Tag: Nicolaus Copernicus

Kanye West & Galileo

Kanye West’s recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live took an unexpected turn when West invoked Galileo, implying that they were both misunderstood geniuses who wouldn’t be silenced by bullies telling them what to think. West was responding to Kimmel, who had asked about West’s views on the president.[1] I’m not interested West’s opinions about the president. I am, however, fascinated by his use of history.

In a long, meandering reply that didn’t actually answer Kimmel’s almost question—“Do you like…? Do you think he is a good president?”[2]—West seemed to be saying that he, West, was a free thinker and that he would not be told by anybody what to think. A minute or two into his reply, West enlisted Galileo as predecessor and partner in resisting the thought police and societal oppression:

Kanye West invokes Galileo to justify his free thinking.

[West] Right or wrong or even if I changed my mind about it[3] or thought about it more, which I’m not saying I did, just place a thought out there that everyone’s not thinking sometimes. Galileo, they wanted to chop his head off for saying that…the earth uh that, what did he say?, the the the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa …. So when you have modern, futuristic ….

[Kimmel] But the sun…but…but the sun…

[West] I’m not concerned about specifics sir.

Here’s the audio of that portion, if you want to hear it:

Wow. Let’s pause for a moment and process West’s hesitation. He stumbled over whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth. That’s not history. That’s not science. That’s just basic life. So basic, in fact, that I can’t excuse West’s uncertainty as a nervous misstep.

Invoking Galileo as some martyr for free and rational thinking who stood up to the dogmatic, oppressive Church that wanted to execute him is nothing new. But usually people who conjure up the ghost of Galileo know that Galileo espoused and argued vigorously for the Copernican, heliocentric system, the model in which the earth revolves around the sun. And while we no longer think the sun is stationary, we still accept today the core features of the Copernican system as valid and verifiable (as Kimmel seemed to be fumbling towards saying). And usually people who invoke Galileo do so because, they typically claim, they are concerned about the specifics. Galileo got it right, as the evidence we have today demonstrates. Those specifics usually matter.

But as West says, the specifics don’t matter to him. History, after all, is holding “us back as a race of beings:”[4]

I think people focus too much on the past and focus too much on regret. Even like when you deal with schools, you take like my slave idea. My my point is I’ve heard of history class. I’ve never heard of a class that breaks down how you, ya know, balance a checkbook or how you control your finances, which uh my father never taught me that, and I’ve never heard of a future class. So they keep us so focused on history that we start to believe that it actually repeats itself and we become overly traditional and we can’t advance as a race of beings. We get too caught up in the past and what everyone’s saying and what everyone’s tweeting ….

I have a different idea here, one I’m going to place out there even if everyone’s not thinking it: History does matter. And paying attention in history class, not just hearing “of history class” but listing in history class, matters.[5] And history classes are not the problem. Focusing on history doesn’t convince us that history “actually repeats itself” and prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” No, ignoring history, thinking history and historical facts are infinitely malleable or that the specifics don’t matter, that’s the danger that prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.”[6] Such willful ignorance, such open rejection of history empowers factions in society to “become overly traditional,” because once you deny history, society can and will continually make up whatever tradition that suits its immediate needs. Winston’s dystopian future will become our present:

All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

History matters, as West instinctively realizes in his use (and abuse) of it to validate and justify his own position, because of the specifics. Once we lose the details, the historical facts and the evidence, then we’re just making stuff up.

If for some reason you want to watch more of the interview, this search should produce a link to the YouTube video.

  1. Unlike West’s response, Kimmel’s question about the president was anything but unexpected.  ↩

  2. West said he was going to answer the question Kimmel was going to ask but didn’t, the question about liking the president.  ↩

  3. I.e., West’s ideas and opinions about the president.  ↩

  4. The irony of his having just deployed one of the more famous episodes in Western history to support him and his position seems to have been lost on West.  ↩

  5. Yes, other classes matter too. And yes, West is right, classes on basic economics and finances are worthwhile (and offered in many schools and colleges).  ↩

  6. I need to point out that I have no idea what West means by “advance as a race of beings,” especially the retro–1950s, invaders from another planet “race of beings” bit.  ↩

Who was Englishman John Digges?

