The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXVIII

One of the central problems in the transition from the traditional geocentric astronomy/cosmology to a heliocentric one was that the system that the Early Modern astronomers inherited from their medieval predecessors was not just an uneasy amalgam of Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy but it also included Aristotle’s (384–322 BCE) theories of terrestrial and celestial motion all tied together in a complete package. Aristotle’s theory of motion was part of his more general theory of change and differentiated between natural motion and unnatural or violent motion.

The celestial realm in Aristotle’s cosmology was immutable, unchanging, and the only form of motion was natural motion that consisted of uniform, circular motion; a theory that he inherited from Plato (c. 425 – c.347 BCE), who in turn had adopted it from Empedocles (c. 494–c. 434 BCE).

His theory of terrestrial motion had both natural and unnatural motion. Natural motion was perpendicular to the Earth’s surface, i.e. when something falls to the ground. Aristotle explained this as a form of attraction, the falling object returning to its natural place. Aristotle also claimed that the elapsed time of a falling body was inversely proportional to its weight. That is, the heavier an object the faster it falls. All other forms of motion were unnatural. Aristotle believed that things only moved when something moved them, people pushing things, draught animals pulling things. As soon as the pushing or pulling ceased so did the motion.  This produced a major problem in Aristotle’s theory when it came to projectiles. According to his theory when a stone left the throwers hand or the arrow the bowstring they should automatically fall to the ground but of course they don’t. Aristotle explained this apparent contradiction away by saying that the projectile parted the air through which it travelled, which moved round behind the projectile and pushed it further. It didn’t need a philosopher to note the weakness of this more than somewhat ad hoc theory.

If one took away Aristotle’s cosmology and Ptolemaeus’ astronomy from the complete package then one also had to supply new theories of celestial and terrestrial motion to replace those of Aristotle. This constituted a large part of the development of the new physics that took place during the so-called scientific revolution. In what follows we will trace the development of a new theory, or better-said theories, of terrestrial motion that actually began in late antiquity and proceeded all the way up to Isaac Newton’s (1642–1726) masterpiece Principia Mathematica in 1687.

The first person to challenge Aristotle’s theories of terrestrial motion was John Philoponus (c. 490–c. 570 CE). He rejected Aristotle’s theory of projectile motion and introduced the theory of impetus to replace it. In the impetus theory the projector imparts impetus to the projected object, which is used up during its flight and when the impetus is exhausted the projectile falls to the ground. As we will see this theory was passed on down to the seventeenth century. Philoponus also rejected Aristotle’s quantitative theory of falling bodies by apparently carrying out the simple experiment usually attributed erroneously to Galileo, dropping two objects of different weights simultaneously from the same height:

but this [view of Aristotle] is completely erroneous, and our view may be completely corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal argument. For if you let fall from the same height two weights, one many times heavier than the other you will see that the ratio of the times required for the motion does not depend [solely] on the weights, but that the difference in time is very small. …

Philoponus also removed Aristotle’s distinction between celestial and terrestrial motion in that he attributed impetus to the motion of the planets. However, it was mainly his terrestrial theory of impetus that was picked up by his successors.

In the Islamic Empire, Ibn Sina (c. 980–1037), known in Latin as Avicenne, and Abu’l-Barakāt Hibat Allah ibn Malkā al-Baghdādī (c. 1080–1164) modified the theory of impetus in the eleventh century.

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Avicenne Portrait (1271) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nur ad-Din al-Bitruji (died c. 1204) elaborated it at the end of the twelfth century. Like Philoponus, al-Bitruji thought that impetus played a role in the motion of the planets.

 

Brought into European thought during the scientific Renaissance of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by the translators it was developed by Jean Buridan  (c. 1301–c. 1360), who gave it the name impetus in the fourteenth century:

When a mover sets a body in motion he implants into it a certain impetus, that is, a certain force enabling a body to move in the direction in which the mover starts it, be it upwards, downwards, sidewards, or in a circle. The implanted impetus increases in the same ratio as the velocity. It is because of this impetus that a stone moves on after the thrower has ceased moving it. But because of the resistance of the air (and also because of the gravity of the stone) which strives to move it in the opposite direction to the motion caused by the impetus, the latter will weaken all the time. Therefore the motion of the stone will be gradually slower, and finally the impetus is so diminished or destroyed that the gravity of the stone prevails and moves the stone towards its natural place. In my opinion one can accept this explanation because the other explanations prove to be false whereas all phenomena agree with this one.

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Jean Buridan Source

The impetus theory was now a part of medieval Aristotelian natural philosophy, which as Edward Grant pointed out was not Aristotle’s natural philosophy.

In the sixteenth century the self taught Italian mathematician Niccolò Fontana (c. 1500–1557), better known by his nickname, Tartaglia, who is best known for his dispute with Cardanoover the general solution of the cubic equation.

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Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia Source: Wikimedia Commons

published the first mathematical analysis of ballistics his, Nova scientia (1537).

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His theory of projectile trajectories was wrong because he was still using the impetus theory.

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However, he was the first to demonstrate that an angle of 45° for a canon gives the widest range.

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His book was massively influential in the sixteenth century and it also influenced Galileo, who owned a heavily annotated copy of the book.

We have traced the path of the impetus theory from its inception by John Philoponus up to the second half of the sixteenth century. Unlike the impetus theory Philoponus’ criticism of Aristotle’s theory of falling bodies was not taken up directly by his successors. However, in the High Middle Ages Aristotelian scholars in Europe did begin to challenge and question exactly those theories and we shall be looking at that development in the next section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stylish writing is not necessarily good science

I have become somewhat infamous for writing #histSTM blog posts that are a predominately negative take on the scientific achievements of Galileo Galilei. In fact I think I probably made my breakthrough as a #histsci blogger with my notorious Extracting the Stopper post, deflating Galileo’s popular reputation. I actually got commissioned to write a toned down version of that post for AEON several years later. In my opinion Galileo was an important figure in the evolution of science during the early seventeenth century but his reputation has been blown up out of all proportion, well beyond his actual contributions. To make a simple comparison, in the same period of time the contributions of Johannes Kepler were immensely greater and more significant than those made by Galileo but whereas Galileo is regarded as one of the giants of modern science and is probably one of the three most well known historical practitioners of the mathematical sciences, alongside Newton and Einstein, Kepler is at best an also ran, whose popular image is not even a fraction of that of Galileo’s. This of course raises the question, why? What does/did Galileo have that Kepler didn’t? I think the answer lies in Galileo’s undeniable talents as a writer.

