Category Archives: History of Astronomy

Little things matter – for want of a semicolon.

The Prof is back. A couple of years back Professor Christopher M. Graney, known to his friends as Chris, wrote a highly informative guest post for The Renaissance Mathematicus defending the honour of Tyco Brahe against his ignorant modern critics. In the mean time The Renaissance Mathematics was able to lure him into coming all the way to Middle Franconia, from the depths of Kentucky, to entertain the locals with a couple of lectures on Early Modern telescope images, Airy discs and how this all applies to Galileo Galilei’s and Simon Marius’ interpretations of the stars that they saw through their telescopes in 1609-10, stirring stuff I can tell you. You can read all about it in his forthcoming book, Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo (forthcoming March 2015). While he was here he made some videos of The Renaissance Mathematicus waving his arms about and scratching his fleas that you can view on Youtube, if that sort of thing turns you on. In exchange for this act of personal humiliation The Renaissance Mathematics demanded that he provide the readers of this blog with a new guest post and here it is. This time The Prof explains why it is important when during historical research to actually look at the original documents and not to rely on secondary sources. 


You have probably heard the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Sometimes the small stuff matters. Consider one of the more infamous statements from the history of science: the one, made on 24 February 1616 by a team of consultants for the Roman Inquisition, which declared the Copernican theory to be —


foolish and absurd in philosophy and formally heretical, because it expressly contradicts the doctrine of the Holy Scripture in many passages


— unless, that is, it was —


philosophically and scientifically untenable; and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.


The first quote is from the noted scholar Albert Van Helden in the book Planetary Astronomy from the Renaissance to the Rise of Astrophysics, published by Cambridge University Press in 1989. That is certainly a first-rate source. The second is, more or less, from Maurice Finocchiaro, another very accomplished scholar, in his book The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, published by the University of California Press, also in 1989. It is also a first-rate source.


I say, “more or less,” because Finocchiaro actually gives the translation as —


foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.


But elsewhere in the book he substitutes “philosophically and scientifically untenable” for “foolish and absurd in philosophy” — “philosophy” in the seventeenth century included that which we would call “science” today. And still elsewhere he notes that the original document in the Vatican, in Latin, has a semicolon after the word “philosophia.”


Is Finocchiaro correct? After all, Van Helden’s translation conveys the impression that biblical contradiction is being given as a reason for ascribing both philosophical-scientific falsehood and theological heresy. But Finocchiaro’s translation conveys a different impression: that biblical contradiction is being given as a reason for ascribing theological heresy to a philosophically-scientifically false theory (I’m borrowing Finocchiaro’s phrasing here). I would say Van Helden’s translation, not Finocchiaro’s, is what people usually think of when they think of the infamous condemnation. But Finocchiaro’s made sense to me, based on my reading of anti-Copernican writers from that time.


I wanted to know if Finocchiaro is correct. But looking at sources that give the “original Latin” provided no answers. A review of different sources revealed a remarkable variety of punctuations. A few nineteenth-century sources show Finocchiaro’s semicolon after “philosophia.” One of these is Galileo Galilei und die romische Curie by Karl von Gebler, published in Stuttgart in 1877. Yet Galileo Galilei and the Roman Curia, by Karl von Gebler, published in London in 1879, shows no semicolon. Two editions of I documenti del processo di Galileo Galilei, edited by S. M. Pagano and published in Vatican City in 1984 and 2009, both disagree with Finocchiaro. That might seem to settle the matter — Finocchiaro must be wrong, since the Vatican would know what its documents say — except that the two editions also disagree with each other. The 1984 edition has no punctuation after “philosophia” (note Van Helden’s translation); the 2009 edition has a comma.


I contacted Finocchiaro. Was he certain about the semicolon? Yes — he had seen it himself. Did he have a copy of the original 1616 document? No.


I could find no published image of the original. That left one option: get a copy from the Vatican. How does one get a copy of an important historical document stored in the Vatican Secret Archives? Send the VSA an e-mail. For less than the cost of a cheap pizza, I had a super-high-resolution image of the infamous 24 February 1616 document condemning the Copernican system.


High-resolution images of this document are available here, on page 17-19.

