God's Philosophers : How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science Paperback
by James Hannam
This is a powerful and a thrilling narrative history revealing the roots of modern science in the medieval world.
The adjective 'medieval' has become a synonym for brutality and uncivilized behavior.
Yet without the work of medieval scholars there could have been no Galileo, no Newton and no Scientific Revolution.
In "God's Philosophers", James Hannam debunks many of the myths about the Middle Ages, showing that medieval people did not think the earth is flat, nor did Columbus 'prove' that it is a sphere; the Inquisition burnt nobody for their science nor was Copernicus afraid of persecution; no Pope tried to ban human dissection or the number zero. "God's Philosophers" is a celebration of the forgotten scientific achievements of the Middle Ages - advances which were often made thanks to, rather than in spite of, the influence of Christianity and Islam.
Decisive progress was also made in technology: spectacles and the mechanical clock, for instance, were both invented in thirteenth-century Europe. Charting an epic journey through six centuries of history, "God's Philosophers" brings back to light the discoveries of neglected geniuses like John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Thomas Bradwardine, as well as putting into context the contributions of more familiar figures like Roger Bacon, William of Ockham and Saint Thomas Aquinas.
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 448 pages, Illustrations, maps
- Publisher: Icon Books Ltd
- Publication Date: 07/05/2010
- Category: History of science
- ISBN: 9781848311503
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Review by PaulBread
This is an entertaining read. And if you know as little about mediaeval science as I do, it's very instructive.But it sets out to be much more than that. It proudly proclaims on the cover that it was shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science books. I don't know how that came about, because the author plainly grasps little of the science and mathematics he describes. A few glaring examples:- p180 "'A moving body will travel in an equal period of time, a distance exactly qual to that which it will travel if it were moving continuously as [sic] its mean speed'This result, dubbed the mean speed theorem by historians, is central to physics because it describes the motion of an object, any object, falling under gravity. Note that it makes no mention of how much the object weighs. (Nor does it make allowances for air resistance, and so strictly speaking applies only to motion in a vacuum...)"Nonsense, the mean speed theorem as quoted Hannam is no more than a restatement of what is meant by mean speed. It's true irrespective of air resistance. What William Heytesbury wrote (in Latin) is that the mean speed of a body undergoing uniform acceleration is the speed halfway through the period of acceleration. (Hannam cites not Heytesbury's text, even in translation, but a 20th book about Mechanics in the Middle Ages.) Heytesbury's statement is generally true also. What is not true is that objects falling under gravity undergo uniform acceleration: that would apply only in vacuum.- p263"...The capillaries pass the blood through the tissues of the body where the oxygen is unloaded. They then carry the deoxygenated blood, now a purple-blue colour, into broader veins."This is a howler. Deoxygenated blood is not purple-blue, it's dark red. Has Hannam never had blood taken from a vein, nor seen it taken?p291"[Kepler's] greatest insight was that orbits are not circles, or even based on circles, but ellipses."Well, I know what he means, but ellipses are circles stretched along one axis.p330-332 has a lengthy explanation of Galileo and Orsesme's remarks on the Mean Speed Theorem, but fails to mention the clarifying fact that the sequence of odd integers 1,3,5,... is the differences between successive square numbers - this was known to the School of Pythagoras.Second, the book purports to tell "the story of how natural philosophy in the Middle Ages led to the achievements of modern science". The introduction defines the Middle Ages as ending in 1500. But the text has little to back that up. Hannam is keen to trumpet the many important inventions during the millennium or so he covers, without noticing that the anonymous inventors owed nothing to natural philosophers. He devotes much of his text to developments in astronomy, but seems not to realise that it was not until Kepler's analysis in the first years of the 17th century of Brahe's meticulous observations that astronomy progressed significantly beyond the best theories of the Ancient Greeks. Hannam includes a chapter on medicine and anatomy, but the only development he mentions that actually occurred during the Middle Ages was the increasing legitimacy of dissection starting in the 13th century. Hannam records no actual improvements in knowledge before the 16th century.Generally Hannam fails to identify the big problem obstructing scientific progress in the Middle Ages, which is the almost total failure to grasp the importance of observation and experiment. Progress was made in mathematics, where cerebration alone is required, and in technology, where experiment took place, but seldom in natural science.Hannam seems to be no more a latinist than he is a scientist - he twice writes of "caroline miniscule". Nor is he much of a stylist in English "Despite lacking a degree, young Galileo's talent for mathematics was obvious."One thing that Hannam does bring to his subject is a very considerable willingness to defend the role of the Catholic Church in promoting science in the Middle Ages and beyond. He manages to tut gently when the Church misguidedly allows a man to be burnt to death for his heterodox views, but otherwise presents it as a voice of tolerance and reason in the face of the provocative discourtesy of scientists and others who presumed to doubt its wisdom.In conclusion: do read this book, it's fun. But don't expect it to be as scholarly as the cover and the presence of copious citations might lead one to expect.