Thomas Mann in Laos

Last year in Laos, I remembered a passage from The death in Venice that I could not really understand when I was a teenager.

Back then, I did not enjoy the book. Its long sentences sounded unnecessary complex; the fears and doubts of an ageing man were too far from my sensibility. Now I see how the complexity of the prose mirrors the complexity of the inner life of the protagonist, and passages like the following make much more sense:

“Lively, clear-outlined, intellectually undemanding presentation is the delight of the great mass of the middle-class public, but passionate radical youth is interested only in problems.”

[T. Mann, The Death in Venice, 1911. English translation by David Luke, 1988]

This sentence came back to my mind after visiting Luang Prabang, the delightful, and Phonsavan, the problematic.

Luang Prabang is Laos’ ancient capital. It enjoys a unique location, on a hill facing the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The jungle that surrounds the city is still very present in the center, where nowadays a most perfect marriage of nature and urban architecture is achieved: tall, thick trees caress the many buddhist temples and the wooden colonial villas. And speaking of colonization, French influence is most evident in food: you can have excellent croissants for breakfast, or enjoy the typical sticky rice in those kind of restaurants you can afford once per year back home, and everyday here. The bar Utopia, faithful to his name, condenses the western concept of Heaven on Earth, and spices it up with cocktails and flirting backpackers. You can also stop at the night market or book a tour to remote villages or the breathtaking Kuang Si Falls. 





The Kuang Si Falls

All this you can do in the 1km stroll between the two ends of the main street, and on the neighbouring roads. The few who dare to exit from this tourist ghetto will find a town more chaotic, dirtier, equally dominated by nature, and which surprisingly also hosts some Laotians (whom you cannot see, for instance, in the pictures on the Utopia website).


Phonsavan has instead been described as a “charmless town” (Guide du Routard), “pervaded by a feeling of incompleteness” (Lonely Planet), “like the set of a Spaghetti Western directed by David Linch” (Wikitravel). To me, it looks like a gigantic gas station. It has been established only recently, in substitution of the neighbouring town destroyed during the bombing of eastern Laos. They chose to build it where road 1D from central Laos meets road 7 to Luang Prabang. Most buildings in fact face those streets, and they are modern – in the ugliest sense of the term – and covered with the dust lifted by running cars. Behind them, fields and huts, but also governmental offices, shops selling building materials – everything needs to be rebuilt here – and mechanics working on old soviet cars, those donated by URSS when Laos was just a pawn in the cold war chessboard.



Old Russian tank

If Luang Prabang satisfies your senses, Phonsavan and its problems pose questions stimulating them. How does a government that cannot afford to be generous with his citizens give a future to a region that did not yet recover from a war that ended 50 years ago? How to cope with the never-ending problem of cluster bombs that did not explode, and that today blow up farmers hoeing the ground and kids playing? How can one be positive about the future if even the local Buddha statue had his usual smile defaced into a sad sneer by a bomb?


Despite all this, Phonsavan is growing. The ambition of the government scattered official buildings quite far away from the main streets 1D and 7, hoping that one day the empty space will be filled by a developed town. Small neighbourhoods with villas popped up here and there. MAG is clearing of mines larger and larger areas. The Lone Buffalo foundation teaches English and tries to recompose a split up community through soccer. And the neighbouring Plain of Jars with its mysterious civilization may bring to the area the attention it needs for further development. But neighbouring countries deny having stolen archaeological finds, whose return could ignite a deeper investigation of the area – for which, by the way, no money seems to be available at the moment. So the problem is nowhere close to be solved.

In Phonsavan, I met an Israeli couple that came back to Laos 20 years after their first trip. Back then, travelling in the country was a serious hazard, because of the attacks by rebels. They visited Luang Prabang when it was a troubled city, much as Phonsavan is today. “I am not completely happy how the problem was solved there”, the man told me.

H.P. Lovecraft and a manifesto for daydreamers

Most readers and publishers consider horror stories as part of popular fiction, together with romantic novels, science fictions, and all possible shades of grey. Yet there are some authors of horror novels that received a wider acclaim. One is Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories are much more than just horror tales: in some of them it his hard to tell what happens inside the characters’ mind from what takes place outside, while others can be considered the start for detective fiction in general and Sherlock Holmes saga in particular. A second one is Stephen King, whose books inspired many Hollywood directors to make good, great, or just average movies.

The third most famous writer of horror fiction is probably Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I cannot tell any of his stories that was turned into a brillant movie. On the other hand, the atmosphere from his works has been an incredible source of inspiration for novelists, directors, and even game developers. This is because the imaginary worlds he created are more uniform, hence more easily recognizable, than those by Poe or King: little shady towns hidden in the woods of New England; forbidden books whose readers are driven mad; heinous gods…

“…of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”

[H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulu, 1928]

On the other hand, it is hard to find any relevance in Lovecraft – and any interest in his work – other than the “atmosphere” mentioned above. So readers that are not fascinated by horror fiction tend to simply skip him.

