The Day Without Yesterday

One of the nice things about being a Big Shot science blogger is that sometimes people are willing to send you free copies of their books. One such person is John Farrell, who graciously sent me a copy of his book The Day Without Yesterday: Lematire, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, published by Thunder’s Mouth Press. He sent me the book some time ago, and I owe him an apology for taking so long to review it.

This is a really excellent book. It is a combination of biography, focusing particularly on the often ignored Georges Lemaitre, and science popularization. The book traces the history of various theories of cosmology, most notably the Big Bang, from Einstein’s first thoughts about relativity, through more recent developments like the measurement of the cosmic microwave background information and the renewed interest in the cosmological constant

The challenges of writing a book like this are obvious. On the one hand, if you try to delve too deeply into the science you end up with a book that most people will find unreadable. On the other hand, if you avoid the science altogether you end up with little more than a gossipy book focusing excessively on personalities without being able to provide any context for why people believed the things they did. Farrell has done an excellent job of balancing the science on the one hand with the personalities on the other. If you want a quick but thorough overview of an important chapter in scientific history, this is the book I would recommend.

The book’s early chapters focus largely on Lemaitre, providing an account of his early life and his foundational work on the Big Bang theory in the late twenties and thirties. Farrell provides interesting accounts here of the disagreements between Einstein and the Dutch physicist de Sitter (often overshadowed by the more well-known disputes between Einstein and Bohr over quantum mechanics), and of the correspondence between Einstein and Lemaitre.

In later chapters we meet people like Fred Hoyle and George Gamow. I confess to grumbling a bit at the kind treatment Hoyle receives. Granted, he did some fine work in physics despite his adherence to the steady-state model of the universe. But for me he will always be the fellow who, late in life, wrote an awful little book called Mathematics of Evolution. I came across the book early in my evolutionary studies. When I noticed the title mentioned somewhere I recall thinking, “Gosh! A prominent physicist writing a book about mathematics and evolution? How could that be bad!” Charming naivete, I know. The book turned out to be an attack on the Neo-Darwinian view of evolution based on some very shaky population genetics arguments.

The book’s final chapter addresses issues between science and religion, and this is where I have a few criticisms of Farrell. As a proponent of the eternal warfare view of the relationship between science and religion, I find Farrell entirely too conciliatory. For example, he writes:

The debate or clash between religion and science has been going on since the middle of the nineteenth century, when Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested origins to the human race that were undeniably disturbing even to complacent Victorians used to digesting their weekly sermons with a cup of tea after the local vicar had done his duty for the Sabbath. One could – and journalists often do – set the debate as far back as the Galileo affair, but that tragic misunderstanding between Pope Urban VIII and Galileo, which provided fodder for dramatists with an axe to grind, such as Bertolt Brecht, was more the result of an avoidable clash of egos rather than an unavoidable conflict between the increasingly confident realm of natural science and the supposedly nervous domain of religion. The Jesuits, for example, were already teaching Copernican astronomy at the time Galileo began reporting his telescopic observations, and they were not happy when the fracas encouraged the Vatican to suppress the Polish cleric’s classic book De Revolutionibus Orboeum Caelstium. It’s no little irony that not only was Galileo unable to actually prove the earth revolved around the sun, but also that for purely personal reasons he dismissed Kepler’s historic breakthrough on the elliptical orbits of the planets when the latter wrote to him, thus forfeiting a superb chance for the Italian astronomer to defend himself with a sound mathematical system of planetary motion that agreed with astronomical obervations. Newton would later derive Kepler’s three laws of motion from his own law of universal gravitation. Galileo would spend the rest of his life under ignominious house arrest for nothing. (Emphasis in Original). P. 200-201.

It is unclear to me how any of this mitigates the crime perpetrated by the Church against Galileo. The conflict between Pope Urban VIII and Galileo was not based on a misunderstanding. Quite the contrary, the Pope understood the situation very well indeed. He understood that if people were permitted to contradict the pronouncements of the Church based on their investigation of nature then the Church’s authority would be compromised. This realization had nothing to do with Galileo’s ego or his inability to recognize the worth of Kepler’s ideas. The fact remains the Church forced him to recant his beliefs for no reason other than their conflict with Church teaching, and subsequently held him under house arrest. That Galileo might have avoided this fate by not being so outspoken in his beliefs hardly reflects well on the Church.

And then there is this:

In any case, by the time Lemaitre had come to the fore with his expanding model of the universe, the opposition between science and religion had become fodder for journalists. And it’s interesting, for this reason, to go back to the early interviews with Lemaitre when he returned to California in 1933 and how he responded to the already typical question – just how did a priest-physicist reconcile his faith with his science?

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or as ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors of historic or scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if errors relate to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them.

The idea that because they were right in their doctirne of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.

