Category Archives: Autobiographical

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.

 

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Niels & Me: Dysgraphia – A history of science footnote.

One of the symptoms that, I think most, sufferers from mental illness share is the feeling of being alone with their daemons. “I’m the only one who feels like this!” “Why have I alone been afflicted?” This feeling of isolation and of having been somehow singled out for punishment in itself causes mental distress and deepens the crisis. An important step along the road to recovery is the realisation that one is not alone, that there are others who suffer similarly, that one hasn’t been singled out. I can still remember very clearly the day when I became certain that I am an adult ADD sufferer and a lot of my symptoms, including several that I didn’t regard as part of my illness, fell into place, received a label and a possible path back to mental health. As I have already related in my previous post I had very similar feelings on discovering dysgraphia and realising that it was one of my central daemons. One of those revelations concerning dysgraphia actually has a close connection to my history of science obsession and as this is a history of science blog I would like to tell the story here.

As should be clear from the name of this blog my main interest as a historian of science lies with the mathematical sciences in the Early Modern Period, however I try not to be too narrow and get stuck in a historical cul-de-sac, only able to understand a very narrow field of science over a very short period of time. In order to maintain a broad overview of the history of science I buy and read general surveys of the histories of other disciplines in other periods. One such book that I own is Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics[1], which, if my memory serves me correctly, I bought on the recommendation of dog owner, physics blogger and popular science book author Chad Orzel; a recommendation that I would endorse. I vividly remember, shortly after I bought it, curling up in bed with the book for my half hour read before going to sleep and waking up rather than dosing off, as I read the revelatory words on the first pages of chapter two, The Man Who Talked. I’m now going quote some fairly large chunks of those pages:

Bohr’ working habits have become legendary among his successors, part of the lore of science along with Einstein’s flyaway hair and Rutherford’s remark that relativity was not meant to be understood by Anglo-Saxons. Bohr talked. [emphasis in original] He discovered his ideas in the act of enunciating them, shaping thoughts as they came out of his mouth. Friends, colleagues, graduate students, all had Bohr gently entice them into long walks in the countryside around Copenhagen, the heavy clouds scudding overhead as Bohr thrust his hands into his overcoat pockets and settled into an endless, hesitant, recondite, barely audible monologue. While he spoke, he watched his listeners’ reactions, eager to establish a bond in a shared effort to articulate. Whispered phrases would be pronounced, only to be adjusted as Bohr struggled to express exactly [emphasis in original] what he meant; words were puzzled over, repeated, then tossed aside, and he was always ready to add a qualification, to modify, a remark, to go back to the beginning, to start the explanation over again. Then flatteringly, he would abruptly thrust the subject on his listener – surely this cannot be all? what else is there? – his big, ponderous, heavy-lidded eyes intent on the response. Before it could come, however, Bohr would have started talking again, wrestling with the answer himself. He inspected the language with which an idea was expressed in the way a jeweller inspects an unfamiliar stone, slowly judging each facet by holding it before an intense light[2].

Now I would never be so presumptuous to compare myself to Niels Bohr but this paragraph resonated with me on so many levels that I almost felt sick with excitement when I read it. With slight differences that is how I think, discover, formulate my ideas and my theories. In more recent years I sometimes feel really sorry for my listeners and try to throttle back the waterfall of words that pour out of my mouth; in earlier years I was not aware of my, basically anti-social, behaviour lost in that stream of consciousness word flow. However it was a paragraph two thirds of the way down the following page that made me sit bolt upright in bed.

As a schoolboy, Bohr’s worst subject had been Danish composition, and for the rest of his life he passed up no opportunity to avoid putting pen to paper. He dictated his entire doctoral dissertation to his mother, causing family rows when his father insisted that the budding Ph. D. should be forced to learn to write for himself; Bohr’s mother remained firm in her belief that the task was hopeless. It apparently was – most of Bohr’s later work and correspondence were dictated to his wife and a succession of secretaries and collaborators. Even with this assistance, it took him months to put together articles. Reading of his struggles, it is hard not to wonder if he was dyslexic[3]. [my emphasis]

I’m not a big fan of historical diagnosis by hearsay of illnesses that one or other famous figure from the past might have suffered. You could write an entire medical dictionary containing all the complaints that researchers have decided that the artist Van Gough suffered, according to their interpretation of the available facts. However my own personal situation leads me to the conclusion that Messrs. Crease and Mann are wrong and that Niels Bohr was not dyslexic but dysgraphic.

