William & Myrtle Harris Distinguished Lectureship in Science and Civilization
Galileo wrote that Pythagoras believed that the planets orbit the Sun. Newton credited Pythagoras for having discovered the inverse square law of gravity. Nowadays, science textbooks credit Pythagoras with the theory that Earth moves, and some expert historians claim that Pythagoras proved the Pythagorean theorem. Yet there is no evidence for any of these claims. Why do such fictions propagate? Is the truth that difficult to find or say? An unconscious yearning for ambiguity and fiction infects some parts of history. What happens if we remove such fictions? I will show how stories about Pythagoras played a dangerous role in the Inquisition trials of Giordano Bruno and Galileo. I will also comment on how some historians in the late 1900s increasingly echoed aspects of subjectivism, cultural relativism, and postmodernism to inadvertently propagate careless mistakes, as if the past were blurry, unstable, and subjective.
Alberto A. Martínez is Professor of History of Science at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of six books, including The Cult of Pythagoras: Math and Myths (2012), and Burned Alive: Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and the Inquisition (2018). His work has appeared in Annals of Science, American Journal of Physics, Scientific American, Physics World, the Big Picture Science program of SETI, the Peabody Award winning show Radiolab, and other platforms.