Welcome to Episode #029 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare’s plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.

William Shakespeare’s life overlapped some of the most extraordinary scientific discoveries in human history. Modern thought was developing the idea of a round Earth, the sun being the center of the universe, and scientific minds like Galileo, Thomas Digges, and Tycho Brahe, were utilizing then cutting edge technology like the telescope to transform the way we thought about the universe and our place in it. This swirl of scientific thought, imagination, and theory was buzzing around William Shakespeare right at the same time he was penning some of the plays so famous for asking many of the same human questions scientists were raising about the universe, and in the case of Thomas Digges, these questions were being raised literally right down the street from William Shakespeare himself as Digges lived in Shakespeare’s own neighborhood.

Here to help us unpack some of the realities about scientific thought in the 16th century, and what an understanding of that culture can help us learn about William Shakespeare, is the man who literally wrote the book on The Science of Shakespeare, our special guest Dan Falk.

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Dan Falk is an award winning freelance writer and broadcaster specializing in science stories  He was the 2011/12 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. His has written numerous publications for Smithsonian, New Scientist, Scientific American, the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, Quanta, Nautilus, NBCnews.com, Mental Floss, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites. In addition to being an accomplished science writer, Dan is also a successful science radio broadcaster, having  written and produced dozens of radio documentaries, primarily for the CBC Radio program Ideas. Several of these documentaries have won prestigious international awards. He is the co-host a podcast called BookLab with science journalist Amanda Gefter. The podcast reviews the latest in popular science books.

Dan he joins us today to discuss his most recent book, The Science of Shakespeare, which was published in April 2014 by St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. and by Goose Lane in Canada. His book explores the time period of Shakespeare’s life and specifically massive upheaval of scientific thought that was happening in the very same neighborhood where Shakespeare lived and worked. We are delighted to have Dan here with us today to take us behind the curtain and into the science life of William Shakespeare.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Dan about :

  • Did the field of science as we know it today exist in Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • What do you think Shakespeare would have known about early developments of science?
  • In the play, Hamlet, the prince describes himself saying “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space” (Act II). What did the average 17th century playgoer understand about infinite space?
  • …and more!

Copernicus’ book on the orbit of the planets

This is the title page for the book published in 1566, the year William Shakespeare turned 2 years old. Little did the young child know the world was entering The Scientific Revolution which would impact the words he would write into plays like Hamlet, The Tempest, King Lear, and more just a few years later.

This book is actually a series of smaller books and was dedicated to the Pope Paul III. As Copernicus writes himself, the dedication is intended to demonstrate the alignment of Copernicus’ theories. At the time he was penning this theory, the Church was considering a revision of the Julian Calendar. Copernicus’ dedication indicates he intended his theories to assist the church in establishing a more accurate calendar. It was a smooth political move on Copernicus’ part to include this kind of dedication because one of his main points of opposition from fellow astronomers was the suspicion that his theory contradicted the Bible. One of the Church’s main reasons for being interested in astronomy so heavily was that it was considering changing the calendar based on the alignment of the stars.

Read the entire copy of Copernicus’ writing here. 

Nicolai Copernicito Torinensis De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in six books) (title page of 2nd edition, Basel, 1566)
This is a diagram of the parallax effect you can see inside this article.

Objections to a theory that wasn’t actually new.

Copernicus takes the credit, apparently because modern thought forgot about the older version, but an ancient man had also proposed the Sun might be the center of the universe. In 200 B.C. by Aristarchus of Samos (Samos is an island off the coast of what is now Turkey). Aristarchus actually proposed that the Earth rotated on in addition to its orbiting around the sun. Aristotle came along and effectively squashed Aristarchus’ theories, and ironically, was one reason Shakespeare’s contemporaries struggled with accepting Copernicus’ ideas as well. Aristotle was powerfully influential in the establishment of these major 16th century “common” ideas:

First, people struggled with a heliocentric universe because they thought if the Earth was spinning on an axis, object ought to fly off. Since they weren’t, they were unsure what that meant about the theory.

Second, they had trouble with the idea of the Earth moving, since object not tied to the Earth, like bird in the air, weren’t getting left behind when the Earth moved on. (Don’t laugh too hard, ignorance and hindsight are a brutal combination for anyone).

Thirdly, there was the parallax effect. They thought that if this was real, you ought to be able to see it happening. If the Earth was orbiting the sun, why couldn’t we see the objects going passed us?


Books Dan Recommends:

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