History Must Be Curved
I'm about to quote almost 700 words from a blog post, which normally would be considered long…but it's from an almost book-length series of posts, so as a proportion of the whole, it's actually quite short.
HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.” Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds. (Vansina 1985)
In oral societies this horizon lies typically at eighty years; but historical consciousness endures longer in literate societies, and the horizon may fall as far back as three centuries. Arthur, a late 5th cent. war leader, had become by the time of Charlemagne the subject of an elaborate story cycle. Three centuries later, troubadours had done the same to Charlemagne himself. History had slipped over the horizon and become the stuff of legend. In AD 778, a Basque war party ambushed the Carolingian rear guard (Annales regni francorum). Forty years later, Einhard, a minister of Charlemagne, mentioned “Roland, prefect of the Breton Marches” among those killed (“Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus,” Vita karoli magni). But by 1098, Roland had become a “paladin” and the central character, the Basques had become Saracens, and a magic horn and tale of treachery had been added (La chanson de Roland). Compare the parallel fate of a Hopi narrative regarding a Navajo ambush (Vansina, pp. 19-20). This suggests that 17th century history has for the bulk of the population already become myth. Jamestown is reduced to “Pocahontas,” and Massachusetts boils down to “the First Thanksgiving.” And the story of how heliocentrism replaced geocentrism has become a Genesis Myth, in which a culture-hero performs iconic deeds that affirm the rightness of Our Modern World-view.
Conclusion: Our ancestors were not fools.
In three centuries, the long complex story of how the mobile Earth replaced the stationary Earth dipped below the horizon from History into Legend. Like all good legends, the story of heliocentrism and the culture-hero Galileo is simple and general and geared toward supporting the Rightness of the Modern worldview. But history is always detailed and particular.
The reasons for the stationary Earth were rooted in empirical experience and successful modeling. The dual motion of the Earth is not sensibly evident and was difficult to establish on empirical grounds. Heliocentrism triumphed first of all because Neoplatonic number mysticism had become au courant during the Renaissance, and Platonists equated mathematical elegance with physical evidence.
Resistance to heliocentrism was rooted in the science of the day and religion entered the picture mainly because the Church Fathers had interpreted Scripture in the light of that science. They weren’t about to change until there was solid evidence that the science (and hence the interpretation) was wrong; not in the middle of no honkin' Reformation they weren’t. Thomas Huxley said after investigating the affair that “the Church had the better case.” But Pierre Duhem put it differently. The Copernicans were “right for the wrong reasons.” The Ptolemaics were “wrong for the right reasons.”
Science doesn’t follow a mythic positivist ideal but the plural scientific methods described by Feyerabend: a mixture of empiricism, flights of fancy, intuition, aesthetics, doggedness, and jealousy. Scientific theories are underdetermined. Any finite set of facts can support multiple theories, and for a long time the available facts were equally explained by geostationary or geomobile models.
In the Legend, the conflict was between Science and Religion. But in the History, the conflict was between two groups of scientists, with churchmen lined up on all sides. Copernicanism was supported by humanist literati and opposed by Aristotelian physicists; so it was a mixed bag all around. Science does not take place in a bubble. International and domestic politics and individual personalities roil the pot as well. The mystery is not why Galileo failed to triumph – he didn’t have good evidence, made enemies of his friends, and stepped into a political minefield. The real mystery is why Kepler, who actually had the correct solution, constantly flew under the radar. A deviant Lutheran working in a Catholic monarchy, he pushed Copernicanism as strongly as Galileo; but no one hassled him over it. Too bad he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.
This is from the conclusion of Michael Flynn's masterful nine part essay on "The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown".
I can not recommend it highly enough.
- The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown
- The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Down for the Count
- The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
The Great Galileo-Scheiner Flame War of 1611-13
- The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
The Down 'n Dirty Mud Wrassle
- The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Here's Mud in Yer Eye
- The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Comet Chameleon
- The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Time and Tides Wait Not
- The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Trial and Error
- The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: From Plausible to Proven
If you find the idea in the first quoted paragraph above ("Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions 'abraded into anecdotes.'") somewhere between tantalizing and fascinating, then you could do worse than to check out his Spiral Arm series of novels:
I loved the books.
Wikipedia has this to say about them:
This is a far future science fiction novel set in a universe populated with only humans and "pre-human" artifacts. It is told as a narrative presented with variations on English, Chinese, Indian, and Celtic words. The literary style has been described as extremely difficult to read due to the inclusion of non-English terms and historical accounts that are not common knowledge to most SF readers. The characters in the story belong to 2 major factions of humanity: The United League of the Periphery, and the Confederacy of Central Worlds. The Confederacy is the remnant of Earth and its original colonies while the League is composed of the planets far out on the spiral arm of the galaxy. These 2 factions are in a galactic "cold war" and both have secretive pseudo-military agencies that feature prominently in the book. The story centers around the Confederacy and League agents seeking the answer to a mystery of the disappearance of ships in the rift between the spiral arm and the central worlds. The story's title comes from a "pre-human" artifact called the Dancer which is discovered early in the book. It exerts a subtle but very profound effect on various characters throughout the story. It is eventually revealed to be part of an ancient race of silicon based lifeforms called "The Folk of Sand and Iron" that have played a very significant but almost unknown role in human history. The story has 2 sequels and a third planned. The January Dancer was a finalist for the 2009 Prometheus Award.
ObDisclosure about this review:
- I've never met Michael Flynn, and have no personal or economic stake in his success.
- I do, however, have a memetic stake. He thinks Deep Thoughts that I agree with. I wouldn't mind him getting funded so that he can keep writing.
- The links to his books above use the Amazon Popehat affiliate code. Read about how that money gets spent here.
- Depending on the reaction to this post, I may end up writing reviews of science fiction novels that I find worthy of note. Whether or not people like this one, I'm pretty likely to write one of my big-honkin' pieces on the topic of left/right/centrist post-apocalyptic novels.
UPDATE: Thanks for dropping by, Hacker News readers. If you liked this you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed. Popehat is a group blog. Ken is the most prolific blogger and covers civil rights law. I'm the second most prolific blogger (this week, at least) and talk about science, politics, and – upcoming – intended to dive deep into Urbit and will soon start writing reviews of science fiction novels. The other co-bloggers are also fascinating nerds and write about stuff that the typical news.yc reader would enjoy. Stick around!