His 1929 short story The Silver Key is somehow an exception. On top of being a classical Lovecraftian tale – with mysterious events happening in a baroque style – it is a manifesto for his whole life of daydreamer. The main character of the story is Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s alter ego who appears in several other stories. In which we find out that Carter has a number of supernatural experiences, many of them connected to his ability to travel in his dreams to a fictitious world. But something changes in The Silver Key:

“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt those liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. “

Something must have happened for him to lose his ability to dream of enchanted worlds. We find out what in the next paragraphs.

“He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away. […] Wise men told him his simple fancies were inane and childish. […] They had chained him down to things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world.”

People around him despise his ability, and force him to connect himself and give importance to real life.

“So Carter had tried to do as others did, and pretended that the common events and emotions of earthy minds were more important than the fantasies of rare and delicate souls. He did not dissent when they told him that the animal pain of a stuck pig or dyspeptic ploughman in real life is a greater thing than the peerless beauty of Narath with its hundred carven gates and domes of chalcedony, which he dimly remembered from his dreams; and under their guidance he cultivated a painstaking sense of pity and tragedy.”

But you cannot be forced to love something you despise, hence Carter quickly loses interest in real life.

“Amidst this chaos of hollowness and unrest Carter tried to live as befitted a man of keen thought and good heritage. […] He walked impassive through the cities of men, and sighed because no vista seemed fully real; […]. Travel was only a mockery; and even the Great War stirred him but little, though he served from the first in the Foreign Legion of France. […] Having perceived at last the hollowness and futility of real things, Carter spent his days in retirement, and in wistful disjointed memories of his dream-filled youth.”

After a series of Lovecraftish events (including: dreaming of long time dead ancestors, night walks in scary woods, and the mysterious Silver Key from the title), Carter disappears, probably having left to the dream world “wise people” wanted to bring him away from.

“Carter’s relatives talk much of these things because he has lately disappeared. […] There is talk of apportioning Randolph Carter’s estate among his heirs, but I shall stand firmly against this course because I do not believe he is dead. […]  It is rumoured in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai, that a new king reigns on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad, that fabulous town of turrets atop the hollow cliffs of glass overlooking the twilight sea wherein the bearded and finny Gnorri build their singular labyrinths.”

As said above, the whole story can be seen as a manifesto for the life Lovecraft chose for himself. A life that he spent almost entirely in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was seldom seen outside his house and died in poverty, having never really found a real job. Nothing was more important to him that his fantasies, and the stories he could get from those. Sufferings and hopes of average people do not interest him: those that matter are only “rare and delicate souls“. Bored by real life and confused by hard sciences, he claims the right of dedicating his whole life to daydreaming.

“There are twists of time and space, of vision and reality, which only a dreamer can divine; and from what I know of Carter I think he has merely found a way to traverse these mazes. “

Everybody who is strongly passionate about his job – let it be literature, science, or anything else – has to fight with the same demon Carter finally succumbed to. But Lovecraft’s manifesto concerns a much wider public: it applies to anyone who gives up a reality he/she despises or simply cannot understand. Lovecraft’s answer to this feeling may be dangerous; it is for sure dangerous for our society. But his merit lies in having been able to put all this into words, reaching out far more people than any of his other works.


Enno Flaiano: Nel 1968 / In 1968

[English translation below]


Nel 1968

I porti invecchiano
Venezia è sempre da salvare
L’Inps assediata
Gli statali in sciopero
L’edilizia in crisi
Gli ortofrutticoli danneggiati dal Mec
Il turismo regredisce
Le acque sono inquinate
I treni ritardano
La circolazione in crisi
Lo sciopero dei benzinai
Gli studenti preparano la protesta
Rivolta nelle carceri
La riforma burocratica ferma
Napoli paralizzata
Sciopero dei netturbini
La crisi del latte
La pornografia è in crisi
Il divorzio è in crisi
Crisi dell’istituto familiare
I giovani svedesi non si sposano più
La torre di Pisa ancora in pericolo
Il porto di Genova paralizzato
I telefoni non funzionano
Posta che non viene distribuita
La crisi dei partiti
La crisi delle correnti dei partiti
Lo Stato arteriosclerotico
Il Mezzogiorno in crisi
Le regioni in crisi
Il Comune di Roma aumenta il disavanzo
Ferma la metropolitana a Roma
Duello di artiglieri a Suez
I colloqui di Parigi stagnano
Nel Vietnam si attende l’attacco
I cinesi preparano una sorpresa?
I negri preparano la rivolta?
Gli arabi preparano la guerra?
I russi nel Mediterraneo
De Gaulle in pericolo
La sinistra in crisi
La destra in crisi
Il centro-sinistra in crisi
Fine del parlamentarismo?
Il freddo ritorna.

