From astronomy to literature – Bridging the gap

Recent years have seen more and more people proclaiming a crisis in the humanities. In an age where politicians seem to have mutated into one-track worshippers of the Gods of Mammon anything, which can’t be measured in terms of the profits it will generate, preferably in the short rather than the long-term, is placed on the list for defunding. Humanities departments are ‘downsized’ (a hideous euphemism), threatened with closure or simply closed as not cost-effective. In an aged increasingly dominated by a weird mix of profit maximisation and techno-scientism the humanities have apparently been weighed and not found wanting, but categorised as superfluous to requirements. In this situation it is helpful to be reminded that the sciences and humanities have throughout their existence regularly stimulated and cross-fertilised each other. Within the history of science one historian who dedicated her life to documenting and illuminating that symbiosis was Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894–1981), who devoted her ample talents to examining the connections between literature and science during the so-called scientific revolution. I’m quite happy to state that in my early days as a wannabe historian of science Marjorie Hope Nicolson was one of my guiding lights showing me that science is not an activity divorced from society but one deeply immersed in it. This lady of literature and science has found a worthy successor in Anna Henchman and her recently published work The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy & the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature[1].


The nineteenth century saw, with major developments in a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines, in what some have called the second scientific revolution. Already beginning in the late eighteenth century both physical optics and astronomy experienced wide reaching advances, which in turn led to an extensive reconsideration of humanities’ place in the world and the world’s place in the cosmos. It is this reassessment of humankind’s vision of itself and its place in the cosmos, its origins in the sciences of optics and astronomy and its reflections in the contemporary literature that forms the subject of Henchman’s book.

Mercury Venus

Following an introduction laying out her game plan and introducing the reader to various concepts important to her theme the book is divided into two sections Observers in Motion and Astronomy and the Multiplot Novel. In the former Henchman takes the reader through a discussion of astronomy, optics and points of view centred around the writings of John Herschel, probably the most significant figure in both astronomy and optics in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. Then moving on to a wider sweeping discussion of philosophical perspectives. Next up is journalist and essayist Thomas de Quincy, best known to modern readers for his Confessions of an Opium-Eater (which your reviewer confesses to having read in his youth) but here considered for his attempts to come to terms with the emerging modern astronomy and cosmology in his 1846 essay Systems of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes. Rosse had the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world constructed at his observatory in Ireland and did much to open up the field of deep space astronomy inaugurated by Charles Messier and William Herschel in the eighteenth century. This work did much to unsettle mankind’s view of the universe and its place in it. This disturbance is the subject of de Quincy’s essay, which Henchman dissects, from several different directions, with great skill. The third and final part of the first section concerns itself with the way that the new astronomy is reflected in the work of one of the Victorian period’s most loved poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson. To quote just one sentence, “Tennyson is unique among his contemporaries, not perhaps in the extent to which he uses stellar imagery, but in the extent to which he requires that imagery to be consistent with astronomical observation”.


The second section of the book turns, as its title clearly states, to the nineteenth-century multiplot novel and the analogies to be found there to the astronomical universe, which in the nineteenth century was rapidly transitioning from the comparatively small and homely cosmos that humanity had inhabited, as the centre of, from the beginnings of human awareness up to the eighteenth century into a the vast unfathomable space of multitudinous galaxies a small corner of which we inhabit today. After a brief introductory chapter aptly entitled Novels as Celestial Systems Henchman delivers two chapters of in depth analysis of the works of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. The second section, and the book, closes out with the chapter Narratives on a Grand Scale: Astronomy and Narrative Space in which Henchman suggests, “…that much as individual characters have cosmological conceptions–views of the totality of things– so do works of fiction. Novelists such as Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens create fictional cosmoses, each of which behaves according to a logic of its own. This unstated logic makes an entire narrative space feel stable or unstable, coherent or incoherent, complete or partial.” This chapter closes with a comparison, in these terms, of the presentations of the Napoleonic wars in Hardy’s The Dynasts and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Mud moulded ball

At the beginning of her brief five-page conclusion Henchman questions her own title. “What, then, is the sky within?” Her book is a stimulating and provocative attempt to answer this question for Victorian writers and their attitude to the rapidly changing, expanding and challenging science of astronomy in their century. Henchman in, what is a comparatively short book packed full of information and analysis, very deftly juggles a large amount knowledge from the fields of nineteenth-century literature, astronomy, cosmology, philosophy, and optics together with modern philosophy and literature theory. The stimulating text is complimented with many well-chosen astronomical and optical illustrations printed in engaging shades of grey (Three of which appear above). An important aspect of any academic book is the academic apparatus, which is here first class. Extensive and informative endnotes (that I, like most academic readers, prefer footnotes to endnotes should already be well known to regular readers of this blog!) are complimented by an equally extensive bibliography and a comprehensive index.

This is very clearly an academic rather than a popular or semi-popular book and it can and, in my opinion, should be read by any academic from student through doctoral student to lecturer and professor not only in literature studies but also in the history of science or nineteenth-century history in general. All of these would benefit from reading this book with its all-round perspective crossing numerous discipline boundaries. It would be a great win for the more general reader if Henchman were to turn her obvious scholarly and writing talents to producing a more popular version of her research in a further volume. I learned much reading this book and I’m certain that many others will also do so.




[1] Anna Henchman, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy & the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of science

Do you believe in magic?

I’m in a bit of a quandary about this post for two different reasons. Firstly I didn’t really want to write yet another negative post at the moment and was considering various positive options when somebody drew my attention to the article that is going to be the subject of this one. However having once read through it I just couldn’t let it go. On the other hand having always been a powerful advocate of seriously investigating the so-called occult science activities of the scholars in the Early Modern period I find it slightly bizarre to now be giving the Hist-Sci Hulk treatment to an article that appears to do just that. The article in question is posted on the Vox website and is entitled, These 5 men were scientific geniuses. They also thought magic is real.

Before dealing with the ‘5 men’ there are a couple of general points of criticism that have to be levelled at this article. To begin with the whole thing is written in a supercilious tone of superiority. Despite the authors disclaimer, “We have the benefit of hindsight today, which gives us an unfair advantage over these geniuses” he creates the impression the whole time of ‘I’m just a simple Joe’ but I’m way more enlightened than these ‘geniuses’. Not a good way to approach any historical topic. The other major failure that weaves its way through the whole article is the equating of astrology, alchemy and magic, as one and the same thing. This is of course historically a serious mistake and disqualifies the entire article from the start. The grounds for justification, academic status and the levels of acceptance of the three disciplines differ from each other, as well as over time and place. Each one of them has to be dealt with separately within the given context and they cannot and should not be lumped together. This of course relates to the authors supercilious tone of superiority and is typical of the woolly thinking of all too many gnu atheists and adherents of scientism. Anything that doesn’t conform with their, often badly articulated, concept of science is dismissed as ‘magical thinking’ and as worthless. Let us now turn to the ‘5 men’.

First up we have Tuscany’s favourite son, Galileo Galilei who apparently believed “astrology changed everything”:

Today, Galileo (1564-1642) is held up as a paragon of rationality. He advocated heliocentrism — the idea that the sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the solar system — fought an anti-heliocentric church at great risk, and greatly advanced astronomy throughout Europe.

