mercoledì, agosto 18, 2010

Happy Birthday, Father!

Happy Birthday, Father!: "

Today, August 17, 2010, marks the 86th anniversary of the birth of Stanley L. Jaki, OSB. In memory of this day, here is a curious excerpt from Father's first book on science and history. It is curious because it mentions his birthday, but also because it gives a striking image of the importance of engineering to science, of having a wider view, of the critical need to be attentive to precision, and many other things. It is well worth your careful attention.

And do not forget to toast SLJ today at dinnertime!

--Dr. Thursday

The appeal of the Copernican system did not lie in the precision it permitted for calculating the position of the planets. In this respect it was at best equal to, but did not surpass that of Ptolemy, in spite of the claims of Rheticus to the contrary. Rheticus of course was duty bound to praise both his master's observations 'made with the utmost care' and the results that coincided 'to the utmost degree of exactness with the observations of all scholars.' The fact, however, was that Copernicus' instruments were almost crude, and that no more than twenty-seven of his observations entered into his epoch-making work. The rest of his data were borrowed from the ancients. Being shut in himself, far removed from the main thoroughfares of the world, Copernicus could hardly realize that ocean navigation and the progress of technology were just beginning to force on science a new and hard look at the exactness and reliability of measurements.

Such needs often remain long submerged until suddenly, owing to some unexpected incident, they break to the surface. The impulse that brought the streams of precision and of science forever together was touched off by a partial eclipse of the sun witnessed by fourteen-year-old Tycho Brahe, who was studying rhetoric and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. That such phenomena as eclipses occurred as predicted had a simply overpowering effect on Tycho's mind. Tycho threw in his lot irrevocably with astronomy. Three years later, already in possession of all available astronomical tables, he found on the night of August 17, 1565, that Jupiter and Saturn were so close as to be hardly distinguishable. To his great shock both the Alphonsine and the Copernican tables were wide of the mark in fixing the date for this event. The former erred by one month, the latter by several days.

For Tycho this represented an intolerable state of affairs. As he had correctly diagnosed matters, the situation could be remedied only if astronomy developed an absolute dedication to the construction of better instruments. In pursuing this end, Tycho had no equal in his day. Before long his rewards came in ample measure. His huge sextant, equipped with a table of figures indicating the errors involved in his observations, played the decisive role in showing the superlunary position of the nova of 1572 and of the comet of 1577. His long list of carefully taken data delivered a mortal blow to Aristotelian cosmology and established Tycho as the foremost astronomer of his time.

[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 240]