March 28, 1980
Reaching back 400 years before Copernicus, Thomas Goldstein explores the beginnings of modern science in the mystic arts of alchemy and astrology and the incipient rational inquiry of the Middle Ages. He highlights the historic conflict overshadowing the birth of modern science, between the sensual perception of nature and the traditional ban on natural studies imposed by Saint Augustine after the fall of Rome.
Showing how each culture has colored science with its own characteristic hues, the author brings to life such similar figures as the Ionian exile Pythagoras, who developed the mathematical vocabulary by which we apprehend the intrinsic order of nature; al-Khwarizmi, court mathematician in the ninth century who developed the Arabic numerals; the masters of the School of Chartres — Thierry and Willkiam of Conches — who in the twelfth century formulated the basic philosophical premises for modern Western science; Roger Bacon, the Franciscan teacher and thinker and alchemy’s most brilliant exponent, who foresaw the machine age with stunning, prophetic vision; Dominican Albertus Magnus, whose thirteenth-century studies of plant and animal life – made during long travels barefoot across Northern Europe – laid the foundations of major empirical sciences; Paolo Toscanelli, astronomer and geographer of the Florentine Renaissance theories Christopher Columbus put to the test; Leonardo da Vinci, dual genius of science and art, who personifies the essence of Renaissance culture, its fascination with life itself.
Under this long-range view an unexpected unity emerges between the Medieval and Renaissance experience of science and the modern experience: across the differences of culture and across the centuries, Thomas Goldstein reveals the same human mind struggling to grasp nature’s laws and enjoying nature’s dual challenge to the intellect and the senses. Yet Goldstein also makes clear how the early modern world turned its eyes from the limitless orbits of the divine universe to a cautiously limited, specific reality verifiable by mathematical proof.
As members of the first civilization to be centered on science, readers today may gain a new understanding of the phenomenon that has become both a major liberating force and a monstrous threat for our world – a phenomenon originally conceived by people for their enjoyment but endowed with an inflated intellectual prestige during crucial historic conflicts.
Thomas Goldstein is an authority on Medieval history with special expertise in the Italian Renaissance and its connection to the Age of Discoveries. The author of numerous scholarly articles and the translator of several books from the German, Dr. Goldstein lives in New York and teaches at the City College of New York.