If you’re going to lecture others on the need to learn history then it pays to get your own history right.

The HIST_SCI HULK has been slumbering very peaceably somewhere deep in the catacombs under Mathematicus Mountain the home of the Renaissance Mathematicus’ humble cave. However, the pungent smell of #histsci bullshit drifted downwards on a draft disturbing his slumbers and now he is raging through the underground chambers demanding access to the blog.

In the Guardian, journalist Van Badham has written an article criticising Senator Simon Birmingham’s vetoing of research grants approved by the Australian Research Council, with the following title.

Simon Birmingham is the one who needs a history lesson in western civilisation

Her criticism centres round what she sees as Birmingham’s lack of historical awareness, banging on about the fact that the vetoes are mostly of humanities research and that if Birmingham had more knowledge of history then he would be more aware of the origins of the western civilisation he wishes to defend. For itself Van Badham’s criticism is valid and would be OK if her own knowledge of the history of science weren’t so abysmal, as illustrated by the following paragraph.

It’s a tender solidarity exhibited here by a man of science to the humanities community. The habit of scientists to offend the “common sense” standards of their times with research has historically proven quite dangerous.Rhazes, the medical pioneer of ninth century Baghdad, was beaten blind with his own compendium by a priest. The humanist Michael Servetus, a 16th century physician credited with discovering pulmonary circulation, was tortured and burned along with his books on the shores of Lake Geneva at the personal behest of John Calvin. In the 17th century, Galileo spent his last years under house arrest, forced by the church to recant the heretical belief that the earth orbited the sun.

We can of course assume that Badham got her history of science information from all those professional humanities scholars that she is arguing Birmingham should be supporting with research grants. However, if we did so, we would be very wrong. Her source is a pop article published in Wired in 2012 by a woefully ignorant staff journalist, Olivia Solon, under the title:

Galileo to Turing: The Historical Persecution of Scientists

There are several more horrors in the original article but I shall only deal here with the three examples that Badham paraphrased. The original Rhazes paragraph reads as follows:

Rhazes (865-925)
Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī or Rhazes was a medical pioneer from Baghdad who lived between 860 and 932 AD. He was responsible for introducing western teachings, rational thought and the works of Hippocrates and Galen to the Arabic world. One of his books, Continens Liber, was a compendium of everything known about medicine. The book made him famous, but offended a Muslim priest who ordered the doctor to be beaten over the head with his own manuscript, which caused him to go blind, preventing him from future practice.


Portrait of Rhazes (al-Razi) (AD 865 – 925), physician and alchemist who lived in Baghdad Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons

I love the arrant chauvinism of He was responsible for introducing western teachings, rational thought and the works of Hippocrates and Galen to the Arabic world.It smacks of the old style: the Islamic world only conserved the Greek heritage until Renaissance Europe could inherit it and develop it further. The Persian physician Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (854–925) or al-Rāzī for short was one of the two most significant Islamic medical authorities, who made important original contributions to medical knowledge. He was also, like many other Islamic scholars, a polymath who wrote on medicine, alchemy, philosophy, logic, astronomy and grammar. Historians of medicine are convinced that al-Rāzī suffered from cataracts at the end of a long, very productive and very successful life, which caused him to go blind. There are various anecdotes about the cause of his blindness. One of them attributed to Ibn Jujil (c.944–c.994), an Adulusian Arab physician, says that it was caused by a blow to his head by his patron Mansur ibn Ishaq, the governor of his birthplace Rey and an early employer, for failing to provide proof for his alchemy theories. Note, not a Muslim priest. Another, recorded by Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226–1286), a Syriac Christian Bishop, and Miguel Casiri (1710–1791), a Maronite scholar, was that it was caused by a diet of only beans. Somehow this differs somewhat from the film ripe fantasy account delivered up by Solon and parroted by Badham

Michael Servetus (1511-1553)
Servetus was a Spanish physician credited with discovering pulmonary circulation. He wrote a book, which outlined his discovery along with his ideas about reforming Christianity – it was deemed to be heretical. He escaped from Spain and the Catholic Inquisition but came up against the Protestant Inquisition in Switzerland, who held him in equal disregard. Under orders from John Calvin, Servetus was arrested, tortured and burned at the stake on the shores of Lake Geneva – copies of his book were accompanied for good measure.