(Ennio Flaiano, Diario degli errori, 1976)

In 1968

Seaports grow old
Venezia still needs to be saved
The national pension system is besieged
The State employees on strike
Building industry in crisis
Farmers suffer because of the EU market
Tourism regresses
Water is polluted
Trains are late
Traffic in crisis
Station attendants are on strike
Students prepare a demonstration
Rebellions in the jails
The bureaucratic reform has stopped
Naples paralyzed
Dustmen are on strike
The crisis of milk
Pornography in crisis
Divorce in crisis
Crisis of the family
Swedish youngs don’t get married anymore
The leaning tower of Pisa still in danger
The seaport of Genoa paralyzed
Telephones won’t work
Mail is not distributed
The crisis of political parties
The crisis of trends within political parties
The arteriosclerotic state
South of Italy in crisis
Departments in crisis
The deficit of the municipality of Rome increases
The subway in Rome has stopped
Duels between gunners in Suez
Negotiations in Paris are at a standstill
In the Vietnam people are waiting for the attack
Chinese people are planning a surprise?
Black people are planning a rebellion?
Arabs are planning to start the war?
Russians in the Mediterranean sea
De Gaulle in danger
Left parties in crisis
Right parties in crisis
Center-left parties in crisis
End of the parliamentarism?
The cold comes back

(Ennio Flaiano, Diario degli errori (Journal of mistakes), 1976)

A game about Wikipedia (and, by the way, not every artist praises compulsive file sharing)

You don’t have to be a corporate manager of a music firm, or a big shot in a Hollywood blockbuster company to be against limitless file sharing. Indeed, you could be a technologist, a pioneer of many cutting edge technologies including virtual reality, or a musician. Jaron Lanier is all of them, and his book You are not a gadget is a provocative manifesto against many of the clichés of Web 2.0: that the “wisdom of crowd” (i.e. the belief that the collective opinion of many informed people is more effective that those of a small number of experts) could produce really innovative ideas, that limitless file sharing will help the evolution of art and science and at the same time allow artists and scientists to make a living out of their work, and many more.

But that’s not what I’m talking about in this post — this book has so many facets (some of them leading to questionable opinions, especially on modern music) that it would take a long post to make a decent summary of it, let alone to comment it properly. So, I recommend you to read the book (more about it here) in order to hear an interesting voice whatever your opinion on Web 2.0 is. Instead, I write here about something (lighter) that I learned from Lanier’s work. It’s a game about (against?) Wikipedia.

Let me start by saying: I love Wikipedia. It is my first source on anything I don’t know at all and want to get an idea about – even though, when I want to go deeper, I search somewhere else in the web or in books. I’m glad it’s there, and I wish it a long life.

But the kind of information Wikipedia is specialized in is what modernists named pop culture, and traditionalists would not call culture at all. According to Wikipedia itself, pop culture is

the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are preferred by an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century. Heavily influenced by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of the society.

So Wikipedia delves deep into the temper of Lost characters, devoting 3577 words to the post about life and destiny of Kate Austen, and not quite as much into Dostoyevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov, who deserves 1/10 of the words1 (Lanier criticizes Wikipedia for more important aspects, but again see the book for that2). It was not me who noticed this at first, and not even Lanier, and probably not even a San Francisco guy named Jon Hendren, who nevertheless popularized a game based on that: Wiki-groaning, which even earned a paragraph on Wall Street Journal.

The game is as follows: pick two Wikipedia entries that have similar names (perfect matches are rare, but striking: try John Locke), but clearly different importance, one from a “classical” subject (literature, science, history, etc.), the other being a pop culture fetish. Compare the number of words and the quality of the posts. Then giggle, think some standard thoughts on the decay of modern culture3, share this all with your friends, and get back to do something more useful.

Here’s an appetizer of what you would find4:

Amygdala (section of the brain of primary importance for emotions and memory): 2150 words.
Padmé Amidala (Star Wars character): 5282 words.

Quantum (physical concept): 622 words.
Quantum of Solace (James Bond movie): 7922 words.

Anderson (car from the early 1900s, considered the most successful product in south US car industry): 326 words, 1 picture.
Thomas A. Anderson (fictional character from The Matrix series, better known by his alias Neo): 3727 words, 1 picture.
Pamela Anderson (actress, former playmate): 3848 words, 6 pictures.

Prime Number (mathematical object): 7841 words.
Optimus Prime (Transformer character): 26546 words.

Leon Cooper (physicist, Nobel laureate): 450 words.
Mini Cooper (posh car): 9371 words.

and my favourite one:

Donatello (Italian Renaissance painter): 1614 words.
Donatello (teenage mutant ninja turtle): 2809 words.

Have fun!


1. Even though Jane Austen wins over Kate by roughly 2000 words.
2. Here is something else about Wikipedia Lanier points out in the book: the hitchhiker’s guide of Douglas Adams’s celebrated series is an encyclopedia on everything that can be useful to know when travelling around the universe. It can be instantaneously updated by anyone who has a copy by just typing on a keyboard. Basically, Douglas Adams predicted Wikipedia.
3. Let me remark that pop culture in general is not evil. Many amazing things came out of that. Just to mention one: several great short stories by David Foster Wallace have their roots deep into pop culture, see e.g. the collection The girl with curious hair. What one criticizes here is the exaggerate shift towards pop culture.
4. If you happen to know the pop culture fetishes mentioned here, but not their “classical counterparts”, then this is a clear symptom of the fact that the kind of culture most media propose us is, in fact, very pop.
(This was my contribution to the “standard thoughts on the decay of modern culture” mentioned above).