He also was something like a fortune teller.

Galileo didn’t just believe in astrology: he practiced it, conducted it for wealthy clients, and taught it to medical school students. If students at the University of Padua had taken MCATs, Galileo would have included a question about whether a Leo should date a Gemini.

Galileo wasn’t alone in keeping up on his signs. His contemporary, Johannes Kepler conducted his own astrological studies, though more reluctantly (he called people who believed in astrology “fatheads”).

Ignoring the opening paragraph and cutting to the chase a Renaissance astrologer, particularly an academic one, would object intensely to being referred to as ‘a fortune teller’. In the Renaissance astrology was generally accepted as a reputable academic disciple, a science i.e. a system of knowledge, whereas most other forms of divination i.e. fortune telling were frowned on as charlatanry. Here we have historical context, blithely ignored by our author, poking its nose in. Medical astrology, or iatro-mathematics, was a mainstream academic discipline taught at all Renaissance universities in the medical faculty, usually by the professor of mathematics. So if Galileo did indeed teach iatro-mathematics he would have been merely fulfilling the terms of his contract. I say if because it is to be assumed that Galileo did indeed teach such courses, however the proof that he did so doesn’t exists. The comment about ‘whether a Leo should date a Gemini’ is just plain stupid, as iatro-mathematics has nothing to do with judicial astrology, that is the everyday horoscope astrology, a completely different branch of the discipline.

Of course Galileo, who really did accept the truth of astrology, did practice judicial astrology famously casting and interpreting his own horoscope and those of his daughters. He also cast and interpreted the horoscopes not of ‘rich clients’ but wealthy patrons; there is a substantial difference. Rich clients would imply that Galileo’s services as an astrologer were for hire like any other street vendor, this was not the case. Rich patrons sought out Galileo’s company to share in his intellectual talents. Here his abilities to cast and interpret horoscopes became instruments of credit. Galileo entertained his patrons by supplying witty and stimulating after dinner discourses or debates or by providing the required horoscope. In exchange Galileo received favours from his patrons, a case of good wine, help with the cost of publishing his books or introductions to important and influential people such as the Pope.

On the good Johannes Kepler our author walks right into one of the most persistent myths of all in the history of science based on a classic case of quote mining, the claim that he was reluctant about astrology. Kepler was much more concerned about astrology, which he definitely believed in, than Galileo and wrote several books about it. However he totally rejected conventional horoscope astrology believing that the stars signs were artificial constructs with no significance whatsoever. He developed his own system based on planetary alignments, astrological aspects, and directio (directions, which I’m not going to explain!). Not unsurprisingly he didn’t find any takers for his reformed astrology. However his vitriolic diatribes against the conventional horoscope astrology and its practitioners, when quote mined, leads many people to the mistaken belief that he was in some way anti-astrology.

Our author next reveals, oh my god, that Newton was an alchemist. This is probably the most often ‘revealed secret’ about Grantham’s most famous son. This is titled “Isaac Newton thought alchemy was the future”, as we will see Newton was actually much more interested in alchemy’s past.

John Maynard Keynes called Isaac Newton (1642-1726) “the last of the magicians” with good reason. Newton spent half his life obsessed with alchemy, the transformative magic most frequently associated with turning different metals into gold. To make things even more complicated, in 1696, Newton became Warden of the Mint, and he became master of the Mint in 1700. The Royal Mint, of course, makes the coins for the entire United Kingdom. To be clear: an alchemist was the person in charge of making all the money.

Newton wasn’t the only respected mind who had visions of diving into gold coins. Robert Boyle is considered the father of chemistry, but he dabbled in alchemy as well. In fact, he was so committed to the alchemical cause that he fought to make alchemy legal, since Henry IV had banned it (because alchemy wasn’t good for the monetary supply). Needless to say, the repeal wasn’t necessary.

The philosopher’s stone Newton chased after wasn’t only able to “cure” metals that weren’t gold. It also had medical powers that fascinated Newton and his peers. Unfortunately, today you can only find the philosopher’s stone in the British subtitle of the first Harry Potter book.

Alchemy is not magic and any medieval or renaissance alchemist would have been deeply insulted if anybody had accused him of practicing magic. Alchemy as practiced by Newton or Boyle considered itself to be a well-founded knowledge system and it was this that attracted Newton. Newton certainly never had vision of diving into gold coins and neither did Boyle. Newton’s beliefs were in fact even weirder than our author thinks. Newton was an adherent of a widespread Renaissance philosophy known as prisca sapientia.

This theory thought that humanity had been in possession of perfect knowledge of the world shortly after the creation. This knowledge had become lost over time and Newton believed that his scientific discoveries were not discoveries but rediscoveries. He also believed that alchemy was the oldest form of knowledge and that if he could discover the secrets of alchemy he could tap into that ancient source of all knowledge. Pretty bizarre, I know, but it all formed a coherent whole in Newton’s worldview. On a scientific level the Newton experts are now convinced that his belief in alchemy enabled him to develop his theory of universal gravity, which, with its action at a distance, heavily contradicted the prevailing mechanical philosophy. The Cartesian and Leibnizian mechanical philosophers criticised his theory of gravity for exactly this reason.

Our author seems to think that there is something wrong with an alchemist becoming Warden or Master of the Mint. In fact Newton’s extensive chemical knowledge, won through his alchemical experimentation over many years, enabled him to develop and to put into practice new much improved methods of assaying metals to test the purity of coins. A major win for the Royal Mint.

The closing comment about alchemy and Harry Potter is a perfect example of the author’s childish attitude, supercilious superiority. This attitude is displayed to the full in his paragraphs about Tycho Brahe, entitled “Tycho Brahe made everyone believe he was a sorcerer”.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) created his own model of the universe and, though he didn’t get things quite right, helped advance astronomy and catalogued more than 1,000 stars. He also convinced everyone he was a sorcerer.

He did so from the unique perch of his private sorcerer’s island, Hveen (today known in English as Ven). Fantastically wealthy, Brahe built multiple observatories there, had a squad of astronomical assistants, and he used tiny automata (robots) to convince the locals he had magic powers. It didn’t hurt that he partied hard, had his nose partly sliced off in a duel and got his pet moose drunk at parties.

But Tycho didn’t just hoodwink the public into believing he was magical — he believed it too. He publically lectured against anyone who believed astrology was fake, and he also believed alchemy was the future for mystical discoveries. Brahe even became so synonymous with magic that an entire calendar of magical days was made in his honor (and his name was slapped on to give it magical credibility).

This is a bizarre mixture of half true facts and fairy stories. Tycho only catalogued 700 stars but added 300 more from the Ptolemaic star catalogue to bring his own up to 1000. He did nothing at all to convince anyone that he was a sorcerer. The island of Hven was his fief, awarded to him by the Danish King as his birth right as a highborn aristocrat and to call it a sorcerer’s island is not only wrong but also childish. He only built two observatories, one in his mansion house Uraniborg and the other a sunken observatory in the grounds called Stjerneborg. The story about the automata is a myth created by Pierre Gassendi in his biography of Tycho. The nose and moose stories are actually irrelevancies to the subject under discussion along the lines of, if I show that Tycho was weird then people are more likely to believe the rest of the shit that I’m dishing up.

