Prelude to Conrad Gesner Day

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tomorrow Friday 24 March 2017 Smithsonian Libraries (@SILibraries)will be holding a prelude to Sunday’s Conrad Gesner Day. There will be a live Facebook tour of Gesner’s Books held by the library at 1:30 pm ET (6:30 CET). #GesnerDay 


CHNDM Library Reading Room in the Carnegie Mansion

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The poetic astronomer


Regular readers of this blog will know that I can on occasion be a stroppy, belligerent, pedant, who gets rather riled up over people who spread myths of science and who has a tendency to give such people a public kicking on this blog. This tendency earned me the nickname, the HistSci_Hulk in earlier years. The subtitle to a podcast that I stumbled across yesterday on the BBC website provoked my inner Hist_Sci Hulk and has generated this post.

The podcast is a BBC Radio 4 “Radio 4 in Four” four minute documentary on the work of the Indian mathematician and astronomer, Aryabhata: Maths expressed as poetry. The subtitle was: In 5th century India, clever man Aryabhata wrote his definitive mathematical work entirely in verse and long before Galileo, argued the world was round [my emphasis]. It was that final clause that provoked my HistSci_Hulk moment.

I’ve lost count of how many times over the years I have explained patiently and oft not so patiently that educated society in European culture have known and accepted that the world is a sphere since at least the sixth century BCE. This is the most recent account here on the blog. Bizarrely in the podcast no mention is made of Aryabhata’s cosmological or astronomical views, so it is real puzzle as to why it’s mentioned in the subtitle. What is interesting is the fact that as a cosmologist Aryabhata held a fairly rare position, although he was a geocentrist he believed that the earth revolved around its own axis, i.e. geocentrism with diurnal rotation. You can read about the history of this theory here in an earlier blog post.

Statue of Aryabhata on the grounds of IUCAA, Pune. As there is no known information regarding his appearance, any image of Aryabhata originates from an artist’s conception.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

More interesting is the correct fact that Aryabhata wrote his astronomical/mathematical thesis in verse form. As the podcast points out this is because the culture in which he was writing was an oral one and complex facts are easier to remember in verse rather than in prose. What the podcast doesn’t say is that Aryabhata was not the only astronomer/mathematician to express his results in verse and was in this sense by no means unique. In fact he is part of a solid tradition of mathematical Sanskrit poetry.

India was not the only culture to use poetry to express scientific content. Probably the most famous example is the Latin poem De rerum natura by the first century BCE Roman poet Lucretius, which is the most extensive description of the physics of the ancient Greek atomists. The poem played a central role in the revival of atomism in the early modern period; a revival that several historians of science, such as David Lindberg, consider to be a key element in the so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.

In astronomy/ astrology there is a poem from antiquity that played a significant role in the Renaissance. This is the Astronomica probably written by the poet Marcus Manilius in the first century CE; the first printed edition of this was published by Regiomontanus in Nürnberg in 1473.

Many people are not aware of some highly significant scientific poems from the eighteenth century written and published by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Erasmus Darwin (1770; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants was the first work in English to popularise the botanical works of Linnaeus in English. The poem caused something of a scandal because it emphasised the explicit sexual nature of Linnaeus’ system of botanical nomenclature and was thus considered unsuitable for polite society. The Loves of the Plants was published together with another poem, The Economy of Vegetation, a more general poem on scientific progress and technological innovation, of which Darwin as a prominent member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham was very much aware. The Economy of Vegetation expresses an evolutionary view of progress. A footnote to The Loves of the Plants contains the first outlines of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, which he would then expand upon in his prose work Zoonomia. Erasmus Darwin’s is an adaptive theory of evolution and is thus oft referred to as Lamarckian, although as Erasmus preceded Lamarck, maybe his theory should be referred to as Darwinian! A posthumous poem of Darwin’s, The Temple of Nature, contains a full description of his theory of evolution in verse.

Writing this led me to the thought that maybe editors of modern scientific journals should require their authors to submit their papers in iambic pentameters or in Shakespearean blank verse, with the abstracts written as sonnets. It would certainly make reading scientific papers more interesting.




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

Sorry Caroline but you were not the first, Maria was

Today is the birthday of Caroline Herschel, important member of the Herschel astronomical clan and significant astronomer in her own right, who was born 16 March 1750.

Caroline Herschel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Internet this anniversary is being acknowledged and celebrated, and quite rightly so, but all of those doing so that I have stumbled across, including such august organisations as the BBC, the Royal Society, NASA and ESA amongst other, have all being perpetuating a history of astronomy myth, namely that Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discover a comet. She wasn’t Maria Kirch was!

