Shakespeare was clairvoyant.

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?


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

19 responses to “Shakespeare was clairvoyant.

  1. Rebekah Higgitt

    It sure was a weird article! I haven’t looked into the brain scan results yet, which may be interesting if totally irrelevant to the historical framing, but the rest was just badly-written nonsense. I tried several times to make sense of the denying Jupiter’s satellites sentence ad gave up.

    However, on the final point, we should give Andrea Sella his due – he does know quite a lot about alchemy I think and has collaborated with some of the historians (formerly) at UCL.

    • you could try reading, or why not try some research, could catch on, good luck with it….Here’s fine revolution & we had the trick to see’t…..Hamlet Act V Sc 1
      Prof Usher
 The Oxfordian Vol IV 25 – 49 2001

      • I will assume that your comment is addressed at me and not Dr Higgitt although we both agree in our criticism of your article.

        I find it more than somewhat ironic that you make very crass and serious history of science errors in your article, to which I have drawn attention, but instead of addressing them you tell me to “try some research”!

        You then recommend that I read an article by Peter Usher, a retired astronomer and neither a scholar of literature nor a historian of astronomy, whose theories are highly disputed by both Shakespheare experts and professional historian of science.

        In terms of doing research I have studied both history of science and English literature at university and am an acknowledged expert on the history of astronomy in the Early Modern Period. I have not only read Shakespeare but also Thomas Digges works, both published and unpublished, as well as Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, have you?

      • Just for the record the paper by Peter Usher that Ms Jahme references in her comment above is a truly awful piece of pseudo-historical crap.

    • Jeb

      In fairness I think it could have been potentially interesting if it had dropped the history. The part about the relationship between performer and audience was not nonsense. It can be difficult to explain, later part when the actor explained the way he liked to keep words whole. I have no idea what on earth he was referring to yet his training and how he uses his voice will be no different from how I was taught although clearly the terms used by a different school or he has picked them up along the road.

      So it demonstrated some strength most people do talk utter nonsense here or it can be difficult to translate into familiar terms.

      The relationship between the minds of performers and other folk who use a lot of brain power is also an interesting one.

      “O limed soul, that, struggling to be free”
      Perfectly capable and interesting line of thought waiting to break free. Perhaps more a case of star shit than birdlime but sometimes they both look the same when you first tread in them (or perhaps they were often the same thing). Personally I would have ended with a video of the English lit. Prof. being fired into deep space was not to my taste.

  2. You mean Francis Bacon was clairvoyant.

    Or was it Edward de Vere?

  3. Michael Weiss

    Brain scans?? When you have a hammer… (Maybe they should have also included one of an art historian contemplating Michelangelo’s David.)

    Good post. However, I did follow the link to your “Extracting the stopper” post, and have a few nits to pick (not about Galileo).

    the use of mathematics in science has its roots in the work of Ptolemaeus, Archimedes and other Greek scientists

    If we’re talking roots, why not Hipparchos in addition to (or instead of) Ptolemaeus?

    Newton did indeed take over the inertia law from Descartes but Descartes had taken it not from Galileo but from Isaac Beeckman who had formulated it fully correctly in the form used by Newton

    According to Koyre, there is no evidence that Beeckman’s conservation of motion included direction. To use modern terms, speed, not velocity. Now I know Koyre is an old source, but are there more recent studies to support this?

    it is usually Kepler who is given the credit for the first mathematical law of nature for his inverse square law of the propagation of light; a law that inspired Ismael Boulliau to the first formulation of the inverse square law of gravity.

    Is there more about Boulliau than the passage quoted in the MacTutor archive? Going just by that, this does seem like cherry-picking: Bouilliau is talking about Kepler’s force that sweeps the planet around the sun, quite different from the attractive force of gravity.

    Of course, this is all about playing the “father of” game, aka unit discovery concept, and I agree that this has been pretty thoroughly debunked.

    • Please before you make this comment for a third time go and read Kepler, his force is an attractive force as I’ve already explained to you the last time you made this claim.

      And yes Koyré is wrong.

      • Michael Weiss

        Sorry, I didn’t see your reply to the Boulliau comment. I’m not sure we’re talking about the same part of Kepler’s work; I’ve explained in more detail in a reply to your reply.

        As for Koyre’s comments on Beeckman, do you have a citation? Koyre quotes from him extensively, but perhaps more of his work has been published since to support Beeckman’s understanding of the vector nature of the first law.

        [How do you get the accent aigue to appear in the comment?]

      • &‍#233; → é

        é → é

      • Michael Weiss

        I found at least one more recent reference:
        Beeckman, Descartes and the force of motion, by Richard Arthur, sometime around 2002.

        A very interesting paper, and rather unflattering to Descartes. While Arthur criticizes Koyré on many points, he seems to agree on the issue of directionality (p.9-10; see also footnote 18), and even reinforces it with an example from Beeckman that Koyré didn’t give (p.15-16).

  4. Ted

    Have you replied to that Adam Gopnik piece on Galileo?

  5. Ted

    Isn’t Lawrence Principe a chemist “rather than a historian of alchemy?” He told me his favorite class to teach is O-Chem.

  6. Jeb

    hmmm. I thought, I could win that prize (although I would use the defense I don’t do H.O.S or I share the same star sign as Adolf Hitler and the similarity must explain how I shape things), not sure now.

    I dislike the present shaped by past bit as I am running into a few issues in that regard on witchcraft. Already had one person reading it as a shaping event for modern science in regard to belief. Dislike the idea of having to put in a disclaimer. Vexing dealing with such an area that is so live in terms of modern politics and identity.

    • Jeb

      Issue I find impossible to resolve. Nazis do act as warning from history, as do the events of the 16th century I think, but it is not that Hitler will be born again or Jamie the Saxth shall stalk the planet earth again dressed in a white coat clutching a test tube.

      Its that use of the past in present and the failure to see tradition for what it is (non-static and always drawn in a contemporary context by broad social consensus rather than big men) where the issue lies I suppose for H.O.S.

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