History (of Science) Books by Women

Last weekend saw several major newspapers publishing their books of the year list. Unfortunately these displayed, in several aspects, a serious lack of balance. Science and history of science books came up more than somewhat short and in some categories the male dominance was glaring. The latter problem provoked the following tweet by historian and history book author Lucy Worsley:

8 of 9 of the ‘history books of the year’ in today’s Times, and 19 out of 21 of ditto in today’s Telegraph, are by men. I’m not impressed. Lucy Worsley

In reaction to this tweet a hash tag sprang into life, #HistoryBooksbyWomen, under which some just listed the names of female history book authors and others tweeted names and book titles. My discipline the history of science is blessed with many excellent female historians, authors of many first class books. This being the case I thought that I might cruise along my bookshelves and present here a lightly annotated list of some of those books by women that have enriched and informed my career as a historian of science.

I start with my #histsci soul sisterTM, Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt, whose volume in the way the nineteenth century saw Isaac Newton, Recreating Isaac, I reviewed here.

Becky is also co-author of the beautiful Finding Longitude, which I reviewed here. (Her co-author Richard Dunn is a man but we won’t hold it against him).

Staying with Newton we have Sarah Dry telling us what happened to his manuscripts in The Newton Papers and Lesley Murdin Under Newton’s Shadow: Astronomical Practices in the Seventeenth Century.

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In the world of navigation, cartography and geodesy we have Christine Garwood Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Joyce E. Chaplin Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, Silvia Sumira Globes: 400 Years of Exploration Navigation and Power and Rachel Hewitt Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.

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Representing the Middle Ages we have two biographies Nancy Marie Brown The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages and Louise Cochrane Adelard of Bath: The First English Scientist. For fans of automata there is E. R. Truitt’s delightful Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art.

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In the early modern period and the emergence of modern science we have Pamela O. Long Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Science, Pamela H. Smith The Body of the Artisan, Paula Findlen Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, Deborah E. Harkness The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Eileen Reeves Galileo’s Glassworks, Lisa Jardine Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution, her Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, her On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren, and her The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London, Ulinka Rublack The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother, Sachiko Kusukawa Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany and Susan Dackerman ed. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early Modern Period Featuring essays by Susan Dackerman, Lorraine Daston, Katherine Park, Susanne Karr Schmidt and Claudia Swann.

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Turning to the eighteenth century we have Patricia Fara A Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment, Susannah Gibson Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How eighteenth-century science disrupted the natural order and Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future.

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No Renaissance Mathematicus book list would be complete without some esoteric history. We start with Monica Azzolini The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan that I reviewed here, Louise Hill Cuth English almanacs, astrology & popular medicine: 1550–1700, Tamsyn Barton Ancient Astrology, Pamela H. Smith The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, Frances A. Yates The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as well as Ingrid D. Rowland Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Somewhere between the stools Lorraine Daston & Katherine Park Wonders and the Order of Nature.

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Mathematics are represented by Kim Plofker Mathematics in India and Serafina Cuomo Ancient mathematics. Astronomy and cosmology by M. R. Wright Cosmology in Antiquity, Kitty Ferguson Measuring the Universe and Jessica Ratcliff The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain.

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We close with a potpourri of titles that don’t quite fit into any of the categories above. We start with two excellent books by Laura J. Snyder, her four-way biography of nineteenth-century Cambridge polymaths The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World and her double seventeenth-century art and science biography Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. Two further biographies are Brenda Maddox Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA and Dorothy Stein Ada: A Life and a Legacy. Patricia Fara gives us a general survey of science history in Science A Four Thousand Year History and a look at the role some women played in that history in Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science & Power in the Enlightenment. Deborah Jaffé also looks at the role of women in science and technology in Ingenious Women: From Tincture of Saffron to Flying Machines. Last but by no means least we have Ingrid D. Rowland’s translation of Vitruvius: Ten Books of Architecture.

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This list is of course fairly random and somewhat arbitrary and is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive. All of the books that I have included are in my opinion good and quite a lot of them are excellent. They demonstrate that there is width, depth and variety in the writings produced by women in the history of science taken in its widest sense. Should any misogynistic male of the species turn up in the comments and claim that the above list is only so impressive, and I find it very impressive, because I, in some way, privilege or favour female historians then I must point out that I have many more history of science books by male authors than by female ones on my bookshelves.