Caroline Herschel made her first cometary discovery, having been trained to sweep for comets by her brother William and being provided by him with her own comet sweeping telescope, on 1 August 1786, almost sixty-six years after the death of her fellow German female astronomer and the real first woman to discover a comet, Maria Kirch.

Maria Kirch, who I’ve written about briefly in the past, was the wife and working partner of Gottfried Kirch, who was a pupil of Erhard Weigel and who became the first Prussian state astronomer in Berlin in 1700. Maria and Gottfried had married in 1692. On 21 April 1702 Maria discovered the so-called comet of 1702 (C/1702 H1). You will note this is eighty-four years before Caroline Herschel discovered her first comet. Unfortunately for Maria, the sexist eighteenth century attributed the discovery to her husband Gottfried and not to her. Although Gottfried publically attributed the discovery to Maria in 1710 the official attribution has not been changed to this day.

Not only was Maria Kirch robbed of recognition of her discovery in the sexist eighteenth century but people too lazy to check their facts deny her achievement every time they falsely claim that Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discovery a comet.




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

An orb by any other name would circle as smoothly

Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons Mission to Pluto is calling for a new definition for planets in order to return Pluto to, what he and other see as its former glory, the status of a planet. The so called demotion of Pluto caused the release of strong emotions amongst the distant planet’s fans and the stunning success of the New Horizons mission added fuel to the flames in the on going debate. Many of those participating seem to be somewhat unaware of the fact that the definition of what is a planet has changed down the centuries and I thought I would write a brief guide to the changing fortunes of the term planet since its inception in antiquity.

It should be made clear that I shall only be talking about European astronomy and not any other traditions such as Chinese, Indian, Mayan astronomies etc. European astronomy/astrology has its roots in ancient Babylon. The Babylonian tradition was most concerned with the Moon and the Sun but the Babylonians were aware of the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which they like other ancient cultures regarded as divinities. They tracked their orbits over very long periods of time and developed algorithms to determine their appearances and disappearances for omen astrological purposes. They don’t appear to have been interested in the mechanism of the planetary orbits. I’m anything but an expert on Babylonian astronomy/astrology and I don’t know if they had a collective name for them.

The direct inheritors of the Babylonian celestial interests were the ancient Greeks and they were very much interested in orbital mechanics and they also coined the term planet. For the Greeks all illuminated objects in the heavens were stars (aster, astron), as I explained in an earlier post. The stars as we know them were the fixed stars because they appeared to remain in place relative to each other whilst the sphere of the fixed stars rotated about the celestial axis once every twenty-four hours. It was of course the Earth that rotated about its axis and not the stars but the Greeks were not aware of that. The illusion that the stars, visible to the naked-eye, are all equidistant to the Earth is easy to experience. Just go out into the countryside were there is no light pollution and look up at the night sky on a clear night. You will see the ‘sphere of the fixed stars’, as experienced by the ancient Greeks. Comets, much rarer and apparently random, were hairy stars, the word comet derives from the Greek aster kometes, literally long-haired star. The five planets known to the Babylonians and the Moon and the Sun were all present on a regular basis but unlike the fixed stars they appeared to wander around the heavens and so they became asteres planetai that is wandering stars, from planasthai to wander. The Greeks had seven wanderers Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The Earth was of course stationary at the middle of the whole system and so was not a planet.

16th-century representation of Ptolemy’s geocentric model in Peter Apian’s Cosmographia, 1524
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Subsequent European cultures and the Islamic Empire inherited the Greek model of the heavens with its seven wanderers and nothing of significance changed down the centuries until the Renaissance and the advent of Copernican heliocentrism in 1543. Copernicus’s new model was of course a major upheaval. The Sun became stationary and the Earth became a planet wandering through the heavens. The Moon acquired a strange new status, no longer orbiting the centre, now the Sun, but orbiting the Earth. Heliocentricity took more than one hundred years to become establish and Copernicus’ upheaval brought no immediate change of terminology.

The heliocentric order of the heavens from Copernicus’ De revolutionibus 1543

The first change came in 1610 with the telescopic discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter by Galileo and Simon Marius. Here we have four new celestial bodies orbiting a planet, as with the Moon, and not the centre of the cosmos. At first Galileo referred to them as stars or planets, leading Kepler, who was at first not clear what the four new objects were, to panic and fear that Giordano Bruno was right and that all stars had planets. This conflicted with Kepler’s own finite universe cosmology. He was greatly relieved to discover that the new planets were in reality moons and coined the term satellite from the Latin satillitem meaning attendant, companion, courtier, accomplice or assistant. Kepler was very fond of creating new scientific terminology. The term was not adopted immediately but by the end of the seventeenth century astronomers differentiated between planets and satellites, around the same time as heliocentricity became firmly established and the Sun finally ceased to be a planet and the Earth finally became one. Around the same time astronomers became convinced that the Sun was actually one of the ‘fixed’ stars.

We entered the eighteenth century with six planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and so it remained until the musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel shocked the world with the discovery of a seventh one, Uranus on 13 March 1781. The first new planet discovered in about four thousand years of planetary astronomy.

William Herschel. Portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott 1785, National Portrait Gallery, London
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of the eighteenth century Johann Elert Bode published what is now know as the Titus-Bode law in which the distance of the planets from the sun seemed to fit an arithmetical series with a gap in the series between Mars and Jupiter. Herschel’s discovery of Uranus beyond Saturn fit the Titus-Bode series, which led the German astronomer Baron Franz Xaver von Zach to organise a systematic search for that ‘missing planet’ between Mars and Jupiter. In fact the discovery was made by the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, who was not part of Zach’s search team but discovered Ceres on 1 January 1801, exactly, where it should be according to the Titus-Bode law and then there were eight. Interestingly Piazzi lost Ceres and Carl Friedrich Gauss developed a new method of determining planetary orbits, which allowed astronomers to find it again. Very soon other astronomers discovered Pallas, Juno and Vesta and there were now eleven planets. It was not long before it became clear that the four new celestial bodies were somehow different to the other planets and Herschel coined the term ἀστεροειδής, or asteroeidēs, meaning ‘star-like, star-shaped’, in English asteroid. These smaller wanderers were also known as minor planets or planetoids although it was first in the later nineteenth century, by which time several more asteroids had been discovered that these terms became established and the number of planets was once again reduced, not to seven but to eight!

Piazzi’s book “Della scoperta del nuovo pianeta Cerere Ferdinandea” outlining the discovery of Ceres, dedicated the new “planet” to Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was eight because in the mean time both the English astronomer John Crouch Adams and the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier had predicted the existence of an eighth planet based on gravitational anomalies in the orbit of Uranus and on 23 September 1846 the German observational astronomer discovered Neptune, the eighth planet, based on the predictions of Le Verrier.

Urbain Le Verrier
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the late nineteenth century similar anomalies in the orbit of Neptune led Percival Lowell to predict the existence of a ninth planet and he set up his own observatory to search for it. In 1916 Lowell died without having found his predicted planet. However in 1929/30 the young Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, the ninth planet.

From: O’Hara, Elva R. (2006). Clyde W. Tombaugh: Farm Boy Reached for the Stars. Borderlands 25.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with Ceres and the asteroids Pluto’s planetary status was challenged by the discovery of other orbiting objects in the Kuiper belt outside of the orbit of Neptune from the 1990s onward. The discovery of Eris in 2005 led to a serious reconsideration of Pluto’s planetary status and famously in 2006 the International Astronomical Union introduced a new formal definition of the term planet, which removed Pluto’s planetary status and according to Pluto’s fans demoted it to the status of a dwarf planet. At the moment there are five recognised dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres (the largest asteroid), Haumea, Makemake and Eris.

Eris (center) and Dysnomia (left of center), taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
Image NASA
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As I said at the beginning the Pluto fan club has not given up the fight and are now proposing a new definition of the term planet, which would not only return Pluto to its planetary status but also apparently the Moon. I hope I have shown that the term planet has gone through quite a lot of changes over the last two and a half thousand years or so since the ancient Greeks first coined it and we can, I think, assume that it will go through quite a few more in the future in particular with respect to the thousands of exoplanets that astronomers are busy discovering.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science

Conrad Gesner Day 2017

Anyone who pokes around long enough here at the Renaissance Mathematicus will realise that I have a fondness for polymaths. It is in fact interesting how many of the leading researcher in history were in fact polymaths. One of my favourites is the Swiss Renaissance physician, classicist, Hebraist, natural historian, bibliographer and mountaineer, Conrad Gesner.

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Last year on the five hundredth anniversary of his birth I duly recycled my old Conrad Gesner post and discovered to my delight that I had a small but distinguished Gesner fan club on my Twitter stream. We spent a happy 24 plus hours tweeting and retweeting each other’s tributes to and admirations of the Swiss polymath. At some point in a flippant mood I suggested that we should celebrate an annual Conrad Gesner Day on, 26 March his birthday. The suggestion was taken up with enthusiasm by the others and so we parted.

