Tag Archives: Galileo Galilei

God’s Jury – Cullen Murphy

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Cullen Murphy’s God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World ranges from historic persecution to contemporary definitions of acceptable torture with chilling precision. Murphy has explored archives in the Vatican and WikiLeaks online, tracking the response of governments and the Church to heresy and unwanted immigrants, scanning today’s headlines for incidents of ethnic cleansing and redacted security reports for details of interrogations.

It is depressing but fascinating reading. From the grave of Galileo Galilei to Guantánamo, Cullen’s first-person reporting shines a light on events you are likely to know nothing, or too little, about. 1492 was a record year for the Spanish Inquisition. Ferdinand and Isabella ousted the Muslim leadership from the Alhambra, forcibly uniting all Spain under Catholicism. Shortly thereafter, they approved Columbus’ petition for an expedition—one that would spread the faith to a New World, with the now-entrenched practices of the Inquisition to follow. While Columbus was making landfall in the Indies, the monarchs expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity from Spain. Those who stayed, conversos, were frequent targets of the Inquisition. Most of the events of that ignominious year are never taught in school.

The Inquisition was not one unified effort. It adapted itself to the countries where elaborate bureaucracies developed to manage it. Its shadow loomed over Europe and parts of the Americas from 1231 to 1826 and its legacy can be seen today in systems of state control, government spying, imprisonment without charges, habeas corpus or representation, military incursions into civilian populations—even Internet monitoring and censoring. God’s Jury is less a story than a warning. Every line that is crossed leads to the next line and there is seldom, if ever, any turning back. Suppressing scientific inquiry and discovery and burning people at the stake was pretty horrible. But so are extraordinary rendition and the relentless legal erosion of privacy.

The Inquisition had its Torquemadas and we have our McCarthys and our Abu Ghraibs. The mindset exists to accommodate alienation and interrogation. It was put in place to standardize and organize a pre-Modern world, to make it more efficient. As the prototype of contemporary bureaucracy, the Inquisition worked brilliantly. It failed utterly to contribute a shred of progress to enlightenment. Read dusty archives, today’s paper or Cullen Murphy’s book to see how far we haven’t come.   

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World   Cullen Murphy | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2012


Longitude — Dava Sobel

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Longitude is the story of a self-educated carpenter’s improbable invention of the marine chronometer, a saga colored by poisonously envious sabotage, heroic feats of astronomy and a lot of really bad shipwrecks. Dava Sobel has turned a dense thicket of scientific inquiry and discovery into a readable, revelatory tale of adventure that traces the interconnections of Captain Cook, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton and a number of key characters you likely never heard of. Money is a big motivator – no surprise – merchant trade and royal coffers were both impoverished by the uncertainties of the sea. Solving the navigation problem was critical enough to merit a prize worth the equivalent of millions.

John Harrison was a skilled carpenter who taught himself clockmaking and then set out to create a device that would keep such perfect time at sea that it could determine longitude. Latitude was easy enough. Star siting, sun angles, day length — even an unskilled sailor can find the distance from the fixed equator using those. But the long lines that curve from pole-to-pole were harder to pin down and a tiny mistake, an off-guess, could send you and your ship hundreds of miles off-course, onto perilous rocks in the dark or straight to the bottom of the sea.

The search for longitude inspired great observatories, led to advances in astronomy, engaged such luminaries as Galileo Galilei, Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton and produced the British Longitude Act of 1714 with its enticing cash prize. Harrison set himself to win the prize and created four separate “clocks” that were marvels of technology for his time and that still work perfectly today. He succeeded in developing a workable and elegant chronometer, the first, but not in avoiding the backstabbing and manipulation that nearly cost him the prize.

The story tacks back and forth from Harrison and his endless tinkering to astronomers charting the path of the moon and the positions of the stars. Ships are lost, treasure galleons are pirated, men die of scurvy or go blind squinting at the sun to calculate position. It seems so long ago, in this day of GPS talking cars and satellite positions, that setting out from port meant you were as likely to get lost as you were to get lucky. But one determined, unlettered visionary changed all that and Dava Sobel’s Longitude sheds light on an obscure passage in history that produced important nautical instruments we still use today.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time  Dava Sobel | Walker Publishing Company 1995