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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Inanity or Insanity? You Decide!

The science blog at the Guardian contains this fascinating gem:
The RSC's Shakes Sphere talks are designed to explore Shakespeare's world, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council provides funding for research. It occurred to me that comparing fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of the brain of an actor with those of an astronomer might yield some clues to Galileo and Shakespeare's drives.
Why would such a bizarre notion occur to the writer?  Galileo and Shakespeare are both as dead as Francisco Franco and their brains are unavailable for scanning.  So we get this:

RSC actor Ed Hughes and Royal Observatory Astronomer Marek Kukula agreed to take part in this experiment. Extracts from two contrasting texts – Galileo's The Starry Messenger and Mark Ravenhill's translation of Brecht's play [About Galileo.  More later.] – were used as tools to test the workings of the men's brains. 
Do dead salmon shed light on Shakespeare or Galileo?
In what way would such a scan "yield some clues to Galileo and Shakespeare's drives"?  Is there some evidence that the brains of Hughes and Kikula are somehow "like" those of Shakespeare and Galileo?  Are we to suppose that any old astronomer would somehow replicate the blood flow in Galileo's brain?  Or that of any old actor would somehow reproduce Shakespeare's brain?  And how would the results apply to anything more than the physical act of reading?

Now, the actor evidently envisioned the acting that went along with reading the play and that meant he used parts of his brain associated with physical movement.  I saw nothing in the account regarding whether any similar distinction showed up in reading Galileo's tract. 

Aside from the usual late modern confusion between brain and mind, we have also:
  1. Areas of blood flow activity are approximate and ill-defined.
  2. Highlighted areas generally differ among individuals engaged in the same mental tasks, anyway.
  3. Blood flow does not correspond to neural activity.
"The striking results from that experiment can be seen in the video above."  Striking results?  Really?  From a sample of n=1?  

Inanity or insanity?  You decide!  
+ + +

Postscript: That infernal Tuscan

Then too the Guardian author wrote:
The Roman Inquisition imprisoned Galileo for refusing to deny Jupiter's satellites and Earth's orbit around the sun.
What is it about the Galileo affair that causes people to say really stupid things?  (The link will detail some additional stupidities in the column.)  First, Galileo was not imprisoned.  A Tuscan citizen, he was relegated to the Grand Duke's palace in Rome, then to the palace of the Archbishop of Siena (a Tuscan town), then to his own villa outside of Florence, finally to his townhouse near the Ducal palace in the city itself.  Given that the most immovable object in the universe had always been Galileo in his villa, this confinement was more a humiliation than a hardship.  And in typical Inquisition fashion we find a succession of Decrees that make severe admonishments on the one hand followed by wink-wink-nudge-nudge concessions on the other.  This sort of public severity/private leniency was typical of Machiavellian Italy. 

Secondly, the satellites of Jupiter were not only not at issue but had been independently verified by the Jesuit astronomers at the Roman College, who then threw a big party to celebrate Galileo's findings.  (Which meant that Galileo could thenceforth be referred to as "a celebrated mathematician."  In those benighted days, you actually had to have had a celebration in your honor to become a celebrity.) 

Thirdly, that the Earth orbited around the sun was not demonstrated by any of Galileo's observations.  In fact, it was not verified empirically until 1728, when James Bradley detected stellar aberration in γ-Draconis.   (The effect was small, variable, and detectable only with special instruments, but counts as a proof of the motion of the Earth.   Bradley’s paper was translated into Italian after 1734, and Copernicanism was in due course removed from the Index in 1758.) 

The problem was that some of the ancient Church Fathers had gone along with the Settled Science of the day and interpreted certain Biblical passages regarding an immobile Earth as literal.  The Church was not going to gainsay their commentaries without proof that the Standard Model was wrong, certainly not on Galileo's unsupported word.  It was Galileo's effort at amateur exegesis in his Letter to Castelli that started the trouble.  Recall that Niccolo Lorini filed a  complaint against the Galileans on 7 February 1615 for “taking upon themselves to expound the Holy Scriptures according to their private lights," not for Copernicanism per se.  Galileo was warned in 1618 that he could teach Copernicanism only as a mathematical hypothesis and not as if it were proven fact until he had actual empirical proof.  At which point competent theologians would revise things.  His famous trial was over whether he had violated this injunction, exacerbated -- as we have contemporary letters stating so -- by Urban's conviction that Galileo had intended to mock him by downplaying his (Popperian!) argument and putting it in the mouth of Simplicio.  A complex matter all around and not, by any measure, simply one of either mathematics or religion. 



  1. I would have liked to see the results including Francisco Franco as a test subject. Or even better, Genghis Khan, a man of a different sort of drive.

    As for Galileo's trial, I can imagine how different it would have been if they had had social media. Though, I'm not sure if that would have made it more or less complicated.

    1. At least the Inquisition kept the denunciations secret. Imagine if della Colombe or Caccini had had access to "social" media! And the internet would have given Galileo access to his inner flame warrior. Woo, as they say, hoo.

  2. Scanning a couple of guys' brains in the hopes it will "yield some clues to Galileo and Shakespeare's drives."

    Sounds more like voodoo than science.

    1. It *is* voodoo! Or at least shamanism. By performing the correct magical rites, they have uncovered secrets of the dead spirits, knowledge unavailable to the impious and impure!

      Seeing things like this after reading Our Illustrious Host's other examples of magical scientific thinking, it really hits home that we are creating an actual Dark Age around us right now.

    2. Actually, that's a gross injustice to shamanism, and for that matter to voodoo. Both are far more rigorous than the reporter TOF has noticed.

  3. If you had a whole group of astronomers with nun daughters, all of whom were raised in Italian renfairs, and then if you had a whole group of actor-playwrights with recusant glover fathers and dead sons, all of whom were raised in English renfairs...

    Um, well, it still wouldn't prove anything.

    The sad thing here is that clearly, the real phenomenon here is "messing around with the equipment just to see what happens", which is indeed scientific and fun. But instead of issuing the "fun with high tech equipment" press release, these guys have to justify their budget by lying about the intent behind firing this sucker up and messing around with it.

    1. Not only that, but what-it-is-to-be an astronomer has changed radically from those days. The title born by a renaissance astronomer was "mathematicus."


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