to stay out of the Vatican’s gaze.

In the first sentence he writes, “…eviscerated the practice of astronomy in Italy for centuries”. Now eviscerated literally mean gutted, that is disembowelled. So he is claiming that Italian astronomy was demolished, destroyed, wiped out, became effectively non-existent, disappeared from the face of the earth, or whichever suitably dramatic means of destruction you prefer; a strong claim indeed. This however is not enough, this hatchet job on the ancient and honourable science of astronomy was not for a few months or a couple of years but for centuries, note the plural. This means for at least two hundred years, which would take us to 1833! However if one means two centuries then one usually says a couple of centuries; centuries without qualifications implies much more, three or four or … This would of course take us past the present day. Lets be generous and say that Dr Clark got a little carried away in the heat of the moment and he really meant to say a century and not centuries. Does this improve his chances of being right? No, unfortunately it doesn’t.

I’m not going to write a complete history of seventeenth century Italian astronomy post Galileo but I will indulge in some cherry picking to demonstrate that the good Dr Clark is talking through his posterior. Before I do so I should point out that the Jesuit mission to the Far East, including the transmission of European astronomy, started long before the trial of Galileo and has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Galileo gained his fame through his telescopic observations so let us start with the history of the telescope in astronomy post Galileo. The first person to successfully develop an astronomical or Keplerian telescope was Francesco Fontana (1580 – 1656) an Italian astronomer. He was superseded as the leading European telescope maker by Eustachio Divini (1610 – 1685), an Italian astronomer, who also made several important astronomical discoveries. Divini reigned supreme until challenged and in his turn superseded as Europe’s number one by Giuseppe Campini (1635 – 1715) an Italian astronomer whose telescopes were purchased by all of the leading European astronomers. It was Campini and not Cassini who first observed the so-called Cassini Division in the Rings of Saturn.

Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625 – 1712) was of course an Italian astronomer and a Jesuit educated and trained one at that. Some people might object that Cassini worked in France, and not Italy, as the de facto head of the Paris Observatory but he was already regarded as one of the leading European astronomers when he became the subject of the most expensive transfer deal in seventeenth century astronomy, moving from professorship at the University of Bologna to Paris. Cassini was a protégée of Riccioli and Grimaldi. Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598 -1671) was a Jesuit priest who was the first to successfully confirm Galileo’s laws of fall whilst his partner Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618- 1663), another Jesuit priest, was the first to observe and describe optical diffraction. Together they produced one of the most accurate maps of the moon.

Astronomy is a science that requires the accumulation of vast quantities of data, best accomplished as a collective activity. In the seventeenth century Athanasius Kircher (1601 -1680), also a Jesuit priest, who was not an Italian, but was professor of Mathematics at the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit University in Rome, collected data from Jesuit and non-Jesuit astronomers throughout the world that he collated and then distributed throughout the European astronomical community.

The list goes on. Niccolò Zucchi (1586 -1670) Jesuit astronomer and friend of Galileo famous for his failed attempt to construct a reflecting telescope. Giovanni Battista Zupi (1590 -1650), Jesuit astronomer, who was the first to observe the orbital phases of mercury, thus proving that it orbited the sun. Geminiano Montanari (1633 -1687), Italian astronomer, was the first to demonstrate that Algol is a variable star. Carlo Antonio Manzini (1599 – 1668), Italian astronomer, was the first to publish an account of how to grind and polish telescope lenses.

I could go on but I don’t wish to bore my readers. If you have come this far I think you will agree that for an eviscerated corpse seventeenth century Italian astronomy proved remarkably lively and that the Jesuit seem to have been rather present and not withdrawn at all.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

17 responses to “Dear Stu, you might be a good novelist but you’re a lousy historian.

  1. Pingback: Dear Stu, you might be a good novelist but you’re a lousy historian. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Michael Boswell

    May be your should also write about the Jesuit contirbution to astronomy but I suspect the book has been written by someone else and runs to many volumes.

  3. The other great howler is that he writes Galileo was condemned for … miscommunication??

  4. The Jesuits were teaching Newtonian astronomy by the middle of the 18th Century, not only because they were always determined to be au currant scientifically but because Newton’s theological outlook wasn’t all that foreign to them. Jonathan Israel’s enormous books on the various phases of the Enlightenment contain a great deal of documentation on this issue. Of course there really were Catholic theological writers in the 18th Century that took an obscurantist view of everything. If you look for Spanish monks who sound like Texas school board members, you’ll find ’em. (Israel quotes them too.)

  5. telescoper

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    I’m a bit poorly today and just have time to crawl out of my sick bed to reblog this nice takedown of a rather silly article in the Guardian Science Blog…

  6. Steve Jones

    This was very interesting, thank you.

    In the cartoon history of science which resides in my head, Galieo’s trial put off the investigation of the vacuum in Italy during the 1600’s. Is that fair?


  7. stringph

    This is a nice treatment of one short paragraph in the piece.. but, we are left hanging as to what you really think about either of the trials. So there were ‘several dimensions of which the bad science communication was only one and not necessarily the most important.’ – may we know which ones *were* the most important?

  8. Thony said “I have written several posts on the Jesuit contributions to science and been accused of being a religious apologist for my troubles”.

    Take some comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone in the universe.
    A fellow Aussie who describes himself as a “Wry, dry, rather sarcastic, eccentric, occasionally arrogant Irish-Australian atheist bastard” has been on the end of that charge numerous times for daring to bust popular myths.

  9. Jeb

    “the humiliation felt by young educated people as a group (which) is usually at the source of nationalism or political romanticism”

    Czeslaw Milosz Beginning with My Street: essay; On Nationalism

    Just ordered a copy of Milosz book after reading this cite in Jonathan Ropers, Folklore and Nationalism in the 19th century. So not had a chance to deal or digest it fully, but it did make me think of this issue and it’s repetition.

    Stuart Clark is certainly typical of a particular group of educated people.

    I don’t think I would want to suggest that an analogy with nationalism fully explains the tendency of popular H.O.S to commit fully to romance and folklore but it would seem to be a credible potential way- in to identifying some of the factors at play.

  10. Pingback: How to insult an entire profession. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  11. Pingback: Did Eratosthenes really measure the size of the earth? | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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