Not an expert

BBC Radio 4 has a series called Great Lives, which is presented by former Conservative MP and now journalist, writer and broadcaster Matthew Parris. On the programme a ‘lay person’ talks about a figure, usually from history, who is their hero or role model, their comments being filled out by an ‘expert’ on the life of the figure in question. The format is in the form of a light-hearted three-way chat. Three years ago the BBC DJ Bobby Friction chose Galileo Galilei as his Great Life. At the time I listened and not surprisingly found the programme cringe worthy, dismissed it and forgot about it. However over the weekend people, who should know better, were promoting the programme on social media. Against my better judgement I listened to the whole thing again and decided to write this brief post on just one aspect, the greatest historical blunder, of the programme.

Before turning to the main topic of this post there is an aspect of the programme that needs to be addressed first. As explained above the discussion always includes an ‘expert’ to fill out with facts the account given of the subject of the programme. A programme about Galileo, so we can expect a historian of science as expert, yes? No! Instead of a historian of science what we get is Dr David Berman a reader in theoretical physic from Queen Mary College London. This is unfortunately a very common habit amongst journalists and broadcasters. They want someone to comment on, or explicate some aspect of, or episode out of the history of science, they ask a scientist and not a historian of science. Whilst I’m quite happy to acknowledge that there are some scientists who are also competent historians of science, they are unfortunately a small minority. The majority of scientists when asked to talk about the history of their subject usually deliver something highly inaccurate, factually false and toe curlingly cringe worthy. David Berman is no exception. As I wrote above, I’m not going to waste my time, and yours, doing a blow by blow analysis of this sorry mess but just address the one truly glaring clangour that our so-called expert drops towards the end of the discussion.

In an exchange beginning at about 22.20mins we hear the following:

MP: But he was friends with the Pope, why didn’t the Pope stick up for him?

DB: Oh, so he was friends with Urban VII who was the Pope, who was around the time when he started the book and the original censor but by then he died and we had Urban VIII…

He we have the classic example of a so-called expert who has literally no idea what he’s talking about and just makes something up that he thinks sounds plausible. For those that don’t know their papal history and/or the story of Galileo’s interaction with the papacy I will explain.


Paul V (1552–1621) was the Pope (1605–1621) who set up the commission of theologians in 1616 to consider the status of heliocentricity, which ruled it “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”. He then instructed Cardinal Bellarmine to meet with Galileo and to inform him that he was no longer allowed to teach the truth of heliocentricity.

Pope Paul V by Caravaggio. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pope Paul V by Caravaggio.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Both Bellarmine and Paul, however, assured Galileo that he was, at this time, in no personal danger. Paul died in 1621 and was succeeded by Gregory XV (1554–1623) who as Pope (1621–1623) played no significant role in the life of Galileo.

Pope Gregory XV Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pope Gregory XV
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gregory was succeeded in 1623 by Cardinal Maffeo Barbarini (1568–1644) who became Urban VIII.

Circa 1598 painting of Maffeo Barberini at age 30 by Caravaggio. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Circa 1598 painting of Maffeo Barberini at age 30 by Caravaggio.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Those of you wondering where Urban VII fits into this, he doesn’t. Giovanni Battista Castagna (1521–1590) ruled as Pope Urban VII for just twelve days between 15 and 27 September 1590, when Galileo was just beginning his career as professor for mathematics in Pisa. Urban VII’s twelve-day papacy was the shortest in history.

Pope Urban VII – Pope for Twelve Days Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pope Urban VII – Pope for Twelve Days
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As an additional comment no Pope was ever the censor, as claimed by Berman, but naturally employed others to do this work for the Church.

As Matthew Parris rightly claims Cardinal Maffeo Barbarini had been a friend and supporter of Galileo’s since the publication of the Sidereus nuncius in 1610 as well as being a patron of the Accademia dei Lincei, the small elite scientific society that had elected Galileo a member in 1611 on the strength of his telescopic discoveries. It was also the Lincei who gave the telescope its name. When Barbarini was elected Pope in 1623 the Lincei published a broadsheet celebrating his election, which contained the first every illustrations made with a microscope.

Accademia dei Lincei Flyer celebrating the elevation of Maffeo Barberini to Pope 1623 Stelutii Melissographia

Accademia dei Lincei Flyer celebrating the elevation of Maffeo Barberini to Pope 1623
Stelutii Melissographia

The Lincei also published Galileo’s Il Saggiatore (The Assayer), which was dedicated to the new Pope in 1623.