If you suffer from a disability that has caused you years of mental stress, then to discover that a famous historical figure suffered from the same ailment and despite this handicap was successful can be an incredible boost. Knowing that Bohr needed assistance to write his papers takes away some of the shame that I feel in having to ask people to check and correct the things that I write, as I said at the beginning, it’s knowing that you’re not alone.

 

 

 

[1] Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann,The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Revised ed., 1996.

[2]Crease & Mann p. 20

[3]Crease & Mann p. 21

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Overwhelmed

Some of those who were kind enough to re-tweet my post on my struggles with dysgraphia referred to my decision to come out of the closet on the subject of my mental illness and some of its causes as brave, not a claim I would make for myself. One of my fears when contemplating going public was that my actions were foolhardy rather than brave. The responses both here on the blog and on Twitter have shown that fear to have been unfounded. In fact I was overwhelmed by the wave of warmth, acknowledgement and support that greeted my decision to admit to my learning disability and the problems that they have caused me throughout my life. Above all I am pleased by those who have correctly interpreted my motives and have found succour in my inadequate words. This very brief paragraph is just to say thank you to all those who read, commented on, tweeted or retweeted my dysgraphia post and who kindly gave me so much support and encouragement. You can’t know how much that means to me, thank you.

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Learning to cope with dysgraphia.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the emergence of The Renaissance Mathematicus in cyberspace. Those five years have seen the appearance of more than five hundred post and many thousands of words, all of which signals a partial conquest of a lifelong genetic writers block.

I have contemplated writing this post many, many times in the last couple of years but have always drawn back from the abyss. There are several reasons for my reluctance to write this post. First and foremost is the fear of, at least partially, baring my soul in front of a substantial number of readers most of whom I don’t know and have never met. Then there is the fear that this post will be misunderstood, as a very public piece of self-pity and that by writing it I’m just fishing for sympathy, which is far from the truth. Another fear is that I will be accused of grandstanding, look at all that I have had to suffer aren’t I amazing for coping with all this disadvantage. Once again nothing could be further from the truth. I am writing this in the vain hope that at least one person who reads it and suffers from similar mental problems will find some consolation in realising that they are not alone and maybe develop the right strategies to avoid some of the hell that I have lived through.

How to begin? “Begin at the beginning,” […] “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”, as the King told Alice.

I’m a walking cliché! There’s a rather bad joke about children:

First mother: “My child is a genius.”

Second mother: “How can you tell?”

First mother: “He can’t spell.”

For those that don’t understand it, it plays on the claim that many highly gifted children suffer from so-called learning difficulties. I’m that child. I was recognised as being at least above average intelligence, if not actually highly gifted, whilst still at primary school (that’s grade school for American readers) and jumped not one but two classes – grades – at the age of eight and was still the top of the class in my new one. There was only one small problem with this situation, I was functionally illiterate. The proverbial drunken spider was a calligraphy master in comparison to me, still is to some extent. My grasp of the rules of grammar of the English language was non-existent and I couldn’t spell. At the age of eleven I still had major problems spelling my own family name. The fact that my father was a professional ‘archaeologist’ was a nightmare for me. How the fuck do you spell that? All of this despite the fact that I had been teaching myself most subjects for several years by then, as I was so far ahead of my classmates. Nowadays I would almost certainly be recognised as suffering from a learning difficulty and receive the appropriate therapy. However in the dim and distant days of the nineteen fifties learning difficulties didn’t exist and I was just labelled as being lazy, “with your intelligence you should be able to spell/write/whatever with no problems” or words to that effect. The result of all this was that I gave up on school in general and writing in particular when I entered grammar school.

The result of this withdrawal was a steady decline in my scholastic achievements. My grades and my exam results degenerated over the years but my above average intelligence kept me afloat despite the lack of effort. I still managed a reasonably good set of O-levels and a very ropy set of A-levels. In my teens I became a nicotine addict and began a long career of drug abuse. Although I didn’t know it at the time this is fairly standard self-medication for people suffering from the problems that I had. My A-level year saw me stoned out of my mind almost every day and tripping up to three times a week. That my A-levels were ropy and not non-existent is a minor miracle. Despite almost non-existent A-levels I still managed to go to university to study archaeology (I still couldn’t spell it!) and spent a strained academic year taking drugs, working in theatre, and trying to avoid writing essays, which activity was more than a nightmare for me. All the way through school and this one-year at university I always had the feeling that everybody else was on a different set of rails to the ones I was travelling on. I learnt but in a totally different way, at a totally different pace, and in a totally different order to everybody else, or so it seemed to me. Exams were a nightmare I usually knew far more than my fellow students but not necessarily the facts or knowledge required for the particular exam in question. After one year of this I quit. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I just knew it wasn’t what I was doing.

