Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Salvation through science

While researching some daftness for Horrible Histories Magazine, I read up on Franciscan monk and philosopher Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294). That led me to James Blish's 1964 novel about Bacon's life, Doctor Mirabilis  - which was hard to resist at 64p on Abebooks.

Blish conjures a muddy, murky thirteenth century, full of injustice and cruelty. In the first chapter, young Roger is robbed of his inheritance and in the next he is set upon by robbers. There are plenty of dangers, too, in the politics of the age: the shadow cast by Magna Carta on Henry III, his negotiations with Simon de Montfort, and the power of the Catholic Church in England - waxing and waning through a series of popes.

Power is precarious - Roger and those around him fall in and out of favour, and at one point Roger's life seems ruined when a particular mentor dies. Blish is good at showing how even those in authority are constantly under threat. That's sometimes economics, such as this aside on castles:
"a work of Norman design cannot simply be maintained, it must be constantly under construction, otherwise it falls down almost at once."
James Blish,  Doctor Mirabilis, p. 166.
Along the way, there are plenty of fun historical references. For example, hearing of some "vanished" money, Roger sees that story-tellers are already embroidering the legend of a dead man:
"It's said this was more of Robin of Sherwood's doings; the harpers will not let that poor highwayman rest at his crossroads."
Ibid., p. 64.
Still, the historical setting is quite hard work to begin with. That's largely down to Blish's decision, discussed in his foreword, over how to depict the languages of the time:
"As for the English, I have followed two rules. (1) Where the characters are speaking Middle English, I have used a synthetic speech which roughly preserves Middle English syntax, one of its central glories, but makes little attempt to follow its metrics or its vocabulary (and certainly not its spelling, which was catch-as-catch-can). (2) Where they are speaking French or Latin, which is most of the time, I have used modern English, except to indicate whether the familiar or the polite form of 'you' is being employed, a system which cause no trouble."
Ibid., p. 16.
I'm not sure what suddenly made the going seem easier: that Roger starts to converse more in modern English or I just got used to the archaic bits. Worse, though, is Blish's decision to quote at length from the primary sources.
"The reader may wonder why I have resorted here and there to direct quotations in Latin ... The reason is that these exceptions, these ideas and opinions written down seven centuries ago, might otherwise have been suspected of being a twentieth-century author's interpolations."
Ibid., p. 15.
It's all very laudable to cite the sources faithfully, but it excluded me from what was being said. Ironically, in the novel one character notes the limits of Latin for sharing knowledge:
"That precisely is why Latin is only spuriously a universal language, friar Bacon. It is never spoken to women any more. Women are confined to the vernacular, whatever that may be. On this account alone, Latin is dying."
Ibid., p. 199.
Bacon - always a bit behind when it comes to women - fails to understand the point. I think Blish may miss it, too, as surely his readers are also confined to the vernacular.

The Latin is especially taxing in Chapters V and X, where Roger must defend his theories against rivals. For pages they bicker in bits of quoted Latin before Roger wins,  but without footnotes or translation, I couldn't follow the argument. That's fundamental, because the book is all about the importance of the argument reasoned from evidence, regardless of who "wins".

