Saturday, December 31, 2011

Burned Again

During the week of December 19, the library at Cairo's Institut d'Egypte was set afire. Security forces failed to respond to the fire, though their headquarters were close by. The Institute was founded by Napoleon after his 1798 conquest of Egypt. In the wake of his invasion, Napoleon brought with him many scholars who made discoveries like the Rosetta Stone. The library contained about 200,000 volumes, a priceless resource of Egyptian history.

Carl Sagan's COSMOS recalls the burning of Alexandria's library, the greatest of its time. More than a repository of scrolls, the library was a center of study and scholarship, what we would today call a university. Supposedly it contained a complete history of the ancient world, knowledge now lost. Among those who held the title of Head Librarian were Erastothenes, who in the 3rd century BC calculated Earth's circumference; and Aristarchus, who in the 2nd century BC suggested that Earth was not centre of the universe. Euclid and Archimedes also studied at the library,

In COSMOS we read about Hypatia, the last librarian of Alexandria and a woman famed in her time for mathematics. She was also a philosopher and astronomer. Alexandria's library was burned several times: by Julius Caesar's forces in 48 BC, by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 270 AD, by the Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391 AD, and by Muslims in 642 AD. Hypatia was horribly murdered by a mob in 415 AD. (Sagan's book takes some liberties with history, linking her death with the burning of the library).

Has humanity advanced in these thousands of years? The historical record shows that burning of books can be a tactic of any philosophy. Today in our computer age we have censors trolling the internet and Arxiv deleting or attacking what does not agree with them. What has not changed is that we must always be vigilant against those who would burn books. Those who would burn books will also burn people.

From ancient times until this month some people will try to burn libraries. Erastothenes' spherical Earth, Aristarchus' cosmology, and the achievements of Hypatia outlived them by thousands of years. Discoveries about nature are truths that can not be censored. If the speed of light slows down or a Black Hole exists nearby, no human censorship can prevent it.


Blogger Kea said...

Alas, as far as we know, Hypatia's works were mostly lost, along with so much else. Memories of her would have been entirely destoyed if her pupil Synesius had not become a bishop.

And today, it is just the same. Book burnings and legal internet deletions when you look at urban life, and mass extinctions when you look into the wilderness. Stagnant species who fail to fit into modified niches tend to become extinct, so humanity can't argue it deserves otherwise. Welcome 2012, by the way.

12:24 PM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

Aristarchus wrote a book, now lost, arguing that Earth was not centre of the universe. At least we remember their names.

3:13 PM  
Blogger PaperJerry said...

What a pity... and sadness.

6:37 AM  
Blogger nige said...

Aritarchus's book on the solar system as you say was burned in the Library of Alexandria, but in a sense it survives in a neat compact form because Archimedes summarized it in his Sand Reckoner:

"... Aristarchus of Samos produced writings of certain hypotheses in which it follows from the suppositions that the world is many times what is now claimed. For he supposes that the fixed stars and the sun remain motionless, while the earth revolves about the sun on the circumference of a circle which ... has the sort of proportion to the distance of the fixed stars that the center of the sphere has to the surface. This is trivially impossible, since the center of the sphere has no magnitude. One must suppose that it doesn't have any ratio either to the surface of the sphere. We must understand this such that Aristarchus means this: since we suppose the earth is just like the center of the world, the ratio which the earth has to the world described by us is the same as the ratio that the sphere on which the circle is on which he supposes the earth to revolve has to the sphere of the fixed stars."

What is curious here is that Archimedes criticises the clarity of Aristarchus's solar system treatise. Clearly, he didn't consider it very lucid, and it wasn't copied and widely spread like the books which survived the burning of the library. It must have been unpopular, unlike Aristarchus's other book On the Sizes and the Distances of the Sun and the Moon which does survive. It's also worth pointing out that Archimedes, despite being probably the most famous physicist of the ancient world, had an almost similar fate regarding his calculus forerunner, The Method, since the only known copy was lost for over a thousand years and only survives at all because it was scraped half-clean and then written over with medieval religious psalms. It's actually the most important book by Archimedes, but because he uses a crazy-looking method to develop a scaffolding for constructing his geometric theorems, not the politically-correct theorems, it was unpopular. Archimedes's Method treats geometric shapes like solid objects, theoretically weighing them with a see-saw balance, at different distances from the fulcrum to determine their relative areas. It's analogous to doing integration. Newton and Leibniz never knew about it, because it only burned up about a hundred years ago.

7:12 AM  
Blogger nige said...

sorry, my comment should end "turned up about a hundred years ago."

7:15 AM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

Thanks to all! Nige and Kea's comments are always extremely informed and thoughtful! That increases the chances of being remembered.

12:34 PM  
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5:28 PM  

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