Museum Lecture: Tide Talk

An illustrated lecture by writer Mark Borton

From Socrates to Isaac Newton, the history of how great thinkers working over millennia solved the riddle of the tides.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Time: 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Location: H.L. Ferguson Museum 2nd Floor

Reception to follow.

Tide Talk by Mark Borton

When the human race was younger, we knew the tides by living with them. Myths and mysticism were the way we made sense of the cycles we saw in the sea. The first real advance came when the ancient Greeks and Egyptians mastered mathematics. But triangulate as best they could, they still couldn’t explain what caused the tides. The answer didn’t arrive for another two thousand years.

In the interim, organized religion came to dominate society, and all questions had to be framed and answered in context of the orthodox doctrines. But as exploration and discovery yielded facts that did not support pre-conceived ideas, a philosophical crisis ensued. Is a stationary Earth the center of the universe, or does the Earth revolve around the Sun? Such heretical questions were dangerous to ask. As it turned out, the tides were integral to the answer.

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Some of the people and subjects we will cover:

  • Midwife to Science(469–399 BC/E: Socrates invents scientific method, likens tides to breath)
  • No Sweat(384—322 BC/E: Aristotle commits suicide because he can’t unravel tides in Euripus)
  • A Grain of Salt(330 BC: Pytheas of Massalia is first to associate moon phases & tides)
  • The Commandment (1035: King Knut of England tries to command the tides)
  • Moved by Love (1320: Dante dramatizes Christian cosmology of earth-centered universe)
  • By Jove!(1609-33: Galileo’s invention of telescope expands man’s vision by more than 30x; discovers Jupiter’s moons; confirms sun-centered universe; infuriates the Pope; his incorrect tidal theory; his famous retort after his heresy trial)
  • Into the Vortex (1602-1680: Athanasius Kircher, “the most knowledgeable man on earth”)
  • Into the Ether (1644: Rene Descartes, rationalist philosopher, gets lost in the ether of space)
  • The Apple of His Eye (1687-1727: Isaac Newton calculates force of gravity acting at a distance)

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