The Spirit of the Inquisition Lives in Science

Image credit: NAUTILUS
What a 16th-century scientist can tell us about the fate of a physicist like David Bohm.

By Michael Brooks | NAUTILUS

I’ve been talking to Jerome Cardano for years now. What’s more, he talks back to me—in a voice that often drips with gentle mockery. He clearly thinks my sanity is as precarious as his always was.

Jerome was Europe’s pre-eminent inventor, physician, astrologer, and mathematician in the 16th century. He created the first theory of probability, and discovered the square root of a negative number, something we now call the imaginary number and an essential part of our understanding of how the universe holds together. He invented the mechanical gimbal that was to make the printing press possible. His idea led to the “Cardan joint” that takes the rotary power in the driveshaft of your car’s engine and allows it to be transmitted to the front and rear axles. He pioneered the experimental method of research in areas as diverse as medical cures for deafness and hernia, cryptography, and speaking with the dead (forgive him, his were not strictly scientific times).

My obsession with Jerome has taken me over. I’ve been schooled in quantum physics and trained to think rationally, dissecting facts and ideas dispassionately. And here I am constantly carrying on imaginary conversations with a 16th-century astrologer. Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this is that Jerome is not remotely humbled by talking to someone from the future. On the contrary, he feels he has earned such visitations through his earnest attempts to discern the truth about how the universe works.

He’s not altogether wrong about this. I was first drawn to Jerome by a simple statement in his autobiography: He told his academic colleagues that many of his best ideas came from a spirit that visited him at night. He knows this is an odd claim, but he also sees himself as a pioneering visionary who would be worth the attention of celestial beings. He even writes in one of his books that, on his death, “The earth will not cover me over, but I will be snatched up to high heaven and live in distinction in the learned mouths of men.” This is precisely why he is willing to take so many intellectual risks: He doesn’t worry about being taken seriously on Earth when he already feels he is taken seriously in the heavens.

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