Alea Iacta Est!

The final edition of the history of science blog carnival, On the Shoulders of Giants #72, has been posted by Greg Gbur, aka Dr SkySkull, its originator, on his Skulls in the Stars blog. I explained my reasons for ending Giants’ Shoulders here. The Seven Wonders edition lives up to its name and is truly a wonder horn full of the best of the histories of science, technology and medicine that have appeared in cyberspace in the last month.

You can read about a Longitude exhibition in Lisbon, Victorians searching for Gorillas in the Land of Canibals, Alexander Graham Bell’s Wireless Phone powered by sunlight, Wolfgang Pauli’s speculations on Ghosts and Neutrinos, The Godfather of Ecstasy, Bed Shortages in Bedlam, Halley’s ailment in Barbados, Mary Somerville, Queen of Science, Mary Anning’s contribution to French Palaeontology, Natural Born Killers, Darwin on Worms, a Religion Devoted to Evolution, 500 years of Trinity House, Bombs filled with Bats, and Grand Visions and Messy Realities along with a host of other fascinating posts and articles.

At this end of an era of the history of science blog carnival Greg, its founder, has given us some personal thoughts on the creation and life of his baby on the Giants’ Shoulders website.

The Giant is dead, long live the Gazette! A round up of the best in Internet #histstem will continue to appear in the future in weekly rather than monthly form at the Whewell’s Ghost blog. For more details stay turned to this space.

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Some of those who were kind enough to re-tweet my post on my struggles with dysgraphia referred to my decision to come out of the closet on the subject of my mental illness and some of its causes as brave, not a claim I would make for myself. One of my fears when contemplating going public was that my actions were foolhardy rather than brave. The responses both here on the blog and on Twitter have shown that fear to have been unfounded. In fact I was overwhelmed by the wave of warmth, acknowledgement and support that greeted my decision to admit to my learning disability and the problems that they have caused me throughout my life. Above all I am pleased by those who have correctly interpreted my motives and have found succour in my inadequate words. This very brief paragraph is just to say thank you to all those who read, commented on, tweeted or retweeted my dysgraphia post and who kindly gave me so much support and encouragement. You can’t know how much that means to me, thank you.


Filed under Autobiographical

Learning to cope with dysgraphia.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the emergence of The Renaissance Mathematicus in cyberspace. Those five years have seen the appearance of more than five hundred post and many thousands of words, all of which signals a partial conquest of a lifelong genetic writers block.

I have contemplated writing this post many, many times in the last couple of years but have always drawn back from the abyss. There are several reasons for my reluctance to write this post. First and foremost is the fear of, at least partially, baring my soul in front of a substantial number of readers most of whom I don’t know and have never met. Then there is the fear that this post will be misunderstood, as a very public piece of self-pity and that by writing it I’m just fishing for sympathy, which is far from the truth. Another fear is that I will be accused of grandstanding, look at all that I have had to suffer aren’t I amazing for coping with all this disadvantage. Once again nothing could be further from the truth. I am writing this in the vain hope that at least one person who reads it and suffers from similar mental problems will find some consolation in realising that they are not alone and maybe develop the right strategies to avoid some of the hell that I have lived through.

How to begin? “Begin at the beginning,” […] “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”, as the King told Alice.

I’m a walking cliché! There’s a rather bad joke about children:

First mother: “My child is a genius.”

Second mother: “How can you tell?”

First mother: “He can’t spell.”

For those that don’t understand it, it plays on the claim that many highly gifted children suffer from so-called learning difficulties. I’m that child. I was recognised as being at least above average intelligence, if not actually highly gifted, whilst still at primary school (that’s grade school for American readers) and jumped not one but two classes – grades – at the age of eight and was still the top of the class in my new one. There was only one small problem with this situation, I was functionally illiterate. The proverbial drunken spider was a calligraphy master in comparison to me, still is to some extent. My grasp of the rules of grammar of the English language was non-existent and I couldn’t spell. At the age of eleven I still had major problems spelling my own family name. The fact that my father was a professional ‘archaeologist’ was a nightmare for me. How the fuck do you spell that? All of this despite the fact that I had been teaching myself most subjects for several years by then, as I was so far ahead of my classmates. Nowadays I would almost certainly be recognised as suffering from a learning difficulty and receive the appropriate therapy. However in the dim and distant days of the nineteen fifties learning difficulties didn’t exist and I was just labelled as being lazy, “with your intelligence you should be able to spell/write/whatever with no problems” or words to that effect. The result of all this was that I gave up on school in general and writing in particular when I entered grammar school.

