My Teacher's Teacher

09/11/2012 01:26 pm 13:26:42 | Updated Nov 11, 2012

When I first started teaching physics, the standard narrative was that modern science began with the heroic efforts of Galileo to gain acceptance for the revolutionary sun-centered world view of Copernicus, as opposed to the ancient geocentric cosmology of Aristotle and Ptolemy accepted by academia and the Church, a crusade that sparked the Scientific Revolution and culminated in the new physics and astronomy of Newton, at the dawn of the modern scientific age.

Virtually nothing was said in this narrative about the predecessors of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, although historians of medieval European civilization have in recent years traced back the beginning of science in the West more than a millennium before them. In reality, a impressive succession of European scholars opened the way for the Scientific Revolution, laying the foundations for the theories and discoveries made by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, some of which they anticipated.

Before Galileo seeks to right this historical injustice, something I started thinking about when I began to study physics in college. I did my undergraduate studies on the GI Bill after World War II at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, founded by the Irish Christian Brothers. The first thing I noticed on the campus was a statue of St. Columba, patron saint of the Irish Christian Brothers. I learned that Columba, who lived in the sixth century, had been forced out of Ireland and founded a monastery of the west coast of Scotland on the island of Iona, the legendary burial-place of Macbeth. His students went on to found other monastic schools in England and then on the continent, beginning the re-education of Western Europe in the Dark Ages, just as the Irish Christian Brothers who taught me had after World War II founded a college in a suburb of New York City, which they may have felt was in need of enlightenment. I certainly felt the need, for I had dropped out of school at seventeen to join the U.S. Navy, as had a number of my classmates at Iona College.

My physics teacher at Iona was Brother Thomas Bullen, who told me that he had studied physics with P.M.S. Blackett, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1943. I knew that Blackett had studied at Cambridge under Lord Rutherford, the founder of nuclear physics, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908 and the Nobel for physics in 1911. I also knew that Rutherford in turn had studied at Cambridge with James Clerk Maxwell, the father of modern electromagnetic theory. Subsequently, with the aid of the Math-Physics Genealogy website, I was able to trace my scientific ancestry through Brother Bullen, Blackett, Rutherford and Maxwell in an unbroken line that included Newton, Leibnitz, Galileo, Copernicus and on back to the first Greeks who graduated from Italian universities, and through them to George Gemisthus Plethon, who graduated from the University of Constantinople c. 1375 and was the principal sources in bringing Greek learning to Italy, giving rise to the Italian Renaissance.

I did my graduate studies in physics at New York University, where I took several courses in mathematics with Richard Courant, who with his teacher David Hilbert wrote the seminal Mathematical Methods of Theoretical Physics (1922), which was used by Schrödinger and Heisenberg and other founders of modern wave mechanics. Through Courant and Hilbert I traced my ancestry back through a succession of German mathematicians to Leibnitz, joining the main line of my descent from Plethon. I studied physics at NYU with Fritz Reiche, whose doctoral adviser at the University of Berlin was Max Planck, founder of the quantum theory and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1918. Through them I traced my ancestry through a succession of German physicists and mathematicians back to Leibnitz, again joining the main line of my descent from the scholar who linked Greek East and Latin West at the dawn of the Italian Renaissance.

I did a year of postdoctoral study at All Souls College at Oxford with Alistair Cameron Crombie, renowned for his pioneering research in the history of medieval European science. After that, in addition to my courses in history and astronomy at what is now the University of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, I began teaching a course called The Emergence of Modern Science, East and West, a large part of which was based on what I had learned from Crombie, to which I added material on the transmission of ancient Greek science to Europe through medieval Byzantine and Islamic sources.

The principal idea that I inherited from Crombie was the continuity of Western European science from the Dark Ages up through the times of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. The first European scholars had to start literally from scratch, driven by curiosity and observation of the world around them and the heavens above. Thus in the process Western science had from the very beginning an empirical quality that distinguishes it from the more abstract character of most Greek and Islamic science.

This empirical quality can be seen in the work of the Venerable Bede, writing in the early eight century, who notes that 'we know, who live on the shore of the sea divided by Britain,' how the wind could advance or retard a tide. I learned of Bede's work from Crombie's seminar on medieval European science at Oxford. But I had already knew what Bede was saying from the period of my early childhood that I spent in Ireland, where from age four to seven I lived with my mother's parents out on the Dingle peninsula in county Kerry, the westernmost point of Europe, where life was governed by the tides. My grandfather Tomas was an illiterate Irish-speaking fisherman, who was known as Tom of the Winds, because his apparently endless knowledge of the world seemed to have been brought to him by the four winds. I always went with Tomas when he set his nets on the strand near our cottage, from where we could hear the rumbling of the potato-sized rocks as they rolled in and out with the rise and fall of the sea, and would wet his forefinger and raise it to gauge the direction of the wind before setting out. Tomas was my first teacher, and it may have been my in my talks with him that I began thinking about things like time and tide that eventually led me to write this book. Whether you are a fisherman or a cobbler or a physicist you need a teacher, and that is what Before Galileo is all about: the transmission of knowledge from one person to another, which in the case of Western Europe began during the night of the Dark Ages, a thousand years before Galileo was born.

John Freely is the author of Before Galileo: The Birth of Modern Science in Medieval Europe, out August 30 from The Overlook Press. He teaches physics at Bosphorous University in Istanbul and has written more than 40 books, including The Grand Turk and Aladdin's Lamp.