And yes, Finocchiaro is correct! But follow the link above to the high-resolution image, and you will find that it is understandable that the semicolon could be overlooked when casually studying the document. I had expected the document to be a bumptious masterpiece of calligraphy, with an imposing appearance of formality suitable for an Important Proclamation. In fact, it appears much like hastily scrawled meeting minutes. The writer of the document often dots his “i” letters well to the right of the letters themselves. When these fall over commas, they give the appearance of semicolons where none exist. Furthermore, the real semicolon after “philosophia” has a very elongated dot. But, study the chicken-scratch handwriting more closely, and it is clear that “philosophia” is followed by a real semicolon.

If you think it not so clear, there is a second reason to be sure that the “philosophia” semicolon is indeed a semicolon. Here is the original Latin, taken from the document, with my translation (I kept as close as possible to the original):

Sol est centrum mundi, et omnino immobilis motu locali. The sun is the center of the world, and entirely immobile insofar as location movement [i.e. movement from place to place; no comment here on rotation movement].
Censura: Omnes dixerunt dictam propositionem esse stultam et absurdam in Philosophia; et formaliter haereticam, quatenus contradicit expresse sententiis sacrae scripturae in multis locis, secundum proprietatem verborum, et secundum communem expositionem, et sensum, Sanctorum Patrum et Theologorum doctorum. Appraisal: All have said the stated proposition to be foolish and absurd in Philosophy; and formally heretical, since it expressly contradicts the sense of sacred scripture in many places, according to the quality of the words, and according to the common exposition, and understanding, of the Holy Fathers and the learned Theologians.
Terra non est centrum mundi, nec immobilis, sed secundum se Totam, movetur, etiam motu diurno. The earth is not the center of the world, and not immobile, but is moved along Whole itself, and also by diurnal motion.
Censura: Omnes dixerunt, hanc propositionem recipere eandem censuram in Philosophia; et spectando veritatem Theologicam, adminus esse in fide erroneam. Appraisal: All have said, this proposition to receive the same appraisal in Philosophy; and regarding Theological truth, at least to be erroneous in faith.

Note the parallel structure used here. There is a statement, and then an assessment of the statement; a second statement, and then an assessment of that statement. Each assessment first has a comment regarding philosophy, and then a comment regarding religion. The second assessment statement clearly has a semicolon after “philosophia” and before “et spectando” (plenty of secondary sources show this second semicolon). Parallel structure suggests that there should also be a semicolon in the first assessment statement, after “philosophia” and before “et formaliter.”

Now, two questions.

The first question is why secondary sources have almost always gotten the punctuation wrong. I will provide a speculative answer to this.

The consultants’ statement was issued as the Inquisition investigated a complaint filed against Galileo in 1615. Galileo had been exonerated, but the Inquisition decided to consult its experts for an opinion on the status of Copernicanism. Despite the consultants’ statement, the Inquisition issued no formal condemnation of the Copernican system. (However, the Congregation of the Index, the arm of the Vatican in charge of book censorship, issued a decree on 5 March 1616 declaring the Copernican system to be “false” and “altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture,” and censoring books that presented the Copernican system as being more than a hypothesis.) The consultants’ statement was filed away in the Inquisition archives. Two decades later, a paraphrase of the statement was made public. This was because, following the trial of Galileo, copies of the 22 June 1633 sentence against him were sent to papal nuncios and to inquisitors around Europe. The sentence, which was written in Italian rather than Latin, noted the opinion of the consultant team and included a paraphrase of their statement from 1616. Still later, Giovanni Battista Riccioli included in his 1651 Almagestum Novum a Latin translation of Galileo’s sentence. Riccioli’s translation was widely referenced for centuries, and it reads as though biblical contradiction is the reason for ascribing both philosophical-scientific falsehood and theological heresy. But it was a Latin translation of an Italian paraphrase of a Latin original. Translations into modern languages of Riccioli’s Latin version simply added a fourth layer of translation.

The original statement itself was not published until the middle of the nineteenth century. Now to speculate: I imagine that at that time scholars were both used to the Riccioli version and sure that science was firmly on the side of Copernicus. The original statement, with its semicolon, assesses first that the proposition is philosophically-scientifically untenable, and then that it is formally heretical since it contradicts Scripture. Indeed, I have found that in Latin from this time semicolons are often used much as we use periods, so it would not be completely out of line to render the consultants’ statement as —

[The Copernican theory is] philosophically and scientifically untenable. It is also formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.

