Category Archives: Book Reviews

Retelling a story – this time with all the facts

Before 1995 probably only a handful of people interested in the history of navigation had ever heard of the English clockmaker John Harrison and the role he played in the history of attempts to find a reliable method of determining longitude at sea. This situation changed radically when Dava Sobel published her book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time[1] in that year. This volume caught the public imagination and very rapidly became one of the most successful popular history of science and technology books of all time. It was followed just three years later by a lavishly illustrated expanded edition. Just one year after that followed the equally lavish television documentary film based on the book. By the year 2000 at the latest John Harrison had become a household name and a British scientific hero on a level with Newton and Darwin.

P.L. Tassaert's half-tone print of Thomas King's original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library,

P.L. Tassaert’s half-tone print of Thomas King’s original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library,

All of this would have been well and good if Sobel had actually adhered to the first three words of her subtitle, The True Story…, but unfortunately she sacrificed historical accuracy to the expediency of telling a good story, basically reducing a complex historical narrative to the fairy tale of a poor honest hero, John Harrison, overcoming adversity to finally triumph against the evil machination of his dishonest scheming opponent the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. Sobel’s lurid narrative proved, as already stated, commercially very successful but left its readers with a highly distorted view of what actually took place in the long eighteenth century in the endeavours to find a method of determining longitude and the role that the various people involved played in those endeavours. In particular Nevil Maskelyne was left in the popular public imagination looking rather like the devil’s evil cousin.


Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne Source Wikimedia

Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne
Source Wikimedia

About five years ago a major historical research project, under the auspices of the Arts & Humanities Research Council, was set up by Cambridge University and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on the history of the British Board of Longitude, the official body set up to oversee and direct the search for a method to determine longitude at sea in the eighteenth century. Led by Simon Schaffer for the University of Cambridge and Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt for the National Maritime Museum this project featured a cast of excellent doctoral and post doctoral researchers some of whose findings can be found on the excellent Longitude Project Blog. To date this research project has produced a remarkable list of achievements. Alongside a volume of papers on the much maligned Nevil Maskelyne, which has just appeared and which I am looking forward very much to reading,


the whole of the Board of Longitude archive has been digitized and made available online to researchers. Currently on at the Museum in Greenwich is a major exhibition Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, which you can still visit if you hurry, it closes on the 4th of January 2015. If you are uncertain whether or not it’s worth visiting, it has just been awarded the British Society for the History of Science Great Exhibitions Award for 2014! If like myself you are unable for some reason to make the journey to Greenwich do not despair you can bring the exhibition into your own living room by acquiring the accompanying book Finding Longitude: How Ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem[2] by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt, a review of which is the actually subject of this post.

Finding Longitude001

My review is actually very simple this book is magnificent. If you have any interest in the histories of navigation, sea voyages, astronomy, clocks, John Harrison, Nevil Maskelyne, Tobias Mayer, and a whole ship’s cargo of other related and interrelated topics then buy this book! I guarantee you that you won’t regret it for one second. It combines thorough research, first class scholarship, excellent writing, unbelievably lavish illustrations, fascinating narratives and historical accuracy in one superb and, for what it is, surprisingly low priced large format volume. Unlike Sobel’s, from a historians standpoint, ill-starred volume, this work really does tell the true story of the solution of the longitude problem with all its complex twists and turns giving all the participants their dues. Although written for the general reader this book should also find a home on the bookshelves of any working historian of navigation, astronomy, horology, sea voyages or just the science and technology of the long eighteenth century.

This book will take you on a voyage through the choppy waters of eighteenth century science, politics and technology and deliver you up on the shores of the nineteenth century much more knowledgeable then you were when you boarded ship and entertain and delight you along the way. It will also make for a first class Christmas present.

[1] Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Fourth Estate, London, 1995

[2] Richard Dunn & Rebekah Higgitt, Longitude: How Ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem, Collins and Royal Museums Greenwich, London 2014


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Cartography, History of Navigation, History of science

A little learning is a dangerous thing

“A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: 

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again. 

Fired at first sight with what the muse imparts,

In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts 

While from the bounded level of our mind 

Short views we take nor see the lengths behind 

But more advanced behold with strange surprise,

New distant scenes of endless science rise!”

In a recent New Yorker essay Adam Gopnik delivered up his view of Galileo Galilei. The essay is long and meandering and I don’t intend to do a complete analysis but there is one central point of Gopnik’s that I do wish to discuss. He gets off to a lousy start by calling Galileo “The founder of modern science”. I’ve already dealt with this elsewhere and don’t intend to repeat myself here. However Gopnik returns to the theme towards the end of his essay with proof! He begins with the following:

Contemporary historians of science have a tendency to deprecate the originality of the so-called scientific revolution, and to stress, instead, its continuities with medieval astrology and alchemy. And they have a point. It wasn’t that one day people were doing astrology in Europe and then there was this revolution and everyone started doing astronomy. Newton practiced alchemy; Galileo drew up all those horoscopes. But if you can’t tell the difference in tone and temperament between Galileo’s sound and that of what went before, then you can’t tell the difference between chalk and cheese.

Those historians of science can make their claims but Gopnik, a literary critic/humourist/art critic [please choose the appellation for Gopnik that best fits your prejudices or lack of them: see comments] knows better! He has read a book!

The difference is apparent if you compare what astrologers actually did and what the new astronomers were doing. “The Arch-Conjuror of England” (Yale), Glyn Parry’s entertaining new biography of Galileo’s contemporary the English magician and astrologer John Dee, shows that Dee was, in his own odd way, an honest man and a true intellectual. He races from Prague to Paris, holding conferences with other astrologers and publishing papers, consulting with allies and insulting rivals. He wasn’t a fraud. His life has all the look and sound of a fully respectable intellectual activity, rather like, one feels uneasily, the life of a string theorist today.

