Monday, October 09, 2017

Computing And Helicopters: Mallorcan Science

Researchers at the University of the Balearic Islands were able to take pride last week in their having contributed to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Ligo project for the detection of gravitational waves and therefore an understanding of the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang is an example of pure scientific research. Ligo wasn't an invention. It was a massive scientific endeavour conceived over decades that was aimed at testing an element of Einstein's theory of relativity - the existence of gravitational waves. The principal source of funding was the US National Science Foundation.

Societies and cultures play a vital role in the extent to which scientific and technological research and the application of science in the form of inventions or theories that may have practical outcomes can flourish or not. The history of the past eight hundred years or so demonstrates how science can be enabled or disabled by its societies.

The programme for the current series of autumn fairs in Llucmajor features as its key image a drawing of a cometagiroavion, a comet-giro-plane. At the Sant Bonaventura Culture Centre in Llucmajor is a full-scale re-creation of this machine. People in Llucmajor, people in Mallorca will insist that it was the first helicopter, the visionary idea of Pere Sastre Obrador that dates from 1923.

Argument has raged for many years about the apparent plagiarism of Sastre's invention. Juan de la Cierva y Cordorníu is attributed with the invention of the "autogiro". He was the son of the Spanish minister for development, who had decided that Sastre's flying machine lacked "public interest". Argument or not, Sastre provided a rare case of Mallorcan invention. As a society, Mallorca doesn't have much of a past in this respect. Only recently has it embraced a genuinely scientific perspective, and the university's Relativity and Gravitation Group is absolute proof of that.

But if one goes back into the mists of time to mediaeval days, Mallorca did have an inventor. Ramon Llull is known for many things, and among them was what he developed, largely theoretically, in his Arte Luliano. Llull came up with the notion of the combination of symbols to enable knowledge and understanding of more complex concepts. As such, Llull was a very early mover in the development of computing and of notions that were to be elaborated in the seventeenth century by Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz.

At a much higher level of argument than that surrounding Sastre's helicopter has been the one about the development of differential and integral calculus. Leibniz is said to have come to his theories entirely independently of Isaac Newton. Some will say that he didn't. Regardless of this debate, Leibniz, like Newton, was very much a precursor of Einstein and therefore the Ligo project in arguing principles of relativity. He also invented the Leibniz wheel which was to eventually spawn the arithmometer, the first mass-produced mechanical calculator. Moreover, he refined the binary system, the basis of computing.

The Leibniz wheel has distinct echoes of Llull, who had come up with the Llullian circle of truths. In this regard, it is not unreasonable to grant Llull an important place in the history of scientific development that has brought us to the current-day digital world. But Llull remains a largely obscure figure in global terms. His science has not commanded any great acknowledgement for a variety of reasons. One is that he was also a purveyor of scientific charlatanism, i.e. alchemy. A second is that within the Catholic tradition he did not always enjoy unanimous support and continued not to for several centuries. Indeed, he was denounced as a heretic by some because of his dogma of the Immaculate Conception. He was able to flourish largely thanks to the patronage of the early Catalan kings rather than because of any favouritism among the papal hierarchy.

Catholicism explains more about Llull in that it was to fundamentally inhibit rational scientific thought and advance. Newton and Leibniz were of a similar vintage to Galileo, who spent the last ten years of his life under house arrest after the Inquisition had condemned him for heresy. The contrasting societies of the times in England, Germany and Italy say a great deal. An earlier free thinker, Leonardo da Vinci (who of course had his own idea for a flying machine), had powerful friends and patrons, e.g. the Medici family. He might have had far more problems than he did, had it not been for who he knew.

It wasn't as though Spain didn't have its centres of great learning, but the contribution to science was restricted by societal attitudes based on a conservative religion. Mallorca, a backwater anyway, offered no great claim on science or on invention. But then Pere Sastre came along, and - subject to an interpretation of events - he was a victim of a form of corruption and nepotism: his idea for a helicopter was stolen by a political elite in Madrid.

* Photo of the re-created cometagiroavion via Ajuntament de Llucmajor.

No comments: