Thursday, December 12, 2013

Renaissance Astronomy: Roots

If a single event can be said to be the origin of the modern world we live in today, it would be 1300s Italy and the birth of the Italian Renaissance, which would, over the coming decades, spread across Europe and remake the entire world thanks to the fact that Europe was, despite its intellectual backwardness, a continent on the move.

The word 'renaissance' itself is of Italian in origin and roughly means 'rebirth.' To understand why the Renaissance was a rebirth, one has to take a brief look back through history.

Thales of Miletus
The Classical civilization of Greece and Rome was the peak of European civilization when the Renaissance started in the late 1300s. Starting in around 600 B.C., man started to try and explain the world rationally and express the belief that the world was knowable if observed and that laws of nature, rather that the will of God/the gods, shaped world events. In the centuries that followed the assertion made by Thales of Miletus that the world was not of godly, but of natural origin, science as a way of understanding the world blossomed. In Classical world, the following, fundamental truths were recognized:
1. The universe was of natural origin and did not require God/the gods (not all accepted this)
2. The first explanations of the celestial bodies as places
3. The Earth was discovered to be spherical
4. Proofs of a spherical Earth were found
5. The first models of the solar system were created
6. Earth's circumference was measured to a few percent its true size
7. Precession of the equinoxes was recognized
8. Stars were mapped and classified by brightness

Unfortunately, the ancients were not perfect, some ideas were dead wrong (and appear silly today):

1. The Earth was the center of the solar system
2. The heavens were perfect and unchanging
3. Could never divorce the idea of God/the gods playing a role

However, despite their errors, the Classical astronomers were making important breakthroughs every time they came up with a hypothesis that explained the world naturally. Today, following in that tradition, modern astrophysicists are seeking to find a theory that explains the origin of the universe itself as a natural event, a difficult pill for some to swallow even today.

The Death of Socrates (1787) 
Needless to say, this golden age of science (and among other things literature, theater, philosophy, free inquiry, democracy, and many other societal virtues) was not to last. Even in the Classical age itself, the tide began to turn against the very things that had made the civilization so great. Emperors replaced democratically-elected leaders (Republican Rome became Imperial Rome), freedom of thought began to be squashed (Socrates was just the start), and science began to be subservient to religion (Scientists increasingly found themselves branded heretics). By the time the political creation that was the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D., the golden age of Classical civilization was long past as knowledge had long since taken a back seat to bad leadership, civil wars, and barbarian invasions.

Unfortunately, things would get even worse.

The Last Judgment: a common scene in Dark Age cathedrals.
The Christian Church, which started as an underground religion, came to the surface when emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity. With the political disintegration, the Church saw itself as the successor to Rome. After the last Roman emperor was deposed, Western Europe went from a single political organization (albeit an increasingly tenuous one) into hundreds of tiny, often warring kingdoms. With the power that was Rome gone, people ran to local warlords for protection. In the face of such political disunity, the Christian faith was the single factor binding Europe together. Seeing this potential for power, church leaders lorded it over peasant and king alike, demanding total obedience in return for a chance to go to Heaven.
In a climate of such fear, it is little wonder that freedom of thought was soon squashed.
For the Church, the findings of the Classical scientists often went contrary to the Bible. In their sense of self-righteousness, the Church leaders, when encountering something that went contrary to their holy books, simply declared the observation to be in error, anyone who professed belief in it top be a heretic, and then tried to sweep the unsettling discovery under the proverbial rug in the hope that no one would ever find it again. In the centuries to follow, it is little wonder that Europe would become a continent of the uninformed, ignorant, and superstitious.
Fortunately, this Dark Age would not last forever.
Meanwhile, while Christian Europe was in the midst of its 1,000 year, largely dreamless sleep, the Islamic and Byzantine worlds would serve as a repository for what was, at least to Western Europe, lost knowledge. However, besides simply preserving the findings of their forebears, the Byzantines and Muslims would go on to do new astronomy, building observatories and mapping the stars in the tradition of the ancients. More so than any other people, the Muslims saved Classical astronomy from intellectual oblivion.
The start of the astronomical Renaissance was in places where Christians and Muslims lived peaceably (yes, this did happen), most notably in Muslim-controlled Spain. In such places, works in Arabic were translated into the Christian-dominant language. In another vein, while Western Europe may have had no inherent interest in science, it did have an interest in exotic goods brought by way of the Byzantine Empire, which effectively bridged the East and West. Besides goods, the trade routes would also bring new ideas to Western Europe.
With a new-found, although not overly deep interest in astronomy, Europeans discovered a rather perplexing problem: all of the Byzantine/Islamic start charts showed the stars positioned differently than their own, which turned out to be in error. The question of why the stars on the old charts were incorrectly placed (precession is why) was the spark that reignited long-suppressed curiosity of European intellectuals. In short order, Europe would begin on its slow path towards discovery once again. The first universities were founded in the 11-1200s, better scientific instruments were developed so as to minimize errors, and more scientists actually took to experiment rather than remain as mere commentators. Then in 1453, the watershed event of European history took place: the Byzantine Empire, which had survived its Roman brother for 1,000 years, finally collapsed, after which all kinds of curiosity spurring texts came flooding out and into Western Europe.

Constantinople, Byzantine capital, was situated at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

With the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, Europeans finally had a practical reason to become interested in astronomy: trade. Up until 1453, Western European traders had a pretty easy time of it traversing the Byzantine trade routes. When the Ottoman Turks took over, seeing the potential for revenue, they upped the fees for traders passing through to the point where some monarchs deemed it cheaper in the long run to try and find a new way to Asia than pay the fees the Ottomans demanded in exchange for safe passage.

Ships were the spacecraft of the 13-1400s.

In the 1400s, sailing ships were like spacecraft are today. When a sailor left home port, he was, in effect, sailing to an uncharted new world far beyond the help of his home country, much the way astronauts in space do so today. In crossing the oceans to journey to distant lands, sailors might as well have been sailing to Mars. At the time, finding longitude was the biggest navigational challenge. Latitude was easy, simply look at what Northern stars you could see in a given location to tell approximately how far you had gone. Longitude? Well, that was tough. Traveling East-West had no easy answers, except, quite possibly, in the stars and in more accurate methods of timekeeping. With rich nobles wanting their exotic spices and fine silks, science, specifically astronomy, finally had a practical application.

The Black Death changed the face of Europe (and inspired decidedly macabre art) 
At the same time, the Black Death was raging through Europe. First hitting in the “great mortality” of 1347, the Black Death would wipe out about a third of Europe's population in the years 1347-1352. While such a terrible, gruesome disease in itself would have been horrifying enough to an ignorant populace, the fact that the all-powerful Catholic Church could not do a thing to stop its spread increased the already terrible feelings of helplessness. When watching so many die and nothing being done to halt the spread of death, faith in the Church was shaken. Perhaps the Catholic Church that had dominated European life for 1,000 years wasn't so powerful after all.
In time, these three things, exposure to intellectual achievement, the collapse of Byzantium, and the loss of faith in the Catholic Church would lead to the Renaissance, the rebirth of Europe.

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