Hyping the history of mathematics

A while back the Internet was full of reports about a sensational discovery in the history of mathematics. Two researchers had apparently proved that a well know Babylonian cuneiform clay tablet (Plimpton 322), which contains a list of Pythagorean triples, is in fact a proof that the Babylonians had developed trigonometry one thousand years before the Greeks and it was even a superior and more accurate system than that of the Greeks. My first reaction was that the reports contained considerably more hype than substance, a reaction that was largely confirmed by an excellent blog post on the topic by Evelyn Lamb.

Plimpton 322, Babylonian tablet listing pythagorean triples
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was followed by an equally excellent and equally deflating essay by Eduardo A Escobar an expert on cuneiform tablets. And so another hyped sensation is brought crashing down into the real world. Both put downs were endorsed by Eleanor Robson author of Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History and a leading expert on Babylonian mathematics.

Last week saw the next history of mathematics press feeding frenzy with the announcement by the Bodleian Library in Oxford that an Indian manuscript containing a symbol for zero had been re-dated using radio carbon dating and was now considered to be from the third to fourth centuries CE rather than the eight century CE, making it the earliest known Indian symbol for zero. This is of course an interesting and significant discovery in the history of mathematics but it doesn’t actually change our knowledge of that history in any really significant way. I will explain later, but first the hype in the various Internet reports.

A leaf from the Bakhshali Manuscript, showing off Indian mathematical genius. A zero symbol has been highlighted in the image.
Courtesy of the Bodleian Library


We start off with Richard Ovenden from Bodleian Libraries who announced, “The finding is of “vital importance” to the history of mathematics.”

Bodleian Library Carbon dating finds Bakhshali manuscript contains oldest recorded origins of the symbol ‘zero’

The Guardian leads off with an article by Marcus Du Sautoy: Much ado about nothing: ancient Indian text contains earliest zero symbol. Who in a video film and in the text of his article tells us, “This becomes the birth of the concept of zero in it’s own right and this is a total revolution that happens out of India.”

The Science Museum’s article Illuminating India: starring the oldest recorded origins of ‘zero’, the Bakhshali manuscript, basically repeats the Du Sautoy doctrine,

Medievalists.net makes the fundamental mistake of entitling their contribution, The First Zero, although in the text they return to the wording, “the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero that we use today.”

The BBC joins the party with another clone of the basic article, Carbon dating reveals earliest origins of zero symbol.

Entrepreneur Cecile G Tamura summed up the implicit and sometimes explicit message of all these reports with the following tweet, One of the greatest conceptual breakthroughs in mathematics has been traced to the Bakhshali manuscript dating from the 3rd or 4th century at a period even earlier than we thought. To which I can only reply, has it?

All of the articles, which are all basically clones of the original announcement state quite clearly that this is a placeholder zero and not the number concept zero[1] and that there are earlier recorded symbols for placeholder zeros in both Babylonian and Mayan mathematics. Of course it was only in Indian mathematics that the place-holder zero developed into the number concept zero of which the earliest evidence can be found in Brahmagupta’s Brahmasphuṭasiddhanta from the seven century CE. However, this re-dating of the Bakhshali manuscript doesn’t actually bring us any closer to knowing when, why or how that conceptual shift, so important in the history of mathematics, took place. Does it in anyway actually change the history of the zero concept within the history of mathematics? No not really.

Historians of mathematics have known for a long time that the history of the zero concept within Indian culture doesn’t begin with Brahmagupta and that it was certainly preceded by a long complex prehistory. They are well aware of zero concepts in Sanskrit linguistics and in Hindu philosophy that stretch back well before the turn of the millennium. In fact it is exactly this linguistic and philosophical acceptance of ‘nothing’ that the historian assume enabled the Indian mathematicians to make the leap to the concept of a number signifying nothing, whereas the Greeks with their philosophical rejection of the void were unable to spring the gap. Having a new earliest symbol in Indian mathematics for zero as a placeholder, as opposed to the earlier recorded words for the concept of nothingness doesn’t actually change anything fundamental in our historical knowledge of the number concept of zero.

