A 15 Minute Trip Around the World via the Internet


An amazing artifact from the museum of archaeology and anthropology, Cambridge

Weekly Web Links:

Historical Book Review for the Week:

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve


I’m pretty sure that, in today’s world, it is fairly well established that everything is made up of microscopic pieces called atoms.  That being said, I very rarely look at a physical object and consider what its made of.  I know that its made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons joining together to make a larger object but to all practical purposes, a table is a table.  If it’s this hard to really take in the concept of atoms in today’s world, just think how impressive it was for people to have developed such a concept in a world were everything was brought into being by the will of a divine power and scientific development was typically viewed with fear and anger.

It was into this world that Lucretius was born and, despite the Middle Ages best efforts to destroy his work, he left behind a poem entitled On the Nature of Things which contained many key concepts that went on to play a major impact on the Age of Enlightenment and, consequentially, our modern world.  These ideas included:

  • that everything is made on invisible particles which he referred to as “the seeds of things”
  • these “seeds of things” are eternal; they cannot be created or destroyed
  • elementary particles are infinite in number but have limitations in regard to shape and size
  • all particles are in motion
  • the universe has no creator or designer (this was a really popular view in the Middle Ages…)
  • everything comes into being as a result of a swerve; a swerve is an unpredictable or unexpected movement of matter, an unenforceable diversion from the direct trajectory
  • the swerve is the source of free will
  • nature ceaselessly experiments; all living things have evolved rather than sprung into being fully formed
  • the universe is not created for or about humans; humans are not unique
  • human society did not begin in an age of tranquility but rather in a primitive battle for survival

While the modernizing aspects of Lucretius’ work is an important part of this book, it is the efforts of one Poggio Bracciolii during the 1400’s to uncover the work and return it to the world at large that plays the central role in this story and that is an interesting one full of disposed popes and heretics being burned at the stake along with travels through Italy and Germany plus one or two greedy, wealthy collectors and a fascinating look a book production before the Gutenberg press was invented.


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