The deadline is rapidly approaching for Giants’ Shoulders #66, a History of Medicine & Biology Special, hosted by Michelle Ziegler (@MZiegler3) at her Contagions Blog. If you want to be part of the greatest yuletide #histsci, #histsmed, #histtech blog carnival this side of Santa’s Grotto then submit those killer history of medicine or biology posts either to me here or direct to the host or to either of us on Twitter by the 15th December at the very latest. As always posts on other #histsci or #histtech topics are also welcome.
The next statement in this post could well loose me several of my British readers I’m not a big fan of The Infinite Monkey Cage, BBC Radio 4’s comedy science programme. I don’t particularly like the puerile schoolboy humour favoured by the hosts. I was not partial to it when I was a puerile schoolboy and have grown less fond of it over the years. However on Monday I had some time to kill before going out for the evening and didn’t feel like reading, so I thought I would listen to the latest episode, which promised, amongst other things, a discussion of when and how geology became a science.
After several minutes of banter geologist Hermione Cockburn was asked exactly that. The first problem that occurred to me was that there was no discussion or explanation either of what science is or more importantly what it means for a discipline to become a science. Now I know that both of these questions are much too complex to be handled in a thirty minutes comedy programme, which of course raises the question of the legitimacy of trying to discuss geology becoming a science in the same context. This problematic did not seem to phase Ms Cockburn who blithely answered that the transition occurred through the work of James Hutton or, she went on, maybe through that of Charles Lyell. This prompted the question from the hosts, why it had taken so long after Newton and the emergence of modern science for this to occur. Now Newton died in 1727 and Hutton was born in 1726 so the separation in time wasn’t that great.
The answer provided to the supposed time gap was of course religious prejudice. After a surprisingly positive account of Ussher’s chronology the other expert guest in the programme, paleobiologist David Martill, went on to explain that although the Greeks had realised that fossils were the remains of animals this knowledge had got lost in the Dark Ages (he actually used this term!) and it wasn’t until the seventeen hundreds that anybody looked at fossils correctly. Now at this point I began to ask myself, not for the first time, if the BBC is going to discuss history of science, in this case history of geology, why don’t they get a historian of science, in this case historian of geology, who knows what they are talking about to do the job?
Now I’m neither a geologist nor a historian of geology but even I know that the answer provided here by the experts are, at very best, highly dubious and at the worst totally wrong. I did ask myself, if Ms Cockburn was indulging in a bit of local patriotism, as James Hutton was a graduate of Edinburg University, the institution where she is employed. Just staying in the eighteenth century, if Hutton is doing scientific geology then so were his biggest intellectual opponent the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner, who was his contemporary and the French polymath Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon who preceded them both. Less well known is the fact that Leibniz, who died in 1716, wrote and published definitely scientific papers on geology in his capacity as inspector of mines for his employer, the Elector of Hanover, George I of England.
Of course scientific geology didn’t begin in the eighteenth century. Assuming that scientific means theories based on empirical evidence then the sixteenth century German physician Georg Pawer (modern German spelling Bauer i.e. farmer), better known as Agricola, produced scientific geology in his books on mining. The most famous of which is his De re metallica, published posthumously in 1556. Another sixteenth century polymath who produced scientific writings on geology based on excellent empirical observations was Leonardo da Vinci but who, as usual, did not publish his findings and so can’t really be counted amongst the scientific geologists.
However the person I most missed in this misconstrued mini-history of geology is one of my favourite seventeenth century polymaths Niels Stensen (1638–1686), better known by the short form of his Latinised nom de plume simply as Steno.
Born in Copenhagen of Lutheran Protestant parents, why this is relevant will become clear later, Steno entered the University of Copenhagen to study medicine at the age of nineteen. He studied under Thomas Bartholin, discoverer of the lymphatic system, whose younger brother Rasmus Bartholin first discovered double refraction the phenomenon that led Huygens to formulate his wave theory of light. Bartholin urged Steno, on completion of his medical degree, to travel to Amsterdam to study under Gerard Blasius, where after six months he moved on to Leiden to become part of one of the most extraordinary constellations of medical talent assembled in one place in the seventeenth century. Under the direction of the professors Franciscus Sylvius and Johannes van Horne Jan Swammerdam, Reinier de Graaf, Frederick Ruysch and Steno were busy revolutionising the study of human anatomy. All of them made major contributions and discoveries.