There is a small technical problem that should be mentioned in this context. Due to the fact that early Indian culture tended to write on perishable organic material, such as the bark used here, means that the chances of our ever discovering manuscripts documenting that oh so important conceptual leap are relatively low.

I’m afraid I must also take umbrage with another of Richard Ovenden’s claims in the original Bodleian report:

 Richard Ovenden, head of the Bodleian Library, said the results highlight a Western bias that has often seen the contributions of South Asian scholars being overlooked. “These surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition,” he said.

Whilst this claim might be true in other areas of #histSTM, as far as the history of the so-called Hindu-Arabic numbers system and the number concept zero are concerned it is totally bosh. Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749-1827) wrote the following:

“It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it has lent to computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of the achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.”

I started buying general books on the history of mathematics more than 45 years ago and now have nine such volumes all of which deal explicitly with the Indian development of the decimal place value number system and the invention of the number concept zero. I own two monographs dedicated solely to the history of the number concept zero. I have four volumes dedicated to the history of number systems all of which deal extensively with the immensely important Indian contributions. I also own two books that are entirely devoted to the history of Indian mathematics. Somehow I can’t see in the case of the massive Indian contribution to the development of number systems that a Western bias has here overseen the contributions of South Asian scholars.

This of course opens the question as to why this discovery was made public at this time and in this overblown manner? Maybe I’m being cynical but could it have something to do with the fact that this manuscript is going on display in a major Science Museum exhibition starting in October?

The hype that I have outlined here in the recent history of mathematics has unfortunately become the norm in all genres of history and in the historical sciences such as archaeology or palaeontology. New discoveries are not presented in a reasonable manner putting them correctly into the context of the state of the art research in the given field but are trumpeted out at a metaphorical 140 decibel claiming that this is a sensation, a discipline re-defining, an unbelievable, a unique, a choose your own hyperbolic superlative discovery. The context is, as above, very often misrepresented to make the new discovery seem more important, more significant, whatever. Everybody is struggling to make themselves heard above the clamour of all the other discovery announcements being made by the competition thereby creating a totally false impression of how academia works and how it progresses. Can we please turn down the volume, cut out the hype and present the results of academic research in history in a manner appropriate to it and not to the marketing of the latest Hollywood mega-bucks, blockbuster?

[1] For those who are not to sure about these terms, a placeholder zero just indicates an empty space in a place value number system, so you can distinguish between 11 and 101, where here the zero is a placeholder. A number concept zero also fulfils the same function but beyond this is a number in its own right. You can perform the arithmetical operations of addition, subtraction and multiplication with it. However, as we all learnt at school (didn’t we!) you can’t divide by zero; division by zero is not defined.



Filed under History of Mathematics, History of science, Myths of Science

The Great Man paradox – A coda: biographies

This is a follow up to my last post that was inspired by an interesting discussion on Twitter and by the comment on that post by Paul Engle, author of the excellent Conciatore: The Life and Times of 17th Century Glassmaker Antonio Neri.

It is clear to me that biographies, particular popular ones, play a very central roll in the creation of the great men and lone genius myths. Now don’t misunderstand me I am not condemning #histSTM biographies in general; I have one and a half metres of such biographies on my bookshelves and have consumed many, many more that I don’t own. What I am criticising is the way that many such biographies are written and presented and I am going to make some suggestions, with examples, how, in my opinion such biographies should be written in order to avoid falling into the great man and lone genius traps.

The problem as I see it is produced by short, single volume, popular biographies of #histSTM figures or the even shorter portraits printed in newspapers and magazines. Here the title figure is presented with as much emphasis as possible on the uniqueness, epoch defining, and world-moving importance of their contribution to the history of science, technology or medicine. Given the brevity and desired readability of such works the context in which the subject worked is reduced to a minimum and any imperfections in their efforts are often conveniently left out. In order to achieve maximum return on their investment publishers then hype the book in their advertising, in the choice of title and/or subtitle and in the cover blurbs. A good fairly recent example of this was the subtitle of David Loves Kepler biography, How One Man Revolutionised Astronomy, about which I wrote a scathing blog post.

