Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Scientist Who Thought That Birds Migrate to the Moon

There is a fascinating article in Wired magazine about how scientists (or natural philosophers) of earlier centuries grappled with the question of where certain birds come from in the spring and where they go in the winter. Some claimed that they spend their winters hibernating at the bottom of lakes (as is also mentioned by several commentaries in Perek Shirah, in discussing the retzifi-bird). Others proposed that they spontaneously generate from barnacles (which presented rabbinic authorities with the halachic question of whether they were kosher, and if so, which berachah should be made on them, as referenced in Shulchan Aruch; see my book Sacred Monsters for extensive discussion).

And there were other scientists who proposed that birds go to the moon. They knew that the moon was a very long way away, and realized that such a journey would take many weeks. However, since there is no air resistance or gravity in space, it would be a very easy journey, and birds could sleep through most of it.

I think that articles such as this can be of benefit for frum people who struggle with the notion of Chazal making statements about the natural world that are not consistent with modern science. Such people are under the misconception that if a person said something that is completely wrong from the perspective of modern science, then it means that they were foolish. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was prestigious scientists of great intellect that proposed such things. They were not at all foolish. They were working with the best information that they had. Being wrong does not mean being foolish.

(On a different note: If anyone is coming to Israel from the US and can bring some small or medium items for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch! Also, if you are on Facebook,  please like and share https://www.facebook.com/biblicalnaturalhistory)

15 comments:

  1. I dread the Chazal-is-always-right people hearing this. Their reaction is always "Look how idiotic the scientists are! If they were wrong then, they must be wrong now! Only Chazal's wisdom is universal!"

    In The English Update, a very disturbing weekly potato peel holder I receive in my mailbox each week, they talked about a woman who refused to give her child the standard vitamin supplements at birth, because "ten years from now, the advice you're giving me will be ten years outdated". This was somehow supposed to be praiseworthy.

    I weep for humanity.

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    1. My favorite quote is, "Everyone knows how stupid they were ten years ago. What most people don't realize is that it will take them ten years to realize how stupid they are right now."

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    2. And what's your answer?

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  2. When you said "no air resistance or gravity in space", do you think there is no gravity in space or is that the misconception that they had at the time?

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    1. In his books, Rabbi Slifkin explains his belief and provides evidence for wing propulsion without air resistance and crystalline spheres in lieu of this conceptual construct called "gravity."

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  3. Good example. This notion is, indeed, difficult for people to digest.

    I have recently begun understanding the more charedi viewpoint, however, since I started remembering how I used to think (and more importantly, feel). If one believes strongly -- and even has personal experience to prove -- that certain tzaddikim see things we don't and give advice that can only be described as miraculous, it is then hard to believe that this same fellow -- who clearly has an aura of holiness and other-wordliness about him -- can make statements about science that are flat out wrong.

    Some people deny all Rebbe and tzaddikim miracles. I don't. I have read and heard too many stories from people who personally experienced them not not believe in miracles. And if one believes in certain tzaddikim performing miracles and seeing things that we don't, well, the reluctance to believe these people can be utterly wrong about the function of G-d's world is understandable. The alternative is to believe that a man is super holy and so utterly human at the same time. Emotionally, it means harboring two very different feelings about the very same man at the same time. It's difficult and hard to reconcile.

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    1. Being a frugal consumer, Temujin has done his research and discovered that similar miraculous services can be obtained from reputable and popular holy men in Haiti and the Andes at much lower prices. In fact, often a small chicken, a bag of Czech glass beads or even a bottle of magic-imbued Coca Cola will suffice as payment.

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  4. It was an Englishman, Charles Morton, who developed an apparently well-argued theory of birds migrating to the moon. He also came remarkably close to calculating the Moon's distance from the Earth. Temujin does not think though that this, the birds to the Moon hypothesis, was a commonly held belief at the time. Still, a variation of Morton's theory of pre-modern Moon flights saw a brief revival with Jules Verne and as late as the mid-twentieth century with one Ralph Cramden, of The Honeymooners fame, who adamantly and loudly expounded his conviction that he could manually and kinetically...and under today's laws, quite feloniously.... propel his wife, Alice, to the said Moon.

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  5. But when scientists said that birds go to the moon, they didn't actually mean that they go to the moon. They were speaking about the mystical nature of birds, not about the actual physical nature of them. Their words contain deep secrets.

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  6. Everyone, including rabbis, scientists, and philosophers, is capable of uttering foolish ideas and is prone to doing so on more than one occasion. Such foibles are part of the human condition and does not, by itself, make one a fool (given sufficient frequency - it might). The moon-homing bird idea is, indeed, foolish. Instead of assuming a southward migration in the beginning of the northern hemisphere winter to warmer climes with more daylight, Morton and others postulated some mythical, inhabitable moon and a trip through airless space. Without air to breath or to exert a counter-force to their beating wings, how were they supposed to leave earth's gravity? However, science if filled with failed experiments and ideas as well as extremely successful ones. About a year ago there was a tumult in the media and some physics circles about an experiment which allegedly showed that neutrinos travel faster than light speed. Instead of first checking all elements of their measurement and apparatus, the authors boldly claimed a revolutionary finding.
    They were, as expected, found to have made a wild claim based on a poor measurement. The upshot was that they achieved notoriety in physics circles rather than fame. That's one difference between the protocols of science and religion. In science, there are no grounds for arguing simply on the basis of authority. Experimental data, if verified, provides the decisive test. Scientists, being human, will sometimes offer schemes that are not capable of falsification by experiment. Such notions, as innumerable non-interacting universes, should be seen as metaphysics rather than physics - i.e., it's more like Aristotelian physics and not properly science.

    As to some erroneous ideas of the world expressed in the Talmud, that merely is a testament to the humanity of the authors. They were not fools, but only mislead by the then prevailing ideas of the world. The only ones who would have a problem with such an evaluation are those who attribute divine inspiration to all their statements. The same holds true for miracle-working rabbis, whether from the Talmud or later. Even if you believe some of these tales, it doesn't carry the implication that everything that they do and say is divinely inspired and has a claim to truth. As the Talmud states - based on Holy Script, "there is no righteous person in the world who does good and never errs".
    Y. Aharon

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  7. The reluctance to concede scientific error on the part of chazal does not come from the fear of appearing to have them look foolish; rather, it comes from the fear of the slippery slope. Namely, if they were wrong in that area, what else were they wrong in? I'm sure you can see where that quickly leads. And that is a very real fear indeed.

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  8. Temujin,

    I specifically addressed my comment to people who believe in miracles. If you don't, then suit yourself. (Incidentally, I find people who deny miracles somewhat irrational since the evidence for them is overwhelming -- unless of course wants to call all the stories lies and/or flukes. To take a recent example in history: Do you know how many people experienced miracles or semi-miracles with the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Literally hundreds, if not thousands. Many are documented. Many are related by the people who experienced them. Are you seriously going to tell me that they are all made up or just really flukes which we interpret as miracles? C'mon.

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  9. They were not at all foolish. They were working with the best information that they had. Being wrong does not mean being foolish.

    Sums up my thinking exactly.

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  10. When Scientists of yesteryear are found in error, all Scientists admit their bygone peers were wrong, but when an error is pointed out made by one of the Rabbonim, it is looked upon as no greater sin can be committed.
    Where does truer truth lie, with the Rabbis or the Scientists?
    o

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