The Well-Read Investor

Historian Seb Falk on Seeing the Light in the Dark Ages

Today we’re talking history—a period of history most, even universities, gloss over: The period in the West commencing after the fall of the Roman Empire and leading up, more or less, to the Renaissance: The Dark Ages. Or should I say Light Ages?

We’ve got historian Seb Falk to tell us why the Dark Ages is a misnomer, and in fact some great innovation and technology occurred in this era, not to mention advancements in science. Seb’s book, The Light Ages, is a wide-ranging history of medieval science, told through the life of one extraordinary monk, John of Westwyk. The book follows the twists and turns of John's life as a yeoman and novice, scholar and exile, crusader and astronomer—it’s an engaging story and I picked up much the process. You might even think of Westwyk’s spirit as similar to the aspiring stock analyst, questing for the secrets of market behavior.

Seb teaches medieval history and the history of science at Cambridge University, and specializes in astronomy, navigation and mathematics from their ancient origins to modern developments. And it’s this technological part of things I found most interesting—Seb calls the Astrolabe the “smartphone” of its era, as it allowed practitioners to know the date and time from anywhere, was aesthetically designed and served as a symbol of status (so much like today’s iphones). And it’s got a literary history—Geoffrey Chaucer, of Canterbury Tales fame, himself wrote a treatise on how to use one. Seb’s book prompted me to buy an astrolabe (in fact you can get a good one for less than 50 dollars on Amazon), and I’m in the midst of learning to use it.

But so much more than that—advances in astronomy, mathematics, and much else happened in the “Light” Ages, and serves as a reminder that today’s technology will one day, too, be outmoded and apparently barbaric. Investors should take note, developments in how we measure the world will change how we see it, and with so much data today you can see the parallels between how our beliefs are shaped by what we can measure.

Enjoy this one—Seb is a gifted speaker, writer, and storyteller, and we had a lot of fun talking. And make sure to follow us on social media on Twitter @wellreadpod and Instagram at @wellreadinvestorpod or just google the Well Read Investor to see what I’m reading, reviewing, and talking about week in and out.

Today we’re talking history—a period of history most, even universities, gloss over: The period in the West commencing after the fall of the Roman Empire and leading up, more or less, to the Renaissance: The Dark Ages. Or should I say Light Ages?

We’ve got historian Seb Falk to tell us why the Dark Ages is a misnomer, and in fact some great innovation and technology occurred in this era, not to mention advancements in science. Seb’s book, The Light Ages, is a wide-ranging history of medieval science, told through the life of one extraordinary monk, John of Westwyk. The book follows the twists and turns of John's life as a yeoman and novice, scholar and exile, crusader and astronomer—it’s an engaging story and I picked up much the process. You might even think of Westwyk’s spirit as similar to the aspiring stock analyst, questing for the secrets of market behavior.

Seb teaches medieval history and the history of science at Cambridge University, and specializes in astronomy, navigation and mathematics from their ancient origins to modern developments. And it’s this technological part of things I found most interesting—Seb calls the Astrolabe the “smartphone” of its era, as it allowed practitioners to know the date and time from anywhere, was aesthetically designed and served as a symbol of status (so much like today’s iphones). And it’s got a literary history—Geoffrey Chaucer, of Canterbury Tales fame, himself wrote a treatise on how to use one. Seb’s book prompted me to buy an astrolabe (in fact you can get a good one for less than 50 dollars on Amazon), and I’m in the midst of learning to use it.

But so much more than that—advances in astronomy, mathematics, and much else happened in the “Light” Ages, and serves as a reminder that today’s technology will one day, too, be outmoded and apparently barbaric. Investors should take note, developments in how we measure the world will change how we see it, and with so much data today you can see the parallels between how our beliefs are shaped by what we can measure.

Enjoy this one—Seb is a gifted speaker, writer, and storyteller, and we had a lot of fun talking. And make sure to follow us on social media on Twitter @wellreadpod and Instagram at @wellreadinvestorpod or just google the Well Read Investor to see what I’m reading, reviewing, and talking about week in and out.

