Category Archives: Myths of Science

The unfortunate backlash in the historiography of Islamic science

Anybody with a basic knowledge of the history of Western science will know that there is a standard narrative of its development that goes something like this. Its roots are firmly planted in the cultures of ancient Egypt and Babylon and it bloomed for the first time in ancient Greece, reaching a peak in the work of Ptolemaeus in astronomy and Galen in medicine in the second-century CE. It then goes into decline along with the Roman Empire effectively disappearing from Europe by the fifth-century CE. It began to re-emerge in the Islamic Empire[1] in the eight-century CE from whence it was brought back into Europe beginning in the twelfth-century CE. In Europe it began to bloom again in the Renaissance transforming into modern science in the so-called Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth-century. There is much that is questionable in this broad narrative but that is not the subject of this post.

In earlier versions of this narrative, its European propagators claimed that the Islamic scholars who appropriated Greek knowledge in the eighth-century and then passed it back to their European successors, beginning in the twelfth-century, only conserved that knowledge, effectively doing nothing with it and not increasing it. For these narrators their heroes of science were either ancient Greeks or Early Modern Europeans; Islamic scholars definitely did not belong to the pantheon. However, a later generation of historians of science began to research the work of those Islamic scholars, reading, transcribing, translating and analysing their work and showing that they had in fact made substantial contributions to many areas of science and mathematics, contributions that had flowed into modern European science along with the earlier Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian contributions. Also Islamic scholars such as al-Biruni, al-Kindi, al-Haytham, Ibn Sina, al-Khwarizmi and many others were on a level with such heroes of science as Archimedes, Ptolemaeus, Galen or Kepler, Galileo and Newton. Although this work redressed the balance there is still much work to be done on the breadth and deep of Islamic science.

Unfortunately the hagiographic, amateur, wannabe pop historians of science now entered the field keen to atone for the sins of the earlier Eurocentric historical narrative and began to exaggerate the achievements of the Islamic scholars to show how superior they were to the puny Europeans who stole their ideas, like the colonial bullies who stole their lands. There came into being a type of hagiographical popular history of Islamic science that owes more to the Thousand and One Nights than it does to any form of serious historical scholarship. I came across an example of this last week during the Gravity Fields Festival, an annual shindig put on in Grantham to celebrate the life and work of one Isaac Newton, late of that parish.

On Twitter Ammār ibn Aziz Ahmed (@Ammar_Ibn_AA) tweeted the following:

I’m sorry to let you know that Isaac Newton learned about gravity from the books of Ibn al-Haytham

I naturally responded in my usual graceless style that this statement was total rubbish to which Ammār ibn Aziz Ahmed responded with a link to his ‘source

I answered this time somewhat more moderately that a very large part of that article is quite simply wrong. One of my Internet friends, a maths librarian (@MathsBooks) told me I was being unfair and that I should explain what was wrong with his source, so here I am.

The article in question is one of many potted biographies of al-Haytham that you can find dotted all other the Internet and which are mostly virtual clones of each other. They all contain the same collection of legends, half-truths, myths and straightforward lies usually without sources, or, as in this case, quoting bad popular books written by a non-historian as their source. It is fairly obvious that they all plagiarise each other without bothering to consult original sources or the work done by real historian of science on the life and work of al-Haytham.

The biography of al-Haytham is, like that of most medieval Islamic scholars, badly documented and very patchy at best. Like most popular accounts this article starts with the legend of al-Haytham’s feigned madness and ten-year incarceration. This legend is not mentioned in all the biographical sources and should be viewed with extreme scepticism by anybody seriously interested in the man and his work. The article then moves on to the most pernicious modern myth concerning al-Haytham that he was the ‘first real scientist’.

This claim is based on a misrepresentation of what al-Haytham did. He did not as the article claims introduce the scientific method, whatever that might be. For a limited part of his work al-Haytham used experiments to prove points, for the majority of it he reasoned in exactly the same way as the Greek philosophers whose heir he was. Even where he used the experimental method he was doing nothing that could not be found in the work of Archimedes or Ptolemaeus. There is also an interesting discussion outlined in Peter Dear’s Discipline and Experience (1995) as to whether al-Haytham used or understood experiments in the same ways as researchers in the seventeenth-century; Dear concludes that he doesn’t. (pp. 51-53) It is, however, interesting to sketch how this ‘misunderstanding’ came about.