Japan for beginners

edited on Feb 10th, 2012.

[This is the first of a series of three posts on Japan. A second one about Kyoto and Takayama can be found here. A third one on Tokyo is here.]

As I will be travelling around Japan for 11 days starting from tomorrow (I’ll try to post from Japan in this blog, stay tuned), in the last month and half I felt like I needed to know more about this country. Being born in Italy in the early ’80s, I grew up knowing everything about US (sub)culture, while my understanding of Japan was limited to this and this. Hence I browsed through the net looking for something to look at and read. Here come the highlights of my search.

I read a collection of essays by Yukio Mishima, a deeply nationalist and conservative novelist. He committed a ritual suicide in 1970 after his coup attempt failed – his purpose was to fight against modernization of Japan and what he claimed to be its humiliating situation after World War II. Reading them was a good way to get to know Japan classical values, and the most prominent effects american cultural influence had on them. I can suggest especially Spiritual lectures for a young samurai (I translated the title from the Italian, hence the official English one may be different).

I wanted to read something by Haruki Murakami, who is rocking modern Japanese literature. By mistake, I borrowed from the library In the miso sup, a pulp, post-modern novel by Ryu Murakami about the encounter of a young Japanese with an american serial killer who also turns out to be a psychic (this is a spoiler, but you’re not going to read it, are you ?). The background is the Tokyo sex industry, where people bring together their loneliness and alienation. Mishima’s hate for modern lifestyle and its consequences on Japanese society echos everywhere in this novel. I’m not too much into this kind of books, but it was an easy read so I devoured it and, all in all, it was ok.

I flickered through other books, most notably The road to Sata, the account of a 3,500 km long tour of rural Japan the late Englishman Alan Booth did (by feet) some 35 years ago. It describes a Japan that I won’t visit and may not exist anymore; still, it provides a nice glimpse at the lifestyle of Japaneses, as well as at their attitude towards foreigners. Witty descriptions and observations are often coupled with surreal dialogues, like the following between the author and the host of a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn:

– Are there any free rooms ?
– Well, yes, there are, but we haven’t got any beds. We sleep on mattresses on the floor.
– Yes, I know. I’ve lived in Japan for seven years.
– And you won’t be able to eat the food.
– Why, what’s the matter with it ?
– It’s fish.
– I like fish.
– But it’s raw fish.
– Look, I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. My wife is Japanese. I like raw fish.
– But I don’t think we have any knives and forks.
– Look…
– And you can’t use chopsticks.
– Of course I can. I’ve lived in Japan for…
– But it’s a tatami-mat room and there aren’t any armchairs.
– Look…
– And there is no shower in the bathroom, it’s a o-furo.
– I use chopsticks at home. I sit on tatami. I eat raw fish. I use an o-furo. I’ve lived in Japan for seven years. That’s nearly a quarter of my life. My wife…
– Yes, but we can’t speak English.
– I don’t suppose that will bother us. We’ve been speaking Japanese for the last five minutes.

It seems that Japanese modern movies are either action-packed, manga style films, or quite sophisticated ones. From the second category I watched Maborosi, the story of a young bride dealing with a sudden loss. It has some poetry: the photography and the direction are extremely accurate, especially in the exterior shots. Also, the characters are charming and intense. But sometimes it gets too slow. A funny documentary about Japan and Tokyo are those shot by OLN [edit: I found out this documentary is part of the Globe trekker series, produced by Pilot Productions and broadcasted, among others, by OLN], that follows the discovery of Japanese culture by a British journalist.

Also, it seems the gathering a decent amount of practical information before landing into Japan is very important, as few people speak English there, especially out of big cities. The tourist guides Eyewitness travel and Lonely Planet (and the website listed therein) are very good sources of travelling tips, also providing a brief introduction to Japanese culture and habits.

[Edit: Another book I liked is Tokyo Underworld by Robert Whiting. It is an account of the development of Western mafia in Japan: it arrived right after World War II and had a key role in boosting economic and industrial growth in the subsequent years. The leading character is Nick Zappetti, a former Italian-American marine, which came to Tokyo at the end of the war and went on to be a beer and checks smuggler, a wrestler, a jewel robber, a chef, the owner of the biggest chain of Pizzerias in Tokyo, a pig breeder, and much more – always with a close connection with Japanese and foreigners “that really count”. Entertaining and informative (the book, not Zappetti).]

On The Copernican Revolution by T.S. Kuhn

I have always found hard to imagine how concepts and ideas we are now accustomed to, once were not part of everyone’s life. Some of those thoughts appear to me so central and grounding, that I believe their fall would imply the collapse of most of our everyday credo, and a world were they are absent would need to be built with totally different bricks. Those thoughts are not always related to science, or not only to exact science at least. For one thing, you could think about the Earth being round — ok, this is pretty much exact science. But also, say, the importance of subconscious in everyday behaviour. The late-roman, early-christian sense of pietas and respect for the sufferings of people.

