Friday, August 3, 2012

Science in the Middle Ages

Objectivists value the scientific method as the cornerstone of the engineering achievements of our civilization from structural trusses and direct current to alternating current and cybernetics.  We too easily see the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and barbarism in which learning was chained to (and by) theology.  The reality is more complicated.

“The Middle Ages was a period ruled by the Witch Doctor, in a firm, if mutually jealous alliance with Attila. The Witch Doctor controlled every aspect of human life and thought, while the feudal Attilas looted one another’s domains, collected material tributes from serfs – who worked, lived, and served in subhuman conditions – and maintained the power to burn heretics at the stake.
“Philosophy, in that era, existed as a “handmaiden of theology,” and the dominant influence was, appropriately, Plato, in the form of Plotinus and Augustine. Aristotle’s works were lost to the scholars of Europe for centuries. The prelude to the Renaissance was the return of Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas.” – Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual.”

Astronomy, in particular was not dormant, nor could it be.  The problem of Easter required bringing lunar and solar calendars into alignment.  Whether biology, botany, and medicine had any hint of modernism is a difficult question, but can only be answered with direct citations to contemporary works.  Like the revolution of the Earth on its axis and the orbit of the Earth about the Sun, proof contrary to spontaneous generation did not come until the 1840s. Like astronomy, it is too easy to dismiss alchemy as not being "real" chemistry. While its paradigms are not ours, the practices were utilitarian: dying wool and leather were important crafts. Paints, pigments, and finishes also were consequential.

“Historians have long recognized that the rebirth of science in twelfth-century Europe flowed from a search for ancient scientific texts. But this search presupposes knowledge and interest; we only seek what we know to be valuable. The emergence of scholarly interest after centuries of apparent stagnation seems paradoxical. This book resolves that seeming contradiction by describing four active traditions of early medieval astronomy: one divided the year by observing the Sun; another computed the date of Easter Full Moon; the third determined the time for monastic prayers by watching the course of the stars; and the classical tradition of geometrical astronomy provided a framework for the cosmos. Most of these astronomies were practical; they sustained the communities in which they flourished and reflected and reinforced the values of those communities. These astronomical traditions motivated the search for ancient learning that led to the Scientific Renaissance of the twelfth century.” (Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe by Stephen C. McCluskey. Cambridge University Press,  1997.) 

“Measurements by clepsydras prove … that although the earth is at the center of the universe, it is eccentric to the sun's orbit. At times the sun is borne at a greater distance from the earth than at other times. When the sun is climbing upwards in Cancer and Gemini, in the steeper tracts of its course, it takes longer, lingering 32 days in Gemini; but it requires less time in the lower tracts, 28 days in Sagittarius, the elapsed time for the other signs varying between those extremes (848-849) . “Dominant Traditions in Early Medieval Latin Science” by William H. Stahl, Isis, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Jun., 1959), pp. 95-124. 

Mean Speed from the Oxford
Calculators used by Galileo
"The sorry state of scientific studies at the close of the Roman Empire in the fifth century reflected Roman, not medieval, failures and short-comings." "How Science Survived: Medieval Manuscripts as Fossils” by Sharon Larimer Gilman and Florence Eliza Glaze. Science, New Series, Vol. 307, No. 5713 (Feb. 25, 2005), pp. 1208-1209.

“The dominant explanation of human behavior at this time was astrology.  Charles, like most of his contemporaries, ruled with the advice of the recognized social scientists of the day, the court astrologers. In this vein Oresme was ordered by Charles to translate Ptolemy's Quadripartitum from Latin into French. This order discharged, Oresme then attempted to debunk the popular conceptions in an attack on judicial astrology, Contra judiciaros astronomos (1360), which he later translated into French. There is no hint in the historical record that Oresme's efforts altered the predominance of astrology in the determinance of social policy; indeed, he returned to the attack ten years later with a treatise entitled Contra divinatores horoscopios, and in a series of Quaestiones (a stylized form of question and answer popular with academicians of the period).”
“Nicole Oresme and Medieval Social Science: The 14th Century Debunker of Astrology Wrote anEarly Monetary Treatise” by Kevin B. Bales, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 101-111.

