science

Giordano Bruno as a fictional character

Back in the Before times, when I browsed charity shop bookshelves regularly, I kept spotting SJ Parris novels and thinking for a moment they were CJ Sansom novels. That’s probably the intention behind the fonts and general vibe of the covers. Eventually I picked one up and discovered that they seemed to be sixteenth century spy thrillers, rather than the sixteenth century crime of Sansom’s excellent Shardlake series, and parked the knowledge for later. I have a history of getting confused by the subtleties of spy tales. However, I couldn’t entirely dismiss the series as the central character was Giordano Bruno.

If you’ve ever delved into the history of physics you’ll have come across Giordano Bruno, the mad monk. I talked about him briefly in my dash through celestial mechanics at York Festival of Ideas in 2018 because in among some of his more outlandish theories he suggested things that turned out to be true. Here’s what I said about him, in my section on challenging dogma:

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 after 7 years of imprisonment by the Inquisition, though before long most of his worldview replaced that of medieval Christianity. He wasn’t an astronomer, his theories were based on neither experiment nor observation, he dealt in philosophy, really, though I’ve seen him described as “a renegade monk” which conjures up an interesting image. He often comes between Copernicus and Kepler in history of science books, but that’s the benefit of hindsight again. He suggested that the earth moves round the sun and that the sun moves; that there’s no such thing as a point absolutely at rest; that the stars are at vast and various distances from the solar system and that they are themselves centres of comparable systems; that the universe is infinite and can provide no criterion of fixity, and that our solar system is in no sense the centre of the universe. Which, as you can imagine, kind of annoyed the church who liked the idea that Man was special. Anyway, alongside all this fantastic stuff, way ahead of its time, he also had some strange ideas in the same way as Kepler and his mysticism or Newton and his alchemy. So was Bruno a crank with some lucky guesses or an insightful thinker? And would you have known what to make of him, without several centuries of hindsight?

You can see why I might be interested, then. And why I couldn’t resist a book of three Giordano Bruno novellas by SJ Parris on offer for 99p when I was browsing the Kobo store for new reading material at the start of January.

The first story, The Secret Dead, is set in 1566 when Bruno is 18 and has recently taken his vows, and contains both a murder mystery and the dangers of exploring science when the Inquisition are on the prowl. It was a bit gruesome in the dissection scene – remember, at the time scientists didn’t stick to what we think of as different disciplines – but I zipped through it. It felt close to being a Shardlake-Cadfael mash-up and I enjoyed the first-person perspective on the hypocrisies of the church.

I ran out of steam during the second one, however, The Academy of Secrets, set when Bruno is 20. I think there are several reasons, some to do with reading it as an e-book and some to do with Bruno as a character. I’ve come to realise how much I rely on the blurb on the back of a paperback, which of course is missing from an e-book, though I could go to the website and read it there. I take my cues on what to focus on from what is deemed important enough for the paragraph on the back cover. So I’m wondering if the incident I’ve just read is an aside, a sub-plot, or the main thrust of the novella. And because I don’t know how far through that story I am (I can never remember how to set a bookmark so I can get back to where I just was, so I don’t want to check the contents list and lose my place) I don’t have the cue from page-count either – if I’ve got two pages left that’s very different from having fifteen pages left. Though I haven’t read an awful lot about Bruno, he’s cropped up now and then from my undergraduate physics days onwards and I’d formed some kind of idea of him that doesn’t match this rendering. From these stories, Bruno is being played by a young Rufus Sewell in my head – a handsome philandering youth who is also interested in forbidden scientific writings. I had always thought of him as an austere solitary thinker.

I wonder if part of the disconnect is Bruno’s youth, and not having enough story to get my teeth into. Both of which would be solved by reading the first novel, Heresy, which is set in 1583 so would make Bruno 35. The novella and a half (or maybe three-quarters) that I’ve read so far are well-written, and I imagine fans of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series would find much to interest them. I may well come back to the novellas, and dip into the first novel, when I’ve severed Giordano Bruno the fictional character from my idea of Giordano Bruno the figure from the history of science.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Alice and Jacqueline face the impossible

York Festival of Ideas is just drawing to a close for another year, but this week I joined Alice Courvoisier there for the third time to deliver an evening of thought-provoking entertainment (such has always been our aim, anyway).

We were supposed to be joined by Carolyn Dougherty this time (sadly she had to pull out at the last minute) so it was much more of a straightforward lecture format than our 2016 offering on the theme of time (which mixed myths, my fiction, history of science, and some proper physics) and a complete departure from our 2015 blend of myths and stories. Alice’s hair seems to get a bit shorter each time, but I can’t present the evidence because everyone was too engrossed to take photos this year (by which I mean, OneMonkey couldn’t make it and no-one else thinks of these things), which also means you don’t get to see the flabbergasting size of our audience. We were in a bigger venue this year, with stewards on hand to bring us coffee and supervise the Q&A (thank you to the students who gave up their time to do this) and I had a mild panic when I heard 88 tickets had been booked. They didn’t all turn up, but we still had a bigger audience than I was anticipating.