During this period the strangest story involving Steno concerned the discovery of the function of the ovaries. De Graaf claimed this discovery for himself but Swammerdam was convinced that the laurels should go to van Horne and himself. After the two, now ex-friends, had argued bitterly on who should be awarded the priority Swammerdam appealed to the Royal Society in London to arbitrate in the matter and pass judgement. After due consideration of the various claims the Royal Society announced Steno as the winner although he had never claimed the priority.
After further medical work in Paris Steno went to Northern Italy where he was first professor of anatomy in Pisa and then private physician to Ferdinando II de’Medici thus becoming de facto a member of, Ferdinand’s brother, Leopoldo de’Medici’s Accademia del Cimento. During his time in Tuscany Steno turned to his second scientific career, geology.
Steno was given a shark’s head by Ferdinando, which being an anatomist he proceeded to dissect. He realised that the shark’s teeth resembled glossopetrae or “tongue stones” and hypothesised that these were in fact fossilised shark’s teeth. This led him to more general conclusions about the organic origins of fossils, which he published in his De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus, or Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid in 1669. This was not Steno only contribution to the history of geology. During his walks along the coast he observed the layers visible in the rock formations around him and developed the three fundamental laws of stratification – the law of superposition, the principle of original horizontality and the principle of lateral continuity – which he published in his Dissertationis prodromus of 1669.
Around this time Steno’s career took another major turn. In 1667 our Danish Lutheran converted to Catholicism. In 1675, having abandoned science completely, he was ordained a priest and in 1677 he was consecrated titular bishop of Titiopolis. Steno left Italy for Northern Germany where he worked as a missionary trying to convert the Lutherans back to Catholicism. He rejected all his worldly goods living as a pauper, a live style that led to his death in 1686. Steno was nominated for sainthood by his parishioners and although he was beatified he was never canonised.
To return to the history of geology Steno was not alone in the latter part of the seventeenth century in suggesting an organic theory of fossils with both Robert Hooke and John Ray propagating similar ideas.
If you want to know more about the history of geology then I can strongly recommend the blog of David Bressan at Scientific American and suggest you start with this post that explains more about the contributions of Agricola, Leonardo and Steno.
Yesterday on my twitter stream people were retweeting the following quote:
“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” —Bernard Baruch
For those who don’t know, Bernard Baruch was an American financier and presidential advisor. I can only assume that those who retweeted it did so because they believe that it is in some way significant. As a historian of science I find it is significant because it is fundamentally wrong in two different ways and because it perpetuates a false understanding of Newton’s apple story. For the purposes of this post I shall ignore the historical debate about the truth or falsity of the apple story, an interesting discussion of which you can read here in the comments, and just assume that it is true. I should however point out that in the story, as told by Newton to at least two different people, he was not hit on the head by the apple and he did not in a blinding flash of inspiration discover the inverse square law of gravity. Both of these commonly held beliefs are myths created in the centuries after Newton’s death.
Our quote above implies that of all the millions of people who saw apples, or any other objects for that matter, fall, Newton was the first or even perhaps the only one to ask why. This is of course complete and utter rubbish people have been asking why objects fall probably ever since the hominoid brain became capable of some sort of primitive thought. In the western world the answer to this question that was most widely accepted in the centuries before Newton was born was the one supplied by Aristotle. Aristotle thought that objects fall because it was in their nature to do so. They had a longing, desire, instinct or whatever you choose to call it to return to their natural resting place the earth. This is of course an animistic theory of matter attributing as it does some sort of spirit to matter to fulfil a desire.