Once again we have a very fundamental category error. Tycho was a practicing astrologer and a Paracelsian pharmacist neither of which activities is magic. Tycho held an oration at the beginning of a guest lecture course on astronomy that he held at the University of Copenhagen defending the validity of astrology, a not unusual presentation in that age. Rheticus’ public oration on being appointed professor for mathematics in Wittenberg was on the same subject. Tycho an adherent of the Renaissance microcosmos/macrocosmos philosophy, as above so below, also believed that alchemy served the same function on earth as astrology in the heavens but both were in his opinion ‘scientific’ and not mystical. Tycho’s interest in alchemy centred on his belief in and practice of Paracelsian medicine, a leading medical theory in some circles in Europe at the time and consisted mainly of research into and production of medicines.

The Magical Calendar is an engraving not a book and the author, Adam McLean, of the modern book on this object that our author links to writes the following:

“Although his name appears at the bottom right hand corner of the plate, the Magical Calendar probably has no direct connection with Tycho Brahe […] It seems most likely that the well known name of Tycho Brahe was associated with the Magical Calendar in order to gain a degree of publicity and supposed authority for the work. Certainly there is nothing in Brahe’s accepted corpus of writings of a similar nature.” [my emphasis]

Doesn’t quite say what our author wants it to say, does it?

Our author’s next selection is a truly bad example of low fruit. He presents us with Carl Linnaeus with the title “Carl Linnaeus classified magical animals like the hydra and believed in mermaids”.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) imposed taxonomical order on animal and plant life. In his era, scientists were discovering all sorts of new species at a rapid clip (Linnaeus himself thought that pelicans might be a myth). That rapid pace of discovery led Linnaeus to believe, perhaps reasonably enough, that humans would soon find a host of mythological animals.

Linnaeus devoted a whole section of his landmark Systema Naturae to these strange beasts. It was called Animalia Paradoxa and included:

  • the hydra
  • the satyrus (a monkey-like man, similar to Pan in Greek mythology)
  • the phoenix (the bird that rose from the ashes)

Did Linnaeus believe in these animals? It’s hard to know, and some of Linnaeus’s defenders say he only included the animals to point out how absurd they were. In the 1730s, he became famous for debunking a hydra in Hamburg. However, we can reasonably claim that Linnaeus believed he’d found a troglodyte, was pretty confident he’d seen a unicorn horn, and was very excited at the chance to find a mermaid.

Whatever the motivation, Linnaeus wasn’t alone in believing in bizarre, vaguely magical animals. Gottfried Leibniz managed to help found calculus, yet he still wanted to fill a museum with weird (and imaginary) animals like the myrmecoleon (some sort of ant-lion).

The tone of this whole section is concerned with how superior our author is in comparison with the poor benighted Linnaeus; the heavy sent of mockery cannot be overlooked. He gives no consideration to the time in which Linnaeus was working and writing. He also appears to have left his own theme, as there is nothing ‘magical’ about the things he lists Linnaeus as having done.

Linnaeus lived and worked in the eighteenth century there was no Internet, no telephones, no telegraph, not even a reliable let alone universal postal system; a letter to South America, for example, would probably take months to arrive at its destination and quite possibly might not arrive at all. Linnaeus lived all of his life in Northern Europe and was dependent on the reports of others for descriptions of non-European species of plants and animals. If he got no chance to view one personally then a tiger was just as much a mythical animal as a manticore and he had no chance of proving the real existence of the one or the other. What we have here is an eighteenth century natural historian carefully classifying all the plants and animals that are known to him through multiple written sources. It’s worth noting that Linnaeus places those mythical creatures that he classifies into a separate category that he names Paradoxa the Greek pardoxon meaning contrary to accepted opinion, i.e. dodgy. Systema Naturae went through many editions and in the later ones this category was left out. Only one real animal was included in Paradoxa, the pelican, which given the fact that travellers tales described the pelican as cutting its own breast to feed its children was not an irrational decision. None of the mythical animals was included in a category with real animals. What we have here is careful rational scientific behaviour not magical thinking.

Linnaeus included humans as primates, which of course caused a controversy in the eighteenth century. He also included two other species in the genus homo, Homo troglodytes based on the accounts of Jacob Bontius and Homo lar based on other reports. He asked the Swedish East India Company to look for confirming evidence of the existence of Homo troglodytes, which they couldn’t deliver and Homo lar was later categorised as a gibbon, again a good natural historian doing his work. Belief in unicorns, some form of single horned horse, based on the existence of narwhal tusks was still very widespread in the eighteenth century, so to try and ridicule Linnaeus or this is pathetic. The same applies to mermaids.

The author’s attempt to besmirch Leibniz is really clutching at straws. What the hell is ‘managed to help invent calculus’ supposed to mean? That’s not exactly the usual way of talking about one of the greatest mathematical achievements of the seventeenth century. Curiosity cabinets and natural history collections played a central role in scientific activities throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one of the largest, that of Hans Sloane, forming the basis of the British museum after Sloane’s death. Leibniz’ Drôle de Pensée, amusing thought, was to extend the curiosity cabinet into a much larger public exhibition space with active displays and machines alongside the passive objects displaying the full spectrum of science, technology and medicine, Science Museum anyone? That his long list of potential exhibits contains one mythical animal hardly makes this something to deride.

Our author’s fifth genius is, as would be expected, Paracelsus who apparently “loved natural magic and himself”.

Paracelsus (1493-1541) did a lot when he was alive, including basically inventing toxicology and naming zinc. But when he wasn’t revolutionizing scientific methods and naming metals, he was a big fan of magical things.

Born as Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, he renamed himself Paracelsus, both because it was shorter and it literally meant he was “better than Celsus,” a first century Roman medical researcher (in Paracelsus’s defense, he may have been renamed by his biggest fans). Paracelsus wrote that from an early age the “transmutation of metals” was his obsession, and he pursued it with vigor as an adult.

When he wasn’t traveling the world performing surgeries, he tried to utilize “natural magic” to help patients. He was quoted as saying “magic is a great secret wisdom,” and while his understanding of natural magic occasionally lent itself to scientific inquiry, he also believed that “the soul strongly desires sulphur.” As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult.

In his defense, that belief in magic was grounded in a commitment to inquiry: Paracelsus thought magic was just science that wasn’t understood yet. In a way, that unites all the scientists on this list, who pursued new knowledge even when it meant looking in some very unusual places.

The claim that Paracelsus basically invented toxicology, although not original to our author (who I doubt has any original thoughts), is historically highly dubious as poisons have been studied extensively since antiquity and it is rather strangely based on the legendary Paracelsus quote Dosis sola venenum facit, the dose makes the poison. Paracelsus was not born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, I refer the reader to my earlier post on the subject of his name.

The rest of the paragraphs on Paracelsus are a confused mess of unrelated claims picked at random from other peoples writings and doesn’t earn the right to be analysed so I won’t. I would ask the author why, having suddenly introduced the term, he doesn’t actually explain what natural magic is or was. Possibly the worst single sentence in the whole sorry mess that is this article is, As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult. Anybody who actually knew anything about either Paracelsus or Aristotle could not conceive of writing this sentence, even as a parody.

Returning to my initial criticism of this apology for a historical article, astrology and alchemy are not magic if dealing academically and historically with these disciplines and because he introduces it at the end ‘natural magic’ is not magic as it is generally understood either. As often the case I find it fascinating that people who quite literally don’t know what they’re talking about think that it’s OK to write an article about the history of science on a widely read popular website. If they were to write about something popular, such as football or cars, on the same level no editor in the world would allow them to publish it, so why do they treat the history of science with such disrespect?





Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

My Internet presence

Given the fact that I have somehow gained a substantial number of new subscribers to the Renaissance Mathematicus and an even larger number of new followers on Twitter I thought it might be apposite to explain my various Internet activities.

The Renaissance Mathematicus is home base and is the hub around which everything else revolves. It is a platform on which I express my thoughts about the history of science, which is the great love of my life. Mostly the things written here centre on the Early Modern Period and to a large extent the so-called mathematical sciences. However I am king of this here castle and I am free to wander where my fancy takes me and often have and will continue to do so, landing maybe in the nineteenth century or perhaps in Ancient Greece or Babylon. The types of posts I write are also quite varied. A lot of the time I react to bad history of science criticising and correcting rubbish which others have published on the Internet, in newspapers or magazines, or in books. This very often involves busting the myths that unfortunately have become the everyday bread and butter of popular history of science.

I don’t however just post negative articles. The positive ones are oft in the form of potted biographies in particular of the less well known figures, who have made important contributions to the evolution of the sciences. Another form of post that can be either negative or positive are book reviews of which I have several in the pipeline at the moment. Occasionally I will write pieces on historiography or on the philosophy of science. From time to time, such as now, I write pieces about myself but I try to keep those to a minimum.

I have recently become very aware of the fact that over the years a relatively large number of posts on a fairly wide range of topics have accumulated here at the Renaissance Mathematicus. It has even reached the point where I sometimes find it difficult to find something I wrote in the past and can’t quite remember the ‘clever’ title I gave it at the time. On the other hand whilst searching in such situations I stumble across posts I had completely forgotten about and think, “Did I write that?” To improve the situation for both myself and others I intend to index the substantial posts sometime this summer (famous last words!).

My second major Internet presence in my Twitter stream (@rmathematicus), which shows up here on the right side of the blog. I am a serial retweeter! I tweet or retweet anything that has to do with #histSTM, that is the histories of science, technology and medicine. I also tweet or retweet some other stuff to do with my other interests in life like music for example. Anybody is welcome to follow me on Twitter, but on the whole I will only follow back if your tweets are somehow connected to #histSTM

My serial retweeting on Twitter does have another purpose, apart from informing people who follow me about the Internet world of #histSTM, and that is to serve as the principal source for my other blogging activity Whewell’s Gazette. Whewell’s Gazette is a weekly collated links list of as many #histSTM blog posts, articles etc. as I can find. It gets posted every Monday (if I get it finished in time!) on the Whewell’ Ghost blog site. Like my Twitter stream, I see this as a service to the wider #histSTM Internet community, spreading the gospel so to speak. If you are generally interested in some aspects of #histSTM go take a look! There are always lots of interesting things to read collected there.

I also have accounts on Facebook, Pinterest and but these are largely inactive as I only opened them to gain access to #histSTM material posted there. All of my posts here and at Whewell’s Ghost get posted both to Twitter and to Facebook so if you prefer to follow me there feel free to do so.

When I first started this blog more than five years ago I didn’t think I would find enough to say to keep going for six months, however I’m still here and am still finding things to write about, so you’re more than welcome to stick around and read my pearls of wisdom (or festering heaps of rotting Dodo droppings, depending on your point of view). Also feel free to add your own views in the comments column, that’s what it’s there for. However be warned if you attempt to bite me, I am almost certain to bite back.






Filed under Autobiographical

In which I recommend some bedtime reading

Some time back the Pop Science Guy invited me to write a ‘10 Great History of Science Books’ list for his blog, to which I readily agreed. However being a professional procrastinator when it comes to writing anything I put it to one side and never got round to it. About a week ago PSG reminded me of my acceptance of his offer and this time I decided not to procrastinate any longer and finally write that list. On the day that I originally said yes I spontaneously wrote a list of the books I might include in my list, aiming mostly for books for the general reader rather than specialist academic texts and came up with thirteen titles and thought what the fuck “why are we so obsessed with lists of ten this and that?” and decided to stick to thirteen, a good baker’s dozen. As you will see I actually talk about more than thirteen books but then again why the hell not. Want to know what I recommend? Then go here and read your fill!




Filed under Autobiographical, History of science

The specialist in causing pain.

I suppose I ought to rebrand Galileo Galilei as ‘The Gift that keeps on Giving”! The comment is of course directed at all the idiots who think they need to present their image of Galileo to the world, rather than at the 16th- and 17th-century Tuscan artist-engineer himself. As long as there is a GG Super Star I will never be short of material for this blog, although it might become a little bit monotone with time. The most recent offender is Michael Vagg on The Conversation in an article entitled Four things we should teach every kid about Galileo. Before looking at Mr Vagg’s contribution to the Galileo debate I want to waste a few words on The Conversation, which describes itself as follows:

The Conversation is a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary that’s free to read and republish.

Its banner head also has the subtitle “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”. Apparently, at least judging by Mr Vagg’s article, this proud boast doesn’t apply when it comes to the history of science.

Mr Vagg, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine & Pain Specialist at Barwon Health, apparently recently attended a conference in Florence and took time out to visit the Museo Galileo, a laudable way to spend his free time. He tells us he bought three books from the gift shop one of which was Galileo: Antichrist, which he describes, a serious scholarly attempt to look behind the obvious motives for his trial and punishment by the Church to some of the contemporary nuances, going on to say that he highly recommend[s] it, if you’re a Galileo freak and historical conspiracy theory enthusiast like me. Unfortunately Mr Vagg is mistaken in his assessment of this book. Of all the more recent publication about Galileo, provoked by the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, Galileo: Antichrist is one of the worst. A popular biography written by Michael White it turns back the clock by about two hundred years and presents a vision of Galileo’s life and work that would be comfortably at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century, full of myths and distortion and not to be recommended to anybody who serious wants to know the historical truth about Galileo Galilei. Mr Vagg seems to have largely based his “four truths” on Whites totally distorted view of Galileo and his achievements.

His first “truth is entitled “He got rid of Aristotle from science” and I reproduce the whole of his section to this theme, which is to put it mildly horrendous. His first paragraph reads as follows:

Before Galileo, science (known then as natural philosophy) was based almost entirely on the writings of Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas enshrined a huge amount of Aristotle’s teachings about the natural world as Church-approved dogma without any empirical basis. Until the Renaissance, virtually nobody in Europe or anywhere else apart from Arabic geniuses like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd advanced science by paying attention to the real world. They just looked up what Aristotle had to say and left it at that, even if what they observed was at odds with what they read.

