Sunday, February 24, 2013

It was the church, stupid

I always wondered why modern astronomy didn't flourish in the sunny, warm climates of the Mediterranean during the renaissance and beyond.

The birth of modern astronomy was dominated by Northern Europeans: Copernicus was Polish, Brahe was Danish, Kepler, Herschel and Bessel were Germans. (Galileo in Italy is the only major exception). In addition, the prime meridian was established in Greenwich, England from all places. All these countries are notorious for the bad weather and the cloudy skies. How come it was them and not their sunnier southern counterparts?

One might argue it was because they were more advanced societies. That might explain the lack of innovation coming from Greece or Turkey, but not from Italy which was leading the renaissance at the time.

Another argument might be that only superpowers with trading activity over sea had motivation to push astronomy forward in order to ensure their dominance in the sea through accurate journeys. That might explain the case for England, but doesn't explain the German dominance, or why Portugal and Spain never developed great astronomers.

And then it dawned on me: it was the church!

The dominance of the catholic church in Rome, and the overwhelming spread of Christianity over the Mediterranean prevented people from innovating in the matters of the skies, as that was supposed to be an untouchable subject determined by God. Innovation did happen in \Italy and Spain but it focused in other, more earthly subject like engineering and mathematics. But for explaining the skies, introducing the heliocentric system, observing the motions of the stars, the church dogma didn't leave much room for thought. Just look at what happened to Galileo, the only one who dared to go against the church.

And that's how the playing field became empty for the Northern Europeans.