Aristotle’s answer stems from his theory of the elements of matter that he inherited from Empedocles. According to this theory all matter on the earth consisted of varying mixtures of four elements: earth, water, fire and air. In an ideal world they would be totally separated, a sphere of earth enclosed in a sphere of water, enclosed in a sphere of air, which in turn was enclosed in a sphere of fire. Outside of the sphere of fire the heavens consisted of a fifth pure element, aether or as it became known in Latin the quintessence. In our world objects consist of mixtures of the four elements, which given the chance strive to return to their natural position in the scheme of things. Heavy objects, consisting as they do largely of earth and water, strive downwards towards the earth light objects such as smoke or fire strive upwards.
To understand what Isaac did ask the apple we have to take a brief look at the two thousand years between Aristotle and Newton.
Ignoring for a moment the Stoics, nobody really challenged the Aristotelian elemental theory, which is metaphysical in nature but over the centuries they did challenge his physical theory of movement. Before moving on we should point out that Aristotle said that vertical, upwards or downwards, movement on the earth was natural and all other movement was unnatural or violent, whereas in the heavens circular movement was natural.
Already in the sixth century CE John Philoponus began to question and criticise Aristotle’s physical laws of motion. An attitude that was taken up and extended by the Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages. Following the lead of their Islamic colleagues the so-called Paris physicists of the fourteenth century developed the impulse theory, which said that when an object was thrown the thrower imparted an impulse to the object which carried it through the air gradually being exhausted, until when spent the object fell to the ground. Slightly earlier their Oxford colleagues, the Calculatores of Merton College had in fact discovered Galileo’s mathematical law of fall: The two theories together providing a quasi-mathematical explanation of movement, at least here on the earth.
You might be wondering what all of this has to do with Isaac and his apple but you should have a little patience we will arrive in Grantham in due course.
In the sixteenth century various mathematicians such as Tartaglia and Benedetti extended the mathematical investigation of movement, the latter anticipating Galileo in almost all of his famous discoveries. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Simon Stevin and Galileo deepened these studies once more the latter developing very elegant experiments to demonstrate and confirm the laws of fall, which were later in the century confirmed by Riccioli. Meanwhile their contemporary Kepler was the first to replace the Aristotelian animistic concept of movement with one driven by a non-living force, even if it was not very clear what force is. During the seventeenth century others such as Beeckman, Descartes, Borelli and Huygens further developed Kepler’s concept of force, meanwhile banning Aristotle’s moving spirits out of their mechanistical philosophy. Galileo, Beeckman and Descartes replaced the medieval impulse theory with the theory of inertia, which says that objects in a vacuum will either remain at rest or continue to travel in a straight line unless acted upon by a force. Galileo, who still hung on the Greek concept of perfect circular motion, had problems with the straight-line bit but Beeckman and Descartes straightened him out. The theory of inertia was to become Newton’s first law of motion.
We have now finally arrived at that idyllic summer afternoon in Grantham in 1666, as the young Isaac Newton, home from university to avoid the plague, whilst lying in his mother’s garden contemplating the universe, as one does, chanced to see an apple falling from a tree. Newton didn’t ask why it fell, but set off on a much more interesting, complicated and fruitful line of speculation. Newton’s line of thought went something like this. If Descartes is right with his theory of inertia, in those days young Isaac was still a fan of the Gallic philosopher, then there must be some force pulling the moon down towards the earth and preventing it shooting off in a straight line at a tangent to its orbit. What if, he thought, the force that holds the moon in its orbit and the force that cause the apple to fall to the ground were one and the same? This frighteningly simple thought is the germ out of which Newton’s theory of universal gravity and his masterpiece the Principia grew. That growth taking several years and a lot of very hard work. No instant discoveries here.
Being somewhat of a mathematical genius, young Isaac did a quick back of an envelope calculation and see here his theory didn’t fit! They weren’t the same force at all! What had gone wrong? In fact there was nothing wrong with Newton’s theory at all but the figure that he had for the size of the earth was inaccurate enough to throw his calculations. As a side note, although the expression back of an envelope calculation is just a turn of phrase in Newton’s case it was often very near the truth. In Newton’s papers there are mathematical calculations scribbled on shopping lists, in the margins of letters, in fact on any and every available scrap of paper that happened to be in the moment at hand.
