Monday, August 13, 2007

Martyrs of Science

Frank Luger headshot by Frank Luger

It may sound strange, perhaps even somewhat bizarre, but despite its 'normal' neutrality, science also has had its share of bloodshed throughout the turbulent course of its history. To be sure, the number of martyrs of science is very small in comparison to other endeavors of the human race; yet the tragedies involved are so much more shocking, because of the very few albeit very great names. Had these lives not had to end prematurely, and, in some cases rather brutally, humanity would have benefited a lot more than it has and civilization would be more advanced than presently.

Hippasus of Metapontum was drowned at sea by his fellow Pythagoreans for discovering irrational numbers. Archimedes of Syracuse was slain by a Roman legionary for disobeying authority. Hypatia of Alexandria was crucified and mutilated by a Christian mob for her 'pagan' religion. Berthold Schwarz was blown to pieces for discovering gunpowder. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake by the Inquisition for championing Copernican heliocentricity. Antoine Lavoisier was guillotined, officially for his state activities, in reality for his scientific genius, by the French Revolution. Likewise, Évariste Galois was shot to death, ostensibly in a duel of honor, but in reality for his mathematical genius mixed with his political radicalism. Finally, Alan Turing was poisoned for his genius as well as his blatant homosexuality, as an embarrassment to the Establishment. These are just the most outstanding names that spring to mind in connection with scientific martyrdom, but no doubt, there must have been more throughout the history of science over the past two-and-a-half millennia, roughly speaking.

Science, in the currently understood sense of being that intellectual pursuit which is characterized by the scientific method, is only four centuries old. Previously, science was an integral part of natural philosophy and some practical concerns, such as geometry and astronomy. It is thus somewhat curious, maybe even paradoxical, that the 'true' martyrs belong to antiquity and their case comes to an end with the death of Giordano Bruno in 1600 A.D. Strictly speaking, the martyrs of modern science after Bruno are perhaps more appropriately designated as 'pseudo' martyrs since their deaths seem to have less to do with their science than with their nonscientific activities. However, the evidence is meager and leaves plenty of room for doubt and speculation.

Be they true martyrs or pseudomartyrs, the fact remains that they were great scientists and their untimely demise is a most regrettable and shameful scar on the history of human civilization. Their tragedies are exacerbated by the causes behind their deaths, because regardless of how they actually died, they were really the victims of ignorance and arrogance, one way or another, in each and every case. After all, frustration, anger, jealousy, envy, and all such emotions fuelling hostile thoughts and actions are but situation-specific manifestations of ignorance and arrogance, in whatever proportions.

Hippasus of Metapontum Hippasus of Metapontum (cca. 500-450 B.C.) was thrown overboard by the frustrated Pythagoreans after he proved the horribly undeniable irrationality of √2, with which he actually discovered a whole class of numbers that cannot be expressed as the quotient of two integers and whose decimal expansions never repeat and never terminate. This was too much for the Pythagoreans, who attributed mystic significance and much else to integers and whose ignorant and arrogant dogmatism could not tolerate 'heresy'. Who knows, perhaps the Pythagoreans deluded themselves by thinking that they were the 'custodians' of the secrets of cosmic beauty and harmony, and as irrational numbers pricked their inflated egos, they thought they could suppress such offensive ugliness by drowning poor Hippasus.

Archimedes of Syracuse Archimedes of Syracuse (cca. 287 — 212 B.C.) was the first and greatest mathematical physicist of antiquity, whose accomplishments are legendary. But he was a menace to the Roman Empire. During the siege of Syracuse he set Roman ships on fire by parabolic mirrors and smashed them on the rocks with various ingenious devices. Marcellus, the Roman commander, is alleged to have given orders that Archimedes be captured unharmed. The old man was doodling in the sand of his garden with a stick, working on various geometry problems. When his captor told him to go with him, Archimedes replied, a bit absent-mindedly: "Noli turbare circulos meos!" (Do not disturb my circles!)- whereupon the frustrated Roman soldier flew into a rage and slew him. Resisting arrest was thus the official story. Was there more? Was he, in reality, deliberately murdered? Revenge by arrogant Romans ignorant of mathematics and science?

Hypatia of Alexandria Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415 A.D.) was the first outstanding woman mathematician in recorded history. She was teaching at the famous Library of Alexandria as head of the Platonist school, and students flocked to her from all over. She was very beautiful, charming, and witty; but, unfortunately, she practiced the ancient Greek religion of polytheism. This was anathema to some of the early Christian sects who felt threatened by her 'pagan' learning and depth of scientific knowledge. Incited by Bishop Cyril, a mob of Christian monks pulled her out of her carriage, beat her, dragged her to a church, stripped her naked and crucified her by nailing her to the church door. Her flesh was mutilated by sharp tiles, part of her body was thrown to dogs and the rest burned. Perhaps they crucified her upon her refusal to be forcibly converted to Christianity, but there can be no doubt that she was jealously perceived as a menace… with the affront of being a woman.

