Some of you will remember that a couple of weeks ago I described certain experiments that had been carried out to see if it was possible to compare and, more importantly, to contrast the brain activity that took place when first an actor and then an astronomer were asked to read the same passages of text. There was a general consensus that the test hadn’t been particularly fair because the passage chosen was from a play script rather than from a scientific text and we were all wondering what the astronomer concerned would have to say about it when his turn came to speak at the Shakesphere seminars being held at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to coincide with their new production of Brecht’s The Life of Galileo.
Well, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to disappoint you. Marak Kukula, from the Greenwich Observatory, was indeed at yesterday’s seminar but the experiment wasn’t so much as mentioned and in fact the session stood entirely on its own, with no reference made to what had gone before. I suppose that this was understandable because for the most part the audience was different being largely composed on both occasions of people who had come for the afternoon matinée of the play. To have recapped what they had missed would have taken up most of the allotted time and wouldn’t have had the same impact without all the slides to illustrate the results of the experiment.
Nevertheless, this seminar was as fascinating as the earlier one and much more closely tied to the play itself. As well as Dr Kukula there was also a Professor of Chemistry who spoke about alchemy in that period and turned all our 2p pieces first into silver and then into gold. He was very popular, as you might imagine, but unfortunately was pushed for time and so never got round to doing the magic things with custard powder that had been promised. If anyone has any idea what they might have been I would love to know. (The Bears would have settled for really well made custard. They are very fond of custard.)
Dr Kukula spoke for the most part about the revolution in thinking that Galileo brought about when he moved the Earth from the centre of the universe not just theoretically, as Copernicus had done, but practically, through the proofs that he offered. He made the point that being an astronomer in the seventeenth century was a dangerous business because it brought you up against those that had power. Moving the Earth from the hub of creation meant moving the Pope and the might of the Church from its central position too and as Galileo found to his cost, that was not a sensible thing to do. Of course, Brecht is interested in a variety of moral issues relating to the pursuit of scientific truth and I will write about the production itself later in the week, but what I found interesting in what Dr Kukula had to say were his comments concerning the shift over time in the public’s attitude towards astronomers.
Latterly, astronomers have become the golden boys of science. We all recently mourned the death of Patrick Moore, whose programme The Sky at Night taught many of us our elementary knowledge of the night skies and millions eagerly await whatever the next series by Brian Cox might reveal about the wonders that surround us celestially. Far from dangerous, being an astronomer in the twenty-first century was, Dr Kukula assured us, the safest scientific profession you could adopt – until last week.
Ten days ago, while we were all waiting to see if we were going to be blown to smithereens by an asteroid we did know about, Russia was hit by a meteorite we hadn’t the faintest idea was anywhere near us. This isn’t a new experience by any means. The picture at the top of this post was painted by Durer and is almost certainly his response to a similar occurrence in Alsace in 1494. The similarity between it and the pictures we all saw coming out of Russia is striking. Anyway, overnight the pressure on the astronomers of the world began to ratchet up. Why hadn’t they known this was on its way? What would they have done about it if they had known? What were they going to do in future to make sure that the next explosion wouldn’t happen in a more economically ‘sensitive’ area of the world? In other words, how was this generation of astronomers going to ensure the continuing power of the current equivalent of the Medieval/Early Modern Church, big business? First the press and then various ‘interested’ parties came knocking on astronomers doors and demanding to know why they weren’t doing their jobs properly. Suddenly, being an astronomer was not such a benign occupation.
You can go quietly about your scientific business, it seems, until your work either threatens or fails to offer the support that the powers of the day feel is owing to them and then beware. The inquisition, in one form or another, is still out there.