I spent the next years doing an assortment of things, working as a field archaeologist, theatre technician, carpenter, electrician etc. etc. Anything as long as it didn’t involve having to write. In 1976/77 I spent six months living in Sweden and discovered first the philosophy of mathematics, I’d been teaching myself the history of mathematics since I was sixteen, then the philosophy of science. This awakened my desire to re-join the world of academia and in 1977 I tried to go back to university to study philosophy, my interview was a disaster (they always are!) and I got rejected. The next year I had my first major mental breakdown. With hindsight I think the two events were not unrelated. I went through about eighteen months of severe mental instability stumbling from one crisis to the next. I never considered getting treatment because I belonged to the generation who regarded both psychology and psychiatry with not just scepticism but open scorn; again with hindsight possibly the biggest mistake of my entire life.

In 1980 I moved to Germany, it wasn’t planned it just happened. Wanting to learn German I applied for a German as a foreign language course at the local university and got told I would first have to apply for a regular university course in order to be eligible for the language course, so having decide that it might be time to resume my interrupted education I applied to study maths and philosophy and got accepted.

I spent the next ten years at university first studying maths and philosophy and then later philosophy, English philology and history doing my best to choose courses where I only had to do a minimum of written work. By now I was a mature student and alongside a full course of studies I was working twenty hours a week in a research project, my apprenticeship in the history of science, and a twenty to thirty hour week outside of the university in a cultural centre. Along with this workload, I was living on nicotine, drugs and alcohol and before long I had a serious alcohol addiction problem. Just to make everything a little crazier I still couldn’t write, couldn’t spell and was still trundling along on the wrong set of rails. For many years I lived in a state of deep clinical depression, without recognising the symptoms, I just knew that I felt totally shitty most of the time, and suffered from severe bouts of anxiety. I was not in a good space. The bizarre thing was that I was actually very good in both my work and my studies. Of course this could not go on and at the end of the eighties I came off the rails completely.

I spent four months in a mental hospital getting rid of my alcohol habit and taking the first faulty steps to coming to terms with my mental illness. When I came out I gave up my formal studies, I couldn’t give up my work, I had to eat and pay the rent, and something had to go. Strangely, although I was no longer drinking and had vastly reduced the stress load in my life and I was also in outpatient therapy and an eager member of the AA, my mental health did not improve it got worse.

Two years later I went back into mental hospital for a month and started looking for the first time for the root problems behind my depressions and other symptoms. I spent a lot of time in outpatient therapy making slow progress but not really coming to the root of the problem; suffering several severe depressive episodes over the next years. I was heading towards fifty and seemed consigned to a life of mental illness. Around the year 2000 I chanced to read an article about Asperger’s syndrome and lots of the descriptions of the behaviour of Asperger’s children seemed uncomfortably familiar to me. I started researching. I soon realised that although quite a lot of the symptoms of Asperger’s seemed to apply, several key factors didn’t. However in the course of my researches I came across various things that display similar symptoms and can get confused with Asperger’s and here I struck gold. I won’t go into details about what was a fairly long and stressful process but in the end it turned out that I’m a sufferer from a high-level adult ADD (non-hyperactive, I’m a daydreamer) and dysgraphia. Both have been properly diagnosed by medical experts and are not just the product of Google university, although I will admit that Google university proved very useful along the way. The ADD explains why I always had the feeling that I was travelling along different tracks in educational institutions; the simple explanation is I was! Adults with ADD learn differently to ‘normal ‘ people and the education system is conceived for the normals. The one that really blew me away was the dysgraphia.