Berthold Schwarz Berthold Schwarz (cca. 1318-1384 A.D.) of Freiburg, Germany, was a Franciscan monk. His original name was Konstantin Anklitzen. He took the name of Bruder (Brother) Berthold upon entering the monastery. Schwarz, meaning 'black' in German (Berthold der Schwarze), was added later as an indication of black magic, since he was a practicing alchemist, who is generally credited with the discovery of gunpowder and the invention of artillery. Apparently he was blown to pieces by some spark or flame accidentally detonating a batch of his nefarious powder. More likely, the explosion was not accidental; he was murdered because his black arts threatened to revolutionize warfare with incalculable consequences as far as (pre)Renaissance times were concerned. Also, perhaps the hitherto undreamed of tremendous destructive potential of gunpowder was thought to represent satanic powers, wholly impermissible for a Franciscan monk. Either way, sorcery and witchcraft had to be involved, which the Church was obliged to extirpate, especially from one of its own members.

Admittedly, these are speculative points, since the existing evidence is meager and far from being unequivocal. It is possible that the Church wanted to avoid exposure of the potentially embarrassing matter, especially if the Inquisition had to handle things; so, maybe, the murder of Berthold Schwarz was simply and deliberately made to look like an accident. Or, alternatively, there could have been some secular power causing the explosion, perhaps another country hoping to monopolize the new weapon. Maybe a combination of such factors?

Giordano Bruno Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a dangerous and subversive radical, a spiritual alchemist and a rather versatile philosopher to boot. As such a maverick, he did surely get himself into plenty of trouble wherever he went, and it was only a matter of time before he was formally denounced and the Papal Inquisition got him on charges of heresy. After several years of 'protective custody' and his stubborn refusal to recant, he was finally burned at the stake on February 17, 1600. What was his unpardonable crime? Quite simply, the effrontery of promoting the heliocentric model of Copernicus. After all, if the Sun did not revolve around the Earth, much of Church dogma could be demolished. Man's closest kinship to God as well as Man's dominion over Nature were severely threatened by such abominable ideas. Man's cosmic significance could turn into absurd insignificance…

Antoine Lavoisier Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) is generally venerated as the father of modern chemistry. He was also prominent in the histories of biology, economics, and finance. He is well remembered for overthrowing the phlogiston theory and with the correct assignment of oxygen and hydrogen to various processes, for the establishment of the proper theory of combustion. His laws of molecular combinations based on the law of conservation of mass are valid even today. His various accomplishments in different fields mark him as a truly outstanding scientist. Unfortunately, as a noblemen and as a statesman, he was denounced as a traitor by the French Revolution and promptly guillotined. "The Republic has no need of geniuses" (i.e. scientists) was the cynical condemnation pronounced by his judge. Perhaps this is the real clue of his martyrdom. True, many noblemen and statesmen were executed; but the scientific genius, still regarded akin to dreaded black magic by ignorance and arrogance, was most likely the underlying reason why Lavoisier was seen as a menace.

Evariste Galois Évariste Galois (1811-1832) was also perceived as a menace by the French Establishment. True, he was a young political firebrand-radical, but that was an embarrassment in academic circles, not more. The menace was his genius, which aroused much jealousy and resentment, especially in mathematical circles. Even a mathematician of such caliber as Simeon Poisson failed to understand the work of Galois.

Yet, despite his youth and lack of formal relevant credentials, the significance of the contribution of Galois to modern mathematics cannot be overemphasized. He was shot to death in a duel, ostensibly over a matter of honor involving a young woman; but in reality for the menace of his genius, peppered with his radical views and activities. Considering the highly nervous temperament of Galois, it must have been an easy matter to provoke him to a duel. Sadly, anachronisms do not last long, no matter how brilliant they are.

Alan Turing Finally, Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a brilliant British mathematician who might have represented enough menace to the Establishment to be murdered by potassium cyanide.

His intellectual accomplishments are legendary, and without the 'Turing machine' theoretical computer science could not become a modern miracle. Unfortunately, he flaunted his homosexuality, which must have been intolerable for the conservative academic Establishment. His eccentric genius of course evoked much jealousy, which could be the real reason for his untimely demise. The official verdict of suicide is suspect. He had no reason to kill himself, for one thing. For another, he could hardly have eaten an apple laced with cyanide without noticing the characteristic bitter almond taste. Also, it would have been much simpler to take an overdose of sleeping pills. Homosexuality was then a crime, and he was charged with it. He was given the choice of prison or libido-reducing hormones. He chose the latter and underwent such treatment for a year before he died. Anyway, whatever the exact factors were, Turing may be regarded as a (pseudo)martyr of science.