Galileo was a master stylist, a brilliant polemicist and science communicator, whose major works are still a stimulating pleasure to read. If you ask people about Galileo they will more often than not quote one of his well-known turns of phrase rather than his scientific achievements. The two books trope with its ‘mathematics is the language of nature’, which in the original actually reads: Philosophy is written in this grand book, which stands continually open before our eyes (I say the ‘Universe’), but can not be understood without first learning to comprehend the language and know the characters as it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures, without which it is impossible to humanly understand a word; without these one is wandering in a dark labyrinth. Or the much-loved, the Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go, which again in the original reads: The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes. It is a trivial truth that Galileo had a way with words.

This cannot be said of Johannes Kepler. I shall probably bring the wrath of a horde of Kepler scholars on my head for saying this but even in translation, Johannes Kepler is anything but an easy read. Galileo even commented on this. When confronted with Kepler’s Dioptrice (1611), one of the most important books on optics ever written, Galileo complained that it was turgid and unreadable. Having ploughed my way through it in German translation, I sympathise with Galileo’s negative judgement. However, in his rejection Galileo failed to realise just how scientifically important the Dioptrice actually was. Nobody in their right mind would describe Kepler as a master stylist or a brilliant polemicist.

I think this contrast in literary abilities goes a long way to explaining the very different popular conceptions of the two men. People read Galileo’s major works or selections from them and are stimulated and impressed by his literary mastery, whereas Kepler’s major works are not even presented, as something to be read by anyone, who is not a historian of science. One just gets his three laws of planetary motion served up in modern guise, as a horribly mathematical side product of heliocentricity.

Of course, a serious factor in their respective notorieties is Galileo’s infamous trial by the Roman Inquisition. This was used to style him as a martyr for science, a process that only really began at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Kepler’s life, which in many ways was far more spectacular and far more tragic than Galileo’s doesn’t have such a singular defining moment in it.

Returning to the literary theme I think that what has happened is that non-scientists and non-historians of science have read Galileo and impressed by his literary abilities, his skill at turning a phrase, his adroit, and oft deceitful, presentation of pro and contra arguments often fail to notice that they are being sold a pup. As I tried to make clear in the last episode of my continuing ‘the emergence of modern astronomy’ series although Galileo’s Dialogo has an awesome reputation in Early Modern history, its scientific value is, to put it mildly, negligible. To say this appears to most people as some form of sacrilege, “but the Dialogo is an important defence of science against the forces of religious ignorance” or some such they would splutter. But in reality it isn’t, as I hope I made clear the work contributed nothing new to the on going debate and all that Galileo succeeded in doing was getting up the Pope’s nose.

The same can be said of Il Saggiatore, another highly praised work of literature. As I commented in another post the, oft quoted line on mathematics, which had led to Galileo being praised as the man, who, apparently single handed, mathematized the physical science was actually, when he wrote it, old hat and others had been writing the book of nature in the language of mathematics for at least one hundred years before Galileo put pen to paper but none of them had taken the time to express what they were doing poetically. In fact it took historians of science a long time to correct this mistaken perception, as they also tended to suffer from a serious dose of Galileo adoration. The core of Il Saggiatore is as I have explained elsewhere is total rubbish, as Galileo is arguing against the scientific knowledge of his time with very spurious assertions merely so that he doesn’t have to acknowledge that Grassi is right and he is wrong. An admission that very few Galileo scholars are prepared to make in public, it might tarnish his reputation.

Interestingly one work that deserves its historical reputation Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, also suffers from serious scientific deficits that tend to get overlooked. Written and published in haste to avoid getting beaten to the punch by a potential, unknown rival the book actually reads more like an extended press release that a work of science. It might well be that Galileo intended to write a more scientific evaluation of his telescopic observations and discoveries once he had established his priority but somehow, having become something of a scientific superstar overnight, he never quite got round to it. This is once again a failing that most readers tend to overlook, over awed by the very impressive literary presentation.

Much of Galileo’s written work is actually more appearance than substance, or as the Germans say Mehr Schein als Sein, but ironically, there is one major work of Galileo’s that is both literarily brilliant and scientifically solid but which tends to get mostly overlooked, his Discorsi. The experiments on which part of it is based get described by the book itself remains for most people largely unknown. I shall be taking a closer look at it in a later post.

 

 

 

 

 

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The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXVII

Without a doubt the most well-known, in fact notorious, episode in the transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric cosmology/astronomy in the seventeenth century was the publication of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) in 1632 and his subsequent trial and conviction by the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition or simply Roman Inquisition; an episode that has been blown up out of all proportions over the centuries. It would require a whole book of its own to really do this subject justice but I shall deal with it here in two sketches. The first to outline how and why the publication of this book led to Galileo’s trial and the second to assess the impact of the book on the seventeenth century astronomical/cosmological debate, which was much less than is often claimed.

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

The first salient point is Galileo’s social status in the early seventeenth century. Nowadays we place ‘great scientists’ on a pedestal and accord them a very high social status but this was not always the case. In the Renaissance, within society in general, natural philosophers and mathematicians had a comparatively low status and within the ruling political and religious hierarchies Galileo was effectively a nobody. Yes, he was famous for his telescopic discoveries but this did not change the fact that he was a mere mathematicus. As court mathematicus and philosophicus to the Medici in Florence he was little more than a high-level court jester, he should reflect positively on his masters. His role was to entertain the grand duke and his guests at banquets and other social occasions with his sparkling wit, either in the form of a discourse or if a suitable opponent was at hand, in a staged dispute. Points were awarded not for truth content but for verbal brilliance. Galileo was a master at such games. However, his real status as a courtier was very low and should he bring negative attention to the court, they would drop him without a thought, as they did when the Inquisition moved against him.

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Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a cardinal, Maffeo Barberini (1568–1644) had befriended Galileo when his first came to prominence in 1611 and he was also an admirer of the Accademia dei Lincei. When he was elected Pope in 1623 the Accademia celebrated his election and amongst other things presented him with a copy of Galileo’s Il Saggiatore, which he read and apparently very much enjoyed. As a result he granted Galileo several private audiences, a great honour. Through his actions Barberini had raised Galileo to the status of papal favourite, a situation not without its dangers.

