Category Archives: Autobiographical

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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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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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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SASCHA 16 August 2001 – 23 December 2013

It was love at first sight. After E and I broke up I was living on the outskirts of Erlangen, where I still live. She had kept  Schnuppy and she used to throw her out of the car on her way to work. Schnuppy and I would then walk the six kilometres through the woods and along the river into the centre of the city to where E worked. That way I got to spend time with my number one Lady and she got a good run out before spending the day in the office. One Thursday morning towards the end of July in 2003 we chanced upon a large handsome dog on the banks of the river, who quickly succumbed to Schnuppy’s blandishments and began to play with her. As I say, it was love at first sight.

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As the two dogs played I fell into conversation with the woman whose dog it was. After a while she asked if I knew anybody who would be prepared to give the dog a new home, as otherwise he would have to go into the dog’s home on the following day. The alarm bells went off in my head. I could give him a home, I wanted to give him a home, I would give him a home my emotions were screaming. However, somewhere in the back of my head the rational part of my brain was saying, you’re unemployed, you’re broke, you’re living alone. How the hell are you going to be able to care for a big dog? I told the woman I would think about it and asked her to give me her phone number saying I would ring her that evening. I then spent the next twelve hours trying to talk myself out of taking on the dog. At nine o’clock in the evening I phoned the woman and said I would be prepared to take him. So much for will power and self discipline. We arranged for me to go out with her and the dog on Friday and Saturday and if everything was OK then I would take the dog home on Sunday.

At the appointed time on Friday I arrived at the woman’s flat and the three of us set out for a walk. The dog happy to be outside immediately steamed off at high speed in the direction of the river meadows, which were just down the road. Instinctively I whistled, as I would my own dog, and Sascha, for it was he, stopped turned round and trotted obediently back to me. This was stunning. A dog that has been trained will normally react to the whistled commands of its owner whilst ignoring the whistles of anybody else. Sascha was telling me that I was now his owner.

Sascha who was not quite two years old needed a new home because his previous owner had died of a stroke. Sascha had been alone in the flat with the corpse for three days before somebody found him. He was, as a result, traumatised, which meant that he obeyed every command that I gave him almost before I gave it. He’d obviously done something wrong last time and lost an owner he wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. He would come and wake me every night to check that I was still alive. The first time, about six months later, that he didn’t obey an order was a day for rejoicing because it was a clear sign that he was finally recovering from his trauma.

I’m largely self-employed and work at home and I’m not one of those people who go out twice a day for thirty minutes with the dog. Sascha was my constant companion going everywhere that I went and doing everything that I did. He waited outside shops whilst I did my shopping, sat at my feet in cafés whilst I drank my coffee and was a regular, and mostly welcome, visitor to all the various branches of the university library. Several of the librarians and department secretaries had treats for him in their desks. He was one of the most well known and loved dogs in the whole of Erlangen and it’s going to be hard over the next days and weeks telling all his friends that he is no longer with us.

We have lived our lives together in quiet harmony for ten and a half years now and this afternoon at two o’clock we relieved Sascha, who had cancer of the spleen, stomach and liver, of his pain and I don’t know how I’m going to cope without him. Things will probably be a little quite around here for sometime to come so I ask you to show some understanding. I need time to grieve for someone who was so much more than just my best friend.

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Grieving for a man I never met.

The Internet provides me with a community of people who share my interests in the history of science, maths, mathematical logic, the history of food and a few other things as well. These are people with whom I can exchange ideas, dispute, some whom I can educate, many more who can educate me, people who make me think, laugh and sometimes even cry. Yesterday evening a gaping hole was torn in my personal Internet community as I received the news on Twitter of the death of art historian and blogger, Hasan Niyazi, known to his friends on Twitter, of which I had the privilege of being one, as @3pipenet. I was stunned and strangely hurt and I still am, stuck in a phase of denial refusing to believe that I will no longer read his tweets or receive an email from him.

I tend to live very much in the present. I don’t keep a diary and have difficulty reconstructing a journal of my own rather twisted life. I have no idea when we first came into contact; I only know that it was Hasan who first contacted me. He was a big fan of this blog and regarded me as a role model, somebody to look up to and emulate in his own history blogging; something that he said often, both privately and publically. This was of course total bullshit as he was a much, much better blogger than I am or probably ever will be. Don’t take my word for it go and read his well researched and carefully crafted posts on the world of Renaissance art and especially on his great love Raphael. Hasan’s writing is passionate, scholarly, erudite, well informed and always eminently readable. He set a high standard and anybody starting out to blog about art history could do worse than to try and emulate him.