The original narrative of the development of Western science not only denied the contribution of the Islamic Empire but also claimed that the Middle Ages totally rejected science, modern science only emerging after the Renaissance had reclaimed the Greek scientific inheritance. The nineteenth-century French physicist and historian of science, Pierre Duhem, was the first to challenge this fairy tale claiming instead, based on his own researches, that the Scientific Revolution didn’t take place in the seventeenth–century but in the High Middle Ages, “the mechanics and physics of which modern times are justifiably proud to proceed, by an uninterrupted series of scarcely perceptible improvements, from doctrines professed in the heart of the medieval schools.” After the Second World War Duhem’s thesis was modernised by the Australian historian of science, Alistair C. Crombie, whose studies on medieval science in general and Robert Grosseteste in particular set a new high water mark in the history of science. Crombie attributed the origins of modern science and the scientific method to Grosseteste and Roger Bacon in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries. A view that has been somewhat modified and watered down by more recent historians, such as David Lindberg. Enter Matthias Schramm.

Matthias Schramm was a German historian of science who wrote his doctoral thesis on al-Haytham. A fan of Crombie’s work Schramm argued that the principle scientific work of Grosseteste and Bacon in physical optics was based on the work of al-Haytham, correct for Bacon not so for Grosseteste, and so he should be viewed as the originator of the scientific method and not they. He makes this claim in the introduction to his Ibn al-Haythams Weg zur Physik (1964), but doesn’t really substantiate it in the book itself. (And yes, I have read it!) Al-Haytham’s use of experiment is very limited and to credit him with being the inventor of the scientific method is a step too far. However since Schramm made his claims they have been expanded, exaggerated and repeated ad nauseam by the al-Haytham hagiographers.

We now move on to what is without doubt al-Haytham’s greatest achievement his Book of Optics, the most important work on physical optics written between Ptolemaeus in the second-century CE and Kepler in the seventeenth-century. Our author writes:

In his book, The Book of Optics, he was the first to disprove the ancient Greek idea that light comes out of the eye, bounces off objects, and comes back to the eye. He delved further into the way the eye itself works. Using dissections and the knowledge of previous scholars, he was able to begin to explain how light enters the eye, is focused, and is projected to the back of the eye.

Here our author demonstrates very clearly that he really has no idea what he is talking about. It should be very easy to write a clear and correct synopsis of al-Haytham’s achievements, as there is a considerable amount of very good literature on his Book of Optics, but our author gets it wrong[2].

Al-Haytham didn’t prove or disprove anything he rationally argued for a plausible hypothesis concerning light and vision, which was later proved to be, to a large extent, correct by others. The idea that vision consists of rays (not light) coming out of the eyes (extramission) is only one of several ideas used to explain vision by Greek thinkers. That vision is the product of light entering the eyes (intromission) also originates with the Greeks. The idea that light bounces off every point of an object in every direction comes from al-Haytham’s Islamic predecessor al-Kindi. Al-Haytham’s great achievement was to combine an intromission theory of vision with the geometrical optics of Euclid, Heron and Ptolemaeus (who had supported an extramission theory) integrating al-Kindi’s punctiform theory of light reflection. In its essence, this theory is fundamentally correct. The second part of the paragraph quoted above, on the structure and function of the eye, is pure fantasy and bears no relation to al-Haytham’s work. His views on the subject were largely borrowed from Galen and were substantially wrong.

Next up we have the pinhole camera or better camera obscura, although al-Haytham was probably the first to systematically investigate the camera obscura its basic principle was already known to the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti in the fifth-century BCE and Aristotle in the fourth-century BCE. The claims for al-Haytham’s studies of atmospheric refraction are also hopelessly exaggerated.

We the have an interesting statement on the impact of al-Haytham’s optics, the author writes:

The translation of The Book of Optics had a huge impact on Europe. From it, later European scholars were able to build the same devices as he did, and understand the way light works. From this, such important things as eyeglasses, magnifying glasses, telescopes, and cameras were developed.

The Book of Optics did indeed have a massive impact on European optics in Latin translation from the work of Bacon in the thirteenth-century up to Kepler in the seventeenth-century and this is the principle reason why he counts as one of the very important figures in the history of science, however I wonder what devices the author is referring to here, I know of none. Interesting in this context is that The Book of Optics appears to have had very little impact on the development of physical optics in the Islamic Empire. One of the anomalies in the history of science and technology is the fact that as far was we know the developments in optical physics made by al-Haytham, Bacon, Witelo, Kepler et al had no influence on the invention of optical instruments, glasses, magnifying glasses, the telescope, which were developed along a parallel but totally separate path.

Moving out of optics we get told about al-Haytham’s work in astronomy. It is true that he like many other Islamic astronomers criticised Ptolemaeus and suggested changes in his system but his influence was small in comparison to other Islamic astronomers. What follows is a collection of total rubbish.

He had a great influence on Isaac Newton, who was aware of Ibn al-Haytham’s works.

He was not an influence on Newton. Newton would have been aware of al-Haytham’s work in optics but by the time Newton did his own work in this field al-Haytham’s work had been superseded by that of Kepler, Scheiner, Descartes and Gregory amongst others.

He studied the basis of calculus, which would later lead to the engineering formulas and methods used today.

Al-Haytham did not study the basis of calculus!

He also wrote about the laws governing the movement of bodies (later known as Newton’s 3 laws of motion)

Like many others before and after him al-Haytham did discuss motion but he did not come anywhere near formulating Newton’s laws of motion, this claim is just pure bullshit.

and the attraction between two bodies – gravity. It was not, in fact, the apple that fell from the tree that told Newton about gravity, but the books of Ibn al-Haytham.

We’re back in bullshit territory again!

If anybody thinks I should give a more detailed refutation of these claims and not just dismiss them as bullshit, I can’t because al-Haytham never ever did the things being claimed. If you think he did then please show me where he did so then I will be prepared to discuss the matter, till then I’ll stick to my bullshit!

I shall examine one more claim from this ghastly piece of hagiography. Our author writes the following:

When his books were translated into Latin as the Spanish conquered Muslim lands in the Iberian Peninsula, he was not referred to by his name, but rather as “Alhazen”. The practice of changing the names of great Muslim scholars to more European sounding names was common in the European Renaissance, as a means to discredit Muslims and erase their contributions to Christian Europe.

Alhazen is merely the attempt by the unknown Latin translator of The Book of Optics to transliterate the Arabic name al-Haytham there was no discrimination intended or attempted.

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham is without any doubt an important figure in the history of science whose contribution, particularly those in physical optics, should be known to anybody taking a serious interest in the subject, but he is not well served by inaccurate, factually false, hagiographic crap like that presented in the article I have briefly discussed here.






[1] Throughout this post I will refer to Islamic science an inadequate but conventional term. An alternative would be Arabic science, which is equally problematic. Both terms refer to the science produced within the Islamic Empire, which was mostly written in Arabic, as European science in the Middle Ages was mostly written in Latin. The terms do not intend to imply that all of the authors were Muslims, many of them were not, or Arabs, again many of them were not.

[2] For a good account of the history of optics including a detailed analysis of al-Haytham’s contributions read David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision: From al-Kindi to Kepler, University of Chicago Press, 1976.


Filed under History of Optics, History of Physics, Mediaeval Science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

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

If you’re going to pontificate about the history of science then at least get your facts right!

Recently, my attention was drawn to an article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, on The Week website, telling the world what the real meaning of ‘science’ is (h/t Peter Broks @peterbroks). According to Mr Gobry science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation [his emphasis]. This definition is of course totally inadequate but I’m not going to try and correct it in what follows; I gave up trying to find a simple all encompassing definition of science, a hopeless endeavour, a long time ago. However Mr Gobry takes us on a whirlwind tour of the history of science that is to say the least bizarre not to mention horribly inaccurate and in almost all of its details false. It is this part of his article that I’m going to look at here. He writes:

A little history: The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle’s definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.

The problem with that is that it’s absolutely not true. Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.

What we now know as the “scientific revolution” was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.

Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment.

This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon.

Where to start? We will follow the Red King’s advice to Alice, “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Ignoring the fact that it is highly anachronistic to refer to anybody as a scientist, even if you qualify it with a proto-, before 1834, the very first sentence is definitively wrong. Sticking with Mr Gobry’s terminology Aristotle was by no means the first proto-scientists. In fact it would be immensely difficult to determine exactly who deserves this honour. Traditional legend or mythology attributes this title to Thales amongst the Greeks but ignores Babylonian, Indian and Chinese thinkers who might have a prior claim. Just staying within the realms of Greek thought Eudoxus and Empedocles, who both had a large influence on Aristotle, have as much right to be labelled proto-scientists and definitely lived earlier than him. Aristotle was also by no means the first person to propose a systematic epistemology. It would appear that Mr Gobry slept through most of his Greek philosophy classes, that’s if he ever took any, which reading what he wrote I somehow doubt.

