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The Struggle To Understand by Herbert C. Corben

01/01/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Struggle To Understand in the USA - or Buy The Struggle To Understand in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 398 page indexed occasionally illustrated small enlarged paperback. Price: $29.98 (US), GBP 33.98 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-59102-385-2).

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

The sub-title of this 1989 book is ‘A History Of Human Wonder & Discovery’. Author Herbert Corben is the first to admit that he is a scientist not a historian but his perspective on how science developed in more primitive cultures, often struggling against religious dogma and superstition over the generations gives some interesting thought. It is also a compelling and intense read.



Alexander the Great, for instance, might have been a world conqueror but it wasn’t by chance that his name was given to a library but was also a patriot in supplying animal samples to the early scientists as they were determined to discover how everything worked. They still had some funny notions but based on what they learnt, the Greeks specifically were a lot more sophisticated and were actually astute on some medical procedures. With astronomy, they also figured out that the Earth orbited the sun as well as the study of music and harmonics discovered wavelengths. All quite sophisticated work back then and it does make you wonder how more quickly science would have progressed had it been allowed to flourish than have its discoverers persecuted by the church.

The switch from alchemy to chemistry was slowed down by the desire to discover the philosopher’s stone and the transmutation of one element to another. Even the renowned Isaac Newton dabbled deeply into alchemy. Did you know the word ‘gas’ derives from ‘chaos’? Me neither until now.

The examination of numerology is interesting, not so much for any meaning but how the human mind looks for patterns in everything let alone put significance to it.

Things got very interesting in chapter ten when Corben explores the Muslim world of the past and is actually very much an eye-opener. Most of our science and history is based on familiar names who made discoveries. In real terms, the early Muslim scientists discovered a lot more earlier and if it hadn’t been for the translations made, much of the material would have been destroyed in the Crusades and later by Genghis Khan. In recent times, we’re more familiar with the, shall we say, Muslim religious slant but of all the material here, if you’re interested in world-building, then seeing this from a different perspective puts a lot of things in context.

If you though Copernicus and Galileo were the first people to profess the world was round, let along orbiting a sun and not vice versa, then chapter twelve dealing with all things astronomical leads you back to the likes of Ptolemy and Roger Bacon, amongst others who did the groundwork. Understanding eclipses and patience plotting the planetary movement started very early. Galileo’s initial contribution was in ballistics for throwing missiles and without some knowledge of planetary movement would have been a little difficult to work out. After all, the world isn’t flat. All these people had run-ins with the church and many died along the way simply because it went against the word of the Bible. Ultimately, science won but it was a long and hard battle of proof to do so.

For that, the chapter looking at the death toll surrounding those accused of witchcraft didn’t just hit old lady healers but a number of the scientific community, especially those who couldn’t see any validity in the magic claims. Corben doesn’t just explore the known cases in the UK and USA but also Europe as well, giving a very enlightening picture. If anything this gives a definite indication of how many people are afraid of change and the amount of torture dished out to the accused how unchecked, torture became a way of life.

Getting into the swing of Corben’s technique now, he works out from how science had to break out from religious dogma to prove it was right let alone correcting things like Galen’s anatomy classes where he used animals than dissecting humans, which even among the medical fraternity was sacrosanct. I suspect the persistence of tradition and the belief in the Bible was largely because it appeared safer, even if the world might be falling down around you as witnessed by the black death and other plagues. Speaking of the Bible, did you know that the Hebrew word for ‘idols’ was translated into ‘devils’? Makes you wonder how much else was wrong in translation, doesn’t it? Corben points out other things as well, including a template for Christ’s life given by Elijah in the Old Testament. As to the New Testament, how the four apostles would hardly make expert witnesses considering that they couldn’t even get the number of people right at Christ’s tomb.

Chapters fifteen and sixteen will give you a crash course in scientific laws and the people who discovered them. As the power of the church shrank or at least you weren’t facing death for blasphemy, scientific thought really came to the fore and even biblical creation was finally being brought to rest by fossils and evolution. Corben makes a point that evolution isn’t a theory as there is so much evidence to back it up.

Chapter seventeen cross-references to all the chapters with other information of how uninformed some people are. You have to love the male American untrained nursing assistant in 1989 who couldn’t tell the difference between blood pressure and breathing rate although I hope has found different employment since. Come to that, the Pope forgiving Galileo when it was the Catholic Church who got it wrong shows an odd logic on history. What is worrying is the statistics from 1989 where Texas teachers believing that humans and dinosaurs were around at the same time. Then again, Corben also points out the dumbing down is caused by people watching more than reading and writing to get their brains working with cognitive skills. A useful tip we can all learn from.

This book really is an education of knowledge and I’m only scratching the surface with brief mentions of things I’ve learnt from this reading. Considering how much religion held back scientific development and the number of learned men it killed in its path, you have to admire the people who stood up to these paragons of virtue at the time.

Forget the age of this book. If you really want to get insight into how scientists were continually beaten down by religions, then you will learn not only that but also when and how discoveries were met. If you’re into SF world-building than an insight into how such a struggle happened on our own planet will make you pause and think. If you’re only going to buy one science-based book this year, then invest in this one.

GF Willmetts

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