The Queen of Science – The woman who tamed Laplace.

In a footnote to my recent post on the mythologizing of Ibn al-Haytham I briefly noted the inadequacy of the terms Arabic science and Islamic science, pointing out that there were scholars included in these categories who were not Muslims and ones who were not Arabic. In the comments Renaissance Mathematicus friend, the blogger theofloinn, asked, Who were the non-muslim “muslim” scientists? And (aside from Persians) who were the non-Arab “arab” scientists? And then in a follow up comment wrote, I knew about Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the House of Wisdom, but I was not thinking of translation as “doing science.” From the standpoint of the historian of science this second comment is very interesting and reflects a common problem in the historiography of science. On the whole most people regard science as being that which scientists do and when describing its history they tend to concentrate on the big name scientists.

This attitude is a highly mistaken one that creates a falsified picture of scientific endeavour. Science is a collective enterprise in which the ‘scientists’ are only one part of a collective consisting of scientists, technicians, instrument designers and makers, and other supportive workers without whom the scientist could not carry out his or her work. This often includes such ignored people as the secretaries, or in earlier times amanuenses, who wrote up the scientific reports or life partners who, invisible in the background, often carried out much of the drudgery of scientific investigation. My favourite example being William Herschel’s sister and housekeeper, Caroline (a successful astronomer in her own right), who sieved the horse manure on which he bedded his self cast telescope mirrors to polish them.

Translators very definitely belong to the long list of so-called helpers without whom the scientific endeavour would grind to a halt. It was translators who made the Babylonian astronomy and astrology accessible to their Greek heirs thus making possible the work of Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Ptolemaeus and many others. It was translators who set the ball rolling for those Islamic, or if you prefer Arabic, scholars when they translated the treasures of Greek science into Arabic. It was again translators who kicked off the various scientific Renaissances in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries and again in the fifteenth-century, thereby making the so-called European scientific revolution possible. All of these translators were also more or less scientists in their own right as without a working knowledge of the subject matter that they were translating they would not have been able to render the texts from one language into another. In fact there are many instances in the history of the transmission of scientific knowledge where an inadequate knowledge of the subject at hand led to an inaccurate or even false translation causing major problems for the scholars who tried to understand the texts in the new language. Translators have always been and continue to be an important part of the scientific endeavour.

The two most important works on celestial mechanics produced in Europe in the long eighteenth-century were Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste. The former was originally published in Latin, with an English translation being published shortly after the author’s death, and the latter in French. This meant that these works were only accessible to those who mastered the respective language. It is a fascinating quirk of history that the former was rendered into French and that latter into English in each case by a women; Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet translated Newton’s masterpiece into French and Mary Somerville translated Laplace’s pièce de résistance into English. I have blogged about Émilie de Châtelet before but who was Mary Somerville? (1)


Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

She was born Mary Fairfax, the daughter of William Fairfax, a naval officer, and Mary Charters at Jedburgh in the Scottish boarders on 26 December 1780. Her parents very definitely didn’t believe in education for women and she spent her childhood wandering through the Scottish countryside developing a lifelong love of nature. At the age of ten, still semi-illiterate, she was sent to Miss Primrose’s boarding school at Musselburgh in Midlothian for one year; the only formal schooling she would ever receive. As a young lady she received lessons in dancing, music, painting and cookery. At the age of fifteen she came across a mathematical puzzle in a ladies magazine (mathematical recreation columns were quite common in ladies magazines in the 18th and 19th-centuries!) whilst visiting friends. Fascinated by the symbols that she didn’t understand, she was informed that it was algebra, a word that meant nothing to her. Later her painting teacher revealed that she could learn geometry from Euclid’s Elements whilst discussing the topic of perspective. With the assistance of her brother’s tutor, young ladies could not buy maths-books, she acquired a copy of the Euclid as well as one of Bonnycastle’s Algebra and began to teach herself mathematics in the secrecy of her bedroom. When her parents discovered this they were mortified her father saying to her mother, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There is X., who went raving mad about the longitude.” They forbid her studies, but she persisted rising before at dawn to study until breakfast time. Her mother eventually allowed her to take some lessons on the terrestrial and celestial globes with the village schoolmaster.

In 1804 she was married off to a distant cousin, Samuel Grieg, like her father a naval officer but in the Russian Navy. He, like her parents, disapproved of her mathematical studies and she seemed condemned to the life of wife and mother. She bore two sons in her first marriage, David who died in infancy and Woronzow, who would later write a biography of Ada Lovelace. One could say fortunately, for the young Mary, her husband died after only three years of marriage in 1807 leaving her well enough off that she could now devote herself to her studies, which she duly did. Under the tutorship of John Wallace, later professor of mathematics in Edinburgh, she started on a course of mathematical study, of mostly French books but covering a wide range of mathematical topic, even tacking Newton’s Principia, which she found very difficult. She was by now already twenty-eight years old. During the next years she became a fixture in the highest intellectual circles of Edinburgh.

In 1812 she married for a second time, another cousin, William Somerville and thus acquired the name under which she would become famous throughout Europe. Unlike her parents and Samuel Grieg, William vigorously encouraged and supported her scientific interests. In 1816 the family moved to London. Due to her Scottish connections Mary soon became a member of the London intellectual scene and was on friendly terms with such luminaries as Thomas Young, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and many, many others; all of whom treated Mary as an equal in their wide ranging scientific discussions. In 1817 the Somervilles went to Paris where Mary became acquainted with the cream of the French scientists, including Biot, Arago, Cuvier, Guy-Lussac, Laplace, Poisson and many more.

In 1824 William was appointed Physician to Chelsea Hospital where Mary began a series of scientific experiments on light and magnetism, which resulted in a first scientific paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1826. In 1836, a second piece of Mary’s original research was presented to the Académie des Sciences by Arago. The third and last of her own researches appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1845. However it was not as a researcher that Mary Somerville made her mark but as a translator and populariser.

In 1827 Henry Lord Brougham and Vaux requested Mary to translate Laplace’s Mécanique céleste into English for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Initially hesitant she finally agreed but only on the condition that the project remained secret and it would only be published if judged fit for purpose, otherwise the manuscript should be burnt. She had met Laplace in 1817 and had maintained a scientific correspondence with him until his death in 1827. The translation took four years and was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens, with a dedication to Lord Brougham, in 1831. The manuscript had been refereed by John Herschel, Britain’s leading astronomer and a brilliant mathematician, who was thoroughly cognisant with the original, he found the translation much, much more than fit for the purpose. Laplace’s original text was written in a style that made it inaccessible for all but the best mathematicians, Mary Somerville did not just translate the text but made it accessible for all with a modicum of mathematics, simplifying and elucidating as she went. This wasn’t just a translation but a masterpiece. The text proved too vast for Brougham’s Library of Useful Knowledge but on the recommendation of Herschel, the publisher John Murray published the book at his own cost and risk promising the author two thirds of the profits. The book was a smash hit the first edition of 750 selling out almost instantly following glowing reviews by Herschel and others. In honour of the success the Royal Society commissioned a bust of Mrs Somerville to be placed in their Great Hall, she couldn’t of course become a member!

At the age of fifty-one Mary Somerville’s career as a science writer had started with a bang. Her Laplace translation was used as a textbook in English schools and universities for many years and went through many editions. Her elucidatory preface was extracted and published separately and also became a best seller. If she had never written another word she would still be hailed as a great translator and science writer but she didn’t stop here. Over the next forty years Mary Somerville wrote three major works of semi-popular science On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1st ed. 1834), Physical Geography (1st ed. 1848), (she was now sixty-eight years old!) and at the age of seventy-nine, On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1st ed. 1859). The first two were major successes, which went through many editions each one extended, brought up to date, and improved. The third, which she later regretted having published, wasn’t as successful as her other books. Famously, in the history of science, William Whewell in his anonymous 1834 review of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences first used the term scientist, which he had coined a year earlier, in print but not, as is oft erroneously claimed, in reference to Mary Somerville.

Following the publication of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences Mary Somerville was awarded a state pension of £200 per annum, which was later raised to £300. Together with Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville became the first female honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society just one of many memberships and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout Europe and America. Somerville College Oxford, founded seven years after her death, was also named in her honour. She died on 28 November 1872, at the age of ninety-one, the obituary which appeared in the Morning Post on 2 December said, “Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.” The Times of the same date, “spoke of the high regard in which her services to science were held both by men of science and by the nation”.

