Two Vatican Observatory researchers have recently published works concerning the history of the interaction of the Society of Jesus with science and the history of humankind’s interaction with the idea of other worlds like our Earth.
The paper “Spin Off: The Surprising History of the Coriolis Effect and the Jesuits Who Investigated It”, by Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J. (Director of the Observatory) and Christopher M. Graney, appeared early this summer in The Catholic Historical Review, a journal published by the Catholic University of America Press. Today the Coriolis Effect, a consequence of the spin of the Earth, is understood to be the source of the rotation in hurricanes and other weather patterns. Consolmagno and Graney argue that while the effect bears the name of a nineteenth-century French scientist, historians of science have long overlooked how Jesuit astronomers in the seventeenth century were the first to conceive of it.
Ironically those astronomers, including Giovanni Battista Riccioli and Claude François Milliet Dechales, conceived of the effect as an argument against the ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus. They determined that such an effect must occur on a spinning world. Copernicus said Earth must spin. The effect had not been detected, however (indeed it is very hard to detect), and so these astronomers considered its absence to be an argument against Copernicus and in favor of Earth’s immobility.
The effect finally was demonstrated clearly in 1851, by the pendulum of Léon Foucault. A Jesuit astronomer of that era, Angelo Secchi, was quick to publicly replicate Foucault’s results using a pendulum he constructed in St. Ignatius Church in Rome. (“Foucault Pendulums” are now common in science museums.) In the early twentieth century the first Jesuit Director of the Vatican Observatory, Johann Georg Hagen, developed two further experiments to detect the effect. These experiments were built and performed within the Vatican itself.
Consolmagno and Graney show a long connection between Jesuit scientists and the Coriolis Effect. They also show that Jesuits who argued against Copernicus supported their position with innovative scientific arguments that were well ahead of their time, even if their final conclusion has not stood the test of time.
A second historical paper, “The Challenging History of other Earths”, by Graney, appeared later in the summer in The International Journal of Astrobiology, published by Cambridge University Press. Graney argues that from the Copernican revolution onward, the astronomical community and broader public have tended to embrace the idea that the universe is well-populated by other Earths, home to intelligent life, while tending to overlook strong scientific arguments against that idea.
Graney discusses how Johannes Kepler in the seventeenth century, Jacques Cassini in the eighteenth, and William Whewell in the nineteenth all argued that science did not support an abundance of other Earths. Kepler, for example, forcefully attacked Giordano Bruno’s advocacy of a universe full of stars that were other suns, all orbited by other Earths. Bruno’s ideas were contrary to simple observations, measurements and calculations, Kepler said.
The urge to see other worlds as essentially similar to our own Earth continues even to this day, and still tends to overlook science. We understand today that our sun is a star, but we also realize (as the Catholic science popularizer Agnes Mary Clerke pointed out in the late nineteenth century) that most stars are very different from our sun. The Earth is a planet; but despite thousands of planets discovered, we have yet to discover a planet like our Earth.
Consolmagno and Graney discuss this same research, but in a style suitable for a broad audience, in an upcoming book available on September 15: When Science Goes Wrong: The Desire and Search for the Truth, published by Paulist Press.