The Day the Universe Changed

By Gerald Hart,2014-11-04 20:09
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In the highly acclaimed The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke examines eight periods in history when our view of the world shifted dramatically: In the eleventh century, when extraordinary discoveries were made by Spanish crusaders.In fourteenth-century Florence, where perspective in painting emerged.In the fifteenth century, when the advent of the of the printing press shook the foundations of an oral society.in the sixteenth century, when gunnery developments triggered the birth of modern science.In the early eighteenth century, when hot English summers brought on the Industrial Revolution.In the battlefield surgery stations of the French revolutionary armies, where people first became statistics.In the nineteenth century, when the discovery of dinosaur fossils led to the theory of e Published by Little, Brown on 1995/09/01

    Copyright Copyright ? 1985 by London Writers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. First eBook Edition: November 2009 Hachette Book Group 237 Park Avenue New York, NY 10017 Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com ISBN: 978-0-316-09191-6 Contents Copyright Acknowledgements Preface 1 The Way We Are 2 In the Light of the Above 3 Point of View 4 Matter of Fact 5 Infinitely Reasonable 6 Credit Where It’s Due 7 What the Doctor Ordered 8 Fit to Rule 9 Making Waves 10 Worlds Without End Bibliography Picture Acknowledgements


    So many members of academic faculties have given invaluable assistance in the writing of thisbook that it is regrettably impossible for me to express my gratitude to them allindividually. I hope they will forgive me if I make mention in particular of Dr AlistairCrombie, of Trinity College, Oxford, who was especially generous with both his time and hisunequalled knowledge.

    I should like to thank Penny Fairfax, Bettina Lerner and Jay Ferguson for their meticulousassistance with research, as well as the television production team who worked so hard tomake possible the series of programmes associated with this book: Richard Reisz, John Lynch,Martin Hughes-Games, Katharine Everett, Maralyn Lister, Dorothy Prior, Brian Hall, Ian Stone,John Else, Sarah Carr and last but far from least, my hardworking and talented assistant,Veronica Thorne.

    Juliet Brightmore, Angela Dyer and Robert Updegraff put the book together, in tryingcircumstances, with the flair and quality for which they are justly known.

    My wife, incredibly, tolerated it all for over three years.


    London 1984


    You are what you know. Fifteenth-century Europeans ‘knew’ that the sky was made of closedconcentric crystal spheres, rotating around a central earth and carrying the stars andplanets. That ‘knowledge’ structured everything they did and thought, because it told themthe truth. Then Galileo’s telescope changed the truth.

    As a result, a hundred years later everybody ‘knew’ that the universe was open and infinite,working like a giant clock. Architecture, music, literature, science, economics, art,politics - everything - changed, mirroring the new view created by the change in the knowledge.

    Today we live according to the latest version of how the universe functions. This view affectsour behaviour and thought, just as previous versions affected those who lived with them.Like the people of the past, we disregard phenomena which do not fit our view because they are‘wrong’ or outdated. Like our ancestors, we know the real truth.

    At any time in the past, people have held a view of the way the universe works which was forthem similarly definitive, whether it was based on myths or research. And at any time, thatview they held was sooner or later altered by changes in the body of knowledge.

    This book examines some of those moments of change, in order to show how the changes of viewalso generated major institutions or ways of thought which have since survived to becomebasic elements of modern life.

    Each chapter begins at the point where the view is about to shift: in the eleventh centurybefore the extraordinary discoveries by the Spanish Crusaders; in the Florentine economicboom of the fourteenth century before a new way of painting took Columbus to America; in thestrange memory-world that existed before printing changed the meaning of ‘fact/’; withsixteenth-century gunnery developments that triggered the birth of modern science; in theearly eighteenth century when hot English summers brought the Industrial Revolution; at thebattlefield surgery stations of the French revolutionary armies where people first becamestatistics; with the nineteenth-century discovery of dinosaur fossils that led to the theory ofevolution; with the electrical experiments of the 1820s which heralded the end of scientificcertainty.

    The last chapter examines the implications of this approach to knowledge and what it means. Ifall views at all times are valid, which is the right one? Is there any direction to thedevelopment of knowledge, or merely substitution of one form for another? If this is the case,can there be any permanent and unchanging values or standards? Has the course of learningabout the universe been, as science would claim, a logical and objective search for the truth,or is each step taken for reasons related only to the theories of the time? Do scientificcriteria change with changing social priorities? If they do, why is science accorded itsprivileged position? If all research is theory-laden, contextually determined, is knowledgemerely what we decide it should be? Is the universe what we discover it is, or what we say itis? If knowledge is an artefact, will we go on inventing it, endlessly? And if so, is thereno truth to seek?