Newton didn’t forget his idea and later when he repeated those calculations with the brand new accurate figures for the size of the earth supplied by Picard he could indeed show that the chain of thought inspired by that tumbling apple had indeed been correct.
People who aren’t deeply cognisant with the history of seventeenth century mathematics might be forgiven for thinking that Isaac Newton was the only significant English mathematician in this century of scientific change. This is far from the truth, a fairly large group of English mathematician, now largely under the radar, made significant contributions to the discipline throughout the century. Newton, personally, listed William Oughtred, Christopher Wren and John Wallis who was born on 23 November 1616 as, in his opinion, the most important English mathematician of the century. John Wallis’ career as a mathematician was so extraordinary that one could write a novel about it; in fact somebody did. Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost features John Wallis as one of its central characters. Why? John Wallis was a one-man Parliamentary Bletchley Park during the English Civil War, using his extraordinary mathematical talents to decipher the intercepted coded missives of the Royalist forces; he rose to fame and fortune as Cromwell’s code breaker.
Wallis was the third of five children of the Reverend John Wallis minister of Ashford in Kent. He received an excellent all round education that was however completely devoid of mathematics. His only contact with mathematics, as a child, was through a book that his older brother brought home from school. Already knowledgeable in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, he went up to Emmanuel College,
Oxford Cambridge in 1632 where he appears to have studied everything except mathematics. In his autobiography he wrote:
But did forward prosecute it [mathematics], as a pleasing diversion at spare hours, as books of Arithmetick or others Mathematical fell occasionally in my way, without any to direct me, what books to read, or what to seek, or in what methode to proceed. For Mathematicks were not, at that time, looked upon as Accademical Learning; but the business of Traders, Merchants, Sea-men, Carpenters, land-measurers, or the like; or perhaps some Almanak-makers in London: And of more than 200 students at that time in our College, I do not know of any two that had more of Mathematicks than myself, which was but very little; having never made it my serious studie (otherwise than as a pleasant diversion) till some little time before I was designed for a Professor in it.
This brief passage says an incredible amount about the level of mathematical education in England in the middle of the seventeenth century. A state of affairs that is confirmed in the writings of many other seventeenth century English mathematicians. Even at the beginning of the eighteenth century John Arbuthnot complained that mathematics was not taught in a single English school.
Wallis graduated BA in 1637 and MA in 1640 and upon leaving university was ordained into the priesthood. He served in various positions mostly as a private chaplain. Following the death of his mother in 1643 he inherited a substantial estate and became privately wealthy, removing the necessity to work for a living although he continued to do all of his long life. It was at a supper party in 1642 that Wallis was first shown an encrypted letter and his talent for deciphering came to the fore; a talent that was then exploited throughout the Civil War by the Parliamentarian Forces. His detractors would later accuse him of having deciphered private letters of the Royal Family, a charge that he strenuously denied.
Some time around 1647 Wallis chanced upon a copy of William Oughtred’s Clavis Mathematicae, which according to his own account he devoured in a couple of weeks. In the absence of any real formal mathematical training within the education system, budding mathematicians were forced to teach themselves or to seek the services of a private mathematical tutor of whom Oughtred, who deserves and will receive his own blog post, was by far and away the best. His Clavis Mathematicae was justifiably considered the best algebra textbook available in Europe at the time. Oughtred tutored many of the leading English mathematicians of the period and, although he taught himself from Oughtred’s book, Wallis considered himself one of Oughtred’s pupils. Later he would dedicate one of his most important books to Oughtred and also edit and publish his posthumous writings.
In 1649 Wallis was appointed Savilian Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, the previous incumbent having been removed because of his Royalist sympathies. This was an extraordinary move, as at this point in his life Wallis had received no formal mathematical training what so ever and published no mathematical works. However he was to go on for the next forty years as one of the most able incumbents this honourable chair of mathematics has ever had. Using the facilities of the university library Wallis taught himself the whole of the then mathematical curriculum and over the years published major works on a very wide range of mathematical topics.
