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JESUITICA: A penchant for science

jesuit_scientists_01During their first century the Jesuits were the only scientific society in existence anywhere. Jesuit scientists treated science as a window on God’s grandeur. Science and mathematics maintained a place of honour in the curriculum established for Jesuit seminarians in the Roman College. Jesuit educators knew that “many a professor of philosophy has made no end of mistakes because of his ignorance of mathematics”. In 1611 a school in Antwerp specializing exclusively in mathematics was established for young Jesuits skilled in the sciences. As a result, scientific inquiry of a high order flourished in the early Society, and put them in touch with people who otherwise had murderous prejudice against Jesuits – witness the extraordinary contacts of Francis Line (d. 1675). Read more below.

Francis Line entered the Jesuits the year that Robert Southwell was hanged, drawn and quartered, and in a time when those who harboured Jesuits in England were crushed to death. To gladden their beleaguered fellow Catholics, exiled Jesuits returned to England on any pretext and occasionally their capricious persecutors even requested their assistance. In 1669 King Charles II felt he needed a spectacular sundial for his garden in Whitehall. Francis Line, renowned dial maker and professor of physics in Liege, was chosen for the job. Some sort of gentleman’s truce was arranged, Line came to Whitehall and built a elaborate dial modelled after his famous sundial at Liege. It was an immediate and immense success, and consisted of a series of glass spheres floating freely in fluid inside larger glass spheres. Because this fascinating sundial had interesting demonstration possibilities – even for inquisitors, a friend of Galileo requested Line to bring one to Rome to help Galileo defend the heliocentric theory. Although Line was willing, Galileo was not.