One of my favourite historians of medieval science, David C Lindberg, died a couple of weeks ago and he would be spinning in his grave if he knew of this travesty of his disciple, which reads like something from the beginning of the nineteenth century or even from the Renaissance. It was Renaissance scholars who were initially responsible for this wholly false picture of medieval science. They created the myth that the golden age of antiquity created a cornucopia of knowledge that got lost with the collapse of the Roman Empire and that they were responsible for the rebirth (renaissance) of this knowledge, freeing Europe from the dark ignorance of the intervening period, which they termed the Middle Ages. This myth was perpetuated right up into the nineteenth century, when the French physicist and historian of science, Pierre Duhem, became the first person to challenge it. Throughout the twentieth century a series of brilliant historians of science, including such people as Marshall Clagett, Alistair Crombie, John Murdoch, Edward Grant, the afore mentioned David Lindberg and others, completely dismantled this myth showing that European medieval scholars made significant contribution to the evolution of science; contribution on which people such as Galileo built their own contributions.

To give one example that is very relevant to Galileo and his theories of motion called revolutionary by Vagg. Even Aristotle was aware of the fact that his laws of motion were anything but satisfactory and the first person to subject them to serious scrutiny was John Philoponus in the sixth century CE, who developed the impetus theory, which was developed further by Arabic scholars in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and by Buridan in Europe in the fourteenth century. Galileo well aware of this work adopted the impetus theory early in his own work on kinetics before moving on to an incorrect form of the theory of inertia. (Galileo still considered natural motion to be circular, not linear, an Aristotelian concept!) In the fourteenth century the so-called Oxford Calculatores of Merton College developed the mathematical mean speed theory, which is to all intents and purposes Galileo’s law of fall. One of the so-called Paris physicists Nicolas Oresme produced a geometrical proof of this theory, in the form of a graph, which is identical to the proof given by Galileo for his law of fall in his Discorsi more than three hundred and fifty years later. It was also the invention of spectacles in the late thirteenth century that would eventually lead to the invention of the telescope, the instrument that would make Galileo famous. Far from being scientifically sterile the Middle Ages was the very fertile seed bed in which Galileo’s own scientific ideas grew to maturity.

In his second paragraph in this section Vagg dished up the following:

Galileo did more than anyone else to rid natural philosophy of its reliance on the authority of Aristotle, replacing it with an empirical and mathematical method. Deciding scientific knowledge by scholarly argument rather than doing experiments seems bizarre to us now. Galileo showed again and again that mathematical models could yield results that were reproducible by anyone else and disproved Aristotle’s observations. Eventually, the successes of the new way of doing natural philosophy were too overwhelming to ignore. The Aristotelians slunk off to find other occupations. Galileo showed irrefutably that you couldn’t do science by magisterial authority alone. Your results had to stand up to scrutiny in the real world.

As I explained in an earlier post, that earned me my reputation as a Galileo deflator, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Harriot, Christoph Scheiner, William Gilbert, Christoph Clavius, Francoise Vieta, Isaac Beeckman and Simon Stevin, all roughly contemporaries of Galileo, all did at least as much, and some of them more than, Galileo in establishing the ‘new’ experimental mathematics based science in the early seventeenth century and the myth of Galileo as the great Aristotle slaying champion is one that needs to be firmly stamped on. Also modern history of science has shown that many aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy continued to exercise a strong influence on the development of science well into the seventeenth century long passed the death of Galileo.

Vagg’s second point is actually a very good one and would have been praise worthy if he hadn’t gone on to spoil it in the detail. His title is, “He was not the prototype of a misunderstood lone genius”. This is very correct and in fact the misunderstood lone genius is not only a myth but also a chimera, there has never been one. This is in fact an important point that should indeed be taught to every school kid as part of their science courses, however Vagg goes on to spoil it by presenting a totally mythical picture of Galileo.

Galileo was very much not a lone genius. He relied on Guidobaldo del Monte and Christopher Clavius to get both of his jobs as professor of mathematics and early in his career he relied on the transcript of the lectures from the Collegio Romano to deliver his own lectures. As a young researcher he spend long periods brainstorming with del Monte and Paolo Sarpi over a wide range of topics. Sometimes it is not possible to tell if the ideas he made public really were his own or ones borrowed from one or other of those intellectual partners. For his telescope and instrument making he employed and relied heavily on a technician, who usually doesn’t get the credit he deserves. For his excursions into applied science and technology in the arsenal in Venice he relied heavily on the guidance of master ship builders. Later in life following his overnight fame he relied on his fellow members of the Accademia dei Licei as sounding boards for his ideas and those lynx-eyed friends also prepared his works for publication and published them. Even after his fall, under house arrest, Galileo had students and his son helping with his scientific work. Galileo was for most of his life part of a network of like-minded friends and assistants, however this is not the story that Vagg presents.

When he published the Starry Messenger to announce his discovery of the moons of Jupiter with his new telescope, he not only sent out copies of his books to his colleagues, but also sent them better telescopes than the ones they had!

I suggest Vagg should read Mario Biagioli’s Galileo Courtier and Galileo’s Instruments of Credit. Galileo did not send copies of the Sidereus Nuncius or telescopes to his colleagues; he sent them to civil and religious potentates who could help him in his ambitions to climb the social greasy pole. Despite requests for a telescope Kepler had to wait till a passing aristocrat graciously let him borrow one for a couple of hours to see the new astronomical discoveries. Galileo ignored Kepler’s friendly collegial overtures until he, Kepler, became the only person to support without confirmation those discoveries, publishing Kepler’s letter without his knowledge or permission. Later he ridiculed Kepler’s groundbreaking book on the optics of the telescope as unreadable. He ignored Kepler’s work on heliocentricity when writing the Dialogo, despite the fact that it was the best available on the subject, whilst ridiculing Tycho’s work. When he and Scheiner both discovered the sunspots he accused Scheiner, unjustifiably, of plagiarism and then published some of Scheiner’s results in the Dialogo as his own. In the dispute over the nature of comets with Grassi he viciously attacked Grassi exposing him to public ridicule with malicious polemic, although scientifically Grassi was right and he, Galileo, was wrong. As he and Marius both independently discovered the moons of Jupiter he accused Marius of plagiarism, a charge that stuck ruining Marius’ reputation until it was restored at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This is the man who Vagg claims was “a practising believer in developing a scientific consensus”. Galileo did not believe in scientific consensus, he was a man with a monstrous ego who was right and anybody who disagreed with him got mauled viciously for his troubles. Vagg writes rather pathetically:

He was revered in his lifetime by every natural philosopher of note, although some of ones he personally insulted were somewhat grudging in their admiration.

He was justifiably intensely disliked and despised by quite a few natural philosophers of note. Vagg does however point out that Galileo was not perfect:

He could, of course, also be spectacularly wrong. Nobody remembers his views on comets and the causes of tides, which were two of the biggest contemporary scientific controversies he weighed into. It should also be pointed out that these were the two most prominent examples where Galileo was being particularly stubborn in holding out against the prevailing tide of opinion.

A lot of historians of science remember his views on comets and the causes of tides very well indeed.