“WHEN historians and historians of science flatly state that Ptolemy's Almagest and Geography dominated the fields of astronomy and geography for fourteen centuries, they are apt to mislead unwary readers into supposing that Ptolemy was the supreme authority in Latin science during that period. Quite the contrary, his works might almost as well never have been written for all the influence they had in the Latin West until translations were produced from Greek or Arabic texts in Toledo and Sicily in the twelfth century.' If there was any dominant tradition of Latin science in the first thirteen centuries of the Christian Era, it was a stream of encyclopedic literature, the main course of which may be traced backwards through the Latin encyclopedist Varro and the Platonizing Stoic Posidonius; to trace sources beyond them is difficult indeed. In any case it is well to bear in mind that this stream of encyclopedic works skirts around Ptolemy without being appreciably influenced by him. We can trace its course through the extant writings of Pliny, Theon of Smyrna, Cleomedes, Geminus, and numerous others.

“Of the three, Martianus Capella offers the best account of encyclopedic science and will be discussed first. He seems to have flourished in the first half of the fifth century.  Martianus Capella wanted to produce an encyclopedia in the Varronian tradition and, by excluding two of Varro's disciplines, medicine and architecture, laid the foundation of the medieval trivia and quadrivia.

The first work of Archimedes translated into Latin was the Measurement of the Circle. It was translated from the Arabic twice in the twelfth century.' The first translation, which I have argued (but not surely) was done by Plato of Tivoli, was most inferior; just three manuscripts are known, only one of which is medieval. Apparently not long after this first translation the great translator Gerard of Cremona again used the Arabic text and rendered the Measurement of the Circle into Latin. This time the translation was quite accurate, and so before 1187 a faithful version of this short but important treatise became available. We are fortunate that this version was included in MS Bibliotheque Nationale, Fonds latin 9335, a handsome codex of Gerard translations. Incidentally, this manuscript is one of the best examples of intelligent copying of scientific works. It has marginal variant readings which cite alternate copies. The drawings are carefully made. Even more important the transcription of numbers - even of six places - is almost perfect. “The Impact of Archimedes on Medieval Science,” by Marshall Clagett, Isis, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Dec., 1959), pp. 419-429. 

"Among late thirteenth and fourteenth century philosophers, the Averroists have been particularly noticed by historians as advocates of the autonomy of the sciences. In arguing, for example, that physics might give an answer to the question of the eternity of the world different from the answer given in accordance with Christian belief, Boethius of Dacia based himself largely on a conception of physics as an independent discipline with its own principles, rational methods, and conclusions. This approach to the autonomy of the sciences was not, however, the only influential one in this period. Another basis for the autonomy of physics is found in the work of certain Oxford commentators on Aristotle's Physics, most prominently in William of Ockham's Expositio super octo libros Physicorum. This second approach makes physics autonomous by placing greatest confidence not in deductively and causally prior principles of physics, which some thought could be proved or made known by metaphysics, but rather in propositions accepted on the basis of experience, if not known in themselves. The primary evidence cited in the following paper." “The a Posteriori Foundations of Natural Science: Some Medieval Commentaries on Aristotle's Physics, Book I, Chapters 1 and 2” by Edith Dudley Sylla, Synthese, Vol. 40, No. 1, Jan., 1979, pp. 147-187.
 In The Logical Leap, Objectivist physicist and philosopher David Harriman denigrates medieval science. In Chapter 3 "The Mathematical Universe" under the subhead "The Birth of Celestial Physics" on page 85 (ppb), Harriman says that with the Ptolemaic Model, the relative sizes of the orbits of the planets could not be calculated.  That leads to an interesting contradiction.  If it is true that the Geocentric model prevents such calcuations, then they must have used some other model, because the relative sizes of the orbits were known.  On the other hand, perhaps the geometry and observations of the time did, indeed, allow them to make those calculations, even assuming the Geocentric model.  My reference for that is Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe by Stephen McCluskey (Cambridge, 1998).  In fact, because of the religious viewpoint, the very scale of the measurable universe and the comparatively small size of the (spherical; not flat) Earth, were substantiating evidence to the relative unimportance of Earthly affairs. Saturn's orbit was estimated to be 72 million miles from Earth. (McCluskey, page 203).

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