The authors of such works, rarely themselves historian of science, also tend to ignore the painfully won knowledge of historians and prefer to repeat ad nauseam the well worn myths handed down by the generations – Newton and the apple, Galileo and the Tower of Pisa and so on and so forth.

#histSTM biography does not have to be like this. Individual biographies can be historically accurate, can include the necessary context, and can illuminate the failings and errors of their subjects. Good examples of this are Westfall’s Newton biography Never at Rest and Abraham Pais’ Einstein biography Subtle is the Lord. Unfortunately these are doorstep size, scholarly works that tend to scare off the non-professional reader. Are there popular #histSTM works that surmount this problem? I think there are and I think the solution lies in the multi-biography and the theme-orientated books with biographies.

A good example of the first is Laura J Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World. Despite the hype in the subtitle this book embeds its four principal biographies in a deep sea of context and because all four of them were polymaths, manages to give a very wide picture of Victorian science in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Another good example is Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men: The Friends Who made the Future, once again a terrible subtitle, but with its even larger cast of central characters and even wider spectrum of science and technology delivered by them we get a true panorama of science and technology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Neither book has any lone geniuses and far too many scrambling for attention for any of them to fit the great man schema.

Two good examples of the second type are both by the same author, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and Twitter sparring partner, Matthew the Mancunian Maggot Man, aka Matthew Cobb. Both his books, The Egg and Sperm Race: The Seventeenth Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth

and Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

deal with the evolution of scientific concepts over a relatively long time span. Both books contain accurate portraits of the scientists involved complete with all of their failings but the emphasis is on the development of the science not on the developers. Here, once again, with both books having a ‘cast of millions’ there is no place for lone geniuses or great men.

These, in my opinion, are the types of books that we should be recommending, quoting and even buying for friends and relatives not the single volume, one central figure biographies. If more such books formed the basis of peoples knowledge of #histSTM then the myths of the lone genius and the great man might actually begin to fade out and with luck over time disappear but sadly I don’t think it is going to happen any day soon.

Having mentioned it at the beginning I should say something about Paul Engle’s Conciatore.

This is a single volume, one central figure biography of the seventeenth-century glassmaker Antonio Neri, who was the first man to write and publish a book revealing the secrets of glassmaking. His revealing of the trade secrets of a craft marks a major turning point in the history of technology. Up till the seventeenth century trade secrets were just that, secret with severe punishment for those who dared to reveal them, including death. Later in the century Joseph Moxon would follow Neri’s example publishing a whole series of books revealing the secrets of a whole range of trades including the first ever textbook on book printing his Mechanical Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works. Paul’s book is a biography of Neri but because of why he is writing about Neri it is more a history of glassmaking and so sits amongst my history of technology books and not with my collection of #histSTM biographies. Here the context takes precedence over the individual, another example of how to write a productive biography and a highly recommended one at that.





Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Myths of Science

The Great Man paradox

Over the years a fair number of the blog posts here have been fairly speculative, basically me thinking out loud about something that has recently crossed my mind or my path. What follows is one of those posts and as I begin writing I have a germ of an idea what I think I want to say but I can’t guarantee that what will come out is what I initial intended or that it will be particularly illuminating or informative. At the end of last week I had the following very brief exchange with zoologist and historian, Matthew the Mancunian Maggot Man (@matthewcobb)

MC: What would have happened if Einstein fell under a tram in 1900? What difference would it have made, for how long?

Me: Not a lot, Poincaré was almost there and others were working on the various problems. I’d guess at most a ten-year delay

MC: So are there any true examples of ‘great men’ or is science all over-determined?

My instantaneous response to Mathew’s last comment was yes there are great men in the history of science and Einstein was certainly one of them but not in the sense that people usually mean when they use the term. It is this response that I will try to unpack and elucidate here.

When people describe Einstein as a great man of science what they usually mean is that if he hadn’t lived, see Matthew’s original question, we ‘wouldn’t have the theories of relativity’ or ‘physics would have been held back for decades or even longer’. Both of the expression in scare quote are ones that occur regularly following statements along the lines of if X hadn’t existed we wouldn’t have Y and both are expressions that I think should be banned from #histSTM. They should be banned because they are simply not true.

