I expected better of Tim Radford

Tim Radford is a science writer who works for The Guardian newspaper. In fact many people consider him the best British science writer of the current crop, not without a certain amount of justification. Because of this I was, as a historian of science, more than disappointed by the opening paragraph of his latest post on the science section of the Guardian’s website, a book review: “The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf review – a cosmic quest”. Radford opens his review with three sentences of which the third caused me to groan inwardly and bang my head in resignation on my computer keyboard.

The Copernican principle changed everything. It was not formulated by Copernicus, who in 1543 proposed only that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, and that the motion of the Earth around the sun could explain the irregularities in the heavens. At the time, ideas like that could get people condemned to the stake. [my emphasis]

I ask myself how much longer historians of science are going to have to keep repeating that this statement is complete and utter rubbish before science writers like Tim Radford finally take their hands off their ears and the blinkers from their eyes and actually accept that it is wrong. No Mr Radford, an astronomer or cosmologist in the sixteenth-century suggesting that we live in a heliocentric cosmos rather than a geocentric one was not in danger of being condemned to the stake and yes there is solid historical evidence, which apparently you choose to ignore in favour of your fantasies, to prove this. Let us briefly review that evidence for those, like Tim Radford, who have obviously not been paying attention.

Already in the fifteenth- century Nicholas Cusanus openly discussed various aspects of the heliocentric hypothesis in his works, presenting them in a favourable light. Was he condemned to the stake for his audacity? No he was treated as an honoured Church scholar and appointed cardinal.

Let us move on to the subject of Radford’s highly inaccurate statement, Copernicus, like Cusanus a cleric and a member of the Church establishment, how did the Church react to his provocative heliocentric claims? In 1533 the papal secretary, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter held a lecture on Copernicus’ theories to Pope Clemens VII and assembled company in the papal gardens. We assume this was based on Copernicus’ Commentariolus, the manuscript pamphlet of his ideas written around 1510, as De revolutionibus wasn’t published until 1543. Was he condemned to the stake for his rashness? No, Clemens found much favour in his lecture and awarded him a valuable present for his troubles. Two years later Widmannstetter became secretary to Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg, an archbishop and papal legate, who had been present at that lecture. In 1536 Schönberg wrote a letter to Copernicus urging him to make his theories public and even offering to pay the costs of having his manuscript copied. Not a lot of condemning to the stake going on there. Copernicus had Schönberg’s letter printed in the front of De revolutionibus.

Dear Tim Radford I am sure that as a topflight science writer you check the scientific facts in the articles that you write very carefully to ensure that you are not misleading your many readers. May I humbly request that in future you pay the same attention to the historical facts that you publish so as not to serve up your readers with pure unadulterated historical hogwash?

P.S. If anybody mentions either Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei in the comments I will personally hunt them down and beat them to death with a rolled up copy of The Guardian.




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

26 responses to “I expected better of Tim Radford

  1. I’ve probably got something else wrong, but as (presumably) one of the lesser members of the current crop, I did at least did criticise this very point in my review of Scharf’s book: http://www.popularscience.co.uk/?p=3898

  2. Did Caleb Scharf perhaps mention Bruno in the book Radford was reviewing? (Not that that would absolve Radford from all blame.)

    I’ve read Scharf’s black hole book Gravity’s Engines, by the by, and it’s pretty good.

  3. laura

    Huh, interesting you post this. I ran into another review of it yesterday in the Telegraph that made me roll my eyes. In that review, Caspar Henderson opened by claiming that Copernicus’ “hypothesis was audacious and brilliant. It was also wrong,” and the reason he gives is that the planets move in ellipses not circles. Seems a bit rough to be calling Copernicus “wrong” because he didn’t discover elliptical orbits. You might just as well say Kepler was “wrong” because in fact the planets don’t move in perfect ellipses if they have mass, or that Newton was “wrong” because he treated time as an absolute, or Einstein was “wrong” because etc etc.

  4. John Valean Baily

    So, I’m confused.

    You seem to be saying no one was burned at the stake for their (basicall) Copernican principle.

  5. Robin George

    So , at the risk of being pounded with papers, would someone explain to this humble physicist why Galileo was hounded and yet was heard to mutter ‘E piu si muove’, meaning, I thought, “and yet it does move” referring to the Earth.
    Quoting from Wikipedia – admittedly a suspect source,”The matter was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which concluded that heliocentrism was false and contrary to scripture, placing works advocating the Copernican system on the index of banned books and forbidding Galileo from advocating heliocentrism”.

    • TAG

      Galileo observed the craters on the moon and saw that the heavens were imperfect and reported that. This was incompatible with Catholic doctrine. His fault was with the telescope not Copernicus.

