Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Planets, Priests, and a Persistent Myth"

The Wall Street Journals' Friday "Houses of Worship" column tries to remind readers again that history should not be thought of in little soundbites like "the Catholic Church has always been against science". For instance, I used to watch Rick Steves' videos about Europe on PBS (and we even bought a few): he would take every opportunity he could to point out how anti-science the Catholic Church was. He talked about how the Church was opposed to professors at universities conducting autopsies but left out that it was because the bodies used were obtained by grave-robbing (people who believed in the resurrection of the body weren't donating their bodies to science at that time); he emphasized that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for teaching that the earth revolves around the sun, neglecting again to note that Bruno was no scientist, offered no scientific proof for his statements, and also was found guilty of serious heresy: denying THE essential Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. When I remonstrated with Steves' company, I received the response that Steves did not consider himself a historian--but he was teaching history, deceptive history that at least seemed to have an objective: demonstrate that the Catholic Church is against science.

The authors of this editorial commented on some recent videos of the dwarf planet Ceres, which was discovered and analyzed by the Theatine priest Giuseppe Piazzi from 1801 to 1803, including what could have been a dangerous trip to England:

Piazzi’s entry into history began on January 1, 1801, when he noticed a faint “star” not contained in any catalog. Tracking it over the following nights, he found that it moved across the background stars the same way planets do. After more than 40 nights, however, it moved too close to the sun to be seen. Would it ever be found again, once it emerged from the sun’s glare?

That would require the difficult feat of computing its orbit precisely from the positions Piazzi had measured. This was accomplished by the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, and Piazzi’s object was located again by a German observatory exactly a year after its original discovery. In 1802, Piazzi named it Ceres after the patron goddess of Sicily. . . 

Most news accounts don’t mention that Piazzi was a Catholic priest. In fact, the remarkable story of the Catholic clergy’s contributions to science is one of the best-kept secrets of scientific history. The exception is Gregor Mendel; it is widely known that the science of genetics began with the experiments of the Austrian monk.

But it is the rare person who knows that the big-bang theory, the central pillar of modern cosmology, was the brainchild of the Belgian Catholic priest and physicist Georges LemaĆ®tre. In the 1920s, LemaĆ®tre showed that Albert Einstein’s equations of gravity allow space itself to expand and, connecting this to observations that distant galaxies were flying apart, he formulated his famous theory of how the universe began.

Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth; you'll need a subscription to read the entire editorial. Do yourself a favor and don't read the comments!

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