Monday, January 14, 2008

Arguments for God and Copernicus' mistress

There are two relevant book reviews in Sunday's New York Times. The first reviews Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the argument for God just don't add up by John Allen Paulos (you can read the first chapter here).
John Allen Paulos is a mathematician who teaches at Temple University and also a talented popularizer. In previous books he has trained his mathematical eye on humor, the stock market and what he reads in the newspaper. Now he has taken on God. Paulos is not a credulous man. He sees things, he tells us, in the cold light of logic and probability. (His stock market book told how he was suckered into losing a bundle on WorldCom stock, but never mind.) In “Irreligion,” Paulos intends to expose the “inherent illogic” of arguments for the existence of God. He finds these supposed proofs to be, by and large, a load of tripe.
The review gives examples of some of the arguments for the existence of God. But ultimately it boils down to this:
Paulos concedes that, just as arguments for God’s existence are logically inconclusive, so too are arguments against God’s existence. That means that you can either believe or disbelieve without being convicted of stark irrationality. Similarly, Paulos’s fellow mathematicians can either believe that they are communing with a Platonic realm of perfect mathematical entities, or they can believe that they are playing a meaningless game with symbols on paper. Most mathematicians appear to be in the former camp. Is it wrong of them to hold this unexamined and (arguably) groundless faith if it helps them flourish in their mathematical lives?
Read the full review here.

The other review is of a new biography of Copernicus, titled Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution began by Jack Repcheck.

Jack Repcheck’s new biography, “Copernicus’ Secret,” at last brings the astronomer to life in a way that past efforts have not quite achieved. He paints the sites in a particularly vivid fashion, evoking, for example, provincial Frombork, where “the streets were narrow, the cottages small and nondescript, and the entire place smelled of fish.” And he gives a clear account of the political and administrative structures of the cathedral chapter where Copernicus was a senior figure. He describes how the Teutonic knights originally moved into this Prussian area after the Crusades and how at the time of Copernicus their territory almost completely surrounded the Warmian diocese, which owed its loyalty to the Jagiellonian kings in Krakow. Copernicus owed his position to his uncle Lucas Watzenrode, a member of a patrician merchant family and bishop from 1489 to 1512. Once a canon, Copernicus was rarely in want of money.

Repcheck concentrates on the last 12 years of the astronomer’s life, when a story fraught with personal tensions moves to its climax. Will Copernicus’s precious manuscript see the light of public scrutiny, or will it simply languish? Johannes Dantiscus, the erudite, scheming, social-climbing poet and diplomat who was elected bishop in 1537, is determined to stanch the inroads of the Protestant movement and to bring his errant canons fully into line. He is convinced that Copernicus is one of three canons living openly with a mistress. When the Protestant Rheticus arrives into the profoundly hostile Catholic territory, can he persuade Copernicus that he won’t be hooted off the stage if and when his treatise is finally printed?

Scientific revolution aside, you are wondering if Copernicus really had a mistress or not. Well...he had a "housekeeper". Yes, Copernicus should have come up with a better excuse. It seems that this one didn't fly even in the 16th century.

When in the 1850s the Polish scholar Jan Baranowski discovered Copernicus’s letter to the previous bishop apologizing for lodging a woman overnight, he suppressed it, not wishing to taint his hero with the slightest whiff of scandal. And subsequent scholars, examining letters in which Copernicus later promised to dismiss his female housekeeper (and then postponed his action), took the astronomer at his word, assuming she was only a housekeeper and that was all there was to the story. But Repcheck, relying on additional third-party correspondence, concludes that she was indeed a mistress. Perhaps he is right. In any event, it does make Copernicus appear more human, more real.
And what about the big unanswered questions concerning Copernicus and the scientific revolution. For those, we'll have to wait for another biography:
These are not, however, the central questions of the intellectual history of the astronomical revolution. Instead, we want to know where, when and why Copernicus’s insight into a heliocentric cosmology took place. Was he significantly influenced by Islamic astronomy? How important were direct observations in formulating the new picture? Was Copernicus simply building a model, or did he believe in the physical reality of the heliocentric arrangement? Did he hesitate at all over the possible theological reaction to his removing the Earth from the center of the cosmos? Repcheck has little to say about these questions or about more technical astronomical issues. He never makes it clear whether Copernicus’s “secret” is his mistress or his book. Still, no other biography of which I am aware treats the life of this scientific giant more vividly than this one.
Read the full review here.