Now I have read the same book and although that book is excellent it, in my opinion, suffers from a major deficiency that I actually discussed on twitter a while back with Ted Hand (@t3dy) a historian of alchemy. However before we turn to Parry’s book and its deficiency let us see how Gopnik uses it to justify his belief in Galileo’s modernity.

The look and the sound of science . . . but it does have a funny smell. Dee doesn’t once ask himself, “Is any of this real or is it all just bullshit?” If it works, sort of, and you draw up a chart that looks cool, it counts. Galileo never stopped asking himself that question, even when it wasn’t bullshit but sounded as though it might well be. That’s why he went wrong on the tides; the-moon-does-it-at-a-distance explanation sounds too much like the assertion of magic. The temperament is not all-seeing and curious; it is, instead, irritable and impatient with the usual stories.

So there we have it. Galileo may have been a practicing astrologer but he was also a questioning scientist whereas his near contemporary John Dee was just a gullible pseudo-scientist. Case closed. Galileo is different. He is the founder of modern science as claimed. Gopnik 1 historians of science 0.

Unfortunately for Gopnik reading one book on Dee, no matter how good, isn’t enough. He has fallen head first into the error illustrated by the famous quote from Alexander Pope with which this post is headed, “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. If instead he had drunk deep of the springs of Dee scholarship he would not have so confidently labelled Dee chalk to Galileo’s cheese.

What is Parry’s deficiency and why is Gopnik wrong?

To understand the problem we have to look at how John Dee’s image has changed over the centuries. In the 16th century Dee was a highly respected member of the European scientific community highly involved in mathematics, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, cartography, navigation and history. By the middle of the 17th century his star was fading fast and he was largely forgotten then Meric Casaubon published the so-called Angel Diaries, Dee’s supposed conversations with angels through the medium Edward Kelly. Through this publication of previously unknown material Dee became the archetypal Renaissance magus in the popular imagination, a dabbler in magic probably in league with the devil.

This remained the public persona of Dee right up to the beginning of the twentieth century and he became a notorious trans-continental figure turning up as the essence of sorcery in several works of fiction. In the twentieth century, however, historians began to investigate and re-assess the real historical John Dee and the role that he played in European Renaissance culture. What emerged was a very different figure from the archetypal Renaissance magus. The last forty or fifty years has seen the publication of many academic papers and a series of monographs containing biographical studies of Dee, illustrating various aspects of his highly complex character. Glyn Parry’s The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee is the latest such biography to be published.

Parry’s book, which is excellent and highly recommended for those interested in the subject, is a well researched and minutely documented study of the role played by alchemy and magic in the European royal courts of the sixteenth century, in particular the court of Elizabeth I of England, structured around the life story of John Dee. This is not the first such study but follows in the tradition of R. J. W. Evan’s excellent Rudolph II and his World: A study in intellectual history, 1576–1612 and Bruce T. Moran’s equally excellent The Alchemical World of the German Court: Occult Philosophy and Chemical Medicine in the Circle of Moritz of Hessen (1572–1632) both of which also feature John Dee, albeit in a less central role, who was active on both courts. Both books are regarded as classics and standard works on the role of the occult in Renaissance culture and Parry’s book is a more than worthy companion but there is a minor and important difference. Both Evan’s and Moran’s books were marketed as academic books written for specialists and although Parry’s volume is equally academic his publishers have seized upon Dee’s public popularity and marketed it as a popular book. They have also, and this is the crucial point, marketed it as a biography. This marketing strategy has led Gopnik to the belief that having read Parry’s book he now knows all about John Dee but unfortunately he is highly mistaken.

Parry actually only deals with one aspect of Dee’s multi-faceted nature, his activities as a magus almost completely ignoring Dee the mathematicus and it is here that Gopnik walks straight into a trap of his own making. If instead of just reading Parry’s book he had done some basic research on Dee he would have discovered that Dee and Galileo are by no means so far apart as he would like to think.

Several times in his book Parry alludes to the fact that mathematics plays a very central role in Dee’s whole philosophy but never bothers to elucidate what or why, concentrating instead on Dee’s occult activities leading Gopnik to a totally false picture of Dee the mathematical scientist. Early in his book Parry explains that after graduating from Cambridge Dee paid two visits to the University of Leuven, in the Spanish Netherlands, one short and one substantially longer to study under Gemma Frisius and Gerard Mercator. Parry discusses the astrology that Dee studied under the two Netherlanders but makes no mention of the mathematics. In fact Frisius was one of the leading teachers of the cutting edge mathematical sciences of the age and Dee came back to Britain with the best mathematical education available anywhere in the world at the time. He introduced into Britain, which lagged far behind the rest of Europe in the development of the mathematical sciences, the newest procedures in mathematics, astronomy, cartography and navigation as well as bringing with him the newest terrestrial and celestial globes and astronomical instruments from the workshops of Frisius and Mercator. On his early journeys through Europe Dee also got to know and to learn from other leading European mathematical practitioners such as Pedro Nunes in Portugal and Federico Commandino in Italy.

In his house in Mortlake Dee set up a research centre for the mathematical sciences, which contained the largest private scientific library in Europe, including at least two copies of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, where other interested scholars could and did come to learn and discuss the latest in mathematical knowledge. Dee’s foster son Thomas Digges wrote and published one of the first works on Copernican astronomy in English, which contained the first published partial translation of De revolutionibus into the vernacular. Another acolyte of Dee’s John Feild (sic) published, at Dee’s urging, the first ephemeris based on Copernicus’ work. Dee himself wrote the extensive preface to Henry Billingsley’s English translation of The Elements of Euclid. This preface is an important early work on the philosophy of mathematics. Dee corresponded on mathematical topics with many of the leading mathematicians and astronomers in Europe including a correspondence with Tycho Brahe on the problems of determining the parallax of moving celestial bodies, i.e. comets, a topic at the cutting edge of contemporary astronomical research. Dee was also a close friend and colleague of Thomas Harriot the greatest of English Renaissance mathematicians whose scientific discoveries easily rivalled those of Galileo but because he never published anything remained unknown and unacknowledged.

