Tag Archives: religion

Guest Blogger: Ms Physics

Diana invited me to present to her students a few years ago—a fun bunch of kids!

I’ve been pals with Diana Eline since high school. She always had more brains than I do. Diana teaches high school physics. After chatting about Galileo, I asked her to contribute some thoughts to this blog. Diana was kind enough to call together an emergency meeting of the Physics Nerds Society. Here’s what she has to say:

Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa in 1564, the first of six children of Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and scholar. In 1581 he entered the University of Pisa at age 16 to study medicine, but was soon sidetracked by mathematics. He left without finishing his degree (yes, Galileo was a college dropout!). In 1583 he made his first important discovery, describing the rules that govern the motion of pendulums.

First of all, as I tell my students, that dude Aristotle screwed up science for a long time by saying all matter is composed of Earth, Water, Air or Fire. As Aristotle was such an acclaimed philosopher no one dared to disagree with him except Galileo. Aristotle also said that heavier objects fall faster to the earth than lighter objects. Which, we of course know that it is not true. In a vacuum all objects fall to the earth at an acceleration of 9.81 meters/second squared. Only due to air resistance (air is actually composed of matter—namely gas molecules—78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen) which slows down objects with a large surface-area-to-mass ratio. Galileo also discovered many stars in the Milky way. He invented the pendulum clock. He discovered Jupiter’s moons. Although he did not invent the telescope he was the first to use it systematically to observe celestial objects and record his discoveries. His book, Sidereus Nuncius or The Starry Messenger was first published in 1610 and made him famous.

Galileo thought that a ball, rolling or sliding down a hill without friction, would run up to the same height on an opposite hill. Galileo’s conclusion from this thought experiment was that no force is needed to keep an object moving with constant velocity, which led to Newton’s 3 Laws of Physics!

Galileo Galilei is considered the father of modern science and made major contributions to the fields of physics, astronomy, cosmology, mathematics and philosophy. His flair for self-promotion earned him powerful friends among Italy’s ruling elite and enemies among the Catholic Church’s leaders. Galileo’s advocacy of a heliocentric universe brought him before religious authorities in 1616 and again in 1633, when he was forced to recant and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Long story short, my enthusiasm for Physics has led my oldest son to pursue a PhD in Astrophysics and continue as an underpaid scientist!

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

More Maimonides from my pal Ilene

Ilene Winn-Lederer is a talented illustrator pal of mine. She’s written about  Maimonides and also created this beautiful image of him. I asked her to contribute her thoughts about Rabbi Moshe—here’s what she has to say. Incidentally, if you like Ilene’s illustration it is available as a print. Purchase info is at the end of this post.

Here is the text I promised to send. You may know this info but it’s what I provided to the JCC and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation when the painting was exhibited and later purchased. MAIMONIDES’ DREAM 1998
Sumi Ink, Acrylic on Paper 20″ x 24″

Maimonides… rabbi, physician and foremost intellectual figure of medieval Judaism is depicted in this acrylic on paper painting. As the prolific writer whose ideas about philosophy, religion, and medicine continue to influence these disciplines today, he is best known for three works: his commentary on the Mishna, his code of Jewish law, and his ‘Guide of the Perplexed’.

Born Moses Ben Maimon to an educated, distinguished family on March 30, 1135 in Cordoba, Spain, he lived in a time when nearly one-fifth of the people in Southern Spain were Jews. In 1159, a fanatical Islamic sect began to persecute the Jews of Cordoba and the family left Spain for Fez, Morocco. There, Maimonides began his study of medicine, but again his family fled persecution and moved to Palestine. By the 1160’s, they had finally settled in Fostat, Egypt, near Cairo where the practice of Judaism was permitted. Soon after their arrival Maimonides’ father and brother died and Maimonides began to practice medicine to support his family. He was in great demand for his learning and skills as a physician, and soon became court physician to Sultan Saladin. Maimonides also lectured at the local hospital, maintained a private practice, and was a leader in the Jewish community. Maimonides died on Dec. 13, 1204, and was buried in Tiberias near the Sea of Galilee.