INTRO:

Hello everyone today is May 12th 20-21 and welcome to another edition of the Well-Read Investor, the podcast that profits your mind and your money. I’m your host Mike Hanson.

Today we’re talking history—a period of history most, even universities, gloss over: The period in the West commencing after the fall of the Roman Empire and leading up, more or less, to the Renaissance: The Dark Ages. Or should I say Light Ages?

We’ve got historian Seb Falk to tell us why the Dark Ages is a misnomer, and in fact some great innovation and technology occurred in this era, not to mention advancements in science. Seb’s book, The Light Ages, is a wide-ranging history of medieval science, told through the life of one extraordinary monk, John of Westwyk. The book follows the twists and turns of John's life as a yeoman and novice, scholar and exile, crusader and astronomer—it’s an engaging story and I picked up much the process. You might even think of Westwyk’s spirit as similar to the aspiring stock analyst, questing for the secrets of market behavior.

Seb teaches medieval history and the history of science at Cambridge University, and specializes in astronomy, navigation and mathematics from their ancient origins to modern developments. And it’s this technological part of things I found most interesting—Seb calls the Astrolabe the “smartphone” of its era, as it allowed practitioners to know the date and time from anywhere, was aesthetically designed and served as a symbol of status (so much like today’s iphones). And it’s got a literary history—Geoffrey Chaucer, of Canterbury Tales fame, himself wrote a treatise on how to use one. Seb’s book prompted me to buy an astrolabe (in fact you can get a good one for less than 50 dollars on Amazon), and I’m in the midst of learning to use it.

But so much more than that—advances in astronomy, mathematics, and much else happened in the “Light” Ages, and serves as a reminder that today’s technology will one day, too, be outmoded and apparently barbaric. Investors should take note, developments in how we measure the world will change how we see it, and with so much data today you can see the parallels between how our beliefs are shaped by what we can measure.

Enjoy this one—Seb is a gifted speaker, writer, and storyteller, and we had a lot of fun talking. And make sure to follow us on social media on Twitter @wellreadpod and Instagram at @wellreadinvestorpod or just google the Well Read Investor to see what I’m reading, reviewing, and talking about week in and out.

Now, here's our conversation with Seb Falk.

Mike Hanson:

Seb Falk, so great to speak with you to talk about your book, The Light Ages.

Seb Falk:

Thank you for inviting me.

Mike Hanson:

Really enjoyed the book. I think it really has a place in the history of science has something to say about the philosophy of science, but all sorts of interesting stories in here as well. So let's just start by telling our readers and listeners, what is the thesis of the book, why the light ages versus the dark ages?

Seb Falk:

Well, of course the title comes from people's expectations that the middle ages, by which I'm really referring to Europe in the period from about 500 to 1,500 AD so a long thousand years of history that period was a dark age. That nothing really interesting for science happened in that time. And I wanted to challenge people's expectations by showing them, not just that there were important and useful advances in that time, scientific instruments, discoveries and investigations in how the world worked and important achievements, but also to show how science was really part of the culture of the period. So for me, it's not a science book, it's a history book. It's a book that shows how people in the middle ages looked at the world around them and try to make sense of the world around them in their own way, in ways that sometimes we might think are a bit quirky or odd or unusual unscientific, but in their own way were logical and fitted with the way that people view the world.

Seb Falk:

So it's really trying to put science back into the history of the middle ages and to show that the middle ages, wasn't just this time of plague and Wars and Kings and Queens, but actually it was a time that people produced really interesting and fascinating ideas. So for people who are interested in science it hopefully gets them to look again at a period that has been written off as this kind of millennium gap as Cole Sagan put it and for people who are interested in medieval history, it hopefully will get them to think again about aspects of the period that they perhaps haven't really considered before.

