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Martyrs to Science Day?

February 17, 2016


On this day in 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for asserting the plurality of worlds in defiance of official church teaching.  Perhaps he’s as clear a case of a martyr to the cause of science as you could imagine?  Although the definition of “Science Martyr” is interesting and problematic and worthy of some entertaining if melancholy discussion.

Some people are even a bit sceptical of Bruno’s claims – suggesting that although he believed in things we now agree are “true” – he got there improperly – and was too invested in hermetic scholarship to be a proper empirical scientist.  He got to the truth “the wrong way” in other words.  This seems very harsh – and in any case assumes a standard of methodological rectitude which many famous scientists might fall short of in any case.  Time to re-read Thomas Kuhn I think.  Who really “thinks outside the box”?  We all like boxes.

Interestingly, do we claim that in order to be a “Science Martyr” – you have to be “right”?  If the Church teaches that you have to accept that the universe was created in six days by Almighty God – and you preach that the universe was created in nine days by a giant penguin called Kevin – and you get burnt at the stake for this assertion – are you a “martyr”?  Perhaps you are – a martyr to the cause of Saying Whatever the Hell you Like.

Now Hypatia, dear Hypatia, was a Philosophy martyr – from a time when Philosophy still contained and defined science – killed by a mob who just weren’t prepared to share their town with someone who offered an example of independent thought.

But to be a Science Martyr – you don’t need bad guys.  Giving your life for science need not involve being tied to a stake and set fire to.   Sometimes scientific curiosity comes at a price.   You can think of Pliny the Elder (“that volcano looks really interesting”).

Again, there’s a tendency to discount all the people who were clearly barking up the wrong tree.  There must have been any number of alchemists who blew themselves up because they couldn’t grasp the fact that Gold is an element and not a compound.  And how many people have improvised rickety wings for themselves and jumped off cliffs – flapping helplessly to their deaths?  We don’t call them “martyrs” in quite the same way.

The radiant Curies of course pass every test.  If they weren’t martyrs then who were?  The thing that they were best at and which advanced our knowledge of the universe the most was the very thing that killed them.  Bravo.

Francis Bacon is an interesting example.  He wasn’t a scientist as such.  He didn’t discover any one thing of any great importance and nor did he formulate any physical or chemical law – but he was a great propagandist on behalf of empiricism.  He helped the inductive mindset on ever so much.   And at the end of his life (not that he knew it was the end of his life) he was really on to something when he postulated that food could be preserved by keeping it very cold.  His attempt to stuff a chicken full of snow resulted, however, in his catching a chill and dying – a martyr to the cause of experimental science – without he really ever having been an experimental scientist.

Humphrey Davy is another  useful test case – very different to Bacon.  Bacon’s cause of death was related to scientific method.  So was Davy’s – but it was the wrong method – although Davy was far more of a scientist.  Davy made huge contributions to chemistry during his relatively short life – a life truncated by his continual insistence on sniffing and tasting things.   He laid great store on “the taste test” when messing about in his laboratory.

In honour of Giordano – incinerated 17th February 1600 – I think we should honour as many science martyrs as we can – and begin by giving Humphrey Davy another line in school history of science books.  Let’s declare Davy’s First Law of Chemistry:

“Never lick the spoon.”

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  1. Great point about being Bruno not being accepted as a ‘proper scientist’. His martyrdom may also be a little overplayed as he rubbed the Catholic Church up the wrong way regarding his criticism of some core tenets, so the plurality of worlds was only one of his misdemeanours. Don’t often hear Kuhn mentioned – takes me back to my postgrad days at Sussex!!

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