Throughout my life I had been aware that I displayed similar symptoms to dyslexics, however dyslexia is always primarily described as a reading difficulty and I have never in my life had difficulty reading, in fact just the opposite, I have lived most of my life with my nose stuck in a book. I even used to read whilst riding my bike as a kid. There was no way that I was dyslexic. I had never heard of dysgraphia then one day during my medical research around the subject of Asperger’s I came across dysgraphia, which was described as a malfunction of that part of the brain that processes writing, and read the following fateful phrase, “trying to write when you suffer from dysgraphia is like trying to empty out an ocean with a garden hose!” If you haven’t experienced it you probably can’t understand what that sentence meant to me. I can compose whole books in my head, I can lecture on a given topic for two hours without notes and the number of given topics I can do that on is vast but up to ten years ago given a pen and a piece of paper getting one halfway coherent sentence out was a horror and a torture, which I was happy to forego. The same article that delivered the eye-opening sentence also contained two pieces of practical advice. Firstly writing with a keyboard is motorically different to writing with a pen and most dyslexics and dsygraphics find it easier. I can’t speak for anybody else but I certainly do. However it was the second piece of advice that led to the breakthrough and in the end to the fact that you are reading this. Dysgraphia is a disturbance of the part of the brain that processes writing but not the part that processes speech. I can talk! I can talk the hind leg off that proverbial donkey; in fact people who know me know the problem is to stop me talking. Remember those note-free lectures? I can go on without drawing breath for an eternity. The solution to my problem is so simple that the real question is why I didn’t think of it earlier. I can’t write but I can talk, so I don’t write I dictate! I am quite literally a narrative historian. I formulate everything that I write in my brain as a lecture and then dictate it to myself. It means I have a somewhat unorthodox style of writing but it works.

This didn’t happen overnight. I had spent forty years of my life developing a pathological fear of writing, ashamed to admit that I was a highly intelligent adult with the writing abilities of a mentally handicapped teenager. You don’t shrug that off overnight. What helped me was the Internet. I started off on music forums. I can remember the first two-sentence comment I sent on its way with a tremulous click of my mouse. Over time I progressed to one hundred then two or even three hundred word comments, each of which was hard work and very time consuming but I was writing. I then started to discover science blogs. Mark Chu-Carroll’s Good Math/Bad Math was the first, followed some time later by John Wilkins’ Evolving Thoughts. I started to comment here and there and with time the comments grew longer and more fluid. John, to whom I owe an un-payable debt, invited me to write a guest post. I was scared shitless, I sweated blood but I wrote one and it met with a positive resonance. I wrote a couple more and also a couple for Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda. Then came the big step my own blog. I was terrified and convinced that it wouldn’t last longer than six weeks.

Writing was still far from easy and fear was never very far away when I sat down at the keyboard to write, however I persevered and with time things improved. At the beginning to write five hundred words exhausted me and left me feeling like I had just run a marathon, also if I failed to bring something I was writing to a conclusion I was incapable of going back later to finish it. It was always all or nothing. If I started something I had to finish it with the momentum that I had started with or it was doomed. I still have a fairly large collection of unfinished posts. With time and experience the posts got longer, I found anger to be a good motivator, which partially explains the HIST-SCI-HULK style posts for which I have become somewhat notorious. A major breakthrough was being able to stop writing something and to come back the next day to finish it. When that happened I knew that I had crossed a major threshold. On a good day I can now write between two and three thousand words at a siting and writing longer pieces in instalments is no longer a problem. I won’t say that writing is easy for me now, it’s still very hard work and I really need a good proof reader to catch all the mistakes but compared to ten years ago there is no comparison. Learning to write, being able to express myself in print, if only in cyber space, has worked wonders with my mental health problems. For most of my life I lived an internal conflict I was a natural born academic who couldn’t write, a situation that made me very ill for a substantial part of my life. I own the Internet, computer correction programmes, the people who encouraged me and all the people who have read my feeble outpourings over the last five years a debt that I can never repay and that’s the main reason for this post.

If you suffer from similar learning difficulties or mental problems get help! Don’t be ashamed to ask, do it! If you know a child or an adult with similar learning or mental problems help them! Don’t let them suffer! The last five years of this blog have been a small but very precious recompense for all the years of mental anguish that I suffered and my only regret is that I didn’t discover the solution to my problems earlier. The AA has a saying, “being ill is not a reason to feel ashamed, doing nothing about it is.”