We then get told that Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. Now a lot of what Aristotle said and a lot of his methodology turned out in the long run to be wrong but that is true of almost all major figures in the history of science. Aristotle put forward ideas and concepts in a fairly systematic manner for people to accept or reject as they saw fit. He laid down a basis for rational discussion, a discussion that would, with time, propel science, that is our understanding of the world in which we live, forwards. I’m sorry Mr Gobry, but a Bronze Age thinker living on the fertile plains between the Tigris and the Euphrates is not coming to come up with the theory of Quantum Electro Dynamics whilst herding his goats; science doesn’t work like that. Somebody suggest an explanatory model that others criticise and improve, sometimes replacing it with a new model with greater explanatory power, breadth, depth or whatever. Aristotle’s models and methodologies were very good ones for the time in which he lived and for the knowledge basis available to him and without him or somebody like him, even if he were wrong, no science would have developed.

Gobry is right in saying that the traditional interpretation of the so-called scientific revolution consisted of a repudiation of Aristotelian philosophy, a point of view that has become somewhat more differentiated in more recent research, a complex problem that I don’t want to go into now. However he is wrong to suggest that Aristotle’s epistemology was replaced by reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. Science in the Early Modern Period still has a strong non-experimental metaphysical core. Kepler, for example, didn’t arrive at his three laws of planetary motion through experimentation but on deriving rules from empirical observations.

Gobry’s next claim would be hilarious if he didn’t mean it seriously. Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). Aristotle never demonstrated the fact that heavier objects fall faster than light ones; he observed it. In fact Mr Gobry could observe it for himself anytime he wants. He just needs to carry out the experiment. In the real world heavier objects do fall faster than light ones largely because of air resistance. What Aristotle describes is an informal form of Stokes’ Law, which describes motion in a viscous fluid, air being a viscous fluid. Aristotle wasn’t wrong he was just describing fall in the real world. What makes Gobry’s claim hilarious is that Galileo challenged this aspect of Aristotle’s theories of motion not with experimentation but with a legendary thought experiment. He couldn’t have disproved it with an experiment because he didn’t have the necessary vacuum chamber. Objects of differing weight only fall at the same rate in a vacuum. The experimentation to which Gobry is referring is Galileo’s use of an inclined plane to determine the laws of fall, a different thing altogether.

We now arrive at Gobry’s biggest error, and one that produced snorts of indignation from my friend Pete Langman (@elegantfowl), a Bacon expert. Gobry tells us that Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment. This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. Galileo’s methodology of science was basically the hypothetical deductive methodology that most people regard as the methodology of science today. Bacon however propagated an inductive methodology that consists of accumulating empirical data until a critical mass is reached and the theories, somehow, crystallise out by themselves. (Apologies to all real philosophers and epistemologists for these too short and highly inadequate descriptions!) These two epistemologies stood in stark contrast to each other and have even been considered contradictory. In reality, I think, scientific methodology consists of elements of both methodologies along with other things. However the main point is that Bacon did not formalise Galileo’s methodology but produced a completely different one of his own.

Apparently Mr Gobry also slept through his Early Modern Period philosophy classes.




Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

The naming of America – Redux

This is a brief addenda to my previous naming of America post, as my copy of Peter Macdonald’s Cabot & The Naming of America: Dawn of Arrival, Newfoundland, June 1497 has finally arrived; remaindered, it cost all of £0.01! (p&p £4!).

As I suspected the book is self-published by the author, always a bad sign for a history book, and it lives down to expectations. Macdonald’s arguments in favour of the Ap Meric (Amerike) theories are even worse than those of Rodney Broome and are centred on a straightforward lie. On the second, unnumbered, page Macdonald writes:

In 1507 a cartographer by the name of Waldseemuller [sic] (meaning the miller from the forest sea [it’s actually wood lake]) produced a map in which he attributed the name of the place he had heard called America to Amerigo Vespucci. People assumed that he had got his facts right and that from this slender beginning grew the legend. However, it is more than probable that the miller man gave the credit to the wrong person. It is far more likely that the great continent was named after Richard Amerike, the King’s Customs Officer for Bristol in 1497, as will become evident in this book, and that Herr Waldseemuller’s was a shot in the dark that hit the wrong target.

As is very clear from the passages from the Cosmographiae Introductio, that I quoted in my previous post, Ringmann, its author, states that he and Waldseemüller had not attributed the name of the place he had heard called America to Amerigo Vespucci but believing Vespucci to be the discoverer of the new territories and coined the name themselves in his honour. Macdonald repeats this deliberate lie again on page 35:

In 1507 a young geographer who lived in Freiburg [St Dié actually], Martin Waldseemuller by name, drew a map of the new continent and gave it the name ‘America’. Because he knew that Amerigo Vespucci had accompanied Hojeda he assumed the name America, by which the place was beginning to be known, referred to him.