If you wish to add your own favourite history of science books authored by women in the comments you are more than welcome.

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A Herschel comes seldom alone.

On the excellent website Lady Science Anna Reser and Leila McNeill recently posted an article entitled Well, Actually Mythbusting History Doesn’t Work, which I shall not be addressing. However it contained the interesting statement, When the likes of Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace are brought up, a common response is a historical version of “what about the men?!” The men in this case being William Herschel and Charles Babbage. Ignoring Lovelace and Babbage I would like to address the case of the siblings Caroline and William Herschel.

Of course Caroline Herschel is a very important figure in the history of astronomy and deserves to be recognised on her own extensive merits but is it possible to discuss her life and work without mentioning her elder brother? The answer to this question is a clear yes and no. If one were to present a brief bullet point outline of her life then yes, as follows.

Caroline Herschel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel German/ British Astronomer

  • Born Hanover 16 March 1750
  • Lived in England 1772–1822
  • Died Hanover 9 January 1848
  • Discoverer of eight comets
  • Recipient of a pension from George III 1787
  • Recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society 1828
  • One of the first Woman members of the Royal Astronomical Society, elected 1835
  • Awarded Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia 1846

However if one goes beyond the highly impressive outline and starts to examine her biography in depth then it is impossible not to mention her brother William who played a decisive role at almost every stage of her live.

Stunted and disfigured by a bout of typhus in her childhood, Caroline was not considered a suitable candidate for marriage. Her illiterate mother did not hold much of education for women so it seemed that Caroline was destined for a life of domestic drudgery. However William her elder brother, having established himself as a professional musician in the city of Bath, fetched her from Hanover to come and live with him as his housekeeper in 1772. In Bath she shared the attic flat with their younger brother Alexander, of whom more later, whilst William lived on the first floor, which was also his music studio where amongst other things he delivered music lessons. The ground floor was occupied by a married couple, who worked as William servants, also paying rent for their accommodation. Caroline took over the running of this household.

William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott Source: Wikimedia Commons

William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott
Source: Wikimedia Commons

William took over Caroline’s education teaching her to sing as well as instructing her in arithmetic and English. Soon she began to appear as a soloist in William public recitals and made such a positive impression that am impresario offered her the opportunity of going on tour as a singer, an offer that she declined preferring to stay in Bath with her brother.

When William developed his passion for astronomy Caroline became his assistant, rather grudgingly at first but later with enthusiasm, recording and tabulating her brother telescopic observations. When William began to manufacture his own telescopes Caroline was once again at hand, as assistant. When I visited the Herschel Museum in Bath I learnt that one of Caroline’s tasks was to sieve the horse manure that they used to embed the cast telescope mirrors to grind and polish them. I highly recommend visiting this museum, where you can view the Herschel’s telescope workshop in the cellar. Caroline also took over the task of calculating and compiling the catalogue of William’s observation. It should be very clear that the siblings worked as a team, each playing an important role in their astronomical endeavours.

Later after the discovery of Uranus, when William became the King’s astronomer and they moved to Datchet near Windsor, he encouraged Caroline to become an astronomer in her own right teaching her how to sweep the skies looking for comets and constructing a small reflecting telescope for this purpose. Caroline would go on to have a very successful career as a comet hunter, as already noted above.

I hope that in this very brief sketch that I have made it clear that William played a key role at each juncture in Caroline’s life and that without him she never would have become an astronomer, so any full description of her undoubted achievements must include her bother and his influence. However there is a reverse side to this story, as should be very clear from my brief account, any description of William Herschel’s achievements, as an astronomer, must include an explanation of Caroline’s very central role in those discoveries.

Any account of William’s and Caroline’s dependency on each other in their astronomical careers should also include the role played by their younger brother Alexander. Like William and their father, Alexander was a highly proficient professional musician, who had moved into William’s house in Bath, as Caroline was still living in Hanover. Alexander apparently played a role in the decision to bring Caroline to Bath. As well as being a talented musician Alexander was a highly skilled craftsman and when William decided to start building his own Newtonian telescopes, it was Alexander who provided the necessary metal components including the telescope tubes for the small objective scopes used to view the image in a Newtonian. The Herschel telescope production was very much a family business. The Herschel telescopes enjoyed a very good reputation and manufacturing and selling them became a profitable sideline for the siblings. The two sides of the Herschel’s astronomical activities fertilised each other. The quality of the telescopes underlined the accuracy of the observations and the accuracy of the observations was positive advertising for the telescopes.