We quickly became Internet friends exchanging jokes and pointed comments on Twitter as well as directing each other to post by others that we thought the other my find interesting. Hasan took great delight in drawing my attention to historical bullshit that he thought I might take pleasure in demolishing and very often he was right. Some of my best demolition jobs were the result of a tip off from Hasan. We exchanged emails on arcane aspects of Renaissance history, he picking my brains on mathematical, scientific or technical details that lay outside of the scope of his wide ranging artistic knowledge. His questions were always interesting and I often learnt much in trying to answer them for him.

Hasan was true gentleman kind, generous, humorous, witty, always courteous and polite to a fault.  The out pourings on Twitter yesterday evening as the news of his unexpected death spread through the Internet are a testament to his warm and generous personality. I never got to meet him in real life but he was much more of a friend than many that I meet everyday. I know I shall miss him, I do already, and his absence has left me feeling hurt, confused and angry. He was much younger than I and if one of us should be dead then it should be I and not him. Sometimes life is very unfair; sometimes life is just shit.

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The Renaissance Mathematicus Road Show.

Autumn is here; the season of mist, mellow fruitfulness and public lectures and the Renaissance Mathematicus will again be unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

I shall be holding a lecture on Mikroskopie in 17. Jahrhundert: Das Unsichtbar sichtbar machen (Microscopy in the 17th century: Making the invisible visible) in the Planetarium in Nürnberg at 7 pm (MEST) on Wednesday 16th October 2013.

On Sunday 20th October 2013 I will be lecturing on Gemma Frisius, Lehrer des Gerardus Mercator (Gemma Frisius, Gerardus Mercator’s Teacher) in the Kultur- and Stadhistorisches Museum Duisburg at 11am (MEST)

Anybody who wants to come along to listen or just throw peanuts is very welcome. I shall be at a loose end on Saturday evening and again on Sunday afternoon in Duisburg; any readers in the area who fancy a meal, coffee or whatever should get in touch.

 

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Meeting the medieval manuscript man.

The Internet supplies me with a virtual community of acquaintances who share some of the interests that motivate me. As a historian (of science) I have only limited possibilities of such contacts in my own physical geographical surroundings so the Internet has proved a real boon providing me with a richness of contacts over all in the world. Having said that it is always a fascinating experience and until now a pleasure when I get to meet a member of that community in the flesh either on my travels or when they come here, to where I live. So it was a pleasant surprise when I discovered that Erik Kwakkel was holding a public lecture at the University of Erlangen, my alma mater, last Wednesday evening.

Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel) is a palaeographer and codicologist whom I follow on twitter where he tweets his wonderful discoveries of scurrile illustrations, doodles and other strangeness from mediaeval manuscripts to which he adds his own humorous captions. He also has a Tumblr where he posts more photos of manuscripts investigated on his travels and a blog for posts on aspects of his research project at the University of Leiden ‘Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance’.

For those of you who didn’t swallow a dictionary for breakfast a palaeographer is somebody who studies the hand writing in manuscripts and a codicologist is somebody who studies books as physical objects, especially manuscripts in codex form. For his lecture in the Medieval Latin department of the university Erik was wearing his codicologist hat.

Given the nature of his lecture “The learned page. Books in the medieval classroom” the audience was comparatively small but well informed with yours truly as the most ignorant person in the room. Erik presented us with some of the results of his research work very much in the form of work in progress. He was keen to show what facts one can deduce from the form of a book without actually reading the text that it contains. His first example concerned narrow books in the early high middle ages. Apparently nearly all books conform to a set pair of dimensions the width being normally around 0.7 of the height. However there is a small percentage of books from this period that as distinctly narrower than the norm, Erik’s research question being why? He thinks that these books are conceived to be held in one hand by the reader instead of being laid on a lectern. His second example concerned the dimensions of study books from the same period. Erik’s lecture was both highly informative and very entertaining, the second being an attribute that I very much appreciate in a lecturer. I should point out that Erik’s performance was particularly heroic as Wednesday was the hottest day ever recorded in Erlangen with the afternoon temperature reaching 37°C in the shade and the university does not have air conditioning.!

The Mysterious Medieval Manuscript Man during his lecture (taken without flash!)

The Mysterious Medieval Manuscript Man during his lecture (taken without flash!)