Miguel Serveto Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve actually written a whole blog post on the Spanish physician, theologian, cartographer and Renaissance humanist Miguel Serveto (1509 or 1511–1553) under the title Not a martyr for science. Serveto was even more of a polymath than al-Rāzīand made contribution to a bewildering range of topics. His execution had absolutely nothing to do with his discovery of the pulmonary circulation but was entirely the result of his highly heterodox religious views. He did not escape from Spain but from Vienne in France, where he had been imprisoned on suspicion of heresy. Fleeing to Italy he stopped in Geneva, a strange decision as he had already had a major dispute, by exchange of letters, with Calvin on the subject of Christian doctrine. He was arrested, tried, found guilty of heresy and burnt at the stake. Interestingly not only the Catholics and Calvin were happy to see him executed but Luther and Melanchthon as well. Serveto really knew how to make enemies.

Galileo (1564-1642)
The Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei was trialled and convicted in 1633 for publishing his evidence that supported the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. His research was instantly criticized by the Catholic Church for going against the established scripture that places Earth and not the Sun at the center of the universe. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” for his heliocentric views and was required to “abjure, curse and detest” his opinions. He was sentenced to house arrest, where he remained for the rest of his life and his offending texts were banned.


Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Marucelliana Source: Wikimedia Commons

If I were God, I would arrange it so that every time a journalist typed the name Galileo a miniature thermo-nuclear device would materialise over their workplace and upon detonating would reduce their computer to a meagre pile of radioactive dust and a small mushroom cloud.

If Galileo didn’t exist then people like Solon and Badham would have to invent him. He’s the one example that is always used when they want to prove that somebody, in particular somebody religious, tried to suppress science or a scientist. The trial in 1633 had multiple causes of which the nominal scientific one was probably the least important. It was simply the stick used to beat an uppity subject. To stretch an analogy it’s about the same as Al Capone being charged with tax evasion.

The main cause was a clash of egos: Galileo with an ego the size of the Peter’s dome, whose hubris made him blind to every day reality and Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VII, with an equally large ego and the manic paranoia of an absolutist ruler beset on all sides by real and imaginary enemies. Galileo’s hubris misled him into thinking that he, a mere mathematicus, could hoodwink an absolutist, paranoid Pope. He discovered that he couldn’t and was brought down to earth rather quickly if, for the circumstances, comparatively gently. As for Galileo “publishing his evidence that supported the Copernican theory”, his problem was that he didn’t really have any. As I have said on previous occasions, Dialogo is strong on polemic but lacking in facts. Galileo’s crowning proof, Day 4’s theory of the tides would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. As has been pointed out many times, and not just by me, in 1633 the empirical evidence still spoke clearly in favour of geocentrism and not for heliocentrism. I will add the usual caveat that this does not excuse the Church’s behaviour towards Galileo but also doesn’t let Galileo off the hook for having poked a sleeping bear with a sharp stick.

Ms Badham would have been wise if she had checked her ‘historical sources’ before using them as an example to support her attack on Simon Birmingham’s apparent lack of historical awareness.

P.S. I promise that after three negative ones in a row the next post will be a positive one.








Filed under History of Astronomy, History of medicine, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

7 responses to “If you’re going to lecture others on the need to learn history then it pays to get your own history right.

  1. Thank you, this was a good (and funny) read. May I remark that the Greek heritage via the Islamic world did start in the Middle Ages, so prior to Renaissance?

  2. thonyc

    “May I remark that the Greek heritage via the Islamic world did start in the Middle Ages, so prior to Renaissance?”