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath Source: Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be now clear that when considering the Herschel’s astronomical activities we really have to view all three siblings as a unit, as well as viewing them as individuals but our collection of Herschels does not end here. As should be well known William’s son John would go on to be a highly significant and influential polymath in the nineteenth century, amongst other things setting forth the family’s astronomical tradition. John was very close to his aunt Caroline and it was she and not his father who first introduced the young Herschel sprog to the joys and fascinations of astronomical observation.

ohn Frederick William Herschel by Alfred Edward Chalon 1829 Source: Wikimedia Commons

ohn Frederick William Herschel by Alfred Edward Chalon 1829
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the Herschels form a relatively closed family unit in their astronomical activities, they also employed a joiner to make the tubes and stands for their reflectors, they also provide a very good example of they fact that observational astronomy, and in fact much scientific activity, is team work and not the product of individuals.

 

 

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

Whilst I was away

 

As you may have noticed I have, after a comparatively long break, begun blogging again. When I stopped, I wrote a post saying that my inability to finish my review of David Wootton’s The Invention of Science was my reason for doing so and whilst this was true it doesn’t actually explain why the break has become so extended. Because over the years I have built up a collection of intelligent, loyal, benevolent and sympathetic readers I think that they have earned an explanation for my absence.

Two years ago on the fifth anniversary of the Renaissance Mathematicus I wrote a post explaining that I have suffered mental health problems nearly all of my life to a large extent, but not exclusively, caused by a combination of AD(non-H)D and dysgraphia and that writing this blog started as attempt to cure a forty year long writer’s block. One of the side effects of this double whammy of so-called learning difficulties is that I have always had massive problems with any form of bureaucratic bullshit that involves filling in forms. Please don’t make the mistake of saying, “oh nobody likes filling in forms” that is like telling somebody with clinical depression that everybody gets sad from time to time. I really have major psychological problems with all types of official forms. The content is in itself not really a problem; it is actually sitting down and confronting the offending object that is often nigh on impossible. The result is that I have always done such things at or mostly (well) past the final deadline and there have been periods when piles of official letters have accumulated unopened, often for months at a time, and often with disastrous results.

In September the German employment service forced me to take early retirement, I would have been due to retire in May next year so not that early. Due to my more than somewhat erratic work record, not unrelated to my mental health problems, and the fact that I have been officially unfit for work for almost the last twenty years, mental health problems combined with physical infirmities, my earned old age pension might just stretch to buying you a beer if we go to a very cheap bar. All of this meant that I had to apply for a German state social security pension (Grundsicherung im Alter).

Now this application consists of a very long complicated bureaucratic form to which one also has to collect a lot of official documents. Having completed this and sent it off, a couple of weeks later one gets another set of forms and another list of required documents. Having completed this a couple of weeks later you get… You get the picture? Unfortunately for me whilst I was going through the bureaucratic equivalent of Dante’s Inferno I also had to apply for a new British Passport, my old one being due to expire in the middle of October, as well as doing my tax returns for 2015, only one week past the final deadline. To make my life perfect I was also attempting to get a new extraordinary treatment for my back problems granted by my health insurance, whose bureaucratic hurdles equal those of the state social security pension application. The result of this bureaucratic tsunami over the last weeks has seen me scraping along and sometimes crossing the boundary to a major clinical depression, which sucked out all the will and energy I might have had for blogging or anything else for that matter. In the middle of this I actually held a public lecture on Babbage’s & Boole’s contributions to the history of computing, which I prepared literally the night before and held on autopilot. It went surprising well.

The current state of play is that I have a new passport, my tax affairs have been dealt with for another year and my state social security pension has been granted. My application for back treatment has been rejected, which is par for course and was expected and I now have to appeal the decision, more bureaucratic bullshit. I seem to have managed to avoid a full-blown depression and whilst I am feeling fairly battered, things are starting to look decidedly better. One positive aspect of the whole affair is that ten years ago such an episode in my life would almost certainly have had me back in a psychiatric hospital chewing the curtains, so I seem to be making progress, whatever that might be.

