The Book of Genesis
Who first realised how far away the stars are?

“In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.”

The familiar opening of the King James Bible.  Being able to read the Bible is something we take for granted. It was the first thing that rolled off the newly invented printing press and most households will have at least one somewhere in the house.

But its interesting that the more Bibles are printed the less it is actually believed.  I can say that without too much risk of causing offence nowadays.  The vast majority of Christians now treat it as a book of fables and allegories for moral guidance rather than literal truth.  And this is a respectable viewpoint.  A faith that consisted of simply following a set of rules written down in advance it would pretty much be like the moral equivalent of painting by numbers.  God must be a more subtle creature than that. Surely truth should be sought rather than revealed.

But it was not always so.  The truth of the  Bible has been taken very seriously indeed by Christians at some points in history, particularly by Protestants.  In fact it is not hard to make a case that the Protestant reformation was pretty much the result of the technology of printing making the holy texts freely available to anyone.  The privileged position of the Church hierarchy was lost.  Anyone could get hold of the word of God and put whatever interpretation suited them onto it.

The idea of having a ready reference from the All-mighty that can answer your questions and solve your problems is an appealing one that has taken a while to be abandoned.  But the widespread availability of the holy book has also made its shortcomings rather well known too.   The big picture of the last 500 years has been a steady advance of all forms of  knowledge and a steady reduction in reverence for the Bible as a source.

The more we get to know about cosmology and biology, and particularly the theory of evolution the less believable the books of the Bible seem to be, at least as literal descriptions of what really happened.  But history is history and the Bible remains an important part of our culture that we still need to read it if only to maintain backwards compatibility.

So I thought I would review the book of Genesis as an historical document.  In particular I was looking for those inconvenient passages which any educated modern reader will look at at and instantly know that can’t possibly be right.  It didn’t take long.   In verse 6 of the first chapter we read that the sky is solid.

“And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”

Of course that would not have been at all controversial when the Bible was being written, nor for many centuries afterwards.  The sky does, after all, look solid.  At night we see the same stars in the same positions night after night.  Referring to old drawings of them reveals that they don’t change from generation to generation either.  That the sky was solid must have seemed like straight forward common sense for most of human history.

The first person to suggest that the stars are not simply points of light in a vault was the Italian Giordano Bruno towards the end of the sixteenth century.  The stars were all, he claimed, suns in their own right.  Our sun was just one of a multitude.  It was a great leap of the imagination.  But no single thought has ever expanded the scope of the Universe so much in one go. To go from just one Sun and its solar system to a huge number of similar suns was breath taking.

How did Bruno come to this conclusion?  His writing says he worked it out from first principles.  If God was infinite then the Universe should reflect this by itself being infinite. I will leave that argument for the theologians – though the infinite nature of God had been known for centuries and nobody had thought to suggest infinite universe before.

I think it is much more likely that he realised that the stars are in fact other suns as a result of discoveries being made using the newly invented telescope.

With telescopes being trained on the skies all over Europe it was only a matter of time before somebody noticed a subtle point.  Although to the naked eye stars seem to be a fixed immovable pattern, if you observe the same stars with enough precision six months apart some of the brighter ones seem to move relative to their neighbours. This is because they are closer.

The technical name for this is parallax, and we are all familiar with it.  Close one eye and align your finger with a distant object.  Then open the other eye.  The finger appears to move as your point of observation changes.  We have all done it.  Exactly the same thing goes on with stars.  In six months the earth has moved to the other side of the Sun and changed its point of observation and the relative positions of the nearest star in the sky also changes, exactly as your finger does.

Careful measurements enabled astronomers to actually work out the distance to nearby stars.  This was first done in 1838 by Freidrich Bessel (if you use Bessel functions at all – yes that Bessel).  Parallax would have been something that was very familiar to Bruno. The top astronomer of the day,Tycho Brahe, had used the lack of parallax shifts of the planets against the vault of the stars as an argument against the sun centred theory, which was the hot topic of debate in educated circles at the time.  It was quite a good argument actually if the sky was indeed both solid and close.

Although there is no evidence that Bruno had observed, and he certainly wouldn’t have been able to measure a parallax shift I still think it possible that he either observed or thought he observed one.  My betting is that he observed Sirius which is the brightest star in the sky and has one of the most easily measured parallax angles.  Even so, it would have been fiendishly difficult to observe and not easy to reproduce.  But the tiniest shift is enough to make the idea of a solid sky impossible.

However he came to the conclusion, it was a revolutionary one. The Church had already come down on the side of the earth centred rather than the sun centred view. The Bible is agnostic on that particular argument. I suppose the issue had never come up when it was being written.  What Bruno was saying directly contradicted our verse from Genesis.  Like most Italians Bruno was a nominal catholic, though his independent views and outspoken personality had meant he had spent a lot of his life in protestant countries like England and Switzerland to stay out of the way of the inquisition.  He only returned to Italy when, incorrectly as it turned out, he concluded that the church had softened its attitude to new scientific thought.

