Nautilus

The Spirit of the Inquisition Lives in Science

I’ve been talking to Jerome Cardano for years now. What’s more, he talks back to me—in a voice that often drips with gentle mockery. He clearly thinks my sanity is as precarious as his always was.

Jerome was Europe’s pre-eminent inventor, physician, astrologer, and mathematician in the 16th century. He created the first theory of probability, and discovered the square root of a negative number, something we now call the imaginary number and an essential part of our understanding of how the universe holds together. He invented the mechanical gimbal that was to make the printing press possible. His idea led to the “Cardan joint” that takes the rotary power in the driveshaft of your car’s engine and allows it to be transmitted to the front and rear axles. He pioneered the experimental method of research in areas as diverse as medical cures for deafness and hernia, cryptography, and speaking with the dead (forgive him, his were not strictly scientific times).

SKEPTIC ASTROLOGER: Jerome Cardano, pictured in this rendering, was convinced stars and planets exerted some influence on people. But as a rational thinker, he was conflicted. “A man is a fool who attaches too much meaning to insignificant events,” he wrote.Wikimedia

My obsession with Jerome has taken me over. I’ve been schooled in quantum physics and trained to think rationally, dissecting facts and ideas dispassionately. And here I am constantly carrying on imaginary conversations with a 16th-century astrologer. Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this is that Jerome is not remotely humbled by talking to someone from the future. On the contrary, he feels he has earned such visitations through his earnest attempts to discern the truth about

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