Wallis’ work for the Parliamentarian forces and his very obvious political appointment to the Savilian Chair might have caused him major problems at the Restoration, if it had not been for his stand at the tail of Charles I. He openly opposed the execution of the King and even signed a petition against it. The result of these actions was that Charles II confirmed his appointment to the Savilian Chair and even appointed him a Royal chaplain as well as nominating him for a committee to revise the book of common prayer.
Wallis was highly active in several of the groups that would go on to form the Royal Society of which he was a founding member. In fact his autobiography contains one of the accounts on which our knowledge of the prehistory of the Royal Society is based.
Amongst his numerous mathematical publications his most important were his Treatise on Algebra and his Arthmetica infinitorum. The former contains a detailed history of the topic as well as presenting the most complete study of the subject up till that time. The later is one of the most important works on analysis before Leibniz and Newton pulled the strands of the subject together to create the calculus. Newton, who was mostly reluctant to acknowledge any of his sources, openly admitted his debt to Wallis’ masterpiece.
Wallis was fiercely nationalist in his science, editing and promoting the posthumous works of other seventeenth century English mathematicians most notably Oughtred, Harriot and Horrocks. He even accused René Descartes of having plagiarised Harriot’s algebra; an accusation that has never been entirely disproved. (Descartes suffered badly within the European mathematical community being accused of having plagiarised the law of refraction from Snel, the mechanical philosophy from Beeckman and having Newton imply indirectly that he plagiarised the correct explanation of the rainbow from Marco Antonio de Dominis.) Descartes was not the only major European philosopher to suffer the rough edge of Wallis’ tongue. He started a major dispute with Thomas Hobbes in 1655 over Hobbes’ claim to have successfully squared the circle. The dispute rumbled on with the two heavy weight Oxford scholars firing off vitriolic pamphlets at each other at regular intervals until Hobbes’ death in 1679.
Wallis was not only the leading English mathematician of the age but he also translated and published Greek scientific works as well as writing and published extensively on a wide range of other subjects including, logic, grammar and linguistics and theology. A large and robust man with an immense intellect and a forthright manner he was both respected and loathed by his contemporaries.
Lost in the vast shadow cast by Isaac Newton, John Wallis is a towering figure of seventeenth century English intellectual history, who deserves to be much better known than he is.
History of science in the last month circled around the 100th anniversary on 7th November of the death of Wallace:
Not that Wallace you idiot Alfred Russel Wallace co-discovery of the concept of evolution by natural selection:
His death was announced in this letter by his son. The New York Times presented The Animated Life of A R Wallace. A podcast by David Attenborough The forgotten story of Alfred Russel Wallace. The Nature Conservancy: Remembering Alfred Russel Wallace. The National Council for Scientific Education: Wallaceana. A podcast at Scientific American: The man who wasn’t Darwin. A book review: Letters from the Malay Archipelago
To close up our look at Wallace John van Wyhe asks: Will the real Alfred Russel Wallace please stand up?
Appropriate to this celebration Myrmecos presents a graphic on How Field Naturalists Die
Staying with the life sciences John Wilkins told us how Noah Ark inspired the species concept.
Nature tells us that Linnaeus’ Asian elephant was the wrong species. A research project that involved Lincoln Universities own Dr Anna-Marie Roos: Research discovers new ‘type specimen’ for the Asian elephant
Grrl Scientist offers us a review of a natural history classic The Natural History of Selborne
At the end of October (and a week later in America) daylight saving time came to an end for this year prompting this thoughtful post from Becky Higgitt: Clock Change Challenge. Which in turn prompted me to write about the unique system of time keeping in early modern Nürnberg: Counting the Hours. In America somebody linked to this appropriate article on Benjamin Franklin’s invention of daylight saving time. Also on the theme of time Dissertation Reviews told us about Clocks and Time in Edo Japan.
