Víctor Navarro Brotons (Valencia, 1945) is a retired full professor of History of Science at the University of Valencia. He has devoted his career to knowing, disseminating and restoring the Valencian and Spanish scientific past. In this interview, he explains the events planned for the 500 anniversary of the birth of the Valencian humanist Jeroni Munyós, with events underway until 2024. He also discusses science as part of culture, and training in the history of science.
Víctor Navarro dissemination articles or dictionary and encyclopedia entries. Among the books, Història de la Ciència al País Valencià , Disciplinas, saberes y prácticas. Filosofía natural, matemáticas y astronomia en la sociedad española de la época moderna and Jerónimo Muñoz. Matemáticas, cosmologia y humanismo en la época del Renacimiento stand out. He has participated in more than 60 national and international conferences and science meetings, and has directed 11 doctoral theses. He is a member of the International Academy of the History of Science, the most important in the world in the discipline.
This year marks the 500 anniversary of the birth of the Valencian humanist Jeroni Munyós, the 450 (451) years since the observation of the supernova of 1572, as well as the publication of the book El libro del nuevo cometa (1573). Why is this scientist important?
He is a key figure in the Spanish context, and also for the University of Valencia, because there he was a professor for many years, both in mathematics in the sense of that age (pure, such as geometry, arithmetic and trigonometry) and mixed or applied (astronomy, optics, perspective, cartography, geography, astrology) . In addition, he was a professor at the University of Salamanca, the most important at the time in what is now Spain, a centre closely supervised and protected by the Monarchy. A good astronomer was needed in Salamanca, in relation to the reform of the calendar and a good teacher to train cosmographers. We do not know when Jeroni Muñoz was born. My speculation is that if he attained the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1537, and at 17-18 was the age when they graduated in arts at the time, it must be 1520. We do not have a birth certificate.
And what was the result of Munyós’ research?
For a while he observed the supernova and its evolution, and his observations and conclusions, collected later in the Libro del nuevo cometa, contributed to the crisis of traditional cosmology and to prepare the new astronomy. A few decades earlier, Copernicus published his great book on "the revolutions of the celestial spheres" in which he placed the Sun at the centre of the cosmos and made the Earth a planet. This subverted the traditional planetary order in which the cosmos was distributed in the terrestrial and celestial regions, with a clear discontinuity, so that no changes occurred in the celestial, and it was immutable. The supernova, if it proved to be a new star, or a comet, that is to say, a body or a phenomenon that was not in the terrestrial world, but in the sky, questioned the classical scheme, because it highlighted that in there were changes in the sky, and it helped to support Copernicus’ proposal. Muñoz, with his mastery of astronomical techniques, estimated the parallax of the supernova, although showing that it was insensitive and therefore inferior to that of the Moon. In other words, it was a celestial phenomenon.
But he was talking about a comet, not a supernova...
In the context of that age, it was very difficult to differentiate a comet from a supernova. Jeroni Munyós, when he observed the supernova, was already convinced that the sky was not immutable. In a manuscript, which is kept in Copenhagen, the result of lectures he gave in 1568 at the University of Valencia, in the context of the commentary on the second book of Pliny’s natural history, he already criticised Aristotelian natural philosophy, and emphasised that there is no difference between heaven and earth, and that the celestial spheres did not exist. This fact called into question many of the ideas of traditional natural philosophy. He himself said to those who criticized his ideas: "They have not been able to understand what they could see with their eyes". In any case, as to whether it was a comet, he says that it was a comet different from all the ones recorded until then and that it looked more like a star than a comet. But he preferred to say that it was a fart comet in order to give a natural and non-miraculous explanation (as many astronomers did) of its origin.
"Jeroni Munyós was a professor for many years, both in mathematics in the sense of that age (pure, such as geometry, arithmetic and trigonometry) and mixed or applied (astronomy, optics, perspective, cartography, geography, astrology)"
" The supernova, if it proved to be a new star, or a comet, that is to say, a body or a phenomenon that was not in the terrestrial world, but in the sky, questioned the classical scheme, because it highlighted that in there were changes in the sky, and it helped to support Copernicus’"
How was this work disseminated and the conclusions it generated?
The book Libro del nuevo cometa was translated into French. In addition, Cornelius Gemma, son of Gemma Frisius, professor of Munyós in Louvain, in his works quoted and commented on his work. In addition, Munyós corresponded with prominent astronomers of the time and some of these letters reached Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer (the best observer of his time) who also observed the supernova and published a book in which he gathered and comment on the works on the phenomenon written by 31 authors. In this book, Brahe comments extensively on Munyós’ observations and conclusions about the supernova. Brahe’s book was widely circulated, and indeed the supernova is commonly cited as Tycho Brahe’s Supernova. On the other hand, it should be noted that Munyós published a few books, but left behind a set of manuscripts that are preserved in several libraries in Europe, autographs or copies made by his disciples. Thus, we have found manuscripts of Munyós in Copenhagen, Salamanca, Madrid, Munich, the Vatican and Naples.
Then, we can conclude that the transcendence of Munyós is due to this discovery that other great cosmographers of the time also made.