Let’s take a brief look at the three papers Einstein published in 1905 that made his initial reputation. The paper on quantum theory, for which he would eventually get his Nobel Prize, was, of course, in response to Planck’s work in this field and was a topic on which many would work in the first half of the twentieth century. The so-called black body problem, which sparked off the whole thing, was regarded as one of the most important unsolved problems in physics at the turn of the century. Brownian motion, the subject of the second paper, was another hot topic with various people producing mathematically formulations of it in the nineteenth century. In fact Marian Smoluchowski produced a solution very similar to Einstein’s independently, which was published in 1906. This just leaves Special Relativity. The problem solved here had been debated ever since it had been known that the Clerk Maxwell equations did not agree with Newtonian physics. We have both Lorentz and FitzGerald producing the alternative to the Newtonian Galilean transformations that lie at the heart of Einstein’s Special Relativity theory. The Michelson-Morley experiment also demanded a solution. Poincaré had almost reached that solution when Einstein pipped him at the post. The four dimensional space-time continuum now considered so central to the whole concept was delivered, not by Einstein, but by his one time teacher Minkowski. Minkowski’s formulation was, of course, also central for the General Theory of Relativity; the solution for the field equations of which were found independently by Einstein and Hilbert, although Hilbert clearly acknowledged Einstein’s priority.

Albert Einstein in 1904 (age 25)
Lucien Chavan [1] (1868 – 1942), a friend of Einstein’s when he was living in Berne. – Cropped from original at the Historical Museum of Berne.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Without going into a lot of detail it should be clear that Einstein is solving problems on which a number of other people are working and making important contributions. He is not pulling new physics out of a hat but solving problems over-determined by the field of physics itself.

What about other ‘great men’? The two most obvious examples are also physicists, Galileo and Newton. I’ve already done a major demolition job on Galileo several years ago, in which I show that everything he worked on was being worked on parallel by other highly competent scholars that you can read here. And a more recent version here.

Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Leoni
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what about Newton?As should be well known Leibnitz and Newton both developed calculus roughly contemporaneously, even more important, as I explained here, they were both building on foundations laid down by other leading seventeenth-century mathematicians. Newton was anticipated in his colour theory of white light by the Bohemian scholar Jan Marek Marci. As I’ve explained here and here Newton was only one of three people who developed a reflecting telescope in the 1660s. Robert Hooke anticipated and probably motivated Newton on the theory of universal gravity and Newton’s work on dynamics built on the work of many others beginning with Tartaglia and Benedetti in the sixteenth century. His first law of motion was from Isaac Beeckman via Descartes and the second from Christiaan Huygens from whose work he also derived the law of gravity. Once again we have a physicist working on problem of his time that were being worked actively on by other competent scholars.

Copy of a portrait of Newton at 46 in 1689 by Godfrey Kneller
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I think this brief analysis that the work of these ‘great men’, Einstein, Galileo and Newton, was to a large extent over-determined that is dictated by the scientific evolution of their respective times and their finding solutions to those problems, solutions that others also found contemporaneously, does not qualify them as special, as ‘great men’.

Having said all of that I would be insane to deny that all three of these physicists are, with right, regarded as special, as great men, so what is the solution to this seeming paradox?

I think the answer lies not in the fact that they solved the problems that they solved but in the breadth and quality of their work. Each of them did not just solve one major problem but a whole series of them and their solutions were of a quality and depth unequalled by others also offering solutions. This can be illustrated by looking at Hooke and Newton on gravity. Hooke got there first and there are good grounds for believing that his work laid the foundations for Newton’s. However whereas Hooke’s contribution consist of a brief series of well founded speculations, Newton built with his Principia a vast mathematical edifice that went on to dominate physics for two hundred years. Put simply it is not the originality or uniqueness of their work but the quality and depth of it that makes these researchers great men.



