Is Christianity At War With Science? (8/20
The following is a continuing list of Christians down through the centuries who, far from being constantly at war with science (commonly called ‘natural philosophy’ in previous times), took an active interest in seeking to understand how the universe worked. The first page in this list is here.
1401-1464: Nicholas of Cusa: Applied the scientific method to his investigations of the natural world. He made important contributions to mathematics, astrophysics, and optics. In the field of astrophysics he made the significant discovery that the earth is not a perfect sphere that it orbits the sun, and that stars are distant suns of other solar systems. In the field of optics, he corrected short sightedness with convex glass lenses, a technology still used in today’s glasses and contact lenses.
He proposed revolutionary ideas in astronomy, such as that the universe (instead of being a finite sphere with a definite centre, as Aristotle had taught), was a limitless expanse filled with countless stars, without a definite centre, that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and that the stars themselves rotated (rather than being fixed to a larger spherical body which carried them as it rotated, the model held by Ptolemy). He further suggested that the movements of the stars and planets were not perfect circles.
1452-1519: Leonardo Da Vinci: Applied the scientific method to his investigations of the natural world. He made a massive number of discoveries in optics, physics, astronomy, light, anatomy, engineering, aerodynamics, physiognomy, and designed the first robot. He preceded Sir Isaac Newton in a number of discoveries.
1488-1534: Otto Brunfels: Called the ‘father of botany’ by Carolus Linnaeus (the famous 18th century botanist who contributed to modern botany, taxonomy, zoology and ecology), he contributed significantly to botanical science because of his practice of relying on personal experience and discovery, rather than simply repeating the opinions of previous men who were held to be ‘authorities’ on the subject.
His work on the medicinal properties of plants was based on scientific principles, and made contributions which helped discredit the superstitious herbalism of earlier ages, laying the foundation of modern pharmacology.
1473-1543: Nicolaus Copernicus: One of the most famous astronomers in Western history and a polymath of the scientific revolution, Copernicus led a revolution in cosmology which decisively overturned the Ptolemaic model which had dominated the Western scientific tradition for over 1,300 years. Copernicus held that the earth orbited the sun, and rotated on its axis, that this was the cause of the appearance of the stars moving around the earth, that the other planets also orbited the sun, and that the distance from the earth to the sun was smaller than that of the earth to other stars.
Copernicus made his theories known in a book entitled ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’ (‘The Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs’), which soon became very well known throughout Europe. A significant contribution of Copernicus’ work (though not his direct aim), was the realisation that observation could only contribute to science to a limited extent.
Whereas Aristotle and the Greek scientists had relied heavily on observation for determining physical truth, Copernicus’ discoveries proved that appearances could be misleading – despite appearances, the sun did not revolve around the earth, it was the earth which moved. The concept that scientific laws did not necessarily have to agree with observable data was a significant advance.
Though well aware his theories were in contradiction to Roman Catholic dogma, Copernicus felt that a loyalty to the truth was a higher ideal than submission to the Church, and did not feel theologically threatened by his own discoveries in any case. He insisted that truth should be taught, and false ideas overturned:
‘For I am not so enamored of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. I am aware that a philosopher’s ideas are not subject to the judgment of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavor to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God. Yet I hold that completely erroneous views should be shunned. Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heaven as its center would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.’
Nicholaus Copernicus, ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’, preface, 1543
‘Thus indeed, as though seated on a royal throne, the sun governs the family of planets revolving around it.’
Nicholaus Copernicus, ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’, Book 1, Chapter 10, 1543
1494-1555: Georgius Agricola: Applied the scientific method to his investigations of the natural world. He made significant contributions to metallurgy, geology and mineralogy. His work on metallurgy was unsurpassed for 200 years, and was still being printed as a standard work on the subject at the end of the 19th century.
c.1508–1568: William Turner: Called the ‘father of English botany’, and the first modern ornithologist, William Turner (like Otto Brunfels before him), relied on practical experimentation and experience to develop a better understanding of botany. Also like Brunfels, Turner’s pharmacological work (‘A New Book of Spiritual Physick ‘, 1555), was useful in disproving the medieval herbalism which was grossly inaccurate and mostly superstition (he described it as ‘full of unlearned cacographies and falselye naminge of herbes’).
His contribution to ornithology was the first printed work entirely on the study of birds (‘Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis et succincta historia’, 1544). His greatest work, a reliable and systematic catalogue of English plants, was published in three volumes (‘A new herball, wherin are conteyned the names of herbes…’, 1551, 1562, and 1568).
1501-1576: Gerolamo Cardano: An Italian physician (who wrote the first description of typhoid fever), who contributed to mathematics (particularly in the field of algebra, probability and ‘imaginary numbers’), and mechanics (inventing the gimbal device, the combination lock, and a drive shaft with universal joints, the device used in modern cars to transmit power from the engine to the wheels).
He also contributed to cryptography (creating an encoding procedure which enabled encrypted messages to be hidden in seemingly innocent text), hydrodynamics, published two encyclopaedias, and advanced the education of the deaf by contradicting the idea that deaf people could not be educated without first learning how to speak.
1514-1574: Georg Joachim von Lauchen (also known as Rheticus): A mathematician who contributed significantly to trigonometry. His most famous work (‘Canon of the Science of Triangles’, 1551), was important for astronomical calculations (including the movements of the planets). He designed the sea compass, as well as an instrument for displaying the length of the day throughout the year, and the trigonometric tables he devised in his last work (‘Opus Palatinum de triangulis’, published in 1569 after his death), were so accurate they were still being used for astronomical calculations in the 20th century.
1536–1586: Ignazio Danti (also known as Egnatio Danti): A mathematician, Danti made contributions to astronomy and the calendar. He designed a number of new astronomical instruments, and used them to identify the error in the Gregorian calendar, becoming one of the important influences in its reform. Danti also contributed a work which brought together all the mathematical knowledge of the day, and made instruments for surveying.