No, really, who was John Digges? Apparently he witnessed the supernova in 1572 and helped “shred” the “hidebound view of the universe” and championed the “skepticism about Bible-infused group-think in the Middle Ages” that was the Ptolemaic system. John Digges also viewed the supernova as proof that the fixed stars weren’t fixed on some “kind of inert cap over the world.”

Oh wait. There was no John Digges. There was a John Dee. There was a Thomas Digges. They both might have witnessed the supernova in 1572. But that supernova had nothing to do with the fixity of the stars or a “Bible-infused group-think” (it certainly raised questions about other issues, e.g., the perfection of the heavens).

I want the author to realize this “photo” is a joke, but I fear he hasn’t.

It’s hard to take this polemic, “Was God Necessary for Creation? Science Says No,” seriously when it shreds history and seems to suffer from some rabid new-aethist-infused group-think. Most of the pseudo-history is totally pointless, adding nothing to the post.

The original photo linked in the article is clearly a joke. Note the description: “This is a vintage photo taken 13,730,8119,213 years ago. It is of course a scan of the original print, since digital photography had not been invented yet.…”

The core bit of the author’s rant is:

today science is able to convincingly demonstrate by peering into the tiniest of realms that in an infinite cosmos something can actually—and naturally—explode into being. Out of—as far as can be divined—absolutely nothing.1

Millennia of claims about spontaneous generation (either from rotting matter or from assumed sterile conditions) suggest that we will likely realize that no, something did not, in fact, come from nothing.2

Even a cursory encounter with history would have helped the author avoid some rather obvious errors. But that would require recognizing that history is a domain of expertise, not something this author apparently acknowledges.

Maybe we can just all agree to leave the history to historians.3

  1. Even John Digges would recognize the flaw in the logic that leads from this “finding” to the conclusion that science has proven that a god was not involved in the original creation of matter.  ↩

  2. For an excellent, readable history of ideas about spontaneous generation, see Daryn Lehoux’s Creatures Born of Mud and Slime: The Wonder and Complexity of Spontaneous Generation (JHU Press, 2017)  ↩

  3. I keep wanting this post to be sarcasm, to be a joke. But if it is, the author is so incredibly deadpan that I can’t detect the sarcasm. The egregiously erroneous history is not, alas, evidence of a joke—too many well educated, accomplished people regularly get history horribly and inexcusably wrong.  ↩

Daughters of the Copernican Revolution

In honor of Copernicus’s 545th birthday, I thought I would read T. Koon’s best seller, The Copernican Revolutionary.

Imagine my surprise when I found folded inside the back cover the following certificate:

A certificate for The International Society of the Daughters of the Copernican Revolution

This certifies that Miss Etta Clara Hoyt is a regularly approved member of the International Society of the Daughters of the Copernican Revolution in connection with the Wahwilaway Chapter having been admitted by the International Board of Management by virtue of her descent from a proto-scientist who with unfailing loyalty rendered material aid to the cause of the Heliocentric System during the Revolutionary Struggle between the benighted geocentrists (that uneasy alliance between Ptolemaics and Tychonics) and the visionary heliocentrists (our beloved Copernicans).

I hadn’t heard of this society before and despite my best efforts (that is, doing a handful of internet searches), I found nothing about it. It seems to have been formed in the late 1800s, perhaps in celebration of the 450th anniversary of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus. Judging from the text, the society was modeled after the Daughters of the American Revolution, but for reasons I can’t fathom. If you know anything about this organization, let me know.

The Copernican Revolutionary

Thomas Kuhn, writing under a pretty lame nom de plume, tried his hand at historical pulp fiction. The story of a Revolutionary War-era woman who refused to live by society’s patriarchal norms.

Another book I wish had been written, though I doubt Thomas Kuhn could have written it.

Ok, there’s no way Thomas Kuhn could have written such a book. But it’s fun to pretend.