His English language preface to Billingley’s Euclid was not a one off but is symbolic for one of Dee’s most important contribution that of co-founder of the so-called English school of mathematics. As already mention in the second half of the sixteenth century England lagged behind the rest of Europe in the mathematical sciences. The first person to undertake series efforts to correct this deficit was Robert Recorde who wrote and published a series of textbooks in English covering the mathematical sciences including Copernican astronomy. After Recorde’s death Dee brought out several revised and expanded editions of those textbooks. The two of them started a tradition of English mathematics that stretched through the second half of the sixteenth century all the way through the seventeenth century up to Newton, which encompasses such important figures as William Oughtred, Seth Ward, John Wallis, Christopher Wren and even Newton himself.

Far from being the naïve magician that Gopnik imagines him to have been John Dee was acknowledged and recognised as one of the leading European mathematical practitioners in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. Whose mathematical heritage echoed all the way through the seventeenth century and the creation of modern science.

Contrary to the commonly held myth Galileo did not invent modern mathematical science but built his research on a solid foundation a Renaissance mathematical advances that goes back all the way to Georg Peuerbach and Regiomontanus in the middle of the fifteenth century. One of the Renaissance mini-giants on whose shoulders Galileo and his contemporaries constructed their contributions to the evolution of modern science was John Dee. Far from being the contrast obsolescent model to Galileo’s shiny new show room model as Gopnik would have us believe John Dee, in his own way, contributed as much to the creation of modern science as Galileo himself.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Science in Antiquity: A book review

In the last few weeks everybody else has been nominating books of the year or recommending books for Christmas so I thought I would follow the trend and at the same time try to improve my somewhat negative image by actually writing a positive book review. In fact this is not a review of one book but of a whole series of seven books, The Routledge Sciences of Antiquity series. These books are not new but have been available for some years now although one of them saw the release of its second expanded edition on the 1st of November this year. The books are, in no particular order, Ancient Natural History by Roger French (who was before his death also the original general editor of the series), Time in Antiquity by Roland Hannah, Ancient Astrology by Tamsyn Barton, Cosmology in Antiquity by M. R. Wright, Ancient Mathematics by S. Cuomo, Ancient Meteorology by Liba Taub (who is the current general editor) and finally Ancient Medicine by Vivian Nutton. I now own five of the series only missing the volumes by Taub and Hannah, which are high up on my book purchase list, so if anybody wishes to buy The Renaissance Mathematicus a Christmas present…

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow account of all the five volumes that I do own but I’ll start with some general comments about Nutton’s Ancient Medicine, which was the one whose second edition appeared this year. Nutton is one of the leading English historians of medicine and a great expert on medicine in antiquity and especially Galen. This book, which became a standard work on the subject when it first appeared and an instant classic, is now even better in its improved second edition. If you are a student of the history of medicine and this book is not on your bookshelf then something is seriously wrong with your book buying policy.

This brings us to the intended or potential readership for this series. In his general introduction to the series Roger French writes the following:

The purpose of this series of volumes is to provide the reader who is not necessarily a classical scholar with a broad view of some areas of ancient interest to which the term ‘science’ has customarily been attached.

I personally would see the potential readership in undergraduate and postgraduate students of general history, philosophy and both the history and philosophy of science. Of course any reasonably well read scholar with a general interest in antiquity could and would benefit from reading one or more of the volumes in this series. I personally find them very useful as a slightly more advanced historian of science whose area of expertise lies somewhere else (the Early Modern Period) but who vainly attempts to maintain a broad and general picture of the whole of the history of science. A hopeless endeavour but one that I think all historians of science should follow to some extent.

All of the books that I possess in this series are excellently written by top experts in their field (an appellation that also applies to both Hannah and Taub whose volumes I don’t possess) in a style that makes them accessible to the reasonably educated general reader. All of them also posses a full academic apparatus of endnotes (I still prefer footnotes), extensive bibliography and index making it possible for the reader to deepen their knowledge of any points that catch their interest.

One particular aspect of the series that for me increases their value is that they are not standard re-iterations of the supposed facts and myths of the subjects with which they deal but are up to date reassessments of what is known presented in context. French writes:

The ancient material used by philosophers and other in later periods is here described in its ancient context. But the needs of the modern reader, who may want information on one particular area of the sciences, has been kept in mind.

These two purposes, to give ancient ‘science’ in its context and to direct the reader’s attention to fields of study that he recognises, coincides with a fresh look at ancient ‘science’.

This fresh look is wonderfully illustrated for me by Cuomo’s volume, Ancient Mathematics a subject in which I had read extensively before I came to her book. Books on mathematics tend to be strongly internalist dealing with which theorems were first discovered by whom and also often dangerously speculative stretching the often very small set of real facts available, mostly without informing the reader that this is the case. Cuomo’s book is wonderfully contextual giving all of the sources where mathematical knowledge was not only produced but also used and discussed in antiquity whilst continuously reminding the reader just how thin the blanket of available facts really is. A wonderful corrective to all those books that go on for pages about the achievements of one or other of the Greek mathematicians from whom we have absolutely no extant works and whose appearance in the oft many centuries later works of others are at best scant. I heartily recommend this book to anybody who thinks they already ‘know’ about mathematics in antiquity. It’s is startling to discover how much of our standard ‘knowledge’ repeated in numerous reference works is at the best dubious and often plain myths.