Of course for the readers of my blog the million dollar question is, have I finished my review of David Wootton’s The Invention of Science to which the answer in no but I am working on it. I think and I hope that you can expect regular history of science blog posts again here at the Renaissance Mathematicus and I look forward, as ever, to your comments.

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Never say Never!

In the past I’ve blogged about various terms and phrases that people writing about the history of science should refrain from using or better still ban from their vocabularies completely, such as ‘the greatest’ or ‘the father of’. Today I want to add another to the list­ – ‘you’ve never heard of’. This dubious claim almost always turns up, mostly in titles, in combination with other phrases that should be avoided such as ‘the most important’, ‘the greatest’, ‘the most significant’ or other such empty superlatives, as the writer never actually clears up greatest/most in relation to what. These titles are in end effect just click bait designed to ensnare the unwary reader into reading the proffered article or post, which is almost inevitably about some scientist about whom there have only been a couple of zillion similar articles/post in the not too distant past. The particular article that triggered this post was one written by a Steven Poole in the New York Magazine to advertise his forthcoming book, Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas, entitled Grace Hopper: The Most Important Computer Pioneer You’ve Never Heard Of.

Grace Hopper working on the Harvard Mark I Source: Harvard Gazette

Grace Hopper working on the Harvard Mark I
Source: Harvard Gazette

Now I’m prepared to bet big money that Grace Hopper is one of the most well known figures for people interested in the history of computing, programming, information theory etc, etc. If you Google her name you get over half a million hits in about one quarter of a second. Now I realise that this is not very many in comparison to #histsci big hitters like Einstein (104 million in 0.68 sec) or Galileo (44 million in 0.39 sec) but the history of computing is not really one of the glamour subject in the popular history of science. Beyond Alan Turing (somewhat more than 2 million in 0.49 sec) and Johnny von Neumann (nearly 5 million in 0.75 sec) none of the major players in the history of computing since the Second World War are exactly household names. John Mauchly, one half of the team, which designed the first really influential electronic computers, ENIAC & UNIVAC, only manages 220 thousand hits in 0,51 sec. His partner John Presper Eckert a meagre 133 thousand in 0.62 sec. John Backus the developer of FORTRAN, an equivalent role to Hopper’s work on COBOL, manages a halfway respectable 430 thousand in 0.49 sec.

Enough of the boring Google results, Grace Hopper has a major Wikipedia article that includes a long and very impressive list of the honours she has received[1], can be found in quite a few Youtube videos including an appearance on Letterman, has articles about her life and work in numerous major newspapers and magazines and biographies on almost every major history of science and history of technology biography site. She is also the subject of several book length biographies. If anybody who takes an interest in the history of computers and computing has not heard of Grace Hopper they have been living at the bottom of a murky pond with their head stuck under a weed covered boulder for the last ten years. Grace Hopper is computer royalty and a much honoured and celebrated figure in computing circles. However as things stand, that the man behind the computerised cash-desk in you local neighbourhood supermarket has probably never heard of Grace Hopper, unless he’s an unemployed computer science graduate, is not the criterion under which one should be writing history of technology articles.

Interestingly, as I said above, the titles that use this device, ‘you’ve never heard of’, are almost always written by people trying to jump on the band wagon of a supposedly neglected figure in #histSTM when the band wagon is coming round the block for at least the tenth time, a fact that makes more than a mockery of the title.

All of this of course raises the question, at least in my mind, as to just how well known figures in #histSTM should be, who should they be known to and what do we mean by well known? I often have the feeling that historians in general and historians of science in particular live in a sort of scholarly echo chamber. We think that just because some historical figure is significant to our own work or line of research that everybody else should be aware of and acknowledge that significance. We express this view within the community of our fellow historians and receive lots of echoes back supporting that view. Of course they should! Oh I totally agree with you, they deserve to be much better known. Etc, etc… Of course there are also those who give faint support whilst loudly disclaiming that their latest discovery in their field deserve to be even better known than your chosen candidate. However in general we all agree, in a heady torrent of unanimity, that the history of our whole discipline and its practitioners should be much, much better known, but should it? Dare I express the heretical thought that we exaggerate the importance of our endeavours for the general public, the masses, or whatever cliché you prefer for describing the vast majority of humanity who are not historians (of science).

