Thursday 4 July 2024

How monks stopped people seeing the supernova of 1054

 How could an object brighter than the planet Venus not be recorded by astronomers in Britain or Western Europe? In the year 1054, before telescopes, a supernova was visible to the naked eye in daylight for at least three weeks, and for nearly two years after that in the night sky.

The supernova was reported by astronomers in China, Japan and the Arabic speaking world. Astronomers in these parts of the world were far more advanced in astronomical knowledge than their European counterparts, but that doesn't explain why something easily seen was not recorded in Western countries.

So, what was going on? It would be wrong to believe that the supernova was not seen in Europe, because clearly, it was. The answer probably lies with the people holding the power. Monks had astronomical knowledge and the wherewithal to record the event. Monasteries were the seat of knowledge and power in Europe at this time and had sufficient control to decide what became news – and what did not. Did the monks suppress reports of this spectacular occurrence, and if so, why?

It was on July 4th 1054 that a star in the constellation of Taurus the Bull destroyed itself in what astronomers call a supernova. The remnants of this star are now known as the Crab Nebula. This was a spectacular and rare event: the last bright supernova we are aware of was in 1604.

In 1843 the Earl of Rosse named the Crab Nebula, observing it through a 36-inch telescope from his observatory at Birr Castle, Ireland. He clearly had some imagination because it is not easy to see the image of a crab in the nebula. Today, astronomers can see the remains of the destroyed star at a distance of around 6,500 light years.

The nebula is also known as M1, or Messier 1. This name comes from a catalogue of objects drawn up by the 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier. He spent his time searching for comets, discovering around a dozen, none of them very spectacular. During his search he came across over a hundred 'comet lookalikes'. To avoid confusion in future searches for comets, he drew up a list of 'non-comet objects'. This 'Messier list' is still of great use to astronomers as they explore and study the constellations.

At the time of the1054 supernova, monasteries were the seats of learning, with massive libraries and people who could read and write. They had already become very wealthy institutions. This was not a deliberate policy as they were built originally for purely religious studies, but they had many bequests of land and money left to them by rich lords and barons.

Monasteries studied many subjects in addition to religion, astronomy among them. The monks followed the teaching and ideas of Aristotle (384 BCE- 322BCE) from ancient Greece. One of his ideas would cause trouble for over 1800 years.

Aristotle developed the 'geocentric' view of the solar system, where the Earth was accepted as the centre of everything, with the Sun, Moon and planets orbiting around it. This geocentric view would only be changed in 1543 by Nicolas Copernicus, a Polish monk. His theory placed the Sun at the centre to give us the 'heliocentric' view. Although not everything Copernicus said was correct, he made massive strides in the right direction.

Aristotle also said that everything in space moved in circles. The circle was seen as a 'perfect' shape, and the heavens, of course, had to be perfect. We now know objects in the solar system move in ellipses rather than circles.

Aristotle’s idea that the heavens were perfect and unchanging caused trouble with both the 1054 supernova and that of 1181. When people saw the new star appear they went to the monasteries because they were the centres of learning, and the monks would know what was going on. At least that is what people thought.

To the monks, however, the supernova posed an irreconcilable problem. They could not admit that there was a new star. They had told everyone that the heavens were perfect and unchanging. Consequently, people living close to the monasteries were convinced, by the monks, that there was nothing there. Although they could see this new star, the monks had such authority that the people believed them when they were told that this was the work of the devil, trying to corrupt their minds.

Today, this is the prevailing theory as to why an event recorded in many parts of the world was ignored in Europe. It simply did not fit in with the accepted view of the most learned people; the monks in the monasteries, and thus power came to define knowledge.


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