    An Egyptian wall-painting from a tomb of the 18th dynasty (1567-1320 BC). The figure top rightis the surveyor, playing out his measuring string as he and other officials walk theboundaries of a field. The small figures are peasant workers.


    The Way We Are

    Somebody once observed to the eminent philosopher Wittgenstein how stupid medieval Europeansliving before the time of Copernicus must have been that they could have looked at the skyand thought that the sun was circling the earth. Surely a modicum of astronomical good sensewould have told them that the reverse was true. Wittgenstein is said to have replied: ‘Iagree. But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been circling the earth.’

    The point is that it would look exactly the same. When we observe nature we see what we want tosee, according to what we believe we know about it at the time. Nature is disordered,powerful and chaotic, and through fear of the chaos we impose system on it. We abhorcomplexity, and seek to simplify things whenever we can by whatever means we have at hand. Weneed to have an overall explanation of what the universe is and how it functions. In order

    to achieve this overall view we develop explanatory theories which will give structure tonatural phenomena: we classify nature into a coherent system which appears to do what we sayit does.

    This view of the universe permeates all aspects of our life. All communities in all places atall times manifest their own view of reality in what they do. The entire culture reflectsthe contemporary model of reality. We are what we know. And when the body of knowledge changes,so do we.

    Each change brings with it new attitudes and institutions created by new knowledge. These novelsystems then either oust or coexist with the structures and attitudes held prior to thechange. Our modern view is thus a mixture of present knowledge and past viewpoints which havestood the test of time and, for one reason or another, remain valuable in new circumstances.

    In looking at the historical circumstances which gave birth to these apparently anachronisticelements, which this book will attempt to do, it will be seen that at each stage ofknowledge, the general agreement of what the universe is supposed to be takes the form of ashorthand code which is shared by everyone. Just as speech needs grammar to make sense ofstrings of words, so consensual forms are used by a community to give meaning to socialinteraction. These forms primarily take the shape of rituals.

     Rituals are condensed forms of experience which convey meanings and values not necessarilyimmediately obvious or consciously understood by the people performing them. They relate tothose elements of the culture considered valuable enough to retain. Involvement in them impliesthat the participants are not maverick. They conform by acting out the ritual. Each participant

     has a specific role to play, and one that is not invented or elaborated but laid down priorto the event.

    A wedding, for instance, is a typically structured ritual act. In the Anglo-Saxon countries itrepresents a transition for the protagonists from one social state to another, from beingmembers of a family to taking on the responsibility of creating another. The wedding formalisesthe transition, the change of state, within clearly understood terms and limits, which arewitnessed by members of the public and officials of the community.

    Much of the ritual is apparently anachronistic: the bride wears white; the service, whetherreligious or civil, involves archaic language and concepts which include the role of thewoman as a chattel, to be given away. The event is infused with symbols. Flowers representfertility, the ring is both a sexual and a business token, implying union in both senses. Thebridesmaids intimate the state of virginity which the bride is about to leave. Bothparticipants sign the contract, implying equality before the law. The honeymoon was a time whenthe bride and groom were removed from the pressures of daily life in order to begin theirnew family.

    None of these elements may any longer be of direct value or meaning to the bride and groomtoday, but the fact that they are retained shows that marriage is still a socially importantritual. This indicates that the community considers formal and binding relationships betweenthe sexes a necessary part of the continuity and stability of the group. The ritual remainsfor that reason.

    Rituals which are performed widely and generally enough become institutionalised. Theseinstitutions are staffed by members of the society who are given authority andresponsibility for social acts which are considered vital to the continued security andoperation of the community. The institutions perform the function of social housekeepers,taking on the routine services which are necessary for the day to day functioning of thegroup. In some cases, such as that of government, the institution will confer real power on itsmembers to make and enforce decisions about the future behaviour of the whole society.

    In the case of the modern West, the primacy of money and possessions is indicated by the powerand the institutionalised forms of those organisations whose job it is to ensure thecontinuity of finance and commercial transactions. Banks safeguard the means of exchange byformalising the ways in which it can be moved around. Although electronic fund transfer now

    makes the physical presence of bills of exchange and letters of credit unnecessary, the newmedium still adheres to the system developed originally to handle the paper activity. Thesystem is still that of seventeenth-century banking, because our society considers it to besufficiently effective as a means of financial regulation to be retained almost unchanged.

     The law is probably the institution that changes least in any society. In its codes itenshrines and protects the basic identity of the community. In its power to punish, itdelineates the permitted forms of activity, those considered valuable, such as the act ofinnovation which is protected by patent legislation, and those which are considered to be sodetrimental to the safety of the group at large that the punishment for transgression may bedeath. The particularly anachronistic way in which legal proceedings are carried on today - indress, modes of speech, jury numbers, courtroom seating, and so on - indicates the valuesociety places on the institution. The visible evidence of a continuing legal traditionenhances the impression of a community living under a permanent and consistent rule of law.