If you are looking for a last minute gift for the historian or philosopher of science in your life then one or other of the volumes in this series would I’m sure be gratefully received. One small word of warning whilst the paperbacks are, whilst not cheap, reasonably priced for academic books of this quality the hardbacks are exorbitantly expensive.



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Filed under Book Reviews, History of science

Phrases in the history of science that should be abolished, banned, forbidden, eradicated, annihilated, obliterated, eliminated, jettisoned, extirpated…

Patricia Fara has written a new biography of Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ paternal grandfather and a significant eighteenth century intellectual figure in his own right. Ms Fara is an excellent historian of science and a skilful and entertaining writer whose books are usually to be recommended. Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt also tells me that she is an excellent teacher but I digress. I for one welcome this publication and look forward, in the fullness of time, to acquiring a copy and reading it. So I was pleased when I stumbled across the article on the Oxford University Press’ blog advertising it. Pleased that is until I read the phrase out of the text used as a header for the article:

Erasmus Darwin’s views on evolution, politics and religion were so controversial that he was written out of history [My emphasis] for nearly two centuries.

I don’t know about you but the phrase “written out of history” evokes in me images of George Orwell’s 1984 and the re-writing of the history books, newspapers etc. every time the countries involved in the global war switched alliances. Or maybe those Stalinist era Politburo Mayday Parade photographs in which prominent politicians have been airbrushed out because they have, in the meantime, been shipped off to the Gulag for some real or imagined offense against the ruling party.

Whatever else might have happened to him in the last two hundred plus years, dear OUP, Erasmus Darwin has at no time been “written out of history”. If you mean that, in your opinion, he has not received the attention that he deserves from historians then say so, but don’t try to express your opinion in some sort of meaningless and completely false hyperbolic bovine excreta.


Filed under Book Reviews

Dava Sobel tries her hand at historical fantasy.

Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time is almost certainly the most successful popular history of science book published in the last fifty years. This is to some extent understandable as it is a well written enthralling tale of one mans battle against the establishment to solve a great scientific challenge, the determination of longitude at sea. It suffers however from a major flaw, it is a distortion of the real history it is claiming to relate. Sobel makes this tale of a complex episode in the history of science into a struggle between good, represented by John Harrison, and evil represented by Nevil Maskelyne, a severe distortion of the historical facts. To discover more about what really took place I recommend reading the posts at The Board of Longitude Project Blog, my concern here is Sobel’s latest history of science outing A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos.

When I first read her Longitude I was very impressed by the story that she told about a period and a development in the history of science about which I then knew very little. Unfortunately for Ms Sobel I was so impressed that I decided to investigate further and started to acquire and read the academic literature on the subject and fairly quickly learnt that Sobel’s version of the story was anything but accurate. Having made this experience I was more than sceptical when I first discovered that Sobel had chosen the life and work of Copernicus as the subject for her latest book. I feared that she would make a mess of it and unfortunately my fears have been confirmed. One can get a first impression of how Sobel deals with the subject from an interview she gave about the book earlier this year in Cosmos.

Cosmos: What is A More Perfect Heaven about

Sobel: It’s about Copernicus and how he was talked into publishing his crazy idea, heliocentrism. It was an idea he developed in his youth and told only a few people about and promised he would write a book on the subject. He eventually did, but he worked on the book for decades and became increasingly fearful he would be laughed at and that people would use the Bible to claim his idea was irreligious.

Here we have Sobel repeating the old myth that Copernicus didn’t want to publish because he feared the religious reaction; this has been dismissed by historians of science for decades. Copernicus didn’t publish because he couldn’t deliver. In his Commentariolus he had claimed he would provide proof that the world (read universe or solar system) was heliocentric. He was nowhere near being able to deliver that proof and that is why he hesitated to publish his book.

Sobel: He seems to have decided not to publish it, but then he was surprised to get a visit from a young German mathematician, a brilliant man called Rheticus, who was a colleague of Martin Luther. Rheticus was on a self-improvement journey and he learned about Copernicus’s work while in Nuremberg, so he went off to see him – a journey of 500km. Copernicus’s region of Poland was Catholic, and the bishop had banished all Lutherans, so when this fellow showed up it was a conflict on several levels.

Except in the formal sense that they were both professors at the same university Rheticus was not a colleague of Luther’s and the suggestion that he was is part of Sobel’s disinformation tactic.

Sobel: I remember learning that story in 1973 – the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth. There was an article by science historian Edward Rosen in a magazine called Sky and Telescope, and I remember thinking what a great play it would make. The characters are different in every way, but they came together on this one idea and somehow Copernicus managed to keep them there for two years, and Rheticus helped him complete the book.

Here we have the core of Sobel’s distortion of history, which I will deal with later but I find it significant that Sobel bases her work on a source that is anything but up to date or accurate for that matter.

After a lot of hesitation as to whether I really wanted to waste my money on a book that I was fairly certain was not very good I finally succumbed and bought the Kindle edition. Sadly, to have my worst suspicions confirmed.

The book is in three sections. The first is a conventional biography of Copernicus, which however doesn’t really deal with his astronomy. The second, and major, part of the book is written in the form of a play and is a fictional reconstruction of what occurred between Copernicus and Rheticus when the latter visited Frauenburg and persuaded the reluctant author to part with his manuscript and allow it to be published. The final part deals with the reception and further developments of the heliocentric hypothesis, Kepler, Galileo etc.

