Category: Literature & Scholarship

Beckwith: Modernism has Killed Science

Today, in European cultures, and in other cultures that have borrowed it, science per se is strictly peripheral at best. It is not only inseparable from technology; it is all but completely divorced from philosophy. This is a far cry from the Middle Ages. The centrality of science in all spheres of Western European culture was ensured when the crucial elements — all of them — were borrowed during the Crusades, more or less simultaneously, from Classical Arabic civilization. There, science had never become integrated into Islamic culture, but was considered “foreign” to Islam, and so fell to the onslaught of anti-intellectualism that swept the Islamic world at its peak in the Middle Ages. By contrast, Western Europeans were enthralled by science from the 13th century down to the 20th, when Humanism — now redefined specifically as a collection of ‘non-scientific fields’ — replaced science as the default mode of higher education. Science has come under attack not only by fundamentalists, but even by philosophers and other scholars, who seem not to understand science. What happened?

To learn what happened, go read How Western Europe Developed the Scientific Method,” where Christopher Beckwith surveys his new thesis, which promises to attract controversy.

Science as Cumulative Cultural Evolution

According to this article, historians of science have demonstrated that science is a process of cultural acquisition:

A well-documented example of cumulative cultural evolution is seen in the growth of scientific knowledge. Historians of science have detailed how scientific knowledge has gradually accumulated over successive generations of scientists, with each new generation building on the advances of previous generations. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, each new generation of scientists can only see further by “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Mathematics, to which Newton himself contributed, is an illustrative example of how scientific knowledge slowly accumulates over successive generations and thousands of years. Only after Babylonian scholars invented numerical notation and basic arithmetic in around 2000 BC could Greek and Arab scholars subsequently develop geometry and algebra respectively, which then allowed Newton, Liebniz and other Europeans to invent calculus and mechanics in the 17th century, through to present-day mathematics.

The author relies heavily on Derek de Solla Price’s Little Science, Big Science (New York, 1963) for this and subsequent claims about the “exponential increase in scientific knowledge over time.”

For the author, mathematics is the paradigm for cumulative scientific knowledge and for the acquisition of that knowledge. A cultural version of Haekel’s phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny undergirds the article:

…individual learning recapitulates history, in other words, that people learn during their lifetimes a sequence of concepts or skills that have previously been accumulated historically. While this assumption may not apply to all cultural domains, certain domains of scientific knowledge do appear to show this recapitulation. While this assumption may not apply to all cultural domains, certain domains of scientific knowledge do appear to show this recapitulation. Figure 2A shows how present-day mathematics education during a single lifetime recapitulates the order in which concepts were discovered in human history ….

Here is Figure 2A, with its wonderfully convincing linear fit:

A few difficulties spring to mind:

  • Empirically, many sciences don’t seem to show a cumulative evolution in the way described. Humans did not have to perfect Ptolemaic astronomy before developing Copernican astronomy, which was not necessary for Tychonic.
  • Typically, science curriculum does not reflect the recapitulation theory. As a necessary step in their science curriculum few students, for example, have to learn alchemical reaction theories before learning stoichiometry; in biology, understand earlier theories of transformationism before learning modern theories of evolution; in physics, master Aristotelian physics before learning Newtonian physics.
  • Finally, historians of science as well as philosophers of science have detailed the difficulties in the older “scientific knowledge has gradually accumulated over successive generations of scientists, with each new generation building on the advances of previous generations” model. Way back in 1962 even Thomas Kuhn tried to distance himself from that overly simplistic, cumulative model of scientific progress.

Oh well, the numbers, equations, and graphs in the article more than compensate for any empirical or conceptual worries I might have.

Johannes Schöner—Neither Medieval nor Modern

Johannes Schöner will never be a household name, but it’s nice to see him get some attention in John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox.

John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox
John Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox

Schöner attracted Hessler’s attention less for his own work than his compliations of material, which included the now famous 1507 Waldseemüller map of the world. Hessler seems to have combed through Schöner’s various Sammelbänden to reconstruct how Schöner put together his intellectual world, from how he read maps and learned to build globes to how he studied the stars. An excerpt from Hessler’s book concludes:

More generally, however, by looking closely at what Schöner thought important enough to preserve in these collections of mathematical, geographical, astrological, and astronomical information, and how he might have utilized it in his work, we will gain deep insights into the epistemological revolutions that occurred at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth. The years between the amazing discoveries of Columbus and Copernicus saw the beginnings of the birth of modern scientific thought and in the chapters that follow we will see Schöner fully engaged in the intellectual transitions from the science of Aristotle and the geography of Ptolemy, to that of Copernicus and Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521). The dates of the materials that Schöner compiled are mostly from 1475 to 1540 and represent a cross-section of central scientific materials from pre-Copernican science. Each of these books and manuscripts is interesting in its own right but taken together they provide a case study for the use and transmission of scientific information in the Renaissance through the eyes of a contemporary consumer of these materials. Schöner’s toolboxes are nothing short of encyclopedic and his use of them helps us understand in a unique way how our modern scientific worldview came into being.

John Wilford reviews A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox in Why is America Called America?. Wilford finds the book generally lucid and facinating, except those pesky parts of the technical chapters that “appear to be written more for the author’s academic peers than for many laypeople.”

In the excerpt and more markedly in the review Schöner becomes an important transitional figure in the development of modern science. Both associate him with modern geography—an understandable point considering this book began in the Waldseemüller map of the New World— and link him to Copernicus and Copernicanism. The reviewer seems to overstate things when he says:

Nothing in the book points up more clearly Schöner’s pivotal place in a world in transition from the medieval to the modern than his residual interest in astrology and his awakening curiosity when he apparently heard reports of a new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric.