    One of the principal aims of the institutions is that they free the majority of the group to doother things considered necessary for the welfare of all, such as the production of wealth,the maintenance of physical well-being and, above all, the inculcation of the community’s viewof life in the young. Humanity is unique in the length of time its offspring spend learningbefore they begin to take on adult responsibilities. Language gives us the unique ability topass on information from one generation to another in the form of education.

    The content of this kind of instruction indicates the social priorities of the group concerned,reveals in what terms it regards the world around it, and to a certain extent illustratesthe direction in which a community considers that its own development should go. The veryexistence of formal educational institutions indicates that the community has the means and thedesire to perpetuate a particular view, and shows whether that view is progressive andoptimistic or, for example, static and theoretical in nature.

    In our case, we use instruction to train young members of our society to ask questions.Education in the West consists of providing intellectual tools to be used for discovery. Weencourage novelty, and this attitude is reflected in our educational curricula. Apparentanachronisms such as the titles of qualifications and of the teachers, as well as theconferring of formal accoutrements on the graduating student, recall the medieval origins ofthe organisation and at the same time show the importance our society attaches to standardisededucation. It is this quality-control approach to the product of the educational system thatpermits us to set up and encourage groups or organisations peculiar to modern Western culture,whose purpose is to bring change. In the main these lake the form of research and developmentsubdivisions of industrial or university systems. Their members are, in a way, the modernequivalent of the hunters and food-gatherers of early tribes.

    In the West the most unusual characteristic of their existence is the extent to which they areautonomous. As a social sub-unit they are, of course, constrained by the same generalregulations and limitations placed on all its members by society. However, thanks to theWestern view of knowledge and its application, these change-makers usually work in highlyspecialised areas, isolated from the mainstream of social interaction by the esoteric natureof their activity, and above all by language. Their autonomy depends upon the success of theirproduct in the market-place. Today, the products are technological and scientific in nature,and predominantly oriented towards service and information systems, an indication that oursociety has moved beyond the stage of concentration on heavy industrial production. We nowhave the tools with which to reorganise production, and with it life-styles, along moreautonomous, less rigid but socially fragmented lines.

    The most significant point about these sources of modern technology in the West is that theyare entirely directed towards the production of the means of constant change. Whereas othersocieties in the past adopted the same social structures as we do in order to ensure theirstability, and others in the contemporary world still do so, we use those structures to alterour society unceasingly.

    This extraordinary, dynamic way of life is the product of a particular, rational way of thoughtthat had its origins in the eastern Mediterranean nearly three thousand years ago.

    In about 1000 BC mainland Greeks started to emigrate eastwards, to Ionia, and settled on theislands and the Aegean coastline of Asia Minor. The new arrivals were pioneers, ready toadapt to whatever circumstances they encountered and to make use of anything that might maketheir existence easier. They were pragmatic people with a hard-headed, practical view of life.

    The conditions they found in Ionia were difficult. For the most part they founded their smallwalled towns on narrow coastal strips of indifferent land, and supported themselves with dryfarming capable of producing only some olives and a little wine. Backed by inhospitablemountain ranges that blocked all exits to the hinterland, the Ionians turned to the sea forsurvival. They began to travel all over the eastern Mediterranean, and discovered almostimmediately that they were in close proximity to two great empires, the Babylonian and theEgyptian.

    Both these ancient river-valley cultures had been the first, almost simultaneous examples ofurban civilisation. Their societies were theocratic, ruled by kings with magical powers.There had been little scientific or technological novelty, due to the extreme regularity oftheir physical environment and the rigidity of their social structures, which were based on theneed to build and maintain vast irrigation systems. The civilised world, for both theEgyptians and the Babylonians, was encompassed by their own frontiers. All that needed to beknown related to their immediate practical needs. Babylonian mathematics and astronomy wererestricted subjects whose study was permitted only to the priesthood. Egyptian geometry servedexclusively to build pyramids and measure the area of inundated land or the volume of waterreservoirs.

    Both cultures developed mythical explanations for Creation which, they felt, had happened notlong before each of them had come into existence. With gods responsible for all aspects ofthe world and with minimal science and technology developed for practical necessities, theirsimple cosmology was complete. The environment made no demands on them which they were notable to meet.

    Not so the Ionians. The uneven nature of their physical environment, with marginal agriculturalproductivity, little room for landward expansion, hostile neighbours, and the need totrade, made the colonial Greeks dynamic in outlook. Without theocratic traditions to hold them

     back they rejected monarchies at an early stage, opting for republican city-states in which arelatively small number of slave-owners governed by mutual consent.

