I didn’t have time this week to write a proper blog post, so I thought I would pass on something I read recently. Not necessarily here on the blog but I tend to annoy people when I make rude comments about the American astrophysicist and science populariser Carl Sagan. Many people grew up watching his 1980s TV series Cosmos and regarded him as some sort of science saint. However, whatever his abilities to communicate science Sagan’s presentation of the history of science was terrible. Another thing that is likely to bring out the HIST_SCI HULK is mention of the biopic Agora, supposedly the life story of the ancient Greek mathematician Hypatia. Unfortunately the story line of Agora has more in common with a fairy tale than real history of science.
Many otherwise well-educated people have long taken this picture for granted. [Complete lack of science in the Middle Ages] No one has diffused it more widely than astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–1996), whose television series Cosmos drew an audience estimated at half a billion. In his 1980 book by the same name, a timeline of astronomy from Greek antiquity to the present left between the fifth and the late fifteenth centuries a familiar thousand-year blank labelled as a “poignant lost opportunity for mankind.” (a) The timeline reflected not the state of knowledge in 1980 but Sagan’s own “poignant lost opportunity” to consult the library of Cornell University, where he taught. In it, Sagan would have discovered large volumes devoted to the medieval history of his own field, some of them two hundred years old. He would also have learnt that the alleged medieval vacuum spawned the two institutions in which he spent his life: the observatory as a research institution (Islamic civilization) and the university (Latin Europe).
(a) Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 335. Sagan’s outlook recently regained currency thanks to Alejandro Amenábar’s spectacular and spectacularly anachronistic film “Agor” (2009), which portrays Hypatia (d. 415) as on the verge of discovering the law of free fall and heliocentric planetary ellipses before she is murdered by fanatical monks.