He had also run into problems in Germany with the Lutherans who were even keener on the literal truth of the Bible than the Catholics were.

But the Church was not about to go turning a blind eye after all and he ended up in Rome on a trial for heresy. There was quite a long charge sheet, but the multiple world’s notion was definitely on it.  This was a top level action on the part of the Church, not some local zealot. The prosecution was managed by Cardinal Bellarmine. He was one of the key figures in the counter reformation trying to rebuild the Catholic Church after its battering by the big Protestant break away.  Bruno defended himself to no avail. He was sentenced to death.

It isn’t hard to see why they were alarmed and why they took the actions they did. Free thinkers coming up with their own novel ways of looking at the Bible had already caused huge problems for the hierarchy.  Questioning the word of God itself was another assault on the fabric of the religious institutions.  And Bruno’s particular heresy was a bold and far reaching one.  What exactly did God have in mind creating all those other worlds?  Didn’t that hit right at the very concept of the universal authority of the Pope if all he was responsible for was one small world amongst many. The Pope refused an appeal and Bruno was taken into a public square in Rome and burnt to death.  His words were considered dangerous right to the end, so his tongue was secured to make it impossible for him to speak during the carrying out of the sentence.  All his published works were banned. They remained banned until 1966.

Giordano Bruno was of course as we all now know well absolutely right.  As scientific knowledge grew so did the awareness that he was a pioneer.  He has often been thought of as a secular martyr who died in defence of knowledge and freedom. This is probably stretching it a bit. He was no doubt independent minded and showed great courage in sticking to his beliefs in the face of huge pressure.  But he doesn’t really fit the bill of a non-religious saint – he was a man of his own time and fails to meet the script of a enlightenment hero fighting against the narrow minded villains of the corrupt Church hierarchy.

The narrow minded villains however fit the stereotype to a tee.  You only have to imagine the smell of burning human flesh that filled that Roman market square.  A fellow human being who was deemed to have thought the wrong thoughts, ending up as a barbeque.

It’s not surprising that the Church fought so hard to preserve the classical view of the universe.  It wasn’t simply conservatism.  A universe with the Earth in its centre surrounded by a solid vault does look a lot like something created for a purpose by an intelligent being.  The Earth as a random piece of rock surrounding a star that is just one star among millions looks a lot more like the result of chance.  The new thinking threatened just about everything the Church held dear, namely its revenues.  To keep the contributions of the faithful coming in it is necessary to maintain the credibility of the faith.  All the resources it could muster would be exerted to keep the lid on.

In trying to control the intellectual environment, the Church was swimming against a strong tide.  It didn’t control the whole of Europe so it couldn’t stop the banned books being printed.  In any case, even if the work of Bruno could have been completely suppressed it was only a matter of time before someone else made the same discoveries.  And more besides were being made all the time.

And the Church was also being undermined by the proliferation of Bibles as well.  More and more copies were circulating and being read by more and more people. And the shortcomings of the holy book were becoming more and more obvious.  A recent survey revealed that atheists know more about religion than believers.  I was not even remotely surprised.  The more you read it the more unbelievable it becomes.

So what is the value of reading the book of Genesis?  Not scientific enlightenment obviously.  This isn’t just because it is old.  Greek, Roman and Arab writings can all be interesting and educational reads for a modern scientist. But the book of Genesis contains no ideas or observations that illuminate anything in particular.

Does it carry any moral message?  None that I can see, but maybe it would for a believer.  But I do enjoy reading it from time to time.  The language is beautiful, at least the King James version is.  It has a rhythm and a simplicity that just suits the majestic grandeur of the story so well, particularly when you read it out loud.  It is hard to imagine that Milton would have come up with Paradise Lost without the inspiration of the King James Genesis.  As poetry, it works.

And reading about the solid sky that our ancestors believed in is a great reminder of what a privilege it is to live in a time where we can look up at the night sky and be struck by the wonder of knowing that every point of light is potentially the centre of another solar system with its own planets and who knows what living on them.  But for me it also calls up again in my mind the story of Bruno.

The Catholic Church failed utterly to hold back the progress of reason.  But it did succeed in partially obscuring the name of Giordano Bruno.  His name should really be up there with Copernicus and Kepler, and as a sort of John the Baptist blazing a trail for Galileo.  Although there is now a statue of him on the spot where he died, the brutal bigot Bellarmine did have some sort of victory.  He robbed his victim of the fame I think he earned for being the first human to gaze up at the stars truly knowing what they really are.

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