This is a problem that is by no means unique to #histSTM and its subject matter but one that exists in all branches of history, even in the often over emphasised political history that still builds the core of school historical teaching. To take just one simple example, I am relatively certain that if I went out onto the high street of Erlangen, a town with an extremely high average level of education – it largely consists of a big university and the research and development centre of Siemens – and were to ask the people who or what is Fürst Metternich then the vast majority would not answer, an important 19th-century European diplomat who was largely responsible for shaping the map of modern Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 but would instead say, oh it’s a popular brand of German sparkling wine. History, of whatever sort, is not very important to the majority of non-historians even in an age where historical novels are extremely popular.

I both hold and also attend semi-popular public history lectures, and not just of science, and the audiences are mostly fairly small, one hundred attendees would be a lot, and to a large extent consist of retirees, who have the time and the desire to indulge in a little light education to while away the last years of their lives. Rather like the rock and pop concerts by the dinosaurs of the sixties music boom very few young people find their way to such lectures being more concerned with living in the here and now.

The next problem is who really should be better known? #histSTM is littered with literally thousands of practitioners, who have contributed to its evolution over the last four thousand years. How many of those should an average educated person know about and which ones. The Greeks of course, says one classicist very firmly. Stop being so Eurocentric says another historian breaking a lance for the Chinese, whilst his colleague along the corridor wants you to turn your attention to India. Islamic science does not get the attention it deserves shouts the Middle Eastern historian whilst, the feminist, quite correctly, bemoans the lack of attention paid to women in #histSTM. The historian of chemistry points out that the history of physics gets far too much attention paid to it at the expense of the other scientific disciplines. A not unjustified claim. Meanwhile the historians of all the other multitude of scientific disciplines are lining up to get their fair share of limelight, whatever that might be.

I became a passionate fan of the histories of mathematics and science as a teenager and have devoted nearly fifty years of study to that passion. I have studied both widely and deeply and am blessed with an elephantine memory, a prerequisite I think for any historian, but I still constantly stumble across new scholars, who I don’t know and who on closer examination appear to me to deserve to be much better known. Five years ago I had never heard the name Stephen Hales, but after stumbling across him whilst following my interest in the history of gasses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries I began to delve deeper into his activities and discovered a man who made substantial contributions to a number of areas in chemistry and the life sciences and certainly, in my opinion deserves to be better known and so I wrote a blog post about him. Quite a few of my biographical blog post arise in this way.

Dr Stephen Hales FRS (1677-1761) Source

Dr Stephen Hales FRS (1677-1761)
Source

How much #histSTM should people, that is non-historians of science, be expected to know and which bits of it? When should it be taught? In primary/grade schools? In high schools? Only at college level? And what should be taught? This post is more an attempt to clarify some question that have been rattling around in my head, in what passes for a brain, for quite sometime and I personally don’t really have any structured answers to my own questions. However I do sincerely believe that all people working within the field of #histSTM should seriously address these question, putting aside all personal prejudices in favour of their own research, and try to reach an honest answer.

Before I close I can’t help taking a pot shot at one statement in Poole’s article about another famous computer pioneer, Johnny von Neumann. Poole writes:

In 1944, Grace Hopper, a 37-year-old math Ph.D., joined the Navy as a lieutenant and was assigned to that lab. Her group also included the soon-to-be famous mathematician John von Neumann

In 1944 von Neumann was not soon-to-be famous but was already one of the most renowned mathematician in the world, which is why he was working on the Manhattan Project and came to Harvard in 1944 to run programs on the Mark I concerned with his work in Los Alamos. Grace Hoppers group did not include John von Neumann, she was an unknown associate professor from Vassar and von Neumann was a mathematical VIP.

John von Neumann and the Harvard Mark I Source

John von Neumann and the Harvard Mark I
Source

 

[1] Whilst I have been writing this blog post it has been announced that Grace Hopper has been posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom

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Another public service announcement

Marius Book Launch

In September 2014 a conference was held in Nürnberg, as the climax of a year dedicated to celebrating the life and work of the Franconian astronomer, astrologer and mathematician Simon Marius, whose magnum opus Mundus Iovialis was published four hundred years earlier in 1614.

The papers held at that conference together with some other contributions from people who could not attend in person have now been collected together in the book Simon Marius und Seine Forschung, eds. Hans Gaab and Pierre Leich (= Acta Historica Astronomiae, Band 57) which will be official launched in the Thalia bookshop in Nürnberg on this coming Thursday, 13 October at 18:30 MET.

