'God's philosophers - How the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science' a book by alumnus Dr James Hannam

9 June 2013 by Valeria Crowder

Alumnus news. Today: Dr James Hannam.

After leaving Oxford in 1993 where he’d graduated in physics under Professor Neville Harnew, Dr James Hannam has been an accountant and a historian of science. His book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science was published in 2009. It was shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2010 and the British Society for the History of Science Book Prize in 2011.

God's Philosophers, intended as popular rather than academic history, combines James’s passion for the Middle Ages with his interest in science. In the book, he traces the neglected roots of modern science in the medieval world. He debunks many of the myths about the Middle Ages, showing that medieval people did not think the earth was flat, nor did Columbus 'prove' that it is a sphere.
On the contrary, as James reveals, the Middle Ages gave rise to great achievements in both science and technology: for instance, spectacles and the mechanical clock were both invented in thirteenth-century Europe. Ideas from the Far East, like printing, gunpowder and the compass, were taken further by Europeans than the Chinese had imagined possible. The compass helped Columbus to discover the New World in 1492 while printing allowed an incredible 20 million books to be produced in the first 50 years after Gutenberg published his Bible in 1455.

More controversially, James argues that scientific progress was often made thanks to, rather than in spite of, the influence of Christianity. And he uncovers Oxford’s forgotten legacy to physics. The Merton Calculators of the fourteenth century were celebrated throughout Europe. They developed physical theories later picked up by Galileo, who neglected to mention Oxford's contribution. But their mean speed theorem, which describes the motion of a constantly accelerating object, is foundational to modern mechanics.

Dr Hannam's website is here.

God's Philosophers is available at Blackwells (where over 1,000 copies have been sold) and other good bookshops, as well as through Amazon.

We welcome news from alumni, please send us your story (with photos when possible) to alumni@physics.ox.ac.uk.

Categories: alumni | books | philosophy | modern science | medieval