This makes little sense under the assumption that the Copernican system had the weight of scientific evidence behind it. I imagine this to be the reason why the statement has consistently been presented with altered punctuation — so that it reads in a manner that conforms to what modern readers believe to have been the case. If we know science was on the side of Copernicus, then the consultants must be saying that Copernicanism is untenable because it contradicts scripture. The chicken-scratch handwriting makes it easy to overlook the semicolon.

Today it is clear that in February 1616 science was not so firmly on the side of Copernicus. As Dennis Danielson and I discussed in the January issue of Scientific American (the article is available in French in Pour la Science and in German in Spektrum der Wissenschaft), and as I have written in a previous guest blog for the Renaissance Mathematicus, Tycho Brahe had formulated a potent anti-Copernican scientific argument. The argument was based on the fact that the Copernican theory seemed to imply that every star in a heliocentric universe, even the smallest, would be vastly larger than the sun. By contrast, Tycho found that in a geocentric universe the stars would have sizes consistent with the sun and larger planets. Moreover, Copernicans responded to this argument by appealing to God’s Power, saying that an infinite Creator could make giant stars. Tycho had said in print that all this was “absurd.” Indeed, most scientists today would probably classify as absurd a theory that creates a new class of giant bodies, and chalks them up to the power of God. This star size problem was definitely “in play” immediately prior to the 1616 condemnation. Simon Marius mentions it in his 1614 Mundus Jovialis. Georg Locher cites it as one of the main reasons to reject Copernicanism in his 1614 Disquisitiones Mathematicae. And Monsignor Francesco Ingoli brings it up in an essay he wrote to Galileo just prior to the condemnation (Galileo believed Ingoli to be influential in the rejection of the Copernican theory). No, these writers did not reject telescopic discoveries. They simply endorsed the Tychonic geocentric theory, which was compatible with those discoveries. Marius, for example, cites telescopic observations of the sizes of stars as supporting a Tychonic universe. Locher illustrates telescopic discoveries like the Jovian system and the phases of Venus, and endorses the Tychonic theory.

In light of this, the statement that the Copernican theory was “foolish and absurd in philosophy” (“philosophically and scientifically untenable”) makes a little more sense on its own. It essentially echoes Tycho Brahe, the most prominent astronomer of that time.

The second question is why, even granted all this, anyone should really care about a semicolon. Yes, readers of the Renaissance Mathematicus care because they love history of astronomy. Why should anyone else care? This is an important question. Indeed, in September I was in Germany, talking quite a bit with the Mathematicus, and in one conversation he mentioned how academic historians of science that he knows are facing real pressure at their institutions to justify their existence. Because, well, why should anyone care?

Here is the answer to that: In the United States, at least, science is increasingly burdened by the problem of “science deniers.” This was brought home to me yet again this semester. I was giving my students an assignment to make a video illustrating the phases of the moon and Venus by means of a ball and a light source. I went to YouTube to find an example of such a video, and quickly discovered that a “Bill Nye the Science Guy” video on moon phases will be accompanied by several links to videos demanding that NASA reveal the “truth” about the Apollo landings, as seen in this example:


No wonder so many of my students and so many of our visitors at my college’s observatory ask about whether the Apollo landings actually took place!

Whether they be the “Apollo deniers” I found on YouTube, or “9-11 Truthers,” or “vaccine deniers,” or those who assert science to support the universe being 6000 years old, all such deniers build their claims on the premise that in science, powerful forces conspire to cover up scientific truths. Science deniers see themselves as brave Copernicans, standing against the power of an Inquisition that is determined to hide scientific truth because it contradicts some Holy Writ.

The story of the Inquisition’s semicolon undermines an important narrative for science denial — the narrative that, at the beginning of the history of modern science, powerful forces indeed did conspire to suppress a scientific idea, declaring it to be “foolish and absurd” only because it was religiously inconvenient. Thus the semicolon story should undermine the entire idea of conspiracy and cover-up that is behind the science denial phenomenon. That’s a reason to care, a reason why we need good history of science, and a reason why some times we need to sweat the small stuff.

For a more academic treatment of this subject, with full references, images of different secondary sources and their different punctuations, etc., see “The Inquisition’s Semicolon: Punctuation, Translation, and Science in the 1616 Condemnation of the Copernican System.” An article on this work is also available on


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

The Queen of Science – The woman who tamed Laplace.

In a footnote to my recent post on the mythologizing of Ibn al-Haytham I briefly noted the inadequacy of the terms Arabic science and Islamic science, pointing out that there were scholars included in these categories who were not Muslims and ones who were not Arabic. In the comments Renaissance Mathematicus friend, the blogger theofloinn, asked, Who were the non-muslim “muslim” scientists? And (aside from Persians) who were the non-Arab “arab” scientists? And then in a follow up comment wrote, I knew about Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the House of Wisdom, but I was not thinking of translation as “doing science.” From the standpoint of the historian of science this second comment is very interesting and reflects a common problem in the historiography of science. On the whole most people regard science as being that which scientists do and when describing its history they tend to concentrate on the big name scientists.

This attitude is a highly mistaken one that creates a falsified picture of scientific endeavour. Science is a collective enterprise in which the ‘scientists’ are only one part of a collective consisting of scientists, technicians, instrument designers and makers, and other supportive workers without whom the scientist could not carry out his or her work. This often includes such ignored people as the secretaries, or in earlier times amanuenses, who wrote up the scientific reports or life partners who, invisible in the background, often carried out much of the drudgery of scientific investigation. My favourite example being William Herschel’s sister and housekeeper, Caroline (a successful astronomer in her own right), who sieved the horse manure on which he bedded his self cast telescope mirrors to polish them.

Translators very definitely belong to the long list of so-called helpers without whom the scientific endeavour would grind to a halt. It was translators who made the Babylonian astronomy and astrology accessible to their Greek heirs thus making possible the work of Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Ptolemaeus and many others. It was translators who set the ball rolling for those Islamic, or if you prefer Arabic, scholars when they translated the treasures of Greek science into Arabic. It was again translators who kicked off the various scientific Renaissances in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries and again in the fifteenth-century, thereby making the so-called European scientific revolution possible. All of these translators were also more or less scientists in their own right as without a working knowledge of the subject matter that they were translating they would not have been able to render the texts from one language into another. In fact there are many instances in the history of the transmission of scientific knowledge where an inadequate knowledge of the subject at hand led to an inaccurate or even false translation causing major problems for the scholars who tried to understand the texts in the new language. Translators have always been and continue to be an important part of the scientific endeavour.

The two most important works on celestial mechanics produced in Europe in the long eighteenth-century were Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste. The former was originally published in Latin, with an English translation being published shortly after the author’s death, and the latter in French. This meant that these works were only accessible to those who mastered the respective language. It is a fascinating quirk of history that the former was rendered into French and that latter into English in each case by a women; Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet translated Newton’s masterpiece into French and Mary Somerville translated Laplace’s pièce de résistance into English. I have blogged about Émilie de Châtelet before but who was Mary Somerville? (1)


Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

She was born Mary Fairfax, the daughter of William Fairfax, a naval officer, and Mary Charters at Jedburgh in the Scottish boarders on 26 December 1780. Her parents very definitely didn’t believe in education for women and she spent her childhood wandering through the Scottish countryside developing a lifelong love of nature. At the age of ten, still semi-illiterate, she was sent to Miss Primrose’s boarding school at Musselburgh in Midlothian for one year; the only formal schooling she would ever receive. As a young lady she received lessons in dancing, music, painting and cookery. At the age of fifteen she came across a mathematical puzzle in a ladies magazine (mathematical recreation columns were quite common in ladies magazines in the 18th and 19th-centuries!) whilst visiting friends. Fascinated by the symbols that she didn’t understand, she was informed that it was algebra, a word that meant nothing to her. Later her painting teacher revealed that she could learn geometry from Euclid’s Elements whilst discussing the topic of perspective. With the assistance of her brother’s tutor, young ladies could not buy maths-books, she acquired a copy of the Euclid as well as one of Bonnycastle’s Algebra and began to teach herself mathematics in the secrecy of her bedroom. When her parents discovered this they were mortified her father saying to her mother, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There is X., who went raving mad about the longitude.” They forbid her studies, but she persisted rising before at dawn to study until breakfast time. Her mother eventually allowed her to take some lessons on the terrestrial and celestial globes with the village schoolmaster.

