History of Science

Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell

by
September 2021, no. 435

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has a gift for writing short, conversational, popular physics books. His earlier works, notably Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (2015) and The Order of Time (2018), have been bestsellers, and Helgoland is continuing the trend.

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If you have ever wondered about the imaginative, wondrous side of science – for instance, how Einstein used maths to predict the existence of gravitational waves, or how a metaphor led to the astonishing discovery that the spinning earth drags space-time around it like molasses around a spoon, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know why scientists had the patience to keep refining their experiments until they detected this barely perceptible rippling of space-time, or why they have the kind of grit made legendary by Marie and Pierre Curie, sifting through tonnes of pitchblende for a speck of radium, you will find an intriguing, bold, and controversial answer in The Knowledge Machine.

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Imagine you’re trying to make sense of the universe five hundred years ago, when astronomers believe there are just seven visible ‘planets’ wandering about the Earth: the sun and moon plus Mercury to Saturn. Intriguingly, there are also seven known metals: gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, and mercury. For hundreds of years there have been just seven known ‘planets’ and seven metals. Wouldn’t you be just a little tempted to see more than a coincidence here? Take gold, for example, which ‘does not react with anything in the air or the ground, and so retains its brilliance seemingly forever’: surely its power is similar to that of the ever-shining sun?

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Galileo and Kepler went down in history for prising European science from the jaws of medieval mysticism and religion. But where was England’s equivalent? Newton would not make his mark for another century. Surely the free-thinking Elizabethans also had a scientific star?

They did: Thomas Harriot (c.1560–1621). Most of us have never heard of him, for Harriot did not publish his findings. His day job was teaching navigation to Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship captains. Queen Elizabeth’s favourite was intent on colonising North America for the Crown. But it was also down to Harriot’s personality: retiring, cautious, and meticulous.

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In 1798, during the revolutionary wars on the European mainland, the Irish rebelled. Though they were supported militarily by the French Republic, it was the ideas heralded by the Revolution that gave real strength to their cause. A decade later, in Dublin, William Hallaran argued in his An Enquiry Into the Causes Producing the Extraordinary Addition to the Number of Insane that much of the increase should be attributed to the rebellion. Fifteen per cent of cases where causes could be identified were linked directly with the rebellion, but its effects were writ large in the rest of the catalogue: loss of property, drunkenness, religious zeal, disappointment, and grief.

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With the advent of digital technology and the Internet, traditional paper-based scholarship appears increasingly threatened with redundancy, if not total obsolescence. This may help to explain current interest in the various techniques adopted by early modern natural philosophers and scholars who struggled to cope with the diverse and rapidly expanding bodies of data at their disposal.

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Science may well have revolutionised our world, but David Knight finds ‘revolution’ to be an inexact metaphor for the ‘chancy, many stranded story’ he describes. He explores models from biography, with associated concepts of infancy, adolescence, and maturity, before settling on voyages of exploration and discovery. This choice is inspired in part by Newton’s self-portrait of playing on the shore before a great ocean of undiscovered truth, and Wordsworth’s subsequent poetic expansion of Newton ‘Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone’ for all eternity. Indeed, voyaging in strange seas provides a much more resonant and nuanced metaphor than the more common (and perhaps more marketable) revolutionary subtitle.

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When the intellectuals, writers, and artists of the Renaissance sought a theoretical basis for the new styles they were developing – at a time when the new meant all’antica and the term modern was still coloured by associations with the Middle Ages – they found that ancient sources were relatively abundant in some areas and scarce or non-existent in others. Poets could find inspiration in Horace’s Ars Poetica, and later in Aristotle’s Poetics. And there was a wealth of material on rhetoric – Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Tacitus – in fact an abundance out of all proportion to the practice of the art in an age when public speaking was represented by sermons and university lectures rather than by the deliberative and forensic oratory that were the lifeblood of Greece and Rome.

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In recent years, scholars have attempted to come to grips with the prodigious range of Sir Joseph Banks’s activities during a public career that lasted more than fifty years. Wherever one turned in the establishment circles of George III’s England there stood, it seemed, the massive figure of Joseph Banks: President of the Royal Society, Privy Councillor, adviser to government, patron of the sciences, Cook’s sailing companion and ‘Father of Australia’ for some, the moving force behind the African Association and ‘Father of African Exploration’ for others.

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