As this is my contribution to Ada Lovelace day celebrating the role of women in the history of science, medicine, engineering, mathematics and technology I will close by mentioning the role that Mary Somerville played in the life of Ada. A friend of Ada’s mother, the older women became a scientific mentor and occasional mathematics tutor to the young Miss Byron. As her various attempts to make something of herself in science or mathematics all came to nought Ada decided to take a leaf out of her mentor’s book and to turn to scientific translating. At the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone she chose to translate Luigi Menabrea’s essay on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, at Babbage’s suggestion elucidating the original text as her mentor had elucidated Laplace and the rest is, as they say, history. I personally would wish that the founders of Ada Lovelace Day had chosen Mary Somerville instead, as their galleon figure, as she contributed much, much more to the history of science than her feted protégée.

(1) What follows is largely a very condensed version of Elizabeth  C. Patterson’s excellent Somerville biography Mary Somerville, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 4, 1969, pp. 311-339



Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science

Polluting Youtube once again!

Professor Christopher M Graney, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and guest blogger, has posted another of his holiday videos on Youtube, documenting parts of his visit to Nürnberg and Bamberg for the Astronomy in Franconia Conferences. In his new video “Nürnberg and Bamberg” you can see the Behaim Globe (Martin Behaim celebrates his 555th birthday today!), the Frauenkirche Clock (1509) doing its thing, and yours truly wittering on about Johannes Petreius and Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (4.11–6.56)

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Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science

The unfortunate backlash in the historiography of Islamic science

Anybody with a basic knowledge of the history of Western science will know that there is a standard narrative of its development that goes something like this. Its roots are firmly planted in the cultures of ancient Egypt and Babylon and it bloomed for the first time in ancient Greece, reaching a peak in the work of Ptolemaeus in astronomy and Galen in medicine in the second-century CE. It then goes into decline along with the Roman Empire effectively disappearing from Europe by the fifth-century CE. It began to re-emerge in the Islamic Empire[1] in the eight-century CE from whence it was brought back into Europe beginning in the twelfth-century CE. In Europe it began to bloom again in the Renaissance transforming into modern science in the so-called Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth-century. There is much that is questionable in this broad narrative but that is not the subject of this post.

In earlier versions of this narrative, its European propagators claimed that the Islamic scholars who appropriated Greek knowledge in the eighth-century and then passed it back to their European successors, beginning in the twelfth-century, only conserved that knowledge, effectively doing nothing with it and not increasing it. For these narrators their heroes of science were either ancient Greeks or Early Modern Europeans; Islamic scholars definitely did not belong to the pantheon. However, a later generation of historians of science began to research the work of those Islamic scholars, reading, transcribing, translating and analysing their work and showing that they had in fact made substantial contributions to many areas of science and mathematics, contributions that had flowed into modern European science along with the earlier Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian contributions. Also Islamic scholars such as al-Biruni, al-Kindi, al-Haytham, Ibn Sina, al-Khwarizmi and many others were on a level with such heroes of science as Archimedes, Ptolemaeus, Galen or Kepler, Galileo and Newton. Although this work redressed the balance there is still much work to be done on the breadth and deep of Islamic science.

Unfortunately the hagiographic, amateur, wannabe pop historians of science now entered the field keen to atone for the sins of the earlier Eurocentric historical narrative and began to exaggerate the achievements of the Islamic scholars to show how superior they were to the puny Europeans who stole their ideas, like the colonial bullies who stole their lands. There came into being a type of hagiographical popular history of Islamic science that owes more to the Thousand and One Nights than it does to any form of serious historical scholarship. I came across an example of this last week during the Gravity Fields Festival, an annual shindig put on in Grantham to celebrate the life and work of one Isaac Newton, late of that parish.

On Twitter Ammār ibn Aziz Ahmed (@Ammar_Ibn_AA) tweeted the following:

I’m sorry to let you know that Isaac Newton learned about gravity from the books of Ibn al-Haytham

I naturally responded in my usual graceless style that this statement was total rubbish to which Ammār ibn Aziz Ahmed responded with a link to his ‘source

I answered this time somewhat more moderately that a very large part of that article is quite simply wrong. One of my Internet friends, a maths librarian (@MathsBooks) told me I was being unfair and that I should explain what was wrong with his source, so here I am.