This year we were Facing the Impossible in Physics, according to the title of our talk, and (to paraphrase from my notes) we tried to get the audience thinking about science in a way they might not have thought about it before, by looking at how the notion of ‘impossible’ can change depending on when and where we are, and how the prevailing scientific view can change radically.

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Kepler’s Platonic Solid model of the solar system

Between us we did an accelerated history of celestial mechanics, with me tackling the part from the dawn of time (metaphorically speaking) to Kepler in 1609, and Alice presenting Newton to Poincaré at the turn of the 20th century, which gave her an excuse to play a clip of this video illustrating the concept of the sun moving as well (because we usually see it as static, with planets whizzing round it), with some suitably grandiose music.

I talked about experimental validation and bias, thought experiments, and provisional truths, while Alice pointed out that we have to trust something, and rattled through a history of Western views on the nature of matter. As a brief overview that might sound a bit dry but the audience seemed engaged and enthusiastic, and we had to curtail the Q&A after about half an hour because we’d over-run our slot and the next guy needed to start setting his presentation up! In fact Alice and I, as well as Mark the artist (who was there to provide moral support but also to critique us in his capacity as a philosopher of science) chatted to interested members of the audience for at least a quarter of an hour outside the lecture room afterwards as well, which made me feel like we’d achieved our goal of getting people thinking. A special mention must go to the physics student who boosted my ego by asking if there was an accompanying book available downstairs at the Waterstones stand… (maybe next time).

If you were there, thank you. If not, I’ll leave you with one of my thoughts from the evening:

In this age of the distrust of experts I don’t want to imply that scientists – even long-dead astronomers – don’t know what they’re doing. But I do want to emphasize that they’re not infallible, they’re not pure objective calculating machines, and the history of science isn’t a single-track road that’s sitting there just waiting for the brambles to be hacked away so the carefree physicists can skip along it arm in arm past all the handy signposts saying ‘Truth this way’.

Summer story and science storytelling

As promised last week, here’s a link to my story Summer of ’96 at The Fiction Pool. I wrote it in June for the Ilkley Writers summer-themed evening of readings, as I mentioned at the time. Everyone will get something different from it, such is the nature of these things, but partly it was about it being time to move on, about not fitting but not necessarily seeing that as wholly a bad thing. I left school in the summer of 1996, aged 17, but I assure you I didn’t go to the coast with my friends and the story is entirely fictional (though Benjy has an element of a lad I was good friends with at the time). Though the link might not be obvious the story burst forth from my repeated relistening to Born to Run when I was reading the Springsteen autobiography of the same name, and the length and rhythm of some of the sentences are directly a result of that. They were kind of hard to read out, particularly with hayfever, so I’m glad it’s in print now and you can all read it for yourselves instead.

Another thing you can read if you’re of a mind is an article in the SciArt magazine STEAM special, about Alice Courvoisier and I doing science-related storytelling in York last year (which you may have read about here at the time). STEAM stands for the usual STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) plus arts, and the special supplement is full of people from universities talking about interdisciplinary education. I had a minor moment of excitement at being on a contents list with someone from MIT (you may need a physics background to truly appreciate that).

Science writer for hire

I had a revelation recently: I haven’t lost my love of physics, it had just faded for a while, and that being the case I could potentially combine science with writing.

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Because I loved the one on the left and have never been able to get rid of the one on the right

I do write sci-fi, you can read some of it in the Cracks in the Foundations collection (which also contains fantasy stories), and I’ve continued to read it even in my science-free years but I’d got out of the habit of reading popular science books or New Scientist and it hadn’t occurred to me to write factual science articles. Until now.

Last summer I did a story and science evening with Alice Courvoisier for the York Festival of Ideas and helping Alice put together her relativity presentation made me realise I was still fascinated by physics. For the last few months I’ve been giving private tuition in GCSE physics (with occasional forays into maths and chemistry) and loving those moments where understanding dawns. My don’t-inspect-too-closely analogies are definitely improving. Considering all this, when I say that I finished reading an interesting and well-wrought popular science book on the same day as I got an email from a MOOC provider (you know I love my free online university courses) advertising a science writing course, you’ll have guessed that I signed up immediately.

I’m hoping to get some science-related writing published soon. If anyone would like to point out any opportunities or offer work along those lines, the usual methods of communication apply (@JYSaville on Twitter; jy at ostragoth dot co dot uk; or leave a comment here and mark it private so I don’t let it through moderation).

In the meantime you can read my review of Marcus Chown’s book The Ascent of Gravity here at The Bookbag.