Category Archives: Renaissance Science

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.

RM1

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:

 rm2

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 EsMateria.com.

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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 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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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