From “Tycho’s Star” to Shakespeare’s Page

Caltech's Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences presents “The Science of Shakespeare,” a talk by author Dan Falk

The late 16th century saw scientists like Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Galileo Galilei radically upset the way people understood their place in the world and in the universe. William Shakespeare, who was born a little over two decades after the death of Copernicus, lived through this transformation ... but did he notice?

On Wednesday, October 17, Caltech's Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, as part of its James Michelin Distinguished Visitors Program, hosted a public talk from award-winning journalist Dan Falk. In his talk, "The Science of Shakespeare," Falk examined the playwright's work in the context of the Scientific Revolution to determine just what English literature's most towering figure might have thought or known about astronomy.

Falk's talk began with a timeline of the important scientific discoveries of the late 16th century superimposed over the span of Shakespeare's life. The talk wove clips from film productions of King Lear and Hamlet together with the discoveries of Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, and Thomas Digges, illustrating little-known links between their astronomical discoveries and Shakespeare's plays.

As it turns out, Falk argued, Shakespeare was more attuned to the science of his day than many might imagine; he wove everything from Brahe's famously observed supernova to the Galilean moons of Jupiter into his works, and praised the rise of rationalism against traditional mysticism. Still, Shakespeare's references to Galileo and Copernicus appear in his plays only sparsely, interspersed between lines concerned with medieval pseudosciences like astrology and alchemy.

"So, what kind of person was Shakespeare?" Falk asked. Was he stuck in the medieval world? Or was he a more modern thinker influenced by the rapid scientific developments of his time? By the end of the night, Falk's answer was clear: "He was somewhere in the middle."

Falk is a Toronto-based journalist and author interested in physics, astronomy, and science in general. The Science of Shakespeare, upon which his talk was based, is his third book.

Written by Elise Cutts