Thursday, 9 March 2017

What they didn't know (Anne Rooney)

Happy Birthday, Mr Pepys
A couple of weeks ago I went to Samuel Pepys' birthday lunch. He would have been 384, so couldn't make it, being unavoidably detained by death. Pepys kept a famous diary during the 1660s in which he recorded his daily life and  the great events of the day, including the Great Plague of 1665-6 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. He was a member of the Royal Society and knew the influential people of his day - scientists, writers, politicians and so on. His lunch comprised six different courses, each one something he actually ate, with six different wines. Then there was music arranged by his house-musician (oh, to have your own house musician!) and a visit to his library.

The Pepys Library is in Magdalene College, Cambridge (as was the lunch), and was bequeathed to the College on condition that it stay together, in his bookcases, and none of the books ever leaves the College. So far, so good -  nearly 400 years later, his wishes have been and are respected. His library includes contemporary editions of some of the most important books of his time including Hooke's Micrographia and Newton's Principia Mathematica. Pepys was an active member of the intellectual elite when the microscope and the telescope were only 50 years old, and when coffee was new to Europe (the first coffee house opened in Rome in1645; one in Oxford in 1654). And when you could have six courses and six wines for lunch without anyone thinking it might be bad for your  health.

The first bit of dinosaur bone
The books detailing all that new and exciting knowledge threw into relief what those clever, inquisitive, curious men didn't and couldn't know. Galileo was only 30 years dead and Descartes only 10 years. They knew there was a theory that the Earth goes around the Sun, but it wasn't established as fact, and the Catholic Church had banned its teaching. The Sun still went round the Earth, to be on the safe side. Pepys didn't know about dinosaurs (though there would be a curious bone examined in Oxford 10 years later - but it probably came from a giant human, dating from before Noah's Flood). The Earth had been created in six days, but no one knew when - Bishop Berkeley, who would calculate the date at 6,000 years ago, wasn't yet born. The notion of other galaxies was unthought of. Evolution - the very idea that living organisms had changed over time - was unthinkable. The ruins of Pompeii lay undiscovered. The continents had never shifted, the climate never changed - everything had always been as it was then.
Head louse,Robert Hooke, Micrographia

Harvey had explained that the blood circulates around the body but no one knew how the brain controlled the body or dealt with thoughts. Everyone knew that babies were formed from the father's sperm, nourished by the woman's blood but not otherwise affected by her - she had no genetic stake in them (what's genetics?) They had no idea that anaesthetics would one day make surgery tolerable and antibiotics would make it usually survivable. Or that germs cause disease and not bad air or an unfortunate mix of 'humours'. Hooke had published a beautiful volume of things seen through the microscope, but no one knew about atoms.

There was vague knowledge of some landmass in the area we now call Australia, but no one lived there as far as they were concerned. Antarctica was undiscovered.

Hooke reported to the Royal Society (and Pepys recorded it in his diary) that he thought a comet that had been seen might return again one day, but Halley would not formally explain comets and their return period until 1705.

It was impossible to travel by any method faster than a galloping horse. Rocketry, steam engines, the internal combustion engine, bicycles and even hot air balloons lay in the future. Electricity, gas lighting and even kerosene lamps were as yet unknown. When it got dark, it got dark. And everyone believed in ghosts and spirits and God, of course.

When we write about people in different times and even in different places, we need to think ourselves into their heads. That's not just what they knew and did, but it's also weaving around what they didn't know. Can you imagine not knowing about dinosaurs? About evolution? About the approximate structure of space - Sun in the middle of the solar system, other solar systems, other galaxies? About atoms and electricity? I don't mean know in detail, but just being aware of them somewhere on the periphery of your mental vision.

But, of course, they didn't know what they didn't know, just as we don't. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I had no idea the worldwide web would be invented, and humans had only just stepped on the Moon. Like the expanding universe, our worldview has always filled all available space, there was just less space. Their worldview was complete, just different and smaller. And in the future, people will say that of ours.

So Happy Birthday, Mr Pepys. Thank you for the food and the wine and the good company and the insights. You would have liked Facebook and blogging, you would have loved the Moon landings. And if you had had anaesthetics and antibiotics (and the NHS), having that stone cut out would have been a breeze.

Anne Rooney
Coming soon - Story of Astronomy


Susan Price said...

Great blog!

Enid Richemont said...

Excellent, witty and thought-provoking. You left out Pepys's ladies, though.

Stroppy Author said...

I did, Enid, because this is a child-friendly blog, remember? :-)