A couple of months ago Gesner’s name came up again and I said I was serious about celebrating Conrad Gesner Day and all the others immediately responded that they were very much still up for it so it’s on. At the moment Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL @BioDivLIbrary), Michelle Marshall (Historical SciArt (@HistSciArt), New York Academy of Medicine Center for History (@NYAMHistory), the rare book librarian at Smithsonian Libraries and I are committed to celebrating Conrad Gesner Day. What about you?

What is going to happen? That’s up to all those involved. You can post blog posts, post illustrations from Gesner’s works on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever, where ever. Post links to sites about Gesner. If you want to write something on Gesner but don’t have your own blog, contact me and I’ll post it here at the Renaissance Mathematicus. I will collect all the contributions and post a Whewell’s Gazette style links list here at RM on the Monday.

The aim is not to glorify Conrad Gesner but to raise peoples’ awareness of a fascinating and important figure in the history of Renaissance science. Join us! Make a contribution! We already have a hash tag .




Filed under History of science, Renaissance Science

Not German but also not Polish

I recently wrote a post concerning the problems historians can and do face assigning a nationality to figures from the past that they are studying. In the history of science one of the most contentious figures in this sense was and apparently still is the Renaissance astronomer Nicolas Copernicus. The question of his nationality produced a massive war of words between Poland and Germany, both of whom claim him as their own, which started in the late eighteenth century and unfortunately still rumbles on today.

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń - 1580 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń – 1580
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today is Copernicus’ birthday (19 February 1473) and all over the Internet British and American posters are being, what they see as, scrupulously, politically correct and announcing today as the birthday of the Polish astronomer… All very well but it isn’t factually right.

Nicolas Copernicus was born in the city of Toruń, which is today in Poland but wasn’t at the time of his birth. The whole area in which Copernicus was born and in which he lived for all of his life, except when he was away studying at university, was highly dispute territory over which several wars were fought. Between 1454 and 1466 the Thirteen Years’ War was fought between the Prussian Confederation allied with the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the State of the Teutonic Knights. This war ended with the Second Peace of Toruń under which Toruń remained a free city now under the patronage of the Polish King.

As I pointed out in an earlier post Copernicus spent all of his adult life, after graduating from university, as a citizen of Ermland (Warmia), which was then an autonomous Prince Bishopric ruled by the Bishop of Frombork and the canons of the cathedral chapter, of which Copernicus was one.

All of this means that Copernicus was neither German nor Polish but was born a citizen of Toruń and died a citizen of Ermland. I realise that this doesn’t fit our neat modern concept of national states but that is the historical reality that people should learn to live with and to accept.




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

The problem with Jonathan Jones and #histSTM

It cannot be said that I am a fan of Jonathan Jones The Guardian’s wanna be art critic but although I find most of his attempts at art criticism questionable at best, as a historian of science I am normal content to simply ignore him. However when he strays into the area of #histSTM I occasionally feel the desire to give him a good kicking if only a metaphorical one. In recent times he has twice committed the sin of publicly displaying his ignorance of #histSTM thereby provoking this post. In both cases Leonard da Vinci plays a central role in his transgressions, so I feel the need to make a general comment first. Many people are fascinated by Leonardo and some of them feel the need to express that fascination in public. These can be roughly divided into two categories, the first are experts who have seriously studied Leonardo and whose utterances are based on knowledge and informed analysis, examples of this first group are Matin Kemp the art historian and Monica Azzolini the Renaissance historian. The second category could be grouped together under the title Leonardo groupies and their utterances are mostly distinguished by lack of knowledge and often mind boggling stupidity. Jonathan Jones is definitely a Leonardo groupie.

Jones’ first foray into the world of #histSTM on 28 January with a piece entitled, The charisma droids: today’s robots and the artists who foresaw them, which is a review of the new major robot exhibition at the Science Museum. What he has to say about the exhibition doesn’t really interest me here but in the middle of his article we stumble across the following paragraph:

So it is oddly inevitable that one of the first recorded inventors of robots was Leonardo da Vinci, consummate artist and pioneering engineer [my emphasis]. Leonardo apparently made, or at least designed, a robot knight to amuse the court of Milan. It worked with pulleys and was capable of simple movements. Documents of this invention are frustratingly sparse, but there is a reliable eyewitness account of another of Leonardo’s automata. In 1515 he delighted Francois I, king of France, with a robot lion that walked forward towards the monarch, then released a bunch of lilies, the royal flower, from a panel that opened in its back.

