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Stephen Hawking on the men who shaped the known universe

The Illustrated On The Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy
by Stephen Hawking (ed.)
Running Press, 2004
hardcover, 256pp., illus.
ISBN 0762418982
US$35.00

Einstein’s E=mc2 is, according to this book, Einstein’s “great iconic signature.” Stephen Hawking is, himself, an iconic figure of our time. His remarkable ability to survive with Lou Gerhig’s disease and to maintain a constant, and amazingly rich, level of intellectual productivity seems to leave the rest of the scientific world, let alone the lay public, dumbstruck with awe. On The Shoulders of Giants, referring to Issac Newton’s famous 1676 statement, “If I have seen Father, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” gives us a chance to read Hawking’s thoughts on five of his illustrious predecessors: Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein. It also contains a translated selection from each man’s most celebrated texts.

What all these men have in common is that they successfully challenged the dominant view of their day of the way the world around them was structured. They were all European, although Einstein spent the last part of his life in America as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Aside from Einstein, they all lived in what modern historians refer to as “Early Modern Europe,” which used to be known as the Renaissance and Reformation. What was it about this period that sparked the spirit of inquiry and scrabbling curiosity that lead to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and, eventually, to our own Age of Information?

One possibility is that, beginning in the 15th century, European education was more and more influenced by the classical texts of Greece and Rome, and by the ideas that came West after fall of Constantinople to the Islamic Turkish Empire in 1453. Nicolaus Copernicus, born in 1473, was a beneficiary of the flow of intellectual activity which that event helped to put in motion. This was the time of Lenoardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Machiavelli, and Christopher Columbus. The bubbling intellectual and artistic creativity of the age must have reached into Poland, on the edge of Western Europe.

What all these men have in common is that they successfully challenged the dominant view of their day of the way the world around them was structured.

Copernicus studied law and medicine at the great center of Renaissance learning, the University of Bologna. After he observed a lunar eclipse in Rome, in 1500, he dedicated himself to astronomy, as well. Hawking uses Thomas Kuhn’s term “paradigm shift,” to describe the effects of the Copernican heliocentric theory,“…opening the way to modern astronomy and broadly affecting science, philosophy and religion.”

It is sometimes said, that science has demoted humankind from its place at the center of the universe in medieval Christian cosmology, to something resembling a random collection of complex molecules. This was certainly not the intention of Copernicus, and probably not that of any of the other scientists. They were chasing knowledge and truth. In the process, they would inevitably upset long established ideas. Some, like Galileo and, to a lesser extent, Kepler, would suffer for it. In one extreme case, Giordano Bruno would be burned at the stake for being too open with his (fairly accurate) ideas about the nature of the universe.

Yet, in spite of these obstacles, the hunt for knowledge and truth continued, and continues, to this day. This says something about our civilization. It is the West’s willingness to destabilize the very basis of its own worldview. Its habit of constantly holding itself, and its beliefs, up to critical examination, seems an important factor in its success.

Copernicus wrote: “This more divine than human science, which inquires into the highest things, is not lacking in difficulties.” Was it this willingness to attempt to balance religious faith with observable fact, leading inexorably to a new theory incorporating these facts, that made the European Early Modern period so unique? The religious establishment of the period was almost as dogmatic and intolerant as any in the history of the world, but, in spite of this, science was able to push forwards.

For almost two hundred years, the Reformation and the Wars of Religion tore apart one nation after another. In 1633, in the middle of the horrors of the Thirty Years War, a year of famine and plague in Bavaria, Italy was an insecure rear area in which Hapsburg armies were armed and equipped before being sent into the firestorm north of the Alps. In the same year, Galileo Galilei was put on trial in Rome on charges of heresy “…for supporting and teaching the idea that the Earth moves and is not the center of the universe… they sentenced him to life imprisonment.”

Western civilization develops itself on the basis of a few nagging doubts, messy compromises, and the occasional individual of courage and genius, willing to challenge the established wisdom of the moment.

In exchange for sparing his life, Galileo was ordered to publicly renounce his beliefs, on his knees. Hawking includes a full translation of the text of abjuration. This included the elegant and lawyerlike sentence, “I did write and cause to be printed a book in which I treat of the said already condemned doctrine, and bring forth arguments of much efficiency in its favor, without arriving at any solution.” No wonder the legend arose that, after making this statement, he muttered under his breath, “Eppur si muove” (and yet, it still moves.) The Church had the power to condemn him, but it lacked the self-confidence to execute him and, because of this, left the door open to the possibility that he might be right.

So, Western civilization develops itself on the basis of a few nagging doubts, messy compromises, and the occasional individual of courage and genius, willing to challenge the established wisdom of the moment. Hawking’s tribute to five of these geniuses is a worthy one. This edition is beautifully illustrated, particularly with a selection of computer generated images by Moonrunner Design. There are also a few striking photographs from the space program of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon and of an empty space shuttle external tank falling into the upper atmosphere.

In this season, it would make a great gift for any aspiring scientist or engineer or for anyone interested in the history of science.


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