In 1804 she was married off to a distant cousin, Samuel Grieg, like her father a naval officer but in the Russian Navy. He, like her parents, disapproved of her mathematical studies and she seemed condemned to the life of wife and mother. She bore two sons in her first marriage, David who died in infancy and Woronzow, who would later write a biography of Ada Lovelace. One could say fortunately, for the young Mary, her husband died after only three years of marriage in 1807 leaving her well enough off that she could now devote herself to her studies, which she duly did. Under the tutorship of John Wallace, later professor of mathematics in Edinburgh, she started on a course of mathematical study, of mostly French books but covering a wide range of mathematical topic, even tacking Newton’s Principia, which she found very difficult. She was by now already twenty-eight years old. During the next years she became a fixture in the highest intellectual circles of Edinburgh.

In 1812 she married for a second time, another cousin, William Somerville and thus acquired the name under which she would become famous throughout Europe. Unlike her parents and Samuel Grieg, William vigorously encouraged and supported her scientific interests. In 1816 the family moved to London. Due to her Scottish connections Mary soon became a member of the London intellectual scene and was on friendly terms with such luminaries as Thomas Young, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and many, many others; all of whom treated Mary as an equal in their wide ranging scientific discussions. In 1817 the Somervilles went to Paris where Mary became acquainted with the cream of the French scientists, including Biot, Arago, Cuvier, Guy-Lussac, Laplace, Poisson and many more.

In 1824 William was appointed Physician to Chelsea Hospital where Mary began a series of scientific experiments on light and magnetism, which resulted in a first scientific paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1826. In 1836, a second piece of Mary’s original research was presented to the Académie des Sciences by Arago. The third and last of her own researches appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1845. However it was not as a researcher that Mary Somerville made her mark but as a translator and populariser.

In 1827 Henry Lord Brougham and Vaux requested Mary to translate Laplace’s Mécanique céleste into English for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Initially hesitant she finally agreed but only on the condition that the project remained secret and it would only be published if judged fit for purpose, otherwise the manuscript should be burnt. She had met Laplace in 1817 and had maintained a scientific correspondence with him until his death in 1827. The translation took four years and was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens, with a dedication to Lord Brougham, in 1831. The manuscript had been refereed by John Herschel, Britain’s leading astronomer and a brilliant mathematician, who was thoroughly cognisant with the original, he found the translation much, much more than fit for the purpose. Laplace’s original text was written in a style that made it inaccessible for all but the best mathematicians, Mary Somerville did not just translate the text but made it accessible for all with a modicum of mathematics, simplifying and elucidating as she went. This wasn’t just a translation but a masterpiece. The text proved too vast for Brougham’s Library of Useful Knowledge but on the recommendation of Herschel, the publisher John Murray published the book at his own cost and risk promising the author two thirds of the profits. The book was a smash hit the first edition of 750 selling out almost instantly following glowing reviews by Herschel and others. In honour of the success the Royal Society commissioned a bust of Mrs Somerville to be placed in their Great Hall, she couldn’t of course become a member!

At the age of fifty-one Mary Somerville’s career as a science writer had started with a bang. Her Laplace translation was used as a textbook in English schools and universities for many years and went through many editions. Her elucidatory preface was extracted and published separately and also became a best seller. If she had never written another word she would still be hailed as a great translator and science writer but she didn’t stop here. Over the next forty years Mary Somerville wrote three major works of semi-popular science On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1st ed. 1834), Physical Geography (1st ed. 1848), (she was now sixty-eight years old!) and at the age of seventy-nine, On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1st ed. 1859). The first two were major successes, which went through many editions each one extended, brought up to date, and improved. The third, which she later regretted having published, wasn’t as successful as her other books. Famously, in the history of science, William Whewell in his anonymous 1834 review of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences first used the term scientist, which he had coined a year earlier, in print but not, as is oft erroneously claimed, in reference to Mary Somerville.