I’m on record as having said that my favourite philosopher is Kurt Vonnegut, people think that I’m joking and although it is said somewhat tongue in cheek it is meant seriously. One of my favourite Vonnegut pearls of wisdom is, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. My version would be “It’s never too late to learn to cope with your learning difficulties”.

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The Renaissance Mathematicus Road Show: May 2014

 

The Renaissance Mathematicus is venturing forth once again from the safe environs of his humble abode to terrorise the unsuspecting citizens of Middle Franconia with his warped views on the history of science, in the form of a public lecture.  For those unwary enough to actually wish to confront the man they call the HISTSCI-HULK, he will be lecturing, in German, at Zentrifuge in Nürnberg at 7:30 in the evening of this coming Saturday, 24 May 2014. The title of this highly dubious attack on public decency is Alchemie: Kunst? Wissenschaft? Philosophie? Religion? Should you choose to attend you do so at your own risk and are hereby warned that you might be forced to rethink your opinions on the science of alchemy. Did he really just write “science” of alchemy? Yes, he did!

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Ad lectorum: Expectation is a prison.

When I first started writing this blog almost five years ago I was happy with the feeling that maybe a handful of people looked in from time to time to find out what I had been scribbling about. I was fairly sure that this would be the case, at least at the beginning, as I already had a slight reputation throughout the, then small, history of science Internet community because of my comments and guest posts on other peoples blogs. I figured if after this initial phase nobody bothered to look in anymore I could give up blogging and take up some other scintillating pastime such as trainspotting.

This turned out not to be the case and rather to my surprise the number of readers grew sort of steadily over the years, encouraging me to carry on polluting cyberspace with my views on the history of science. Occasionally that growth would receive a small boost when somebody, with more Internet clout than I, would, probably out of pity, utter some kind words about my feeble efforts to stem the tide of #histsci ignorance. Despite my best efforts to scare off my readers with kamikaze attacks on other denizens of cyberspace, who in my opinion had committed some horrendous crime against the facts of history or through, with swear words laced, tirades against freshly discovered inanities, my readership has continued to grow slowly but surely. Or at least the growth was steady and sure until yesterday. Suddenly I have a flood of people registering via WordPress to receive notification every time I choose to ventilate over some chosen history of science topic.

At first I was rather perplexed by this sudden surge of interest in my blogging activities then fellow history of science blogger, David Bressan (@David_Bressan), tipped me off on Twitter that somebody at WordPress had decided to promote my humble blog as being worthy of attention, probably an administrative error but it’s too late to correct it now and I have all these potential new readers hanging on my every spelling mistake and misplaced comma. In view of this influx of new hungry eyes I feel somehow obliged to address my readers directly with a post for the first time since I started my scribblings.

I have no idea what you are expecting by coming here but I feel honour bound to point out that the particular post highlighted in the recommendation, although it does represent one major aspect of my blogging is not, so to speak, the whole story. I do write and post other types of articles on a more or less regular basis. The one thing that almost all my posts have in common is that they are about some aspect or other of the history of science. There are, for example, as well as the post correcting others historical errors, post giving thumbnail biographical sketches of scientists you’ve probably never heard of and the reasons why you should have heard of them or general discussion of some aspect of the history or historiography of science and occasionally I write reviews of history of science publications. If you are indeed new here then I suggest you might like to take some time to look around and get the feel of the place. If you click the ‘About’ button at the top there is a very short introduction to our intrepid author with two links to more extensive descriptions of author and blog.  Not so long ago I celebrated my five hundredth post in this hallowed halls and to mark the occasion I posted a list of ten older posts that I think illustrate my endeavours well. This might be a good starting point for somebody trying to get the measure of the place.

By now attentive readers are probably wondering what all of this has to do with somewhat provocative title of this post. The answer is quite simple, whatever reason brought you here and whatever your expectations might be don’t expect me to fulfil them; I don’t write for my readers! In fact on the whole I don’t take my readers in to consideration in anyway what so ever when I sit down in front of my computer to write a post.  You may well ask, who do you write for then, if not for your readers? The answer is very simple, I write solely for myself. I write because some thought provokes me into doing so. I write to clarify what I think about a situation, a topic, a provocation… I do not write with any real awareness of that which I’m writing actually being read by another person. Of course I’m happy that people do read what I write and even happier when they respond to what I have written either here in the comments, on Twitter or on their own blogs. However, and this is the whole point of this post, I do not write to fulfil your expectations, whoever you are. If you come here to read with an open mind you are welcome. If you wish to comment you are welcome. However if you try to tell me what to write or how to write or what language to use or not, as the case may be, you are not welcome. If you don’t like what I do or the way that I do simply move on, I won’t try to detain you. This does not mean that I don’t react to the comments, questions or suggestions of my readers. I have two posts in the pipeline inspired by readers – one by a question the other by a suggestion – but I’m writing those posts because I wanted to not because somebody asked me to, a subtle but important difference. If you come here expecting me in any way to perform according to your expectations you will sooner or later be disappointed trapped in a mental prison of your own making.