And also because the King had a great interest in the University of Salamanca training cosmographers for the whole great enterprise of the Americas, which involved geographical discoveries and many other things. For example, in Madrid there was the Council of the Indies, and a mathematics academy was created. Many of the cosmographers who worked in these places had studied in Salamanca and Munyós had been their teacher. In other words, the transcendence of Munyós also has to do with his extraordinary work as a teacher.
Jeroni Munyós was a professor of Hebrew and also of Mathematics in Valencia. Two very different areas, right?
At that time, it was not so strange that such different subjects were taught. There are many other examples. The scientific humanists were concerned with restoring the Greco-Roman scientific past, and they had a lot of interest in the Bible. To be a teacher of Hebrew was also to be a teacher of sacred scriptures, in a time, moreover, of religious conflicts.
What events are planned around the Jeroni Munyós Year?
On May 9 this year, I gave an inaugural lecture on the V Centenary of Jeroni Munyós and his work at the Botanical Garden. Between May and June, there was a cycle of talks on aspects of the history of science (astronomy and cosmology) and next year, in 2024, there will be two exhibitions, one at the University of Valencia, and another to that of Salamanca, around Munyós’ work. In 2019 Vicent Martínez, professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Valencia and I, proposed to the Rectors office the anniversary, but the COVID-19 pandemic came and it could not be done until last year (2022). In February, Vicent Martínez and I started the topic with a talk at the Societat Econòmica d’Amics del País de València, which was held with public success , planned for 2019 and that was the exit shot of the tribute.
"N ext year, in 2024, there will be two exhibitions, one at the University of Valencia, and another to that of Salamanca, around Munyós’ work"
"It is true that Munyós, Jorge Juan and so many others have not had the recognition they deserve, which is a keynote of our culture where the painter or writer is still valued much more than the scientist"
"The Jesuit José de Zaragoza or Saragossà, an extraordinary mathematician who formulated a series of theorems that were later reformulated by other authors"
"Jorge Juan is perhaps the most important Valencian physicist and astronomer in our history, and he participated in the great expedition to measure the terrestrial meridian that confirmed that the Earth is flattened at the poles"
Are scientists like Jeroni Munyós sufficiently recognised?
In general, relevant Spanish scientists are not very well recognised, although the history of science has improved quite a bit in terms of its audience. In the Valencian case, here there have always been people observing the sky, studying plants, improving general knowledge in medicine or other areas. But it is true that Munyós, Jorge Juan and so many others have not had the recognition they deserve, which is a keynote of our culture where the painter or writer is still valued much more than the scientist.
Which other Valencian humanists would you particularly highlight?
As Valencian scientists, in the sixteenth century aside from Munyós, I would highlight some of the doctors and anatomists (Pere Jimeno, Lluís Collado) or botanists such as Joan Plaza. Also some prominent philosophers who had a lot of influence on European scholasticism, such as Benet Perera, who has a square named after him in Russafa. In the sventeenth century there is one of the most relevant mathematicians in Valencian and Spanish history, the Jesuit José de Zaragoza or Saragossà, an extraordinary mathematician who formulated a series of theorems that were later reformulated by other authors. Zaragoza spent a few years in Valencia, and was the teacher of those who would later be the novatores (current of thinkers, scientists and philosophers, who at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century tried to spread the new scientific and philosophical currents). Among the Valencian novatores, I would highlight Father Tosca, author of a magnificent detailed map of the city of Valencia, as well as a compendium of mathematics in 9 volumes ; the mathematician and astronomer Joan Baptista Corachán and the priest, mathematician and physicist Baltasar Íñigo. Also key, of course, is Jorge Juan, who is perhaps the most important Valencian physicist and astronomer in our history, and who participated in the great expedition to measure the terrestrial meridian that confirmed that the Earth is flattened at the poles , and wrote a treatise on rational mechanics applied to navigation that was translated into French, English and Italian. Also, in the nineteenth century, the contribution of the astronomer and geologist José Joaquín Landerer, who has a street in Valencia named after him, is key.
You are a doctor in Physics. What does your scientific training contribute to the task of analysing science? What is more important, the scientific basis or the general training to be a good teacher?
It’s a big question. As a historian of science, I am largely self-taught. I had the immense fortune of meeting José María López Piñero (1933-2010), professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Valencia. He didn’t teach me the history of physics or astronomy, but what we would call ’The historian’s job’. The knowledge I had having studied physics has helped me a lot to study the history of physics and astronomy.
The history of science is a multidisciplinary knowledge of many subjects...
You need to know a lot of things. You have to know science if you are dedicated to the internal analysis of things. For example, to understand the importance of Jeroni Munyós you have to know astronomy, and spherical trigonometry to understand the astronomical calculations of the time. And if you want to place the character in its context, you must also study history, sociology or anthropology. Nowadays, the number of historians of science has grown a lot, but I am not sure that there is a concern like the one we had in the department for the procedures and tools of the trade.
You have spoken about your relationship with the History of Medicine full professor José María López Piñero. What did he bring to you?