Mike Hanson:

And you're a medievalist and a historian. one of the things I find is that the best historians are some of the best writers of our era these days as well. And I thought you tell very good tales here, but the structure of the book is not necessarily a linear narrative one, it's a series of stories. So tell us about the composition of the book and the choices there.

Seb Falk:

What I really wanted to do was to immerse people in the science of the period, and one of the things that is often attractive about the middle ages, but makes it quite difficult for people to get their heads around is that it is in many ways quite alien. And what I really wanted people to do was to understand, not just that there were interesting ideas, but how to do it. So I really wanted people to kind of see for themselves how advanced medieval science was. I really wanted people to see for themselves why astrology, which we now think of as debunked, pseudo-science was in its own time, kind of logical. And so in order to do that, I really had to immerse people in it, but I didn't want it to feel like a science lesson.

Seb Falk:

So I structured it around a biography of a real life monk, an ordinary guy who had this extraordinary adventurous life, a monk called John Westwick who lived in the second half of the 14th century in England, but also traveled across the sea, went on crusade. And, you know, he had this very adventurous, interesting life. And by using his life, I not only had some interesting stories to tell, to kind of break up some of the science so that people didn't find it too overwhelming, but also I had a kind of structure so that people could learn the science as he learned it. So he's growing up in the fields and not far from London. And how did people use astronomy to organize their farming year? How do people understand the seasons in order to know when to plant their crops and harvest their crops? And then he goes on crusade. And so I talk about navigation and what do people know about mapping and when did the compass come in and these kinds of things. So I tie all of the science to this guy's story. And so that hopefully makes it more interesting and accessible to somebody who's, you know, sitting in their armchair on, on a Friday evening and might tolerate a few pages of trigonometry, but don't want to be completely overwhelmed by it.

Mike Hanson:

I enjoyed the book and in fact, I enjoyed it when it gets technical. I actually learned how to use an Astrolabe as a result of your book, but there's so much to talk about. I want to talk about the philosophy of science. But before we do that, tell us about yourself. Tell us a little bit about your career and how you got interested in this topic.

Seb Falk:

Yeah. I mean, I've always been interested in communicating history to a general audience. So I am an academic. I work at Cambridge university, but before I became an academic, I was a history teacher. And I taught in secondary schools in this country, in the UK and in Canada as well. And so I was always interested in kind of making complex ideas accessible. And I also have never really enjoyed the way subjects are really divided. I didn't like the way that history is humanities and science is something separate and people who are interested in history can kind of ignore the sciences. I've always been interested in all these things. And so I studied history of science. I did a master's and a PhD at Cambridge, and I got to the end of my PhD.

Seb Falk:

And I kind of thought, I really want people to know about this stuff because academics all understand that there was really interesting science happening in the middle ages, but so many people out there still think that everybody in the middle ages believed the world was flat. They didn't, like any serious scholar, knew the world was round and they had plenty of textbooks to prove it. One of the things that we do in my book, as we talk through some of the explanations of how you can prove the world is round without having to go on a spaceship and look back towards the earth. So I was just really interested in getting the ideas that I had investigated in my PhD and bringing them to a general audience. One thing that I studied and discovered in my PhD was about this monk, John Westwick, the manuscript.

Seb Falk:

He wrote a number of manuscripts and the one that he wrote that's most important and most famous is a description of how to make a planetary computer. So a device to find the positions of the planets at any time in the past or future. And it's kind of a model of the planetary theory of the day, which allowed you to calculate the positions of the planets really extremely accurately. And this manuscript which was discovered in the 1950s, for a long time historians thought it might have been written by Geoffrey Chaucer. So it was quite high profile because Chaucer English, poet, father of English literature, a very famous man, who was interested in astronomy. And then another scholar in 2014, a woman named Kariana Runned from Norway proved that this wasn't by Chaucer, this was by this monk, John Westwick.

Seb Falk:

And that set me off on this adventure of finding out why this monk invented this astronomical instrument and how an ordinary monk would have learned about this stuff. This is the period when the European universities were founded and it's quite possible, or probable that John Westwick would have attended Oxford university. And so I talk about, you know, the lives of monks at university, what they studied, what they drank, what they ate, how were the fights they got into and all that kind of thing too.

