Field of Science

Gods, stars, the moon and other dangerous pseudoscience

The Greeks imagined volcanoes as a sort of supernatural prison, to punish disobedience or crimes against the gods, the Roman poet Virgil reports that buried under Mount Etna lies the giant Enceladus, and under Mount Vesuvius his brother Mimas.
If any of these volcanos trembled, we could feel the agony, if it rumbled, we could hear their desperation and when it erupted we could observe their blood. The perpetual active island of Vulcano became the forge of the gods, supervised (not completely voluntarily) by the blacksmith Hephaestus.

Earthquakes and flood waves were caused by the god of the sea, mighty Poseidon, to punish the mortals.

Early Christianity often adopted these old believes, natural catastrophes, especially floods and earthquakes, were the wraith of god to punish believers or destroy nonbelievers. The active volcano transformed from a forge to the doorway to hell - inclusive lava thought to be the visible effects of hell-fire. During medieval times religious explanations prevailed, even if some scholars in later times tried to explain geological phenomena as natural events, like the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), who imagined earth composed of three layers - fire, water, earth-, sometimes erupting one into the other. However it was god himself that had created earth and volcanoes or earthquakes in such a way.

From this aspect of geological catastrophes predetermined by god(s) results also the influence attributed to stars, and especially comets onto earthquakes. Astrology is older than many modern deities, and it was incorporated into the new monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity, by studying the sky it seemed possible to foresee fate, recognize the future and understand the plans of the god.

Comets were unusual marks onto the celestial sphere - suddenly appearing and apparently following no rule, they were frightening and bad omen of plagues, war and earthquakes.
A hand-coloured woodcut and accompanying text by the German Hermann Gall explains this supposed connection between an earthquake in the citiy of Rossana and later in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) on May 10. 1556 and a comet visible some months before.
In the sky above the city, with a heavily damaged Hagia Sophia Temple i
n the centre and other collapsed buildings and people trying to escape, a comet is depicted as seen in the period from March 5 to March 17, on May 13. suddenly a bright star appeared near the moon. According to the author, who claims he was eyewitness of these celestial phenomena, such signs of wonder were a certain omen of the imminent end of the world.

Fig.1. "Frightening signs of wonder before the terrible earthquake which happened in the cities of Rossanna and Constantinople", hand colored woodcut by the German Hermann Gall displaying the 1566 Constantinople earthquake (from KOZAK & CERMAK 2010).

One of the first scholars to separate superstition and god from geology was the German Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) naturalist but ironically also Jesuit. In 1638 he studied the active Mount Vesuvius by venturing into the crater. In his published work "Mundus Subterraneus" (1678) he adopted a complete secular explanation, explanation still rejected by the official church. Even in 1755 the Jesuit Malagrida claimed that the destructive earthquake of Lisbon was a result of the anger of god, ignoring the first naturalistic explanations existing at the time. The earthquake of Lisbon however marks the beginning the epoch of the enlightenment, this time scientific explanations will prevail over old superstitions.

Unfortunately dragons are hard to kill: The earthquake in Japan has generated again the reaction of religious fundamentalists, still today believers struggle to explain the contradicting behaviour of supposed higher beings - most concerning are the quotes of religious fanatics or politicians like for example the Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, the American Glenn Beck or Roberto De Mattei, vice-president of the Italian National Research Council (!), in his religious broadcast "radici cristiane (Christian roots)" on the radio station "Radio Maria" 20. March 2011.
As for divine intervention here a scene of the Australian film "Bad Boy Bubby" (1993) summarizing why it would be a good idea to dismiss god(s):

Not only religion(s), today also pseudoscience tries to misuse catastrophes for its purpose - as for example the obsolete superstition called astrology tries to misuse the sorrows and fears of people to gain support and earn money.

Here some examples of debunked fairy tales perpetuated by various astrologists, especially the claim that the constellation of stars (remember the comets) and the position of the moon triggered the earthquake in Japan:

On earthquakes, eruptions and the Moon

Are there more earthquakes in our days? Is the end of the world here?



KOZAK, J. & CERMAK, V. (2010): The Illustrated History of Natural Disasters. Springer-Verlag: 203

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