Cutting heroes down to size.

Professor Wilkins of the Bond University, Queensland has posted a truly excellent piece on his blog demythologising Darwin and The Origin of Species and placing its significance as a piece of scientific publishing into context. Now you may ask why I as a historian of Renaissance mathematics should comment on a blog post about a 19th century work of biology and its author? The answer is quite simple; everything that John says about Darwin and his book can and should be applied to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton and a host of other scientist from the early modern period and their works.

Nothing that any of these scholars did or wrote existed in a vacuum and all of their achievements would have taken place roughly within the same period of time if they had never lived. Copernicus’ work built upon the work of Regiomontanus and Peuerbach and a host of Islamic astronomers, the only original contribution that he made was the concept of heliocentricity. You may think that this was unique but in fact heliocentricity and a moving earth had been in discussion for about 100 to 150 years before Copernicus published the De revolutionibus and if he had not come up with the concept then sooner rather than later somebody else would have done.

The same applies to Galileo’s contributions; his telescopic observations were also made independently and simultaneously by various other European astronomers such as Thomas Harriot, Johann Fabricius, Simon Marius and Paolo Lembo. His work on dynamics in the Discorsi were based on the work of the Oxford calculatores and the Paris physicist from the 14th century and the work of Tartaglia and Benedetti in the 16th century. In the 17th century Harriot, Simon Stevin und Isaac Beeckman produced most of Galileo’s results independently.

The same can be shown to be true for all of the others as well, for example the orbit of Mercury was already considered to be an ellipse in the work of Peuerbach. It might well be that had Newton not lived then his achievements would have been spread out over the work of several scientists rather than one but that his results would still have emerge in much the same form in roughly the same time period is almost certain.

It is perfectly OK to acknowledge the achievements of the scientists who helped create modern science but as John so superbly demonstrates in the case of Darwin it is wrong to place them on a pedestal.

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3 Comments

Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

3 responses to “Cutting heroes down to size.

  1. jeb

    I have simply ignored the history of science, which has meant moving at a snails pace and doing a lot of stumbling with source material (and feeling somewhat foolish daring to engaging with experts).

    I have just been unable to engage with the subject as it seems to present development and movement as some form of spontaneous generation.

    It is how natural history, science and philosophy play in a much wider ecosystem, outside of the subjects themselves where I find my interest.

    These perspectives are extremely refreshing and exciting.

  2. One problem often faced in working further back in history are the mythologisations perpetrated by the nineteenth-century followers of the romantic and preraphaelite schools. Ideas such as chivalry were tainted with the darker concepts of evil which arose in the fifteenth century and which were saliently absent earlier. One interesting comment I just discovered from Asimov is that that is also the period in which distilled alcoholic spirits started to become available: anyway, my real point is that the relative simplicity of mind of the 12th to 14th centuries, as portrayed in the Decameron, for example, may well have been exactly that, an absence of great overloads of guilt.
    My current focus is on Columbus’ inspiration Pierre d’Ailly, to set a waystone in the early fifteenth century about 200 years further back than we usually have one, filling some of the gap years from Robert Grossteste and Roger Bacon at the start and end of the thirteenth century, respectively, and their mentor Adam Marsh. Earlier than that and you have to look either to the Paris schools or Arabia.
    It is interesting to note that Grossteste was close to Simon de Montfort Earl of Leicester, the parliamentarian son of the crusader: the continental de Montfort line descended from his brother Amaury may also have been involved in the Brussels work which ultimately led to van Helmont centuries later (d’Ailly as Bishop of Cambrai held Brussels in his See).

  3. for example the orbit of Mercury was already considered to be an ellipse in the work of Peuerbach

    Curious. Peurbach’s model is the same as Ptolemy’s, apart from some details that don’t affect the shape of the orbit.

    The shape of this Ptolemy/Peurbach orbit is not actually an ellipse, but just close to one (see Pedersen, A Survey of the Almagest fig. 10.11 p.322 for a diagram).

    In Aiton’s translation of Peurbach’s “Theoricae Novae Planetarum”, he uses the word “oval”, and not “ellipse”. However, Aiton does say in a footnote, “Peurbach was the first European to describe the curve as similar to an ellipse, though it had been so described by al-Zarqali in the eleventh century”. Peurbach contains no discussion of the mathematics of the ellipse, no mention even of the foci.

    I have to say, I doubt that this off-hand remark of Peurbach would have had any impact had Kepler never lived. But I do agree that Kepler’s laws would still have been discovered, even had Kepler never lived. Most likely by an alternate route: Newtonian mechanics clearly was coming down the pike, one way or another, even killing off both Galileo and Newton in this alternate universe. Eventually someone would have deduced the Kepler laws from the new mechanics.

    What does this say about one of the current buzzwords of HoS, contingency?

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