Science won’t prevail unless …

Science Will Prevail,” Anzar Abbas reassures readers in his recent op-ed. Although the Trump administration “wants to ignore facts and instead believe whatever makes it feel most comfortable,” he is confident that “no matter what an ignorant administration may throw at science and reason, it will prevail. It always has.” To make his case, Abbas surveys key episodes when “ignorance of science and reason” impeded science but ultimately lost out to reason, evidence, and scientific facts. Unfortunately, Abbas ignores facts and believes what makes him feel most comfortable, inviting the same criticism he levels at the Trump administration.[1]

At the heart of Abbas’s op-ed is a story about Copernicus fearing persecution by the Church for his heliocentric theory:

Copernicus knew the Church would not tolerate his work. He knew that he lived in a Europe that would never believe the Earth belonged anywhere but the center of the universe. He knew the persecution he would face if he ever tried to remove Earth from where the Church believed it to be.

We don’t talk as much about the ignorance of the Church anymore, though there was plenty. We don’t talk as much about the resistance that Copernicus faced.

Screenshot of Abbas’s op-ed.
Abbas hits all the major points in his version of Copernicus vs. the Church.

Scientists and science boosters believe this old chestnut because, well, it makes them feel comfortable.[2] But to believe and to traffic in this story requires that you ignore facts.

There is no evidence that Copernicus worried that the Church would condemn him and his work. There is, however, Copernicus’s dedication in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to no less a Church figure than the Pope, Pope Paul III. Copernicus credits other members of the Church for having urged him to publish his work: Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, and Tiedemann Giese, the Bishop of Chelmno.

Copernicus’s letter of dedication to Pope Paul III.
Copernicus’s dedication to Pope Paul III. Digital copies of the text are widely available, this particular copy is from the Library of Congress, Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De revolvtionibvs orbium coelestium, libri VI (1543), fol. iiv.

Copernicus did worry about resistance to his theory, as he mentions in the opening lines of his preface, but he doesn’t single out the Church. Instead, he worries about ignorant people who in referring to Scriptures will distort the sacred texts.[3] The Church found Copernicus’s so unremarkable that it didn’t take any official until 1616 when it placed De revolutionizes on the Index of Forbidden Books until it was corrected.[4]

This purported conflict between Copernicus and the Church is largely a fiction, fabricated by pro-science, anti-church polemicists in the 19th century and repeated in lightly edited form for the past 150 years. And even a quick review of historical scholarship will expose it as a fiction.[5]

Scientists’ cavalier disregard for facts, evidence, and reason outside of the sciences reflects their own “unrestrained, unreasonable and willful ignorance,” and makes it difficult to take their complaints seriously. I agree, Abbas, a 21st century scholar ignoring basic truths is appalling. Science might prevail one day, but only if scientists and their boosters stop ignoring facts.

Screenshot of Abbas’s erroneous claim that Galileo was imprisoned in the 16th century.
Galileo’s trial and sentence occurred in 1633, well into the 17th century, not in the 16th. Moreover, Galileo was never imprisoned. Although the initial sentence was imprisonment, it was promptly commuted to house arrest. Alas, Abbas displays “unreasonable and willful ignorance” of both when Galileo was tried and what his sentence was.

  1. To be clear, I am not defending the Trump administration. I am, rather, pointing out how people like Abbas undermine their own efforts by demonstrating an almost pathological disregard for facts outside the sciences and a dogmatic adherence to myths that make them feel good. We lose all moral authority if in calling out the Trump administration’s (and before that the Bush administration’s) transgressions we commit all those same sins.  ↩

  2. According to his LinkedIn account, Abbas is a PhD student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering “studying functional connectivity in the brain in the Keilholz MIND Lab.” He is also the president of Emory Scicomm, “a group of students who are passionate about communicating science to the public.” So he is both a scientist and a science booster.  ↩

  3. Andreas Osiander in writing his well known Ad lectorem might have worried about how people would react to the Copernicus’s book, but those are his own anxieties and concerns rather than Copernicus’s.  ↩

  4. Some Church astronomers presented serious and technical challenges to Copernicus’s theory. See, for example, Chris Graney’s excellent study of the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli: Setting Aside All Authority. Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo (Notre Dame Press, 2015).  ↩

  5. If going to the library and reading a very short introduction on Copernicus is too much effort, the wikipedia page has a section on the controversy, which offers a reasonable description.  ↩