I have envisioned Maimonides embracing the Torah, which is encased in a Sephardic style container known as a ‘tik’. He is seen in flight reflecting the phases of exile he and his family endured. His Egyptian sojourn and subsequent rebirth of his career as a physician is represented by the phoenix, which according to legend, was originally called the Bennu. It was associated with the Egyptian deity Osiris and identified as a heron with its long, straight back and two erect head feathers. Later named Phoenix by the Greeks for its brilliant red-gold plumage, this mythical bird was said to create itself from the fire that burned on the top of the sacred Persea tree in Heliopolis. Rising from the ashes, it symbolizes healing and immortality, just as the new sun rises from the old. The burning spice tower on the horizon alludes to the Golden Age of Spain when Judaism and Islam lived harmoniously. The tower burns, but is not consumed because of the memories that survive to become hope. Finally, the sun and moon image represents the timeless nature of dreams.

Thanks, Ilene! Here’s where you can purchase a print of MAIMONIDES’ DREAMhttp://magiceyegallery.com/PicturePage.aspx?id=42

Hypatia, the lady philosopher/mathematician/astronomer

Sometimes writing about history is hard. At the beginning of this project, I’d envisioned a fun and slightly wacky tour through Western Civilization presented by a fun and slightly wacky uncle. The story of human beings is often violent and cruel, though. Human beings are flawed creatures. There are parts of civilization’s history that make me heartsick.

I want to tell you about a glorious and brilliant woman who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th century ad. Her name is Hypatia. She was the daughter of a philosopher and mathematician, and she became a philosopher and mathematician herself. Hypatia was lovely to look at, but her intellect was what made her irresistible. I became interested in her when I read that if she hadn’t outright invented the astrolabe, at the least she played an big part in developing it.

Hypatia helped her dad expand Ptolemy’s work on astronomy. She eventually did her own scholarly work on the stars and the geocentric model of the universe. It might have been she who came up with the idea of ‘flattening’ the spheres to create the star-map that is central to the astrolabe’s design (this is my own conjecture).

Hypatia was also a philosopher. Her philosophy was Neo-Platonism, which adapts Plato’s ideas about what makes the world tick. Hypatia was a gifted teacher. She often gave lectures in the agora (Greek for public square) about philosophy, astronomy, and her many intellectual interests. At that time Alexandria was boiling with religious trouble. Christians and Jews battled with each other and with philosophers who rejected a belief in God. The Roman Empire was in its last days, about to split into East and West. Politics absolutely played a part in the violent clashes between religion and philosophy.

I’m sorry and ashamed to tell you that a mob of Christians ambushed Hypatia, and murdered her. It’s nearly impossible for me to believe that these were followers of Jesus. But it happened. They behaved as a mob—the very opposite of civilization—and murdered a woman for promoting a philosophy that rejects Christianity.

You can read more about Hypatia here and here. There’s a movie about her, too.  Here’s a review—caution: some violence.  (I have a quibble with History Buff’s conclusion that, because of Christianity, scholarship was discouraged in the Dark Ages. Beginning with Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire fostered a culture of learning that was encouraged in the monasteries. Monks copied books by hand—the books from the Greek philosophers that had been translated into Arabic, which the monks then translated into Latin. See How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.)

Little Dennis


At the Council of Nicaea a lot of things were agreed upon. One thing the western and eastern halves of the Roman Empire could not agree on was when Easter should be celebrated. Each half—western and eastern—celebrated on a different date. This went on for a long time until finally in ad 525 an expert was called in. Dionysius Exiguus (his name means ‘Little Dennis’) was a scholarly monk who got the job of figuring out exactly when the Christian holy day of Easter should occur every year.

Dionysius decided to go back and find when the first Easter occurred. Jesus’ resurrection happened during the Jewish Passover—Pesach. The Jewish calendar relies on the motions of the Moon and Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Using some incredibly complicated astronomical calculations, he was able to arrive at the original date.

Dionysius realized once he’d found the date of Jesus’ resurrection, he could then figure out when Jesus was born. Jesus was 33 years old when He was crucified, so Dionysius counted back 33 years from the first Easter to get the year of Jesus’ birth.

In the past, years had been named after whoever was the imperial consul at the time. Dionysius decided it was time to change that. He named the years after Jesus, the Christian Savior. So the years beginning with Jesus’ birth are numbered and called Anno Domini (ad for short)—Latin for ‘the year of our Lord.’

By the way, Dionysius reckoned that Easter should occur on the first Sunday following the 14th day of the lunar cycle—the full moon—that falls on or after the spring equinox.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.


Being a Christian in the Roman Empire

Damnatio ad bestias (condemnation to the beasts) was a barbaric way of executing criminals and Christians. Worse, it took place in an arena for public entertainment.