Blish says he based his account of Roger on Stewart C Easton's Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science (Columbia, 1952), which he describes as,
"a guide to everything about Roger which pretends to be factual, even encyclopedia articles and the scrappiest of pamphlets."
Ibid., p. 318.
He also addresses the legend surrounding Bacon - which, he says, Easton ignores.
"Roger Bacon ... was a scientist in the primary sense of that word - he thought like one, and indeed defined this kind of thinking as we now understand it. It is of no importance that the long list of 'inventions' attributed to him by the legend - spectacles, the telescope, the diving bell, and half a hundred others - cannot be supported; this part of the legend, which is quite recent, evolves out of the notion that Roger could be made to seem more wonderful if he could be shown to be a thirteenth-century Edison or Luther Burbank, holding a flask up to the light and crying, 'Eureka!' This is precisely what he was not. Though he performed thousands of experiments, most of which he describes in detail, hardly any of them were original, and so far as we know he never invented a single gadget; his experiments were tests of principles, and as such were almost maddeningly repetitious, as significant experiments remain to this day - a fact always glossed over by popularizations of scientific method, in which the experiments, miraculously, always work the first time, and the importance of negative results is never even mentioned. There is, alas, nothing dramatic about patience, but it was Roger, not Sir Francis [Bacon] who erected it into a principle: 'Neither the voice of authority, nor the weight of reason and argument are as significant as experiment, for thence comes quiet to the mind.' (De erroribus medicorum.)"
Ibid., p. 315.
The old system that Roger was part of as a Franciscan monk and which he broke away from was neatly explained by James Burke in his 1985 series The Day the Universe Changed. He discussed how monks copied ancient texts - copying even the errors in typography rather than challenging the handed-down word. The works of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers, and the study of nature itself, were either proofs of a Christian order of being or strictly forbidden as heresy.
"The whole monastic experience was a bit like jumping into bed and pulling the blankets over your head. It was a mystic experience - unreal. And it all still, hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, looked back to an age of greatness that was gone for ever. Everything these people knew - and this is extraordinary for us to grasp in our world - everything they knew was old".
James Burke, "In the Light of Reason", The Day the Universe Changed, 20 October 1985.
A key moment in Blish's book is when Roger decides not to write an introduction or commentary on a pre-existing text, but a whole new book based on his own experiments. Later, he develops a theory of what is so often wrong with inherited knowledge:
"Since the days of revelation, in fact, the same four corrupting errors had been made over and over again: submission to faulty and unworthy authority; submission to what it was customary to believe; submission to the prejudices of the mob; and worst of all, concealment of ignorance by a false show of unheld knowledge, for no better reason than pride."
Blish, p. 246.
Doctor Mirabilis is, then, a novel about the struggle to make sound scientific progress. Amid the grumbles, there are complaints that seem familiar today. There's the battle over knowledge being used as a commodity to be bought and traded. One Italian laments the shortage of ancient texts available to buy because they're being bought up for private collections. He blames this on the Romans.
"Our imperial ancestors invented few new vices, but private art collecting seems to have been their own authentic discovery. It would hardly have been possible to the Greeks ... Why, it was the old Romans who wrote into law the principle that the man who owned a painting, for example, was the man who owned the board it was painted on, not the artist; and the same with manuscripts. Private collecting really began with that, because it made it possible for a man to become wealthy without having done any of the work involved, simply by saving the board until the painting on it became valuable."
Ibid., p. 196.
But while we might recognise much of Roger's struggles to produce good work under difficult circumstances, his is a very different world to ours. His adventures are bound in the struggles to find appropriate patrons and mentors, or with the difficulties of developing his ideas when he doesn't have enough parchment. So much of his work depends on permissions from people who can't understand his work, or the Catch-22 of needing his work copied but knowing the copyists will pirate it.

Four pages before the end, there's a revealing line about what the aged and exhausted Roger thinks his life's work has been about:
"the final statement of the case for salvation through science".
Ibid. p. 308.
Despite his revolution in thought, he's still a product of the theocracy of his time. In fact, the book often uses the fact that we're ahead of Roger in our scientific understanding.

For example, on page 86 Roger is in London staying in a foul-smelling room that makes him sick over the bedclothes. The candles burn with slightly blue flames - which he attributes to a demon, and wonders how a demon can appear without escaping from Hell. Having plugged the window with his dirty bedclothes so as to be rid of the smell, he goes off to court. When he comes back, he enters the sealed room with a lit torch - and there's an explosion. We understand what's happened: there's gas, in a contained environment. But Bacon struggles to make the cognitive leap as he thinks about repeating what happened:
"Perhaps, if he sealed the room... and thrust a torch in it after... Clearly there was some connection, but Roger could not grasp it."
Ibid., p. 92.
The court then tries to use the "earthquake" to suggest God is unhappy with what King Henry's up to. The embryonic science is quickly lost to the politics and the threat of revolt.