    A ninth-century BC clay tablet from Babylonia shows the Sun God and his servants. The magicsymbols of divination are present: the sun symbol rests on the stool in front of the god,and in the sky under his canopy are the moon, the sun and Venus. The temple rests on theheavenly ocean, the source of life.

    It may have been because of their economic circumstances that the Ionians took a radically newview of the world. Whereas Babylonian astronomy had aided priests to make magic predictions,it now served the Ionians as an aid to maritime navigation. The major advance represented bythe use of the Little Bear as an accurate positional aid is attributed to one of the earlyIonians, Thales of Miletus, who flourished at the end of the sixth century BC. Little is knownof him, none of it contemporary. He almost certainly visited Egypt and may have beeninstrumental in the introduction of Egyptian geometry to Ionia. He is also reputed to havebeen able to use Babylonian astronomical techniques to predict eclipses.

    Thales and the two generations of students that followed him are credited with the invention ofphilosophy. These Ionians began, ahead of all others, to ask fundamental questions about howthe universe worked. Where the older cultures had been content to refer to custom, edict,revelation and priestly authority, Thales and the others looked to naturalistic explanationsfor the origin of the world and everything in it. They began to find ways of exploring nature,in order to explain and control it, the better to ensure their survival.

    By the time of Thales, the Ionians, due in part to their invention of gold and silver coin,were trading all over the eastern Mediterranean, dealing in a variety of commodities fromcorn to millstones, silk, copper, gum, salt. They had colonies all along the shores of theBlack Sea and were keen explorers, ranging north to the Russian steppes, south to Nubia, andwest to the Atlantic, and producing the first maps known to the West to aid them.

    The Ionians are credited with the invention of assaying techniques and thence the first use ofstandard precious metal coins as currency, such as this stater. It shows a man carrying aspear and a bow.

    The Ionian interest in practical answers to questions about the world led to the first, crudeattempts to find mechanisms, rather than gods, responsible for natural phenomena. Thalesthought that the material basic to all existence was water, whose presence was evidentlyessential to life. He and his students examined beaches, clay deposits, phosphorescence andmagnetism. They studied evaporation and condensation, as well as the behaviour of the windsand the changes in temperature throughout the year, from which they deduced the dates of theseasons.

    One of Thales’ pupils, Anaximander, observed that nature was composed of opposites: hot andcold, wet and dry, light and heavy, life and death, and so on. He also stated thateverything was made up of differing amounts and combinations of four elements: earth, water,air and fire. Anaximenes, another student, observed the behaviour of air, as it condensed tomake water which froze as ice and then evaporated as air.

    These simple analyses of phenomena and the observation of the presence of opposites combinedwith the political and economic structure of the Ionian society to produce the dominantintellectual structure in Western civilisation. In their small frontier cities all decisionswere taken publicly and after debate. Their first experiences in trading may have given them atendency to argue their way to compromise. Their circumstances led them to adapt particulartechniques for more general use.

    The Ionians took the geometry developed by the Egyptians for building their pyramids and madeit a tool with many applications. Thales himself is said to have proved that a circle isbisected by its diameter, that the base angles of an isosceles triangle are equal and that

    opposing angles of intersecting lines are equal. Be that as it may, the Ionians were soon ableto use geometry to work out, for instance, the distance from the coast of a ship at sea.Geometry became the basic instrument for measuring all things. All natural phenomena includinglight and sound, as well as those of astronomy, existed and could be measured in exclusivelygeometrical space.

    Geometry rendered the cosmos accessible to examination according to a common, standard,quantitative scale. Together with the concept of pairs of opposites, geometry was to becomethe foundation for a rational system of philosophy that would underpin Western culture forthousands of years. The systems of Plato and Aristotle, the apotheosis of Greek thought at theend of the fourth century BC, were based on the use of opposites in argument and the self-evident nature of geometric forms.

    Rational discussion followed a new logical technique, the syllogism, developed by Aristotle,which provided an intellectual structure for the reconciliation of opposing views. The self-evident axioms of geometry, such as the basic properties of a straight line or the intersectionof two such lines, could lead via deduction to the development of more complex theorems.When this technique was applied to rational thought it enhanced the scope of intellectualspeculation.

    In this way Aristotle produced a system of thought that would guide men from the limitedobservations of personal experience to more general truths about nature. Plato examinedthe difference between the untrustworthy and changing world of the senses and that of thepermanent truths which were only to be found through rational thought. The unchangingelements of geometry were the measures of this ideal, permanent thought-world with which thetransitory world of everyday existence could be identified, and against which it might beassessed. This union of logic with geometry laid the foundations of the Western way of life.

    The Parthenon. The perfect physical manifestation of the union of logic and geometry is to befound in Greek architecture. It represents the desire for balance and symmetry basic toWestern rational thought.

    This book examines what happened at particular points in history when man applied such arational approach to nature. It looks at the ways in which a questioning system of thought

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