Saturday, July 30, 2011


Genesis of Science

What on earth does hay have to do with the genesis of science? Some years ago I read Freeman Dyson’s Infinite in All Directions, and it’s my recollection that he mentioned the medieval invention of hay as a technological feat of the early Middle Ages. Hay is grass and legumes that are bundled up into a compact mass and used as fodder for animals in times when forage is not available. This means that animals such as cattle and horses can be supported during lean times, and that cattle kept well nourished during the winter can be slaughtered later, or that milk producers can keep on producing. It makes for a more regular supply of food and work animals.

James Hannam doesn’t mention hay in his book The Genesis of Science, but he does mention the stirrup, which allowed knights to stay on the horse, and to transfer the thrust of their forward motion more directly to their weapons. He also mentions a more efficient arrangement of yoking horses to the plow, as well as modifications to the plow itself. Now these don’t seem like high technological achievements. If you’re like me, you grew up with images of blast furnaces and assembly lines as your symbols of technological and industrial prowess. If you were born later, in the 1960s or 70s, as my children were, your symbols are probably computers, and televisions. For the Middle Ages though, the invention of hay, the improvements in plowing, and the development of the stirrup meant better living for the masses, and more efficient means of offense and defense.

The Middle Ages and its science was not just about hay or stirrups. Prior to “the Renaissance,” there were a number of other Renaissances. There was one in the 8th century, under Charlemagne, that is termed “the Carolingian Renaissance,” and there was another one, in the 12th century called, oddly enough, “the 12th century Renaissance.” It was during the Middle Ages that Aristotle was Christianized, and his philosophy incorporated into the philosophy and theology of the Church. However, the incorporation of Aristotle was not total. There were parts of his philosophy, and of the his Arab commentators, that were unacceptable. Some of the propositions advanced by the Aristotelians of the universities were condemned in 1210 and 1277. Hannam joins Pierre Duhem and Edward Grant in seeing the condemnations as positive things in the movement towards questioning Aristotelian doctrines regarding the physical world. This is in stark contrast to Stephen Hawking, who, in a recent segment (August 7, 2011), on the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity series implied that the condemnations were a bad thing, and that they had something to do with gravity.

Nicholas Oresme (d. 1368) argued that it was possible for the earth to move, and that it would indeed be more economical for the earth to move than for the heavens to revolve around the earth. He had too much common sense, however, to accept such a ridiculous proposition.

The Merton Calculators, named after a college at Oxford, developed the Mean Speed Theorem, which is integrated into Galileo’s Law of Falling Bodies.

Hannam points out, correctly in my view, that neither Giordano Bruno nor Galileo were prosecuted for heresy over the idea of planetary motion. Bruno’s acolytes would like you to believe that he was a kind, gentle soul, wouldn’t hurt a fly, scientist who was in advance of his time. In fact, as anyone who has suffered through reading one of Bruno’s books, in my case it was The Ash Wednesday Supper, or La Cena, will tell you, he was frighteningly egotistical and conceited bore. His execution was not so much over his scientific ideas as it was over his wish to get rid of the pope and insert himself as the head of his own church.

Hannam concludes by dealing with the Galileo affair. This has been historically mis-represented as the nobel scientist Galileo engaging the forces of dogmatic ignorance. It might make for good theater for Brecht, but it’s not completely true. A good part of Galileo’s offense was in subjecting the pope to ridicule by putting his, the pope’s, arguments into the mouth of Simplicio, the fool character in his dialogue.

Hannam presents an interesting account of science and its development in the period between the fall of Rome and the trial of Galileo. It’s written for a popular audience, and is easily understandable.

Next up, I’ll be returning to Marx, and then moving on to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

>