Filed under Uncategorized

“Within the stress of Research” – A collaborative composition with apologies to Paul Simon


Hello JSTOR my old friend[1]

I’ve come to search in you again[2]

Because a reference softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was reading[3]

And the paper that was gnawing at my brain

Still remains[4]

Within the stress of research[5]


Through restless links I searched alone

Papers from journals I do not own

Neath the halo from my desk-lamp

I turn my collar to the research lab[6]


When my eyes were stabbed by the pain

Of a sleepless night

As I tried to write

Through the stress of research[7]


And in the flickering light I saw

Ten thousand deadlines maybe more[8]

Within the stress of research


Post-doc said, ah you do not know

Research like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Read my diss’ and it might reach you

But my sources like undergrads they failed

Adding to the stress of research[9]


Then the faculty bowed and prayed

To bureaucratic gods they made

And the REF flashed out its warnings

Low impact scores were alarming[10]


And the graphs and words from students

Were projected on the classroom walls and lecture halls

Folks breaking under the stress from research[11]


Composed 31 August 2017

Extended 5 September 2017

[1] Clare @mcclare95


[3] Thony Christie @rmathematicus

[4] Vivek Santayana @viveksantayana

[5] Thony Christie @rmathematicus

[6] Eric Keeton @w0wkeeton

[7] Vivek Santayana @viveksantayana

[8] Vivek Santayana @viveksantayana

[9] Eric Keeton @w0wkeeton

[10] Vivek Santayana @viveksantayana

[11] Eric Keeton @w0wkeeton


Filed under Uncategorized

A mini-pre-vacation rant roundup

I don’t seem to have provoked anyone for quite sometime, so I thought I would set up a quick Hist­_Sci Hulk triple threat match before I disappear off on holiday. What follows are three things that irritated me on the Internet in recent days.

The major scientific theme of the day has been, of course, Monday’s total eclipse over America. In the lead up we have seen a lot on the Internet about eclipse maps. Eclipse maps are maps that show/predict the shadow path of the eclipse usually differentiating between those areas experiencing a full eclipse and those only experiencing various degrees of partial eclipse. On 17 August the website Atlas Obscura had an article on eclipse maps with the title How Edmond Halley Kicked Off the Golden Age of Eclipse Mapping that featured Halley’s 1715 eclipse map. Now this title contains a serious history of astronomy error and Atlas Obscura were unfortunately not the only ones to make it in the lead up to Monday’s great solar event.

Halley’s 1715 Eclipse Map

Edmond Halley did not kick off the Golden Age of Eclipse Mapping, the seventeenth-century mathematician and astronomer Erhard Weigel (1625–1699) (who you can read about here) did with an eclipse map published in 1654 sixty-one years before Halley’s effort.

Weigel’s 1654 Eclipse Map

Halley wasn’t even second in the eclipse map stakes as Weigel’s student Johann Christopher Sturm (1635–1703) (who you can read about at the Weigel link) published one 1676, thirty-nine years before Halley.

Sturm’s 1676 Eclipse Map

Both Weigel and Sturm were known to the Royal Society, of which Halley was both a member and for a time an employee, and Sturm was also a member, so there is a strong possibility that Halley knew of the efforts of his German colleagues and cannot even be regarded as an independent inventor.

If you want all of the dope on eclipse maps then I highly recommend the excellent Eclipse-Maps website, which can fill all of your eclipse map desires whatever they might be. It is the source of the three eclipse maps shown here.

Another eclipse related false claim is the one presented below:

Now Ibn al-Haytham (c.965–c.1040) is one of the most important figures in the history of optics and he put the pinhole camera effect to very good use in his optical researches but he can’t be said to have invented it. You don’t actually have to build a ‘camera’ to display the pinhole camera effect and there are plenty of images on the web of people projecting images of the eclipse onto some sort of background through a hole in a hat, through a colander, through the holes in a salt cracker etc., etc.

The earliest known description of the pinhole camera effect can be found in the so-called Chinese Mozi writings, which date from the fifth century BCE, so about one and a half thousand years before Ibn al-Haytham lived. A description of the pinhole camera effect can also be found in the writings of Aristotle (384–322). In his Problems Aristotle wrote:

Why is it that an eclipse of the sun, if one looks at it through a sieve or through leaves, such as a plane-tree or other broadleaved tree, or if one joins the fingers of one hand over the fingers of the other, the rays are crescent-shaped where they reach the earth? Is it for the same reason as that when light shines through a rectangular peep-hole, it appears circular in the form of a cone?

