Thursday, 11 April 2013

Forgotten Science - Religion Controversies

Everybody these days remembers the great controversies. When Darwin met "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, for example. Darwin claimed we descended from apes, while Sam, pointing to his upper-class heritage, claimed to be 40% racehorse. But the lesser ones have been forgotten - we all know about the great spat between Pope Paul V and Galileo Galilei, for example - but who remembers the younger brother, Galileo Figaro, who proved that watched kettles do boil, thus overturning 1500 years of Catholic dogma? This post is dedicated to those lesser-known scientific heroes.

Like Manuel Tiago Sanchez de Madrid. He it was who, after careful observations, proved that the rain was falling mostly on the Pyrenees and not, as Torquemada maintained, mainly on the plain. The investigations into Tiago's claims were complicated by this joke making no sense in the Spanish language. In the end, the Inquisition brought a lesser charge - that Tiago claimed that rain fell out of clouds, while the Bible was clear that there were sluicegates in heaven. For this clear heresy, Tiago went to the stake.

His death provoked a new discovery, however. His alchemist friend, Xavi Garcia de Pamplona, had given Tiago a large crystal of what we now recognise to have been copper sulphate, as a bizarre leaving present - "a nugget of purest blue". Picking through the ashes to retrieve his gift, Garcia noticed that the crystal had turned white.

Garcia's work "On the dessication of Blue" caused an outrage. Many said it was 500 years ahead of its time, and should have been applied to a future British boy band. But by rendering blue to white, Garcia was showing disrespect to the Blessed Virgin. He was summonsed to see Pope Urban, and under threat of torture agreed that it stayed blue, and he must have imagined the change. Although his disciples maintained that, under his breath, he muttered "but it does go white."

Nor are these troubles confined to Spanish scientists. The Northampton botanist Art Shoesmith established that dandelion clocks and thistledown were types of seed and not, as claimed by the Catholic Church, baby angels. His trial was later claimed to have been irregular - he was made to blow all the seeds off a dandelion head, at each puff saying what time it was. When the last seed blew away, the judge remarked, "It's execution o'clock."

Finally in this little list of scientific heroes, we must not forget the Scottish zoologist, Mary McTavish. She it was who, by careful comparitive studies, established that cows were mammals and not, as the Church claimed, fish. Her condemnation was assured, as the bishops realised they had a bleak seven weeks ahead of them, if they weren't going to be able to eat their favourite "Lentburgers".

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