OPUS 500: A retrospective

This is, and I don’t really believe it myself, the five hundredth post here at the Renaissance Mathematicus. This is generally regarded as an important milestone, half way to the thousand, a five followed by not one but two zeros. Actually it’s is just a number like any other number and the significance that we attribute to it is purely the result of the fact that we have ten digits and therefore have developed and adopted a decimal place value number system. If we had been born with twelve fingers instead of ten then this would only be the 358th post and we would have nothing to celebrate. Somewhere within its twisted circuits, my computer has this registered as the 111110100th post.

On the other side although this is the five hundredth post, not all of those five hundred have been substantive posts, by any means. Added to this a small number of those posts were not written by me but by guest, who I was pleased to welcome to my humble Internet abode. However I have in fact posted a somewhat larger number of guest posts, of my own, at other blog sites scattered throughout the cyber-world.

However, putting aside all quibbles and mathematical niceties this is in fact the five hundredth post and it is normal on such occasions to pause and reflect, to take stock, to pass review on the evolution of those five hundred posts and I have decided to follow the convention by presenting for your contemplation ten of those five hundred posts for reconsideration.

I do not regard these as being in some way the ten best or my ten favourite posts. They are also not necessarily the ten most viewed posts, as, for reasons that I will explain in the coming summer, I do not look at my blog statistics. These posts are the ten posts that I think best reflect what I consider to be the principle aims of this blog. What this means in detail I shall explain in the introduction that I will now write to each of these ten posts.  For a more general description of those aims as I conceived them when I started this blog five hundred post ago I refer you to my second ever post: A Mission Statement.

The first of my ten is actually my third ever post and my first substantive history of science posting here at the Renaissance Mathematicus: A loser who was really a winner.

This is a post about the mostly sixteenth century Jesuit mathematician, astronomer and educational reformer Christoph Clavius (1538–1612). This post highlights the ahistorical practice of categorising scholars from the past as winners and losers e.g. Copernicus v Ptolemaeus or Darwin v Lamarck. All of the so-called losers made serious contributions to the evolution of science and deserve as much respect as the so-called winners. Secondly Clavius fulfils the important function on this blog of spotlighting the less well-known figures in the history of science to get away from the totally perverse concept of the big names and big events presentation of the history of science. Clavius also puts the lie to the widespread modern belief that religion, the Catholic Church and in particular the Jesuits were/are fundamentally anti-science. Lastly, I am a local historian of science and devote a fair amount of time to researching and making public the history of science of the area in which I live and work; Clavius is one of my locals.

Over the years on my blog I have gained something of a reputation for being down on Galileo Galilei. Although I have written a series of negative posts about Tuscany’s favourite son he’s not actually the real target of my complaints. What I object to is the hagiographical way in which leading figures in the history of science are presented by many writers. Lone scientific geniuses, ahead of their times, turning the world of science on its head with their brilliant ideas. This is without exception historically false and totally misrepresents how science actually develops and progresses. This type of hagiography is at its worst in the popular presentation of Galileo and I use him in my post Extracting the Stopper to illustrate just how many of the claims made for him concerning his uniqueness, believed to be true by the uninformed, are in fact historically false.

There is a strong tendency for people to think that scientific publications only consist of text, overseeing the illustrations. Since the dawn of printing illustration have played a central and highly significant role in scientific communication. In the post Where the pictures came from I took a look at all the various things that had to be developed in the Early Modern Period in order to make modern, printed, scientific illustrations possible.

The next post I’ve chosen to present here, Galileo’s great bluff…, might at first glance appear to be another attack on him, however the real aim of the post is another. Galileo and in modern times Thomas Kuhn, presented the transition from a geocentric world view to a heliocentric one, as a straight two way fight between Ptolemaeus in the red corner and Copernicus in the blue one with Galileo as a highly biased referee controlling the bout. As I outline in this post the story was a much, much more complex one with seven different astronomical systems involved in a cosmological Royal Rumble. This post illustrates the unfortunate tendency to over simplify the usually rather complex and messy evolution of science

Readers of this blog might just have noticed over the years that I tend to use both sarcasm and satire to mock those whom I believe to be committing history of science sins. I don’t try to force this but if my thoughts come out that way whilst I’m writing then I don’t suppress them either; in my opinion satire works best when it come spontaneously and naturally. The post The Empty Building, which emerged from my keyboard in twenty minutes of spontaneous writing, is a satire on those who believe that historically something only earns the name science if it is totally free of any suspicion of irrationality or illogical thought. The consequence of this definition of science is basically that there never has been any science.

My next choice is actually two related posts that take a look at two major myths concerning the emergence of heliocentric astronomy. The first, An Interesting Question, is what exactly the Catholic Church’s attitude towards science was in the early seventeenth century and how much influence their position had. The second connected myth, But it doesn’t move, is the common misconception that it was only religious prejudice that prevented the adoption of heliocentricity during this period, whereas the problem was actually a scientific one.