Following the publication of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences Mary Somerville was awarded a state pension of £200 per annum, which was later raised to £300. Together with Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville became the first female honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society just one of many memberships and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout Europe and America. Somerville College Oxford, founded seven years after her death, was also named in her honour. She died on 28 November 1872, at the age of ninety-one, the obituary which appeared in the Morning Post on 2 December said, “Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.” The Times of the same date, “spoke of the high regard in which her services to science were held both by men of science and by the nation”.

As this is my contribution to Ada Lovelace day celebrating the role of women in the history of science, medicine, engineering, mathematics and technology I will close by mentioning the role that Mary Somerville played in the life of Ada. A friend of Ada’s mother, the older women became a scientific mentor and occasional mathematics tutor to the young Miss Byron. As her various attempts to make something of herself in science or mathematics all came to nought Ada decided to take a leaf out of her mentor’s book and to turn to scientific translating. At the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone she chose to translate Luigi Menabrea’s essay on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, at Babbage’s suggestion elucidating the original text as her mentor had elucidated Laplace and the rest is, as they say, history. I personally would wish that the founders of Ada Lovelace Day had chosen Mary Somerville instead, as their galleon figure, as she contributed much, much more to the history of science than her feted protégée.

(1) What follows is largely a very condensed version of Elizabeth  C. Patterson’s excellent Somerville biography Mary Somerville, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 4, 1969, pp. 311-339



Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science

Polluting Youtube once again!

Professor Christopher M Graney, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and guest blogger, has posted another of his holiday videos on Youtube, documenting parts of his visit to Nürnberg and Bamberg for the Astronomy in Franconia Conferences. In his new video “Nürnberg and Bamberg” you can see the Behaim Globe (Martin Behaim celebrates his 555th birthday today!), the Frauenkirche Clock (1509) doing its thing, and yours truly wittering on about Johannes Petreius and Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (4.11–6.56)

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Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science

The horror, the horror!

For those readers who might have wondered what The Renaissance Mathematicus looks and sounds like, you need wonder no more. There is now a video on Youtube in which I stumble and stutter my way through a very impromptu, not quite fifteen minute, lecture on the relationship between astronomy, astrology and medicine in the Early Modern Period. During which I indulge in a lot of arm waving and from time to time scratch my fleas. This video was filmed in the kitchen of the Remeis Observatory in Bamberg during a coffee break at the Astronomy in Franconia Conference last Monday, complete with the sounds of somebody loading the dishwasher.

The cameraman, who also puts some questions during this solo performance, was Chris Graney who requested my golden words for his students back in Louisville, the poor sods.

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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of medicine

Jesuit Day

Adam Richter (@AdamDRichter) of the Wallifaction Blog (he researches John Wallis) tells me that the Society of Jesus, known colloquially as the Jesuits, was officially recognised by Pope Paul III on 27th September 1540. He gives a short list of Jesuits who have contributed to the history of science over the centuries. Since this blog started I have attempted to draw my readers attention to those contributions by profiling individual Jesuits and their contributions and also on occasions defending them against their largely ignorant critics. I have decided to use this anniversary to feature those posts once again for those who came later to this blog and might not have discovered them yet.

My very first substantive post on this blog was about Christoph Clavius the Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit university in Rome, who as an educational reformer introduced the mathematical sciences into the curricula of Catholic schools and universities in the Early Modern Period. I wrote about Clavius then because I was holding a lecture on him at The Remeis Observatory in Bamberg, his hometown, as part of the International Year of Astronomy. I shall be holding another lecture on Clavius in Nürnberg at the Nicolaus Copernicus Planetarium at 7:00 pm on 12 November 2014 as part of the “GestHirne über Franken – Leitfossilien fränkischer Astronomie“ series. If you’re in the area you’re welcome to come along and throw peanuts.

I wrote a more general rant on the Jesuits’ contributions to science in response to some ignorant Jesuit bashing from prominent philosopher and gnu atheist A. C. Grayling, which also links to a guest post I wrote on Evolving Thoughts criticising an earlier Grayling attack on them. This post also has a sequel.

One of Clavius’ star pupils was Matteo Ricci who I featured in this post.

A prominent Jesuit astronomer, later in the seventeenth-century, was Riccioli who put the names on the moon. I have also blogged about Chris Graney’s translation of Riccioli’s 126 arguments pro and contra heliocentricity. Chris, a friend and guest blogger on the Renaissance Mathematicus, has got a book coming out next year on The University of Notre Dame Press entitled Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo. It’s going to be a good one, so look out for it.

