Archimedes and the moon

Archimedes and the moon

Frank R. Zindler

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was moved on more than one occasion to declare that had it not been for the baleful influence of Christianity, Christopher Columbus would have landed on the moon rather than on a Caribbean island. Many of those hearing her thought she was exaggerating, and many thought she was just plain wrong. It turns out that she was indeed wrong–but not in the way her discreditors might have supposed.

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Indirect but amazing light was shed on this brash assertion recently by a PBS NOVA program entitled “Infinite Secrets: The Archimedes Palimpsest.” The program dealt with the decipherment of a long-lost manuscript of Archimedes entitled “On the Method of Mechanical Theorems.” As I had suspected when I heard the first reports of this manuscript back in 1998, Archimedes had discovered the integral calculus–before the year 212 BCE!

Archimedes lived in Syracuse, a Greek colony on the island of Sicily. He was killed during the Roman invasion of the city in 212 BCE, but it is clear that a copy of the calculus book that he had written survived his death. From Syracuse, either his original manuscript or a copy must have made its way to Alexandria–arguably greater than Athens as the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean world. From Alexandria, a copy went to Constantinople (now Istanbul, in Turkey), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. According to NOVA, around the year 1000 CE someone in Constantinople made a copy of the treatise on parchment. Approximately two centuries later, as Christianity consolidated its ignorance and cast shadows of superstition throughout its realm, a Christian monk scraped the greatest discovery of the ancient world off its parchment preserve and it became dust on a monastery floor. What one day would become a lunar flight plan was replaced by something that even in the year 1200 could be seen as simple lunacy. The erased and sanctified parchment was made over into a prayer book!

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Almost miraculously, the Greek Orthodox prayer book survived the assault of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when Roman Catholic Christians sacked Constantinople and burned as many of its books as they could find. Until quite modern times, the mathematical and scientific wisdom of ancient Greece lay suffocating in the smoke of incense and monkish mephitis, enveloped and veiled by the vapors of vigils, vespers, venerations, and vaticinations. For nearly a millennium, no one in the world knew what Archimedes had known.

In 1906 the Danish philologist Johan Ludvig Heiberg discovered the palimpsest in a monastery in Istanbul and correctly identified the prayer-enshrouded text as the lost Method of Archimedes. Alas, the book disappeared before scientific studies of the manuscript could be conducted. It was not until 1998, after an incredible chain of events had transpired, that the book was bought by an anonymous billionaire and loaned to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, where it is being restored, deciphered, and studied.

As I watched the story of the manuscript unfold upon my television screen, I thought of Madalyn’s j’accuse and how Archimedes’ discovery might relate to her claim. I did a few calculations. The integral calculus was rediscovered by Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716) and the differential calculus was developed by Isaac Newton (1642-1727). It was in 1969, only 253 years after the death of Leibnitz, that Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin stepped out upon the lunar regolith and walked upon the “lesser light” that Christians and Jews alike believed had been created by the god Yahweh–and affixed to the underside of a heavenly dome or ‘firmament.’ It was the calculus that had made it possible for life itself to leave the planet of its origin and gambol about upon a different world. It was the calculus that had conquered the mysteries of the celestial motions of both moons and mankind.

We may ask how history would have gone if Archimedes had not been killed by a Roman soldier. What if Greek natural philosophy had not been overshadowed by Platonic mysticisms? What if the early Christians had not adopted Platonic philosophy but rather had endorsed Aristotle (and the rest of the more materialistic natural philosophers) a thousand years before Thomas Aquinas? What if Bishop Theophilus, armed with an edict from the Christian emperor Theodosius in 389 CE, had not burned the Serapaeum, the Library of Alexandria where Archimedes’ books surely existed in multiple copies and could have influenced the thinking of other geniuses who lived before the nerve-seeking virus of Christianity became pandemic? Who knows how many books in that library did extend the discoveries of Archimedes? Perhaps there was already a differential calculus that could have been used to calculate the acceleration of the lintel-stones that would fall to earth amidst the holocaust kindled by the Christian zealots. What if Justinian, in 529, had not closed the schools at Athens, the last to teach Greek philosophy? What if Pope Gregory ‘The Great’ (540-604) had not condemned all literature and intellectual effort?

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If it only took 253 years in modern times for the discovery of the calculus to lead to a lunar landing, and if Archimedes discovered the method somewhere around 212 BCE, why didn’t the Romans land upon the moon in the middle of the first century CE? Part of the delay may have been due to the fact that Archimedes appears to have been rather isolated in Sicily, and we don’t know how great a delay there may have been before his works were brought to Alexandria. Although there may have been many materialist scholars in Alexandria at the Museum and Serapaeum library, in the greater world Platonic philosophy was ascendant. Its power only increased when Christianity achieved hegemony in the Roman Empire. Even without Christianity, the more materialist philosophers had a hard time. I can only speculate, but I would not at all be surprised if there was in Alexandria an intellectually powerful group, perhaps led by Hypatia–the greatest female mathematician of the ancient world and victim of a Lenten-season Christian mob–that was biding its time on the North African shore and was planning soon to burst out of the Platonic capsule that so long had held it back. It may have been very apparent to Bishop Theophilus that the scholars in the Alexandria Library posed a mortal danger to his theological fantasies. Science had to be stopped, and for a thousand years afterward, Christianity followed the Alexandrian bishop’s example–burning books, persecuting scientists and thinkers of all kinds, and holding back the discovery of the physical world.

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When, then, might our species have landed on the Moon if Christianity had not existed? It took physics and chemistry as well as mathematics to do it, and we can only guess how long it would have taken for these sciences to develop the necessary metallurgy, propellants, and guidance and communication systems to fly to the Moon. But both physics and chemistry have advanced most rapidly when aided by mathematics, i.e., by the calculus. In modern times, both sciences developed from almost complete ignorance to their present glory in less than 250 years. By the year 750 CE, science and technology might very well have been up to a lunar landing.

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As I asserted at the beginning, Madalyn O’Hair was wrong when she declared that Columbus would have landed on the moon had it not been for the Dark Ages of Faith. No, it is more likely that it would have been Leif Erickson who would have landed on the moon–around the year 1000! With five more centuries of scientific and technological development between him and Erickson. Columbus probably would have landed on Mars or Titan or Europa–or perhaps even upon an extrasolar planet.

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