Schöner’s interest in that “new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric” probably owed more to his interest in astrology and making astrological prognostications than the modernity we see in Copernicus’s theory. Along with his prognostications and calendars, Schöner also wrote books on astrology before and after Copernicus’s De revolutionibus was published, notably his Opusculum Astrologicum in 1539 and De iudiciis nativitatum Libri Tres in 1545. Schöner might also have been the author of a horoscope cast for Copernicus. Judging from the table of contents, Hessler spends some time assessing Schöner’s astrology.

Copernicus’s horoscope attributed to Schöner (photo of BSB Cod. lat. Monac. 27003 from R. Westman, The Copernican Question, p. 116).
Copernicus’s horoscope attributed to Schöner (photo of BSB Cod. lat. Monac. 27003 from R. Westman, The Copernican Question, p. 116).

Schöner’s interest in astrology shouldn’t diminish our interest in him, but it should, perhaps, prompt us to wonder about the labels “modern” and “medieval” and the work they do for us (on the force of the medieval label, again see Elly Truit’s posts).

Hessler’s A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox looks like it will be interesting and a nice complement to Monika Maruska’s dissertation, “Johannes Schöner — ‘Homo est nescio qualis’.”

Illustrating Galileo, ca. 1955

In 1952 F. Sherwood Taylor delivered the Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution on “How Science has Grown.” These became the basis for his book, An Illustrated History of Science. One reviewer praised Taylor for having “simply and concisely presented the panorama of science from the ancient Sumeria of some 7,000 years ago up to Einstein and modern nuclear physics.” Taylor drew on his considerable expertise—a chemist by training, he was the founding editor of Ambix, was curator at The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, and ended his career as Director of the Science Museum in London.

The illustrations in Taylor’s book are at times taken from the historical record—photos of instruments or illustrations from early printed books—and at times the product of his and his illustrator’s imagination. He defended their work, saying:

Scientists and historians alike look askance at modern pictures of past events, feeling that the author and artist cannot fail to incorporate details for which no authority can be found. But if the reader accepts these pictures, not as authoritative sources, but as a synthesis of what has been transmitted by documents and what the author and artist know about the ways of life in days gone by, he will find in them the means of forming a visual idea of the men and events that brought science to its present position of pre-eminence. Yet in order that the student may not be tantalized, I have provided an appendix indicating some of the sources which we have used in devising these windows on the past.

Of the many iconic moments and issues Taylor selected to illustrate, he devoted four to Galileo. Interpreting a diagram from Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, we see Galileo trying to measure the force of a vacuum:


Another scene shows Galileo watching a lamp swinging from the ceiling of the cathedral in Pisa:


And Galileo reclines on a dock in Venice while he observes the skies through his telescope:


At other times we see Harvey preparing to dissect a body, or Aristotle examining an octopus, or Hook preparing a flea for inspection, or members of the Royal Society lounging in an opulent chamber, one of the petting a cat. The illustrations throughout the book offer fascinating glimpses into not the distant past, but into a 1950s that imagined the distant past.

Bylica the Astrologer

One night at his dacha, Stalin looked up from his meal of bread, sausage, and smoked carp to consider a matter of celestial importance. With him in the study were Comrades Kaganovich and Molotov, who stood at the far window arguing about a constellation. The one said it was Cassiopeia, the other Orion. Stalin wiped the crumbs from his mustache, eager for the debate. Such matters had fascinated him since his youth in the seminary, when he’d often tilted back on his heels to puzzle over the stars. He never had been able to make sense of the heavens. Where other saw bears and scorpions and chained ladies, he saw only a messy splatter of light.

Molotov returned to the low table around which they had gathered, while Kaganovich circled the room, defending his position at great length and with great volume. He provided Molotov with Cassiopeia’ß mythological origins, and drew meaning between each of the bright dots in the sky. He gestured. He laughed at perceived errors in logic. And he even touched on phrenology, a philosophy he refused to endorse in the end, but one he still found worthy of mention, considering Molotov’s limited grasp of the sciences and the flat spot on the back of his head. Stalin was impressed. He grunted and gave short nods of approval. But Molotov could not be so easily swayed, just as he could not be bothered to fortify his defense. “It is Orion,” he said, simply and completely, before smiling as if only a fool would believe otherwise.

Kaganovich lunged at Molotov’s throat, causing …

Stephen Eirik Clark’s “Kamkov the Astronomer” opens with a scene that is uncannily similar to what apparently happened in the Hungarian Diet in 1468. In the diet Corvinus arranged and presided over a contest between two astrologers, Martin Bylica and his former student Jan Stercze, as they debated the proper technique for ascertaining the correct and precise time of birth used to calculate a natal horoscope, a practice called rectifying a geniture. In front of the assembled lords, Corvinus declared Bylica the winner of the debate and offered him a position at court where he remained until his death. Stercze’s future was, apparently, so promising (see this article for more on Bylica and Stercze).

Soviet postage stamp from 1957 (from here).
Soviet postage stamp from 1957 (from here).

Clark’s “Kamkov the Astronomer” imagines brilliantly all the details, the back story, and the personal interactions and motivations that the gaps in our historical evidence prevent us from knowing. I haven’t read the other stories in Clark’s collection, Vladimir’s Mustache and Other Stories, but the volume is worth the cover price just for “Kamkov the Astronomer.”