 As you can see he’s even describing using the effect to view a solar eclipse. As a small bonus, the name camera obscura for the pinhole camera (the origin of the term camera) was coined by Johannes Kepler.

My third rant of the day leaves the direct field of history of science and moves into the sphere of science communication and philosophy of science. Also provoked by the eclipse several different versions of the following meme have been circulating in the Internet over the last few days. I don’t know who originated it but Neil deGrasse Tyson has been aggressively tweeting a shorter version.

Now I’m a one hundred per cent supporter of science and the scientific method (whatever that might be) and the results that they produce in their attempts to explain our world but I find the analogy drawn here simplistic, naive and anything but helpful. I will endeavour to explain my thoughts on the matter.

Put very simply people are making the mistake here of comparing apples with oranges. A solar eclipse and its scientific explanation are of a very different type to the science of evolution or vaccines and all the other things that denialists reject.

First of all there is a time dimension. Already in the second half of the first century BCE Babylonian astronomers were pretty good at explaining solar and lunar eclipses and could predict lunar ones accurately and at least predict when a solar eclipse could theoretically take place. This knowledge was acquired through many centuries of astronomical observation. So, we are talking about more than two thousand years for people to digest and accept the science behind solar eclipses. In contrast to this, the theory of evolution and the scientific explanation for vaccines are both products of the nineteenth century and less than two hundred years old, far less time for people to digest and accept.

The second factor and the more serious one is complexity. Once you accept that the sun, the moon and the earth are just three balls rotating through the heavens, something accepted in Europe around five hundred BCE, – whether your model is geocentric or heliocentric doesn’t make any real difference to the explanation – then the scientific explanation of an eclipse is, to put it mildly, trivial. In fact it can be easily demonstrated in any classroom using a powerful torch (that’s a flashlight for Americans), a basketball and a large inflatable terrestrial globe. I’ve even seen it demonstrated using a torch and three children as the sun, the moon and the earth. There is not an awful lot you have to understand.

If we now turn to evolution or vaccines we are in a wholly different ball game. The theory of evolution is a highly complex scientific theory based on a vast amount of scientific material. The same can be said of the science behind the theories of disease and the use of vaccines to combat some of them. These are not scientific results that can be lucidly explained by a simple classroom demonstration in a couple of minute.

A third factor is personal involvement. There is a certain distance between a human being and the object of astronomy. It is true that we are dependent on the sun for our existence but on the whole we don’t connect to celestial objects on a very personal level. Things are very, very different with both the theory of evolution and vaccines. The theory of evolution says very directly where we as a species come from and that people have difficulty getting their heads around the fact that we are, over a long period of time, descended from some sort of proto-ape-like creature, in fact from the very same proto-ape-like creature as chimpanzees and gorillas shouldn’t come as a surprise. Remember that infamous Victorian quip, “You might think that your grandfather was an ape, sir but your grandmother!” It’s very easy to mock but it’s a hell of a long stretch to convince people to believe the theory of descent. Add to this the complexity of the actually mechanisms of evolution and that you are going to have problems convincing people to accept them shouldn’t surprise anybody.

All the above can be repeated for the theory of disease and the explanations for the function of vaccines; it’s all very, very complex and difficult to swallow for many people. Add to this the fact that vaccine damage is a reality. Before anybody tries to teach me how to suck eggs, I am well aware of the fact that the risk of any given child suffering vaccine damage is by several factors lower than the risk of death or serious brain damage, from say measles, for a child in a non-vaccinated population. But this statement has two problems, firstly ‘my child’ could be damaged by the vaccine, people are emotional, and secondly people don’t understand statistics. Any scientific explanation that involves statistics is likely to set the recipient in a state of panic.

As science communication, or spreading the science gospel, I find the meme above underwhelming to say the least. To say in an arrogant, sneering tone that if you accept the scientific explanation for, trivial phenomenon, A then you have to accept the scientific explanation for, anything but trivial, B is in my opinion anything but helpful and is more likely to antagonise than convince.