The book The Copernican Revolution by T. S. Kuhn is the story of how an idea – one that today we could not even fantasize to be true, but back in the Middle Ages could not even be fantasized to be false – crumbled, and in a slow domino effect brought together with it the whole concept of the universe in its broadest sense. This idea placed a motionless Earth in the center of a huge rotating Sphere, where all stars were set, and which also sealed the (hence finite) Universe. The Sun itself lied on this Sphere, but, alone among the stars, was moving of a circular motion on the Sphere itself.

This post is devoted to present Kuhn’s book. After this short introduction, in the next three sections I summarize his main arguments, with few comments of mine (underlined). The last section is devoted to some other comments of mine.  (This is a good point for a huge disclaimer. I did not have any formal education in history or philosophy of science, and I have neither the time nor the patience to read sources. So I have to accept that all those sources say exactly what Kuhn claims they say, except for the extracts that actually appear in the text, and that I can hence judge myself.)

The “central Earth” model mentioned above (with minor and less minor modifications) has old roots, dating back to Anaximander (6th century BC) and having its most representative spokesman in Ptolemy (2nd century AD) and his treatise Almagesto (more details on it come in the next section). During the centuries, those roots interwove with everyday physics (to be read: physics dealing with events we see every day, like rocks being thrown and objects hitting each other), with philosophy, moral, and religion. Those ideas nourished each other, condensing in a coherent, solid backbone, which lied behind educated people everyday actions, as well as reflected the meaning they gave to life and Universe. As we shall see, replacing the central Earth universe with a new one required dissembling this infrastructure, and this turned out to be a quite hard and slow process.

The fundamentals of Ptolemy’s model

Back to Ptolemy’s model. So, Earth is motionless and lies in the center of the Universe, while all stars are in a huge rotating Sphere, far away from the Earth, which is called Celestial Sphere. As for predicting the apparent movement of the stars, Ptolemy’s model works pretty well – it is used even nowadays for navigating without GPRS. Today we know that those stars are actually far away from each other. But since they are far away also from Earth, a rough measure (the one that was possible back then) of their behaviour seem to imply that they all rotate at the same speed. As for the Sun, it cannot be imagined as rotating together with other stars – it is too close to the Earth when compared to them. Hence Ptolemy, while still setting it on the Celestial Sphere, endowed it with an extra revolution movement, which again roughly approximates its real behavior.

One immediately notes that this simple and quite elegant model completely ignores the planets, the reason being that their behaviour, even from a qualitative point of view, is way less predictable and regular than the one of the stars. For instance, an observer lying on the Earth usually sees each planet going east, but sometimes one of them happens to go west for a short period, restarting its normal motion towards east shortly afterwords (this is called the apparent retrograde motion).

The motion of Mars in 2003 as seen from the Earth (image taken from Wikipedia).

The motion of Mars in 2003 as seen from the Earth (image taken from Wikipedia).

Hence, early astronomers were challenged with finding a model that could be used to predict the behaviour of the planets. The Celestial Sphere being widely accepted as truthful, most systems tried to settle this open issue by inserting the planets in orbits around the Earth somewhere between the Earth itself and the external Sphere.

They all deviated from the tradition as little as possible, and mostly designed for the planets trajectories obtained as the composition of circles. One example is the following: draw a circular orbit O1 around the Earth. Now fix a point P on this orbit, and draw another circular orbit O2 around P, and put your planet, say Mars, somewhere on O2. Now let P move around O1, O2 move together with P, and Mars orbit on O2. For suitable rotational speeds of O1 and O2, an observer from the Earth will see Mars mostly going in one direction, and from time to time proceeding backwards, hence experiencing the apparent retrograde motion (O1 is called deferent, while O2 is known as epycicle – see the picture below).

The motion of a planet lying on an epicycle, and its apparent motion as seen from the Earth

Hence such a model can, at least qualitatively, predict the behaviour of a planet. For obtaining accurate quantitative predictions, one needs to complicate things a little bit – adding orbits O3, O4, etc. centered on points of O2, O3, etc., and using other tricks. Ptolemy was not the first to introduce such observations, but was the first that embedded them in a coherent framework, which provided much more accurate predictions than any other system before.

This is essentially the general model of Universe in which educated people lived, up to the end of the Middle Ages. But now that they had the astronomical infrastructure, they needed to fill it with a cosmology, that is, with a system of physical and metaphysical laws that reflected everyday experiences and the moral credo, and that moreover was coherent with Ptolemy’s model. The most complete and coherent “system” they had at hand was the one by Aristotle (4th century BC), which lived way before Ptolemy, but shared with him the general idea of a Celestial Sphere universe. Aristotle’s work dealt with optics, motion, biology, medicine, as well as with politics and ethics. As for religion, Scholars from the middle ages strove to find a coherence between Aristotle and Ptolemy’s universe, and the Catholic Dogma, mostly coming from the Bible and the early Christian thinkers. As an example Kuhn reports the following passage by Thomas Aquinas (Summa totius Theologiae), that tries to justify the following quotation from the Bible (Genesis, I.6): “And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters”:

As, however, this theory can be shown false by solid reasons, it cannot be held to be the sense of Holy Scripture. It should rather be considered that Moses was speaking to ignorant people, and that out of condescension to their weakness he put before them only such things as are apparent to sense. Now even the most uneducated can perceive by their senses that earth and water are corporeal, whereas it is not evident to all that air also is corporeal. […] Moses, then, while he expressly mentions water and earth, makes no express mention of air by name, to avoid setting something beyond their knowledge.