The result of this withdrawal was a steady decline in my scholastic achievements. My grades and my exam results degenerated over the years but my above average intelligence kept me afloat despite the lack of effort. I still managed a reasonably good set of O-levels and a very ropy set of A-levels. In my teens I became a nicotine addict and began a long career of drug abuse. Although I didn’t know it at the time this is fairly standard self-medication for people suffering from the problems that I had. My A-level year saw me stoned out of my mind almost every day and tripping up to three times a week. That my A-levels were ropy and not non-existent is a minor miracle. Despite almost non-existent A-levels I still managed to go to university to study archaeology (I still couldn’t spell it!) and spent a strained academic year taking drugs, working in theatre, and trying to avoid writing essays, which activity was more than a nightmare for me. All the way through school and this one-year at university I always had the feeling that everybody else was on a different set of rails to the ones I was travelling on. I learnt but in a totally different way, at a totally different pace, and in a totally different order to everybody else, or so it seemed to me. Exams were a nightmare I usually knew far more than my fellow students but not necessarily the facts or knowledge required for the particular exam in question. After one year of this I quit. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I just knew it wasn’t what I was doing.

I spent the next years doing an assortment of things, working as a field archaeologist, theatre technician, carpenter, electrician etc. etc. Anything as long as it didn’t involve having to write. In 1976/77 I spent six months living in Sweden and discovered first the philosophy of mathematics, I’d been teaching myself the history of mathematics since I was sixteen, then the philosophy of science. This awakened my desire to re-join the world of academia and in 1977 I tried to go back to university to study philosophy, my interview was a disaster (they always are!) and I got rejected. The next year I had my first major mental breakdown. With hindsight I think the two events were not unrelated. I went through about eighteen months of severe mental instability stumbling from one crisis to the next. I never considered getting treatment because I belonged to the generation who regarded both psychology and psychiatry with not just scepticism but open scorn; again with hindsight possibly the biggest mistake of my entire life.

In 1980 I moved to Germany, it wasn’t planned it just happened. Wanting to learn German I applied for a German as a foreign language course at the local university and got told I would first have to apply for a regular university course in order to be eligible for the language course, so having decide that it might be time to resume my interrupted education I applied to study maths and philosophy and got accepted.

I spent the next ten years at university first studying maths and philosophy and then later philosophy, English philology and history doing my best to choose courses where I only had to do a minimum of written work. By now I was a mature student and alongside a full course of studies I was working twenty hours a week in a research project, my apprenticeship in the history of science, and a twenty to thirty hour week outside of the university in a cultural centre. Along with this workload, I was living on nicotine, drugs and alcohol and before long I had a serious alcohol addiction problem. Just to make everything a little crazier I still couldn’t write, couldn’t spell and was still trundling along on the wrong set of rails. For many years I lived in a state of deep clinical depression, without recognising the symptoms, I just knew that I felt totally shitty most of the time, and suffered from severe bouts of anxiety. I was not in a good space. The bizarre thing was that I was actually very good in both my work and my studies. Of course this could not go on and at the end of the eighties I came off the rails completely.

I spent four months in a mental hospital getting rid of my alcohol habit and taking the first faulty steps to coming to terms with my mental illness. When I came out I gave up my formal studies, I couldn’t give up my work, I had to eat and pay the rent, and something had to go. Strangely, although I was no longer drinking and had vastly reduced the stress load in my life and I was also in outpatient therapy and an eager member of the AA, my mental health did not improve it got worse.

Two years later I went back into mental hospital for a month and started looking for the first time for the root problems behind my depressions and other symptoms. I spent a lot of time in outpatient therapy making slow progress but not really coming to the root of the problem; suffering several severe depressive episodes over the next years. I was heading towards fifty and seemed consigned to a life of mental illness. Around the year 2000 I chanced to read an article about Asperger’s syndrome and lots of the descriptions of the behaviour of Asperger’s children seemed uncomfortably familiar to me. I started researching. I soon realised that although quite a lot of the symptoms of Asperger’s seemed to apply, several key factors didn’t. However in the course of my researches I came across various things that display similar symptoms and can get confused with Asperger’s and here I struck gold. I won’t go into details about what was a fairly long and stressful process but in the end it turned out that I’m a sufferer from a high-level adult ADD (non-hyperactive, I’m a daydreamer) and dysgraphia. Both have been properly diagnosed by medical experts and are not just the product of Google university, although I will admit that Google university proved very useful along the way. The ADD explains why I always had the feeling that I was travelling along different tracks in educational institutions; the simple explanation is I was! Adults with ADD learn differently to ‘normal ‘ people and the education system is conceived for the normals. The one that really blew me away was the dysgraphia.

Throughout my life I had been aware that I displayed similar symptoms to dyslexics, however dyslexia is always primarily described as a reading difficulty and I have never in my life had difficulty reading, in fact just the opposite, I have lived most of my life with my nose stuck in a book. I even used to read whilst riding my bike as a kid. There was no way that I was dyslexic. I had never heard of dysgraphia then one day during my medical research around the subject of Asperger’s I came across dysgraphia, which was described as a malfunction of that part of the brain that processes writing, and read the following fateful phrase, “trying to write when you suffer from dysgraphia is like trying to empty out an ocean with a garden hose!” If you haven’t experienced it you probably can’t understand what that sentence meant to me. I can compose whole books in my head, I can lecture on a given topic for two hours without notes and the number of given topics I can do that on is vast but up to ten years ago given a pen and a piece of paper getting one halfway coherent sentence out was a horror and a torture, which I was happy to forego. The same article that delivered the eye-opening sentence also contained two pieces of practical advice. Firstly writing with a keyboard is motorically different to writing with a pen and most dyslexics and dsygraphics find it easier. I can’t speak for anybody else but I certainly do. However it was the second piece of advice that led to the breakthrough and in the end to the fact that you are reading this. Dysgraphia is a disturbance of the part of the brain that processes writing but not the part that processes speech. I can talk! I can talk the hind leg off that proverbial donkey; in fact people who know me know the problem is to stop me talking. Remember those note-free lectures? I can go on without drawing breath for an eternity. The solution to my problem is so simple that the real question is why I didn’t think of it earlier. I can’t write but I can talk, so I don’t write I dictate! I am quite literally a narrative historian. I formulate everything that I write in my brain as a lecture and then dictate it to myself. It means I have a somewhat unorthodox style of writing but it works.

This didn’t happen overnight. I had spent forty years of my life developing a pathological fear of writing, ashamed to admit that I was a highly intelligent adult with the writing abilities of a mentally handicapped teenager. You don’t shrug that off overnight. What helped me was the Internet. I started off on music forums. I can remember the first two-sentence comment I sent on its way with a tremulous click of my mouse. Over time I progressed to one hundred then two or even three hundred word comments, each of which was hard work and very time consuming but I was writing. I then started to discover science blogs. Mark Chu-Carroll’s Good Math/Bad Math was the first, followed some time later by John Wilkins’ Evolving Thoughts. I started to comment here and there and with time the comments grew longer and more fluid. John, to whom I owe an un-payable debt, invited me to write a guest post. I was scared shitless, I sweated blood but I wrote one and it met with a positive resonance. I wrote a couple more and also a couple for Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda. Then came the big step my own blog. I was terrified and convinced that it wouldn’t last longer than six weeks.

Writing was still far from easy and fear was never very far away when I sat down at the keyboard to write, however I persevered and with time things improved. At the beginning to write five hundred words exhausted me and left me feeling like I had just run a marathon, also if I failed to bring something I was writing to a conclusion I was incapable of going back later to finish it. It was always all or nothing. If I started something I had to finish it with the momentum that I had started with or it was doomed. I still have a fairly large collection of unfinished posts. With time and experience the posts got longer, I found anger to be a good motivator, which partially explains the HIST-SCI-HULK style posts for which I have become somewhat notorious. A major breakthrough was being able to stop writing something and to come back the next day to finish it. When that happened I knew that I had crossed a major threshold. On a good day I can now write between two and three thousand words at a siting and writing longer pieces in instalments is no longer a problem. I won’t say that writing is easy for me now, it’s still very hard work and I really need a good proof reader to catch all the mistakes but compared to ten years ago there is no comparison. Learning to write, being able to express myself in print, if only in cyber space, has worked wonders with my mental health problems. For most of my life I lived an internal conflict I was a natural born academic who couldn’t write, a situation that made me very ill for a substantial part of my life. I own the Internet, computer correction programmes, the people who encouraged me and all the people who have read my feeble outpourings over the last five years a debt that I can never repay and that’s the main reason for this post.

If you suffer from similar learning difficulties or mental problems get help! Don’t be ashamed to ask, do it! If you know a child or an adult with similar learning or mental problems help them! Don’t let them suffer! The last five years of this blog have been a small but very precious recompense for all the years of mental anguish that I suffered and my only regret is that I didn’t discover the solution to my problems earlier. The AA has a saying, “being ill is not a reason to feel ashamed, doing nothing about it is.”

I’m on record as having said that my favourite philosopher is Kurt Vonnegut, people think that I’m joking and although it is said somewhat tongue in cheek it is meant seriously. One of my favourite Vonnegut pearls of wisdom is, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. My version would be “It’s never too late to learn to cope with your learning difficulties”.


Filed under Autobiographical

The Phases of Venus and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide

The word planet comes from the Greek word for wanderer. When people first started observing the heavens most of those points of light that we call stars appeared to remain fixed in place relative to each other, although the whole bowl of twinkling points appeared to revolve around the earth once every twenty-four hours, hence they became known as the sphere of fixed stars. With time however the early observers noticed that some of those points of lights behaved very differently to the vast majority, appearing to wander somewhat randomly around the heavens and these maverick stars became the planets. Further observations showed that the movement of the wanderers were in fact not random but followed a regularity that could, over suitably long periods of time, be recorded and then predicted in advance and planetary astronomy was born, however the behaviour of the various wanderers differed.

