The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science so reads the full title. It was the phrase “modern debate between religion and science” which caught my attention. Of course, too late I realized this was “modern” in the sense of “modern algebra” — something which was recent a long time ago.
This book is a story of ancient stones, the Dendera stones to be more precise. The authors detail the journey of the stones in the 1820s from a temple in Egypt to a museum in Paris. Much of the book regales the reader with the poetics of such an adventure in the 19th century, with great attention to detail and complete with tales of sabotage.
What made the stones so special and so controversial? As part of a temple, it is perhaps obvious what made them special to the Egyptians. But to the French? Money and politics appear at the root, dressed in the guise of patriotism and then religion. Could it be any other way? Brought to France under the patronage of an antiques dealer and book publisher, the stones depict the sky over ancient Egypt. Therein lies the rub. In the first part of the 19th century, science was more of a threat to religious belief than it is to many people today. If the stones represented the positions of the stars in the sky accurately enough to date Egyptian civilization to before Christianity’s claim of the beginning of civilization, the foundations of Christianity might shake and crumble a bit. Science, of course, was bent on determining the accuracy of the carving on the stones, some with the conviction that the science would debunk the religious myth of creation, others with equal conviction that science would prove the carvings to be much more recent than claimed.
The story of the Frenchmen Fourier, Biot, and Arago in this saga makes for some interesting reading, as does the supporting roles played by such mathematical luminaries as Laplace, Poisson, and Lagrange. Who has the power to influence events, who receives credit for discoveries — these are themes which can be as fascinating as they are universal. Overall, however, this book is less about science than it is about history and politics.
Michele Intermont is an associate professor of mathematics at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, MI.