I had the great luck to know him. He had an interest in other sciences, not just Medicine and I met him when I was a student, through a friend of mine who was his pupil. After a lecture he introduced me and he was very generous, he offered me to attend his department, in the library, and study history of science, but he couldn’t offer me anything because I was still a student and I wasn’t a doctor Years later, a subject was created called "Mathematics for Doctors" (Statistics, actually). López Piñero suggested that I take care of her, so that I could be in the Faculty of Medicine and work in the Department. Then, we began the great evangelistic battle to convince the University that it was necessary to have the history of science as an area of knowledge in the institution. I think that his immense work has not been recognised as it should be. We both tried to show that science is part of our culture also in the past and that the people here have also played an important role. Spanish science (scientific activity, as López Piñero liked to say) has been relevant in universal culture also in the past.
" López Piñero and I began the great evangelistic battle to convince the University that it was necessary to have the history of science as an area of knowledge in the institution"
" Towards the middle of the 80s with the LRU promoted by Maravall, the departments and areas of knowledge were created, and López Piñero asked for the creation of the history of science area, and it was achieved"
What were the beginnings of your research work like?
Towards the middle of the 80s with the LRU promoted by Maravall, the departments and areas of knowledge were created, and López Piñero asked for the creation of the history of science area, and it was achieved. Up until that time I was explaining mathematics, working in statistics, and in my free time I devoted myself to collaborating with López Piñero and doing research on the history of science. For example, in 1971-72, when the first Conference of the History of the Valencian Country took place, I submitted two works on the Valencian novatores, and in 1974 a work in the magazine Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos on the diffusion of Copernicus in Spain. Although I wasn’t a professor of History of Science until 1986-1987, I had already done a lot of work. In 1983, Thomas Glick, López Piñero, Eugenia Portela and I published the Diccionario Histórico de la Ciencia Moderna en España, with the biographies of almost 1,000 scientists.
To increase scientific culture and interest in the history of science, what is needed?
The debate about whether or not there has been science at a worthy level in our history has existed for a long time. Menéndez Pelayo said there was indeed and made a huge scientific repertoire. Related to this, I think there is still scepticism among active Spanish scientists about whether there is a scientific past of its own. If apart from the Nobel Ramón y Cajal and some other figures, there are more. Some scientific friends still tell me that if we have had universal painters like Velázquez and Picasso; writers like Cervantes, translated into all the languages of the world... why we haven’t had scientists of the importance of Newton or Galileo, which makes them very sceptical about the weight science has had in our history.
" The current active Spanish scientist, in general, thinks that the past is a horrors or errors museum"
"Cajal said that the cart of Spanish culture was missing the wheel of science and that is a sentence that prompted me to study the subject"
"A society that knew well its scientists and humanists, current and past, would be better in every way. We all need models and references to live by"
And what do you think?
The current active Spanish scientist, in general, thinks that the past is a horrors or errors museum. S/he prefers to think that scientific activity in Spain begins with them and their colleagues; that the most important thing is not to worry about whether we have had reputable scientists, but to go to the great European institutions, participate in the international scientific community and do science at the highest possible level. One of my concerns, and I shared it with José María López Piñero, was to convince scientists that there was indeed a past that was worth knowing. To the students of a history of physics course that I taught (students who were already finishing their degree), I asked them why they were interested in knowing the past of their discipline and some answered that they liked it a lot because it gave them dignity participate in a long history. Cajal said that the cart of Spanish culture was missing the wheel of science and that is a sentence that prompted me to study the subject. It was my question to devote myself mainly to the history of science in the Valencian Country and in Spain. Is it missing or not? And what were the deficiencies, and why?
A society that knew its humanists well, what would it have better?
A society that knew well its scientists and humanists, current and past, would be better in every way. We all need models and references to live by. If the models and references that we have and young people have are scientists, humanists, or people who have cared about knowledge, for science, and have valued the effort necessary to achieve it... that will be better for everyone. The biggest challenge we adults have is young people, and what a legacy we will leave. It is important that young people know the history of their country in its entirety, science included. In addition, it is necessary to encourage scientific vocations, and to be very clear about how science is disseminated. In general, we are witnessing a trivialization of culture. You go to a bookstore, and what you find at the entrance are 200 or 300 romantic or detective novels, and then in a small corner, you find some popular science book. Too little.
You have devoted your life to teaching and to the history of science. How would you like to be remembered?
As a person who has taken care to reconstruct and restore our scientific past, and to defend that science, knowledge, has also been an important part of our culture, and that this is an important fact. If you remember me in that sense, with works on Valencian and Spanish scientists (Jeroni Munyós, Pare Tosca, Jordi Joan, Landerer, Tarazona...) it’s fine. But one of my great satisfactions is when a granddaughter comes and tells me that they are studying Galileo or Copernicus and I can show them my anthology devoted to the great Italian scientist or my translation into Catalan of the work of Copernicus. On the other hand, I am very proud of my pupils (the students in the classes and in particular those who did the doctorate with me) and the affection I know they have for me. That is my best legacy.
José Antonio Sobrino, new director of the Image Processing Laboratory of the University of Valencia - 12.09