After the lecture we retired to a local Greek restaurant with Erik’s host from the Medieval Latin department, Professor Ferrari, and Professor Günther Görz, a friend of mine, who amongst many other things is a historian of science who has a special interest in the transfer of knowledge in the middle ages and who was also at the lecture. As usual when academics come together under such circumstances the conversation wandered back and forth over a range of topics although I’m afraid that Erik suffered more local academic gossip than he should have done being outnumbered three to one by the locals.

The Medieval Manuscript Man at large on the streets of Erlangen

The Medieval Manuscript Man at large on the streets of Erlangen

I found the whole evening very pleasant and very much enjoyed putting a face to an Internet acquaintance and can confirm that Erik Kwakkel in the flesh is as informative, friendly and entertaining as he is on twitter, where if you don’t already follow him you should.

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Why history?

Recently there has been much criticism of the utility, or rather lack of it, of the humanities in general and of history in particular. Reduced to its simplest clichéd form, history doesn’t have any practical application why should it be supported or financed? As today is the fourth birthday of this blog I have decided to wax a little philosophical about my own personal justification for doing history in general and the history of science in particular. This is neither intended to be an academic thesis answering all possible criticisms of the utility of history nor is it intended to be a universal solution justifying the pursuit of history for everyman. It is a loose collection of personal thoughts about why I do what I do, nothing more and nothing less.

I was born loving history I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t captivated and enthralled by one or other aspect of humanities past. Now I’m quite happy to admit that as a little boy growing up in post war Britain my initial enthusiasm was for tales of daring do of warriors and heroes. I loved the Wild West, the Vikings, the Roman legions as well as the recent World War and its not so distant predecessor. However it was not all too long before I began to read historical accounts of the Earp Brothers and what really happened at the OK Corral, to learn about the constitution and structure of those Roman Legions and to trace the routes of those Viking voyages. I yearned to learn the historical facts behind the stories. Whilst still at primary school my deepest historical studies concerned the tanks and planes of the two World Wars spurred on by the construction of those plastic Airfix kits. I didn’t just build tanks I researched them. I knew all about Little Willie and Big Willie the first British tanks developed in WWI and even de Mole’s tank, the vastly superior model suggested by an Australian engineer in 1911, but never built. I took my war history very seriously, supported I have to say by a father who was a professional historian.

The next sentence should be approached with caution by any mathophobics who might have wandered on to the page. I was also born loving mathematics. I had a passion for numbers and all that you can do with them from the very first time I encountered them. I love all things mathematical and always have and always will. As I’ve mentioned more than once when I was about sixteen my historian father gave me a copy of Eric Temple Bell’s Men of Mathematics, a terrible book as I now recognise, but one that opened up the world of the history of mathematics to me. My two great loves had got married. Now possibly the greatest failing in my life was that nobody suggested to me that I could become a historian of mathematics something that never occurred to me as a teenager searching for a direction in life; what happened instead needs a little explain.

First off there was a minor disaster as I took my O-levels at my very elite grammar school. In that year about 80% or more of the pupils who took history O-level on that particular examination board failed the exam dismally. I was one of the few that actually passed although with an abysmal grade. There was of course the expected groaning and gnashing of teeth with headmasters and concerned parents petitioning, cajoling and threatening the examination board who remained impervious to their pleas refusing to even consider changing their grading. Having achieved excellent grades, as expected, in maths, physics and chemistry I now went on to study them at A-level. Now in my first year sixth and my second as a boarder at said elite grammar school I was not a happy bunny. In fact I was deeply unhappy for various reasons and heading straight on into disaster. It came as no surprise when I was summoned to the headmaster’s study. Now being an incredibly ancient and extremely elite grammar school being summoned to the head’s study was the mental equivalent of being forced to walk the plank but in my then mental state I didn’t really care a damn. During the ensuing interview between headmaster and bloody-minded schoolboy the headmaster asked, not unreasonably, “what do you want to study when you leave school?” This was a school that assumed automatically, if you were doing A-levels you would go to university. My spontaneous answer, and it came without any thought whatsoever, was “history”. The, again not unreasonable, response, “so why are you doing science A-levels?” “Because that’s what I’m good at!” Now said headmaster could have told me to stop being silly and thrown me out on my ear but he didn’t. Instead he suggested I could become an archaeologist, as this could be studied with science A-levels leading to a BSc instead of a BA and so it came about that I spent the Easter school holidays on my first excavation in Chelmsford.