The Sun and Moon, which were both regarded as planets, have very special geocentric orbits and delivered the basics of timekeeping, the year and the day – the Sun – and the month and possible the seven day week (the phases of the moon) – the Moon. In the most common order of the planets, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars Jupiter and Saturn moving outwards from the Earth the remaining five planets were divided into the inner and outer planets with the Sun’s orbit providing the dividing line. The outer planets – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – display a rather curious behaviour. They trundle along quite regularly in one directions then halt, reverse direction for a short period, halt again then reversing direction once again continue as before. This brief period of reversed motion is called retrograde motion and I’ll deal with its history and significance for heliocentricity in another post.

The two inner planets – Mercury and Venus – display a completely different orbital behaviour viewed from the Earth. Firstly they never stray very far from the Sun. They disappear for periods of time first being one side of the sun then reappearing on the other side and lastly their orbits around the Earth is exactly the same as the Sun’s i.e. one year. This combination of phenomena led some astronomers in antiquity to hypothesise that Venus and Mercury do not orbit the Earth but the Sun, being carried with it on its annual journey around the Earth. This model became know as the Egyptian or Heracleidian system. It was also presented in late antiquity by Martianus Capella in his De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (“On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury”) a text that was very well known and popular in the Middle Ages and so the Heracleidian model was also well known in the Early Modern Period.


Capellan system - Valentin Naboth (1573)

Capellan system – Valentin Naboth (1573)

In the sixteenth-century the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe seeing the advantages of Copernicus’ heliocentric astronomy but very unhappy about a moving Earth extended the Heracleidian system in that he let all five of the planets orbit the Sun, which in turn orbited the Earth.


Tychonic System

Tychonic System

The telescope made its public debut in Holland in September 1608. Within a year Thomas Harriot in London, Simon Marius in Ansbach, Galileo Galilei in Padua, and the Jesuits Odo van Maelcote and Giovanni Paolo Lembo in Rome were all using the new instrument to make astronomical observations and ushering in a new era in our understanding of the cosmos. Famously, Galileo was the first in print with his Sidereus Nuncius, the impact of which I’ve dealt with here. The earliest known reference to the possibility of Venus having phases occurs in a letter sent by the mathematician Benedetto Castelli to his old teacher Galileo in December 1610. Referencing thoughts of Copernicus from chapter ten of book I of De revolutionibus, Castelli enquired if the telescope would make it possible to observe phases of Venus. This enquiry makes two assumptions, firstly that Venus orbits the sun and secondly that it is lit by reflected light from the sun and is not a light source itself.

Galileo experts are divided as to whether Galileo had already been considering the question before he received Castelli’s letter or whether he appropriated the idea without giving his onetime student the credit he deserved. Whatever, shortly after receiving this letter Galileo wrote to Kepler in Prague enclosing the following anagram announcing a new sensational discovery:

Haec immatura a me iam frustra leguntur o.y.

This reads in translation, “I am now bringing these unripe things together in vain, Oy!” It was common practice for researchers in the Early Modern Period to announce their new discoveries in the form of anagrams to establish their priority in an age that knew no patents or copyright in the modern sense. Kepler was unable to decipher Galileo’s message and had to wait until the Tuscan astronomer revealed his sensation to the world. Deciphered the anagram read as follows, in Latin:

Cynthiae figuras aemulatur mater amorum

In English translation this reads as, “The mother of love [Venus] copies the forms of Cynthia [the Moon]”. In other words Galileo had discovered that Venus has phases like the Moon and therefore must orbit the Sun and not the Earth. Also in 1610 Galileo informed his friend and former patron Christoph Clavius in Rome of his discovery. He included his discovery in his first letter on sunspots written and distributed privately in 1611/12 but which wasn’t published until 1613.


Galileo's Sunspot Letters

Galileo’s Sunspot Letters

Actually having phases was not a sufficient proof of Venus’ heliocentricity; the matter is in reality somewhat more complicated. If Venus were to orbit the Earth in a geocentric system between the Earth and the Sun, as proposed by Ptolemaeus, then it would also display phases. However the phases of the two configurations differ substantially so the accurate observation of those phases is a true experimentum crucis, in Francis Bacon’s sense, between a geocentric and a heliocentric Venus. What Galileo had in fact observed were phases consistent with a heliocentric orbit for Venus.


The Phases of Venus in both systems

The Phases of Venus in both systems

Independently of Galileo, Harriot, Marius and the Collegio Romano astronomers also observed the phases of Venus so there was no doubt that Venus and, by analogy, probably Mercury, (the phases of Mercury were first observed by the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Zupi in 1639) orbited the Sun and not the Earth. Harriot as usual did not publish, Marius sent his discovery to Kepler who published it in the preface of his Dioptrice in 1611. Odo von Maelcote included the Jesuit confirmation of Galileo’s observations in his speech during the banquet to honour Galileo at the Collegio Romano in 1611.

This discovery put an end, once and for all, to a pure geocentric system à la Ptolemaeus but did not as Castelli thought, in his letter to Galileo, provide definitive proof of Copernicus’ heliocentric system. Both the ancient Heracleidian and Tycho’s helio-geocentric systems would display the same, newly discovered, phases of Venus. This situation is illustrated on the famous title page of Riccioli’s Almagestum Novum (1651), which shows Ptolemaeus lying on the ground with his system, feebly claiming, “I will rise again” whilst Urania weighs the merits of the Copernican heliocentric system against those of Riccioli’s own semi-Tychonic system. In Riccioli’s system Mercury, Venus and Mars orbit the Sun, which in turn, together with Jupiter and Saturn, orbits the Earth. As far as I know, nobody other than Riccioli ever propagated this strange beast.


Title page Riccioli’s Almagestum Novum (1651)

Title page Riccioli’s Almagestum Novum (1651)

Although the phases of Venus were not decisive in deciding the conflict between the supporters of geocentricity and those of heliocentricity they did provide an important step along the twisting road towards the eventual acceptance of a heliocentric model, Kepler’s, for the then known cosmos.


h/t to my #histsci soul sister Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt whose questions on this topic on Twitter inspired this post.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

Science grows on the fertilizer of disagreement

At the weekend German television presented me with all three episodes of Jim Al-Khalili’s documentary on the history of electricity, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity. On the whole I found it rather tedious largely because I don’t like my science or history of science served up by a star presenter who is the centre of the action rather than the science itself, a common situation with the documentaries of ‘he who shall not be named’-TPBoPS, and NdGT. It seems that we are supposed to learn whatever it is that the documentary nominally offers by zooming in on the thoughtful features of the presenter, viewing his skilfully lit profile or following him as he walks purposefully, thoughtfully, meaningfully or pensively through the landscape. What comes out is “The Brian/Neil/Jim Show” with added science on the side, which doesn’t really convince me, but maybe I’m just getting old.

However my criticism of the production style of modern television science programmes is not the real aim of this post, I’m much more interested in the core of the first episode of Al-Khalili’s documentary. The episode opened and closed with the story of Humphrey Davy constructing the, then, largest battery in the world in the cellars of the Royal Institution in order to make the first ever public demonstration of an arc lamp and thus to spark the developments that would eventually lead to electric lighting. Having started here the programme moved back in time to the electrical experiments of Francis Hauksbee at the Royal Society under the auspices of Isaac Newton. Al-Khalili then followed the development of electrical research through the eighteenth-century, presenting the work of the usual suspects, Steven Gray, Benjamin Franklin etc., until we arrived at the scientific dispute between the two great Italian physicists Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta that resulted in the invention of the Voltaic pile, the forerunner of the battery and the first producer of an consistent electrochemical current. All of this was OK and I have no real criticisms, although I was slightly irked by constant references to ‘Hauksbee’s’ generator when the instrument in question was an adaption suggested by Newton of an invention from Otto von Guericke, who didn’t get a single name check. What did irritate me and inspired this post was the framing of the Galvani-Volta dispute.

Al-Khalili, a gnu atheist of the milder variety, presented this as a conflict between irrational religious persuasion, Galvani, and rational scientific heuristic, Volta, culminating in a victory for science over religion. In choosing so to present this historical episode Al-Khalili, in my opinion, missed a much more important message in scientific methodology, which was in fact spelt out in the fairly detailed presentation of the successive stages of the dispute. Galvani made his famous discovery of twitching frog’s legs and after a series of further experiments published his theory of animal electricity. Volta was initially impressed by Galvani’s work and at first accepted his theory. Upon deeper thought he decided Galvani’s interpretation of the observed phenomena was wrong and conducted his own series of result to prove Galvani wrong and establish his own theory. Volta having published his refutation of Galvani’s theory, the latter not prepared to abandon his standpoint also carried out a series of new experiments to prove his opponent wrong and his own theory right. One of these experiments led Volta to the right explanation, within the knowledge framework of the period, and to the discovery of the Voltaic pile. What we see here is a very important part of scientific methodology, researchers holding conflicting theories spurring each other on to new discoveries and deeper knowledge of the field under examination. The heuristics of the two are almost irrelevant, what is important here is the disagreement as research motor. Also very nicely illustrated is discovery as an evolutionary process spread over time rather than the infamous eureka moment.

The inspiration produced from watching Al-Khalili’s story of the invention of the battery chimes in very nicely with another post I was planning on writing. In a recent blog post, Joe Hanson of “it’s OKAY to be SMART” wrote about Galileo and the first telescopic observations of sunspots at the beginning of the seventeenth-century. The post is OK as far as it goes, even managing to give credit to Thomas Harriot and Johannes Fabricius, however it contains one truly terrible sentence that caused my heckles to rise. Hanson wrote:

Although Galileo’s published sunspot work was the most important of its day, on account of the “that’s no moon” smackdown it delivered to the Jesuit scientific community, G-dub was not the first to observe the solar speckles.

Here we have another crass example of modern anti-religious sentiment of a science writer getting in the way of sensible history of science. What we are talking about here is not the Jesuit scientific community but the single Jesuit physicist and astronomer Christoph Scheiner, who famously became embroiled in a dispute on the nature of sunspots with Galileo. Once again we also have an excellent example of scientific disagreement driving the progress of scientific research. Scheiner and Galileo discovered sunspots with their telescopes independently of each other at about the same time and it was Scheiner who first published the results of his discoveries together with an erroneous theory as to the nature of sunspots. Galileo had at this point not written up his own observations, let alone developed a theory to explain them. Spurred on by Scheiner’s publication he now proceeded to do so, challenging Scheiner’s claim that the sunspots where orbiting the sun and stating instead that they were on the solar surface. An exchange of views developed with each of the adversaries making new observations and calculations to support their own theories. Galileo was not only able to demonstrate that sunspots were on the surface of the sun but also to prove that the sun was rotating on its axis, as already hypothesised by Johannes Kepler. Scheiner, an excellent astronomer and mathematician, accepted Galileo’s proofs and graciously acknowledge defeat. However whereas Galileo now effectively gave up his solar observations Scheiner developed new sophisticated observation equipment and carried out an extensive programme of solar research in which he discovered amongst other things that the sun’s axis is tilted with respect to the ecliptic. Here again we have two first class researchers propelling each other to new important discoveries because of conflicting views on how to interpret observed phenomena.

My third example of disagreement as a driving force in scientific discovery is not one that I’ve met recently but one whose misrepresentation has annoyed me for many years, it concerns Albert Einstein and quantum mechanics. I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve read some ignorant know-it-all mocking Einstein for having rejected quantum mechanics. That Einstein vehemently rejected the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is a matter of record but his motivation for doing so and the result of that rejection is often crassly misrepresented by those eager to score one over the great Albert. Quantum mechanics as initial presented by Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg et. al. contradicted Einstein fundamental determinist metaphysical concept of physics. It was not that he didn’t understand it, after all he had made several significant contributions to its evolution, but he didn’t believe it was a correct interpretation of the real physical world. Einstein being Einstein he didn’t just sit in the corner and sulk but actively searched for weak points in the new theory trying to demonstrate its incorrectness. There developed a to and fro between Einstein and Bohr, with the former picking holes in the theory and the latter closing them up again. Bohr is on record as saying that Einstein through his informed criticism probably contributed more to the development of the new theory than any other single physicist. The high point of Einstein’s campaign against quantum mechanics was the so-called EPR (Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen) paradox, a thought experiment, which sought to show that quantum mechanics as it stood would lead to unacceptable or even impossible consequences. On the basis of EPR the Irish physicist John Bell developed a testable theorem, which when tested showed quantum mechanics to be basically correct and Einstein wrong, a major step forward in the establishment of quantum physics. Although proved wrong in the end Einstein’s criticism of and disagreement with quantum mechanics contributed immensely to the theories evolution.

The story time popular presentations of the history of science very often presents the progress of science as a series of eureka moments achieved by solitary geniuses, their results then being gratefully accepted by the worshiping scientific community. Critics who refuse to acknowledge the truth of the new discoveries are dismissed as pitiful fools who failed to understand. In reality new theories almost always come into being in an intellectual conflict and are tested, improved and advanced by that conflict, the end result being the product of several conflicting minds and opinions struggling with the phenomena to be explained over, often substantial, periods of time and are not the product of a flash of inspiration by one single genius. As the title says, science grows on the fertilizer of disagreement.


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

It’s The Final Countdown.

In case you’ve missed it Giants’ Shoulders the history of science, technology and medicine blog carnival is closing down at the end of six glorious years of aggregating the best of STEM history every month. Giants’ Shoulders #72 the Doomsday Edition will be hosted by the blog carnival’s founder Dr SkySkull (@drskyskull) on his Skulls in the Stars blog on 16th June 2014. This means you have just ten days left to submit those great history of science, technology or medicine blog posts that you’ve read or written either straight to the host or to me here at RM or to either of us on Twitter.

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Filed under Giants' Shoulders

Galileo, the Church and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide.

A couple of days ago on Twitter, Brian Cox asked the Twitter historians, “Did Galileo know that he would annoy the Church when he published The Starry Messenger?” The very simple answer to this question is, no but a lengthy discussion of the situation developed on Twitter. It was suggested that somebody should produce a short temperate answer to the question as a reference source and after some hesitation I have acquiesced. This will be a relative short presentation of the various stages of this historical process with a minimum of explanation and justification, as Joe Friday used to say, “the facts ma’am, just the facts!” This is of course my interpretation but it is based on a fairly good knowledge of the most recent principal secondary literature on the subject and it is one that I think would find fairly general agreement amongst those who have seriously studied the subject. Those who disagree are welcome, as always, to air their views in the comments but I expect those who choose to do so to base those views on historical facts and not on prejudice.

The first thing to make clear is the situation in terms of astronomy, cosmology and the Church in the first decade of the seventeenth-century before Galileo, Marius, Harriot, Lembo and others changed our view of the cosmos forever with the recently invented telescope. Astronomy and cosmology were not very high up on the Church’s agenda between 1600 and 1610. The vast majority of people, including the experts, still believed in a geocentric cosmos in the form developed by Ptolemaeus, the most modern version being basically that of Peuerbach and Regiomontanus. A very small handful believed in the Copernican heliocentric model, and believed is the right word because it lacked any real form of empirical proof and was burdened by all the physical problems engendered by a moving earth. A probably equally small number favoured a Tychonic geo-heliocentric model with or without a rotating earth and another small number were finding favour with Gilbert’s geocentric model with a rotating earth. All of the discussions were very academic and nothing that could or would threaten the dominance of a solid Bible conform geocentricity, so nothing for the Church to get its knickers in a twist about.

The telescopic discoveries were brand new empirical evidence and the biggest shake up in astronomy since mankind first cast its little beady eyes on the heavens. When he started to make his discoveries, late in 1609, Galileo was very much aware of the fact that he was sitting on the Renaissance equivalent of a Nobel prize, a knighthood and the keys to the treasure chest all in one and also very aware that he almost certainly wasn’t the only person making or about to make these discoveries. In the last point he was of course completely right, Harriot was ahead of him and Marius was breathing down his neck. Galileo was fully aware that if his wished to cash in then he had to get his priority claim in tout suite.

To understand this one needs to look at Galileo’s situation. In 1610 he was a forty-six year old professor of mathematics, stuck in the same rather lowly position for the last eighteen years. He was on the down hill slope to ill health, death and anonymity. He had already done his ground-breaking work on dynamics but hadn’t published it. If he were to die tomorrow nobody would remember him beyond a few close friends and his family. Now he had hit the jackpot and needed to cash in fast. He bunged his principal discoveries together in book form, in what was more a press release than a scientific report, the Sidereus Nuncius, and had it printed and published as fast as possible.

The last thing the Galileo wanted to do at this point was to annoy anybody; he wanted fame and fortune not infamy. He spent as much effort on getting permission to dedicate his small book to Cosimo Medici, the ruler of the Duchy of Florence, his home province, and his sometime private pupil, as he did on his telescopic observations. He also made very sure that the Medici would approve of the name he gave to the newly discovered moons of Jupiter; he was after preferment, which he got as a result of his clever tactical manoeuvring. He would have been mortified if his publication had caused problems with the Church in Rome because that would almost certainly have cost him any chance of an appointment to the Medici court, his main aim at the time. The Medici did in fact drop him when he finally collided with the Church in the 1620s.

The telescopic discoveries, which Galileo was the first to publish, shook up the whole of Europe and not just the Catholic Church. However the contents of Sidereus Nuncius neither disproved Ptolemaeus/Peuerbach nor did they prove Copernicus, as I’ve already explained here. Of course at first they did nothing at all because like all new scientific discoveries they needed to be confirmed by other astronomers. This proved to be somewhat difficult, as the available telescopes were very poor quality and Galileo was an exceptional telescopic observer. In the end it was the Church’s own official astronomers, the members of Clavius’ mathematical research group at the Collegio Romano, who with the active assistance of Galileo delivered the necessary confirmation of all of Galileo’s discoveries.

Hailed now as the greatest astronomer in Europe Galileo travelled in triumph to Rome where he was feted by the mathematicians of the Collegio Romano, who threw a banquet in his honour, had an audience with the Pope and was appointed a member of the Accademia dei Lincei who also threw a banquet in his honour. No signs of annoyance here. Galileo was appointed philosophicus and mathematicus to the Medici court in Florence, as well as professor for mathematics without teaching obligations at the University in Pisa. The humble insignificant mathematician had become a renowned social figure, almost overnight, feted and praised throughout Europe. High Church officials flocked to make his acquaintance and win his friendship, one of these, the Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, became a close friend and the cause of Galileo’s downfall later in his life.

Although nothing in the Sidereus Nuncius disproved the geocentric model of Ptolemaeus the discovery of the phases of Venus a short time later, by Galileo, Lembo, Harriot and Marius, did. The basic geocentric model was dead in the water and the Church had a problem because Holy Scripture clearly implied a geocentric cosmos. Riding on the wave of his fame Galileo wanted to go for the big one. He wanted to go down in history as the man who proved that the cosmos was heliocentric. Unfortunately he lacked a genuine proof. He had evidence that the cosmos was not geocentric and not homocentric but all the available empirical evidence satisfied both a heliocentric cosmos and a geo-heliocentric Tychonic one and it was the latter that most astronomers, still worried about the physical problems of a moving earth, tended to favour.