With modifications and “reinterpretations” like the one above, a rather coherent and self-contained cosmology was achieved. I will not even try to give details on how this complex interplay of science, moral, religion, and everyday experience realized. Instead, I will sketch a simplifying example, which I hope makes the point: humans are God’s beloved creation, and Earth was created for humans. That is why Earth is in the center of the universe, and that is why it is round, for round is the most perfect of shapes, and God is perfect. For symmetric reasons, every object is attracted to the center, hence a stone that I drop will fall towards the ground, since it is attracted to the center of the Earth, which is at the same time the center of the universe. God lives in the heavens, which are above us, hence the skies are made of a divine material, which is incorruptible, while things on Earth get old and tear apart, for we are sons of God but also sinners. That is why you and I grow old and die, while the Sun will keep appearing at the same, predictable time, in the same place, with the same shape.

The long life of Ptolemy’s Universe and its slow death

The years of decadence that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire dissipated most European knowledge, including the one on the works by Ptolemy and Aristotle. Together with others, those were to be slowly rediscovered in the XXII centuries, and immediately became an essential reading for any scientist of the period (even though the concept of scientist is much more recent — a term that better suits the period is natural philosopher). After a while, scholars became unsatisfied with the accuracy of its predictions and some theoretical incongruences of the model, and proposed minor modifications here and there to present better systems, with a serious general improvement nor of the model, neither of its accuracy. For a long time, no serious scholar made a real attempt to questionize the fundamentals of this universe – the central Earth. Let us present the main reasons for this.

First, the authority that Aristotle and Ptolemy had among the scholars was incommensurable. Ipse dixit (“He himself said so”) was a common way to back up an opinion by claiming that Aristotle himself expressed that idea. Centuries of decadence in science made scholars think of greek wisdom as a limitless source of knowledge, and they hardly dare to question the very base of their arguments. For a second reason, let us consider again the example at the end of the previous section. The cosmology that lies behind it is kept together by a tense equilibrium. If you remove one piece, then all the building starts trembling and may fall down. If Earth is not the center of the universe, does it mean that humans are by no means special to God ? And moreover, why do stones keep falling towards the ground ? A model willing to replace the Ptolemaic was confronted with many questions like those. This was clearly unfair, for the same question were answered in the Ptolemaic model after centuries of discussions, tries and errors, experiments, while a brand new system was required to have them ready altogether. Also, the equilibrium reached between the Holy Scripture and the scientific status-quo risked to be dismantled by any substantial modification of the system, and any reformer would have had the fierce opposition of the Church.

So many scholars, even criticizing the work by Aristotle and Ptolemy, did not dare to take the big leap and remove the Earth from the center of the Universe. A peculiar case is that of Nicola D’Oresme, who basically state what today we know as Galilean relativity, hence showing that in principle one could not determine if the Earth was moving or the Sun, but did not turn this possibility into reality.

Even though he was one of the most prominent astronomers of his era, Copernicus himself waited several decades before having his manifesto The Revolunitionibus Orbium Caelestium printed in 1543. His model put a motionless Sun at the center of the universe, with all the planets, including the Earth, orbiting in circular orbits around it. He kept the other stars in a circular sphere, which again was far beyond all planets and sealed the Universe, but he now assumed the sphere to be fixed. His model also provides a number of other minor modification to the state-of-the-art system, but none as substantial as the ones just mentioned, hence I will not write more about it.

Copernicus’ model, as appeared in his treatise De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (taken from Wikipedia)

One may ask what made Copernicus finally take the hazardous decision of divulgating his theory: he firmly believed that his system, if compared to Ptolemy’s, was simpler and more elegant. Several observations on the behaviour of the planets which were justified in Ptolemaic model using ad-hoc hypotheses, followed in Copernicus’ from the very general structure of the system. For one thing, the apparent retrograde motion of planets can be justified qualitatively without the use of deferents and epicycles, as it comes with the model (though when one needs precise quantitative predictions, one has to add epicycles and use similar tricks, making Copernicus’ system basically as complicated as Ptolemy’s). There is another, more philosophical reason: Copernicus was highly influenced by the neoplatonic doctrine which saw in the Sun the source of life and energy, and almost identified it with God. Take for instance the following extract by Liber de Sole by Marsilio Ficino, a Neoplatonist from Florence:

Nothing reveals the nature of the Good more fully than the light [of the Sun]. First, light is the most brilliant and clearest of sensible objects. Second, […]. Fourth, the heat which accompanies it fosters and nourishes all things is the universal generator and mover […] The Sun can signify God himself to you, and who shall dare to say the Sun is false!