Mike Hanson:

One of the things that strikes me about this is that it's sort of a very practical era of science in a certain manner of speaking. And, you know, you refer to the Astro lab as sort of the smartphone of its day. And I want to talk more about that, especially about Chaucer, but what in your view are some of the great grand achievements of this era? Yeah.

Seb Falk:

One of the hallmarks of the area, you’re right, is a kind of attempt to make things practical, to make things user friendly. So one of the criticisms is there, weren't a huge number of great theoretical achievements in this period. And of course you can challenge that, but to an extent it is true that people in the middle ages saw themselves as building on the achievements of the ancient Greeks and also on the achievements of scholars in the Islamic world. So they were building on other people's previous ideas, but they were making these ideas more user-friendly. So they were really keen on their gadgets, the Astro Lab, like you were talking about is a key gadget of the middle ages. And it develops out of ancient Greece it's developed in the Islamic world. And then it comes to Europe where it's further develops.

Seb Falk:

Of course there are more practical advances in the period. Things like advances in milling technology the crank and cam shaft, the clock, the mechanical clock depending on what you call a clock and mechanical clock. The first mechanical clocks were arguably developed in medieval Europe. And one of the most advanced, or the most advanced clock up to that date was devised by Abbott of San Orbens, Richard Wallingford, a really interesting character who died of leprosy in 1335. And he crops up in my book as well. So there's clocks, there's the universities, as I've mentioned, there's advances in technology, both practical technology and scientific instruments like this one.

Mike Hanson:

We're doing this podcast actually by video and Seb, you've got an Astro lab in your hands. And in fact, I'll tell our listeners, you've got a couple of very good videos on YouTube actually describing how these things work. And it helped me out a lot because in fact, I did go to the Chaucer texts to see if I could figure it out. And certainly was challenging. So let's talk about that for a moment. So Chaucer wrote a treatise on the astrolabe ostensibly to his son, is that correct?

Seb Falk:

That's right. Yeah. So it opens, little Louis, my son and it's addressed to his 10 year old son and he says you're a 10 year old boy, you're smart enough now to figure out an Astrolabe. So he's laying down the challenge for his readers and I'm doing the same thing, right. It’s not really clear whether this really was written for Louis Chaucer. So even in fact what evidence there is that Louis Chaucer was a real person is, is kind of arguable. And, some historians have thought that this is kind of like Astro leaves for dummies. You know, if, if a kid can understand this, so can you and what chores did was he wrote this in English, in the growing vernacular, middle English of a period when people are getting more patriotic and people are using English rather than Latin.

Seb Falk:

And he took earlier instruction manuals and he wrote his own one. That was just incredibly easy to understand that, of course, for modern readers, you've got to get over the fact it's written in middle English and some of the explanations, perhaps aren't as accessible as we would want, but it is a very good way of understanding this instrument, which is a model of the heavens. So it's a clock, and it's an astronomical computer, and it's a surveying device all rolled into one. So you can tell the time, you can work out when a star is going to rise, you can work out how high a building is, you can work out where you are.

Seb Falk:

You can do all these things. That's why I call it the medieval smartphone, because it's a multifunctional device, it doesn't do things that couldn't be done before. You know, astronomers could do all those things before the Australasia was invented. But what it does is it condenses them into this neat little package. It's a neat little gadget and just like smartphones today, most users don't take advantage of their full potential. Most users don't do all of the things that a smartphone can do. They just use a handful of the most popular functions and a smartphone then also becomes a status symbol and an astro lab, in the same way was a status symbol. People wanted to have the latest one, the best one.

Mike Hanson:

And they're very beautiful things or they can be.

