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station description Each week we bring you a new, in-depth exploration of the space where science and s... read more
Inquiring Minds
Duration: 05:27
Inquiring Minds is all about understanding our world through science, so this episode is a chat with Seb Falk, a historian of medieval science, about his new book The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science.
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Inquiring Minds is all about understanding our world through science, so this episode is a chat with Seb Falk, a historian of medieval science, about his new book The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science.
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interest. What led you to Brother John of Westwick? And then how do you use the character of Brother John of Westwick to, you know, elucidate many of these concepts we describe in terms of the culture and ideas of the Middle Ages. John of Westwick was unordinary. Monk, who had an extraordinary, adventurous life on both of those parts, were really important to me. He's a really person. I have to be clear. I haven't invented him. Andi. I wanted to center my history of medieval science around an ordinary person. Because so many histories of science are parades of great men, usually men in most histories. Andi. It gives the impression that science proceeds through a Siris of eureka moments by these extraordinary individuals and everybody else's wowed by their genius on. Then they move on to the next Eureka moment by the next extraordinary individual on science doesn't work like that. Science has never worked like that. Science has worked through day to day asking questions, answering questions, enquiring, observing, calculating, theorizing, and I wanted to show how an ordinary person could contribute to the development of science, could follow their own interests on how their scientific mindset. How their questions that they asked about nature fitted in tow, all their other interests. But he's also an extraordinary, adventurous individual. He wasn't just a monk who stayed in the same monastery for his whole life, just praying, as many of them did. He traveled. He probably went to Oxford University to study. He certainly went up to Time Meth Priory on the cliffs overlooking the North Sea and the far north east of England, where the weather was cold and the monks were constantly complaining about the wind. And though on the waves and the roaring of the tide and he in order to probably escaped that monastery, he went off on a failed expedition to Flanders, what is now Belgium to take part in something called the Bishops crusade of 13 83 on. This was a complete failure. Most of the army got dysentery. Andi had to return to England in disgrace, and then we find John Westwick in London, devising an astronomical instrument on board. The final chapter of the book is a new explanation of how he came to do this, how he came to come up with this instrument, why, he explains it in the increasingly fashionable language of middle English pioneered by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer on what it has to do with his monastic vocation on his other scientific interests. So this is a man who traveled widely. He had a dramatic life, and at each stage in that life, I had an opportunity to bring in the science that would have been useful to him or interesting to him or which he had an opportunity to study on. I used the manuscript that he produced his own individual personal handwriting with quill and ink on sheepskin parchment to try and bring this to life as well as the instruments he would have encountered Astral Abe's Equatoria, the Great Astronomical Instruments which monks and other scholars used to display and refine their knowledge of the heavens and other science. There's a lot there and what I want to focus on now because you mentioned that John of Westwick kind of rose to prominence, if you will, I guess in terms of the book in the narrative, the book is through his identification that he was the author off essentially Emmanuel and many precise, relatively precise calculations of the heavens and So he was a learned man and as a scholar of astronomy, and you write very eloquently about why astronomy is the original science. Can you explain that? And how does the astronomy of the Middle Ages fit into the broader context of many people's many, many people's daily lives? Astronomy was the first truly mathematical science, and when we think of the development of modern science, we often think off mathematicians ation precise measurement on that's necessary for refinement of theories and for understanding how scientific theories fit together. And astronomy was uniquely susceptible to measurement. In other words, people could look up at the sky and they could observe that different things like the sunrise happened at different times. That shadows changed their length at different times of the year that the moon was full on certain days. And then it was new on other days that planets moved among the stars and they could measure the angles of those planets to each other to the horizon on due to the stars that were fixed, the stars that didn't move in relation to each other on all of those phenomena in the heavens were measured geometrically. So you could measure the angle off something above the horizon, or you could measure the angle of one star to another star. So it was something that could be observed on. Geometrical theories could be devised to account for all of the motions in the heavens on. In that sense, it's the first riel science now astronomy fitted into everything. It wasn't just something that people could observe dispassionately and think that it had no relation to their daily life.
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