To our eyes, this text has nothing to do with science. Surprisingly, Copernicus’ also proposed philosophical justifications of a similar kind for supporting many assumptions in his work. For instance, here is the one for the centrality of the Sun:

In the middle of all sits Sun enthroned. In this most beautiful temple could we place this luminary in any better position from which he call illuminated the whole at once ? He is rightly called the Lamp, the Mind, the Ruler of the Universe; Hermes Trismegistus names him the Visible God, Sophocles’ Electra calls him the All-seeing. So the Sun sits as upon a royal throne ruling his children the planets which circle around him.

Hence, the neoplatonic philosophy allowed Copernicus to consider a universe whose center was the Sun, providing the necessary philosophical background for a new cosmology. Such motivations sound extremely awkward to our present sensibility. Nowadays people working in science, even those that study the fundamental laws of nature, do not usually aim at embedding their theories in a more general philosophical setting. There are multiple reasons for this. Let me mention two: research is very specialized, and people working in a specific area do not have the interest, let alone the competence, to define a metaphysical framework that backs up their theories or experimental results. Moreover, we are now much more humble regarding the goal of our studies. We do not aim at describing reality itself, but just a (possibly accurate) model of it. Centuries of research showed us that each theory, even the most succesful (eg Newton’s mechanics), is doomed to be replaced at some point by a more advanced one, which dealt with a wider class of phenomena, or with the same phenomena in a more accurate way. Hence, there is little reason for finding a philosophical explanation for a theory, when the one thing we know about it is that it is false!

Even though most astronomers appreciated Copernicus’ work, for all the prejudices mentioned above and because Copernicus’ predictions were not much more precise than Ptolemy’s, the central Sun hypothesis was either ignored or considered to be a pure technical one, i.e. an assumption made for mathematical convenience and not representing the real behaviour of the universe. Hence, for most people working in the field, the Earth remains where the Bible and Ptolemy placed it, ie at the center of the universe. Needless to say, outside the scientific world, people hardly get to know Copernicus’ model. In the long run, this was an advantage: being not so considered, Copernicus’ idea was sheltered from the troublesome attentions of censorship.

As a beginner of a revolution, Copernicus was hardly revolutionary at all. Trained as a Catholic priest, he did move the Earth from the center of the Universe, but kept unchanged almost everything else: the Universe was still finite, still was it sealed by the huge Celestial Sphere. In a really medieval fashion, he felt he needed philosophical arguments (the neoplatonic importance of the Sun) to back up his theory. As we already mentioned, his predictions were not much better than Ptolemy’s. Still many sea changes were required to transform his universe into Newton’s.

The first one was provided by Kepler, who aimed at computing more accurate predictions of the orbits of the planet. Starting from Copernicus’ model (hence with the Sun at the center of the Universe), after extensive measure and failed experiments, he ceased to try to describe the orbits via composition of circles. Instead, he set each planet on an ellipsis, with the Sun on one of the foci. Also, he managed to fit experimental data with elliptic orbits by assuming that the imaginary line that connects a planet to the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time. (I am stopping here, for an introduction to Kepler’s laws on planetary motion is not important to us: the interested reader may consult e.g. Wikipedia). This brought him to extremely accurate predictions of the behaviour of the planets, thus spreading in the astronomic community a renewed interest in the hypothesis of the central Sun. In fact, even if describing all Kepler’s observations with a central Earth system was in principle possible, this model would have needed to be too complicated to be considered a serious alternative. Kepler knew that Copernicus did not have the braveness or the intuition to have the revolution he started completed. Copernicus still assumed that the Earth played a major role among all planets, and endowed it with features that other planets did not have (for instance, in Copernicus’ systems all planes of orbits intersected in the center of Earth’s orbit). One of Kepler’s main achievement was to understand that the Earth was just another planet, hence he deprived it of any special role. But Kepler still had some traits which clearly distinguish him from our concept of a modern scientist: for instance, he still needed to back up his theory with some neoplatonic conception of the Sun. For him, the Sun is

a fountain of light, rich in fruitful heat, most fair, limpid, and pure to the sight, […], called king of the planets for his motion, heart of the world for his power, its eye for his beauty, and which alone we should judge worthy of the Most High God […] Who would hesitate to confer the votes of the celestial motions on him who already has been administrating all other movements and changes by the benefit of the light which is entirely in his possession ? […] By the highest right we return to the Sun, who alone appears, by virtue of his dignity and power, suited for this motive duty and worthy to become the home of God himself, not to say the first mover.

He imagined that, because of this, the Sun was emanating a force called anima motrix that attracted planets towards it. When digging into some other aspects of his work that were to be soon forgotten, this neoplatonic background is even more evident: for instance, he related the size of the orbits to the platonic solids, and hence to the number of those the number of planets.