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

Mario Biagioli presents the, I think correct, hypothesis that having raised Galileo up as a court favourite Barberini then destroyed him. Such behaviour was quite common under absolutist rulers, as a power demonstration to intimidate potential rebels. Galileo was a perfect victim for such a demonstration highly prominent and popular but with no real political or religious significance. Would Barberini have staged such a demonstration at the time? There is evidence that he was growing more and more paranoid during this period. Barberini, who believed deeply in astrology, heard rumours that an astrologer had foreseen his death in the stars. His death was to coincide with a solar eclipse in 1630. Barberini with the help of his court astrologer, Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) took extreme evasive action and survived the cosmic threat but he had Orazio Morandi (c. 1570–1630), a close friend and supporter of Galileo’s, arrested and thrown in the papal dungeons, where he died, for having cast the offending horoscope.

Turning to the Dialogo, the official bone of contention, Galileo succeeded in his egotism in alienating Barberini with its publication. Apparently during the phase when he was very much in Barberini’s good books, Galileo had told the Pope that the Protestants were laughing at the Catholics because they didn’t understand the heliocentric hypothesis. Of course, during the Thirty Years War any such mockery was totally unacceptable. Barberini gave Galileo permission to write a book presenting and contrasting the heliocentric and geocentric systems but with certain conditions. Both systems were to be presented as equals with no attempts to prove the superiority or truth of either and Galileo was to include the philosophical and theological opinion of the Pope that whatever the empirical evidence might suggest, God in his infinite wisdom could create the cosmos in what ever way he chose.

The book that Galileo wrote in no way fulfilled the condition stated by Barberini. Presented as a discussion over four days between on the one side a Copernican, Salviati named after Filippo Salviati (1682–1614) a close friend of Galileo’s and Sagredo, supposedly neutral but leaning strongly to heliocentricity, named after Giovanni Francesco Sagredo (1571–1620) another close friend of Galileo’s. Opposing these learned gentlemen is Simplicio, an Aristotelian, named after Simplicius of Cilicia a sixth-century commentator on Aristotle. This name is with relative certainty a play on the Italian word “semplice”, which means simple as in simple minded. Galileo stacked the deck from the beginning.

The first three days of discussion are a rehash of the previous decades of discoveries and developments in astronomy and cosmology with the arguments for heliocentricity, or rather against geocentricity in its Ptolemaic/Aristotelian form, presented in their best light and the counter arguments presented decidedly less well. Galileo was leaving nothing to chance, he knew who was going to win this discussion. The whole thing is crowned with Galileo’s theory of the tides on day four, which he falsely believed, despite its very obvious flaws, to be a solid empirical proof of the Earth’s movements in a heliocentric model. This was in no way an unbiased presentation of two equal systems but an obvious propaganda text for heliocentricity. Worse than this, he placed the Pope’s words on the subject in the mouth of Simplicio, the simpleton, not a smart move. When it was published the shit hit the fan.

However, before considering the events leading up to the trial and the trial itself there are a couple of other factors that prejudiced the case against Galileo. In order to get published at all, the book, as with every other book, had to be given publication permission by the censor. To repeat something that people tend to forget, censorship was practiced by all secular and all religious authorities throughout the whole of Europe and was not peculiar to the Catholic Church. Freedom of speech and freedom of thought were alien concepts in the world of seventeenth century religion and politics. Galileo wanted initially to title the book, Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Seas, referring of course to his theory of the tides, and include a preface to this effect. He was told to remove both by the censor, as they, of course, implied a proof of heliocentricity. Because of an outbreak of the plague, Galileo retired to Florence to write his book and preceded to play the censor in Florence and the censor in Rome off against each other, which meant that the book was published without being properly controlled by a censor. This, of course, all came out after publication and did not help Galileo’s case at all; he had been far too clever for his own good.

Another major problem had specifically nothing to do with Galileo in the first instance but rebounded on him at the worst time.  On 8 March 1632 Cardinal Borgia castigated the Pope for not supporting King Philipp IV of Spain against the German Protestants. The situation almost degenerated into a punch up with the Swiss Guard being called in to separate the adversaries. As a result Barberini decided to purge the Vatican of pro-Spanish elements. One of the most prominent men to be banished was Giovanni Ciampoli (1589–1643) Barberini’s chamberlain. Ciampoli was an old friend and supporter of Galileo and a member of the Accademia dei Lincei. He was highly active in helping Galileo trick the censors and had read the manuscript of the Dialogo, telling Barberini that it fulfilled his conditions. His banishment was a major disaster for Galileo.

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Giovanni Ciampoli Source: Wikimedia Commons

One should of course also not forget that Galileo had effectively destroyed any hope of support from the Jesuits, the leading astronomers and mathematicians of the age, who had very actively supported him in 1611, with his unwarranted and libellous attacks on Grazi and Scheiner in his Il Saggiatore. He repeated the attacks on Scheiner in the Dialogo, whilst at the same time plagiarising him, claiming some of Scheiner’s sunspot discoveries as his own. There is even some evidence that the Jesuits worked behind the scenes urging the Pope to put Galileo on trial.

When the Dialogo was published it immediately caused a major stir. Barberini appointed officials to read and assess it. Their judgement was conclusive, the Dialogo obviously breached the judgement of 1616 forbidding the teaching of heliocentricity as a factual theory. Anybody reading the Dialogo today would confirm that judgement. The consequence was that Galileo was summoned to Rome to answer to the Inquisition. Galileo stalled claiming bad health but was informed either he comes or he would be fetched. The Medici’s refused to support him; they did no consider him worth going into confrontation with the Pope for.

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Ferdinando II de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany in Coronation Robes (school of Justus Sustermans). Source: Wikimedia Commons

We don’t need to go into details of the trial. Like all authoritarian courts the Inquisition didn’t wish to try their accused but preferred them to confess, this was the case with Galileo. During his interviews with the Inquisition Galileo was treated with care and consideration because of his age and bad health. He was provided with an apartment in the Inquisition building with servants to care for him. At first he denied the charges but when he realised that this wouldn’t work he said that he had got carried away whilst writing and he offered to rewrite the book. This also didn’t work, the book was already on the market and was a comparative best seller, there was no going back. Galileo thought he possessed a get out of jail free card. In 1616, after he had been interviewed by Bellarmino, rumours circulated that he had been formally censured by the Inquisition. Galileo wrote to Bellarmino complaining and the Cardinal provided him with a letter stating categorically that this was not the case. Galileo now produced this letter thinking it would absolve him of the charges. The Inquisition now produced the written version of the statement that had been read to Galileo by an official of the Inquisition immediately following his interview with Bellarmino expressly forbidding the teaching of the heliocentric theory as fact. This document still exists and there have been discussions as to its genuineness but the general consensus is that it is genuine and not a forgery. Galileo was finished, guilty as charged. Some opponents of the Church make a lot of noise about Galileo being shown the instruments of torture but this was a mere formality in a heresy trial and at no point was Galileo threatened with torture.

