Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Eppur si scrive

Censorship of science, like most censorship, is concerned with sex, war, and keeping people in their place. Unfortunately for the censor, we can test claims about reality, so you can’t stop science. We are curious creatures, who cannot resist poking a stick into a hornet’s nest, whether metaphorical or literal, just to see what happens.

The most famous response to scientific censorship, Galileo’s `eppur si muove’, but yet it moves, was delivered sotto voce after he formally recanted the Copernican heresy. Being an old man, he was not tortured, but only given sight of the instruments of torture. In his history of navigation, J. E. D. Williams makes the almost fair point that the theological position was reasonable. As he puts it, if a scientific theory can be proved, even if it is contrary to scripture, then scripture must give; if a theory cannot be proved, but seems to work, it may be used as a working hypothesis to help get the right answers. The censors were happy to have the Copernican theory used, since it gave correct answers, allowing sailors to find their way to the New World, but not to have it accepted as truth. Galileo, who seems to have been a contrary character not likely to have suffered from a humility deficit, could only conceive of being utterly right. In fact, there is no particular reason to say that the earth revolves around the sun, except that it makes the equations simpler: Galileo risked torture over a point of taste, showing a fine artistic eye.

Williams claims that “Galileo did a disservice to science by seeking to extend its province too far”, but then spends the rest of a substantial book explaining that the science of navigation, involving Galileo, Newton and Einstein, works and works to the point where Barack Obama can have a bomb landed within a few metres of a known point. Scientific censorship has always been connected to the protection of the state, especially in times of war. T. Ryle Dwyer, in his history of Irish neutrality during the Second World War, mentions the panic about weather reports being radioed to Germany from Ireland. The main concern would have been aircraft navigation, or even the simple question of not running out of fuel, but in 1944, the one thing English people always talk about was a subject of military secrecy. The decision on whether or not to begin the D-Day landings hinged on a break in the weather, turned into a very fine novel by Giles Foden. The main character in Turbulence is based on Lewis Fry Richardson who, after inventing modern weather forecasting, left the Meteorological Office, when it was taken over by the Air Ministry. The Met Office is still part of the Ministry of Defence, and you still need a security clearance to work there. The wind speed at Bagram is sensitive information. Richardson would later censor his own work, when he discovered that his weather studies would be used in chemical warfare: he destroyed his unpublished papers, and moved on to study something else.

We might occasionally wish that some other `scientists’ would do the same, but no matter how much we might want the Creation Science movement to fall silent, scientists do not want to ban their work. Neither, when we come to it, do we want unpleasant results banned. In 2002, there was a British government proposal to make academic papers subject to the same export controls as other sensitive technologies, requiring scientists to pass their papers for approval before sending them to journals. The plan was seen off, but we have recently seen a panic over whether or not a research group should publish details of how it developed a flu virus. Fortunately, as Sherlock Holmes put it, “What one man can invent another can discover.” No discovery or development can be kept quiet forever, but even a short delay can be enough for some purposes.

One of the pleasures of the internet is easy access to work that had previously been censored. Among the various entertaining stories of the great G. I. Taylor, quite a few of them in Thomas Koerner’s book on the Joy of x, is the one of how he published his theory of the spreading of atomic bomb blasts. During the war, many boffins did important work which they could not publish at the time, but afterwards, subject to clearance, they were allowed to put the results into the scientific literature. Taylor had developed a theory of how a blast spreads, and wanted to publish it along with a comparison to the real thing. Lacking data, he used a series of photographs from the popular press to measure the radius of the shock, and made an educated guess at the other number he needed. The theory matched the data with an accuracy which would usually invite an investigation for scientific fraud. It also invited a visit from chaps from organizations that did not officially exist, who wanted to know how he had outwitted their censors.

The most extreme case of scientific censorship remains the OSS’s sending of the brainiest man in baseball to Switzerland to attend a lecture given by Werner Heisenberg. The agent was instructed to shoot Heisenberg if he gave any indication that the Nazis had made progress in developing an atomic bomb. No such indication was given, and Heisenberg was spared. If burning a book is only one step away from burning people, it is some consolation to us to know that you can’t burn an idea.

From sails to satellites: the origin and development of navigational science, J. E. D. Williams. ISBN: 0 19 856399 X.

Behind the green curtain: Ireland’s phoney neutrality during World War II, T. Ryle Dwyer. ISBN: 978 0717146505.

Turbulence, Giles Foden. ISBN: 978-0-571-20522-6.

The pleasures of counting, Thomas Koerner. ISBN: 0 521 56823 4.

2 comments on “Eppur si scrive

  1. Jackie
    October 7, 2012

    With censorship, we most often think of art and books, but science might have the most acceptable kind of censorship, there is less protest, I think. Look at the current resistance to climate change & evolution in the U.S.. You’d think by now, with all the technological advances that we would be more open minded, but evidently not.

  2. Hilary
    October 8, 2012

    What a very enjoyable and unusual piece, full of good things and stuff (technical term) to think about – thank you, Michael! Definite food for thought over Galileo. I’m always happy to be made to think how an idea might have been received at the time, free of our contemporary assumptions.

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This entry was posted on October 6, 2012 by in Entries by Michael, Non-fiction: science and tagged , , , , .



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