Naturally, Macdonald doesn’t quote a single occurrence of the name ‘America’ before it was coined by Ringmann and Waldseemüller in 1507.

An impression of Macdonald’s abilities as a historian can be gained from the following introductory paragraph on page 3. A warning to all serious medieval historians you might feel offended by Macdonald’s description of the late fifteenth-century. On the other hand you might fall about laughing.

It is difficult, today, to imagine just how ignorant people were five hundred years ago; they knew nothing about almost everything. They had no idea how their bodies worked – no idea why they breathed, urinated, defecated or felt hungry, felt sick or had a temperature – and many made no connection between the sexual act and childbirth. They knew nothing of geography – indeed most people didn’t know or care what went on on the other side of the horizon – and they thought the world was flat [my emphasis]. Nearly everyone was illiterate, even kings; only a few of the clergy knew how to read and write.




Filed under 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

The naming of America

Some weeks ago I stumbled into an exchange amongst historians on Twitter about the origin of the Name of America and was totally stunned to learn that a very successful English popular historian and television personality is convinced that the theory that America is named for the Bristol trader Richard Ap Meric is much more probable than that it is named for Amerigo Vespucci. Don’t worry if one or other or both of these theories are unknown to you, all will be explained in the following. Given that early modern cartography is one of my special areas of study I could not believe that any professional historian could possibly defend this position and stated the factual historical sources for the Vespucci theory and asked for equivalent sources for the Ap Meric theory, knowing full well that they don’t exist. TV pop historian declined stating that one can’t discuss these things on Twitter. A couple of weeks later the whole started again as Mathew Lyons (@MathewJLyons), one of the participants in the original exchange asked me if I could recommend literature on the subject for Lauren Johnson (@History_Lauren) who was researching the topic in the archives of Bristol. This triggered the whole argument a second time with Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) defending the Ap Meric theory and TV pop historian, “not sure of worth of discussing this on Twitter!“ This being the case I have decided to discuss the issue here for the general amusement and edification of my readers.

From an academic historical point of view this is unfortunately rather a one sided contest, as is made clear by the available literature that I have consulted. On the Amerigo Vespucci side we have John Hessler, “The Naming of America” and “A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox”, John Hessler and Chet van Duzer, “Seeing The World Anew”, Chet van Duzer, “Johann Schöner’s Globe of 1515” and Kenneth Nebenzahl, “Atlas of Columbus and the Great Discoveries”. On the Richard Ap Meric side we have Rodney Broome, “Terra Incognita: The True Story of How America Got Its Name”. Hessler, van Duzer and Nebenzahl are professional historians of cartography internationally acknowledged as leaders in the field. All I can find out about Rodney Broome is that he was born in Bristol and now lives in Seattle. He doesn’t seem to be a historian of any sort as far as I can ascertain. There don’t appear to be any works by professional historians outlining or supporting the Ap Meric claim. There is a second book on the subject by a Peter MacDonald, “Cabot And The Naming Of America: Dawn Of Arrival, Newfoundland, June 1497”, which appears to have been published by the author himself, (PetMac?) and is out of print. I’ve ordered a second-hand copy from England, it doesn’t appear to have been available in Germany, but it hasn’t arrived yet. There is an essay on the subject by MacDonald on the BBC website. Like Broome MacDonald doesn’t appear to be a professional historian.

As it is the accepted academic point of view I will start with the Vespucci theory. At the beginning of the sixteenth-century there was a school of cartographers working in the Vosgean Gymnasium at Saint-Dié-des-Vorges in Lorraine, under the patronage of Duke René II. The two principal members of this group were Martin Waldseemüller (c.1475–1520) and Matthias Ringmann (c.1482–1511). In 1507 they published both a large wall map of the world printed on twelve sheets and a small globe containing the same map.

Waldseemüller World Map 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Waldseemüller World Map 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Only one single copy of the map still exists and none of the globes although five sets of printed gores are still extant.