The biography at the beginning of the book is actually quite good although given the nature of the material it is anything but scintillating. Sobel deals with the material well and presents a rounded picture of Copernicus the political administrator and physician, which is what he was. There is nothing new here but as there isn’t a good modern English language biography of the man it might have made for a good book if not for the following section. My only quibble with the first section is that Sobel keeps emphasising Copernicus’ astronomical observations as if they were highly significant. This was not the case. In fact Copernicus made comparatively few observations in his forty odd years as an active astronomer and most of those that he did make were of a comparatively trivial nature. He was not an observational astronomer he was a theoretician.

It is with the second, central, part that the book unravels very spectacularly. Sobel claims to be writing historical fiction in this section, creating a plausible reconstruction of what took place between the two mathematicians during their time together, a period that we know very little about. However what she has produced could at best be called historical fantasy, although the use of the word historical here is very much stretching the point. What we have is a collection of ahistorical cardboard cut out figures spouting soap opera dialogue that is at time so bad it’s embarrassing.

The problems start with the opening scene where Copernicus comes home to find the newly arrived Rheticus sleeping on his doorstep. Rheticus is presented as a sort of naïve, simpleton, teenage astronomical groupie who has just hitch-hiked in from Wittenberg in the clothes he is standing up in and with a bag slung over his shoulder to pay his respects to his hero Copernicus. Historically plausible? Like hell it is. Although relatively young, 25, and given to hero worship Rheticus was the independently wealthy son of a minor Italian aristocrat who was professor of mathematics at a leading European university that was a major centre of humanistic learning. He was travelling with a servant and alone the folio editions of the books that he had brought with him, as a gift for Copernicus would have required the services of a pack mule if not a horse. He in fact checked into a hostelry like any other wealthy and educated visitor and sent a message to Copernicus requesting an audience. Sobel now proceeds to play the religious card for all that it’s worth repeating a standard myth that because we are in the middle of the Reformation and Rheticus is a Lutheran Protestant from Wittenberg visiting a Catholic Prince Bishopric that some how his life must be in danger. What we have here in reality is actually an interesting historical phenomenon because throughout the Reformation and Counter Reformation scholars, who weren’t fire breathing preachers, were treated with consideration and respect on both sides of the divide. As long as they kept their noses out of religious affairs they were free to come and go and to correspond as they pleased. All of the time that Rheticus spent in Ermland he was treated, as what he was, an honoured scholarly guest. Before moving on there is one minor point that relates back to those observations. The naïve groupie on being allowed to view Copernicus’ manuscript asks, so many observations did you make them all yourself? Well no, the vast majority of the observations used in De revolutionibus are taken from other sources. As I said Copernicus was a theoretician not an observer.

The situation in Sobel’s mini-drama gets even worse when we come to Copernicus and the Bishop of Frauenburg. Here we get a repeat of the Longitude scenario with Copernicus presented as a wise and caring saint, a sort of Prussian Albert Schweitzer, who hides the Protestant groupie in his attic like a sixteenth century Anne Frank. As I’ve already pointed out there was no need what so ever for Rheticus to hide anywhere. Even worse is Sobel’s vision of the Bishop of Frauenburg, he, who is never given a name, is presented as a snivelling, paranoid, anti-science cretin, who is determined to bring about the downfall of both Copernicus and his book. A fair representation? Like hell it is.

The real life Bishop of Frauenburg at the time of Rheticus’ visit was Johannes Dantiscus an acknowledge humanist scholar and a crowned poet laureate. He had served for many years as a diplomat for various kings, emperors and princes throughout Europe before entering the church and maintained an extensive correspondence with many leading European scholars. He had personally met Phillip Melanchthon, Rheticus’ superior and mentor, respected him as one of the most learned men of the age but regretted that he was a Protestant. One of his correspondents had been Johann Reuchlin Melanchthon’s uncle and the leading humanist Hebrew scholar in Europe. Dantiscus was a cultivated, highly educated and very knowledgeable man. Far from being anti-science and trying to block Copernicus’ work he sent a copy of Rheticus’ Narratio Prima, the first published account of Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis, to Gemma Frisius in Leuven and tried to persuade him to come to Frauenburg to work together with Copernicus. The real Bishop of Frauenburg didn’t fit Sobel’s simplistic fairy tale of saints and demons and religious and scientific persecution so she invented a completely fictional character who bears no resemblance to Johannes Dantiscus.

All of this would be all well and good if Sobel wasn’t claiming to be producing a plausible reconstruction of what took place in Frauenburg between 1539 and 1541.  However what she presents has absolutely nothing to do with the known facts and whatever did take place was certainly nothing like Sobel’s warped distortion of history.

Reading the third section of the book I got the impression that this was filler material added to bulk out a rather thin volume. It is a very uninspired retelling of standard myths and falsehoods about the history of heliocentrism between 1543 and 1630, which contributes absolutely nothing towards redeeming a truly bad book. If you were thinking of reading or even buying this book save your time and money it’s not worth either the cost or the effort.



Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

When you’re in a hole, stop digging!

Somebody made a comment at Scientific American on Ken Shulman’s article pointing to my criticism and providing a link. Not unexpectedly, Mr Shulman has reacted and posted a sort of defence of his excruciating piece on the history of astronomy. He did not join the comments column here to post his retort but did so under his article at Scientific American. As I have no desire to register at Scientific American in order to be allowed to respond I have transferred the whole of Mr Shulman’s latest screed here where I shall subject it to the same careful analysis with which I rewarded his original effort.

Thony Christie’s writes that words fail him, but in truth they merely betray his as rash and mostly wrong.

Yes! Slapdash, ill considered, rash and without a doubt wrong! Guilty as charged your honour. Somebody spends a long-time and expends a lot of effort carefully analysing why your text is factually wrong and the best you can do Mr Shulman is to dismiss it as rash! A rather weak level of criticism for a professional journalist. However you do go on to make some specific comments; let’s see what you think I got wrong. Before doing so I would point out that you have only answered some and by no means all of my criticisms. Does that mean all the others are right?