The article in question is one of many potted biographies of al-Haytham that you can find dotted all other the Internet and which are mostly virtual clones of each other. They all contain the same collection of legends, half-truths, myths and straightforward lies usually without sources, or, as in this case, quoting bad popular books written by a non-historian as their source. It is fairly obvious that they all plagiarise each other without bothering to consult original sources or the work done by real historian of science on the life and work of al-Haytham.

The biography of al-Haytham is, like that of most medieval Islamic scholars, badly documented and very patchy at best. Like most popular accounts this article starts with the legend of al-Haytham’s feigned madness and ten-year incarceration. This legend is not mentioned in all the biographical sources and should be viewed with extreme scepticism by anybody seriously interested in the man and his work. The article then moves on to the most pernicious modern myth concerning al-Haytham that he was the ‘first real scientist’.

This claim is based on a misrepresentation of what al-Haytham did. He did not as the article claims introduce the scientific method, whatever that might be. For a limited part of his work al-Haytham used experiments to prove points, for the majority of it he reasoned in exactly the same way as the Greek philosophers whose heir he was. Even where he used the experimental method he was doing nothing that could not be found in the work of Archimedes or Ptolemaeus. There is also an interesting discussion outlined in Peter Dear’s Discipline and Experience (1995) as to whether al-Haytham used or understood experiments in the same ways as researchers in the seventeenth-century; Dear concludes that he doesn’t. (pp. 51-53) It is, however, interesting to sketch how this ‘misunderstanding’ came about.

The original narrative of the development of Western science not only denied the contribution of the Islamic Empire but also claimed that the Middle Ages totally rejected science, modern science only emerging after the Renaissance had reclaimed the Greek scientific inheritance. The nineteenth-century French physicist and historian of science, Pierre Duhem, was the first to challenge this fairy tale claiming instead, based on his own researches, that the Scientific Revolution didn’t take place in the seventeenth–century but in the High Middle Ages, “the mechanics and physics of which modern times are justifiably proud to proceed, by an uninterrupted series of scarcely perceptible improvements, from doctrines professed in the heart of the medieval schools.” After the Second World War Duhem’s thesis was modernised by the Australian historian of science, Alistair C. Crombie, whose studies on medieval science in general and Robert Grosseteste in particular set a new high water mark in the history of science. Crombie attributed the origins of modern science and the scientific method to Grosseteste and Roger Bacon in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries. A view that has been somewhat modified and watered down by more recent historians, such as David Lindberg. Enter Matthias Schramm.

Matthias Schramm was a German historian of science who wrote his doctoral thesis on al-Haytham. A fan of Crombie’s work Schramm argued that the principle scientific work of Grosseteste and Bacon in physical optics was based on the work of al-Haytham, correct for Bacon not so for Grosseteste, and so he should be viewed as the originator of the scientific method and not they. He makes this claim in the introduction to his Ibn al-Haythams Weg zur Physik (1964), but doesn’t really substantiate it in the book itself. (And yes, I have read it!) Al-Haytham’s use of experiment is very limited and to credit him with being the inventor of the scientific method is a step too far. However since Schramm made his claims they have been expanded, exaggerated and repeated ad nauseam by the al-Haytham hagiographers.

We now move on to what is without doubt al-Haytham’s greatest achievement his Book of Optics, the most important work on physical optics written between Ptolemaeus in the second-century CE and Kepler in the seventeenth-century. Our author writes:

In his book, The Book of Optics, he was the first to disprove the ancient Greek idea that light comes out of the eye, bounces off objects, and comes back to the eye. He delved further into the way the eye itself works. Using dissections and the knowledge of previous scholars, he was able to begin to explain how light enters the eye, is focused, and is projected to the back of the eye.

Here our author demonstrates very clearly that he really has no idea what he is talking about. It should be very easy to write a clear and correct synopsis of al-Haytham’s achievements, as there is a considerable amount of very good literature on his Book of Optics, but our author gets it wrong[2].

