God’s Philosophers

Patricia Fara looks at a wide-ranging study of early science

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Reviewed by: Patricia Fara
Author: James Hannam
Publisher: Icon
Price (RRP): £9.99

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The Scientific Revolution may seem as real as the French Revolution, but it was not even invented until the 20th century, when this legendary period stretching between Copernicus and Newton was said to have rivalled the Reformation in importance. In the aftermath of the Second World War, science promised to provide a new international language, a secular faith that would unite the world and bring peace.

Such optimism was clearly misplaced, but the Scientific Revolution remains an appealing label for artificially dividing up the past.

James Hannam reveals the intellectual ferment that preceded and made possible the controversial discoveries of Galileo and his contemporaries. Renaissance writers advertised their own brilliance by fabricating a dismal Dark Ages, when Nothing Much Happened. Hannam shows that, on the contrary, by 1500 An Awful Lot Had Happened since the fall of Rome in 476.

Most obviously, experimenters needed instruments – and these relied on technical advances made during the extended medieval period. Without earlier glass makers and horologers, Renaissance astronomers would have been unable to track the movements of the planets accurately. Theoretical research also flourished and influenced the future, as mathematicians developed laws of motion, and navigators analysed patterns of magnetism.

Hannam’s second feat of myth-demolition is equally important. However violently modern religious and scientific fundamentalists may disagree, they come together in believing – wrongly – that science and Christianity are inevitably opposed.

As Hannam explains, the church was responsible for setting up the first European universities and for encouraging scientific debates about the laws of nature established by God at the creation.

For a clear, lively and informed account of the real issues at stake during Galileo’s trial, you could do no better than this.

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Patricia Fara is the author of Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009)