For starters: 

Cambridge University records show Jeremiah Horrocks entering Emmanuel College on May 18, 1632 as a sizar–a student who supplemented his tuition by performing menial tasks. Why would a wealthy father subject a gifted son to this indignity? And as far as the nature and location of Horrocks’ observatory, we can only speculate, although they were clearly not as elaborate as Tycho’s.

The Horrocks-Aspinwall clan, his mother was an Aspinwall, were strict and active puritans, which also explains why he studied at Emmanuel College Cambridge, as this was the leading Puritan educational establishment of the age. Given their beliefs and their moral attitudes it would in fact be more than probable that they would expect their son to work his way through college. There is another very good example of another leading seventeenth century British astronomer with a Puritan background entering Cambridge as a sizar, although his family were wealthy, Isaac Newton. Before anybody says that he was only the son of a farmer I will point out that when Newton inherited the family estate after the death of his mother it generated an income of £600 p.a. This at a time when the annual income of John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, was only £100. Newton’s family could more than afford to pay for his studies.

You were the one claiming to know that Horrocks observed from a cottage. I pointed out that his place of observation is not known. It is however known that Horrocks did not possess or use an observatory, again as I have already pointed out, just like nearly all of his fellow contemporary astronomers.

The device Gassendi used during the 1631 transit of Mercury is properly defined as a camera obscura.

I would direct your attention to the exchange between Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt and myself at the start of the comments to my post criticising you article. It is a debatable point of terminology, as to whether the sun focussed through a telescope should be referred to as a camera obscura or not. Kepler who coined the term camera obscura would almost certainly have said no, as he discriminates in his writings between camera obscuras and telescopes. This, as I have already pointed out in my remarks in the comments, is not the central point of my criticism. Due to your form of expression you definitely imply, intentionally or unintentionally (and I’m not sure, which is worse) that Gassendi’s mode of transit observation was different and inferior to Horrocks’. As I pointed out it wasn’t they both utilised the same method of observation.

Keeping track of dates can be difficult for one who straddles centuries. Every author deserves at least one mulligan. I offer one here for Mr. Christie. Copernicus published De Revolutionibus in 1543 (although he had circulated draft versions of his heliocentric theory to friends and colleagues on or before 1514.) Both dates fall well within the 16th century. Again, the 16th century. Kepler worked with Tycho Brahe in 1600, published Astronomia Nova in 1609,and his third law in 1619. His major contributions all occur in the 17th century, the one in which Kepler lived from age 28 until his death in 1630. 

Keeping track of dates is the bread and butter of historical research. I’m quite happy to admit that my original comment on the short centuries in the Early Modern Period was a cheap shot that I would not normally have taken if the rest of your article were not so atrocious. However I find it somewhat strange that you now admit that I’m right whilst at the same time trying rather lamely to justify yourself. You claimed incorrectly in your article that Tycho and Kepler worked together in the 1590s, which I corrected and despite the fact that I supplied you with the right information you still get it wrong. They only worked together in 1601. If we are going to be picky Kepler published his Mysterium Cosmographicum, which he considered, right up to his death, to be his most important work in 1596 so not all of his major contributions occur in the seventeenth century.

Sure, Copernicus explained retrograde motion. So did Ptolemy, and Aristotle. They just didn’t explain it right. Of course the heliocentric model is light years better than those with jury-rigged epicycles or nesting spheres to illustrate why planets seem to move backwards in their orbits. But the phenomenon of retrograde motion wasn’t fully understood until Kepler.

We now come to the reason for the title of this post. You, Mr Shulman are deep down in a hole and don’t realise it and so go on digging like the Duracell Bunny*. It was this, quite frankly, bizarre claim that led me to criticise your article in the first place and you go on insisting that it’s correct. Just for your benefit a short discourse on the cause of retrograde motion and its explanation.

Retrograde motion is an illusion observed in heliocentric planetary systems. All planets travel in the same directions on their orbits but inner planets travel faster than outer planets. When an inner planet overtakes an outer planet the outer planet first appears to halt then to reverse its direction of travel, to stop again and then continue in the original direction. These apparent loops are retrograde motion and are as I say an illusion. The Eudoxian homocentric system, which was the one propagated by Aristotle and the Ptolemaic deferent epicycle system, both of them geocentric, produced geometrical models that were capable of reproducing the retrograde motion but not of explaining it. All heliocentric systems automatically explain retrograde motion irrelevant of the shape of the orbits. Copernicus’ system completely explains retrograde motion and none of the changes that Kepler introduced in his heliocentric system added anything to that explanation. If you can’t or wont accept that then you definitely should not be writing about the history of astronomy.

As far as Galileo goes, my bad. Mr. Galilei worked with the 10x scopes in 1608. By 1610, during his observation of the phases of Venus, he did have a 30x. And it is true that in 17th century astronomy the known bodies were referred to as stars. But these bodies were divided into two categories: Galileo himself refers to fixed stars (still known as stars,) and wandering stars (known today as planets) in Sidereus Nuncius. In a 1610 letter to Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, he refers to the moons of Jupiter as planets, and later as Medician stars. I’m happy to parse the language further, but the matter here is that Galileo’s observations of the phases of Venus confirmed that Venus orbited the sun and was, just like the earth, a planet. 

The Duracell Bunny* is still shovelling away with no regard for the depth of the hole. The status of Venus as a wandering star, i.e. planet (Greek for wanderer), had never been in doubt since sometime deep in antiquity and your claims that Galileo proved it was a planet and not a star are just ridiculous. Your last half sentence also displays a lack of historical sensitivity as when Galileo, Harriot, Lembo and Marius observed the phases of Venus the Earth was not regarded by the majority of astronomers as a planet; it didn’t wander but sat at the middle of the universe. Turning the Earth into a planet is the essence of the so-called Copernican Revolution, which didn’t become the accepted majority view amongst astronomers until after 1660.

I don’t think I’m telling Mr. Christie anything he doesn’t already know. But I will tell him if he cares as much about the stars and the truth as he professes to, he certainly should know better.

Unlike yourself Mr Shulman I do know better and as a historian of astronomy I actually know what I’m talking about something that could not be said about yourself on the evidence available.

* My readers, who are much better informed than I am, have told me that the “Duracell Bunny” is known as the “Energizer Bunny” in the US of A.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science

Scientific American craps out.

Just in case you haven’t noticed yet next Wednesday an astronomical “once in a lifetime” “event of the century”, a transit of Venus, will take place. This has naturally provoked a flood of media interest resulting in lots and lots of reports running the gamut from good to totally miserable with the average, from the history of science standpoint, tending to ropey at best. Under normal circumstances I might have taken one or the other of these articles to task here but as I was busy writing my own Transit of Venus article, for a local astronomy society journal, and public lecture, held last Wednesday in Nürnberg, I didn’t really feel like blogging about it as well. However the appallingly bad book extract on the subject posted yesterday on the Scientific American website made me change my mind. Just how bad is it? This post is a very serious candidate for the worst piece of history of science writing of the year. In fact any competitor is going to have to try very, very hard to beat it for this title.

The piece in question is titled The Man Who Knew Venus Would Transit the Sun and is an excerpt from a book entitled Venus in Sole Visa by Ken Shulman. Some simple advice for my readers, “Do not read this article! Do not buy this book!” It is a total waste of both your time and your money and an insult to your intelligence. As is my wont on such occasions I will reproduce passages from the offending article and then point out the errors contained there in.

The article deals with the prediction and observation by the young English astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks of the Transit of Venus in 1639, a worthy and important subject for a history of astronomy article. The author starts with a bit of biographical background:

Son of craftspeople and perhaps farmers—there were also a few watchmakers among his forbears—Horrocks had been a local wunderkind who entered Emmanuel College in Cambridge at age 14 as a sizar—a poor student whose duties, along with studies, included the preparation of meals, waiting on tables, and custodial work. In 1635, three years after his arrival, Horrocks left the university—in all probability due to lack of funds–and returned to Lancashire, where he continued to observe the heavens with a small telescope he either purchased or received as a gift from one of the landed families whose children he tutored.

There were not just watchmakers amongst his forebears; Horrocks’ own father was a watchmaker. Although his future development definitely shows that Horrocks was an extremely intelligent young man there is no historical evidence what so ever to support the claim that he was recognised as a “wunderkind” or child prodigy. If as I suspect, due to the juxtapositioning, the author is inferring this from the fact that Horrocks entered Emanuel College at the age of 14 then he is mistaken; throughout the Early Modern Period 14 was the normal age for university matriculation. Horrocks did indeed leave the university in 1635 without graduating but we don’t know why. The claim that it was probably due to poverty is a myth created in the nineteenth century. This claim is highly unlikely as Horrocks’ family were known to have been wealthy, his entering university as a sizar was probably due to puritan ethics rather than financial necessity, and such a radical change in their circumstances would probably have been documented. We know that he purchased his first telescope, for 2s. 6d., himself because he says so in his correspondence. By the time he observed the transit he had acquired his third telescope, an above average model according to his own account. All of this is, of course, just nit picking but we have only just started; it gets worse, much worse.

Having dealt with the biographical we now move on to the astronomy of the period, to Kepler, Brahe and Copernicus:

The revolutionary discovery was Kepler’s, and would be his most memorable contribution to science. One century before Kepler, Nicolas Copernicus stated that the sun—not the Earth—was the center of our planetary system. Heliocentrism helped astronomers reconcile cosmic theory with the real-life cosmos they saw before them. Yet there were still many phenomena that Copernicus’ bold shift did not explain: retrograde motion—the apparent backtracking of planets—was one; others included eclipses and planetary conjunctions that should not have occurred if the Copernican model of the solar system was accurate.

Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was published in Nürnberg in 1543. Johannes Kepler was born in 1571. I didn’t realise that centuries were so short in the Early Modern Period.

Yet there were still many phenomena that Copernicus’ bold shift did not explain: retrograde motion—the apparent backtracking of planets—was one…

History of Astronomy 101:

Question: What is the principle feature of Copernicus’ heliocentricity that increases its explanatory power as a theory of planetary motion in comparison to the geocentric theory of Ptolemaeus?

Answer: It provides a natural explanation for retrograde motion.

In case any of my readers don’t recognise the enormity of the authors mistake here and why it completely disqualifies him to write about the history of astronomy it’s as if a football writer would say that Germany won the World Cup Final against England in 1966 or a historian would write that Charles I won the English Civil War against Cromwell.

…others included eclipses and planetary conjunctions that should not have occurred if the Copernican model of the solar system was accurate.

The sentence quoted above is just mind bogglingly stupid. I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to mean. Whatever it is it is just plain and simple rubbish.

Kepler intuited that these discrepancies were due to the true shape of planetary orbits.

No he didn’t! First of all, the “discrepancies”, as quoted above, are a figment of our author’s imagination. Secondly, Kepler was initially only concerned with the accurate size and duration of the planetary orbits; he only stumbled across his shape changing innovations during his analysis of the orbit of Mars.

After a prolonged and trying period analyzing Brahe’s data (Kepler gained access to Brahe’s figures while working as Tycho’s assistant in Prague in the 1590’s,) Kepler concluded that Mars traveled around the sun in an ellipse and not in a circle.