Waldseemüller Globe Gores 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Waldseemüller Globe Gores 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)


In his diary Johannes Trithemius records buying copies of the map and the globe in the year of publication. As was common practice amongst cartographers of the period the map was accompanied by a so-called cosmographia explaining the basics of cartography and how to use the map, known as the Cosmographiae Introductio. Its full title is “Cosmographiae introductio cum quibusdam geometriae ac astronomiae principiis ad eam rem necessariis. Insuper quatuor Americi Vespucii navigationes. Universalis Cosmographiae descriptio tam in solido quam plano, eis etiam insertis, quae Ptholomaeo ignota a nuperis reperta sunt.”(Translation: Introduction to Cosmography With Certain Necessary Principles of Geometry and Astronomy To which are added The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci A Representation of the Entire World, both in the Solid and Projected on the Plane, Including also lands which were Unknown to Ptolemy, and have been Recently Discovered).

The map is justifiably regarded as an important historical document because it is the earliest map, which uses the name America for the recently discovered lands on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. North and South America are drawn as two islands that bear little resemblance to the real continents and the southern island bears the name America. In Chapter 8 of the Cosmographiae Introductio, The Climatic Zones that Divide the Earth, Ringmann, the author, writes:

The fourth part of the earth we have decided to call Americe, the land of Amerigo we might even say, or America because it was discovered by Amerigo.

Further on in Chaper 9, Rudiments of Cosmography, he explains why they used this name for the recently discovered territory:

Today these parts of the earth [Europe, Africa and Asia] have been more extensively explored than a fourth part of the world, as will be explained in what follows, and that has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci. Because it is well known that Europe and Asia were named after women, I can see no reason why anyone would have good reason to object to calling this fourth part Amerige, the land of Amerigo, or America, after the man who discovered it. The location of this part and the customs of its people can be clearly understood from the four voyages of Amerigo Vespucci that we have placed after this introduction.

Waldseemüller and Ringmann possessed a French edition of The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, a popular bestseller doing the rounds of Europe at the time, sent to Duke René by the King of Portugal, which, translated into Latin by Johannes Basinus Sendarcurius, another of the St Dié scholars, was appended to the Cosmographiae Introductio. It is clear that Waldseemüller and Ringmann, unaware of Columbus, erroneously named the new territory after Vespucci believing him to be its discoverer, giving his name a feminine ending in line with Europe and Asia. Later they would realise their error and on their world map the Carte Marina, a portulan style, sea chart published in 1516, they withdrew the name America but by then the damage had been done.

Waldseemüller Carta Marina 1516 (Library of Congress)

Waldseemüller Carta Marina 1516 (Library of Congress)

Both the 1507 world map and the Cosmographiae Introductio are accepted as genuine historical artefacts with no doubt about their authenticity. This being the case it is very clear that anybody offering an alternative origin for the name, America, has to accuse Waldseemüller and Ringmann of lying. They state very clearly that they have chosen to name this newly discovered land America and why they have done so. The opponents of the Vespucci theory don’t accuse them of lying but try to fudge the issue by suggesting that Waldseemüller heard the name America elsewhere and not knowing its origins attributed it to Vespucci. This explanation contradicts Ringmann’s very clear explanation in the Cosmographiae Introductio and, in my opinion, demonstrates very clearly the shaky ground on which the opponents are manoeuvring.

I will now turn to the Ap Meric theory based on the account presented by Rodney Broome. Whereas the books of Hessler and van Duzer are solid pieces of academic history Broome’s book is a collection of unfounded speculations, conjectures and straightforward false statements, which contains not one single piece of factual evidence that America was named after Richard Ap Meric. So what does it contain? To detail everything that is false in Broome’s book would produce a book length post so I will just sketch the Ap Meric theory and then point out a couple of Broome’s errors or false statements.

Richard Ap Meric, a Welsh name anglicised to Amerike, was a successful Bristol trader who was one of the investors in the voyages to America made by John Cabot from the port of Bristol. The theory is that Cabot named part, or all, of his discovery after Amerike on the map(s) he made and that this map/these maps are the origin of the name America. So far, so good. This theory suffers from a few problems. Firstly, although he may have made maps of his discoveries in North America none of them has survived so we have no idea what they contained. Secondly there exists no other source of any kind suggesting that Cabot named anything at all after Richard Amerike, end of story!

I could end this post here. We have a very clear well established historical fact that Waldseemüller and Ringmann named America in 1507 after Amerigo Vespucci believing erroneously that he was its first discoverer. On the other hand we have an unsubstantiated conjecture that John Cabot named America after Richard Amerike, a Bristol trader, who was one of the backers of his voyages of discovery. I really don’t see how anybody could claim, as did the TV pop historian in my original Twitter encounter, that the Ap Meric theory is much more probable than the Vespucci theory. As stated above I will however look at some of the tactics used by Broome to try and shore up this rather extraordinary claim.

Broome starts his book with the Waldseemüller/Ringmann naming of America on the world map of 1507 and in the Cosmographiae Introductio but invents a totally spurious personal relationship between Vespucci and the two German cartographers with the former sending them his maps of the Americas on which they then base their map. This is all justified with statements such as “some historians believe” without giving any sources for the “some historians”. This is complete rubbish and is made even more bizarre by his then naming the real sources for the American portions of the map the world chart by Nicolo Caveri from 1505 and the written descriptions from Vespucci’s The Four Voyages.

Carta Caveri 1505 (Wikipedia Commons)

Carta Caveri 1505 (Wikipedia Commons)

Throughout the book Broome follows a strategy of misinformation in order to support his central highly speculative theory that I will outline shortly. Before I leave his version of the Vespucci theory Broome delivers a wonderful piece of misinformation on page 6 of his book, he writes: Waldseemüller was unable to account for the origin of the name America! It is very obvious from the passages that I quoted from the Cosmographiae Introductio above that Waldseemüller and Ringmann coined the name themselves so were very able indeed to account for its origins.

Broome’s central argument, which he builds up throughout the book interspersed with general capitals on the port of Bristol, the traders of that city, the voyages of Columbus etc., is based around the three voyages of John Cabot. Having persuaded Henry VII and the traders of Bristol to support him Cabot made three voyages to America in 1497-98. The first voyage, with a single ship, was unsuccessful he being forced to turn back by bad weather. On the second voyage, again with a single ship, he reached and landed somewhere on the North American coast, exactly where is still the subject of heated debate. Finding evidence of habitation and scared of being attacked he re-boarded his ship and spent one month cruising southwards along the coast making a crude map before returning to Europe, first making landfall in France before returning north to Bristol. Flushed with success he now set out in 1498 with a fleet of five ships. One ship, damaged in a storm, returned to Ireland and the other four ships disappeared without trace. One of the accounts of the first two voyages is contained in the so-called Johan Day letter, sent by this Bristolian presumably to Columbus. I say presumably because the letter is addressed to a The Lord Grand Admiral, who is assumed to be Columbus. This letter contained a map of Cabot’s initial discoveries and this information almost certainly flowed into the early charts and maps of America such as the Caveri map and the earlier world chart of Juan de la Cosa, of which more later. None of these earlier maps and charts contains the name America or any variation thereof.

Broome’s theory hinges on the third voyage. There has been much speculation concerning the fate of this voyage but very, very little substantiated fact. Broome wants to have Cabot sailing all the way down the coast of North America, mapping as he goes, right on into middle America were he meets the fleet of Alonso de Ojeda, whose pilot and cartographer was Juan de la Cosa and navigator was Vespucci, in 1499. In Broome’s theory Ojeda fought and defeated the English fleet and Cosa came into possession of Cabot’s map the source of the name America based on the name Amerike. The passage where Broome sets up this meeting is interesting for its nested speculations and I repeat it in full.

A Spanish historian, Martin Fernandez de Navarette, wrote in 1829:

 It is certain that Hojeda in his first voyage encountered certain Englishmen in the vicinity of Coquibacoa. [emphasis in original]

Other than the Cabot expedition, there were no other English expeditions in that area at that time. Navarette’s source is unknown, but he was a widely respected historian in his day.

 If this is what happened Amerigo Vespucci and Juan de la Cosa may have been present at this ghastly deed, and Cabot’s maps could have been taken in the encounter. This would have been the second time that Cabot’s extraordinary efforts to produce a map of the New World would wind up in the hands of the Spanish.

 From Venezuela, Hojeda and de la Cosa sailed north with two of the ships and joined Columbus at the settlement he had established at Hispaniola. The ships had to be laid up to repair damage they had suffered, some say from the battle with Cabot.

What we have here is an unsubstantiated report from a historian writing in the nineteenth-century, more than tree hundred years after the events, of an encounter between Ojeda and some anonymous Englishmen. There is no account of a battle, there is no account of maps taken, there is in fact nothing to back up Broome’s story in anyway what so ever. I like the “some say” at the end. Who says?

Juan de la Cosa produced a map of the Americas in 1500 and this according to Broome is the proof of his theory.

Carta Cosa 1500 (Wikipedia Commons)

Carta Cosa 1500 (Wikipedia Commons)

He writes:

De la Cosa must have used Cabot’s charts to prepare his map. The coastline west of Coquibacoa is drawn with surprising accuracy, in spite of the fact that de la Cosa had not ventured that far west.

Even if Broome were correct about the accuracy and the lack of westward voyaging of de la Cosa there is no evidence that the knowledge used in the construction of this chart comes from a highly hypothetical chart of Cabot’s. However the first two claims are not true. Kenneth Nebenzahl describes the delineation of the chart, as crude not “surprisingly accurate” and de la Cosa had been further west. De la Cosa made a total of five voyages to the Americas before he drew his chart. He took part in the first three Columbus voyages, in fact the Santa Maria was his ship, the voyage with Ojeda described above and a fifth voyage in 1500 during which he mapped Colombia and Panama, i.e. the coastline west of Coquibacoa. It is somewhat superfluous to point out that the de la Cosa Chart does not contain the name America.

One rather desperate attempt made by Broome towards the end of the book, displays either his ignorance of the material or his deliberate selection of the same to create a false impression on pages 111 and 112, referring to now lost 15th and 16th century Kalendars, he writes the following:

A summary of these Kalendars was made in 1565 by Maurice Toby, and in this compilation he uses the name “America”:

“The land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow.”

Under the mayoral year of 1496-1497, Toby recorded [… …]

“This year [1497] on St John the Baptist’s Day [June 24th], the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow, in a ship of Bristowe called the “Mathew,” the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe the 2nd May and came home again the 6th August following.”

Broome of course concludes that because Toby uses and is familiar with the term America it must have been contained in the original documents that he is referencing. This is by no means necessarily the case.

The name America was adopted very quickly by all the leading European cosmographers and cartographers. Johannes Schöner used it on his printed terrestrial globe in 1515 and in the accompanying cosmographia, his Luculentissima, where he repeats the Ringmann/Waldseemüller derivation of the term. He would go on to use the name on his manuscript globe from 1520 and his printed globe from 1533. Schöner’s globes were very successful and were sold all over Europe, including London as is shown by their presence in Holbein’s picture The Ambassadors that was painted in London in 1533.

Schöner Globe, Holbein's The Ambassadors 1533 (Wikipedia Commons)

Schöner Globe, Holbein’s The Ambassadors 1533 (Wikipedia Commons)

Peter Apian used the name on his world map of 1520 and in his Cosmographia of 1524. This book, under the editorship of Gemma Frisius from the 2nd edition of 1529, had at least thirty-two editions in many different languages throughout the sixteenth-century and was the most widely disseminated and read textbook on the subject in that century. Frisius used the name on his globes, as did his pupil Mercator on his highly successful terrestrial globe of 1541. Mercator was the first to use the name for both North and South America. Sebastian Munster used the name in his Cosmographia, first published in 1544, a book, which had twenty-four editions throughout the century and was translated into many different languages, including English. Selling over 120 000 copies in total, it was the biggest selling book of the sixteenth century. Many other lesser known cosmographers and cartographers also adopted the name in their published works. By 1550 America had become the accepted name for the new continent throughout Europe, with the exception of Spain, where this name was well known but rejected in favour of the name New India. Writing in 1565 about Cabot’s discovery Toby was almost certainly just using the current widespread name for the new continent.

On the subject of the reliability of nineteenth-century historians I will close with Broome’s comments on the globe of Martin Behaim, which lives just down the road from where I am typing this. The Behaim Globe is the oldest surviving terrestrial globe in the world and was created under the supervision of Martin Behaim in Nürnberg between 1491 and 1493. Broome claims that it is based on the Toscanelli map, the famous map commissioned by the Portuguese that helped convince the Spanish that Columbus’ idea of sailing west to the Spice Islands was viable, and that both Columbus and Cabot consulted it before undertaking their voyages. None of this is true. The Behaim globe is not based on the Toscanelli map and it was not consulted by either Columbus or Cabot. That Columbus consulted the Behaim globe before setting off on his first voyage is a fairy story put in the world by “widely respected” German historians in the nineteenth century to make Behaim seem more important having played a leading role in the discovery of America. This small aspect of his book is all too typical for Broome’s very uncritical use of sources. He repeats myths and wild speculations as historical facts if they fit the story he is desperately trying to construct usually without giving sources or as above with such phrases as “some say”!

We have two theories for the origin of the name America. One is a solidly substantiated theory on which there is nothing to criticise, the other is a piece of pure speculation without the slightest shred of real evidence to support it. I leave it to my readers to decide which one is more probably true.



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