    You may and it’s true

  3. Carl Vehse

    “Interestingly not only the Catholics and Calvin were happy to see him executed but Luther and Melanchthon as well.”

    Seeing Servetus executed in 1553 would be quite a feat for Martin Luther, who died in 1546.

  4. Ray

    Thanks for the analysis

    In defense of the Guardian article, most of your corrections seem to be contradicting something you think was implied by the passage you quote rather than what was actually said. e.g. Servetus did write on pulmonary circulation, and he was burned along with his books. It’s just that he wasn’t burned on account of the writings having to do with pulmonary circulation — but the article doesn’t explicitly say he was (just vaguely implies it.)

    That said, the stuff in the Guardian about Al Razi was clearly wrong. Mansur ibn Ishaq probably did not cause Al Razi’s blindness and he definitely wasn’t a priest (do Muslims even have a category of clergy that can be accurarely translated as “priest”?)

    As I said, your criticism of the implication regarding Servetus is on point, although I do wonder whether there’s a reason why brilliant scientists have historically held disproportionately heterodox religious views for their time and place.

    On the last point, though, I think you might have been somewhat blinded by rage at Galileo’s fan club. I have some doubts regarding your attribution of causality in the Galileo affair, and I suspect it would be hard to prove either way (people’s underlying motivations don’t often leave a clear paper trail and one can play endless games regarding proximate and ultimate causality in historical events,) but my biggest beef is the following claim, which I think is indefensible:

    “As has been pointed out many times, and not just by me, in 1633 the empirical evidence still spoke clearly in favour of geocentrism and not for heliocentrism.”

    At the very least, this is wrong since the state of the evidence in the early 17th century was kind of a mess, but if anything, the evidence at the time supported a heliocentric model, and in particular that of Kepler, which was supported by tables that were found by Gassendi to be more accurate than any other extant tables. It should be noted that Kepler’s third law in particular (which was known by Kepler to apply to both the planets and the moons of Jupiter) does not work as a general law in the Tychonic arrangement since the Sun and moon conceived as satellites of the Earth don’t follow it.

    The main evidence that has been cited against heliocentrism included the sizes of stars, and mechanical arguments against the Earth’s rotation. The former relies on multiple incorrect assumptions (many of which were contentious at the time) including a) that observed stellar discs were real rather than spurious optical effects, b) that double stars and star clusters were mostly chance alignments of stars at differing distance, allowing good telescopic measurements of parallax without a micrometer, and c) that there weren’t stars much larger than the sun. As for arguments against diurnal rotation, they required a sound theory of mechanics to estimate the size of the expected effect, which wasn’t yet developed. A correct analysis would have shown the effect too small to measure.

    Nor does it seem that the evidence in favor of geocentrism was convincing to scientists of the time. As far as I can tell based on my own attempts to do a headcount and secondary sources about the popularity of various sets of planetary tables, Copernicanism with circular orbits, Kepler’s system, and the Tychonic/Ursine system seem to have been about equally popular in 1633, suggesting no clear majority in favor of geocentrism and possibly a majority in favor of heliocentrism.

    • Ray

      Oh. Forgot to mention re: mechanical arguments. While the state of scientific opinion in 1633 on annual motion seems to be a close thing, the fact that several prominent geocentrists accepted diurnal motion makes it clear that scientists of the day were not convinced by mecahnical arguments against diurnal motion.

  5. John Kane

    May I point out that your posts do not help my blood pressure when I read or hear someone talking about Galileo? I have read just enough to have a very basic grasp of the situation and tend to want to scream at people.

    It is, well, not all your fault. I did read some biographies before finding your blog.


  6. John Kane

    Oh, I forgot, the other day I was reading some basic intro to astronomy on the net and the author mentioned that one could be burned at the stake in the 16th? century for suggesting a heliocentric system. Could have said 15th or 17th C

    And we are talking a tenured US academic.

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