Archive for the ‘Germany’ Category

The following is based on part eleven of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about quantum physics:

We used to think that science could give us a perfect picture of the material world. But we now know, because of quantum physics in the 1900s, that absolute knowledge is impossible. There is a limit to what we can know – even with the most perfect and most powerful instruments imaginable.

For example, with a high-powered electron microscope you can see atoms. Yet no matter how much you increase the power you will never get a sharp image.

Even something as simple and straightforward as the position of a star in the sky is not perfectly knowable: different human observers come up with different positions and even the same person repeating the observation does not come up with the very same answer each time.

Karl Gauss in 1795 noticed that the observations made a bell curve – the closer you get to the average position, the more observations there are. But you cannot even say that the star is at the average position – all you can say is that it is the most probable position, which is not quite the same thing as its true position.

Gauss lived in Gottingen, a small German university town. It was here, over a hundred years later, in the 1920s, that some of the leading minds of physics came on the train from Berlin to work out the physics of the atom and its parts: quantum physics.

The atom is made of moving parts, such as the electron, and yet there is something very strange about them. Werner Heisenberg in 1927 found that you can tell what the position of an electron is but not its speed and direction – or, if you nail down its speed and direction, then you cannot tell its position. It is one or the other but never both at the same time. This is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Gottingen had something else: a collection of skulls. These skulls were used to support a racist view of the world, a view of the world that dealt in inhuman certainties. It came to power in the person of Hitler. The skies darkened over Europe, as they had in the days of Galileo. The great minds of Europe fled – or fell silent:

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

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nobel-prizeThe Nobel Prizes are given every year to those who have benefited mankind the most in one of six fields: peace, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry and economics. It is a high honour – and you get a good bit of money too: more than a million dollars American (132,000 metric crowns).

Here are the Nobel Prize winners for 2008:


Martti Ahtisaari, a United Nations peacemaker and president of Finland in the late 1990s. For more than 30 years he has gone all over the world to help make peace, in places like the Horn of Africa, Namibia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Aceh in Indonesia. He is particularly proud of Namibia, whose independence from South Africa he helped to work out after many long years. Namibia made him an honorary citizen.


Jean-Marie Le Clezio, who is possibly the greatest living French writer. Among his better known works are “Onitsha” (1991) and “Wandering Star” (1992), but it was “The Interrogation” (1963) that made his name. He has travelled the world and even lived with the Embera Indians of Panama for a time. It gave him something of an outsider’s view of life in the West, especially life in its big cities.


This one was split between three scientists: Francoise Barre-Sinoussi (a woman) and Luc Montagnier, both from France, who discovered HIV, the virus that causes Aids, and a German, Harald zur Hausen, who discovered another virus, HPV, which is found in nearly all women with cervical cancer


Half of the physics prize goes to Yoichiro Nambu, who discovered the broken symmetry of the universe, and the other half is split between Makoto Kobayashi (not the artist) and Toshihide Maskawa, who applied Nambu’s theory to show that there was an unknown set of quarks, which have since been discovered. Broken symmetry means that the laws of the physics do not work the same way in all directions in space and time. Not what you would expect. All three were born in Japan, but Nambu is now an American.


Won by two Americans – Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien – and one Japanese scientist – Osamu Shimonura – for their work on GFP – green fluorescent protein. GFP, found in jellyfish, gives off a green light. Shimonura found the protein that was causing the light, Chalfie found a way to put it in other animals to study how parts of the body, healthy or diseased, grow and change, while Tsien found ways to make the light stronger and give off different colours.


Paul Krugman, an American economist at Princeton, who has long pointed out what was wrong in President Bush’s policies from the pages of the New York Times. He won the Nobel not for that, but for his work on trade patterns. He has shown how world trade (globalization) has given us huge cities and huge backward regions where people are poor.

For those at home who are keeping score:

  • America: Nambu (Japanese-born), Krugman, Chalfie, Tsien
  • Japan: Kobayashi, Maskawa, Shimonura
  • France: Le Clezio, Barre-Sinoussi, Montagnier
  • Finland: Ahtisaari
  • Germany: zur Hausen

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Saint Elizabeth (1207-1231) was a princess, the daughter of the king of Hungary. She lived in a castle on the top of a hill in the middle of Germany: she was married to the count of Thuringia. But after he died fighting in the Holy Land she was turned out of the castle and became a poor but holy woman in a plain, grey dress. She had never been so happy.

When she died the birds came and sang on the top of the church. People cut off pieces of her hair and graveclothes as holy relics. Many reported miracles done in her name after her death, especially at or near her tomb in Marburg.

Even when she was five she was religious. She would rather pray than play. She liked to pray laying face down on the ground with her arms stretched out. Even before she could read she would act as if she were reading the book of Psalms. Winning games made her uncomfortable and what she won she would give away.

She wanted to live as a poor virgin all her life, but her father, the king, wanted her to marry the count of Thuringia. She did so out of respect for him. She had sex and had children, but only as a duty not as a pleasure.

She would not eat the fine food that princesses ate in those days. She would push the food about on her plate or eat what the servants ate. When they were on the road that meant old black bread in hot water. When her husband was away she prayed all night.

She liked to pray the Our Father and Hail Mary. She liked the Te Deum.