Title page Il Saggiatore !623 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Title page Il Saggiatore !623
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Barbarini much enjoyed Il Saggiatore and showed Galileo much favour. Galileo grasped the opportunity and persuaded the Pope to let him write a book describing the geocentric and heliocentric systems to prove that the Catholics did not favour the former out of ignorance of the latter, as he claimed the Protestants were alleging. Urban agreed to his request but under the condition that the two systems were presented equally without bias and without favouring either.

A portrait of Pope Urban VIII by Pietro da Cortona (1627) Source: Wikimedia Commons

A portrait of Pope Urban VIII
by Pietro da Cortona (1627)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The book that Galileo wrote, his Dialogo, a polemic masterpiece, was of course anything but unbiased, tilting the arguments so far that any reader would be led to the conclusion that the heliocentric system was vastly superior to the geocentric one; a claim for which he had no empirical proof. He topped the whole thing off by putting the Pope’s own thoughts on the subject, a direct quote, into the mouth of a figure who was close to being a simpleton at the climax of the book.

Frontispiece and title page of the Dialogo, 1632 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece and title page of the Dialogo, 1632
Source: Wikimedia Commons

That Urban was pissed off by the results should not have come as a surprise to Galileo and things took their inevitable course. The motto of the story is don’t play your friend for a fool when he happens to be an all powerful absolutist ruler.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

If you are going to blazon out history of science ‘facts’ at least get them right

Today’s Torygraph has a short video entitled 10 Remarkable Facts about rainbows, at 57 seconds it displays the following text:

Until the 17th Century, no one had

the faintest idea what a rainbow

was, how it got there or what it was

made of…

This is, of course, simply not true. In the 14th century the Persian scholar Kamal al-Din Hasan ibn Ali ibn Hasan al-Farisi (1267–1319) gave the correct scientific explanation of the rainbow in his Tanqih al-Manazir (The Revision of the Optics). Almost contemporaneously the German scholar Theodoric of Freiberg (c. 1250–c. 1310) gave the same correct explanation in his De iride et radialibus impressionibus (On the Rainbow and the impressions created by irradiance). The two scholars arrived at their conclusion independently of each other but both of them did experiments involving the study of light rays passing through glass spheres full of water and both scholars were influenced by the optical theories of Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham. Unfortunately both explanations disappeared and it was in fact first in the 17th Century that the Croatian scholar Marco de Antonio Dominis (1560–1624) once again gave an almost correct explanation of the rainbow in his Tractatus de radiis visus et lucis in vitris, perspectivis et iride.

De Dominis' explanation of the rainbow Source: Wikimedia Commons

De Dominis’ explanation of the rainbow
Source: Wikimedia Commons


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

He died fighting for his King

On 2 June 1644 one of the biggest battles of the English Civil War took place on Marston Moor just outside of the city of York. The Parliamentary forces under Fairfax had, together with the Scottish Covenanters under the Earl of Leven had been besieging York, the principle Royalist stronghold in the North, the defence being led by the Marquess of Newcastle. Prince Rupert came to the aid of the beleaguered city with a substantial royalist army. Newcastle boke out of the city with his cavalry and joined Rupert and the two armies clashed on Marston Moor. The battle ended in a disastrous defeat for the royalist forces and marks a significant turning point in the war.

The Battle of Marston Moor 1644, by J. Barker Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Marston Moor 1644, by J. Barker
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is all well and good but at first glance doesn’t appear to have a lot to do with the history of science. However if we zoom in a little closer Marston Moor actually has two connections with that history. William Cavendish, the Marquess of Newcastle, and his brother Charles were both actively engaged supporters of the new sciences developing at the time in Europe and having fled England following the royalist defeat, they eventually ended up in Paris as part of the court of Queen Henrietta Maria. Here the Cavendish brothers became part of a philosophical circle dedicated to the investigation of science that included Marin Mersenne, Kenelm Digby and Thomas Hobbes. In Paris William also met and married Margaret Lucas, one of Henrietta Maria’s chamber maids, who would later become notorious as Margaret ‘Mad Madge’ Cavendish, a female philosopher of science and extensively published author.