This proved to be rather enjoyable and was followed by more digging in the evenings and at weekends on the bank and ditch of Colchester Castle. In the summer I packed my things and went off to dig on the Roman fort at Usk in Monmouthshire, a Cardiff University dig and at that time the second largest excavation in Great Britain. The following summer having finished my A-levels I returned to Usk now an experienced and seasoned digger at the tender age of eighteen. That summer I got to know many of the first year Cardiff archaeology students who were serving part of their compulsory twelve weeks of digging, then part of the Cardiff degree course. One of these was a brash, exuberant, loud mouthed young man by the name of Peter Hill who would go on to become a good friend over many years. One day Pete was pontificating, as was his want, on the subject of archaeology when he pointed out that our principle function as archaeologists was to entertain the public/tax payers who paid the money that made our existence possible. In those days excavations were still financed by the government. Now I have never forgotten Pete’s words and I still consider them to be one of the justifications for doing history, one that some of my fellow historians might reject, we are entertainers.

Now when I use the word entertainer I am not making the modern distinction between art and entertainment, the one highbrow the other low. Here the word entertain encompasses the arts, literature, music and also history. It’s a variation on the old Bible saying, “man shall not live on bread alone”. Just as art or music fulfils some inner, dare I say spiritual, desire in many people so too history. The truth of this can be found all over our society and I think needs no further justification. However I think it is a truth often forgotten, or even suppressed, by academic historians, we are entertainers.

Of course history functions as more than entertainment and I would now like to turn my attention to another aspect based on a play on words. History is his story or her story or our story or their story or maybe just my story. In German the relationship between history and story telling is even more direct as the German word for history is Geschichte and the German word for story is also Geschichte. If I were just to remain by history as story telling I would be repeating my previous point of history as entertainment but I want to take this thought in a different direction provoked by the English play on words, history is his story.

Central to the mental health of all human beings is their sense of identity both as an individual and as part of a whole, a society, a people, or whatever. Implicitly and explicitly we define ourselves and in so doing we create our identity. Our history, that is the story of where we come from and how we got here is a major part of that defining process. We talk of roots and traditions and of belonging to groups that have histories. History plays a major role in identity. Now I realise that this claim comes dangerously close to sounding like the pedagogical idealism of people like Britain’s current Minister of Education Michael Gove, who wishes to impose a narrow nationalist history curriculum on English school children because they should learn what it means to be British. However what Gove is proposing is actually a perversion and a misuse of what I am trying to express. By manipulating and editing history he is trying to create a false identity. Using falsified history, even if only falsified through selective presentation, is a propaganda weapon used by many politicians over the centuries and one which historians must, if necessary, be prepared to confront and expose for what it is by presenting the real uncensored history.

Turing to my own small area of history’s vast canvas, the history of science, it was traditional to restrict history as identity to political history, often called scornfully the history of kings, in the twentieth century this was often expanded to include first social history and then cultural history but history of science is usually left out and ignored. I think that at no other time has an awareness and knowledge of the history of science been so important exactly because of the role that history plays in defining identity. We live in a society that is totally defined and dominated by science and technology in a way that has never before been the case. Above all technology has for several millennia played a significant role in defining the various and myriad human societies but a society that has been so completely dominated by its science and technology, as ours is has never before existed. I believe passionately that an understanding of the historical process that brought us to this situation is necessary if we are not to become alienated from this all-dominant aspect of our society and thereby lose an important facet of our own identity. Science and technology play an important role in defining us we need, in my opinion, to understand how this came about in order to maintain control of our own identities.

Before I close this already overlong series of meandering thoughts there is one last aspect of the history of science that I wish to briefly elucidate. As all ready stated we live in a society dominated by science and technology and as a result there exists a major desire to understand how science develops or as I prefer to say, evolves. The reasons for this are largely political, how can we control that evolution, direct it to solve the problems we need to solve? How can we invest our money in science to get the best returns for our investments? How should we best educate the next generations to obtain the scientists of the future that we will need? The answers to these and other similar questions are searched for in a discipline now called science studies the core of which is a mixture of philosophy and sociology of science. I belong to that group who believe that any such studies that ignore the history of science and the examination of how science actually evolved throughout history is doomed to fail. History is the laboratory that allows us to examine and dissect the evolution of the scientific disciplines. As Lakatos said without history of science philosophy of science is empty, a dictum that continues to inform my own endeavours.

As I stated at the beginning the thoughts expressed above are my personal answer to the question, “why history”. Anybody who has a different answer or wishes to criticise, refute or ridicule my answer is, as always, welcome to do so in the comments. That’s what they’re there for.

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Filed under Autobiographical, History of science

My ICHS nightmare.

If you are attending this year’s history of science and all the rest monster bean feast in Manchester in July and are holding a lecture there for the first time in your life at a major conference then I recommend that you stop reading this post.

In 1980 I moved from Britain to German and made my home there. It was a move that was determined by a random chain of events rather than any sort of positive decision. Once settled in Germany I needed to do a series of things such as, for example, find work or learn the language. After some time I found out that the best German as a foreign language course available locally was at the University in Erlangen not far from where I was living at the time. Upon investigation I discovered that to enrol in the course I first had to enrol in the university in a regular course of study. Now I was a classic nineteen seventies drop out who had originally studied archaeology in Cardiff but who had always intended to return to university when I had discovered what I really wanted to study. Now the time seemed to have come for me to resume my academic career and I enrolled in the university to study mathematics with philosophy as my subsidiary subject and after a year of learning German I became a mature maths student studying for the equivalent of a master’s degree, in those days the first degree in Germany.

Now my principle interest in mathematics was in its history for which the Erlangen maths institute had little interest but by a strange twist of fate my philosophy professor was a practicing historian of mathematics. After three years, at about bachelor’s level, I dropped mathematics and took up philosophy, concentrating on history and philosophy of science, as my major with English philology and history as my subsidiaries. By now my philosophy professor had asked me if I wished to work in a research project into the external history of mathematical logic, a chance I jumped at and which became my apprenticeship as a historian of science. I worked in this project in total for around ten years.

In 1989 the International Congress for the History of Science XVIII (ICHS), as it was then, came to Germany and because they couldn’t decide which city should have the privilege of putting it on, the first half took place in Hamburg and the second in Munich, the two of them a mere 790 kilometres apart. Not only did we attend but our research project was a section in its own right with legendary Dutch-American Marxist historian of mathematics Dirk Struik, then 95 years old, as our keynote speaker.

I was due to hold a talk on nineteenth century Scottish logician Hugh MacColl, the intended subject of my master’s thesis. Although I was already approaching forty and had quite a lot of experience lecturing at my home university this was to be my first lecture at a big conference and this with around twelve hundred delegates, if my memory serves me correctly, was the biggest conference that the history of science had to offer. I was to say the least somewhat nervous.

Finally the big day dawned and taking my place at the lectern I was introduced by my professor, who was chairing the session, to the seventy or eighty assembled listeners waiting to hear my talk.

Munich 1989

 The author apprehensively preparing to present his lecture Munich 7.8.1989

(Photo: Volker Peckhaus)

Suffering from a good portion of stage fright I stumbled out the first sentences of my talk and I was just beginning to come into swing when the door crashed open stopping me in mid sentence and riveting the attention of everybody in the room. One of the organisers stomped through the doorway and marched with determined strides across the room to the desk on the podium where my professor was sitting, his footfalls booming out into the stunned silence like the steps of a jackbooted military officer on his way to an execution in a Hollywood B movie. Reaching the desk he ripped off the conference timetable that was taped to its surface replacing it with a new one, which he taped into place, tearing long strips of adhesive tape from a roll with a noise that seemed to rent the very air in the room. He then turned and with the same purposeful stride marched out of the room banging the door shut with a final clap of doom as he exited. During the whole process he uttered not a word.

I was sunk. Whatever faint shreds of confidence I might have had before his appearance were blown away leaving me a gibbering wreck staring at the listeners who of course were no longer paying any attention to me. Somehow I managed to stumbled through my presentation feeling like I was battling through a thick mental fog and mumble some sort of answers to the few polite questions proffered at the end but what should have been the glorious highpoint to my career as a historian of logic at that point of my life had turned into a nightmare.

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The Renaissance Mathematicus Roadshow

Next week the Renaissance Mathematicus will be undertaking a mini-tour of Berlin to hold two semi-popular public lectures, in German. Actually it’s the same lecture on the history of the calendar and the calendar reform held twice. On Tuesday I shall be entertaining the good folks at the Urania Berlin e.V. at 17:30 and on Wednesday those at the Wilhelm-Foerster-Sternwarte mit Planetarium am Insulaner Berlin at 20:00.

If you are in Berlin and should you wish to experience The Renaissance Mathematicus in real live Technicolor, living, breathing and even talking then please come along. If you would like to meet up for a chat, coffee or whatever then leave a comment below and I’ll get in touch.

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Filed under Autobiographical, Odds and Ends