History of the World, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 

Science Marches On 

Man has struggled to understand the mysteries of the Universe ever since it began with the big bang some 8,000 years ago. In addition to widespread temporary deafness and the killing off of the dinosaurs, the bang so addled people’s brains that it took some time for true scientists to emerge.

Curiously, good sense reemerged in Poland of all places, with the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), called “Stash” by his friends. Educated by the Saturine fathers, he was strolling through the countryside one day and noticed something curious. A prodigious walker, Stash noticed that the further away he got from Crackowe (sic), the shorter the church steeples seemed to be. While the good fathers had insisted that the earth was flat, this phenomenon seemed to suggest that the earth might not be flat after all. Whether it was round or perhaps shaped like a watermelon (Stash’s favorite fruit), was still to be determined. It also occurred to him that if the Saturines were wrong about the shape of the earth, could they also be wrong about masturbation?

After an additional year of walking, Copernicus finally concluded that the earth was indeed round, helped along by the undoubted fact that the sun and moon seemed to be round too. He posited the theory that the constant revolutions of the heavenly bodies must have eventually worn them into globes. He tried his theory out with watermelons and pears, but hunger intervened and the experiment was abandoned.

His most controversial theory suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, which ran counter (or was it counter clockwise?) to the established dogma of Holy Mother the Church.  Fortunately for Stash, he died before his theory was published, thus avoiding the wrath of the Inquisition. Ever loyal to their wayward student, however, his former teachers celebrated his life with a Saturnalia.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), born in Pisa, then took up the cudgels or was it the gauntlet?  Now you may wonder how he came to have this strange name. When his father took his infant son to be baptized at the Basilica of the Holy Bovine (this was Tuscany after all), the priest naturally asked him what name he had given the little tyke. “Galileo,” responded the proud papa. “Yes, yes,” the holy fellow responded, “but what last name?”

“Well, that’s it padre, my dear son only has the one name.”

“Not permitted, sir, everyone must have two names, according to the prescripts of the church, as spelled out in Chapter 1,101 of Canon Law.”

Reluctantly, the proud papa ventured the name “Galileo Galileo.”

“Nice thought, but Chapter 1,102 makes it clear that one can’t have the same first and last names. Might I suggest naming the little bambino Galileo Galilei? I think I might just be able to slip that one past the Office of the Nomine Patre.”

So that’s the story. Despite the best efforts of the ecclesiastical legislators, however, few people today follow these precepts, preferring to name their children after flowers, rock musicians or mushrooms.

In any event, even at an early age, little Galileo wandered the earth looking skyward. As he often walked into trees, or buildings, or tripped over low walls, he was thought by his neighbors to be something of a menace to navigation. Eventually, they learned to steer clear and go about their business.  After all, this was Pisa, where even the buildings seemed confused.

Despite a good many knocks to the head, young Galileo went on to the University of Pisa, where he studied medicine and everything else that anybody then knew about. The conventional wisdom of those days said that Aristotle had pretty much figured everything out, but the budding genius wasn’t buying that. He had by then read Copernicus, and was beginning to have his doubts about how the heavens actually operated.

As so often happens in history and Agatha Christie mysteries, another “aha” moment changed the course of the story. It seems Galileo was draining a glass of grappa one day and, looking through the bottom of the glass, noticed that olives on a nearby tree seemed to have gotten larger. When he looked through the other end of the glass, the olives got smaller!  What if, he posited, one could take a piece of clear glass and grind and polish it until it gave a clear, enlarged image? Further, what if one put a series of such glasses in a tube until the image was enlarged many, many, many times?

He was soon hard at work on his idea and mentioned it to a visiting merchant of Venice, who immediately grasped its commercial possibilities. What if one could put such an instrument at the top of St. Marks, and thus get advanced warning not only of hostile fleets, but of the ships of ones competitors? In off hours, one could also get a peek in a neighbor’s bedroom window.

If he’d stopped there, he might have stayed out of trouble, but he began to train his telescope on the heavens above, and his observations convinced him that the despised Copernicus had been right after all and the earth wasn’t the center of the Universe, but a paltry planet spinning around the Sun. Well, this didn’t sit too well with Pope Rictus XVI, who summoned Galileo to come to Rome forthwith to explain why he shouldn’t be burned at the stake, or at least be drawn and quartered.

In due course, Galileo was convicted of “heretical common sense,” and placed under house arrest. This did not prevent his friends from visiting and telling him stories of their travels. To while away the time, he wrote up their stories in a little book he called the Decameron, but wisely used the pen name, Boccaccio, after a neighbor and pig farmer, who couldn’t read and would thus be none the wiser.

The only other scientist of any note until Thomas Edison was born was Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726 in the old calendar, but 1643-1727 in the new, which most people preferred, since it let you live a bit longer).  He was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthrorpe-by-Costerworth, in the county of Lincolnshire (I kid you not). His father died before he was born, and his mother remarried when he was three. Her new husband was an Anglican priest, who apparently took a dim view of young tikes, so mom left little Isaac to be raised by his grandmother.

Apparently, marrying Ma Newton was the kiss of death, because hubby number two soon died, and young Isaac – by then the brightest bulb at the local school – was put to farming the family land. One day, as he was resting under an apple tree from his exertions with the plow, he was rudely awakened from his nap when an apple fell upon his noggin. When his head cleared, he stood up just in time to dodge another apple. Why, he wondered, did the apple fall instead of rising? Thinking, as all scientists are wont to do, that there must be a reason, he began the thought process that would eventually lead to the invention of gravity.

By the way, as a matter of interest, the apple was of the Macintosh variety. This fact was suppressed for hundreds of years, as the English did not want the Scotch to get any credit. They fostered the rumor that the apple had been a Granny Smith, named after a local pub owner. Now you know the truth.

While the glimmerings of gravity whirled about his brain, he realized that he did not yet have enough education to be taken seriously, so he packed a bag and walked to Cambridge, where he was admitted to Trinity College. There he perfected his theory of gravity, invented the science of optics and even found time to come up with that bane of high school students everywhere: the calculus.

His achievements were much honored. He was made a Knight of the Bath, whose rituals still include an annual get together where all the knights gather at a communal bath, drink a lot of ale and frolic in the nude. He became president of the Royal Society and Master of the Royal Mint. It must be this last that led him to experiments in alchemy, which proves that even the smartest people can be as dumb as you and I.

By the way, he’s buried in Westminster Abbey, just next to David Livingstone, who wouldn’t be there at all had he not been found by Henry Morton Stanley. Such are the vagaries of history.


(Alas, thus far there is no Chapter 10. Maybe next year.)

Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon





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