Saturday, 6 October 2012

Pseudodoxia Epidemica

This book, first published in 1646, was a large catalogue of widely held erroneous beliefs as collected by the author, Thomas Browne. Its 363 pages of tense text is a fascinating window onto old popular delusions. (Easily navigable html version here, nice looking pdf version here)

Some of the beliefs he knocks down are just silly, with our benefit of a great deal of hindsight. "Elephants have no joints", and "Storks only live in republics and free states" are two of the more peculiar. It also includes some things that I was taught as a child (That the mandrake resembles a human) and even one thing that I thought up until today (that the forbidden fruit in the story of Adam and Eve was an apple).

Perhaps most interestingly, it talks about the position and motion of the sun relative to the Earth: A scientific controversy which was very much undecided in his day. Unfortunately, he talks at length about how the oblique angle that sun moves around the Earth as being proof of God, since too flat an angle or too steep would not have as great advantages as we see now, so this angle must've been chosen.

With regards to the recent scientific findings of the day, he writes:

"Now whether we adhere unto the hypothesis of Copernicus, affirming the Earth to move, and the Sun to stand still; or whether we hold, as some of late have concluded from the spots in the Sun, which appear and disappear again; that besides the revolution it makes with its Orbs, it hath also a dinetical motion, and rowls upon its own Poles, whether I say we affirm these or no, the illations before mentioned are not thereby infringed."

In other words, it doesn't matter if Copernicus is right or wrong, or if the sun rotates on its own axis or not. It's still evidence of a benign creator. It's a pity he didn't go into the debate in more detail to see what he really thought, but just because someone can see mankind's follies in the past, doesn't necessarily mean they can see the follies of the present, much less the future.

However, according to Wikipedia, Thomas Browne did have quite an impact on the future, since his works feature the first usage of the words Electricity, Medical, Pathology, Hallucination, Literary and Computer (meaning a person who can do arithmetic, not the electrical apparatus).

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