Our second history of science connection to the Battle of Marston Moor is a less happy one because amongst the 4 000 royalist soldiers who are estimated to have died there was the astronomer, inventor and instrument maker William Gascoigne (1612–1644). Gascoigne is today mostly only known to those interested in the fine details of the history of the telescope, something that hasn’t changed much since his own times when he only became widely known after his most important invention, the micrometer, was claimed by the Frenchman Adrien Auzout (1622–1691) in 1666, twenty two years after his untimely death.

Adrien Auzout's (1621-1692) Micrometer published in his book (1662) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Adrien Auzout’s (1621-1692) Micrometer published in his book (1662)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gascoigne was born into the landed gentry in the village of Thorpe-on-the Hill near Leeds. Little is known of his childhood or education, although he claimed to have studied at Oxford University, a claim that cannot be confirmed. Like many amateur astronomers Gascoigne was self taught and appears to have been a very skilled instrument maker as he made all of his telescopes himself, including grinding his own lenses. One of the problems of early telescopes was measuring the size of celestial objects viewed through them. There is no easy solution to this problem when using a Dutch or Galilean telescope, i.e. with a plano-convex objective and a plano-concave eyepiece, and Galileo soled the problem by attaching a metal grid to the side of his telescope and viewing the object under observation through the telescope with one eye whilst observing the grid with his other eye. A trick that is thought to have been possible for Galileo because of an optical peculiarity he seems to have been born with. This method could only produce rough approximate sizes.

The Keplerian or astronomical telescope, where both objective and eyepiece lenses are convex, provides a much simpler solution. The Focal plane is at the juncture of the two focal lengths of the lenses, which is inside the telescope tube, and here the Keplerian telescope produces a its image. It appears that Gascoigne was the first to utilize this fact. There is a story that Gascoigne was made aware of this phenomenon by a spider that had woven its web in his telescope tube in the crucial position allowing him to focus on what he was viewing and the spider’s web at the same time. The story is probably apocryphal bur astronomers continued to collect spider’s silk from the hedgerows to form the crosshairs in their astronomical telescope well into the nineteenth century. Whatever led Gascoigne to the discovery of the internal image, he soon went beyond the simple expedient of installing crosshairs into his telescopes.

Focal plane with image at (5) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Focal plane with image at (5)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gascoigne realised that this phenomenon would enable him to introduce a measuring device into the focal plane of his telescope and this is what he did. He produced a calliper the points of which could be moved towards or away from each other by means of turning a single screw. Along the base along which the calliper points moved was a measuring scale. Gascoigne could now make accurate measurements of the celestial objects he observed.

Being a self taught amateur astronomer and living as he did in a small northern village in an age when long distance communication was difficult and unreliable one might be forgiving for thinking that Gascoigne was isolated and to some extent he was but not completely. He communicated by mail, for example, with William Oughtred inventor of the slide rule and mathematics teacher of several notable seventeenth century mathematicians. This contact seems to have been initiated by Gascoigne who was surprisingly well informed about actual developments in mathematics and astronomy and is known to have owned all of the relevant literature. Through Oughtred Gascoigne was also introduced to Kenelm Digby with whom he also corresponded.

Perhaps more significantly Gascoigne was in contact with the Towneley family of Towneley Hall near Burnley, landed gentry who took an interest in the actual developments in mathematics and astronomy.

Towneley Hall Source: Wikimedia Commons

Towneley Hall
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christopher Towneley (1604–1674) introduced a group of northern astronomers to each other including William Milbourne of Christ’s College Cambridge (M.A. 1623), William Crabtree a merchant from Salford, Jeremiah Horrocks curate from Much Hoole near Preston and Gascoigne. Crabtree and Horrocks, famously, were the first astronomers to observe a transit of Venus. Crabtree and Gascoigne became good friends with Crabtree visiting Gascoigne to view and inspect his instruments and the two of them corresponding extensively on both Gascoigne’s instrumental novelties and the contemporary developments in astronomy, in particular the theories of Johannes Kepler, which both Crabtree and Horrocks accepted and Gascoigne under Crabtree’s influence came to accept. It was through this correspondence that we have Crabtree’s account of Horrocks’ death.