      • So incompatible that Galileo in May 1611 received a laurea honoris causae from the Collegio Romano, the university of the Jesuits in Rome.

      • I’m sorry but that’s rubbish. The material structure of the moon was never Church doctrine and as domics says in his comment the Jesuit mathematical astronomers of the Collegio Romano confirmed all of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries and then threw a banquet in his honour to celebrate them.

    • Firstly Galileo never said ‘E piu si muove’ that is a myth. Secondly Galileo’s problems with the Church are a very complex issue in two parts 1615 and 1633 the first had to do with theology and the second with Galileo’s hubris. I’ve dealt with the first but not yet with the second.

      In this post here you can read about the initial reactions to Copernican heliocentricity before 1610.
      In a second post here I take a general look at the Church’s attempt to ban the heliocentric theory.

      In two more recent posts I look more closely at the events of 1615 and their consequences.

  6. Øystein

    Giordano Bruno! Galileo Galilei!

    You’ll never find me!

  7. As a card-carrying pedant, I would point out that Tim says “ideas like that”, not “that idea”. Which makes Bruno relevant, whether you like it or not.

    • No it doesn’t, not unless you equate denying the virgin birth with heliocentricity.

    • laura

      I think by “ideas like that” he means the Copernican Principle, not the Copernican (heliocentric) theory. The paragraph is confusing. The Copernican theory itself never got anybody burned (and in fact several people got quite famous espousing it right around the same time) but, writ large enough, I guess you can argue the Copernican Principle (people are cosmically insignificant, there is no human-focused God etc.) is what got Bruno burned at the stake. But it’s still a sloppy argument imo. Bruno was a crazy, highly entertaining, extremely not-modern heretic. The Copernican Principle is a very modern idea.

  8. Min

    All I know is what I read by Frances Yates, but wasn’t he-who-shall-remain-nameless a flaming heretic who advocated a solar religion?

  9. jimhexis

    The vast majority of those burned at the stake were found guilty of heresy or witchcraft though you could get burned for treason or even crimes like murder or arson in some cases. What didn’t upset the authorities in the 16th and 17th Century very much was astronomy. The burning issues, in more ways than one, were religious and political. Natural philosophers could get in trouble if their thinking impinged on specifically theological issues like the immortality of the soul or the real presence in the Eucharist, though I don’t know of an instance off hand where taking Aristotle or Democritus too literally turned out to be fatal. Michael Servetus was a polymath interested in many subjects but what got him burned was his denial of the Trinity. Most of the victims of the Spanish Inquisition were Jewish or Muslim converts who apostatized or were thought to have done so. Most of the people burned in England were Lutheran and other Protestants roasted under Henry VIII before he broke the church or by bis daughter Mary when she tried to restore the faith. There were political angles in many burnings: Huss was more inconvenient to the church than heretical and Bruno, who certainly was heretical if anybody ever was, was also a suspected double or triple agent for France or England. The era was a lot like the 20th in that it featured a desperate twilight war for men’s loyalties. It wasn’t a struggle about whether the sun was in the middle or not, however, since that issue didn’t divide any of the contenders.

    I wish would-be historians of science would pay more attention to general history and not assume that what is important to them was important to our ancestors.

    • Harrison

      Just as a note, Servetus was executed by Protestants, which I only mention because it demonstrates the complexity of the issue of “what could get you burned at the stake”. I agree that heresy is one of the most overlapping crimes for which such a punishment would be given-certainly more so than “unorthodox” inquiry into natural philosophy-, local and regional mechanisms of power looked different in say, Rome than they would under the Inquisition on the Iberian peninsula, not to mention Protestant territories. By saying that Copernicus’ hypotheses “could get you burned at the stake” seems to me to imply a too simplistic vision of ideological ubiquity in continental Europe during the time period.

  10. Caleb Scharf

    Having stumbled across this discussion (the wonders of Google) I thought I would just chip in a comment, since my book The Copernicus Complex has seeded some of this. I would point out, for the record I suppose, that my very brief mention of Bruno in my book attempts to present him in a more nuanced way than is usually done (as in the ‘heliocentrism got him killed’ popular telling). In fact I explicitly state ‘…together with his extremely provocative stance on other religious matters, it caught the full attention of the establishment, and in 1600 the Roman Inquisition burned poor Bruno at the stake for heresy.’ In other words, he was an agitator in other ways too (and of course not particularly scientific in any sense). I used him as an example of the general climate of the times, when people *could* get burned at the stake for, in effect, expressing opinions.

  11. Reblogged this on jmeqvist and commented:
    An excellent article that shows the problems with many popular revisionist histories of science.

  12. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #13 | Whewell's Ghost

  13. Pingback: Who are the martyrs of science? | AllDigitalNews.com

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