Seb Falk:

Yeah absolutely. because I think a lot of people probably would have owned an Astra label. It wasn't so beautiful, but they don't survive. The ones that survive in museums are the beautiful ones. They vary in size. They’re usually made of brass. They can sometimes be as small as the Palm of your hand, but they can be even 24 inches in diameter. But it's a kind of grid of stars that moves over this projection over this grid of the sky. And so you can watch the stars rise and set, and you can watch the sun rise and set, and once you've got the hang of it, the basic functions are pretty easy to figure out. But when you look at it, it looks like some secret that's going to tell you the mysteries of the world. And of course, people in the period, too thought that.

Mike Hanson:

Well, and it's got its astrological features to it as well. Right. I mean, you can figure out what sign you're under with an astrolabe.I suppose that's why some moderns probably condescend toward it. Right?

Seb Falk:

Yeah. And it's easy to forget that astrology was taken extremely seriously at the time. It stands to reason really for people in the time. The sun heats up the earth, the moon controls the tides, why shouldn't other planets also affect the earth? If they affect the weather, then they might affect your health. And if they affect your health, then they might affect your mood. And if they affect your mood, well, then they might affect your behavior and other people's behavior. In a world where people are looking for explanations for things just as we do today, astrology is one of those explanations, but it's not the only one.

Seb Falk:

So when the plague comes along and hits Europe in the 1340s people ask for different explanations, but they don't just pick one. They say, yes, it may be God's punishment. They say, yes, it may be bad air, environmental causes, some kind stagnation or, or, or, or contagion in the air. And then they say, Oh, well, you know, maybe there's some kind of astrological conjunction. And they say, well, you know, in 1345, there was this great conjunction, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn all came together in the sky. And maybe that caused the, the plague that we're seeing. 

Mike Hanson:

It's so true. I mean, one of the things I want to get to with you is the philosophy of science and how it just seems to me that we're having the same debates today, but the content of them has changed. Before we go there, though, I do want to ask you as a medievalist and a historian, particularly with this era, how much in the way of languages do you have to study in which ones were most relevant for a book like this?

Seb Falk:

Languages are incredibly useful if you want to access different sources. For me, the main language of science in the middle ages was Latin. And then middle English was essential, so I tried to pack the book with a lot of poetry because I wanted to show how science was part of the culture of the day. So how Chaucer writes in his poetry about science, how John Gouache, also his friend/ rival writes, put science in his poetry and other people as well. And so the more languages you have, the more you can bring that in. The is some middle French in there as well. Arabic becomes very important because people are bringing ideas from the Middle East and embracing them. And if you really want to understand how those ideas were adopted you need to have access to that. And there are still many texts in Latin and in Arabic that are in manuscripts in libraries and exist in one or a dozen copies but have never been formally published. Of course, these days they're being digitized and put online, but that doesn't mean that they're necessarily easy to read or easy to access. You know, I have studied Arabic. My Arabic is not as good as I would like it to be. But I'm working on it. So I think, you know, the more languages you can get the better and the more rounded picture you have of the period.

Mike Hanson:

Yeah. Tell me about the importance of the Middle East and India in this period, because it's actually very vibrant period in that part of the world at this time, is it not?

Seb Falk:

Yeah, that's right. The kind of golden age of Islamic science. The middle East is fairly straight forward, except that the trouble is that the Islamic world, as sometimes people call it, it's not confined to the middle East. One of the greatest richest parts of Islamic culture in the middle ages was in Spain and North Africa which, cities like Seville and Cordova and Granada were incredibly rich and culturally vibrant cities. And so the Islamic world stretched from the Mediterranean, from Spain all the way to India. And, not all the people who were practicing science there were Muslims, there were Christians that were Jews and they weren't all speaking Arabic either.

Seb Falk:

Although most of the science of the period was done in Arabic, there were also people who spoke other languages there as well. So it's a kind of complicated cultural picture, but the great heyday of Islamic science and scientific culture is the ninth, 10th centuries. The period just around and leading up to the millennium up to the year 1000, when scholars in Baghdad above all under the Abassid caliphate translated texts, scientific ideas from India from ancient Greece, brought them together and studied them incredibly intensively. So you've got, more or less, household names and less well-known names living all around the same time and intensively studying and spreading knowledge. And there's this incredible culture of translating and studying and developing ideas.

