It's always interesting when an author tries something new. It's not always successful, but the attempt is admirable. Nancy Marie Brown is a science writer who takes a stab at scientific biography The Abacus and the Cross, a book about Gerbert of Aurillae, who becomes Pope Sylvester II. Gerbert possessed a love of science and reading throughout his life, and it was partially his scholarship—as well as fortunate happenstance—that elevated him to the papacy. In the process, Brown chronicles a bit of European history around the turn of the millennium in the year 1000, as well as the years leading up to it.
First thing, she puts to rest the common impression that people throughout the Christian world mortally feared the coming of the year 1000 as the time when Christ would return and the Apocalypse would ensue. While some feared that, the impression that this was widespread does not appear to be true. She opens the book discussing this; instead of dealing with this coming calamity, Pope Sylvester is instead writing a letter about the best method of finding the area of a triangle.
In writing Gerbert's biography, Brown also attempts to dispel the notion that the Dark Ages were completely overrun by superstition and ignorance. Religious institutions housed scholars who explored the world of mathematics and science, including Gerbert's creation of the abacus. There were interactions between the Islamic and Christian worlds, so Gerbert and others were exposed to many ancient works of mathematics and science housed in Baghdad and other repositories.
The Abacus and the Cross highlighting all of this, emphasizing that men of science did exist in the Christian world at this time. Gerbert and his compatriots exchanged many letters (most of them now lost, though over 200 of Gerbert's letters still exist) discussing ideas of mathematical and scientific experimentation. As Brown goes through Gerbert's rise from monk to abbot to Pope, she discusses his passion for science as well as how prominent he was as a teacher.
She also showcases his lack of talent in regards to politics. Numerous times, his scientific studies are interrupted by stormy political seas that he can't navigate as well. He becomes the scientific advisor to kings but gets lost when the politics around them gets too intense. His four-year stint as Pope before his death in 1003 isn't nearly as successful as his time as a teacher.
The Abacus and the Cross is an excellent biography of Gerbert but loses its way occasionally, bogging down and making it a chore to get through. I understand the need to explain some of the math involved so that the reader understands just how brilliant Gerbert was, but if your interest is more in the man than in the science, you’ll likely be bored during much of the early part of the book. It's times like this where you can tell Brown is a science writer by trade.
Still, I found myself fascinated by how the Church worked in this time, how science and religion worked together as well as the political history of the period. Brown ties it all together, tidily disposing of the myth of scientific ignorance in the Western world.
If you can avoid getting bogged down in the math (or if you just happen to love math), is an extremely satisfying read.