The rest is history. Galileo confessed and formally adjured to the charge of grave suspicion of heresy, compared to heresy a comparatively minor charge. He was sentenced to prison, which was immediately commuted to house arrest. He spent the first months of his house arrest as the guest of Ascanio II Piccolomini (1590–1671), Archbishop of Siena,

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Ascanio II Piccolomini Source: Wikimedia Commons

until Barberini intervened and sent him home to his villa in Arcetri. Here he lived out his last decade in comparative comfort, cared for by loyal servants, receiving visitor and writing his most important book, Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences).

Galileo’s real crime was hubris, trying to play an absolutist ruler, the Pope, for a fool. Others were executed for less in the seventeenth century and not just by the Catholic Church. Galileo got off comparatively lightly.

What role did the Dialogo actually play in the ongoing cosmological/astronomical debate in the seventeenth century? The real answer is, given its reputation, surprisingly little. In reality Galileo was totally out of step with the actual debate that was taking place around 1630. Driven by his egotistical desire to be the man, who proved the truth of heliocentricity, he deliberately turned a blind eye to the most important developments and so side lined himself.

We saw earlier that around 1613 there were more that a half a dozen systems vying for a place in the debate, however by 1630 nearly all of the systems had been eliminated leaving just two in serious consideration. Galileo called his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, but the two systems that he chose to discuss, the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian geocentric system and the Copernican heliocentric system, were ones that had already been rejected by almost all participants in the debate by 1630 . The choice of the pure geocentric system of Ptolemaeus was particularly disingenuous, as Galileo had helped to show that it was no longer viable twenty years earlier. The first system actually under discussion when Galileo published his book was a Tychonic geo-heliocentric system with diurnal rotation, Christen Longomontanus (1562–1647), Tycho’s chief assistant, had published an updated version based on Tycho’s data in his Astronomia Danica in 1622. This was the system that had been formally adopted by the Jesuits.

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The second was the elliptical heliocentric system of Johannes Kepler, of which I dealt with the relevant publications in the last post.

Galileo completely ignores Tycho, whose system could explain all of the available evidence for heliocentricity, because he didn’t want to admit that this was the case, arguing instead that the evidence must imply a heliocentric system. He also, against all the available empirical evidence, maintained his belief that comets were sublunar meteorological phenomena, because the supporters of a Tychonic system used their perceived solar orbit as an argument for their system.  He is even intensely disrespectful to Tycho in the Dialogo, for which Kepler severely castigated him. He also completely ignores Kepler, which is even more crass, as the best available arguments for heliocentricity were to be found clearly in Kepler published works. Galileo could not adopt Kepler’s system because it would mean that Kepler and not he would be the man, who proved the truth of the heliocentric system.

Although the first three days of the Dialogo provide a good polemic presentation for all of the evidence up till that point for a refutation of the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian system, with the very notable exception of the comets, Galileo’s book was out dated when it was written and had very little impact on the subsequent astronomical/cosmological debate in the seventeenth century. I will indulge in a little bit of hypothetical historical speculation here. If Galileo had actually written a balanced and neutral account of the positive and negative points of the Tychonic geo-heliocentric system with diurnal rotation and Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric system, it might have had the following consequences. Firstly, given his preeminent skills as a science communicator, his book would have been a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate and secondly he probably wouldn’t have been persecuted by the Catholic Church. However, one can’t turn back the clock and undo what has already been done.

I will close this overlong post with a few brief comments on the impact of the Church’s ban on the heliocentric theory, the heliocentric hypothesis was still permitted, and the trial and sentencing of Galileo, after all he was the most famous astronomer in Europe. Basically the impact was much more minimal than is usually implied in all the popular presentations of the subject. Outside of Italy these actions of the Church had almost no impact whatsoever, even in other Catholic countries. In fact a Latin edition of the Dialogo was published openly in Lyon in 1641, by the bookseller Jean-Antoine Huguetan (1567–1650), and dedicated to the French diplomat Balthasar de Monconys (1611–1665), who was educated by the Jesuits.

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Within Italy well-behaved Catholics censored their copies of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus according to the Church’s instructions but continued to read and use them. Censored copies of the book are virtually unknown outside of Italy. Also within Italy, astronomers would begin their discussions of heliocentricity by stating in the preface that the Holy Mother Church in its wisdom had declared this system to be false, but it is an interesting mathematical hypothesis and then go on in their books to discuss it fully. On the whole the Inquisition left them in peace.

 

***A brief footnote to the above: this is a historical sketch of what took place around 1630 in Northern Italy written from the viewpoint of the politics, laws and customs that ruled there at that time. It is not a moral judgement on the behaviour of either the Catholic Church or Galileo Galilei and I would be grateful if any commentators on this post would confine themselves to the contextual historical facts and not go off on wild moral polemics based on hindsight. Comments on and criticism of the historical context and/or content are, as always, welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Swinging 1660s

Readers of my occasional autobiographical posts will know that I came of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970s and was a fully-fledged member of the drug freak generation. Indulging freely in a wide range of illicit substances, something I neither regret nor overly value; it was how it was. However, always the born historian, when my drug freak colleagues were busy lighting up that spliff or dropping that tab, I was also busy reading up on the report of the 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission or the Scythian shamans use of cannabis or Albert Hofmann’s synthesis of LSD at Sandoz or the medieval outbreaks of St Anthony’s Fire caused by ergot-based drugs. In other words I didn’t just want to get high but also to discover the history of humans getting high.

Later in my life during the time that I managed the monthly #histsci blog carnival On Giants’ Shoulders and then ran the weekly #histsci journal Whewell’s Gazette I regularly read a lot of blogs and one blog that I very much enjoyed was Benjamin Breen’s Res Obscura. Though not strictly a #histsci blog Res Obscura is a wonderful cornucopia of erudite, entertaining, enlightening and educational essays about, well, obscure things as the blog name says.

Given this two rather disparate aspects of my life I was delighted when I discovered that Benjamin Breen had written and published a book with the title, The Age Of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade*. I knew that this was a book that I wanted to read and read it I have and it has fulfilled all my expectations.

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Now it might seem at first glance that my youthful adventures in the age of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll and Breen’s academic opus about the beginnings of the global drug trade in the early modern period would have little or nothing in common but appearances can be deceptive and in this case they are. One of Breen’s central themes in his book is that the dichotomies that characterised the world of drugs in the 1960s and 70s, medical–recreational, legal–illicit, natural–synthetic were in fact created during the European confrontation with exotic new drugs from South America and Asia during the Early Modern Period, which shaped the way we see intoxicants today.