Tycho and Kepler first met in 1600. They didn’t start working together until 1601; a partnership that was very short, as Tycho died in the same year.

Horrocks cottage observatory in Much Hoole was a far cry from Tycho Brahe’s palatial skylabs in Denmark and Bohemia

It is not actually known from where in Much Hoole Horrocks observed the 1639 Transit. However the house that is traditionally assumed to have been his “observatory” is a three-story country mansion and not a cottage.

But Horrocks was not delusional. In 1610, Galileo had used a telescope of just 10x magnifying power to confirm that Venus was a planet and not a star; the finding cast the nature of the entire universe into doubt. In 1631 Pierrre (sic) Gassendi had successfully observed a transit of Mercury with a makeshift camera obscura he’d mounted in a spartan (sic) Paris garret.

Galileo was using 20x and 30x telescopes in 1610 to observe the heavens and we can assume, given his comments about the superiority of his instrument, that Horrocks was probably using a 30x telescope for his transit observations. Gassendi used a telescope to project the image of the sun onto a scaled sheet of paper to observe the 1632 Transit of Mercury and not a camera obscura; the same technique employed by Horrocks for his transit observations.

…to confirm that Venus was a planet and not a star; the finding cast the nature of the entire universe into doubt.

Words fail me! In seventeenth century astronomical terminology all heavenly bodies are stars but the seven planets, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, were planets and had been since the Greeks coined the word. What Galileo, as well as Marius, Harriot and Lembo all independently, discovered telescopically was that Venus has phases like the Moon; phases of a type that proved that Venus orbits the Sun and not the Earth. Again this is an error is on a level that completely disqualifies the author from writing on the subject.

It wasn’t that the German’s math was flawed, Horrocks saw. It was that Kepler had misunderstood the nature of the force that causes the planets to travel around the sun in ellipses. Kepler believed the sun first pulled the planets toward it, and then, when they were close, repelled them. This alternating push and pull, according to Kepler, was the force that generated the elliptical orbits. Horrocks believed this was wrong, and that the error had skewed Kepler’s calculations. 

The Englishman was a very unlikely challenger for such a heavyweight. Kepler had studied with the finest professionals of his day, had enjoyed royal patronage, and had access not only to Tycho’s magnificent data set but to his equally magnificent facilities. In contrast, Horrocks was a poor university dropout working in a remote provincial town that most likely did not even have a library, let alone an observatory. His mind, of course, was keen. But it was also a mind that worked in almost total isolation, and in a country that had never attributed great importance to the study of the stars.

Kepler, in fact, only had one teacher, Michael Maestlin, who was however one of the leading European astronomers of the age. He did have Tycho’s data but so did Horrocks in the form of the Rudolphine Tables. Kepler didn’t have access to Tycho’s facilities as these belonged to Tycho’s heirs who sold them off after his death. He didn’t however need them, as he was a theoretical astronomer and not an observational one. Kepler’s royal patronage was a curse rather than a blessing as his employers seldom paid him his retainer and he spent almost all of his life fighting debt and poverty. We don’t know which books Horrocks actually owned but it is very clear from his papers that he knew and had studied all of the leading astronomical literature of the period. Very few working astronomers in the first half of the seventeenth century had or used observatories. Their few instruments were all highly portable and they just carried them to wherever they wished to observe, set them up and observed. Horrocks’ observation conditions were no different to those of Galileo, Thomas Harriot, Simon Marius or many others who wrote astronomical history in this period and to claim otherwise is misleading pathos. Far from being isolated Horrocks was a close friend of John Wallis one of the leading mathematical scholars of the age. He also corresponded extensively with the Gresham Professor of Astronomy Henry Gellibrand and his successor Samuel Foster both of whom were integral members of the English mathematical community of the time.

Still, Horrocks continued to trust his own eyes and his intuition. He constructed a pendulum and studied its Earthward and upward swings; from this simple experiment he concluded that a planet, left to its own devices, would always travel in a straight line. And that the sun, conversely, would attempt to cause the planet to revolve around it in a circle. (Horrocks’ description of the dynamic between sun and planet is very close to the force that his compatriot Isaac Newton would identify as gravity some four decades later.) It was the ongoing dialogue between these two forces, Horrocks concluded, that dictated the elliptical orbits, not the push me–pull you sun of Kepler’s cosmos. More importantly, it was this difference in dynamic that accounted for the inaccuracies he’d found in the Rudolphine Tables.

The distinction between the theories—and the distortions that distinction might produce—was minor, Horrocks knew. But scaled against the solar system, at distances that could be cadenced in thousands of Earth radii, it was just large enough to turn a non-event into a full-blown transit of Venus. Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables had Venus passing just above the sun on November 24, 1639. Horrocks predicted that Venus would pass in front of the sun, just as it had eight years earlier.

Horrocks did indeed develop an alternative theoretical model to Kepler’s to explain the planetary orbits but he did not use a pendulum to do so. (His theory is however much, much further removed from Newton’s theory of gravitation than the author suggests)  In order to explain his model he made a verbal analogy to the movement of a pendulum. These differing models have absolutely nothing to do with the numerical errors in the Rudolphine Tables or Horrocks’ corrections of them. Horrocks discovered the errors through empirical observations, he was using a telescope Tycho’s observations the basis for the tables were naked eye observations, and he made the necessary corrections based on those observations.

This book extract presented by a university student as an essay in a history of astronomy 101 course would earn a big fat F and the suggestion that the student should perhaps choose another minor. If the course were his major then he would have really big problems. Published on the website of one of the worlds leading popular science journals it is nothing short of a scandal and an insult to every serious historian of science working in the world today.







Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science