Kepler’s Platonic solids model of the solar system (taken from Wikipedia)

Kepler’s work marked a clear point for the central Earth model, but it was thanks to the experimental evidence and the communicative verve of Galileo that the astronomic battle was finally won. Galileo’s most important contributions were obtained pointing the telescope towards the stars. Looking at the Sun and at the Moon, he unveiled their irregular surfaces, thus demolishing the idea that the heavens were immutable. Looking at Jupiter, he discovered his four satellites, hence showing that there existed celestial bodies that were not orbiting around the Earth. (There are a lot of nice sources on Galileo’s life and work. One may look at this or, for a less scientific though enjoyable point of view, at this)

Building up a new universe

After Kepler and Galileo’s work, there was no doubt that from an astronomical point of view the Copernicus’ system (or, better said, its evolved version due to Kepler) was clearly better than Ptolemy’s. Thus, the only arguments against the central Earth hypothesis could be non-astronomical. Most of them regarded the coherence of the Universe, posing question similar to the ones mentioned in the previous section. The physics and the moral that were appropriate for Ptolemy’s universe were clearly unsatisfactory for the new one, and no one had good substitutes for those. Little by little, these questions were to be answered coherently with the new system. Contributions to this started with Kepler and Galileo, proceeded with Descartes and Hooke, and have their main representative in Newton. I will just focus on the work of the latter, as his answers are the most definitive and relevant.

The great intuition of Newton (and Hooke, that had it roughly at the same time) was to understand that the physical law that kept the Earth around the Sun was of the same kind of the one that make objects on Earth fall towards its surface. One may be surprised by the fact that an idea that no one had for thousands of years, came to mind to two people in the same years. This can be easily explained. So far, scientists started from the assumption that the heavens were of some different matter from the Earth, thus they have to be subjected to different rules. But Kepler had shown that Earth was just another planet, while Galileo had observed that the Moon and the Sun were as irregular as the Earth. Hence, there was no reason anymore for assuming different physics laws for what was on Earth and what was not. Following his qualitative intuition, Newton was also able to provide a mathematical formula showing how this attraction realizes (again, go to Wikipedia for details…). He exploited it to give a theoretical explanation of Kepler’s orbit, thus embedding the astronomic system in the physical setting natural philosophers were longing for. The new concept of gravity he introduced required some time to be accepted by his contemporaries (which dislike an “attraction” between objects that could not be explained through purely mechanics arguments), but then turned out to be of extraordinary importance. Newton himself tried hard to find a purely mechanical explanation to this law, but in the end he convinced himself (and his fellows natural philosophers) that the gravity was an intrinsic property of the objects, and that it could not be explained otherwise. This is another fundamental brick he lied for the development of modern science: the fact that every scientific hypothesis or deduction must be justified within experimental science itself, and one needs not to appeal to some external justification. Hence, if no scientific reason for the existence of gravity can be found, one should not look for a metaphysical one. The following passage from his “Principia Mathematica” clearly illustrate this:

I explained so far the phenomena happening in the sky and in the sea via gravity, but I never explained the cause of gravity. For this force arises uniquely from some cause, that penetrates till the center of the Sun and of planets […] His action extends everywhere till endless distances […] Actually, I was not able to deduce the grounds of those properties from phenomena yet, and I feign no hypothesis (“Hypothesis non fingo”). Any assumption that cannot be deduced from phenomena is to be called “hypothesis”; and in experimental philosophy there is no place for hypothesis, whether metaphysical, or physical, or on occult features, or mechanic. In this philosophy propositions must be deduced from phenomena, and made general by induction. […] It is sufficient that gravity exists de facto, and behaves according to the rules we exposed, and explained the movements of celestial bodies and of our sea.

Newton’s contribution brought the new universe to a higher level of self-coherence and conformity with natural phenomena than Ptolemy’s had ever been. Not only his results, but his very approach was an example for all scientists to come, who were to discover other fundamental laws that provided explanation for more and more events (this is a super-interesting topic, but definitively out of the scope of this post). Even the relativistic and quantum mechanics, that were to replace Newton’s in the XXth century, can be seen as a product of the more modern concept of science that Copernicus’ universe produced.

Some considerations

Kuhn wrote The Copernican Revolution starting from some material he produced for a course on history of Science at Harvard. Those lectures were intended for students in humanities with a general interest in science. This is clearly reflected by the style of the book: no assumption on the reader’s previous knowledge is made, every new concept is defined and explained, often with examples. Kuhn gently guides you through the technical parts of Copernicus and Ptolemy’s work (though he does not provide full details), and confines some more difficult parts to a technical appendix. Hence the book is really enjoyable whatever is your background. His elegant prose is coupled with a very scientific approach to the matter: his reasoning never lacks in coherence or asks the reader for a leap of faith. Not only it provides you with brilliant ideas and concepts, but the way you are introduced to those is very stimulating: if you dedicate to this book the time it deserves, you’ll be rewarded with tons of nice intuitions and a modified attitude towards science, whether you previously were into it or not. I would say that this book is even more enjoyable if you’re not into science, hence you’re not used to look at it as an integrating part of your life and society.

This book can be also interpreted as a prequel to Kuhn’s manifesto The structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he exposes his general theory on how science evolves (about which I will write some other time). In the short summary I gave of The Copernican Revolution, I did not mention the general observations Kuhn makes starting from the “case study” given by the Copernican Revolution. Though they are many, witty, and point the reader’s attention towards Change in Science, in particular how difficult thinking out of the box is. Even scientist that produced a new idea, often were too much soaked in the status quo to realize what the furthest consequences of their innovation could have been. I believe this is a lesson of incommensurable value for everyone working (not only) in science.