Early in his book Breen explains to the reader, or in my case reminds him, that the word drug originally meant dry goods, as is still obvious in the North American drugstore or the German Drogeriemarkt. This meant that the “drugs” that the early European trader–explorer brought back home from all over the world included not only what we would now call drugs but also a very diverse range of other goods, including herbs and spices, dyes, soaps, incenses, pigments or even jewels. Although, one should add than many of these non drug dry good were often also regarded as medicines. One should also remember that three of our everyday commodities, coffee, chocolate and tobacco, were originally viewed as medicinal drugs.

Breen narrative centres around two of the early European empires the Portuguese and the English, as the main sources for the introduction and establishment of intoxicant drugs into European culture. The book is divided into two sections. The first of these, entitled Invention of Drugs, begins with the Portuguese search of new drugs in the jungles of Brazil, inspired by the discovery of quinine, the ground up bark of the cinchona tree, by the Jesuits in Peru. We then move on to the selling of the new drugs in the Apothecaries of Europe. This section closes with a fascinating discussing Fetishizing Drugs about the relationship between drug use, religion and magic in Early Modern Africa.

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The second section, Altered States, tackles the whole concept of intoxication. It opens with the strange, under the counter so to speak, relationship between the Portuguese, oft Jesuit, discoverers and importers of drugs and the natural philosophers of the English Royal Society. This exchange of information and knowledge, whilst for a period highly active, remained largely clandestine because of the religious, political and philosophical clash that existed publically between the two parties. But the exchange did take place and was highly fruitful. Historians of science in the know will perhaps be aware of Robert Hooke’s dope smoking activities but as Breen shows there was very much more. We now move on to the problems involved in trying to describe and classify states of intoxication. The only real reference point for the Europeans was getting drunk on alcohol, whereas the highs produced by the alkaloids contained in the drugs imported from South America and Asia are very different. I know this from personal experience.  Try explaining an acid trip to somebody whose only experience of deliberately losing control of ones mental facilities is getting pissed!

The second section closes with what might within the context of the book be described as a case study. Entitled Three Ways of Looking at Opium it chronicles how the perception and acceptance of opium changed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Breen starts with a fact that was completely new to me, the opium poppy is actually a native European plant and the perception that opium comes into Europe from Asia is one of those changes that took place in the early modern period. Breen relates how a fairly positive image of opium as a medicinal drug gradually changes to a negative one, a process accelerated in the nineteenth century by the successful synthesis of the of first morphine and later heroine from raw opium; the synthetic forms becoming the acceptable medical drugs, whereas raw opium becomes an unacceptable illicit substance.

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The book closes with a meditation on our attitude to drugs then and now under the title, Drugs Past and Present.

This is a truly polymathic, historical achievement; Breen weaves together a world history out of elements of the social, cultural and core histories of exploration, discovery, botany, chemistry, medicine, pharmacology, trade, economics, magic, religion and philosophy. As was to be expected from the author of Res Obscura this book is beautifully written and is a real pleasure to read. It is well presented with a wide range of grey in grey illustrations. There are extensive, highly informative endnotes, requiring the somewhat tiresome two bookmarks method of reading, a useful bilingual (Portuguese and English) glossary, a very comprehensive bibliography and an excellent index.

Whatever your historical interests, if you like reading good quality, excellently researched and equally excellently written history, then do yourself a favour and read Breen’s fascinating academic excursion through the world of the Early Modern drug trade.

*Benjamin Breen, The Age Of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2019

 

 

 

 

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Christmas Trilogy Part 3: The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXVI

 

In popular presentations of the so-called scientific or astronomical revolutions Galileo Galilei is almost always presented as the great champion of heliocentricity in the first third of the seventeenth century. In fact, as we shall see, his contribution was considerably smaller than is usually claimed and mostly had a negative rather than a positive influence. The real champion of heliocentricity in this period was Johannes Kepler, who in the decade between 1617 and 1627 published four major works that laid the foundations for the eventual triumph of heliocentricity over its rivals. I have already dealt with one of these in the previous post in this series, the De cometis libelli tres I. astronomicus, theoremata continens de motu cometarum … II. physicus, continens physiologiam cometarum novam … III. astrologicus, de significationibus cometarum annorum 1607 et 1618 / autore Iohanne Keplero …, which was published in 1619 and as I’ve already said became the most important reference text on comets in the 1680’s during a period of high comet activity that we will deal with in a later post.

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Source: ETH Library Zurich

Chronologically the first of Kepler’s influential books from this decade was Volume I (books I–III) of his Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae published in 1617, Volume II (book IV) followed in 1620 and Volume III (books V–VII) in 1621. This was a text book on heliocentric astronomy written in question and answer dialogue form between a teacher and a student spelling out the whole of heliocentric astronomy and cosmology in comparatively straight forward and simple terms, the first such textbook. There was a second edition containing all three volumes in 1635.

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Second edition 1635 Source

This book was highly influential in the decades following its publication and although it claims to be a digest of Copernican astronomy, it in fact presents Kepler’s own elliptical astronomy. For the first time his, now legendary, three laws of planetary motion are presented as such together. As we saw earlier the first two laws–I. The orbit of a planet is an ellipse and the Sun is at one of the focal points of that ellipse II: A line connecting the Sun and the planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times–were published in his Astronomia Nova in 1609. The third law was new first appearing in, what he considered to be his opus magnum, Ioannis Keppleri Harmonices mundi libri V (The Five Books of Johannes Kepler’s The Harmony of the World) published in 1619 and to which we now turn our attention.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler’s first book was his Mysterium Cosmographicum published in 1597 with its, to our way of thinking, somewhat bizarre hypothesis that there are only six planets because the spaces between their orbits are defined by the five regular Platonic solids.

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Kepler’s Platonic solid model of the Solar System from Mysterium Cosmographicum Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although his calculation in 1597 showed a fairly good geometrical fit for his theory, it was to Kepler’s mind not good enough and this was his motivation for acquiring Tycho Brahe’s newly won more accurate data for the planetary orbits. He believed he could quite literally fine tune his model using the Pythagorean theory of the harmony of the spheres, that is that the ratio of the planetary orbits build a musical scale that is only discernable to the enlightened Pythagorean astronomer. The Harmonices Mundi was that fine tuning.

