The past is not neat and orderly, divided up into handy segments that the historian can parcel up and deliver to his expectant readers. The past is a horribly complex, tangled up mess. If the past were string, it would not be a neatly rolled up ball but a labyrinthine, knotted heap with multiple ends sticking out all over the place, some seeming to promise a swift unravelling, others apparently leading nowhere. It is the task of the historian to attempt to unravel than unruly heap of twine and try to reconstruct a picture of an episode, a period, or a process that took place at a particular point or during a passage of time in the past. Some of those lose ends represent fragments of the past that have got lost, as we never have anything like a complete record of the past. Unfortunately, teachers, popularisers, journalists and even some historians simply take a pair of scissors and cut out a segment from the heap, simply ignoring any connections that they thus destroy, trim off any lose ends than don’t fit the picture that they want to present, and then serve this up as history. What they end up with is a nice simple, dare I say clean cut, historical picture which they have falsified through their actions. They are not doing history but rather creating myths. I will try to illustrate this procedure by sketching couple of examples.
It will surprise nobody, who follows this blog that my first example is the conflict between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church. In the popular version this is inevitably presented as a conflict between science and religion. Galileo championed heliocentricity a valid scientific theory, which however, was in conflict to Holy Scripture and so the Church punished him, at the same time banning the heliocentric theory. You can find versions of this all over the place but almost all of the details are actually false.
Galileo did, indeed, champion heliocentricity, but, at the time he did so, it was merely an unconfirmed hypothesis and not a validated scientific theory. At that time, around 1615 when the conflict started, the empirical evidence tended to support a competing Tychonic geo-heliocentric model, which either gets simply ignored in the simplified version of the story or dismissed out of hand, because! He came into conflict with the Church not because of his support of heliocentricity, but because in his Letter to Castelli he, a mere mathematicus, had the audacity to tell the theologians how to interpret Holy Scripture. To exacerbate the situation the Carmelite theologian Paolo Antonio Foscarini (c. 1565–1616) did the same thing at the same time. This almost never gets mentioned in the popular version and if mentioned only to say have clever his criticism was. What definitely never gets mentioned is that this was in the middle of the Reformation/Counter Reformation, a major religious dispute over, who has the right to interpret Holy Scripture. Galileo couldn’t have picked a worse time to stick his oar in. What we have here at the core is a religious dispute that only indirectly has to do with science.
Just in this brief sketch we can see that the popular simplified version sails majestically past the historical truth. The final point that gets completely ignored in the popular versions, in fact the propagators almost always claim the opposite, is that the Church did not ban heliocentricity. It said it was fine to discuss heliocentricity as a hypothesis but not as a validated scientific theory, which was its actual scientific status at the time. Despite the fact that it is almost completely false the simplified version gets trotted out by somebody almost daily.
For our second example we take a look at the world of Early Modern medicine and the work of Andries van Wezel (1514–1564) better known as Andreas Vesalius, with a glance to the side in passing at the anatomical studies of Leonardo da Vinci. Vesalius gets trotted out a lot in popular versions of the history of science because, by coincidence, his anatomy book, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, was published in 1543, the same year as Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, providing a good excuse to call 1543 the beginning of the scientific revolution.
Very often Vesalius get presented as the first physician to dissect corpses since antiquity. The claim of being first is also attributed to Leonardo. It is in both cases completely false, as is also the claim that the Church forbid dissection of human corpses and Leonardo or Vesalius were forced to do this secretly, also often stated in both cases. I will briefly deal with Leonardo, before returning to Vesalius. The practice of artists studying corpses, in order to better understand the structure of the body was well established by the time Leonardo began his apprenticeship under Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1435 – 1488), in fact Verrocchio insisted on his apprentices making detailed studies of the human body with its muscles, sinews etc. Leonardo simply took these studies further that his artist colleagues. He carried out his dissections, without any subterfuge, together with the physician and professor of anatomy Marcantonio della Torre (1481–1511).
Vesalius is, as already stated, often credited with being the first to practice human dissection since antiquity but as you can see Torre, who died three years before Vesalius was born, was practicing dissection with Leonardo, so Vesalius definitely not the first. In fact, Vesalius was a high point, but by no means the end point in a development that had been going on for at least one and a half centuries. The earliest recorded dissection took place in Padua in 1341 but the Anatomia of Mondino de’ Liuzzi (c. 1270–1326) dates from 1316, indicating an earlier well-established practice. In the late fifteenth century universities began to erect temporary dissection theatres in winter for the anatomy professors to carry out public dissections for their students. These would later be replaced with permanent anatomical theatres, with the first being built in Padua in 1595.
Vesalius worked in such structures well before he published his De fabrica. With his book Vesalius did set new standards, but these were rapidly developed further by his contemporaries and successors. The standard popular story surrounding Vesalius is, in the sense of my title, very much a simplified falsification.
My third example is one on the most well-known figures in the popular history of science, Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Bacon is credited, with his Of Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Human published in 1605 and his New Atlantis published posthumously in 1626, “with presenting a universal reform of knowledge into scientific methodology and the improvement of mankind’s state using the scientific method”, to quote Wikipedia.
The only problem with this presentation of Bacon, as the creator of a vision for the future of science is that all the ideas and concepts that he presents had been developed and practiced by natural philosophers over the previous two centuries. Bacon was not presenting a vision for the future but rather a codification and idealisation of what had been evolving in science in the past. Bacon was a recorder of other peoples’ advances and developments and not the visionary prophet, as which he is presented.
In the three examples that I have sketched it should be clear that what popularisers attempt to do with their simplifications and falsifications is to create hero stories, myths, rather than confront the complex, tangled up mess that is the real history of science. Or as Will Thomas, Renaissance Mathematicus friend put it in a recent tweet , “Totally different from standing before the vast, unknowable chaos of the historical record.”