The title of Vagg’s next section is also correct, “He was genuinely interdisciplinary” but then again so were all his contemporaries, our concept of the single disciple specialist or expert didn’t exist in the Renaissance. However in his description of Galileo’s multifarious activities Vagg makes several serious blunders. He tells us:

While his astronomical work may seem like it had no practical applications, it led him to develop a way of measuring longitude at sea that was not surpassed until more than 150 years later.

Galileo did conceive a method of using the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter by the planet, as they orbited it, as a clock with which to determine longitude. However, he never succeeded in determining the orbits accurately enough for this purpose, a task first completed by Cassini many decades later. Also more importantly, although this method could be and was used successfully on land, for cartographical purposes, it could never be used at sea, a ship being far too unstable to make the necessary highly accurate astronomical telescopic observations. It is of historical interest that the chronometer method and the lunar distance method of determining longitude, which were the methods that would eventually solve the problem, were both proposed long before Galileo was even born. Next up we get informed that:

He translated his knowledge of the abstract mathematical minutiae of optics into building much better telescopes than anyone else had. He extended this theory to conceive and design the microscope as well.

With the exception of Yaakov Zik, almost all historians of the telescope think that Galileo had very little knowledge of geometrical optics and in fact used his skills as an instrument maker to develop his telescopes by simple trial and error. Although no single inventor of the microscope is known to us, as I’ve already written in an earlier post, Galileo was almost certainly one of the inventors of the microscope an instrument that he, according to his own testimony, discovered by accident when he put one of his telescopes to his eye the wrong way round. He then improved on this accidental discovery, again not by using the theory of geometrical optics, but by trial and error.

The military compass described by Vagg was in fact invented by del Monte and only manufactured and sold along with instruction courses in its use by Galileo as an additional source of income. Vagg closes out this section with a final error:

In the final year of his life, having gone totally blind, Galileo conceived and dictated the design for a clock escapement which was very similar to the one used by Huygens to construct the first pendulum clock a couple of decades later.

The pendulum clock escapement conceived by Galileo but never really realised was substantially different to the one developed by Huygens decades later.

Vagg’s fourth point worthy of the attention of school kids is, “He stood up for the philosophy of science”. Whilst this statement does contain more than a grain of truth Vagg again succeeds in on presenting a largely false historical picture to illustrate it.

Despite using maths that is now taught in high school and equipment that would embarrass a 21st century toy shop owner, Galileo utterly changed the way his contemporaries saw themselves in the universe. Educated citizens of his time had a sophisticated explanation of the world and the heavens, but it was based on dogma and supposition to a degree that is very hard to comprehend today. By making arguments that were based on reasoning, mathematics and experimental verification, he was consistently and obviously successful with many of his predictions. This opened his contemporaries’ eyes to the extraordinary possibilities on offer with knowledge gained by the scientific method.

This paragraph contains a complete misrepresentation of the general state of science at the time of Galileo. Those things that Vagg praises Galileo for had been gaining ground strongly throughout European science for more than a century before Galileo made any contributions to the topic at all. Since the High Middle Ages people had been making contributions to science based on reasoning, mathematics and experimental verification. Galileo made an important contribution to this trend but he didn’t start it. It should also not be forgotten that Galileo used this methodology when it suited him but also resorted to polemic and brow beating when it suited him better. His dispute with Grassi on the nature of comets is a good example of this behaviour.

Observing that Venus had phases like the moon, and having plotted the orbits of the Galilean satellites meticulously, he could join the dots conceptually, and followed the chain of reasoning to the end. The results were not what he was originally looking to discover, but he just couldn’t turn his back on his data. Earth was demoted from the fixed centre of the medieval universe to just another planet orbiting the sun. He strenuously sought ways to avoid provoking the Church (he was a devout believer right to the end) but he could not stop progressing and disseminating his research, despite those who told him it was safer to pull his head in.

Maybe I’m misreading this but it appears to me that Vagg is implying that Galileo initiated the heliocentric model of the cosmos, has he never heard of Copernicus or Kepler? Also, as I’ve written in detail in other posts, the telescopic discoveries made by Galileo, Scheiner, Marius, Harriot and others, whilst refuting a pure Ptolemaic geocentric model, were a long way from confirming a heliocentric model and were also conform with various Tychonic and semi-Tychonic models. These facts alone constitute an important lesson in how science evolves.

“He strenuously sought ways to avoid provoking the Church” is another mythical statement from Vagg. One of Galileo’s major problems was that his mega ego prevented him from seeing when he was provoking those that he attacked, mocked, contradicted. Convinced of his own innate superiority he just blundered from one provocation to the next. A seemingly trivial point, but actually not so trivial, is the claim “he was a devout believer right to the end” this, or something similar is a standard part, of the Galileo mythology trotted out by almost everyone who has put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to write about the man. However, David Wootton in his biography, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, a genuinely ‘serious scholarly’ book, argues very convincingly that far from being the devout Catholic of popular science literature, Galileo was in fact a very lax Catholic. This of course rather spoils the common plaint, ‘he was a true believer and still they punished him’ of the ‘Galileo was a martyr for science’ fan club.

He insisted that dependable, reproducible scientific results should trump religious dogma or non-empirical philosophical ideas any day of the week. He paid a price for his abrasiveness, but he should not be remembered just for the events that blighted his later years. His persecution and house arrest by the Vatican were not inevitable, but threw into sharp focus the clash of his era between a recognisably modern science-based worldview and the medieval superstition of authoritarian belief systems. Somebody had to be the first to point out the Emperor’s new clothes.

The last couple of lines of the previous paragraph and this one refer, of course, to the publication of Galileo’s Dialogo and his subsequent trial by the Inquisition of Rome. Unfortunately Galileo’s masterpiece didn’t rely on ‘dependable, reproducible scientific results’ because they didn’t exist for the heliocentric theory, instead he used polemic and sleight of hand to confuse, bamboozle and confound his opponents hoping that nobody would notice how thin his scientific arguments actually were. The whole book was of course structured around the fourth and final section, Galileo’s theory of the tides, (which Vagg so casually swept aside above) that he, in a strange fit of blind arrogance, believed to be the missing empirical proof that the earth moved, the lack of such proof being the strongest scientific argument against the heliocentric hypothesis. Originally Galileo wanted to give the whole book the title Theory of the Tides but the Church censor wouldn’t permit it, so he chose the title that has gone down in history instead. Galileo thought that this theory was his all-winning trump, whereas it was in reality a busted flush, as any half thinking person could have told him. Galileo did not write the book in opposition to the Church but with the Pope’s explicit permission. However Urban, not unreasonably, commissioned him to write a book presenting the various cosmological/astronomical models of the cosmos factually and without favour or prejudice. If Galileo had written a book presenting the arguments for and against geocentricity, heliocentricity and helio-geocentricty (he completely ignored the latter, although at the time he wrote it was the model that best fit the known scientific facts) fairly and honestly, we probably wouldn’t waste so much time discussing the conflict between him and the Church because there wouldn’t have been one. Instead he wrote a book, which was an undisguised polemic in favour of heliocentricity hoping nobody would notice the lack of real empirical evidence and finished it off by gratuitously insulting the Pope. Wow really clever GG! The clash between worldviews that Vagg so pathetically evokes at the end of this paragraph exists only in his fantasy and not in the historical reality. The clash between Galileo and Urban was on a very personal level and in no way reflects a general clash between the then theological worldview and, to quote Vagg, a recognisably modern science-based worldview. This supposed clash is a myth created in the nineteenth century that has long been demolished by historians of science but people like Vagg prefer to keep peddling the myths rather than taking the trouble to learn the truth. Possible the worst piece of claptrap in Vagg’s ahistorical article is his closing sentence.