The first two books of the Harmonices Mundi layout Kepler’s geometrical theory of music, which geometrical constructions produced harmonious musical intervals and which disharmonious ones, based on which are constructible with straight edge and compass, harmonious, and which are not, disharmonious. The third book is Kepler’s contribution to the contemporary debate on the correct division of the intervals of the musical scale, in which Vincenzo Galilei (1520–1591), Galileo’s father, had played a leading role. The fourth book is the application of the whole to astrology and the fifth its application to astronomy and it is here that we find the third law.

In the fifth Kepler compare all possible ratios of planetary speeds and distances constructing musical scales for planets and musical intervals for the relationship between planets. It is here that he, one could say, stumbles upon his third law, which is known as the harmony law. Kepler was very much aware of the importance of his discovery as he tells us in his own words:

“After I had discovered true intervals of the orbits by ceaseless labour over a very long time and with the help of Brahe’s observations, finally the true proportion of the orbits showed itself to me. On the 8th of March of this year 1618, if exact information about the time is desired, it appeared in my head. But I was unlucky when I inserted it into the calculation, and rejected it as false. Finally, on May 15, it came again and with a new onset conquered the darkness of my mind, whereat there followed such an excellent agreement between my seventeen years of work at the Tychonic observations and my present deliberation that I at first believed that I had dreamed and assumed the sought for in the supporting proofs. But it is entirely certain and exact that the proportion between the periodic times of any two planets is precisely one and a half times the proportion of the mean distances.”

Translated into modern notation the third law is P12/P22=R13/R23, where P is the period of a planet and R is the mean radius of its orbit. It can be argues that this was Kepler’s greatest contribution to the history of the emergence of heliocentricity but rather strangely nobody really noticed its true significance until Newton came along at the end of the seventeenth century.

However they should have done because the third law gives us is a direct mathematical relationship between the size of the orbits of the planets and their duration, which only works in a heliocentric system. There is nothing comparable for either a full geocentric system or for a geo-heliocentric Tychonic or semi-Tychonic system. It should have hit the early seventeenth-century astronomical community like a bomb but it didn’t, which raises the question why it didn’t. The answer is because it is buried in an enormous pile of irrelevance in the Harmonices Mundi and when Kepler repeated it in the Epitome he gave it no real emphasis, so it remained relatively ignored.

On a side note, it is often thought that Kepler had abandoned his comparatively baroque Platonic solids concepts from the Mysterium Cosmographicum but now that he had, in his opinion, ratified it in the Harmonices Mundi he published a second edition of the book in 1621.

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Second Edition 1621 Source

Ironically the book of Kepler’s that really carried the day for heliocentricity against the geocentric and geo-heliocentric systems was his book of planetary tables based on Tycho Brahe’s data the Tabulae Rudolphinae (Rudolphine Tables) published in 1627, twenty-eight years after he first began working on them. Kepler had in fact been appointed directly by Rudolph II in Prague to produce these tables at the suggestion of Tycho in 1601. Turning Tycho’s vast collection of data into accurately calculated tables was a horrendous and tedious task and over the years Kepler complained often and bitterly about this burden.

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Tabulae Rudolphinae The frontispiece presents in graphic form a potted history of Western astronomy Source

However, he persevered and towards the end of the 1620s he was so far. Because he was the Imperial Mathematicus and had prepared the tables under the orders of the Emperor he tried to get the funds to cover the printing costs from the imperial treasury. This proved to be very difficult and after major struggles he managed to acquire 2000 florins of the more than 6000 that the Emperor owed him, enough to pay for the paper. He began printing in Linz but in the turmoil of the Thirty Years War the printing workshop got burnt down and he lost the already printed pages. Kepler decamped to Ulm, where with more difficulties he succeeded in finishing the first edition of 1000 copies. Although these were theoretically the property of the Emperor, Kepler took them to the Frankfurt book fair where he sold the entire edition to recoup his costs.

The Tabulae Rudolphinae were pretty much an instant hit. The principle function of astronomy since its beginnings in Babylon had always been to produce accurate tables and ephemerides for use initially by astrologers and then with time also cartographers, navigators etc. Astronomical systems and the astronomers, who created them, were judged on the quality and accuracy of their tables. Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphinae based on Tycho’s data were of a level of accuracy previous unknown and thus immediately won many supporters. Those who used the tables assumed that their accuracies was due to Kepler’s elliptical planetary models leading to a gradually increasing acceptance of heliocentricity but this was Kepler’s system and not Copernicus’. Supported by the Epitome with the three laws of planetary motion Kepler’s version of heliocentricity became the dominant astronomical/cosmological system over the next decades but it would be another thirty to forty years, long after Kepler’s death, before it became the fully accepted system amongst astronomers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas Trilogy 2019 Part 2: Babbage, Airy and financing the Difference Engine.

Charles Babbage first announced his concept for his first computer, the Difference Engine, in a Royal Astronomical Society paper, Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables in 1822.

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Engraving of Charles Babbage dated 1833 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He managed to convince the British Government that a mechanical calculator would be useful for producing numerical tables faster, cheaper and more accurately and in 1823 they advance Babbage £1700 to begin construction of a full scale machine. It took Babbage and his engineer, Joseph Clements, nine years to produce a small working model but costs had spiralled out of control and the government suspended payment at around £17,000, in those days a small fortune, in 1833.

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A portion of the difference engine. Woodcut after a drawing by Benjamin Herschel Babbage Source: Wikimedia Commons

Babbage and Clement had parted in dispute by this time. The next nine years saw Babbage negotiating with various government officials to try and get payment reinstated. Enter George Biddel Airy (1801–1892).

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

Airy entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1819, graduating Senior Wrangler and Smith Prize man in 1823. He was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1824 and Lucasian Professor of mathematics beating Babbage for the position in 1826. In 1828 he was elected Plumian Professor of astronomy and director of the new Cambridge Observatory. Babbage succeeded him as Lucasian Professor. Airy proved very competent and very efficient as the director of the observatory, which led to him being appointed Astronomer Royal at the Greenwich Observatory in 1835 and thus the leading state scientist and effectively the government scientific advisor. It was in this capacity that the paths of the two Cambridge mathematicians crossed once again[1].

In 1842 Henry Goulburn (1784–1856), Chancellor of the Exchequer in the cabinet of Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850) was asked by Peel to gather information on Babbage’s Difference Engine project, which he would have liked to ditch, preferable yesterday rather than tomorrow. Goulburn turned to Airy as the countries leading scientific civil servant and also because the Royal Observatory was responsible for producing many of the mathematical tables, the productions of which the Difference Engine was supposed to facilitate. Could Airy offer an opinion on the utility of the proposed mechanical calculator? Airy could and it was anything but positive:

Mr Babbage made the approval of the machine a personal question. In consequence of this, I, and I believe other persons, have carefully abstained for several years from alluding to it in his presence. I think he lives in a sort of dream as to its utility.