But this juxtaposition - the familiarity of the science, the strangeness of the world - is what makes the book work so well. Part of what makes Roger's efforts so compelling is the constant threat of torture or incarceration, and how much depends on the whims of those in power - and how long they remain there. But it's also more personal than that: Roger must wrestle with his own conscience, and with an inner voice that sometimes suggests he is a man possessed.

That Roger's is a true story means we don't expect it to end happily, but also makes what he did achieve all the more amazing. Blish says in his note at the end of the book that it,
"would be hard to find any branch of modern science which was not influenced by Roger's theoretical scheme",
but that its slow-working nature meant much it didn't fit the needs of a novel. He then cites some examples of things he couldn't include, such as that,
"the whole tissue of the space-time continuum of general relativity is a direct descendant of Roger's assumption, in De multiplicatione specierum and elsewhere, that the universe has a metrical frame, and that mathematics thus is in some important sense real, and not just a useful exercise."
A footnote explains this extraordinary claim at greater length:
"I have quoted part of Roger's reasoning on this point in Chapter XII, but there is really no way short of another book to convey the flamboyancy of this logical jump, which spans seven centuries without the faintest sign of effort. The most astonishing thing about it, perhaps, is its casualness; what Roger begins to talk about is the continuum of action, an Aristotle commonplace in his own time, but within a few sentences he has invented - purely for the sake of argument - the luminiferous ether which so embroiled the physics of the nineteenth century, and only a moment later throws the notion out in favour of the Einsteinean metrical frame, having in the process completely skipped over Galilean relativity and the inertial frames of Newton. Nothing in the tone of the discussion entitles the reader to imagine that Roger was here aware that he was making a revolution - or in fact creating a series of them; the whole performance is even-handed and sober, just one more logical outcome of the way he customarily thought. It was that way of thinking, not any specific theory, that he invented; the theory of theories as tools."
Ibid., p. 316.
One last point: Doctor Mirabilis is all set in the 13th century. There are no robots or spaceships, aliens or technology, and it's all based on historical sources. And yet on the back cover, just above the price, the book is marked "Science Fiction".

That seems odd - especially given that the back cover also quotes praise from the Sunday Telegraph for this "historical novel". So why the label of sci-fi?

The back cover also says that Doctor Mirabilis is part of a "thematic trilogy", with two books that seem more explicitly sci-fi (A Case of Conscience is about a priest visiting an alien world) or fantasy (in Black Easter, in which black magic summons Satan into the world. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction provides more information:
"After Such Knowledge poses a question once expressed by Blish as: 'Is the desire for secular knowledge, let alone the acquisition and use of it, a misuse of the mind, and perhaps even actively evil?' This is one of the fundamental themes of sf, and is painstakingly explored in Doctor Mirabilis, an historical novel which treats the life of the thirteenth-century scientist and theologian Roger Bacon. It deals with the archetypal sf theme of Conceptual Breakthrough from one intellectual model of the Universe to another, more sophisticated model."
Peter Nicholls, "Blish, James", The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 15 January 2014.
I think that's stretching definitions a bit far: surely a conceptual breakthrough is not exclusive to science-fiction. I don't think Doctor Mirabilis does count as sci-fi. I can see why its publishers thought it would appeal to fans of Blish's other, more sf books and fans of science-fiction more generally, but I suspect that a publisher wouldn't do that now. I can think of too many people who'd be intrigued by this novel but would never venture into dark corner of a bookshop where the fat books about robots are found.

Don't popular science and the history of scientific ideas have a much broader appeal today than they did in the 80s (when this edition was published)? And isn't that a sign of our own recent revolution of thought?

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