You can already detect a note of impatience with Lemaitre’s answer, as in, Why should this be a question? But it was. (Emphasis in original). P. 203

And I detect a touch of sympathy for Lemaitre’s answer. To which I reply that Lemaitre, a devout Catholic throughout his life and member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, has hardly bathed himself in glory for these rather insipid remarks. The whole question is whether the Bible is reliable with regard to its rather extraordinary claims about salvation and eternity. One way you might go about checking its reliability is by determining if it is accurate on matters that can be verified. If you find, for example, that the story of the Earth’s creation provided right at the start of the book is wrong at almost every point, that provides reason for doubting that they were, in fact, illuminated about much of anything. If you go on to find further errors and internal contradictions on mundane points, these are reasons for being skeptical of the Bible’s claims on more extraordinary points.

But these disagreements don’t take away from the overall quality of the book. Indeed, someone more conciliatory towards religion than I am may even like this chapter. Regardless, I think you would be hard pressed to find a more concise and readable exposition of the development of twentieth-century cosmology. Well worth reading.


  1. #1 John Wilkins
    April 5, 2007

    I think you completely misinterpret the Galileo event (in the usual mythological manner). But I am not at my sources right now so I can’t back that up. Enough to say that Galileo was not attacked for disputing the Church on science, but on how to interpret the Bible. Had he left the texts from Joshua to be reinterpreted by theologians, there would likely have not been an investigation and censure.

    This is not my own idiosyncratic view, but the view of historians on the topic (one of whom I TA’d for).

  2. #2 windy
    April 6, 2007

    Enough to say that Galileo was not attacked for disputing the Church on science, but on how to interpret the Bible.

    This may be one way to put it, but let’s not replace the popular myth of the Church persecuting Galileo with a myth of Galileo persecuting the Church. 😉

    Assuming for the sake of the argument that the Church suppressed Revolutionibus over nothing else besides Galileo’s abrasive personality, that still sounds pretty anti-science to me. What if someone wanted to suppress the Origin of species today because Dawkins has an abrasive personality?

    And Farrell’s account is rather simplified in that the Church’s original suppression of Copernicus and first admonishment to Galileo occurred already in 1616, when Urban VIII was not yet pope, while the more serious clash with the church resulting in his heresy trial and house arrest was in 1633. The latter clash therefore couldn’t be the reason to suppress Copernicus and it is debatable whether the first clash was.

    IIRC Galileo’s interpretations of the Bible were more of an issue during the first incident, in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina? Since the Medicis were Galileo’s employers and Christina had already expressed concern over anti-Biblical scientific theories, it is rather understandable that Galileo would try to interpret the Bible to alleviate her fears.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 6, 2007


    I fail to see how anything you wrote in your comment contradicts anything I said. I didn’t say Galileo was attacked for disputing the Church on science. Rather, I said this:

    The conflict between Pope Urban VIII and Galileo was not based on a misunderstanding. Quite the contrary, the Pope understood the situation very well indeed. He understood that if people were permitted to contradict the pronouncements of the Church based on their investigation of nature then the Church’s authority would be compromised.

    Even if you’re right that the Church was angered only by Galileo’s interpretation of scripture and not by his scientific ideas, the fact remains they condemned him because his investigations of nature led him to contradict official Church teaching.

    On top of that, your comment ignores some fairly simple points. The sentence handed down by the Church against Galileo had three parts: He had to specifically recant the heliocentric model of the universe, he was placed under house arrest, and his book defending the heliocentric model was banned. I don’t see how you can look at that sentence and say that it was only his interpretations of scripture to which the Church objected.

    The fact is the distinction you are trying to draw between Galileo being attacked for his scientific views on the one hand versus being attacked for reintepreting Scripture on the other is entirely too facile. It was the Church’s position that Scripture plainly taught that the Earth was immobile. It is impossible to hold the heliocentric view without contradicting that position. That is, if you held the heliocentric position then you were at odds with Church teaching. The Church was taking on a scientific question. You can’t distinguish the Church’s theology from its scientific opinions in this case.

    I am aware that many historians try to mitigate the evil perpetrated by the Church in this case by placing some of the blame on Galileo, or by trying to portray the Church as slightly less beknighted then a plain reading of the facts suggests. I merely dispute that they have been successful in this attempt. I have seen nothing from you or from anyone else that changes the basic fact that Galileo contradicted the Church on certain points and was forced to suffer a draconian punishment for doing so. I can’t for the life of me see how you get around that. Nor do I see why you even want to try.

  4. #4 Scholar
    April 10, 2007

    Jason, you never fail to impress me. That is a compliment, from a fellow tooth fairy agnostic.

  5. #5 Michael
    April 3, 2008

    I know this comment is late more than a year after your post but I just did a post on Galileo’s trial and wanted to see what some ScienceBloggers have said about his trial in the past, since I enjoy the blogs from ScienceBlogs.

    I disagree with the interpretation of the trial portrayed in this post, the conflict was just as much about what constitutes science as it was about theology. At the time, Copernicanism was still NOT accepted by an overwhelming majority of natural philosophers. For instance, Clavius, one of the most respected “astronomers” of the time was a devoted Aristotelian and geocentric. This part of the conflict should not be ignored. I have some more points here if you’re interested.

    The crime was using the usual church tactics to suppress other viewpoints, but this is no different to any other suppression of contrary viewpoints in the church’s history.

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