An absurd notion has been spread abroad, that the machine was intended for all calculations of every kind. This is quite wrong. The machine is intended solely for calculations which can be made by addition and subtraction in a particular way. This excludes all ordinary calculation.

Scarcely a figure of the Nautical Almanac could be computed by it. Not a single figure of the Geenwich Observations or the great human Computations now going on could be computed by it. Indeed it was proposed only for the computation of new Tables (as Tables of Logarithms and the like), and even for these, the difficult part must be done by human computers. The necessity for such new tables does not occur, as I really believe, once in fifty years. I can therefore state without the least hesitation that I believe the machine to be useless, and that the sooner it is abandoned, the better it will be for all parties[2].

Airy’s opinion was devastating Peel acting on Goulburn’s advice abandoned the financing of the Difference Engine once and for all. Even the personal appeals of Babbage directly to Peel were unable to change this decision. Airy’s judgement was actually based on common sense and solid economic arguments. The tables computed by human computers were comparatively free of errors and nothing could be gained here by replacing their labour with a machine that would probably prove more expensive. Also setting up the machine to compute any particular set of tables would first require human computers to determine the initially values for the algorithms and to determine that the approximations delivered by the difference series remained within an acceptable tolerance range. Airy could really see no advantages in employing Babbage’s machine rather than his highly trained human computers. Also any human computers employed to work with the Difference Engine would, by necessity, also need first to be trained for the task.

Airy’s views on the utility or rather lack thereof of mechanical calculators was shared by the Swedish astronomer Nils Seelander (1804–1870) also used the same arguments against the use of mechanical calculators in 1844 as did Urbain Le Verrier (1811–1877) at the Paris Observatory.

Babbage was never one to take criticism or defeat lying down and in 1851 when the working model of the Difference Engine No. 1 was on display at the Great Exhibition he launched a vicious attack on Airy in his book The Exposition of 1851: Views of The Industry, The Science and The Government of England.

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Babbage was not a happy man. By 1851 Airy was firmly established as a leading European scientist and an exemplary public servant and could and did publically ignore Babbage’s diatribe. Privately he wrote a parody of the rhyme This is the House that Jack Built mocking Babbage’s efforts to realise his Difference Engine. Verse seven of This is the Engine that Charles Built reads as follows:

There are Treasury lords, slightly furnished with sense,

Who the wealth of the nation unfairly dispense:

They know but one man, in the Queen’s vast dominion,

Who in things scientific can give an opinion:

And when Babbage for funds for the Engine applied,

The called upon Airy, no doubt, to decide:

And doubtless adopted, in apathy slavish,

The hostile suggestions of enmity knavish:

The powers of official position abused,

And flatly all further advances refused.

For completing the Engine that Charles built.[3]

Today Charles Babbage is seen as a visionary in the history of computers and computing, George Airy very clearly did not share that vision but he was no Luddite opposing the progress of technology out of principle. His opposition to the financing of Babbage’s Difference Engine was based on sound mathematical and financial principles and delivered with well-considered arguments.

[1] The following account is based almost entirely on Doran D. Swade’s excellent paper, George Biddell Airy, Greenwich and the Utility of Calculating Engines in Mathematics at the Meridian: The History of Mathematics at Greenwich, de. Raymond Flood, Tony Mann & Mary Croarken, CRC Press, Boca Raton, London New York, 2019 pp. 63–81. A review of the entire, excellent volume will follow some time next year.

[2] All three quotes are from Airy’s letter to Goulburn 16 September 1842 RGO6–427, f. 65. Emphasis original. Quoted by Swade p. 69.

[3] Swade p. 74 The whole poem can be read in Appendix I of Doran David Swade, Calculation and Tabulation in the Nineteenth Century: Airy versus Babbage, Thesis submitted for the degree of PhD, University College London, 2003, which of course deals with the whole story in great depth and detail and is available here on the Internet.

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Christmas Trilogy 2019 Part I: Would the real Mr Newton please stand up?

Probably the more wide spread and popular image of Isaac Newton is of him discovering the law of gravity after being hit on the head by a falling apple.

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For many generations of school kids throughout the world the name Newton is associated with his laws of motion and that law of gravity, often with unpleasant thoughts of having to solve physics home work problem involving them. For many Newton is the ‘father of modern science’ or the ‘father of physics’ or in some way synonymous with the scientific revolution. Also for those worldwide, generations of school kids he was the inventor/discoverer of the bane of mathematics the calculus. In reality, as well as his most well known achievements in mathematics, astronomy and physics, Newton took a lively interest in a surprising range of topics and, never a dabbler, he invested the full power of his vast intellect in whatever he undertook to investigate.

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Portrait of Newton by Godfrey Kneller, 1689 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Woolsthorpe Manor on 25 December 1642, the son of a yeoman farmer, who died before he was born, Newton grew up in a strongly puritan environment and remained deeply religious throughout his entire, very long life. He devoted an immense amount of time and energy to studying the Bible that tradition claims he could recite off by heart. He would learn both Greek and Hebrew in order to further his theological studies. His religious views were anything but orthodox and he was in fact probably an Arian i.e. he denied the concept of the Trinity believing in a Unitarian concept of God instead. He would have normally been required to take holy orders in order to become a professor at Cambridge and even considered leaving the university because he was not prepared to do so. Through the assistance of Isaac Barrow he was granted a special dispensation and was thus able to accept the Lucasian Chair without having to take holy orders. Although he wrote many papers on his religious beliefs, including his belief that the Catholic Church had corrupted the text of the Bible in order to justify their belief in the Holy Trinity, he largely kept his heterodox religious views to himself, sharing them only with selected sympathetic correspondents.

His religious views played a central role in his scientific endeavours as he believed that he was uncovering God’s plan of the universe. He went further than this in that he believed that he, and he alone, had been chosen by God to reveal that plan. He was also a prisca theologian, who believed that Adam and the early generations of humanity had had perfect knowledge of God’s creation and that this knowledge had been lost down through the succeeding generations. He was not discovering the plans of God’s creation but rediscovering them.