Seb Falk:

And those ideas get passed into Western Europe in the 12th century. And really they are instrumental in the foundation of the universities, because what happens is the ideas of the ancient Greeks, particularly philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and astronomers people like Ptolemy who lived in the second century AD and Alexandria their ideas were lost to Europe, but they were picked up and developed and enhanced and refined and built on in the Islamic world. And those developed ideas are picked up again in Europe and translated into Latin by scholars who go to Spain, but also Southern Italy to learn Arabic and study. And those are really he foundation of the Renaissance. So you look at Copernicus, by some accounts the first modern scientific thinker.

Seb Falk:

But a lot of his scientific ideas, certainly the geometry that made his heliocentric cosmos possible, came from Islamic scholars. And they were building on ideas from India as well, of course, the numbers we use today, the numbers zero to nine, we call them Arabic numerals, but really they're Indian numerals or Hindu Arabic numerals. And they came out of India. So there's a lot more transmission than people often realize and a lot more kind of a free flow of ideas. Of course it takes longer in a world without printing. But it does happen.

Mike Hanson:

I'm so glad you said all of that because for my honeymoon some years ago, now we went to the Alhambra in the Southern part of Spain, that’s where I learned about much of that. Works like Shakespeare's Othello made a lot more sense. And certainly I learned a ton about how, just how some of the great Arabic scholars were great Platanus and Aristotelians. Let's go towards science here a little bit though, because you really advocate studying history. Science has philosophy and history which I really agree with because it has this feature to it where a teacher's humility. It also teaches that today's context is not yesterday's context, and it won't be the future context. And in fact, all of the great logic of today, a lot of it's going to end up being false. So what was the approach to science in the medieval times, it was, it was a mixture with religion and art. Would you agree, or how would you characterize?

Seb Falk:

The first question is to say, well, what is science? Because we all know what science is, but actually if you start to define it and you really try and pin it down, it becomes almost impossible to define. If you define science by its content or by the way that ideas are developed there are all kind of curious boundary sciences. If you define science by its practices again, different sciences are included or excluded. Is psychology a science, is economics or science? If those things are sciences, what separates them from social sciences including sociology or history. There are kind of edge cases that challenge what science is today and in the past. In the past, in the middle ages the Latin word Ski Antea meant any kind of system of knowledge.

Seb Falk:

So theology was a science in the middle ages, and it just meant something that you study systematically. It didn't have this exclusivity around understanding nature, which of course nature itself is a slightly problematic concept. You know, what is natural? And, and what do we include and exclude when we're talking about that too. So for people in the middle ages there was an assumption that Christians and also Muslims, that they were studying cosmos created by God. And so really the ultimate purpose of studying this was to get closer to the mind of God. So there's no conflict between religion and science. In fact, those two things really are pulling together, because the more you understand about creation, the more you understand about the world, that for their money, God had created the better you understand God, and the better Christian or Muslim you are.

Seb Falk:

So the idea that religion and science were in conflict is a complete myth. It is absolutely false. And so they're trying to understand in whatever way they can, but from an epistemological point of view, in terms of how people get their ideas, the understanding is somewhat different from what we have today, because science today crudely assumes that you just kind of look around you and you try and explain how something comes to be the way it is by observing and getting as many observations as you can. And then trying to come up with some kind of hypothesis. But the problem with that is a problem that philosophers have grappled with for centuries is how do you know how many observations is enough when you conduct a scientific study?

Seb Falk:

How do you know what your ideal sample size is? That's to put it in modern terms. People didn't think about it like that in the middle ages, but the way that they got around that problem of saying, you know, I am going to say that all trees lose their leaves in the winter, and I can see behind you. You've got some lovely coniferous trees, you in Washington state there, I'm sorry. We are in fact in wine. There we are. Yeah. So I'm not sure if that's a real background or, or, or an image, but there's some lovely conifers now where I live, most of the trees are deciduous. They lose their tree, they lose their leaves in the winter. So if I say all the trees lose their leaves in the winter, and that is based on all the trees that I have ever seen.