Filed under Myths of Science

School days

It is the middle of August and also the middle of what in German is known as Saure-Gurken-Zeit, in English as the silly season and in American as the dog days. It’s that time when parliaments are in recess, the politicians on holiday and the press is full of silly man bites dog stories. Even the history of science community is in a sort of half sleep with little happening and many of its members conspicuous by their absence. This being the case I though I would write a somewhat frivolous post this week before I too disappear off on holiday or a gathering of the clan in the beautiful city of Bath to be more precise.

It is common practice for schools to boast about the famous politicians, sports persons and show business celebrities who once, as snotty nosed kids, ran screaming through their corridors but what about the scientists? Which notable or significant scientist got their education at the pedagogical institution where you acquired the ability to write grammatical sentences and to find the derivatives of simple trigonometrical functions? To start the ball rolling I shall tell you of my historical scientific school chums and I hope you will tell me of yours in the comments.

I will admit to having an advantage as the grammar school that I attended has a somewhat more than eight hundred year history giving them lots of time to have educated one or other scientific luminary. From September 1963 till July 1969 I was a pupil of Colchester Royal Grammar School (CRGS) for boys, one of England’s most elite state schools; the first four years as a day boy, the last to as a boarder. Founded at the beginning of the thirteenth century, 1206 to be precise, and adorned with not one but two royal charters, Henry VIII (1539) and Elizabeth I (1584), it has boasted one of the highest Oxbridge entrance rates and best A-level averages almost every year since the WWII. It would be very surprising if this august educational institution had not thrown up a notable scientist over the centuries and in fact it can boast at least three.

School House CRGS pre-1908. The first floor window to the left of the main entrance in the middle was my bedroom for two years.
Source Wikimedia Commons

CRGS’s first and possibly most famous scientist (if you’ll excuse the anachronistic use of the term) was William Gilbert (1544–1603). Born in Colchester he followed his time at the school by becoming one of those Oxbridge statistics in 1558, St. John’s College Cambridge to be precise, where he graduated BA in 1561, MA in 1564 and MD in 1569. He moved to London where he followed a successful medical career. Elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians he became their president in 1600. He became personal physician to Elizabeth I in 1601 and to James IV and I and 1603 the year of his death.

William Gilbert (1544–1603) artist unknown.
Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Gilbert is of course most famous for his De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on That Great Magnet the Earth) published in London in 1600, regarded as one of the first ‘modern’ science books. This legendary scientific publication was much admired in its time and exercised a great influence on the development of experimental physics in the first half of the seventeenth century. Galileo praised it but thought it had too little mathematics and Kepler based his theory of a planetary force holding/driving the planets in their orbits on a magnetic monopole theory derived from Gilbert’s book. Based on his false belief that a terrella (a spherical magnet) revolves on its axis and his correct assumption that the earth is a large spherical magnet, Gilbert hypothesised a diurnal rotation for the earth. His theory had a major influence on the acceptance of a helio-geocentric system with diurnal rotation (as opposed to one without) in the first half of the seventeenth century.

There is a certain irony in the fact that although Gilbert is thought to have attended CRGS, as his name is attached to another school in Colchester, The Gilberd School. Gilberd is an alternative spelling of the family name.

We fast-forward almost a century to CRGS’s next scientific luminary, Francis Hauksbee (1660-1730). Not as famous as Gilbert, Hauksbee is still a notable figure in the history of science. Also a born Colcestrian, Hauksbee original apprenticed as a draper to his older brother in 1678 but at some point he became an assistant to Isaac Newton. In 1703 he became Robert Hooke’s successor as curator, experimentalist and instrument maker at the Royal Society.

From 1705 onwards he concentrated his experimental efforts on the phenomenon of electricity, a word coined by Gilbert in his De Magnete, publishing his investigations in his Physico-Mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects in 1709. In 1708 he independently discovered Charles’s law of gasses. Being something of an unsung hero of science it is fitting that in 2009 the Royal Society created the Hauksbee Awards to recognise “the unsung heroes of science, technology, engineering and maths for their work and commitment.”

