Troubled by Solvay

Jan 22nd, 2011 | By | Category: Spirituality

It is four weeks since Christmas and one of the presents is still beyond me.  “Quantum Theory: a Graphic Guide” was my present from my daughter.  It is a work of brilliance, lost completely on someone who has a CSE in General Science.  The book has a photograph from the Solvay Conference of 1927 that prompted a conversation between us two years ago

“Look at this!” she said.  It was not often that school textbooks evoked such excitement.

“What is it?”

“It’s from a conference held in 1927 – look who is in the picture.  There’s Schroedinger and there’s Neils Bohr and there’s Max Planck and who else would be at the front – Einstein”.

The solitary woman in the front row is the brilliant Madame Curie.

“What were they doing? Why the photograph?”

“It was the Solvay Conference in 1927.  Look at it – the most brilliant people in the world gathered together in one place.  Do you know, Einstein and Bohr once had a debate and every time they met after that, instead of saying ‘how are you?’ and things like that they just carried on the debate from where they left off the previous time”.

The photograph recorded what must have been one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of humanity.  Geniuses by the dozen.  To have been present would have left an indelible mark on the memories of mere mortals.

“Can you imagine what it would have been like?” she said.  “It would have been like getting all the greatest rock musicians in the world into one band and put them on the stage together”.

Indeed, and the egos of the geniuses would have been considerably smaller. I have been at at Schroedinger’s grave in January; it is modest and unassuming, almost anonymous, tucked against the wall of a small village churchyard.

Solvay represents the reality from which the church departed.  Since the days of Copernicus and Galileo the church was troubled by facts that did not fit its explanation of the world.  An implicit fundamentalism remains, the work of Darwin a hundred and fifty years ago only brought to the surface the attitudes already there.  In the century and a half since, it is hard to see any movement at all by many Christians.  In 2006, a Nigerian priest stood in my last parish and told the congregation that they were not to believe scientists because the scientists did not know the truth that God made the world in six days.  (This did cause the professor of geology who sang tenor in the church choir to raise his eyebrows.)  Anti-intellectualism reigns; even had we an Einstein, he would not get a hearing.

The gulf between the world inhabited by those who stand in the tradition of Einstein, and the world imagined by the majority of members of the church is now so wide, it is hard to imagine that the church is redeemable.

To attend a lecture by a theoretical physicist and a gathering of church people would make one wonder which of them knows the most about God.

Leave a comment »

  1. At a rough estimate, in the past three years here, Einstein gets mentioned by name in thirteen blogs on Church topics.

    This is just unfair and wrong. When is Paul Dirac going to get a mention?

    Seriously though, the 17th century Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, was an astronomer who wrote a pamphlet speculating about extraterrestrial life.

    As far as records go, churchmen preserved and commented on astronomy texts. In fact, a Christian “copyist” may well have entirely interpolated the “heliocentric” theory of Heraclides of Pontus into being.

    The 7th-century Doctor of the Church (and Archbishop) Isidore of Seville speculated in his treatises about the people and creatures that inhabited “the antipodes”. Before Columbus reached the West Indies in 1492, the 15th-century Bishop of Avila, Alonso Tostado, argued that such lands must be discoverable lands, because if they existed at all and were populated, Jesus would had to have appeared twice if the Gospel couldn’t reach them. Due to the uniqueness of Christ, these lands with unknown people were reachable.

    The 5th century Macrobius wrote “Cicero’s Dream of Scipio”, describing the Earth as “a globe of insignificant size in comparison to the remainder of the cosmos”, but it was the Church copyists and scribes which went to work preserving it.

    I would also like to put into contention the Irishman, John Scotus Eriugena, Master of the Palatine School under Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald. Several such Irishmen re-founded culture in a barbarised Europe. It is a difficult choice from a rich field. Maeldubh, the tutor of Bede? Or Peter of Ireland, Thomas Aquinas’ professor, who introduced him to works of Aristotle? However, Eriugena’s heliocentric theory (that Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury “pursue their orbits around the sun”) in his commentary, the Periphyseon, is our science pick for today. This text was a favourite of William of Malmesbury (well, Malmesbury was an Irish foundation!)

    The commentaries on the texts produced, copied, and extended in this Hiberno-Carolingian school were credited by Copernicus in the foreword of his famous book of evidence for the thesis. The Martianus text, which may not have survived without Carolingian efforts, was credited by name. Erigena added Jupiter and Mars to Martianus’ heliocentric system, and Erigena’s “Martianus Plus” text was the most popular in 12th-century Europe and onwards.

    Copernicus used modern glass lens technology (and mathematics!) to prove the thesis chiefly advanced in monastic libraries. The 15th Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli was part of that ferment, highlighting and rigorously extending the number theory introduced in Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci (which had been too obscure and bold on some points for the earlier 13th- and 14th- centuries to fully appreciate it).

    In fact, Gerbert of Aurillac, a future pope, had “re-introduced the astronomical armillary sphere to Latin Europe”. St Abbo of Fleury, and on, and on – all churchmen and all astronomers and sponsors of scientific endeavour.

    The Christian Norwegian kings produced the Konungs Skuggsjá, circa 1250, noting that the antipodes of a spherical earth would see the sun in the north in the middle of the day – and have opposite seasons to that of the Northern Hemisphere.

    The very name of Brendan, of course, the famous Irish saint, means “explorer”. Perhaps the Vatican archives can be perused for correspondence with transatlantic parishes that ceased in the reign of Pope Alexander III! You might find the early 6th-century Horse Creek Petroglyph found in that glorious American State of Virginia to be of interest.

    The only dispute which the Church had with Columbus was that the man went with some bad calculations derived from Marinus of Tyre, who reckoned the circumference of the earth much smaller than it was. The Church went with the official, and much closer to actuality, answer. If it hadn’t been for an intervening land-mass, Columbus would have fainted from thirst in a watery void. True facts don’t always aid discovery. Anyway, thought you would be interested.

  2. Ah, ha! I have been caught out!

    Devoid of inspiration, I recycled a post from May 2009 which had been prompted by attendance at the Church of Ireland General Synod. Removing from it references to the synod, and rewriting the opening left it as an oddly unbalanced piece.

    I concede all your points, (pleading tiredness in mitigation – tonight’s post is another recycled piece).

Leave Comment