Through a telescope, darkly

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark (Polygon, 2011)

In the same way it was once thought the Earth was flat, people (important people) used to think that the sun, moon, planets and stars moved across the sky like props on a medieval stage, perhaps even helped along with jerky twitches on strings, or poked with sticks by an out of sight but kind hearted old puppeteer with a white beard.  The Earth didn’t move of course, said the wise, how could it?  No, it was everything else that revolved around it like so many clockwork toys.

We’ve come so far in this post-post-modernist second decade of the twenty first century, that it’s difficult to imagine just how different the world of ideas once was.  Four hundred years ago mildly eccentric old ladies were burned as witches: but the threat of burning also hung over anyone whose views differed from official church doctrine on any number of issues – doctrine which was anchored in Saint Thomas Aquinas’ brilliant (but by the 1600s looking rather shaky) marriage of Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy, set out in the numerous volumes of his Summa Theologica.  I mean no harm to Aquinas: on the contrary, his thirteenth century writings are among the first lights flickering from the darkness; but after more than three hundred years his ideas were struggling against the dawning light of reason.

We have all seen the stars with our own eyes, and that is exactly how they were observed – even by the Egyptians – right up until the seventeenth century when a few spectacle makers in Holland suddenly realised (no doubt by accident) that by holding one lens in front of another, next door’s windmill suddenly looked enormous.  Within a few years Galileo in Italy had developed the first telescope and was crashing around, knocking down the medieval stage scenery of the skies.

Then there is the great Austrian mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler who, separate from Galileo, applied his mind to the recorded observations of his time and deduced mathematically the motion of the spheres.

Nobody liked this, it seems: or at least not many people whose opinions counted – which meant the church, both Catholic and Protestant.

There is something rather obvious, with hindsight, about the advancement of science – and looking back upon the collision between the immovable objects of faith and tradition and the irresistible force of evidence which refutes it, is like watching a very messy car crash in slow motion.

To the Vatican priests of the sixteen hundreds, the view through a telescope presented the reality that Holy Scripture was not literally true, that the philosophers of antiquity whom they adored had limits to their understanding, and that they could not respond by making new theology on the hoof – for who knew what the men of science might discover next, and where would the church be then?

It is a perplexing but fascinating period of history brought to life by Stuart Clark, an enthusiastic British academic, journalist, author and broadcaster who has devoted himself to bringing the world of astronomy to life.  In The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth he has created a fictional account of the development of stargazing from an eccentric and superstitious hobby through to the greatest scientific revelation of all time.  I enjoyed seeing the Jesuits, the brilliant schoolmasters of my youth, cast in their role as sixteenth century thought police, and the glittering circle in which Cardinal Robert Bellarmine moved.

The book is gripping (I read it over the course of two days) and it brings out very sympathetically the tensions of the time both from the point of view of the geniuses Galileo and Kepler and the established Catholic and Protestant authorities.

The even better news is that The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is only the first in a trilogy: the second book, The Sensorium of God, was published earlier this year by Polygon and the third, The Day Without Yesterday, is scheduled for publication in 2013.  The Sensorium of God deals with the life and times of Sir Isaac Newton and his contemporaries in the Royal Society (such as Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley), while The Day Without Yesterday jumps forward in time to the twentieth century, Albert Einstein and his contemporary Father Georges Lemaitre, a brilliant Belgian astronomer and physicist; and proof that a person can be a visionary scientist and still see the hand of God in the marvels of the Universe.

Also published at Think Scotland

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