This may come as somewhat of a surprise, as it is only the middle of February, but we already have a serious candidate for the worst piece of history of science blogging for 2013! Anybody who wishes to win this much coveted prize is going to have to try very hard indeed if they want to surpass the piece of total inanity that Carole Jahme served up on The Guardian’s science blog today under the title Renaissance Brains: William Shakespeare and Galileo Galilei.
Given that William and Galileo were both born in the year 1564 we are going to have to put up with lots of media pundits drawing comparisons between the two of them as we approach the collective 450th anniversary of their births. We have already seen one attempt by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker and now, also taking the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Brecht’s Life of Galileo as her kick off point, we have Ms Jahme. I’m in the middle of a longer refutation of one of the main claims in Gopnik’s article but to keep you happy in the mean time let us examine Ms Jahme’s astounding knowledge of the history of Renaissance science. She informs us that:
Shakespeare was friends with the British astronomer Thomas Digges who believed the universe to be infinite and that the sun not the Earth was the centre of our solar system. Digges would have been aware of Galileo’s work The Starry Messenger, published in 1610, about his observations of the heavens and may well have kept Shakespeare informed about the latest on Copernican philosophy.
I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of a friendship between Digges and Shakespeare but I assume that it’s is probably true as Digges’ younger son Leonard, a writer and poet, shared a publisher with Shakespeare and supplied one of the prefatory poems for the Shakespeare First Folio. However the next claim is quite extraordinary as it attributes clairvoyant powers to the good Bard of Avon because his friend Thomas died, fifteen year before the publication of Galileo infamous pamphlet, in 1595!
There is a strong possibility that Ms Jahme is confusing Thomas Digges with his friend and contemporary Thomas Harriot. Now although Digges and Harriot are both called Thomas and they are both English Renaissance mathematicians and astronomers I can assure Ms Jahme that they are in fact two different people. Apart from anything else Thomas Harriot was still very much alive in 1610 and in fact was one of the first people to read one of the two copies of Galileo’s The Starry Messenger that Sir Henry Wotton, the English Ambassador to Venice, sent to London on its day of publication. Now my claim that Ms Jahme is confusing her Thomases is, I’m quite happy to admit, pure speculation. However Ms Jahme is not above quoting dubious speculation herself:
Digges’s expertise was creatively used by Shakespeare and astronomical references and metaphors are integral to his dialogue, ” … and count myself a king of infinite space” (Hamlet). Shakespeare may be referring to Galileo in Cymbeline (published in 1611) ” … O, learn’d indeed were that astronomer that knew the stars as I his characters … “. In the play’s final scene, the god Jupiter descends to the stage surrounded by four angels, which could be interpreted as the planet and its four moons, which had been discovered by Galileo and were described in The Starry Messenger. (The Roman Inquisition imprisoned Galileo for refusing to deny Jupiter’s satellites and Earth’s orbit around the sun.)
Here, Ms Jahme is quoting, without attribution, the highly contentious theories of American astronomer Peter D Usher as put forward in his book Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science. Usher claims that five of Shakespeare’s plays contain coded references to the astronomical debates of the beginning of the seventeenth century. Not the work of a serious historian bur closer to the Bible decoders and certainly not something to be dished up as historical fact in a supposedly serious article.
The last sentence quoted above, in brackets, is one of the worst misrepresentations of the infamous Galileo trial that I have read in a long-time. The Roman Inquisition did not imprison Galileo; it subjected him to house arrest first in the Archbishop in Siena’s palace and then later in his own villa in the Duchy of Florence. A minor but rather significant detail that people love to get wrong. It doesn’t do to have your martyr for science wining and dining in luxury in an archbishop’s palace. It creates the wrong impression. However this error pales into insignificance when compared to the claim, “imprisoned Galileo for refusing to deny Jupiter’s satellites. Given the fact that it was the Churches own astronomers, from Christoph Clavius’ seminar for advanced mathematics at the Jesuit Collegio Romano, who provided the necessary scientific confirmation of Galileo’s discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter it would have been rather embarrassing for the Inquisition to demand that Galileo deny their existence. Surprisingly enough they did no such thing.
Not unexpectedly I also have major problems with Ms Jahme’s next statement:
It could be argued that Galileo and Shakespeare have between them shaped modern Western culture more than any other Renaissance thinkers. Einstein described Galileo as the father of modern science;
It could be argued but I would immediately bring historical proof that Johannes Kepler actually had a much larger impact on Western culture than Galileo although I’m not really a fan of such historical pissing contests. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am extremely allergic to the phrase “father of” and that I have also written a strong polemic disputing Galileo’s claim to being “father of modern science”. Of course my opinion cannot really count much against that of that well-known historian of Renaissance science Albert Einstein.
It is not my area so I won’t do a detailed criticism of it, but I really do wonder what purpose making brain scans of an astronomer reading an English translation of The Starry Messenger and an actor reading an English translation of Bretch’s Leben des Galileis is supposed to have. This seemingly pointless piece of actionism being the main reason for Ms Jahme’s article. I also can’t resist asking a question about the next planned Shakes Sphere that Ms Jahme advertises. She writes:
The alchemical quest for the Philosopher’s Stone was a Renaissance obsession. Professor Andrea Sella, a chemist at University College London, knows that “All that glisters is not gold” and will join Kukula and use a mix of chemistry and magic upon the audience as he attempts the live transmutation of elements.
If the theme really is Renaissance alchemy why is the demonstration being made by a chemist instead of by a historian of alchemy such as the excellent Anna Marie Roos?