Changing the World

Ensisheim DurerSome 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.


12 thoughts on “Changing the World

  1. As I have no tv, I first heard of the Russian explosion and thought that it was benign, but staying at a hotel provided me with images and it was quite shocking, a bit like those end-of-the-world movies. I haven’t heard of this particular play by Brecht but I will certainly look into it.

    1. Smithereens, I think the play is very much concerned with the level of mankind’s responsibility where science is concerned: what should we explore and what should we do with what we find. What the meteor teaches us is that there are still some things in respect if which that question is irrelevant because whatever we find there is nothing we can do about it.

  2. A fascinating talk indeed! How very 21st century of us to be fixated on how we could possibly prevent anything like a rogue meteor hitting the earth. As if! I thought of you the other day as Mr Litlove has been reading an excellent book he was given for his birthday – The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, by Stephen Greenblatt, which is about a poem that contained all the seeds of Renaissance thinking including some very anticipatory thought about science (things being made of atoms, etc). The dominance of the Christian Church is an issue because of the unreasonable way they kept hold of power (burning everyone who disagreed). Anyway, I thought it might well be your type of book, and the underlying issues in it are not so very far from those mooted in the talk.

    1. In fact, Lilove, that very book was cited during the talk and the point about the prediction to do with atoms was made. What a coincidence. But there’s no such thing, is there? It’s fate telling me that I need to get hold of a copy of the book. Greenblatt is always good value even if sometimes a bit left field.

  3. Fascinating talk though it is too bad we didn’t get to hear what the astronomer thought of the test. When the meteorite hit Russian I wondered why no one knew it was coming, but then stopped myself because really, there are only so many astronomers, so man telescopes and if you aren’t looking at the right place at the right time, you totally miss stuff. We haven’t reached Star Trek techno-wizardry yet where one computer can scan the whole solar system looking for potential threats.

    I can second, or is it third at this point, recommendation for Swerve. I read it last year I think it was and loved it. It’s a really interesting story full of bookish goodness, history, religion and politics.

    1. Apparently, Stefanie, the last one of a similar size that came in was spotted, but only because someone had their telescope pointing in the right direction quiet by chance. It gave them around five hours warning which wasn’t enough to try and stop it (not that they could) but at least to work out where it was likely to land and evacuate the area.

    1. Yes, I did wonder about asking him in question time, but that was cut short by the need for people to get into the theatre, so no joy there either.

  4. Alex, I’m fascinated by the theater/astronomy experiment

    By the way, I loved Greenblatt’s The Swerve. It:focuses on the story of a15th-century book scout, Poggio Bracciolin,who traveled through Europe collecting books. He found Lucretius’s epicurean didactic epic poem, De Rerum Natura, (translated On the Nature of Things, or, On the Nature of the Universe) at a German monastery. This beautiful poem recounts Epicurean philosophy, which includes the theory of atoms.

    The ancients were truly ahead of their our time, and classical literature sparked the Renaissance!

    1. Kat, don’t you sometimes just despair at the thought of all the books and all the knowledge out there that we don’t have time to get to, I know I do? How am I going to find the time to read this and everything else that I’m sure it would point me in the direction of? I know the theory is that you will always find time to do the things you really want to but that does fall down when there are so many things you really want to!

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