With her own money she built a hospital to care for the sick. She sold her jewels to help feed the poor. She gave away clothing. She went to the funerals of the poor. Once she tore the linen veil from her face and used it to cover a poor, dead man before he was put into the ground. She was like Mother Theresa in our time, caring for the sick, the poor, the old and the dying.

After her husband died and she sank into poverty, her father, the king and her uncle, the bishop, offered to save her from her fate. But she said no: poverty is a virtue, the road to holiness. No one had ever seen anything like it: the daughter of the king living as a poor woman.

She prayed much and had visions of heaven. She once saw Jesus and, before she died, she saw her angel and the devil.

Many miracles were reported after her death when people visited her tomb or made a promise to God in her name. The dead were brought back to life (especially children pulled from rivers), the blind given sight and arms and legs made whole.

Feast day: November 17th.

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Martin Luther (1483-1546) founded the Protestant faith in 1517. It started when he nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of a church in Germany, protesting the corruption of the Catholic Church. This led to a hundred years of off-and-on religious wars that divided first Germany and then Europe in half. Protestants are now the second largest branch of Christianity.

Luther founded the first Protestant church, the Lutherans. His ideas were later developed by Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland. It is their sort of Christianity that became common in the English-speaking world.

Luther was an Augustinian monk who felt he was not going to heaven. No matter how often he confessed his sins and did all the things a good Catholic should, he was not at peace. A friend of his told him to study Scripture. So he did and found his answer in Romans 1:17:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”

We are not saved by our good works, but by faith, a faith which God gives us by his grace – his free and unmerited gift.

Yet at this very time the Church was selling indulgences to lessen the punishments of purgatory in the afterlife. Not only had the practice become corrupt, it was completely against Luther’s new understanding of the faith.

So to protest against indulgences he nailed to a church door his list of 95 reasons why they and the Church were wrong.

In the following years Luther went further. He taught two things that became the root of all Protestant thinking:

  1. Sola fide: “faith alone” is all that you need to be saved. You do not get to heaven by good works, you get there by faith in Christ.
  2. Sola scriptura: “scripture alone” is all you need to reach the truth. You do not need popes or bishops to tell you what to think.

Luther was declared a heretic and brought to Worms before the emperor, his princes and a representative of the pope. They tried to get him to back off. He refused. So they condemned him.

Luther’s friends got him into hiding at the castle of Wartburg. There he translated the Bible into German.

Luther translated all the books of the Bible, but he said that some books were not sacred: they were good to read, but should not be used to argue doctrine. These became the books of the Apocrypha:

  • Old Testament: Maccabees, Baruch, Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
  • New Testament: James, Jude, Hebrews, Revelation

As it happens, Maccabees and James supported Catholic ideas of purgatory and good works.

Melanchthon, who came after Luther, restored the New Testament but kept Luther’s Apocrypha for the Old Testament.

Luther’s ideas divided Germany. It led to years of war with neither side able to win outright. Nine years after Luther’s death it was agreed that each German prince could choose the religion of his own subjects.

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printing press

The printing press is an invention that can copy books without anyone writing them out by hand. It uses ink on movable type which is pressed on paper to make a copy of a page. Johannes Gutenberg made the first working printing press in the 1450s in Germany.

Movable type is made up of thousands of letters made out of metal called type. Type can be put in any order to create any page of writing. The type is locked into a wood frame, ink is spread on it and then it is pressed against paper to copy the page. Putting together the type for one page can take longer than writing it out by hand, but once you have it together, the press can turn out hundreds of copies an hour.

You repeat this process for all the other pages of a book.

Printing with wood blocks had been known for hundreds of years – it seems to have started in Korea. But making wood blocks for a whole book was slow, mistakes were hard to fix and the blocks wore out too quickly. This sort of printing did not cut the cost of making books by much.

Movable type first appeared in China in 1041, but it did not catch on in China the way it did in Europe. Perhaps because a movable type of Latin letters was much easier to work with than one of Chinese characters.

Gutenberg was not the only one trying to build a working printing press in the 1440s and 1450s. He was one of many, but he was the first to succeed.

Gutenberg was a goldsmith by trade. That matters because the hard part of making a working printing press was getting the metal of the type just right: if the metal was too soft, the type would wear out too quickly; if it was too hard, it would make holes in the paper. To get his printing press to work, Gutenberg also had to make changes to the paper and ink he used. The sort of paper and ink used to copy books out by hand did not produce clear letters in a printing press.

Gutenberg produced huge church Bibles. They looked just like the old huge church Bibles except that they were made by his new invention. Even the letters were made to look as if they were handwritten.

His first Bible came out in 1456. In Latin. Because the Bible is a long book, it was an excellent test for a printing press. He printed only large church Bibles, about 150 of them.

Before Gutenberg a huge church Bible cost about 160 crowns ($1500). That was about four years’ pay for a labourer. Gutenberg cut the cost down to a fourth of that, 40 crowns. Now, with all the advances made in printing since then, you can get the same sort of Bible for 5 crowns.

The printing press made possible not just cheap books, but new forms of reading material. Among others:

  • newspapers starting in the 1600s
  • magazines starting in the 1800s
  • junk mail starting in the 1900s

With the printing press a new medium was born: print. It gave the written word a power and presence it never had before.

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