Al-Haytham didn’t prove or disprove anything he rationally argued for a plausible hypothesis concerning light and vision, which was later proved to be, to a large extent, correct by others. The idea that vision consists of rays (not light) coming out of the eyes (extramission) is only one of several ideas used to explain vision by Greek thinkers. That vision is the product of light entering the eyes (intromission) also originates with the Greeks. The idea that light bounces off every point of an object in every direction comes from al-Haytham’s Islamic predecessor al-Kindi. Al-Haytham’s great achievement was to combine an intromission theory of vision with the geometrical optics of Euclid, Heron and Ptolemaeus (who had supported an extramission theory) integrating al-Kindi’s punctiform theory of light reflection. In its essence, this theory is fundamentally correct. The second part of the paragraph quoted above, on the structure and function of the eye, is pure fantasy and bears no relation to al-Haytham’s work. His views on the subject were largely borrowed from Galen and were substantially wrong.

Next up we have the pinhole camera or better camera obscura, although al-Haytham was probably the first to systematically investigate the camera obscura its basic principle was already known to the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti in the fifth-century BCE and Aristotle in the fourth-century BCE. The claims for al-Haytham’s studies of atmospheric refraction are also hopelessly exaggerated.

We the have an interesting statement on the impact of al-Haytham’s optics, the author writes:

The translation of The Book of Optics had a huge impact on Europe. From it, later European scholars were able to build the same devices as he did, and understand the way light works. From this, such important things as eyeglasses, magnifying glasses, telescopes, and cameras were developed.

The Book of Optics did indeed have a massive impact on European optics in Latin translation from the work of Bacon in the thirteenth-century up to Kepler in the seventeenth-century and this is the principle reason why he counts as one of the very important figures in the history of science, however I wonder what devices the author is referring to here, I know of none. Interesting in this context is that The Book of Optics appears to have had very little impact on the development of physical optics in the Islamic Empire. One of the anomalies in the history of science and technology is the fact that as far was we know the developments in optical physics made by al-Haytham, Bacon, Witelo, Kepler et al had no influence on the invention of optical instruments, glasses, magnifying glasses, the telescope, which were developed along a parallel but totally separate path.

Moving out of optics we get told about al-Haytham’s work in astronomy. It is true that he like many other Islamic astronomers criticised Ptolemaeus and suggested changes in his system but his influence was small in comparison to other Islamic astronomers. What follows is a collection of total rubbish.

He had a great influence on Isaac Newton, who was aware of Ibn al-Haytham’s works.

He was not an influence on Newton. Newton would have been aware of al-Haytham’s work in optics but by the time Newton did his own work in this field al-Haytham’s work had been superseded by that of Kepler, Scheiner, Descartes and Gregory amongst others.

He studied the basis of calculus, which would later lead to the engineering formulas and methods used today.

Al-Haytham did not study the basis of calculus!

He also wrote about the laws governing the movement of bodies (later known as Newton’s 3 laws of motion)

Like many others before and after him al-Haytham did discuss motion but he did not come anywhere near formulating Newton’s laws of motion, this claim is just pure bullshit.

and the attraction between two bodies – gravity. It was not, in fact, the apple that fell from the tree that told Newton about gravity, but the books of Ibn al-Haytham.

We’re back in bullshit territory again!

If anybody thinks I should give a more detailed refutation of these claims and not just dismiss them as bullshit, I can’t because al-Haytham never ever did the things being claimed. If you think he did then please show me where he did so then I will be prepared to discuss the matter, till then I’ll stick to my bullshit!

I shall examine one more claim from this ghastly piece of hagiography. Our author writes the following:

When his books were translated into Latin as the Spanish conquered Muslim lands in the Iberian Peninsula, he was not referred to by his name, but rather as “Alhazen”. The practice of changing the names of great Muslim scholars to more European sounding names was common in the European Renaissance, as a means to discredit Muslims and erase their contributions to Christian Europe.

Alhazen is merely the attempt by the unknown Latin translator of The Book of Optics to transliterate the Arabic name al-Haytham there was no discrimination intended or attempted.

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham is without any doubt an important figure in the history of science whose contribution, particularly those in physical optics, should be known to anybody taking a serious interest in the subject, but he is not well served by inaccurate, factually false, hagiographic crap like that presented in the article I have briefly discussed here.






