A Long Long Time Ago…Part 3

As noted recently, rather too many years ago a teenager that must have been me published a thing called ‘THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF SCIENCE: REVISED, UPDATED AND GENERALLY REFURBISHED’ in The Mentor, an Australian fanzine. Against my better judgement, even against my mediocre judgement, I am putting it on the web, in its original installments.  No one should be exposed to it all at once.  For the record, part 2 is here.


Part III

The Renaissance: The Renaissance was a wonderful time to be alive – if you were still alive after the dark ages. It was a vastly more civilised era – innocent people were hanged rather than burned at the stake, and the populace suffered only one or two plagues per century. The reign of the Satanic Doctors had ended (the so-called Medievil period), and suddenly there was art everywhere – people were arting all over the place. Titian, Michelangelo, Donatello and Fangio amongst them.

In science, things were happening. Nicholas Copernicus (a name springing from the dirty colour of his breeches) determined that Aristotle Was Wrong (AWW). He wrote a very long book about this in Latin, called De Revolutionibus. In it, over and over and over again, he propounded into his readers’ heads the theory that the Earth moved around the moon which orbited the sun epicyclically from the point of view of a Martian on Venus. Earth, the moon, Mars (and the hypothesised planet Harold) all Di Revolutionibussed around the sun. This was the Copernican Revolution. The Church did not like this at all, since they had voted for Aristotle. However, Copernicus waited until he was dead to publish the book, thus leaving his punishment up to God. However, it was difficult to get the galleys to him.

Another astronomer was Johnannes Kepler. He followed on from Copernicus and invented elliptical orbits, a name which sounded much more scientific than anything that had gone before. He also invented three laws – a move that was to become rather fashionable. Most importantly of all, he was not an alchemist. (Alchemy was very popular at the time; mainly due to the possibility of turning lead into gold. It didn’t work. But as we know (astrology, numerology, insect repellent), that has never stopped people from trying something.)

Perhaps the greatest figure of the time, sometimes called the ‘Spirit of the Renaissance’ (a title also claimed by Arno Borsht, though he had less of a case, being a meat packer), was Leonardo da Vinci. Sculptor, painter, anatomist, engineer, lute player and part-time belly dancer, he was truly an intellectual cabaret act.

While it is true that his aeroplanes could never have flown, his helicopters likewise, and that the wheels of his armoured vehicle would have turned in opposite directions had it ever been constructed, he nevertheless must be given credit (or psychological treatment) for coming up with these ideas at all. Indeed, he could be considered the father of ‘science fiction.’

Less of a painter but more of a scientist was Galileo Galilee, yet another Italian. He also picked a fight with Aristotle and the Church for saying AWW, and eventually recanted, murmuring, ‘and still it moves,’ (though this may have been a reference to a fish dinner he had eaten minutes earlier). Galileo aimed the newly invented microscope at Jupiter, so inventing four new moons for it. He then looked at the moon, but failed to see the man in it.

After a few jugs of wine, Galileo was fond of hooking his ankles over the rafters and swinging, and in the end invented the pendulum, a device that made clocks go ‘tick tock tick tock’ in a rather more insistent manner.

In England, logarithms were invented, presumably as an alternative to Bongos and tom-toms.

The invention of movable type by Gutenberg was of great significance, as it allowed the rapid dissemination of new ideas (if you were one of the 0.01% of the population who could read). While the Chinese had many years before invented printing using carved wooden blocks, they had never produced a telephone book, and so nobody had taken any notice.

Voyages of Discovery: The Renaissance was a time of voyages of discovery; De Gama, Diaz, Cortez, Pince-Nez, Columbus and Cabot were all spreading like a plague across the seas. In fact, the were spreading a plague across the seas, as the people they ‘discovered’ were to find out.

Diaz and De Gama rounded the Horn to India and traded for spices. This they did because by the time they arrived their food was rancid and they needed to hide the smell.

Then there was Magellan, who sailed right around the world without falling off, an undertaking fraught with water.

And don’t forget the magnificent achievements of …. um ….

Columbus not only sailed the seas, but he had a cloud named after him. His ships were the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Claus, sturdy vessels full of scurvy and typhoid, and in them he found America and thought it was India. Rumours that he later rediscovered India and thought it was America are unfounded. He thought it was Madagascar.

Cabot, with a vast leap of imagination, found a new land and called it ‘Newfoundland.’ He sailed in a ship called ‘Ship.’

But while these fellows were away, the Renaissance came to an end, and they all had to pack up and go home to see what would happen next.  What came next was the Enlightenment, which lots of people who did not like thinking for themselves did not like, or at least they would not have liked it had they been able to form their own opinion.  As it was they were just mildly uneasy and tried to convince themselves that Jonathan Swift was referring to someone else.

War and Peace: The people of Europe during the Renaissance were, apparently, not very good at peace – they were always at war. They were not very good at war, either, it would seem, because a war would take thirty or a hundred years to get right. But soon they became even better at killing each other than they had been before, a remarkable, seemingly impossible, achievement. For a time wars were fought by professional soldiers called Mercilessnaries, but they sooner formed a Union and demanded time and a half for killing on weekends and no deaths on Sundays.

Even so, wars were a favourite pastime in those days, second only to dying of the black plague. And the side with the best science often won, largely because their cannons did not explode in their faces.

The English fought over what colour roses to plant. The Spanish and French fought over who’d get to fight the English, and two little-known tribes in Africa fought over whether the geometry of space-time is hyperbolic or Euclidean, one of the few instances of war breaking out over a scientific principle. The war, however, was inconclusive as neither could provide a rigorous proof of the parallel postulate within the framework of their axiomatic system.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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