Newton was also, like many others in the High Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, a millennialist that is he believed in a second coming and the end of the world. This led to the second of his great intellectual passions, history. Newton was a Bible chronologist, who thought that if he could accurately determine the date of creation and thus the current age of the Earth then he could also determine the time of the second coming. In order to do this he devoted a lot to the study of history in order to establish the time and durations of the great civilisations based, of course, around an analysis of the Old Testament as a historical source. He also tried, as an astronomer, to tie historical descriptions of astronomical phenomena, eclipses etc., to mathematically determined dates of those phenomena. This led other chronologists to eagerly await access to Newton’s chronological writings after his death hoping that the great astronomer mathematician would provide solid scientific evidence for his historical dating scheme. On the whole those hopes were disappointed when Newton’s chronological manuscripts did finally see the light of day.

Newton’s prisca theological beliefs also led to another of his better-known intellectual activities his alchemical investigations. He believed that alchemy was the oldest of all the sciences and that if he could unravel the secrets of this arcane discipline then it would bring him closer to knowledge of God’s creation plan. You will often see the highly incorrect assertion that the scientist Newton only turned to the occult alchemy in his dotage, after his scientific creativity had been drained; this is far from the truth. Newton began his alchemical studies in about 1666 at the height of his intellectual powers. He built a hut in the gardens of Trinity College, which served as his laboratory and devoted the winter months of the next thirty years to the serious study of alchemy. He read and annotated hundreds of alchemical manuscripts, carried out numerous experiments and wrote his own thoughts on the subject none of which he ever published. On interesting side note to this intensive engagement is that he used the knowledge of chemical processes that he had won to develop new and better methods of assaying when he was running the Royal Mint later in life.

The years that Newton devoted to the study of alchemy were also the years that he devoted to the study of mathematics, physics and astronomy. Those people who reached a high enough level in mathematics in their own education usually know than Newton is credited with being the co-creator, together with Leibniz, of the calculus. What most people don’t realise is just how vast Newton’s output of creative mathematics was. The edited edition of his collected mathematical papers runs to eight very thick, large format volumes covering a very wide range of mathematical topics. His scientific crowning glory is, of course, his Principia Mathematica (1687) combining, as it does a definitive, uniform presentation of the physical mechanics that had been developed piecemeal over the preceding two centuries adding much that was new in the process, as well as a complete consistent heliocentric model of the solar system. With this one book he established himself as Europe’s number one physicist and number one astronomer. He second masterpiece was his Opticks, created and written largely before the mathematics, mechanics and astronomy but first published, due to negative reactions to his first papers on the subject, in 1704. It was of course in this period that Newton was also Lucasian Professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. This however was not that much of a burden, as Newton famously had virtually no students attending his lectures. Mathematics was not particularly popular at English universities during the seventeenth century.

In 1696 Newton left the world of academia, and to some extent his scientific investigations, to start a completely new career as a government servant, first as warden then later as comptroller of the Royal Mint in London. He obtained this appointment through the services of one of his former students, Charles Montagu, later 1st Earl of Halifax, one of the most powerful Whig politicians and for a time Chancellor of the Exchequer. Newton’s association with Montagu illustrates another aspect of his life that of politician. Newton was a member of the Whig Party, who sat as an MP for Cambridge University, the universities were their own parliamentary constituencies, at the convention to settle the revolution of 1689. This was however one activity where Newton remained very passive and did nothing to distinguish himself. In 1705 Montagu persuaded him to stand again and even arranged for him to be knightedto increase his chances of election but he lost the election and thus ended his active political career.

The job at the Royal Mint, which Newton desired because he thought being a mere university professor did not fit his status as a leading European intellectual, was actually normally considered a political sinecure, i.e. the office holder was not actually expected to do anything, just hold the title and collect the pay. Others would actually do the work. Newton was not a man for sinecures. He plunged right in taking over the day-to-day running of the mint. He personally supervised the recoining of the nation, a monstrous task, which Montague had introduced as a measure to combat the debasement of the English currency. Newton applied his scientific mind to modernising the Mint, introducing as indicated above, new methods of chemically assaying metals. One of the responsibilities of the Warden of the Mint was to track down and bring to trial coiners, i.e. those who forged coin of the realm, and clippers, i.e. those who clipped are shaved metal of the edges of coins. The milling of the edges of coins was introduced in Newton’s times to make life more difficult for clippers. Normally a Warden would employ others to track down these criminals, Newton took on the job himself working as a sort of seventeenth century gumshoe[1]. He was very much a hands on boss and remained so until late in his life, when he began to hand over the reigns to John Conduit, the husband of his niece and housekeeper, Catherine Barton.

From 1704 onwards until his death, he was also President of the Royal Society, which he ruled in a very autocratic manner. Once again he was not prepared to be merely some sort of figurehead but was deeply engaged in shaping the society’s profile and business. In this role he also became a tourist attraction, foreign visitors to London attending meetings of the Royal Society in order to witness Sir Isaac Newton Europe’s greatest, living natural philosopher.

Although the term natural philosopher signifies what we would now call a scientist, Newton was also a philosopher in the true sense. Although, unlike Leibniz, he didn’t publish separate philosophical texts, his major works, the Principia Mathematica and the Opticks, both contain a lot of serious thoughts on the philosophy and methodology of science. He was also very much pulling the strings, as the puppet master, in the philosophical debate about Newton’s natural philosophy between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, who acted as Newton’s mouth piece. Newton’s philosophical approach to science influenced, not necessarily positively, John Locke, David Hume and Immanuel Kant amongst others.

Last but perhaps by no means least there is an aspect to Newton that often gets overlooked, Newton the family man. This might seem like a contradiction in terms given that Newton lost his father before he was born and was abandoned as a small child by his mother, to be looked after by relatives, when she remarried. Newton, also, never married and had no children. However, he inherited the family’s not insubstantial holdings in Lincolnshire, they generated a yearly income of six hundred pounds at a time when the annual salary of the Astronomer Royal was one hundred pounds per annum. Newton brought his niece Catherine Barton to London to be his housekeeper and by no means treated her as a servant but as the lady of the house, who enjoyed the status of a lady in London’s high society. Newton also managed the family holdings personally and took good care of those members of his extended family living in Lincolnshire. Newton has acquired a historical reputation for being cantankerous and unfriendly but towards his extended family but also towards his scientific acolytes, the first so-called Newtonians, he could be and often was warm and generous.

Although the above is at best an inadequate sketch I hope I have made it clear that the real Isaac Newton was much more than a caricature of a scientist with an apple falling on his head. He was a theologian, historian, Bible chronologist, alchemist, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, public servant, detective, politician, society president, philosopher, farm manager and family man quite a lot for any individual.

[1] For an excellent account of this activity read Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

 

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