It is not only tragic, but ironic as well, that science, the only neutral pursuit of the human intellect, has its own 'pantheon' of martyrs. Some of the above mentioned tragedies, such as those of Hippasus and Archimedes, could perhaps be suffered, one way or another. Less tolerable were those of Hypatia, Schwarz, and Bruno. This ends the list of 'pure' martyrs. The 'pseudo' martyrs of modern science died under nebulous circumstances, but in each case, they must have been perceived as threats to the hostile and jealous Establishment. What runs through each martyrdom as a red thread since antiquity to the present, is the ignorance and arrogance of lesser intellects. That such intellects still run society is not only the real tragedy but the deplorable irony of all times as well.


Justin Zijlstra said...

Hey, I like your writings.

However, I would like, if you see it as motivation from inside only, to show me why people think they torture someone if he has lived like a growing lion and lives life in creation?

I do think however that individuals should touch their inner world and live with it.

Side question: How would the world look like if everyone opened his eyes? If nationalism was for those who are little and the world for those who have the belly to awnser the world.

The rest in my heart. The hurricane I tame inside (relative to most). I simply want to be at piece. I know why others don't accept this but I want to say this still.

You like my writings?

I know I suppose, most succumb in power. Why do people follow people who lead a controled dance? Why do they taste the power and don't internalize? Yes, because they are not educated.

And most people grand (so called) or little (so called) want to lead a lazy life because they don't want to get crucified or whatever. They don't see solipsism is reality and reality is not accepting it. A split personality is the personality that is not one with his bodies and does not know how to be a pedestrian on instincts. A movement of a top of the finger should be enough to make one shiffer, those smaller souls, sigh (I sigh a lot, which is deep breath).

Lazy old people, where is the life? We are men and need to teach our children, children need to internalize and become above imortality, they simply need to integrate what is available to them. Deep breath. I suppose these children are proud on their dads.

Yes, dads need to be able to confront his children without fear. Questions should be internalized.

Ask yourself, can I see myself in the other? If not your still far below comprehension. If you see yourself in the other you should start growing from within and slowly get into touch with your inside.

Believe is the mental lockup for circle reasoning. Confronting your inner self is honesty and the best thing that can happen to man.

A world gesture is the thing we need, not a nation or a group.


Wish I where there.

Thank you for your summation

Anonymous said...

I am also researching Martyrs and found your work very well done.

My work is attempting to connect Morality with the search for truth and to tie virtue to the state of mind that moves mankind forward.

That is the thing that all of these martyrs have in common: looking for patterns and looking for truth for sure but perhaps most importantly in knowing that as long as there are mysteries our knowledge is inadequate. That drives us forward.

In addition, I think that evil can be defined as that which prevents the mind from moving toward the truth.

Lennart said...

Hello Frank,

I wonder where you got your theories about Alan Turing's poisoning from.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say: "This work was interrupted by Alan Turing's arrest in February 1952 for his sexual affair with a young Manchester man, and he was obliged, to escape imprisonment, to undergo the injection of oestrogen intended to negate his sexual drive. He was disqualified from continuing secret cryptological work. His general libertarian attitude was enhanced rather than suppressed by the criminal trial, and his intellectual individuality also remained as lively as ever. While remaining formally a Reader in the Theory of Computing, he not only embarked on more ambitious applications of his biological theory, but advanced new ideas for fundamental physics.

For this reason his death, on 7 June 1954, at his home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, came as a general surprise. In hindsight it is obvious that Turing's unique status in Anglo-American secret communication work meant that there were pressures on him of which his contemporaries were unaware; there was certainly another ‘security’ conflict with government in 1953 (Hodges 1983, p. 483). Some commentators, e.g. Dawson (1985), have argued that assassination should not be ruled out. But he had spoken of suicide, and his death, which was by cyanide poisoning, was most likely by his own hand, contrived so as to allow those who wished to do so to believe it a result of his penchant for chemistry experiments. The symbolism of its dramatic element — a partly eaten apple — has continued to haunt the intellectual Eden from which Alan Turing was expelled."

Stripped of his security clearance and publicly humiliated, I consider it rather unlikely he was perceived a threat and murdered. The "plausibly deniable suicide" theory seems the soundest to me.

Best regards,


Rufus said...

Giordano Bruno WAS NOT executed for believing in Copernicianism. He was executed for promoting Hermeticism, denying the holy trinity, denying the virginity of Mary and a number of other heresies. Science does not have dibs on Bruno as one of its martyrs. Please stop perpetuating this tired old lie!

John Swindle said...

It isn't always a question of hostile human agency. Brave men and women continue to take risks for science and humanity, and some lose their lives.

For example, the name of Italian physician Carlo Urbani could be added to a list either of martyrs of charity or martyrs of science. An infectious disease specialist, he recognized something new and terrible in a patient in Hanoi in 2003. He reported his findings, continued to treat that patient and others, and died from the disease himself a few weeks later.

John Swindle said...

In my eagerness to praise Carlo Urbani I forgot to mention the name of the disease he identified and treated and died from. It's usually called SARS.