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The Church and Science

The year is 1631 and some priests are meeting in the Collegio Romano, the Jesuits' centre for scientific research in Rome. The Collegio had celebrated Galileo's astronomical discoveries decades before but was shortly to become his adversary (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens). This meeting wasn't about Galileo. It was to decide what to do with a parcel of tree bark that had arrived from Jesuits in Peru. The bark was being used by natives in Peru to fight off chills. They chose to test if tea made from the bark could combat the chills associated with malaria. Their experiment would change the course of history (see The Jesuit's Bark). The bark was rich in quinine, an anti-malarial compound. Over centuries millions would benefit from this discovery. For the Jesuits, science was much more than just astronomy. There is a lesson here for modern discussions of church and science.


Jesuits Bark from 1797 Britannica

Blinded by Astronomy

Discussions on the church and science are very common on the internet. The problem is that they are not very scientific. They obsess over events that happened over 350 years ago from one discipline in science, astronomy. The map of modern science below (taken from Eigenfactor-Mapping Science) shows how misguided this approach is.

Map of Science

There is also a disconnect with earlier science. The word cloud below shows the most commonly cited scientists from various European reference books from 1758 ( see Galileo's Contemporaries). What is missing from the word cloud are the early scientists who are main topics of most church and science discussions.

Word Cloud - Scientific Citations

The example that seems to dominate over all others is the Galileo Affair ( see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens). This is where Galileo clashed with the church over his ideas on the cosmos. If we were to look on the impact of science on the human condition today, there are probably hundreds of lesser known scientists that made contributions significantly more important than Galileo's astronomical works. Amongst these hundreds were many priests and Catholic lay scientists. Some of these priests and laymen include Gregor Mendel, Abbe Nollet, Augustino Salumbrino, Louis Pasteur, Lazzaro Spallanzani, Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi. It is often forgotten that Galileo's most important contributions to science were in classical mechanics.

Science - A Bad History

We are taught some very strange things about the history of science. Science needed a Galileo to discover the parabolic trajectory of projectiles, a Newton to invent calculus, and an Einstein to develop Special Relativity theory. This is the Great Man approach to history. In fact, science didn't need a Galileo, Newton, or Einstein for those advances. The answers were already "in the air" (see In the Air). In each case, there were others who arrived at the same conclusions independently around the same time. Multiple discoveries are common in science.

Historians of Science dropped the Great Man Theory because it presents a shallow view of the history (see Modern Science). Today science depends on technology for instrumentation and universities as a locale for research and training ground for scientists. That means the history of technology and universities is important to the history of science. This means that actions of the church to formalize the structure of the modern university between the 11th and 13th century is important to the history of science.

The Rest of the Story

The goal of these pages is to give a better glimpse of the big picture than personality-based discussions. Modern Science and The Scientific Method presumes that intelligent discussions of church and science should start with a discussion of modern science. Pages on modern scientists such as Gregor Mendel, Francesco Redi and Alfred Wegener follow on this theme. The Calculatores describes how the calculatory tradition so important to modern Western science had its origins well before the Scientific Revolution. Galileo's Battle for the Heavens presents several of the "missing bits" from discussions of the Galileo Affair. Galileo's Contemporaries and Galileo's Contemporaries Timeline illustrate how Galileo was not working in a vacuum. The discovery of a remedy for malaria was an important discovery during Galileo's time (see The Jesuit's Bark). Galileo narratives consistently ignore another contemporary, Johannes Kepler.Finally, The Real da Vinci Code explores the censorship of Pierre Duhem, a historian of science who had discovered important advances in science originating in the Middle Ages.



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Copyright Joseph Sant (2017).
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