I am however eternally grateful for the effect his life’s work had on the philosophy of science. Development of the Enlightenment values that underpin our society would not have been possible without the seismic burst of rationalism that Galileo unleashed from his villa in Northern Italy 500 years ago.

Wow Mr Vagg, you have set a new high water mark in ahistorical mythical hagiography. At least it will provide employment for lots of historians rewriting all those history books that missed out on GG’s vital role in the Enlightenment. Mr Vagg, pain specialist, your pathetic attempts to write history of science, a subject you very obviously know nothing about, has certainly caused this historian of science a great deal of pain indeed.



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

The Simon Marius Anniversary Celebrations 2014 have been a great success

On the 8 January 1610 the Ansbach court astronomer Simon Marius first observed the four largest moons of Jupiter just one day later than Galileo Galilei, although he would delay four years before publishing the results of his observations unlike his Tuscan rival, who famously rushed into print with his amazing discovery. It seemed somehow appropriate to post this press release here on this anniversary of that, for Marius, momentous event.

Press Release – The Simon Marius Anniversary Celebrations 2014 have been a great success.

The initiators of the ‘The Simon Marius Anniversary Celebrations 2014’ can look back over a very eventful year. More than 60 lectures and exhibitions corrected the public image of the margravial court astronomer both at home and abroad, and more than 200 articles appeared in newspapers, magazines, and other media. Motivation was the publication of Simon Marius’ magnum opus Mundus Iovialis (The World of Jupiter) four hundred years ago in 1614.

The first high point of these activities was the launching of the Marius-Portal,, in The State Archives in Nürnberg. This Internet site contains a bibliography, with 28 menu languages, of all the publications by or about Simon Marius (1573-1624), who discovered the four largest Jupiter moons at the same time but independently of Galileo Galilei in 1610. A substantial number of these publications have been digitised and can – where legally permitted – be viewed directly. The medium-term aim is to create a virtual ‘Collected Works’.

The designation of an asteroid by the International Astronomical Union was very pleasing. The asteroid “(7984) Marius” is about 10 km in diameter and is situated in the so-called main belt between Mars and Jupiter. It orbits the sun once every 4.27 years and travels at a speed of 7.57 km/s.

The final high point was the conference “Simon Marius und seine Zeit” (Simon Marius and his Times), which focused on the results of his researches. The conference report will appear in 2015.

Galileo Galilei had accused the margravial court astronomer of plagiarism, however at the beginning of the 20th century he was rehabilitated and in 2014 Simon Marius was honoured in particular in Southern Germany but also in the Cosmonaut Museum in Moscow and in the USA. Galileo and Marius discovered the four largest Jupiter moons in January 1610, but Marius first published his results four years later than his Italian colleague. Today we know that in the 17th century Marius was an astronomer at the highest European levels.

The ‘The Simon Marius Anniversary Celebrations 2014’ was initiated by the Nürnberger Astronomischen Gesellschaft (Nürnberger Astronomical Society) and will be set forth by the Simon Marius Gesellschaft (Simon Marius Society), which was founded at the end of December 2014.

Any readers who wish to do so are cordially invited to become a normal or corresponding member of the Simon Marius Society, membership is free.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Local Heroes, Renaissance Science

If you’re going to blog about history of science then at least do the legwork.

In 2012 I found it necessary on two occasions to pour scorn onto the attempts of Esther Inglis-Arkell to blog about the history of science on the io9 website. In the end I gave up having come to the conclusion, not only because of her contributions, that io9 was, despite according to Wikipedia being “named one of the top 30 science blogs by Michael Moran of The Times’ Eureka Zone blog“, definitely not a place to go for anything resembling sensible history of science. However I recently had recourse to visit this quagmire of questionable information to trace the source of a dubious history of science claim. Entering the name Tycho Brahe into the sites search engine the first thing offered was a post about Denmark’s most notorious astronomer written by Esther Inglis-Arkell at the beginning of December. Against my better judgement I decided to read this pre-Christmas offering and very much wished that I hadn’t succumbed to temptation. This post with the title The Bitterest Scientific Duel in History Was Over “Geoheliocentrism” is to put it mildly pretty awful.

Before we examine the post let us consider the title. I have on numerous occasions argued that one should not use superlatives in the history of science, or in history in general come to that, terms such as ‘first’, ‘greatest’, etc., are to be avoided at all cost and the situation here is no different. ‘Bitterest scientific duel”? Really? What about Galileo contra Scheiner on sunspots or Galileo contra Grassi on the nature of comets? Hooke contra Huygens on the watch spring? Hooke contra Newton on everything under the sun or Newton contra Leibniz on the invention of the calculus? That’s just picking some of the cherries off the cake. In the Early Modern period disputes over priority, plagiarism, scientific interpretation and numerous other things were part of the daily bread of scholars. If should think that it was only the mathematical sciences which went in for verbal warfare try the dispute between Leonhart Fuchs and Janus Cornarius, which used language that would make a drunken sailor blush.

EIA’s introduction is also somewhat less than fortunate, she writes, “His bitterest fight involved three famous astronomers of the 16th century, and their battle over the best theory about how Earth was at the center of the universe“. This less than perfect sentence seems to imply that the dispute was about competing cosmological systems, it wasn’t. The dispute was about whether Nicolaus Reimers Bär, generally known as Ursus, had plagiarised the Tychonic system from its Danish creator. Tycho said he had, Ursus denied the charge. EIA’s confusion is not restricted to the introduction as in the following paragraph she writes:

[Tycho] published a geoheliocentric version of the universe, with both the Earth and Sun at the center of the solar system. The “system of the world” was well-received, and an improvement on the existing geocentric model. It was not unique. Nicolaus Reimarus also published a book, titled “Fundamentals of Astronomy,” that replaced the geocentric model.

First off in Tycho’s system “both the Earth and Sun are not at the center of the solar system”! The earth is at the centre and is orbited by the sun, which in turn is orbited by the five planets. Here it is also very clear that EIA is not aware that with slight differences they both published the same system. Tycho claiming that Ursus had plagiarised him and Ursus claiming that he had developed/discovered the system independently. In the interest of fairness it should be pointed out that Paul Wittich, Duncan Liddel, Helisaeus Röslin and Simon Marius all claimed to have independently developed/ discovered a Tychonic system: In fact Gingerich and Westman argue a very good case that Tycho and Ursus both plagiarised Wittich!

