Tuesday, 1 May 2012

All Around the World

                 Tin-plate was not only used for mechanical toys, many other kinds of toys were made from it. Here is a tin-plate globe from the 1960s, which I was given as either a birthday or Christmas present. It is litho-printed, made by Chad Valley, and is six inches in diameter. Originally it had a stand, which was broken and lost over the years.

Globus is Latin for ‘sphere’ and that the Earth is spherical (OK, it’s an oblate spheroid, but let’s not overcomplicate things), has been known from antiquity.
Pythagoras in the 6th century BCE, and Parmenides in the 5th, both taught that the Earth is spherical, and in c.330 BCE Aristotle developed the idea further. The Greek mathematician Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth in about 240 BCE (and, depending on which definition of the measure the stadion is used, was accurate to within 2%). Ptolemy based his maps on a spherical Earth, and his Almagest was the authoritative work on astronomy in the Middle Ages.

After the fall of Rome, learning declined in Europe, in a period known as the Dark Ages (although not quite as ‘Dark’ as was once thought). Learning began to re-emerge as the Classical texts from antiquity were rediscovered – in the monasteries of Ireland and in Islamic translations from the East. Scholasticism became the dominant force in the new universities, basing its teachings on the precepts of Aristotle.

One important theme in scholasticism was the Great Chain of Being. This held that everything had its place in a hierarchy, and was used to justify, well, just about everything. God, naturally, was at the top, followed by the various ranks of angels. Man, created in God’s image, was next – but man had his ranks too, with the Pope, God’s representative on Earth, at the head, followed by emperors, kings, noblemen and so on. Man held dominion over the animals and birds, with lesser creatures below them, down through insects, plants and rocks. Following Aristotle’s teachings, and using the authority of Ptolemy’s Almagest, the Earth was seen as the centre of the universe. The sun, moon, planets and stars all surrounded the earth, and were set in nested, rotating spheres of crystal.

The problem with the rebirth of learning – the renaissance – was that people began to ask questions. Like, was the authority of the ancients justified? Were Aristotle and Ptolemy always right? Following the Fall of Constantinople, in 1453, scholars flooded in to the West, bringing with them more classical texts, some of which offered widely opposing views. One important question that was raised was the nature and truth of the geocentric universe. Copernicus, who carefully couched his argument in the terms of a ‘what if’, argued in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestrium ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’ (1453), that the sun, not the earth, could be at the centre of the universe. The book attracted only mild opposition, until Galileo also began to openly champion heliocentricity. In 1616 he went to Rome to try to persuade the Catholic authorities not to place Copernicus’s work on the Index of Forbidden Books. He failed in this, and in 1633, following publication of his own Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in the previous year, Galileo was recalled to Rome, where he stood trial in an ecclesiastical court of the Inquisition. He was found ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’, and was required to ‘abjure, curse and detest’ the beliefs that the sun was at the centre of the universe and that the earth rotated around it. He was also sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life, and all his works, including any he had not already written, were banned.  A legend has it that when sentence was passed, Galileo supposedly muttered ‘Eppur si muove’ – ‘And yet it moves’ – but this is extremely unlikely. The ban on uncensored editions of the Dialogue and De Revolutionibus remained on the Index until 1835.

One enduring historical myth is that people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat, and that sailors were afraid of sailing over the edge. Nothing could be further from the truth, but why should the truth stand in the way of a good story?

As we have seen, no one ever really questioned that the Earth was spherical – they questioned whether or not it rotates around the Sun. However, in 1828, Washington Irving (of Rip van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow fame) published his four-volume biography The History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. In Volume One, Book II, Chapter III, Columbus goes before the court of Salamanca to argue that his voyage of discovery should be authorised. The ‘simple sailor’ stands before the ranks of bishops, scholars and clergy, who oppose his sailing on the grounds that the existence of the antipodes is contrary to ecclesiastical law. By extension, they counter that belief that the Earth is spherical, Irving’s work is a mixture of fact and fiction, and this is most certainly fiction. The opposition Columbus faced was because he had miscalculated the circumference of the earth, using a different, smaller, version of the stadion that Eratosthenes had used, and the authorities were concerned that, due to his underestimation, he would not be able to carry sufficient food and water for his journey. But it suited Irving to depict Columbus as the plucky ‘little guy’ standing up to, and getting the better of, the Establishment. However, Irving uses a version of the courts that were used to condemn Galileo (and others), and in conflating the two, he set a precedent that was seized upon by other writers seeking to depict the courts of the Catholic Church as ignorant, superstitious, intransigent and dogmatic.

As the supposed antagonism between science and religion gained ground during the 19th century, examples of the irrationality of the believers were sought, and examples like Irving’s were so much grist to the mill. John W Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) was one of the publishing successes of the 19th century, with fifty printings in fifty years. In it, Draper argued that ‘science’ championed progress and intellectual freedom, and ‘religion’ represented superstition and repression. Thanks to works like Draper’s, this view became established as a ‘given’ in intellectual circles. It also helped to cement the myth of the Flat Earth in the Middle Ages in the minds of the general public. The truth is, virtually every educated person in the last two thousand years has known that the world is round – and sailors were afraid of running out of food and water, not falling over the rim of the world.

In one of those excellent historical coincidences I love, on Saturday May 30th 1860, J W Draper gave a lecture in Oxford entitled "On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law." The lecture was, by all accounts, too long and very boring, and would probably have been long forgotten, were it not for the discussion that followed, in which Bishop Wilberforce and T H Huxley had the famous exchange in which ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley if it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley is said to have replied he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. (Disraeli described Wilberforce’s manner as "unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous", leading to the popular soubriquet ‘Soapy Sam’).

The evolution debate, which ought to have been over years ago, rumbles on today. In the US, the term ‘Darwinian’ is too often used with opprobrium; in the UK, Charles Darwin is on the back of the ten-pound note.

We live in interesting times.

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