As the last edition of Giants’ Shoulders went to press and the period for this one started the Internet community celebrated this years Ada Lovelace Day and the majority of the posts have slipped through the net but we have a small collection of post on women in science and technology. Guardian Science Blogs gave us Women in Science: a difficult history . Somerville College honoured Ada Lovelace Day. Melissa Terras gave us Father Busa’s Female Punch Card Operatives. Again at the Guardian Sharon Ruston discussed Mary Wollstonecraft, feminism, and the nature v nurture debate. The New York Times is Honoring female pioneers in science. The Telegraph gives us an obituary of Mavis Batey a Bletchley Park code breaker.
Amanda Herbert tells us that there are Never Too Many Cooks: Female Alliances in Early Modern Recipes. The lady archaeologists and geologists are also represented: Wikipedia gets the TrowelBlazer Treatment
Lisa Smith, Hobgoblin Classification in the Eighteenth Century, Felicity Roberts, An Early Eighteenth Century Ghost and Sean Cosgrove, Feeling Lonesome this Halloween? Nineteenth-Century Love Charms and Halloween Games.
In physics Chad Orzel found a book of old theses in his department and presents the Old Thesis Club: Monte Carlo Simulation in 1960, Secondary Emission of Electrons from Molybdenum (1928), Gravitation (1932), The Hyperfine Structure and Zeeman Efeect (1932) showing us that history of science can be fairly modern and must not be about famous people. John Gribbin goes in the other direction and celebrates one of the giants Henry Cavendish: An Unsung Hero of Science . Aaron Wright takes a look at Dirac and mathematical beauty (1) [there’s more to come]
With the Science Museum opening their collider exhibition The Independent presented Harry Cliff: The man who’s making an exhibition of the Higgs boson at the Science Museum. Whilst the New York Times are Explaining a Collider and Poison’s Power
Stephen Curry fulfilled a dream of many of us and held a Friday night lecture at the Royal Institution on the history of x-ray crystallography. He blogged about the experience and a video of his excellent lecture is embedded in his post: A night at the theatre of science
As usually the history of medicine blogging community has been very busy this month (come on science historians they’re beating us into a cocked hat!)
Hans Sloane was checking tongues in the 18th century and Miley Cyrus sticking her’s out in the 21st. Hans Sloane didn’t just look at tongues: A Welsh doctor, Sir Hans Sloane and the disappearing catheter. In the Guardian Katherine Wright asked Where did syphilis come from? For those with other sexual problems than syphilis we have Anthony Lewis and the Aphrodisiac Remedy. Continuing the subject of fertility we move on to my personal favourite cooking ingredient: Garlic and fertility testing in the ancient world. On the subjects of medicine and recipes we had An early modern Portuguese recipe book of pharmaceutical “secrets”. To grow medicinal herbs you of course need a garden, which can have other restorative powers: Why every hospital should have a garden. Whilst the Quack Doctor offers us a tonic for the blood: For the blood is the life. The Royal Socity delivered up a video of one of their Friday lunch time history of science lectures: Physicians, chemists and experimentalists: the Royal Society and the rise of modern medicine c. 1600 – 1850. Yovisto celebrated Alzheimer’s birthday: Alzheimer’s A disease of advanced civilisation and Alphonse Laveran’s discovery and fight against malaria. Fakes and Frauds in medicine is not a modern phenomenon
The Wellcome Library sweetens up the medical department: Diagnosing diabetes: a wee taste of honey. Lastly in the medical department Dissertation Reviews gives us a look at early modern medical researcher Reinier de Graaf: Experimenting with chemical bodies
The odds and ends department has early modern polymath Edmond Halley meeting his crew and we learn about Halley’s role in Newton’s Principia . We also learn: How the clouds were named. Will Thomas ruminates on the problems of writing history of science for scientists: New Article in Climate Change
Considering all the posts celebrating anniversaries: History Matters gives us an entire conference: On this day in history: Why do anniversaries matter?