I’m not going to discuss the whole story here although I might write a post about it in the future but anybody who wants to read up on it for themselves should, to get a full and balanced picture, read Edward Rosen’s Three Imperial Mathematicians: Kepler Trapped between Tycho Brahe and Ursus, Nicholas Jardine’s The Birth of the History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler’s ‘A Defence of Tycho against Ursus’ with Essays on its Provenance and Significance and Owen Gingerich’s and Robert S. Westman’s The Wittich Connection: Conflict and Priority in Late Sixteenth Century Cosmology, as well as Victor Thoren’s The Lord of Uraniborg: A biography of Tycho Brahe and Dieter Launert’s Nicolaus Reimers (Raimarus Ursus) (this is in German). If that is not enough volume 36 (2005) of the Journal for the History of Astronomy (which is open access) has nine papers by Jardine et al on the subject and volume 44 (2013, not open access) has an interesting paper Trying Ursus: A Reappraisal of the Tycho-Ursus Priority Dispute by Juan D. Serrano. All of this literature means that there really is no excuse for EIA not to get her story right!

We now get introduced to Tycho:

The dual publication was bound to cause bad feelings. Tycho Brahe was a great drinking buddy, but he did not have an even temper when it came to academic debate. He’d lost part of his nose in a duel with his third cousin over a difference in their appraisal of mathematical formula. He was also a dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat who avoided marrying a woman because she was a commoner, despite the fact that they lived together for 30 years and had eight children.

That the duel in which Tycho lost part of his nose was over some sort of mathematical dispute (version differ) is apocryphal or put less politely, a myth with no basis in fact, put into the world by Pierre Gassendi. Tycho did not avoid marrying Kirstin Jørgensdatter, because he was a noble and she was a commoner, they couldn’t marry formally, it being illegal at that time in Denmark. However under a Jutish law (accepted at the time), “the woman who for three winters lived openly as wife in a house, eating and drinking and sleeping with the man of the house and possessing the keys to the household, should be his true wife”[1]. Tycho’s and Kirstin’s marriage was thus under Danish law a legitimate one and their children were also legitimate and not bastards but having a commoner as mother they were themselves commoners and could not inherit Tycho’s titles or properties. They could however and did inherit his astronomical observational data, a fact that caused Johannes Kepler much stress.

We then get introduced to Ursus:

Reimarus started his life lower, and arguably rose higher. As a child he was a pig herder. (Confusingly, this seemed to earn him the nickname of “Bear” or “Ursus.”) His academic performance helped him rise quickly, and his book on the true shape of the universe earned him a position as the Imperial Astronomer to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II.

Nicolaus Reimers’ nickname Bär (English bear, Latin Ursus) naturally, had nothing to do with his activities as a swineherd, which took place when he was eighteen years old not when he was a child, but was a name he adopted in 1588 because of his relationship to the Baren clan, a notable family in Dithmarschen. He was born in Hennstedt in Dithmarschen, an area in North Germany.

EIA goes on to say that Brahe circulated his accusations against Ursus in a letter “amongst the other imperial scientists”. Whilst it’s true that Brahe originally spread his accusations against Ursus in his correspondence with other scholars, not just one letter, I have no idea who ‘the other imperial scientists’ are supposed to be? However, the dispute first really blew up when he published a volume of his scientific correspondence in 1596 in which he included his correspondence on the topic of Ursus and his intellectual theft with Christian Rothmann, astronomer on the court of Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel. Rothmann, who knew Ursus personally from a period he had spent in Kassel, and didn’t like him, fanned the flames from his side with some choice gratuitous insults. Ursus was not amused.

EIA tells us, “Reimarus replied to the allegations in an astronomy journal“. This is a clear proof that EIA has no idea what she is talking about. Ursus’ reply was actually in the form of a book, De astronomicis hypothesibus, published in 1597. He could not have replied in an astronomical journal because there weren’t any in the sixteenth century. I don’t actually know when or where the first astronomical journal was published but certainly not before the eighteenth century. The first ever academic journal was the Journal des sçavans of which the first edition appeared on Monday 5 January 1665 two months ahead of the first edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which celebrates its 350th birthday this year. Ursus’ book set new levels for invective in an academic dispute.

The non-existent astronomical journal might seem to be a rather trivial error to non-historians of science but in reality it is anything but trivial. The media with which scholars communicate, disseminating and discussing their results is a very important and very central theme in the history of science. The error that EIA makes is a very high level error. It is as if a military or political historian describing the Battle of Culloden would claim that Bonnie Prince Charlie was driven away from the battlefield in a Rolls Royce.

Not content with all her errors up to now EIA now drops a major clanger:

Then he did something he lived to regret – if only briefly. He mentioned that Johannes Kepler, another famous astronomer, had sided with him in this little dispute. He even included a letter from Kepler, full of extravagant praise, in which Kepler declared that good old Ursus had taught him everything he knew about brilliant mathematics. When one of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians of the age was on his side, how could he be wrong?

Yes, Ursus did include a very obsequious letter from Johannes Kepler in his book, which did acknowledge Ursus as his teacher (not quite as extremely as EIA would have as believe) but Kepler was not “one of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians of the age”. This is common mistake that people make, if XY became famous he must have always been famous. This is of course not true, famous people must of course go through a process of becoming famous, which can often take many years. When Kepler wrote the embarrassing letter to Ursus he was a completely unknown schoolteacher from the Austrian provinces and in fact this was the motivation for his obsequious letter.

Kepler had just written his first book, the Mysterium Cosmographicum, and in order to try to interest people for his book and start to build a scholarly reputation he sent off gratis copies of the book accompanied with obsequious letters to well-known and influential astronomers and mathematicians, including sending copies to both Tycho and Ursus, who was after all Imperial Mathematicus in Prague.

EIA now adds fuel to the flames of her own historical funeral pyre she informs us:

Even in his own time he was revered, and so the person who actually did teach him had bragging rights. Those rights belonged to Michael Maestlin, Kepler’s math teacher at his university. When Maestlin heard that Kepler was making the Reimarus claim, he was understandably peeved, and fired off a letter to Kepler.

First off at the time of the publication of Ursus’ book Kepler was, as already said, a nobody and by no means revered. In fact the letter from Maestlin was completely different. Before we look briefly at that, calling another scholar your teacher was a fairly standard Renaissance flowery phrase meaning I have learnt so much from reading your work and didn’t faze Maestlin at all. What did faze Maestlin was the letter he received from Tycho complaining about the appearance of Kepler’s letter in Ursus’ book praising the man who had stolen Tycho’s ideas. Maestlin wrote to Kepler to tell him to apologise to Tycho, which Kepler did very quickly. This would prove to be a highly embarrassing situation for Kepler, who a couple of years later, expelled from Austria by the Counter-Reformation, desperately wanted Tycho to give him a job. In fact the noble Dane did give him employment but as his first assignment ordered him to write a book on the dispute exonerating himself and condemning Ursus. Kepler complied, although the book was originally not published, Tycho having died before it was finished, and it is this document that is the subject of Nicholas Jardine’s book mentioned above.

You may ask why I bother to tear this apology for history of science apart, a question I ask myself. What really angers me is that a website with the reach and influence that io9 has allows somebody like Esther Inglis-Arkell to write articles on the history of science, a discipline about which she very obviously knows next to nothing. There are a lot of good historians of science out in the world couldn’t io9 find somebody who knows what they are talking about to write their history of science articles or at least somebody who is prepared to do the leg work and read up on the topic they are writing about before putting fingers to keyboard?

[1] Thoren, p. 46


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science