Around 1613, despite his lack of genuine proof Galileo began to canvas his newly won influential friends in Rome in an attempt to convince them to give their support to a call for the acceptance of a heliocentric cosmos, a dangerous move. The Church was a vast structure set in its ways and like a large ocean liner getting it to stop in full motion and reverse its direction was something that required a lot of time and space, Galileo eager to make his mark in history lacked the necessary patience to wait for the Church to accept the inevitable and was trying to force the pace. Several of his friends including Maffeo Barbarini advised him to calm down and not to force the Church into a corner, but Galileo, his ego inflated by his recent successes failed to heed this sound advice.

In the next couple of years both Galileo and the Carmelite father Paolo Antonio Foscarini tried to tell the Church how to reinterpret those passages of the Bible that contradict a heliocentric interpretation of the cosmos. This was a fundamental failure and guaranteed to annoy the Church extremely, which it did. One should remember that all of this was taking place in the middle of the Counter Reformation and on the eve of the Thirty Years War, which would kill off between one third and two thirds of the entire population of Middle Europe in what was basically an argument about who had the right to interpret the Bible. The Church set up a commission to investigate Foscarini’s book on the subject and the commission came down very hard on heliocentricity, calling it both philosophically (read scientifically) absurd and heretical. The accusation of heresy was not confirmed by the Pope and so was never official Church doctrine, but the damage was done. Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino was instructed to inform Galileo of the commission’s judgement. In a friendly chat Bellarmino did just this, informing Galileo that he could neither hold nor teach the theory that the cosmos was heliocentric. It is important to note that the theory was banned not the hypothesis. One could continue to discuss a hypothetical heliocentric cosmos, one could not, however, claim it to be fact. As many people have pointed out over the centuries this restriction was actually in line with the known empirical facts. The books of Kepler and other Protestants claiming that the cosmos was heliocentric were placed on the Index and Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was placed on the Index until corrected. Interestingly the Inquisition did just that. They removed the handful of passages from De revolutionibus that claimed the heliocentric cosmos to be fact and then gave the book free to be read, already in 1621. We still have Galileo’s personal censored copy of the book. This censorship was only really effective in Italy the rest of Europe not taking much notice of the Church’s efforts to suppress heliocentricity.

This setback did very little to slow down Galileo’s rise to fame and he became a very favoured celebrity throughout Northern Italy. Symptomatic for this is his notorious dispute with the Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grassi over the nature of comets that peaked in the publication of Galileo’s Il Saggiatore, in 1623. A dispute in which Grassi was scientifically right and Galileo wrong, but in which Galileo carried the laurels thanks to his superior polemic and the sycophantic cheers of his high powered fan club, which included the newly elected Pope, Urban VIII, Galileo’s old friend Maffeo Barberini.

Barberini’s elevation to the Holy Throne gave Galileo the chance he had been waiting and longing for, the chance to go down in history as the man who established the heliocentric cosmos. Using his friendship with the new Pope, Galileo convinced Barberini that the German Protestants were laughing at the Catholic Church because it had rejected heliocentricity because according to those dastardly Protestants the Catholics were too stupid to understand it. Beguiled by his silver tongued friend Barberini gave Galileo permission to write and publish a book in which he would present both the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems to demonstrate the deep astronomical knowledge of the Catholics but by no means was he to favour one of the systems. Galileo wrote the book, his Dialogo, in which he was anything but impartial and unbiased, as instructed, but instead left nobody in any doubt just how superior the Copernican system was in his opinion, however he still lacked any real empirical proof. Through a series of tricks he managed to get his book past the censors and into print. Galileo had erred very badly, you don’t play the most powerful absolutist ruler of your time for a fool, particularly not when that ruler is already displaying strong signs of the paranoia that, sooner or later, effects all absolutist rulers.

I’m not going to go into all of the contributory factors that played a part in the sorry mess that was Galileo’s trial by the Inquisitions, I’ll deal with those one day in another post, but it is safe to say that he got stamped on for his hubris. By comparison with other cases he didn’t actually get stamped on very hard and got off relatively lightly. I can already hear the screams of protest at the last sentence but within the context of the times and place where Galileo lived and moved it is an accurate description of his fate.

One thing that should be made very clear when discussing this whole sorry mess is that Galileo was never the fearless defender of scientific truth or freedom of speech that his modern fan club like to present him as. He was an extremely egotistical social climber with an eye on the main chance, his own undying fame. Through his ill-considered actions he achieved his goal but not quite in the way he had intended.

It is ironic that many people today still believe erroneously that Galileo actually proved the reality of a heliocentric cosmos in his Sidereus Nuncius.

[The original opening paragraph of this post was modified at the request of those who wish it to be used as a short simple reference source]


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