Clarissa Ai Ling Lee brings us an intriguing essay with a positively 19th century title: Emmy Noether, Maria Goeppert Mayer, and their Cyborgian Counterparts: Triangulating Mathematical-Theoretical Physics, Feminist Science Studies, and Feminist Science Fiction
Guthrie Stewart takes into the world of medieval alchemy: Contradictory alchemical recipes are really annoying. On a related note Laura Mitchell tells us about The Disappearance of Charms from a Fifteenth-Century Notebook. Sally Osborn puts the meta-question What is a Recipe?
As the enfant terrible of history of science myth busting I’ve saved my favourite posts of the month until last.
Paleofuture explains why: Making Nikola Tesla a Saint Makes us all Dumber. Chad Orzel takes on the lone genius myth in a superb takedown Individualists working together. Kees-Jan Schilt tells all about Newton’s dirty little secrets: “Not fit to be Printed”. On the Reception of Newton’s Unorthodox Works and to close out my personal choice for blog post of the month, True Anomalies tackles the tangled web of Errors and Expertise in science and the history of science
A piece of meta-blogging: The American Mathematical Society in the form of Evelyn J Lamb has written a review of The Renaissance Mathematicus!
Last year Michelle Ziegler (@MZiegler3) played Mother Christmas and brought us a whole sleigh load of history of science, technology and medicine goodies in the December edition of Giants’ Shoulders. In fact she was so good that she is making a return appearance to host Giants’ Shoulders #66 a ‘History of Medicine and Biology Special’ at her Contagions Blog on 16th December 2013. Submissions as usually, and non-special posts are also welcome, either to the host or to me here at RM by 15th December.
Some of you might have noticed that I’ve been rather silent this month concerning the next edition of Giants’ Shoulders the history of science blog carnival. The explanation is quite simple I’ve managed to mislay my host. It would appear that I inadvertently erased the file on my computer containing the information on the future hosts for GS. Naturally, although I’m usually fairly good at backing up things on my computer, I don’t have a back up for this file. Now all of this wouldn’t be so tragic if it wasn’t for the fact that the next host is a new one who I don’t know from Adam and so I have no idea how to contact him. I had been hoping that he would contact me saying something like, “Oi, wot m’ I sposed t’ do with this ‘ere carnival?” However this has unfortunately not been the case. I did try to convince Sascha to host it, he’s done one before; but he just gave me a look that said, you screwed up, you can carry the can! So I shall be hosting the next edition of GS, the 65th if you’re counting, here at RM on Saturday 16th November. This means that you have just three more days to nominate those killer history of science, medicine or technology blog posts, if you wish them to be included. Just send them to me here or on Twitter, @rmathematicus.
Various people and organisations tweet historical scientific facts or events of the day, one of these is the Mathematical Association of America under the Twitter handle @maanow. Today they tweeted the following:
Tycho Brahe first observed a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia. It provided important evidence to support the Copernican hypothesis.
Put quite simply the second statement is pure bullshit. Once again we have people confusing cosmology with mathematical astronomy. Aristotelian cosmology divided the cosmos into two spheres. The sublunar sphere, i.e. everything below the moon’s orbit around the earth was mutable, that is subject to change. The superlunar sphere, i.e. everything above the moon’s orbit, was immutable, that is unchanging.
In 1572 a stellar nova became visible from the earth. Cornelius Gemma, the son of Gemma Frisius, made the first recorded observation of it on 9 November. Tycho Brahe first saw it on 11 November. Cornelius, Tycho, and others all observed the nova and determined it to be superlunary, thereby signalling a change in the superlunar sphere contradicting Aristotelian cosmology. However this says absolutely nothing about the astronomical model of the cosmos.
Aristotle’s was not the only geocentric cosmology. Stoic cosmology, which was dominant in the later part of antiquity, rejected Aristotle’s two-sphere model for a cosmos that was homogenous and filled with pneuma. The Stoics who regarded comets as being superlunary also accepted change in the heavens, whilst propagating a geocentric astronomy. Stoic cosmology was experiencing a renaissance in the 16th century even before Tycho began his astronomical observations so the discovery that the nova was superlunary had no implication pro or contra for a heliocentric astronomical model.