"Crabtree watching the Transit of Venus A.D. 1639" by Ford Madox Brown, a mural at Manchester Town Hall. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Crabtree watching the Transit of Venus A.D. 1639” by Ford Madox Brown, a mural at Manchester Town Hall.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

All of this might have been lost following the deaths of Horrocks (1641), Gascoigne (1644) and Crabtree (1644) if not for the Towneleys. When the Royal Society announced Auzout’s invention of the micrometre screw gauge in 1666 it was Richard Towneley (1629–1704), Christopher’s nephew and a mathematician and astronomer in his own right, who piped up and said I beg to differ. John Flamsteed (1646–1719) (another northerner, later to become the first Astronomer Royal, who was a protégée of Jonas Moore (1617–1679), yet another Lancastrian and a pupil of William Milbourne) travelled up north to investigate Towneley’s claims. Towneley demonstrated his micrometer screw gauge based on Gascoigne’s design to Flamsteed and the two of them travelled to Salford where Crabtree’s widow gave them the Crabtree Gascoigne correspondence. Flamsteed made notes from the correspondence but the originals remained in the possession of the Towneley family.

Robert Hooke drew diagrams of Towneley’s version of Gascoigne’s micrometer, which were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society thus establishing Gascoigne’s priority and his right to be acknowledged the inventor of the micrometer screw gauge.

Robert Hooke - A Description of an Instrument for Dividing a Foot into Many Thousand Parts, and Thereby Measuring the Diameters of Planets to a Great Exactness, &c. as It Was Promised, Numb. 25. In: Philosophical Transactions. Band 2, Nummer 29, 11.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Hooke – A Description of an Instrument for Dividing a Foot into Many Thousand Parts, and Thereby Measuring the Diameters of Planets to a Great Exactness, &c. as It Was Promised, Numb. 25. In: Philosophical Transactions. Band 2, Nummer 29, 11.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a small side note it was Richard Towneley together with Henry Power (1623–1668) who first discovered what is now known as Boyle’s Law, which Power published in his Experimental Philosophy, in three Books in 1664, an important early work on microscopy and the corpuscular theory.

Henry Power, Experimental philosophy, in three books : containing new experiments microscopical, mercurial, magnetical ; with some deductions, and probable hypotheses, raised from them, in avouchment and illustration of the now famous atomical hypothesis. London, 1664 Source: NIH U.S:.National Library of Medicine

Henry Power, Experimental philosophy, in three books : containing new experiments microscopical, mercurial, magnetical ; with some deductions, and probable hypotheses, raised from them, in avouchment and illustration of the now famous atomical hypothesis. London, 1664
Source: NIH U.S:.National Library of Medicine

Much of Gascoigne’s original correspondence has become lost of time but enough has been recovered to give a vivid picture of this inventive and highly skilled astronomer and his contributions to the history of astronomy. More important the fragments of the Gascoigne story demonstrate very clearly that progress in science in not achieved through lone geniuses but through networks of researchers exchanging views and discoveries and encouraging each other to make further developments.






Filed under Uncategorized

The Goddess, her husband and his lovers

In recent days the science sections of the media have been full of the successful entering of orbit around Jupiter by the NASA probe Juno after its five-year, 2.8 billion kilometre journey from the Earth. Many of the reports also talk about the so-called Galilean moons, Jupiter’s four largest moons (there are currently 67 known moons of Jupiter), and Galileo’s discovery of them with the recently invented telescope in early 1610.


Montage of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, in a composite image depicting part of Jupiter and their relative sizes (positions are illustrative, not actual). From top to bottom: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Juno was even carrying Lego models of the god Jupiter, the goddess Juno and Galileo holding a telescope.


With the notable exception of the New York Times none of the reports mentioned that the Ansbach court mathematicus, Simon Marius, independently discovered the Galilean moons just one day later than Galileo. However, whereas Galileo rushed into print with his telescopic discoveries in his Sidereus nuncius in 1610, Marius waited until 1614 before publishing his discoveries in his Mundus Iovialis.


Title page of Sidereus nuncius, 1610, by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). *IC6.G1333.610s, Houghton Library, Harvard University

The four moons are named Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto after four of the lovers of Zeus, the Greek equivalent to Jupiter, and many people have made a joke about the fact that Juno, his wife, was on her way.


Once again what none of the reports, with the exception of the New York Times, mention is that the names were not given to the moons by Galileo. Wishing to use his telescopic discoveries to leverage a position at the Medici court in Florence Galileo wrote a letter to Grand Duke Cosimo’s secretary on 13 February 1610 asking if the Grand Duke would prefer the moons to be called Cosmania after his name or, rather, since they are exactly four in number, dedicate them to all four brothers with the name Medicean Stars (All heavenly bodies were referred to as stars in the Renaissance). The secretary replied that Cosimo would prefer the latter and so the moons became the Medicean Stars in the Sidereus nuncius.