[1] Throughout this post I will refer to Islamic science an inadequate but conventional term. An alternative would be Arabic science, which is equally problematic. Both terms refer to the science produced within the Islamic Empire, which was mostly written in Arabic, as European science in the Middle Ages was mostly written in Latin. The terms do not intend to imply that all of the authors were Muslims, many of them were not, or Arabs, again many of them were not.

[2] For a good account of the history of optics including a detailed analysis of al-Haytham’s contributions read David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision: From al-Kindi to Kepler, University of Chicago Press, 1976.


Filed under History of Optics, History of Physics, Mediaeval Science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

The horror, the horror!

For those readers who might have wondered what The Renaissance Mathematicus looks and sounds like, you need wonder no more. There is now a video on Youtube in which I stumble and stutter my way through a very impromptu, not quite fifteen minute, lecture on the relationship between astronomy, astrology and medicine in the Early Modern Period. During which I indulge in a lot of arm waving and from time to time scratch my fleas. This video was filmed in the kitchen of the Remeis Observatory in Bamberg during a coffee break at the Astronomy in Franconia Conference last Monday, complete with the sounds of somebody loading the dishwasher.

The cameraman, who also puts some questions during this solo performance, was Chris Graney who requested my golden words for his students back in Louisville, the poor sods.

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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of medicine

Jesuit Day

Adam Richter (@AdamDRichter) of the Wallifaction Blog (he researches John Wallis) tells me that the Society of Jesus, known colloquially as the Jesuits, was officially recognised by Pope Paul III on 27th September 1540. He gives a short list of Jesuits who have contributed to the history of science over the centuries. Since this blog started I have attempted to draw my readers attention to those contributions by profiling individual Jesuits and their contributions and also on occasions defending them against their largely ignorant critics. I have decided to use this anniversary to feature those posts once again for those who came later to this blog and might not have discovered them yet.

My very first substantive post on this blog was about Christoph Clavius the Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit university in Rome, who as an educational reformer introduced the mathematical sciences into the curricula of Catholic schools and universities in the Early Modern Period. I wrote about Clavius then because I was holding a lecture on him at The Remeis Observatory in Bamberg, his hometown, as part of the International Year of Astronomy. I shall be holding another lecture on Clavius in Nürnberg at the Nicolaus Copernicus Planetarium at 7:00 pm on 12 November 2014 as part of the “GestHirne über Franken – Leitfossilien fränkischer Astronomie“ series. If you’re in the area you’re welcome to come along and throw peanuts.

I wrote a more general rant on the Jesuits’ contributions to science in response to some ignorant Jesuit bashing from prominent philosopher and gnu atheist A. C. Grayling, which also links to a guest post I wrote on Evolving Thoughts criticising an earlier Grayling attack on them. This post also has a sequel.

One of Clavius’ star pupils was Matteo Ricci who I featured in this post.

A prominent Jesuit astronomer, later in the seventeenth-century, was Riccioli who put the names on the moon. I have also blogged about Chris Graney’s translation of Riccioli’s 126 arguments pro and contra heliocentricity. Chris, a friend and guest blogger on the Renaissance Mathematicus, has got a book coming out next year on The University of Notre Dame Press entitled Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo. It’s going to be a good one, so look out for it.

Riccioli’s partner in crime was another Jesuit, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, who features in this post on Refraction, refrangibility, diffraction or inflexion.

At the end of the seventeenth-century the Jesuit mathematician, Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri, without quite realising what he had achieved, came very close to discovering non-Euclidian geometry.

In the eighteenth-century a towering figure of European science was the Croatian Jesuit polymath, Ruđer Josip Bošković.

This is by no means all of the prominent Jesuit scientists in the Early Modern Period and I shall no doubt return to one or other of them in future posts.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

If you’re going to pontificate about the history of science then at least get your facts right!

Recently, my attention was drawn to an article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, on The Week website, telling the world what the real meaning of ‘science’ is (h/t Peter Broks @peterbroks). According to Mr Gobry science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation [his emphasis]. This definition is of course totally inadequate but I’m not going to try and correct it in what follows; I gave up trying to find a simple all encompassing definition of science, a hopeless endeavour, a long time ago. However Mr Gobry takes us on a whirlwind tour of the history of science that is to say the least bizarre not to mention horribly inaccurate and in almost all of its details false. It is this part of his article that I’m going to look at here. He writes:

A little history: The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle’s definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.