This volume contains papers by a wide range of scholars and could/should be of interest to anybody studying the histories of astronomy, astrology and/or mathematics in the Early Modern Period. It can be purchased online, after Thursday, directly from the publishers, Leipziger Universitätsverlag

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For those who would like to know more about the book including a table of contents (Inhaltsverzeichnis) they can inform themselves on the Marius Portal here.

For those who cannot read German, an English edition of the book is in planning for next year, for which further contributions on the life and work of Simon Marius would also be welcome. If anybody has any questions regarding this volume I would be happy to answer them.

 

P.S. For those waiting for blogging to resume here at the Renaissance Mathematicus I can report that there is light at the end of the tunnel!

 

 

 

 

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A public service announcement

For several months I have been writing a review essay of David Wootton’s fascinating and challenging book The Invention of Science, or better said not writing, as I have stalled, hit a roadblock, lost the thread or whatever. This being the case I have been doing what apparently writers are supposed to do in such situations writing other things. Now this is all very well but all that has happened is that I have found it increasingly more difficult to return to my review essay and complete it, so I have decided this has got to stop. Today I recommenced writing my review essay and have decided that I won’t write or post anything else until I do finish it, which might take some time. How long I can’t say at the moment. Until then nothing new will appear here at The Renaissance Mathematicus, I hope the break won’t be too long. When however blogging does resume here, normal service and frequency will be resumed, as I have several new posts already in the pipeline.

bats

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Why there weren’t any scientists before the late nineteenth century.

It has become common practice for historians of science to admonish people who use the term scientist when applied to people who lived before the nineteenth century. They point out, correctly, that the word was first coined by Cambridge polymath William Whewell in 1833 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Cambridge and first used in print by him a year later in his review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connection of the physical sciences. As Melinda Baldwin has shown in her guest post, The history of “scientist”, the term didn’t really become established until late in the nineteenth century or even early in the twentieth. On being thus admonished many people react negatively and ask pointedly whether historians of science mean that there was no science before 1833. On being told that this is not the case they argue that if people were doing science then it is perfectly acceptable to call them scientists. If they are doing science then they are scientists, end of story!

Unfortunately it is not as easy as that, because terms have connotations, which extend well beyond their simple denotations. For those readers who are not up on the jargon of linguistics or the philosophy of language I will try to explain the terms denotation and connotation with a simple example. Expert linguists and philosophers of language should look the other way for a minute or two. The name Sascha denotes the dog whose picture you can see in the top right hand corner of this blog. The name Sascha connotes, for me, all of the things that I experienced with him throughout the ten years that we shared our lives, a wild mixture of a thousand different emotions. Returning to the term scientists, it denotes quite simply someone who does science (whatever that may be, a can of worms I don’t intend to open today). To the distress of real life scientists, cartoonists, playwrights, film directors and others often present a sort of cardboard cut out generic figure as a scientist: white, male, bearded, wearing glasses and a white lab coat. Even the sexy female scientist presented in more up to date TV series is usually given the glasses and the white lab coat to establish their professional identity. This clichéd list of characteristics is the superficial connotation that is generated in their minds and often in that of their readers and viewers by the term scientist.

On a less superficial level the word scientists, as used since the beginning of the twentieth century, has a very strong set of characteristics, its connotation, that spring to the reader’s or listener’s mind when confronted with the term. This list of characteristic’s are usually centred round the scientist’s education, training and professional experience; the clue here lies in the word professional. The scientist is an expert who has undergone a lengthy and extensive specialist education and training to qualify them for their profession and who has enough experience in that profession to justify their being called a scientist. This set of characteristics for the scientist is something that only came into being, rather gradually, over the course of the nineteenth century. If we go back before that time the set of characteristics that we find associated with people doing what we would recognise as science is very different and in fact changed over the centuries, since science began to emerge in Europe in the High Middle Ages. In what follows I shall restrict my remarks to Europe and the period between about twelve hundred CE and eighteen hundred CE. The problems of using the term scientist for earlier periods and other cultures are even greater than those I will outline here.