The New York Times report attributed the names Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto to Simon Marius and they did indeed first appear in print in his Mundus Iovialis. However the names were not thought up by Marius.


Title page Mundus Iovialis Simon Marius 1614. Internet Archive

In the Mundus Iovialis Marius makes several naming suggestions. His first suggestion is to just number the moons I to IV, a system that was actually used by astronomers. His second suggestion follows Galileo in that he wishes to name them after his employer/patron the Margrave of Ansbach’s family and call them the Brandenberger Stars. Marius’ third suggestion is more than somewhat bizarre as he suggests naming them in analogy to the solar system planets, so the moon with the smallest orbit would be the Jupiter Mercury, the next the Jupiter Venus, the third the Jupiter Jupiter and the fourth the Jupiter Saturn. As I said bizarre. It is with Marius’ fourth suggestion that we finally arrive at Zeus’ lovers. After talking about Jupiter’s reputation for a bit on the side and describing his most notorious affairs Marius write the following:

 In Europa, Ganimedes puer, atque Calisto,

Lascivo nimium perplacuere Jovi.

Io, Europa, the young Ganymede and Calisto

appealed all too much to the lascivious Jove

In the next paragraph Marius goes on to explain that the idea for using these names for the moons was suggested to him by Johannes Kepler[1] when the two of them met at the Imperial Parliament in Regensburg in October 1613. He then names Kepler as co-godfather of these four stars. Marius closes his list of suggestions by saying that the whole thing should not be taken too seriously and everybody is free to adopt or reject his suggestions as they see fit.

So as we now know it was Kepler’s suggestion which finally won the naming contest for the four largest moons of Jupiter but it should be noted that the names were first adopted by the astronomical community in the nineteenth century but they first became the official names of the Galilean Moons in 1975 through a decision of the IAU (International Astronomical Union)

Anybody who wants to learn more about Simon Marius can do so at the Simon Marius Portal or become a member of the Simon Marius Society (Simon Marius Gesellschaft e.V.) via the portal, membership is free!

Addendum 7 July 2016: My attention has been drawn to a delightful pop song about the lascivious Jupiter, his dalliances with his satellites and the impending arrival of his wife, She’s Checking In (The NASA Juno Song) by Adam Sakellarides  h/t Daniel Fischer (@cosmos4u)

[1] It should be noted that Johannes Kepler loved coining names and terms for all things scientific. It is to him, for example, that we owe the term satellite, coined specifically for the Jupiter moons, and also the term camera obscura, which in shortened form is our modern camera.


Filed under Uncategorized




Seven is the largest single digit prime number and a Mersenne prime. It is the number of planets in ancient Greek astronomy and the number of days in the astrological week, named after those planets. Isaac Newton decided to give the rainbow seven colours to match the seven notes of the major scale. Albrecht Dürer included a construction of a seven-sided polygon, the heptagon, in his maths book, which was criticised by Kepler as being only an approximation. Rome was built on seven hills. There are seven deadly sins, of which I have committed all seven more than once in my life, and seven heavenly virtues, of which I possess none. Two of my favourite films are Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and John Sturges’ glorious Hollywood rendition of it, The Magnificent Seven. Snow White had seven dwarfs and there were seven brides for those seven brothers. David Fincher’s neo-noir psychological thriller was simply called Seven. Seven is a number that turns up in a multitude of historical, mythical, literary, musical, artistic, mathematical and scientific contexts and today is the seventh birthday of the Renaissance Mathematicus.

I came comparatively late to computers. There are no Ataris, Sinclairs or C64s collecting dust in my cellar and I didn’t spend my youth painfully learning to programme in Fortran, BASIC or Pascal. I also came comparatively late to the Internet. I was not one of those who cobbled together a dial up modem and spent a fortune on telephone fees to gain online contact to a fellow enthusiast on the other side of the world. However when I did take the plunge the world of blogging was still very young and when I first discovered them a blog that was seven years old definitely belonged to the pioneer founder generation and was venerated as a Methuselah amongst its peers. Given the short lived and oft fickle nature of blogs, over the years seven continued to remain a sort of bench mark for a successful, mature, established blog. This being the case I regard today as the day that The Renaissance Mathematicus has become part of the cyberspace establishment.

When I started this blog I never imagined, even in my wildest dreams, that I would be sitting here typing a post to mark or celebrate my seventh anniversary. Over the last seven years the content and the aims of this blog have remained constant but the style of the blog posts has developed (degenerated!) and matured (gone stale!). I very rarely look at blog statistics, as doing so makes me too aware of the fact that people are reading the rubbish that I write and I start to worry about pleasing/insulting them and that impedes my ability to write freely. I do however know that, for a moderately hard-core history of science blog, a surprisingly large number of people read my regular outpourings. A thought that both frightens and humbles me. I would like to mark this milestone by issuing some thanks.

Thanks to all the people who, for whatever reason, read what I present here on a regular basis. Thanks to those highly knowledgeable and critical souls, who brave my wrath and comment on my posts, particularly on the more provocative or contentious ones. Thanks to all those who tweet or retweet links to my posts on Twitter or share them on Facebook. And a very special thanks to all the members of the Internet history of science community for letting me, a bungling amateur, be part of your world. I hope that at least some of you will stick around for the next seven years.


Filed under Autobiographical

How do we kill off myths of science zombies?

The Internet is a sort of cyberspace limbo where myths in the history of science, which have been debunked a long time ago, keep popping up on social media as #histsci zombies, the history of science undead. One such that has popped up to haunt me several times in recent weeks is the claim that Johannes Kepler murdered Tycho Brahe. This claim was at best ludicrous and, having been thoroughly debunked, is now just pathetic but continues to ghost through cyberspace as a #histsci zombie. Where does it come from, who put it into the world and did it ever have any validity?

Portrait of Kepler by an unknown artist, 1610 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Kepler by an unknown artist, 1610
Source: Wikimedia Commons

After protracted negotiations and a return to Graz to fetch his family Johannes Kepler began to work with Tycho Brahe in Prague as his assistant in late 1600, not as his student as is often falsely stated. In September 1601, Tycho managed to negotiate an official position for Kepler at the Imperial Court of the German Emperor Rudolph II. Their partnership was however short lived, as Tycho died 24 October 1601. According to Kepler’s account Tycho had retained his urine during a banquet eleven days earlier, so as not to breach etiquette by leaving the table. Upon returning home he was unable to urinate, fell ill and falling into delirium died, apparently of some sort of urinary infection. This was the state of play in 1601 and remained unchanged until 1901.

Tycho Brahe Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho Brahe
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1901 Tycho’s body was exhumed and an autopsy carried out that failed to establish a cause of death. However when the corpse was reburied a sample of his beard hair was retained. In 1990 this hair sample was analysed and found to contain abnormally high levels of mercury, which led to the speculation that Tycho had died of mercury poisoning. At this point there was no real suspicion of murder but more speculation about an accidental mercury poisoning. Tycho was a Paracelsian pharmacist, who along with his observatory on Hven ran a pharmacy that produced various medical remedies. The speculation was that he had either poisoned himself whilst working with mercury, a not uncommon problem amongst pharmacists in the Early Modern period when mercury was used extensively in medicines, or that he had poisoned himself by taking one of his own mercury containing remedies.

The first real accusations that Tycho had been murdered, that is poisoned by another person, came with the publication in 2004 of Joshua & Anne-Lee Gilder’s book Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries. Put simply the Gilders claimed that Kepler had poisoned Tycho to gain access to his astronomical data. The first part of their book, in which they outline the lives of Tycho and Kepler is actually well researched and well written but it’s when they come to the cause of Tycho’s death the book goes of the rails.

The Gilder’s build a chain of speculative, unsubstantiated, circumstantial evidence leading to their conclusions that Tycho was murdered and Johannes Kepler did the evil deed. Any able defence lawyer or competent historian of science could dismantle the Gilder’s rickety and highly dubious chain of evidence without too much effort leading to a full acquittal of the accused. Unfortunately most book reviewers are neither lawyers nor historians of science and the popular press reviewers jumped on the book and swallowed the Gilder’s arguments hook, line and sinker. The result was that Kepler went from being a hero of the scientific revolution to being a perfidious murderer, almost overnight.

Fascinatingly, the furore created by the popular press led to an international team of experts being granted permission to exhume Tycho’s corpse and to carry out yet another autopsy. The noble Dane would not be allowed to rest in peace. This was duly done in 2010 and the corpse, or what was left of it, was subjected to a battery of scientific tests. All of this activity led to the popular science press publishing a cart load of articles, many of them on the Internet, asking if Kepler had indeed poisoned Tycho most of them skewing their articles strongly in the direction of a guilty verdict.

The international team of archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, pathologists and whoever took their time but in 2012 they finally published their results. There was not enough mercury present in the samples to have caused mercury poisoning and there were no other poison found in any quantities whatsoever. Tycho was not poisoned by Johannes Kepler or anybody else for that matter. A second independent team re-analysed the beard hairs taken from the corpse in 1901 and confirmed that there was not enough mercury present to have caused mercury poisoning.

The press outlets both popular and scientific that had trumpeted the Gilder’s highly dubious claims out into the world did not apply the same enthusiasm to reporting the negative results of the autopsy. Those lengthy articles in the Internet claiming, implying, insinuating or suggesting that Kepler had done for his employer were not updated, amended or corrected to reflect the truth and the Gilder’s book was not withdrawn from the market or consigned to the wastepaper basket, where it very definitely belongs. Below is part of the sales pitch for that book taken just a couple of hours ago from

But that is only half the story. Based on recent forensic evidence (analyzed here for the first time) and original research into medieval and Renaissance alchemy—all buttressed by in-depth interviews with leading historians, scientists, and medical specialists—the authors have put together shocking and compelling evidence that Tycho Brahe did not die of natural causes, as has been believed for four hundred years. He was systematically poisoned—most likely by his assistant, Johannes Kepler.

An epic tale of murder and scientific discovery, Heavenly Intrigue reveals the dark side of one of history’s most brilliant minds and tells the story of court politics, personal intrigue, and superstition that surrounded the protean invention of two great astronomers and their quest to find truth and beauty in the heavens above.

The result of all this is that historian of astronomy of the Early Modern period are forced to indulge in a game of historical Whac-A-Mole every time that somebody stumbles across one of those articles in the Internet and starts broadcasting on Twitter, Facebook or wherever that Johannes Kepler murdered Tycho Brahe.





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

How Chemistry came to its first journal – and a small-town professor to lasting prominence

Being fundamentally a lazy sod I am always very pleased to welcome a guest blogger to the Renaissance Mathematicus, because it means I don’t have to write anything to entertain the mob. Another reason why I am pleased to welcome my guest bloggers is because they are all better educated, better read and much more knowledgeable than I, as well as writing much better than I ever could, meaning I get princely entertained and educated by them. Todays new guest blogger, Anna Gielas, maintains the high standards of the Renaissance Mathematicus guests. Anna, who’s a German studying in Scotland whereas I’m an English man living in Germany, helps me to put together Whewell’s Gazette the #histSTM weekly links list. I’ll let her tell you somewhat more about herself.

 I’m a doctoral candidate at the University of St Andrews (Dr Aileen Fyfe and Prof Frank James from the Royal Institution of Great Britain are my supervisors) and I study the editorship and the establishment of early scientific journals in Britain and the German lands. I focus on the decades between 1760 and 1840 because this was the time when commercial (as opposed to society-based) science periodicals took off and became a central means of scientific communication and knowledge production

 As you can see Anna is an expert for the history of scientific journals and her post honours the 200th anniversary of the death Lorenz Crell, 7 June 1816, who edited and published the world’s first commercial journal devoted exclusively to chemistry. Read and enjoy.




In early February 1777, the famous Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller received a letter from an obscure small-town professor named Lorenz Crell. Crell had studied medicine, travelled Europe and returned to his hometown, where he succeeded his former professor of medicine at the local university.

The young professor asked Haller for feedback on a few essays he had submitted anonymously. Haller’s favourable comments encouraged Crell not only to reveal his name but also his risky plan: “I have a chemical journal in the works”, Crell announced to Haller in February 1777.

Lorenz Crell Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lorenz Crell
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The thirty-three year old professor had hardly any experiences with publishing, let alone with editing a learned journal. Yet his periodical would go on to become the first scientific journal devoted solely to chemical research—and would influence the course of chemical research throughout the German speaking lands.