Riccioli’s partner in crime was another Jesuit, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, who features in this post on Refraction, refrangibility, diffraction or inflexion.

At the end of the seventeenth-century the Jesuit mathematician, Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri, without quite realising what he had achieved, came very close to discovering non-Euclidian geometry.

In the eighteenth-century a towering figure of European science was the Croatian Jesuit polymath, Ruđer Josip Bošković.

This is by no means all of the prominent Jesuit scientists in the Early Modern Period and I shall no doubt return to one or other of them in future posts.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Another one bites the dust

This is a sort of footnote to my last post in which I criticised science writer Tim Radford for propagating myths about the reception of heliocentricity in the sixteenth-century. Now a second truly legendary astronomer and science writer, John Gribbin, has turned up in the comments and shown that he also lives in the nineteenth-century, as far as history of science is concerned, when John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White created the myth of an eternal war between science and religion and presented Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei, alongside lesser lights such as Michael Servetus and Marco-Antonio de Dominis, as the scientific victims of Christian persecution.

Rushing in where angels fear to tread Gribbin sought to defend Radford’s honour with the following comment:

As a card-carrying pedant, I would point out that Tim says “ideas like that”, not “that idea”. Which makes Bruno relevant, whether you like it or not.

Now I appreciate Mr Gribbin’s attempt to help his friend and colleague but in doing so he has only displayed his own ignorance of the material. There was a very good reason why I ended my last post with the following tongue in cheek warning:

P.S. If anybody mentions either Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei in the comments I will personally hunt them down and beat them to death with a rolled up copy of The Guardian.

No modern historian of science, knowledgeable of the history of astronomy in the Early Modern Period, would follow Draper and White in viewing Bruno as a martyr of science. This is a myth that has been thoroughly debunked and which is, these days, usually only dug up by historically ignorant gnu atheists and others of that ilk, as a weapon with which to beat the Catholic Church around the head. As John Gribbin has walked straight into the trap we will just briefly examine why the Church committed Giordano Bruno to the flames.

A Dominican monk, Bruno came under suspicion of heresy and fled his Southern Italian monastery in 1576. He spent the next sixteen years wandering around Europe blowing his own trumpet, generally annoying people and pissing off the authorities, both civil and religious, wherever he went. Returning to Italy he landed, not unsurprisingly in the clutches of the Roman Inquisition. He was held prisoner and interrogated for seven years before being tried for heresy, found guilty, and executed by burning at the stake in 1600. The proceedings of his trial have disappeared so it is not known what exactly he was found guilty of but summary was discovered in 1940 and a list of the charges against him is known:

  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and speaking against it and its ministers;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, divinity of Christ and Incarnation;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith pertaining to Jesus as Christ;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about both Transubstantiation and Mass;
  • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;
  • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes;
  • dealing in magics and divination.

Now this list is not hidden away somewhere, I just borrowed it from the Wikipedia Bruno article, so Mr Gribbin could have consulted it himself. He would of course pounce on the sixth item on the list gleefully crying I told you so, but let us examine if he should be so sure of being right.

Given the fact that Bruno was accused of breaching almost every single central doctrine of the Catholic Church did this one point of highly speculative cosmology really play such a central role in his conviction and subsequent execution, I hardly think so. In fact I don’t think it played much of a role at all compared to his denying the divinity of Christ and the virgin birth. However there is more.

Bruno’s claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity has little or nothing to do with Copernicus’ heliocentric theory the original statement for which Tim Radford claimed one could be condemned to the stake. Copernicus proposed a finite sun centred cosmos, Bruno speculated about an infinite universe filled with homogenously distributed infinite sun each with their own populated planets and no centre. The two proposals don’t have an awful lot in common. Copernicus expressly refused to enter the discussion as to whether the cosmos was finite or infinite, and never speculated about other inhabited planets. He, as a good Catholic cleric, would definitely have rejected an eternal universe as this contradicted the Creation. What about the two leading Copernican of Bruno’s own times? Kepler explicitly rejected Bruno’s infinite universe and infinite suns and in doing so brought the earliest known argument against Olbers’ paradox. Galileo simply ignored him. I think it is safe to say that the cosmological statements that were included in Bruno’s indictment were not ideas like Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, as claimed by Gribbin.