In the high Middle Ages most of the sciences, as we now know them, simply didn’t exist. Alchemy/chemistry, including much that we would now call applied or industrial chemistry, was regarded as an art practiced by artisans. Where art here means technique or technology or even handcraft. Whilst its practitioners might regard themselves as seekers after or even possessors of knowledge their image was not even remotely like that of our image invoked by the word scientist. Mathematicus, astrologus, astronomus were all synonyms for the same profession, again the practitioner of an art, artisans. Mostly employed outside of the universities, often in the courts of rulers, these ‘mathematicians’ were usually principally employed as astrologers but their full job description included many other functions. Astronomer, horologist (that is designer and maker of sundials), hydraulic engineer in charge of designing water features in ornamental gardens and a whole host of other activities we would normally associate with a technician or engineer. Their social status was that of a craftsman, albeit an upper grade one, rather than that of an academic, also far from out image of the scientist.

Physics belonged in the universities, practiced by philosophers, but this was the physics of Aristotle, the study of nature and contained much that is foreign to our concept of physics. Also this was mostly a qualitative descriptive study and not a quantitative empirical one. Although some of its practitioners, such as for example Robert Grosseteste of Roger Bacon, espoused ideas similar to our concept of the scientific method in their writings their actually their actually practice bears little resemblance to that of modern scientists. Although bearing the same name, their institutions, the medieval universities, have very little in common with our modern institutes of higher educations.

There is very little change in this state of affairs up to the sixteenth century, as the demand for the use of mathematics in astronomy for cartography and navigation as well as astrology in medicine began to change the status of its practitioners. It is first in the seventeenth century when the work of people such as Kepler, a court mathematicus, and Galileo, a university teacher of astrology for medical students, began to intrude into the traditional domain of the philosophers and redefine the nature and subject matter of physics that quantitative empirical research began to make inroads into the universities. In this context it is highly relevant that when Galileo left the university for the Medici court in Florence he insisted on the title philosophicus as well as mathematicus because of the lowly status of the latter in comparison to the former, These practitioners became known not as scientists but as natural philosophers and their career profiles and public image were still substantially different to that of modern scientists. The seventeenth century also saw the gradual emergence of geology, zoology, biology and botany as separate disciplines with expert practitioners from the philosophers’ earlier domain of natural history. Chemistry didn’t make its way into the universities until the eighteenth century and then only as a handmaiden to medicine, only gaining recognition as a discipline in its own right in the nineteenth century.

Let us pause for a while and look at the career profiles of the most well known figures, who contributed to the evolution of the mathematical sciences in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Copernicus was a canon of the cathedral chapter of Frombork and basically an administrator or civil servant of the prince-bishopric of Ermland (Warmia). Astronomy was so to speak his hobby. His life has nothing in common with our concept of a scientist. Tycho Brahe was a Danish aristocrat, who set up a research institute for astronomy and Paracelsian medicine on a Scandinavian island in something resembling a castle and which included a court jester and a pet elk, which got drunk and broke its neck falling down some stairs. Tycho’s life was about as far removed from the twenty first century idea of a scientist as you can get. As already mentioned Johannes Kepler was a schoolteacher and district mathematicus, meaning amongst other things astrologer, who went on to become a court mathematicus, meaning principally astrologer; once again almost nothing in common with a modern scientist. Galileo was actually a university professor for mathematics but his principle activity would have been teaching astrology to medical students. He later became a court philosopher, basically an intellectual court jester. Descartes was a mercenary or soldier of fortune, who then retired to the live of a gentleman of leisure, alternating with periods of being a court philosopher with the same function as Galileo. None of these people had any real formal education or training as a ‘scientist’. There were no white coats and with the exception of Tycho nothing even remotely resembling a laboratory. Neither Copernicus nor Kepler even had an observatory. Today, we would tend to regard Newton as a physicist but he was actually a professor of mathematics in Cambridge. However a professor, who had almost no students and whose lectures appear to have been very scantily attended. He abandoned academia to become Warden and then Master of the Mint a post with little to do with his scientific activities. None of these figures who are leading lights in the pantheon of scientific heroes even remotely fulfils our connotations of a scientist.

The term physics was first used in the way we use it at the beginning of the second decade of the eighteenth century and didn’t become common usage in this sense until the nineteenth century. The term physicist was first coined even later than the term scientist. It really was first in the nineteenth century that the people doing science first began to fulfil the connotations that we have when we hear or read the word scientist, so it really is for the best if we refrain from using the term for researchers who lived in earlier periods.

 

 

 

 

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