In February of 1777—roughly one year before the inaugural issue of his Chemisches Journal appeared—things looked rather dire for Crell. At this time, there were essentially two professional groups in the German speaking lands devoted to chemical endeavours: university professors and apothecaries. The core of professorial work—and the task they were paid for—was teaching. And chemistry was taught as part of the medical curriculum. Apothecaries, in turn, focused mainly on producing remedies. Neither profession was based on chemical research. Experimentation would remain secondary until the nineteenth century.

So whom did Crell expect to pick up his periodical? He hoped to garner the attention of the eminent Andreas Sigismund Marggraf and his peers. Marggraf was the first salaried chemist at the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Like most of the leading chemical researchers, Marggraf was an apprenticed apothecary. He had audited lectures and seminars at the University of Halle, an epicentre of the Enlightenment, but he never graduated. Before taking on his post at the Academy, Marggraf earned his living through the apothecary shop that he had inherited from his father, the “Apotheke zum Bären” (Bear’s Pharmacy) on Spandauer Straße in Berlin.

Hoping that renowned chemical experimenters like Marggraf would pick up Crell’s journal was one thing—catching their attention and actually persuading them to contribute to the periodical a very different one. But Crell, it appears, had a plan. Later in 1777 he contacted Friedrich Nicolai, a famous publisher and bookseller of the German Enlightenment, and asked for the honour of reviewing a few chemical books for Nicolai’s Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (ADB). Crell picked a good moment to do so: in 1777, the ADB experienced record sales. But the editor-to-be approached Nicolai without any letter of introduction, which according to the mores of his times, the Prussian Aufklärer could have easily interpreted as impudence. Nicolai apparently saw moxie where others might have seen brazenness: the publisher commissioned reviews from Crell within days of receiving his letter. Within roughly two months, from November 1777 until mid-January 1778, Crell submitted no less than eleven pieces for Nicolai’s famous periodical. “I still owe you five reviews which shall follow quickly”, he wrote to the Prussian publisher in January. Nicolai received them by February.

Title page from the Chemisches Journal for 1778 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Title page from the Chemisches Journal for 1778
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Crell was aware that Nicolai had close ties to leading chemical investigators. The publisher was about to become an extraordinary member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and chemical researchers such as Johann Christian Wiegleb and Johann Friedrich Gmelin contributed to the ADB. Wiegleb was a pharmacist who expanded his laboratory in Langensalza to teach chemistry. Wiegleb’s students lived, learned, and—most importantly—researched at his Privat-Institut. Johann Friedrich Göttling was one of Wiegleb’s pupils—as was the English industrialist Matthew Boulton.

Crell tried to tap into this network when he first contacted Nicolai. Maybe he even hoped to recruit the renowned chemical researchers for the inaugural issue of his Chemisches Journal. But the editor had to pace himself: the first issue of his periodical was almost entirely authored by himself and Johann Christian Dehne, a close friend and physician from a neighbouring village.

Ultimately, Crell’s concerted efforts as a regular contributor to the ADB and the editor of the Chemisches Journal paid off: all three—Wiegleb, Gmelin and Göttling—submitted articles for the second issue of Crell’s novel journal. Throughout the years many other joined them, including the Irish chemist Richard Kirwan, the Scottish researcher Joseph Black and the German Martin Heinrich Klaproth, the first professor of chemistry at the University of Berlin. Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, however, never published in Crell’s journal, maybe due to health issues following a stroke.

Crell devoted decades of his life to his journals. Within nearly 27 years he published nine periodicals, the longest-running and most famous of which is the Chemische Annalen (1784-1804). It was here that the German chemists debated (and death-bedded) phlogiston. During a busier year, such as 1785, Crell published over 2,000 pages of chemical facts, findings and flapdoodle.

Today, some scientists and historians belittle his role in chemistry, arguing that Crell did not contribute anything crucial to science. To judge Crell by what he did not achieve in his laboratory is to present science as a solitary undertaking, tucked away in labs. But if we acknowledge that science is a joint endeavour, based on communication, on-going exchange and discussions, Crell’s contribution appears vital.

According to the Berkeley-historian Karl Hufbauer, Crell’s Chemische Annalen was crucial in the formation of the German chemical community. Even more, Crell provided German and European researchers with an instrument for the production of chemical knowledge.

Today is the 200th anniversary of his death. Let’s use the date to commemorate all the editors throughout the centuries who spent countless hours at their desks—and contributed to the giant’s shoulders on which we stand today.




Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Chemistry, History of science