Category Archives: Autobiographical

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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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Physics, History of science

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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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Alchemy, Myths of Science

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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