The problem with that is that it’s absolutely not true. Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.

What we now know as the “scientific revolution” was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.

Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment.

This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon.

Where to start? We will follow the Red King’s advice to Alice, “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Ignoring the fact that it is highly anachronistic to refer to anybody as a scientist, even if you qualify it with a proto-, before 1834, the very first sentence is definitively wrong. Sticking with Mr Gobry’s terminology Aristotle was by no means the first proto-scientists. In fact it would be immensely difficult to determine exactly who deserves this honour. Traditional legend or mythology attributes this title to Thales amongst the Greeks but ignores Babylonian, Indian and Chinese thinkers who might have a prior claim. Just staying within the realms of Greek thought Eudoxus and Empedocles, who both had a large influence on Aristotle, have as much right to be labelled proto-scientists and definitely lived earlier than him. Aristotle was also by no means the first person to propose a systematic epistemology. It would appear that Mr Gobry slept through most of his Greek philosophy classes, that’s if he ever took any, which reading what he wrote I somehow doubt.

We then get told that Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. Now a lot of what Aristotle said and a lot of his methodology turned out in the long run to be wrong but that is true of almost all major figures in the history of science. Aristotle put forward ideas and concepts in a fairly systematic manner for people to accept or reject as they saw fit. He laid down a basis for rational discussion, a discussion that would, with time, propel science, that is our understanding of the world in which we live, forwards. I’m sorry Mr Gobry, but a Bronze Age thinker living on the fertile plains between the Tigris and the Euphrates is not coming to come up with the theory of Quantum Electro Dynamics whilst herding his goats; science doesn’t work like that. Somebody suggest an explanatory model that others criticise and improve, sometimes replacing it with a new model with greater explanatory power, breadth, depth or whatever. Aristotle’s models and methodologies were very good ones for the time in which he lived and for the knowledge basis available to him and without him or somebody like him, even if he were wrong, no science would have developed.

Gobry is right in saying that the traditional interpretation of the so-called scientific revolution consisted of a repudiation of Aristotelian philosophy, a point of view that has become somewhat more differentiated in more recent research, a complex problem that I don’t want to go into now. However he is wrong to suggest that Aristotle’s epistemology was replaced by reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. Science in the Early Modern Period still has a strong non-experimental metaphysical core. Kepler, for example, didn’t arrive at his three laws of planetary motion through experimentation but on deriving rules from empirical observations.

Gobry’s next claim would be hilarious if he didn’t mean it seriously. Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). Aristotle never demonstrated the fact that heavier objects fall faster than light ones; he observed it. In fact Mr Gobry could observe it for himself anytime he wants. He just needs to carry out the experiment. In the real world heavier objects do fall faster than light ones largely because of air resistance. What Aristotle describes is an informal form of Stokes’ Law, which describes motion in a viscous fluid, air being a viscous fluid. Aristotle wasn’t wrong he was just describing fall in the real world. What makes Gobry’s claim hilarious is that Galileo challenged this aspect of Aristotle’s theories of motion not with experimentation but with a legendary thought experiment. He couldn’t have disproved it with an experiment because he didn’t have the necessary vacuum chamber. Objects of differing weight only fall at the same rate in a vacuum. The experimentation to which Gobry is referring is Galileo’s use of an inclined plane to determine the laws of fall, a different thing altogether.

We now arrive at Gobry’s biggest error, and one that produced snorts of indignation from my friend Pete Langman (@elegantfowl), a Bacon expert. Gobry tells us that Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment. This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. Galileo’s methodology of science was basically the hypothetical deductive methodology that most people regard as the methodology of science today. Bacon however propagated an inductive methodology that consists of accumulating empirical data until a critical mass is reached and the theories, somehow, crystallise out by themselves. (Apologies to all real philosophers and epistemologists for these too short and highly inadequate descriptions!) These two epistemologies stood in stark contrast to each other and have even been considered contradictory. In reality, I think, scientific methodology consists of elements of both methodologies along with other things. However the main point is that Bacon did not formalise Galileo’s methodology but produced a completely different one of his own.

Apparently Mr Gobry also slept through his Early Modern Period philosophy classes.




Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

Childhood, war games and becoming a historian.

This week’s A Point of View on BBC Radio 4 The Horror of War by Renaissance historian Lisa Jardine was truly excellent and well worth ten minutes of your time. From the starting point of having visited a war exhibition she discussed how museums sometimes/often sanitize war when presenting it attractively pre-packaged for the viewing public. Turning to the anything but attractive reality of war she ended her short piece with a very personal anecdote from the bringing up of her own children. She told how her five-year-old son came home from primary school wishing to be bought a khaki shirt. It transpired that a group of kids in his class had started to play war games, re-enacting the Second World War. I was slightly surprised that the initiator or this activity was a recently arrived German boy because one of the things that struck me when I moved to Germany more than thirty years ago is that German children, unlike myself and my friends in my childhood, don’t play war games; a legacy of the German guilt for the Second World War and everything that happened in Germany during the Nazi period. In fact many of my German friends who had spent time in Britain told me how shocked they had been by the war stories in English children’s comics. How Lisa dealt with her own qualms about her son’s wish to play war games I will leave you to find out for yourselves, I want to talk about my own childhood, the war games I played and how it led to me becoming a historian.

I grew up I the 1950s in the shadow of the Second World War; although I don’t remember it the bottled milk on which I was fed was still rationed. From about the age of four to about the age of eleven me and my best friend Pete (and yes grammar fascists I know that is grammatically wrong!) played war games; it was one of our principle activities.

We were Royal Marine Commandoes parachuting behind enemy lines in France to rescue some imagined imprisoned spy, we were Viking warriors slashing and pillaging our way through some imagined coastal settlement or sailing the high seas in our dragon boat, we were Roman legionaries battling the wild Pictish hoards to regain the Eagle of the Ninth (slightly ironic as my father was a lowland Scot!), we were members of the French Foreign Legion besieged by marauding Arabs, you name it if there was a war in history we fought in it.

We had a large storage cupboard, without doors in a loft above a stables on whose top shelf we sat back to back whilst flying our Lancaster bomber; Pete was the pilot and I was by turns the tail-gunner and the bomb aimer. We had an old coalbunker in the yard that was by turns our tank or Panzerkampfwagen (we knew all the right terminology), or our submarine. I had a real periscope that I had built myself with the help of my mother. We were always in the workshop building the accoutrements of war. We carved swords out of fence palings and made shields of every imaginable shape and form out of plywood. We built wooden Sten submachine guns and Bren light machine guns. We fashioned bows and arrows out of hazel wood saplings and constructed lethal crossbows. When we played inside we glued together vast fleets of warships and airplanes, as well as squadrons of tanks from Airfix plastic kits.

A large part of our lives was devoted to the pursuit of war but it wasn’t just practical, there was a strong and surprisingly deep theoretical side to our endeavours. We wished our war games to be as authentic as possible and so we devoted a large part of our time to studying war history. Whilst still at primary school I could detail every model of tank (Panzerkampfwagen) produced in Germany during the 1930s and 40s, including who had designed them, which company had built them etc. etc. I knew the ranks of all the members of a Roman legion, how many men constituted a cohort, a legion, where which legions were deployed and so on, and so on. Aided by my historian father, I had books on such things as Lancelot de Mole’s tank and the construction of Samurai armour. I was a war history junkie, but more importantly I was a practicing historian. I served my first apprenticeship as a historian whilst still at primary school learning, in detail, about all of the ways humanity had dreamt up to kill itself off.

By the time I was fifteen I had become the totally convinced pacifist I remain today but my passion for history had grown and would soon turn first to the history of mathematics and then later to the more general history of science but that passion has its roots very firmly in those childhood years where, in my imagination, I slaughtered thousands and, it should be pointed out, died a thousand spectacular deaths. Being able to act out an Oscar worthy death was an essential part of our war games.

I never had children and being old, set in my ways as a single and, as my contribution to contraception, sterilised I never will have, so I can’t say how I would react to a child of mine wishing to play war games. I can only wish that my reaction would have been as wonderful as that of Lisa Jardine.



Filed under Autobiographical