a book review and a proposed humanitarian use for a time machine

One of my favorite games to play while studying the history of science is to match the ideas and rhetoric of openly anti-science modern public figures to the era of history in which they and their ideas would feel most at home.

I think if we really set our minds to it, and we invent time travel, we can find a place in history for even the most temporally-displaced persons. That way, when we find ourselves thinking, “Why, his ideas are positively medieval, does he even know what year it is?” we need not concern ourselves with the lengthy and painful process of bringing a medieval thinker into the modern era. We only need to identify which century would be a more suitable home, and send him there.

But first we need to invent a time machine.

Until we can do that, I have to admit I find medieval views on science only fascinating in the historical writings of actual medieval scholars, and not in modern politics and educational policies. But it is medieval scholars I have been reading about lately:

Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely (Vintage Books, 2009)

In most narratives of the history of science in the western world, there’s an awkward gap of about a thousand years between the Greek philosophers of antiquity and the western European scholars of the sixteenth century onward. There was, of course, no such gap in reality, and humans certainly did not stop making scientific progress during those centuries.

Between the end of the Greek era and the early stages of the European Renaissance, most of that progress was happening in Islamic cities of northern Africa, Turkey, Persia and, later, the Iberian peninsula. Very few of the scientific works of Greek philosophers reached medieval Europe via direct Greek-to-Latin translation; most were acquired, translated, interpreted, critiqued, expanded and distributed by scholars in Islamic cities for centuries before they made their way to western Europe.

Aladdin’s Lamp is a thorough and detailed look at the transmission of scientific ideas from antiquity to the beginning of the eighteenth century, but unless you already have an interest in ancient and medieval science, it’s probably not going to be very appealing. It’s rather dry and academic, almost encyclopedic in nature, filled with a dizzying number of names and dates and places.

What this book does best is demonstrate how scientific ideas travel and change across empires and centuries, and how scientific progress never occurs in an intellectual vacuum. For example: Astronomers were proposing heliocentric cosmological models for more than a thousand years before Nicolas Copernicus was even born, beginning with the Greek astronomer Aristarchus in the third century B.C. But because a cosmological model in which the Earth is not the unmoving center of the universe was theologically distasteful to both Muslim and Christian astronomers, the heliocentric models were rarely more than fringe theories or mathematical curiosities, considered and dismissed for centuries.

If you’re not already interested in the topic, this book is not going to ignite a heretofore unknown passion for studying the development of medieval science. I don’t believe that a text must be a thrilling page-turned to be interesting and engaging, but there were times when I felt like the author was sacrificing readability in favor of being meticulously exhaustive. (Although I did very much enjoy learning about all the scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who mocked their predecessors and rivals by accusing them of owning Satan-possessed golden demon heads that helped them solve complex mathematical problems. It’s tragic how nobody does intellectual mudslinging and rumor-mongering like that anymore. And I ask you: Who wouldn’t want a Satanic golden demon head to help them do math?)

But if you, like me, are the sort of person who sometimes passes insomniac nights lying awake and wondering, “Why the hell did it take us so long to figure out that the Earth orbits the Sun?” this book is a detailed and informative exploration of just how complicated and multifaceted questions like that really are, and a very good source of information about astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers often overlooked in the history of science.

Which brings me back to my proposition for dealing with people who are struggling to adapt to the expectations of the modern world, and why I believe time travel is the most compassionate way of dealing with them.

Allow me to explain: I think, for example, that those people who steadfastly refuse to reconsider their chosen beliefs even when faced with mountains of evidence to the contrary would be happier living in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, when many astronomers were dismissing their own hard-earned knowledge and careful astronomical observations – which led to such shocking and terrifying heresies as “it kinda looks like the Earth orbits on an axis once a day” – in favor of upholding a Church doctrine they had observed to be incorrect: the belief in an unmovable Earth at the center of the universe. And I suspect those people who wish to require science teachers to spend their science class time teaching demonstrably incorrect pseudo- and anti-scientific ideas would quite enjoy Italy in the mid-seventeenth century, when Pope Urban VIII made a similar request of Galileo, and it was considered reasonable and fair at the time, rather than the embarrassing demonstration of ignorance it is today.

(If I were going to time travel myself, I would choose to visit England in the early eighteenth century, but it would be for personal entertainment, not an attempt to cure the ennui of traumatic temporal displacement. I just think it would be really fun to go back and pretend I invented calculus so I could get into an angry epistolary flamewar with Isaac Newton.)

People who cannot handle the challenges of life in the twenty-first century are clearly very unhappy, and devote a great deal of their time and energy to making everybody around them unhappy, and that is why I think relocating them to their correct historical time should be our second priority after we invent time travel.

Our first priority will be to visit the dinosaurs. That goes without saying.


2 thoughts on “a book review and a proposed humanitarian use for a time machine

  1. This review made me miss you a ridiculous amount.

    Re: satan head
    Indeed, who would not want to own said Satan’s head to improve on math skills. I think we could make a fortune on satan’s heads sold in the back of comic books for this very purpose. And we could save on overhead by shipping demon heads instead of satan heads (which obviously are pricey) because most people ordering them aren’t looking for help with calculus or trig (because let’s face it, if you’re taking those classes you’re probably already decently prepared for high level math) but algebra and multiplication tables. Let’s write a business proposal!

    Re: Isaac Newton
    In this flame war, may I suggest sending him a crate of apples addressed to Captain Obvious?

    Missing you so damn much. Maybe I need to move to Colorado…

    • No lie – I had a dream last night that I moved to San Diego to be your neighbor. We hung out in the back yard drinking beer as the sun went down and everything was wonderful. Why are you so far away?

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