Seb Falk:

I scientifically I have proven through my observations that trees always lose their leaves in the winter. Now, the question is, how do you know that you've seen enough trees? And how do you know, how do I know that when I say something is a tree, something is a leaf. You agree with me, you've seen the same thing. The answer that philosophers came up with you know, people like Aristotle came up with was that you make your observations and you make your assumptions as simple as possible. You base them on things that are arguably true. You know, the basic principles and axioms of mathematics, geometry, you know, straight lines, things, circles, things that people can agree on and define and and, and can't be argued with. And then you build up logically from there. So rather than basing your science on observations, because although of course, everything we know ultimately does come to us through our senses rather than basing our, our theories on sensory experiences, which may be unreliable.

Seb Falk:

We base them on things that are logically unarguable, and then we have much stronger foundations for our theories. The problem with that is you can only get you so far because the more complex theories you want to have, the more complicated and arguable assumptions you come up with. And then if you have one flawed assumption, the whole edifice might collapse. And of course the Florida assumption of astronomy was that everything has to move in perfect circles. And of course, we now know that the planets and the earth don't move in perfect circles, they move in ellipses. And so without that assumption your, your, all of your astronomy is flawed, but, but in terms of kind of logic and epistemology, it makes a lot of sense to do science like that.

Mike Hanson:

For an investor, in fact, this is one of the key problems, is that the number of observations and what people can even agree upon, continues to be a very thorny problem, and I don't think it ever goes away. In tying things back to today it seems to me, and we touched on this already, that there's just as many different opinions, just as many science deniers today, as there were back then, in a certain manner of speaking. What parallels come to mind about that time and today, and what may be different about today as well?

Seb Falk:

Well, I mean, I think the parallel that I'd like to bring out most strongly is that people don't agree, right. There are lots of competing views, lots of competing opinions. And I think the middle ages is often held up as being a time of dogma a time when people believed what they were told to believe. And that is really not the case. So you know, there are people today who believe that the earth is flat. There are people today who believed that, you know that, that a vaccine against COVID is, is gonna be, you know, allow bill Gates to track you. And I, and so if we shouldn't make fun of people in the past and so in a way I suppose the richest parallels that any era has it's, it's clever thinkers. I won't say geniuses because I don't think that that concept of genius is particularly helpful.

Seb Falk:

I think, you know, we have to put people in their context rather than hold them up and put them on a pedestal and try and imagine that there's some kind of superhuman thinker, you know, we're all humans and we all get our ideas from places. So the real parallel is that that there are competing ideas and the way that we make progress as humans, as of course we have is to embrace those competing ideas and to have systems that allow those competing ideas to be sifted and to pick out the right ones, you know, you can't just have a free for all, because as we've seen, actually sometimes the, the false ideas get embraced and that's one of the lessons of the middle ages is that actually you can progress quite a long way along a wrong path before people realize that you've taken a wrong turn and kind of have to go back and start again.

Seb Falk:

So you can't assume that progress is linear or automatic. You have to work at it. But I guess a big difference between the, the, the middle ages and today is that we have kind of systematize these things a lot more. So science, you know, in the middle ages was done by anybody who was interested, anybody who had the ability and mostly they were working on their own in correspondence with, or in collaboration with other people, of course, you know, they, there was a huge amount of collaboration, a huge amount of communication, but it wasn't done in this kind of systematic way. We now know what a scientist is. A scientist is somebody who works in a laboratory. A scientist is somebody who receives huge amounts of funding from either the state or private sector. In order to, to carry out, you know, well-defined projects with time limits, you know, everything is super organized and that kind of organization is what has allowed science to make the progress that it has in the last couple of centuries. And so, you know, we, we shouldn't underestimate the value of that.

Mike Hanson:

I can't help, but think of markets for all of their ills when they function well, one of their great virtues is the collision of many different ideas and seeing what works and doesn't, especially in iterative fashion. So Seb, you read your own audio book, which I thought was very impressive in addition to much else, but you've done this book now. It's been a success. What is next for you?

Seb Falk:

Well, I'm working on another book, which kind of broadens this out a little bit because this book is focused really on kind of late medieval England. Although many of the ideas were common across as we've discussed common across Europe and even into Asia I'm working on another book which tries to broaden this out and looks at the kinds of ideas and the kinds of ways of thinking that were happening in the middle ages, in China and in the middle East and in Europe and comm and in India and comparing them and, and talking about some of the interesting characters there, because I think there's a couple of things that people don't realize. First of all that the world in the year 1000 was actually a more connected place than people realize. That's something that, that people are starting to accept and starting to understand at the moment.

Seb Falk:

But the fact that people who are doing science are coming up with different ideas in this period, despite their connections because of their cultural backgrounds that somebody who approaches science from a Christian point of view does. So in a different way, from somebody who is a Muslim from somebody who is a Confucian if you can say that, I mean, it's, it's trying to think about these things in, in Western terms, as religions is already problematic. So it requires different ways of thinking, but the new book hopefully will kind of broaden all this out so that we, we kind of think about the middle ages in a believable way.

Mike Hanson:

Oh, that's exciting. I'm looking forward to that. We always ask our guests a final question of what are you reading these days? What are you really enjoying?

Seb Falk:

Well I've been reading a bunch of different books at the moment. I just coming towards the end of a book called soul mountain by Gulshan Jan who's, China's first Nobel prize, winning novelist which is a fascinating kind of an old book, but I've, I've really enjoyed it. And I'm reading a wonderful book of poetry by Sean Hewitt. Who's a young Irish, English, Irish poet and I, the name of the book has completely slipped my mind. I try and keep a few books on the go at the moment, in fact, the next, next book on my list, I'm really looking forward to, because I haven't written Reddit for, for years is Ursula Gwyn.The earth sea quartet, or Trelegy, it was a trilogy when I first read it. And now I think it's way. I don't know how many books she ended up writing in the end, but I haven't read that since I was about 12. So that's next on my list. So try and keep things broad. But yeah, I'm, I'm, I'm immersing myself in China at the moment. So I'm in enjoying some of that stuff. Yeah,

Mike Hanson:

It's really great. You know, the, the Gwen trilogies and all of our work of course are tremendous landmarks in science fiction literature. And I always find, I shouldn't say always, but most of the time I find prolific readers gravitate towards poetry because that's the densest where, where the, the greatest stuff is with the most economy sub fault. It's been great speaking with you. Thanks so much for being a guest.

Seb Falk:

Well, thank you very much for having me inviting me.

Well, there was our talk with Seb Falk. I’m always reminded in these kinds of studies about how people used to view religion and science as copacetic and informative of each other—a sense of awe and wonder about the natural world that complemented modes of belief. It’s almost as if in some ways we’ve regressed in that way. But also, just how much the west owes to developments in the near and middle east—scholars of that era brought forward not only mathematics and language but were tremendous Greek scholars in their own right.

Join us in two weeks on May 26th for our talk with one of scientific luminaries of our current era—Sean B. Carroll—noted evolutionary biologist, bestselling author, and film producer (among many other achievements). We talk about Sean’s new book, dealing with the role of chance in just about all parts of life. A wider knowledge of chance is something all investors should keep constantly in mind.

Until then, may all your reading profit your mind and your money! Take care.

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Investing in securities involves the risk of loss. The content of this podcast represents the opinions and viewpoints of Fisher Investments, and should not be regarded as personal investment advice. No assurances are made we will continue to hold these views, which may change at any time, based on new information, analysis or reconsideration. The opinions and viewpoints of podcast guests are not necessarily those of Fisher Investments. Copyright Fisher Investments, 2021.

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