Many of the posts on this blog are in the form of potted biographies of important but not necessarily well-known figures in the history of science. The purpose of these post is to stimulate the reader to look beyond the usual litany of the so-called great: Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Einstein etc., etc. Having set myself a limit of ten posts (although I’ve already cheated in the previous choice) for this retrospective I faced the difficult problem, which one or two (with Clavius in fact three) of these biographies to include here. In the end I settled on Hans Peter from Langendorf. The fierce competition for positions within the modern academic system is often reduced to the formula “publish or perish!” Any scientist is only as successful as the availability of his research results in published form, however often in the history of science very little thought is given to the scientific publishers who make it possible for the scholars to get their work into print. This post tells the story of the life and work of Johannes Petreius the Renaissance printer publisher who published, what is for many people the most important book in the history of science, Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. I chose him because I’m a local historian and he’s one of my locals. Any readers of this blog who come to visit me, and you are all very welcome to do so, get taken on my history of astronomy tour of Nürnberg, whether they want to or not. One of the high points of this tour is Petreius’ house where he printed De revolutionibus, in this post you get to see it without having to walk halfway through Nürnberg listening to me spouting on about Renaissance history.

This is followed by another of my potted biographies chosen for a very different reason. A fairly recent Internet review of my blog was pleasingly very positive but did call me to task because of the ratio of male to female scientists featured here, too biased to the male. In my own defence I would point out that I have tried to feature those, unfortunately few, women who have contributed to science in the period I mostly write about. Given this criticism this retrospective has to include at least one of those women. I have chosen Another Feminist Newtonian: Bologna’s Minerva a post about Laura Bassi the eighteenth century natural philosopher who became the first female professor at a European university and who as the title suggests was a strong supporter and propagator of the physics of Isaac Newton at a very early stage.

Over the years I have gained somewhat of a reputation for savage attacks on people who I believe are guilty of spreading of propagating inanity or total stupidity in the name of the history of science. This characteristic even led one notable digital historian to christen me The Hist-Sci Hulk! A persona that I adopted for a few weeks much to the annoyance of some of my readers. A retrospective would not be complete without one of the posts where I rip some offender a new one. I have chosen a pair of related posts in which I take on American pundit Adam Gopnik for his total misrepresentation of one of my favourite Renaissance figures, John Dee. I took apart and corrected Gopnik’s picture of Dee in the post A little learning is a dangerous thing and thought that would be the end of the matter. However Gopnik published a second piece a little later poring scorn on those who had dared to criticise his god like utterances concerning the magus. Thus I felt provoked to answer him again in the post, Help! I’ve been savaged by a toothless American bulldog. If you don’t like me being nasty then don’t read these two posts!

When I began to plan this post being well aware that my five hundredth posting was rapidly approaching I had intended to end it differently but circumstances intervened. Very early I made a decision to keep this blog largely single themed, the history of science in the widest sense. Other bloggers often cover a wide range of topics on their blogs, an approach I chose not to follow. However this is a blog and not an academic journal and I have from time to time included history of science related aspects of my private live amongst my posts, lectures I have held, visitors I have had and so on. Someone who has taken an active role in this personal aspect of the blog was my dog Sascha, who has been the public face of The Renaissance Mathematicus both here and on Twitter since the very beginning. This is not because I have chosen to remain anonymous, I have always blogged under my real name, but because I think he is much better looking than I. If you want to compare you can admire my visage here. However his contribution has over the years been much more than just lending his good looks to the blogs public image. He has from time to time featured in posts such as this one here and even hosted an edition of Giants’ Shoulders the history of science blog carnival. On a very personal level he was always present when I sat at the computer pecking out my posts letter for letter for your delectation, often lying at my feet waiting for me to finish so that I would feed him or go out for one of our walks. Regular readers will already know that Sascha left the building on the 23rd of December last year. Because of the constant support he gave me in writing this blog I’m dedicating this retrospective to his memory and closing it with the obituary that I wrote for him here, Sascha 16 August 2001 – 23 December 2013.

To write this post I didn’t rely on my memory in choosing the posts I have included but actually went through all four hundred and ninety-nine previous posts to make my selection. In doing so I was actually surprised at how many, in my opinion, posts I have written over the years that I would actually retain if I chose to delete all those that I don’t think are worth keeping. This insight has confirmed my resolve to keep on keeping on and I hope that at least some of you will stay with me for the next five hundred.

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8 Comments

Filed under Autobiographical, History of science

8 responses to “OPUS 500: A retrospective

  1. Hearty congratulations, Thony, and this is a great post to mark your achievement!

  2. ronvanwegen

    I’ve bookmarked them all and will visit them at my leisure!

  3. So, when are you going to collate these into a book?

  4. I don’t find your attacks savage, there isn’t enough denigration and swearing. In fact attacks on bad history have a place on the internet as a way of showing up bad work by various people. Criticism in general is important; there’s some dodgy books and articles been written by people who mostly get ignored with a wry smile by what we could call mainstream researchers, but might be more accurate to say balanced and correct. This tends to lead to the promulgation of errors in the public sphere because most members of the public believe what they read, and if they can’t find anyone saying it’s rubbish they will assume the author is correct.

    Oddly enough I got the impression you weren’t British, because of the German connection obviously, but either that made me think your writing style wasn’t English, or else you have picked up some non-english nuances of writing over the years which seem odd to a British person.

    Anyway, more power to your elbow and please keep writing.

  5. Pingback: Ad lectorum: Expectation is a prison. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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