As I seem to have acquired a rather large number of new readers it might be apposite to state the house rules. These have never been stated before but have developed as needed over the years and it’s about time that they were sort of codified. First off this is not a public forum, it is my space for thinking about the history of science in which you are cordially invited to participate, as you see fit. However I and I alone determine what is or what is not acceptable behaviour. Put another way: I am the God of this blog and it is my Temple. There is no democracy here. The rules are actually very simple and are based on a concept of common courtesy. Anybody is welcome to read anything on this blog and should the mood take them, to comment. Within limits, in those comments you can insult me, I have a thick skin and have lived through far worse things than a bit of name-calling. However should you do so, expect to be insulted back and I’m rather good at insulting people. You have been warned. Insulting other commentators is absolutely taboo! Anybody who insults another commentator will be warned once and should they repeat the offence banned. End of story. Do not use my comments to advertise your Steam Locomotive Preservations Society, your Astrological Advice Service or any other activity not relevant to the post you are commenting on. Should you do so, if the comment contains material relevant to the discussion it will be censored and the advertising removed, if not it will simply be deleted. Links to other pertinent blog post, articles etc are permitted and even welcomed. However if you include too many links WordPress will declare your comment spam and it will land in the spam filter. Sometimes I don’t notice this for a number of days and by the time I have released the comment from purgatory the discussion has often moved on. Shit happens!

Having now bored you all for a suitably long period I will just say that it’s kind of nice to have readers, both the old established ones and the freshly arrived, and I thank you all for taking the effort to read my meanderings and I hope some of you will stick around for a while because the trip isn’t over yet.

Post scriptum: The title of this post consists of two quotes. There will be a prize for the first person who can correctly name the sources of both quotes.

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Filed under Autobiographical

It was written in the stars: An improbable encounter on a country bus.

If people ask me where I live the answer varies depending on who’s doing the asking. If it’s someone who knows Franconia or the German universities then I answer (the university town of) Erlangen. If less well informed I answer near Nürnberg because, thanks to Dürer and the Nuremberg Tribunal, it’s well known internationally. However in reality I don’t actually live in Erlangen but in a small village on the outskirts of the town, about six kilometres from the town centre.

At about five o’clock on Friday evening I was travelling back home from the town on a bus which winds its way through the villages to the east of Erlangen. As usual when I travel by bus or train I had my nose buried in a book. In fact I do a fair amount of my reading whilst using public transport. On this occasion the volume that was holding my attention was Monica Azzolini’s excellent The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan, of which a review will appear here in due time. Mentally deep in the arcane structures of Renaissance astrology I gradually became aware of a man standing next to my elbow. Clearing his throat he apologised for disturbing, in a pleasant mild American accent, “but that book you are reading, I know the author!” Momentarily struck dumb by the total improbability of the whole situation I finally managed to stumble out a, “you know Monica‽”

It turned out that my fellow passenger was historian of astrology Darrel Rutkin who, unbeknown to me, is doing research for his forth-coming book on the history of astrology at Erlangen University. We then spent a chilly but happy half an hour on a bus stop, Darrel lives in the next village, exchanging surprise at finding a fellow history of astrology enthusiast on a country bus in Middle Franconia and thoughts on the importance of studying the subject. Later in the evening we exchanged PDFs and website URLs per email agreeing to meet up in the near future to continue a wonderful conversation.

As I wrote to Monica in an email later on in the evening it was one of those situations that if it had occurred in a book or a film, then the reader or viewer would probably think, “oh come on, you don’t expect us to swallow that do you, two historians of astrology meet on a country bus, highly unlikely!” I enjoyed Monica’s reply, which closed with the following thought, “Books have many merits, of course. That to put readers in contact is clearly one of them!”

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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astrology