Judea, where Jesus was born, was part of the Roman Empire. After He was crucified and resurrected, Jesus’ disciples continued His ministry. They told people they met on their travels about Jesus, His life and His message. It wasn’t so easy to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God in an empire whose official religion was polytheistic—Romans worshiped many gods and considered their emperor a god, too. And so the early Christians (Jesus’ followers) were a persecuted religious minority. They started out with a small, devoted membership that grew larger quickly. As the Christian Church grew, the Roman government became uncomfortable with this threat to civil order. Romans who worshiped Jupiter and the other gods looked at Christians with suspicion. Being a Christian back then could get you arrested and put to death.

Nicola Denzey Lewis writes:

The Christian writer Tertullian complained…, “if the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to water the fields, if there is no rain, or if there is earthquake or famine, if there is plague, the cry at once arises, ‘The Christians to the lions!’”


The Jews

“Let’s go! I gotta become Abraham!”

Back when we were talking about the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, I mentioned that Ur was the city Abram left so that he could become Abraham. Whatever became of him? Well, he and his wife Sarai (later Sarah) answered the call of the Lord and set up shop in Canaan—more or less the same place as modern Israel.

Click over here and scroll down to see a map—Ur is lower-right just above the globe. They traveled due west to reach Canaan (with a side-trip to Egypt).

Abraham was the forefather of the Hebrews, the Israelites, the Jews. He and they were (and are) monotheistic—they worshiped one God (mono = one, theo/deo = god). As we’ve seen, the Sumerians, Egyptians and Greeks had religions with more than one god—they were polytheistic. Worshiping only one God was a big deal. It made the Hebrews different from everybody else. Abraham’s story begins in the very last verse of Genesis Chapter 11 if you have a Bible handy.

Side note: adding the ‘h’ to Sarai’s and Abram’s names signifies ‘of many.’ ‘Abram’ meant ‘father,’ ‘Abraham’ means ‘father of many.’ ‘Sarai’ meant ‘princess,’ ‘Sarah’ means ‘princess of many.’ God was keeping up His end of the deal by making Abraham the father of the Hebrews (Genesis 17:5).

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

What is a ‘civilization?’

Okay, gang—before we get started talking about Western Civilization, we should agree on what a ‘civilization’ is. I’m going to keep this kind of loose. Generally, a civilization is a big group of people—in cities, a country, or countries—who share government (a system of keeping law & order and protecting its people);


a religion (belief in a god or gods with a set of rituals and priests to perform them);









an economy (enough food for everyone plus some left over for trading);


a written language (symbols to communicate without speaking);


and art, science and technology (inventions that make life easier and more enjoyable).


Every civilization has a ‘culture’—its own way of living and doing things.

That’s it. A rough definition to understand what separates a civilization from simply a big group of people. Now we can start thinking about what Western Civilization is.

Time to get serious

I’ve sorta-kinda joked on this blog about saving Western Civilization. Even my motto reads: “Saving Western Civilization through kid’s book illustration.” And I’ve honestly meant to get started on that. I have, in a modest way, been promoting Western Civ by teaching Sunday School and posting some historical stuff here once in a while. I haven’t been very serious about that motto, though. But it’s a new year; a good time to get serious.

Why does Western Civ need saving, anyway? We have Shakespeare and quantum physics and cell phones. We have crop rotation and the alphabet and Broadway. That’s good, right? Why can’t I just be happy?

The problem is: I meet very few people who understand how we got Western Civ. There are too many people who think Western Civilization is not such a good thing, and is maybe an embarrassment, or should be apologized for. That way of thinking saddens me, if only because it’s so easy to point to how much human beings have benefited from Western Civilization.

I think it’s important to understand how we’ve achieved all the things that we have. It’s important to recognize our incredible inheritance—gifts we’ve been given by amazing people who are long gone. Why were moveable type or symphonies or Greenwich Mean Time invented in the West? It’s vital for young people to understand how Western Civilization works, so that they may prosper in it.

This is my mission. If I can’t save Western Civ, at least I can document her glories. I like history, so I’m going to be writing a history of Western Civ—particularly a history of ideas. I’ll post the stuff I’m writing here on this blog, as a way of test-marketing. My goal is to write and illustrate a book that presents the history of Western Civ in a fun format. You must know by now that I’m a smart-alec, so of course it will be funny. Lots of gags. Lots of pictures. I expect to learn and discover new info as I do the research.

I invite you all to come with me.