We now spring into the nineteenth century to a scientist who whilst probably not as well known as Gilbert was truly one of the giants of science in his time, George Biddle Airy (1801– 1892).

George Biddell Airy (1801-1892)
John Collier / 1883
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Alnwick in Northumberland he attended CRGS after an elementary school in Hereford. Like Gilbert he went up to Cambridge University, in his case Trinity College, in 1819. He graduated senior wrangler in in 1823, became a fellow of Trinity in 1824 and became Lucasian professor of mathematics, Newton’s chair, in 1826. He moved to the Plumian chair of astronomy in 1828 and was appointed director of the new Cambridge observatory. The list of Airy’s appointments and scientific achievements is too long for this light summer post – he published 518(!) scientific papers in his long live – but he was most notably Astronomer Royal from 1835 until his retirement in 1881.

George Biddell Airy caricatured by Ape in Vanity Fair Nov 1875
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As you can see CRGS can boast a trio of notable scientist in its long history, what about your alma mater? I do have to admit that I was expelled from CRGS in 1969 and finished my schooling at Holland Park Comprehensive in the school year 69–70. Much younger than CRGS, Holland Park was in my time as famous as the older establishment, as the flag ship educational establishment in the Labour government’s scheme to turn the English school system into a comprehensive one. I must admit that I know of no famous scientists who have emerged from Holland Park and my own memories of my one year there are largely of getting stoned and dropping acid; come on it was the late 60s and Notting Hill Gate!


Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of Physics, History of science

American eclipse tourism in the nineteenth century

Steve Ruskin has achieved the history of astronomy equivalent of squaring the circle; he has written a popular history of astronomy book that is informative, enlightening, entertaining and at the same time both historically and scientifically accurate. A rare phenomenon in an age where all too many authors of popular history of science books throw accuracy out of the window in favour of a good narrative.

I assume that by now all of the readers of this blog will be aware that America is being treated to the spectacular of a total solar eclipse on 21 August this year; this event has been dubbed The Great American Eclipse! This is by no means the first great eclipse that America has experienced and Steve Ruskin has written a book on the eclipse from 1878, which in the age of the new technology of instant world wide communication with the telegraph and viable long distant travel with steam ships and steam trains became a mass eclipse tourism phenomenon.

Ruskin’s book, America’s First Great Eclipse: How Scientists, Tourists, and the Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878 Changed Astronomy Forever [1], is divided into three sections. The first deals with the period leading up to the eclipse, the publication of the event and the preparations for it. The second, the eclipse itself and the observations made both by the professional astronomers and by the lay tourists. The third deals with the results of those observations both the scientific evaluations and the popular public reactions.

One of the things that makes this book very good is the authors extensive use of and generous quotes from the contemporary news sources, newspapers and magazines. Ruskin lets those involved and present at the time speak for themselves, mostly just providing a framework for them to do so. The reader experiences the lead up to the eclipse, the eclipse itself and the very public aftermath, as it was experienced in the nineteenth century.

As an astronomy historian Ruskin’s main historical point, announced in the subtitle, concerns high altitude astronomical observation. He argues that the eclipse, whose path ran through the Rocky Mountains, triggered the modern debate on the advantages, or possibly lack of them, of making astronomical observations at high altitude, where the atmosphere is thinner. Several of the professional observers took the opportunity of trying mountain top observation, with all the strategic problems that this involved, in order to test the hypothesis that this would lead to better results. Although the results, in this case, were not totally convincing the debate they provoked led eventually to the construction of the first permanent high altitude observatories.

As this is a popular book there are no foot or endnotes and no index but there is a fairly extensive bibliography of original sources and books for further reading, which are also clearly referenced in the text. This is a delightful little book and I heartily recommend anybody travelling later this month to experience this year’s Great American Eclipse to acquire a copy, either paper or electronic, to read on their journey. Naturally, it is also an informative and recommended lecture for those not able or willing to join this year’s eclipse tourists.

[1] Steve Ruskin, America’s First Great Eclipse: How Scientists, Tourists, and the Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878 Changed Astronomy Forever, Alpine Alchemy Press, 2017


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy