Hey, it’s been a while again. So I’m coming back to do some bitching. I bitched about Nova in an earlier post about Homo floresiensis, due to their suggesting controversy where probably none existed. This time it’s due to their suggesting mystical motivation where no evidence exists.
The episode in question is Building the Great Cathedrals, which was otherwise thoroughly enjoyable. I watched it with my son and it was a nice basic-level overview of the primary structural innovations in gothic cathedrals (he particularly enjoyed the computer models of cathedrals collapsing).
Then they spent the last twenty minutes talking about how the sizes and proportions of the cathedrals are all based on numbers from the bible. They had a couple of contributors who measured specific cathedrals and then declared that the measurements corresponded to a number they found in the bible. I’ll focus on one of those - Stephen Murray, Professor of Medieval Art History at Columbia University - because he does more inferring about numbers than the others in the episode. The first observation was about the dimensions of the central square at Amiens cathedral, which is fifty feet on a side:
STEPHEN MURRAY: Noah’s ark was 50 cubits. This is 50 feet. And this lies at the heart of the building.
So, out of the thousands of cathedrals in Europe, each with an infinite number of dimensions you could pick (height of towers, length of transepts, numbers of stones in the facade, number of gargoyles with four teeth, etc.) and thousands of numbers in the bible, you’ve managed to find one arbitrary number from one cathedral that is the same as an even more arbitrary number in the bible? And it’s not even the same units? And that’s evidence for what? I think you at home can probably come up with a couple of other reasons for designing something to be a fifty-foot square. Take two and a half seconds right now…
It’s entirely possible that he’s right. It’s certainly plausible that people designing a big religious building would look for some relevance to that religion’s defining text. The point here is that neither Dr. Murray nor Nova have given us any evidence for that particular scenario. We are shown no evidence that a) there’s a biblical basis at all for the dimension of the floor and b) that there’s any basis for the specific relation to Noah’s ark. No evidence at all other than that the number 50 is spookily present in both.
Then he’s got another that’s on more solid ground:
NARRATOR: Some quick math converts modern units to medieval units and produces another divine figure: 144. In the New Testament, Heaven is called the City of God. It’s height: 144.
STEPHEN MURRAY: This is the Book of Revelation, the vision of Saint John the Divine: As John measures the city, he finds it’s 144 cubits.
NARRATOR: Amazingly, at the dedication ceremony for the opening of Amiens Cathedral, the bishop read aloud the very same passage from the Book of Revelation that describes the divine height, 144.
STEPHEN MURRAY: So we’re dealing, in the building, with, clearly, a number that expresses some k|;ind of object of desire. They wanted 144.
Again, he may very well be right. But if you’re going to be making claims about people’s motivations, you might want to back them up. And I expect Nova to do that when people spout off about numerological convergences (which really should be a red flag for anyone producing a scientifically-leaning show). Again, the above is probably a reasonable presumption given then the building in question is religious, but there are other possibilities here as well. 144 is 12×12. 12 crops up in a lot of places - 12 months in the year, 12 apostles, 12 tribes of israel. In addition, the verse in the Revelation to which Dr. Murray refers states that 144 cubits is the height of the wall surrounding the city in heaven - not the height of heaven, which is given in the same chapter as 12,000 furlongs. So the correlation becomes a little less convincing if we’re not talking about the height of heaven itself.
Plus, Dr. Murray says the bishop read “the very same passage” - does he mean the words about the height of the wall, or the whole chapter? It’s not entirely clear. There are lots of other relevant bits in that same chapter (21) that perhaps the bishop read instead. Here’s one that might be appropriate for the opening of big church:
The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb. / The nations will walk by its light, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their treasure. / During the day its gates will never be shut, and there will be no night there.
I don’t mean to suggest that Dr. Murray is not an accomplished authority on medieval art and architecture. I know very little about the subject and would not presume to imply that. And he may be right about the 144 thing. But he’s making a claim about a correspondence for which there are innumerable other possible correspondences and if he is indeed right, Nova needs to explain why.
That’s all I’m trying to say - that Nova is engaging in speculation and backing it up with only the thinnest of evidence. That’s not good for a science-themed show. This is by no means as bad for brain cells as Da Vinci Code or bible code crap (which they, thankfully, aren’t talking about), but I still expect more from Nova.
My understanding of Nova has always been as a great program on science and technology. For the most part it still is, but it has lately introduced a disturbing tendency toward sensationalizing its content (maybe it always did and I didn’t notice). I understand that there isn’t enough time to go into the evidence for everything and so we and the show must assume the truth of statements of experts. But it needs to spend more time backing up the speculative bits, or drop them altogether.