Gribbin’s claim also suffers from another problem. The reason why Bruno’s cosmological speculations were included in his indictment was very clearly theological and not scientific. As already mentioned if, as Bruno claimed, the universe were eternal then there could be no Creation, highly heretical. In fact this was one of the central reasons why the Catholic Church rejected the Greek philosophy of Atomism. Secondly if there were infinite populated worlds there would be serious problems with the doctrine of salvation through Jesus. If he was the only Son of God did he visit all of the infinite populated planets, simultaneously, one after the other? Or were there infinite Jesuses? Did he only save the earth? Then what about the other planets? A really tangled mess for the Catholic theologians! As with Galileo in 1615 if Bruno had had anything remotely like proof for his cosmology he might have had something he could argue with but he didn’t, all he had was pure unscientific, unsubstantiated speculation. As I sated in earlier posts Bruno’s cosmological speculations were anything but scientific and anything but accurate. As far as we know the universe is finite and not infinite, it had a starting point and will almost certainly have an end. There are neither infinite stars (suns) nor infinite planets and those that there are, are not distributed homogenously. To stylise Bruno as a scientific martyr, as Draper/White did in the nineteenth-century and as John Gribbin apparently still wants to do, boarders on the grotesque.







Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

I expected better of Tim Radford

Tim Radford is a science writer who works for The Guardian newspaper. In fact many people consider him the best British science writer of the current crop, not without a certain amount of justification. Because of this I was, as a historian of science, more than disappointed by the opening paragraph of his latest post on the science section of the Guardian’s website, a book review: “The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf review – a cosmic quest”. Radford opens his review with three sentences of which the third caused me to groan inwardly and bang my head in resignation on my computer keyboard.

The Copernican principle changed everything. It was not formulated by Copernicus, who in 1543 proposed only that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, and that the motion of the Earth around the sun could explain the irregularities in the heavens. At the time, ideas like that could get people condemned to the stake. [my emphasis]

I ask myself how much longer historians of science are going to have to keep repeating that this statement is complete and utter rubbish before science writers like Tim Radford finally take their hands off their ears and the blinkers from their eyes and actually accept that it is wrong. No Mr Radford, an astronomer or cosmologist in the sixteenth-century suggesting that we live in a heliocentric cosmos rather than a geocentric one was not in danger of being condemned to the stake and yes there is solid historical evidence, which apparently you choose to ignore in favour of your fantasies, to prove this. Let us briefly review that evidence for those, like Tim Radford, who have obviously not been paying attention.

Already in the fifteenth- century Nicholas Cusanus openly discussed various aspects of the heliocentric hypothesis in his works, presenting them in a favourable light. Was he condemned to the stake for his audacity? No he was treated as an honoured Church scholar and appointed cardinal.

Let us move on to the subject of Radford’s highly inaccurate statement, Copernicus, like Cusanus a cleric and a member of the Church establishment, how did the Church react to his provocative heliocentric claims? In 1533 the papal secretary, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter held a lecture on Copernicus’ theories to Pope Clemens VII and assembled company in the papal gardens. We assume this was based on Copernicus’ Commentariolus, the manuscript pamphlet of his ideas written around 1510, as De revolutionibus wasn’t published until 1543. Was he condemned to the stake for his rashness? No, Clemens found much favour in his lecture and awarded him a valuable present for his troubles. Two years later Widmannstetter became secretary to Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg, an archbishop and papal legate, who had been present at that lecture. In 1536 Schönberg wrote a letter to Copernicus urging him to make his theories public and even offering to pay the costs of having his manuscript copied. Not a lot of condemning to the stake going on there. Copernicus had Schönberg’s letter printed in the front of De revolutionibus.

Dear Tim Radford I am sure that as a topflight science writer you check the scientific facts in the articles that you write very carefully to ensure that you are not misleading your many readers. May I humbly request that in future you pay the same attention to the historical facts that you publish so as not to serve up your readers with pure unadulterated historical hogwash?

P.S. If anybody mentions either Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei in the comments I will personally hunt them down and beat them to death with a rolled up copy of The Guardian.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science