23 October 2011

The Abacus and the Cross

I've recently received via a book club membership, "The Abacus and the Cross," a book about the life of Pope Sylvester II. He held that august title from 999 until his death in 1003: he was Pope, in other words, when the odometer of the Anno Domino calender first flipped over, back before anyone worried about a "Y1k" bug that would ruin the network of abacuses.

Before 999, the future Pope was known as Gerbert of Aurillac, and the author of this book, Nancy Marie Brown, makes a case for Gerbert as a note-worthy scholar and (to use an anachronistic term) a scientist. 

Brown has built her own reputation as a popularizer of science. Her best known book before this one was "Mendel in the Kitchen," a discussion of genetically modified foods, which she co-authored with geneticist Nina Fedoroff.

Here she seems to have an apologetic intent. She wants to be sure we know that the 10th century Europeans did not believe in a flat earth, were not terrified of the arrival of the year 1000, didn't argue over angels dancing on the heads of pins, and were quite interested in the advance of science. Indeed, among the achievements of Gerbert she chronicles is this: he became curious about how organ pipes behave acoustically, so he built and tested models and devised an equation to match the results. In a word, he experimented.

But sometimes her apologetic designs get in the way of her story.  She tells of us one debate between Gerbert and an ecclesiastical rival over whether physics should be taught in universities as a subdivision of mathematics, or as a separate field. She doesn't want us to think that this is a silly subject, since "Professors today hold the same debates: Twenty-first century academics are at odds over whether archeology is a type of history or should be taught as a science."

Well, yes, but it is rather silly when it happens in the 21st century too.  Those debates are mostly about turf. The history department is larger if the archeologists are included therein than if it isn't, and the head of the history department of that university will surely want to include them.  The rest of us should be uninterested in their turf wars except, perhaps, as a matter of ... well ... a specialized sort of anthropology.

As to Gerbert's debate with a fellow named Otric, it doesn't appear to have amounted to much pragmatically except amusement for some privileged observers.  You can of course treat physics under the heading of math if you want (Gerbert's experiments with organ pipes were aimed at finding the right equation, after all). You can treat them as separate though of course closely related disciplines if you want. Putting too much emphasis on which is the 'right' categorization is inane.

Not as inane as belief in a flat earth, but still inane.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.