Now I have no doubts that amongst his many other accomplishments Leonardo turned his amazingly fertile thoughts to the subject of automata, after all he, like his fellow Renaissance engineers, was a fan of Hero of Alexandria who wrote extensively about automata and also constructed them. Here we have the crux of the problem. Leonardo was not “one of the first recorded inventors of robots”. In fact by the time Leonardo came on the scene automata as a topic of discussion, speculation, legend and myth had already enjoyed a couple of thousand years of history. If Jones had taken the trouble to read Ellie Truitt’s (@MedievalRobots) excellent Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) he would have known just how wrong his claim was. However Jones is one of those who wish to perpetuate the myth that Leonardo is the source of everything. Actually one doesn’t even need to read Ms. Truitt’s wonderful tome, you can listen to her sketching the early history of automata on the first episode of Adam Rutherford’s documentary The Rise of the Robots on BBC Radio 4, also inspired by the Science Museums exhibition. The whole series is well worth a listen.

On 6 February Jones took his Leonardo fantasies to new heights in a piece, entitled Did the Mona Lisa have syphilis? Yes, seriously that is the title of his article. Retro-diagnosis in historical studies is a best a dodgy business and should, I think, be avoided. We have whole libraries of literature diagnosing Joan of Arc’s voices, Van Gough’s mental disorders and the causes of death of numerous historical figures. There are whole lists of figures from the history of science, including such notables as Newton and Einstein, who are considered by some, usually self declared, experts to have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. All of these theories are at best half way founded speculations and all too oft wild ones. So why does Jonathan Jones think that the Mona Lisa had syphilis? He reveals his evidence already in the sub-title to his piece:

Lisa del Giocondo, the model for Leonardo’s painting, was recorded buying snail water – then considered a cur for the STD: It could be the secret to a painting haunted by the spectre of death.

That’s it folks don’t buy any snail water or Jonathan Jones will think that you have syphilis.

Let’s look at the detail of Jones’ amazingly revelatory discovery:

Yet, as it happens, a handful of documents have survived that give glimpses of Del Giocondo’s life. For instance, she is recorded in the ledger of a Florentine convent as buying snail water (acqua di chiocciole) from its apothecary.

Snail water? I remember finding it comical when I first read this. Beyond that, I accepted a bland suggestion that it was used as a cosmetic or for indigestion. In fact, this is nonsense. The main use of snail water in pre-modern medicine was, I have recently discovered, to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis.

So she bought some snail water from an apothecary, she was the female head of the household and there is absolutely no evidence that she acquired the snail water for herself. This is something that Jones admits but then casually brushes aside. Can’t let ugly doubts get in the way of such a wonderful theory. More importantly is the claim that “the main use of snail water snail water in pre-modern medicine was […] to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis” actually correct? Those in the know disagree. I reproduce for your entertainment the following exchange concerning the subject from Twitter.

Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner)

Hello, you may have read that the Mona Lisa had syphilis. This thread points out that is probably bollocks

 Dubious theory – the key evidence is her buying “snail water”, but this was used as a remedy for rashes, earaches, wounds, bad eyes, etc…

Greg Jenner added,

Seen this ‪@DrAlun ‪@DrJaninaRamirez ? What say you? I’ve seen snail water used in so many different Early Modern remedies

Alun Withey (@DrAlun)

I think it’s an ENORMOUS leap to that conclusion. Most commonly I’ve seen it for eye complaints.

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @DrJaninaRamirez yeah, as I thought – and syphilis expert @monaob1 agrees

 Alun Withey

‪@greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez @monaob1 So, the burning question then, did the real Mona Lisa have sore eyes? It’s a game-changer!

Mona O’Brian (@monaob1)

‪@DrAlun @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez interested to hear the art historical interpretation on the ‘unhealthy’ eyes comment!

Alun Withey

‪@monaob1 @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez doesn’t JJ say in the article there’s a shadow around her eyes? Mystery solved. *mic drop*

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @monaob1 @DrJaninaRamirez speaking as a man who recently had to buy eye moisturiser, eyes get tired with age? No disease needed

 Mona O’Brian

@greg_jenner Agreed! Also against the pinning of the disease on the New World, considering debates about the disease’s origin are ongoing

Jen Roberts (@jshermanroberts)

‪@greg_jenner I just wrote a blog post about snail water for @historecipes –common household cure for phlegmy complaints like consumption.

Tim Kimber (@Tim_Kimber)

‪@greg_jenner Doesn’t the definite article imply the painting, rather than the person? So they’re saying the painting had syphilis… right?

Minister for Moths (@GrahamMoonieD)

‪@greg_jenner but useless against enigmatic smiles

Interestingly around the same time an advert was doing the rounds on the Internet concerning the use of snail slime as a skin beauty treatment. You can read Jen Roberts highly informative blog post on the history of snail water on The Recipes Project, which includes a closing paragraph on modern snail facials!




Filed under History of medicine, History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized