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Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa ✸ 247 Epilogue Stories of innate genius still generate interest in science, but they also disguise. Pythagoras, Newton, and Einstein are sometimes portrayed as nearly divine. But that hides answers to questions: What did they really do? And how did they do it? Because they were gifted, well born? At the start of this book, I said that portrayals of science often take the shapes of myths. I was referring to some questionable aspects of old religious cults, such as the tendency to deify charismatic leaders, to celebrate their achievements as miracles, to shroud knowledge in esoteric language, to neglect genuine understanding, and to echo traditional stories rather than historical findings. We began by tracing how astronomy became infused by Pythagorean myths, and finally, we traced how the would-be mathematical science of eugenics decayed into murderous sects driven by myths and millennial visions. Having analyzed a series of myths and historical episodes,one might be expected to synthesize some common pattern by which such myths develop. Let me therefore say a few comments along these lines. Writers and researchers who wish to tell the past go through a process of selection. Following their needs or curiosities, they carry out a limited search for source materials. Driven by personal or practical motivations , and by the interests they expect from a prospective audience, they search and select whichever elements seem worthwhile, plausible, and compelling. That limited search stops when writers or researchers become satisfied that they have enough material, that it is reasonably reliable, and that they have something worth saying. While composing their account, they not only omit, as they must, material that is beyond 247 the present scope of interest, they also often add phrases and notions that are absent from the original sources. To compose their narrative, they imagine scenes, and consequently, imaginary details from those scenes become woven into the historical excerpts. That imaginative process is not arbitrary, it responds to certain notions. In the myths that we have considered, we see a common pattern of compression. Key elements in a story are increasingly pushed together. Consider a few examples. First we read that Darwin fancied that variations in finches arose from some sort of evolution. Then writers imagine that Darwin entertained such thoughts while he was on his voyage of discovery and saw strange finches on the Galápagos Islands. Then they also assume that, being a naturalist, Darwin“would have” systematically measured the beaks of the finches, studied their eating habits, and recorded their geographical distributions; and then writers infer that Darwin “must have” concluded that finches had evolved, and that this was the seed that led to his theory of evolution. Likewise, first we hear that Newton was inspired by seeing an apple fall in his garden. Next, the apple falls at his feet, or on his head, or on his nose. Or it hits him hard on the head. And rather than being merely an interesting event that accompanied a series of thoughts, it becomes construed as the trigger, the cause. The small event leads to great consequences. I’ve met many people who believe that the apple story conveys the fact that “Newton discovered gravity,” as if gravity, which is just a Latin expression for heaviness , had been unknown for thousands of years. The point of the story, instead, is that Newton wondered whether gravity, as we know it on Earth, extends beyond the atmosphere, into outer space. But the three elements, Newton, apple, gravity, become compressed into a mythical, grand discovery. Likewise, many people now think that Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm and that lightning struck the kite, whereby “he discovered electricity.” Similarly, Einstein lived in Switzerland, a country famous for its clocks. There is a large clock tower on a street where he lived, and in 1905 he formulated the relativity of time. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the clock tower triggered his ideas? Then writers make the connection. But there were many clock towers all throughout Europe. 248 ✸ Epilogue Likewise, Giordano Bruno believed in the theory of Copernicus, and he was killed by the Inquisition; wouldn’t it be dramatic if Bruno was killed for believing in Copernicus? These stories develop by a kind of compression , their elements are brought together. Once a writer publishes an account, it begins to compete against other similar stories in the market.If readers like it,then it propagates.Or,if the story is...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780822980179
Related ISBN
9780822962304
MARC Record
OCLC
887803456
Pages
345
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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