Boole, Shannon and the Electronic Computer

Photo of George Boole by Samuel Prout Newcombe  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of George Boole by Samuel Prout Newcombe
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1847, the self-taught English Mathematician George Boole (1815–1864), whose two hundredth birthday we celebrated last year, published a very small book, little more than a pamphlet, entitled Mathematical Analysis of Logic. This was the first modern book on symbolic or mathematical logic and contained Boole’s first efforts towards an algebraic logic of classes.


Although very ingenious and only the second published non-standard algebra, Hamilton’s Quaternions was the first, Boole’s work attracted very little attention outside of his close circle of friends. His friend, Augustus De Morgan, would falsely claim that his own Formal Logic Boole’s work were published on the same day, they were actually published several days apart, but their almost simultaneous appearance does signal a growing interest in formal logic in the early nineteenth century. Boole went on to publish a much improved and expanded version of his algebraic logic in his An Investigation of the Laws of Thought on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities in 1854.


The title contains an interesting aspect of Boole’s work in that it is an early example of structural mathematics. In structural mathematics, mathematicians set up formal axiomatic systems, which are capable of various interpretations and investigate the properties of the structure rather than any one specific interpretation, anything proved of the structure being valid for all interpretations. Structural mathematics lies at the heart of modern mathematics and its introduction is usually attributed to David Hilbert, but in his Laws of Thought, Boole anticipated Hilbert by half a century. The title of the book already mentions two interpretations of the axiomatic system contained within, logic and probability and the book actually contains more, in the first instance Boole’s system is a two valued logic of classes or as we would probably now call it a naïve set theory. Again despite its ingenuity the work was initially largely ignored till after Boole’s death ten years later.

As the nineteenth century progressed the interest in Boole’s algebraic logic grew and his system was modified and improved. Most importantly, Boole’s original logic contained no method of quantification, i.e. there was no simple way of expressing simply in symbols the statements, “there exists an X” or “for all X”, fundamental statements necessary for mathematical proofs. The first symbolic logic with quantification was Gottlob Frege’s, which first appeared in 1879. In the following years both Charles Saunders Peirce in America and Ernst Schröder in German introduced quantification into Boole’s algebraic logic. Both Peirce’s group at Johns Hopkins, which included Christine Ladd-Franklin or rather simply Christine Ladd as she was then, and Schröder produced substantial works of formal logic using Boole’s system. There is a popular misconception that Boole’s logic disappeared without major impact, to be replaced by the supposedly superior mathematical logic of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica. This is not true. In fact Whitehead’s earlier pre-Principia work was carried out in Boolean algebra, as were the very important meta-logical works or both Löwenheim and Skolem. Alfred Tarski’s early work was also done in Bool’s algebra and not the logic of PM. PM first supplanted Boole with the publication of Hilbert’s and Ackermann’s Grundzüge der theoretischen Logik published in 1928.

It now seemed that Boole’s logic was destined for the rubbish bin of history, a short-lived curiosity, which was no longer relevant but that was to change radically in the next decade in the hands of an American mathematical prodigy, Claude Shannon who was born 30 April 1916.

Claude Shannon Photo by Konrad Jacobs Source: Wikimedia Commons (Konrad Jacobs was one of my maths teachers and a personal friend)

Claude Shannon
Photo by Konrad Jacobs
Source: Wikimedia Commons
(Konrad Jacobs was one of my maths teachers and a personal friend)

Shannon entered the University of Michigan in 1932 and graduated with a double bachelor’s degree in engineering and mathematics in 1936. Whilst at Michigan University he took a course in Boolean logic. He went on to MIT where under the supervision of Vannevar Bush he worked on Bush’s differential analyser, a mechanical analogue computer designed to solve differential equations. It was whilst he as working on the electrical circuitry for the differential analyser that Shannon realised that he could apply Boole’s algebraic logic to electrical circuit design, using the simple two valued logical functions as switching gates in the circuitry. This simple but brilliant insight became Shannon’s master’s thesis in 1937, when Shannon was just twenty-one years old. It was published as a paper, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, in the Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1938. Described by psychologist Howard Gardner as, “possibly the most important, and also most famous, master’s thesis of the century” this paper formed the basis of all future computer hardware design. Shannon had delivered the blueprint for what are now known as logic circuits and provided a new lease of life for Boole’s logical algebra.


Later Shannon would go on to become on of the founders of information theory, which lies at the heart of the computer age and the Internet but it was that first insight combining Boolean logic with electrical circuit design that first made the computer age a viable prospect. Shannon would later play down the brilliance of his insight claiming that it was merely the product of his having access to both areas of knowledge, Boolean algebra and electrical engineering, and thus nothing special but it was seeing that the one could be interpreted as the other, which is anything but an obvious step that makes the young Shannon’s insight one of the greatest intellectual breakthroughs of the twentieth century.


Filed under History of Computing, History of Logic

The Astrolabe – an object of desire

Without doubt the astrolabes is one of the most fascinating of all historical astronomical instruments.

Astrolabe Renners Arsenius 1569 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Astrolabe Renners Arsenius 1569
Source: Wikimedia Commons

To begin with it is not simply one object, it is many objects in one:


  • An astronomical measuring device
  • A timepiece
  • An analogue computer
  • A two dimensional representation of the three dimensional celestial sphere
  • A work of art and a status symbol


This Medieval-Renaissance Swiss Army penknife of an astronomical instrument had according to one medieval Islamic commentator, al-Sufi writing in the tenth century, more than one thousand different functions. Even Chaucer in what is considered to be the first English language description of the astrolabe and its function, a pamphlet written for a child, describes at least forty different functions.

The astrolabe was according to legend invented by Hipparchus of Nicaea, the second century BCE Greek astronomer but there is no direct evidence that he did so. The oldest surviving description of the planisphere, that two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional celestial sphere, comes from Ptolemaeus in the second century CE.

Modern Planisphere Star Chart c. 1900 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Modern Planisphere Star Chart c. 1900
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Theon of Alexandria wrote a thesis on the astrolabe, in the fourth century CE, which did not survive and there are dubious second-hand reports that Hypatia, his daughter invented the instrument. The oldest surviving account of the astrolabe was written in the sixth century CE by John Philoponus. However it was first the Islamic astronomers who created the instrument, as it is known today, it is said for religious purposes, to determine the direction of Mecca and the time of prayer. The earliest surviving dated instrument is dated 315 AH, which is 927/28 CE.

The Earliest  Dated Astrolabe Source: See Link

The Earliest Dated Astrolabe
Source: See Link

It is from the Islamic Empire that knowledge of the instrument found its way into medieval Europe. Chaucer’s account of it is based on that of the eight-century CE Persian Jewish astrologer, Masha’allah ibn Atharī, one of whom claim to fame is writing the horoscope to determine the most auspicious date to found the city of Baghdad.

So-called Chaucer Astrolabe dated 1326, similar to the one Chaucer describes, British Museum Source: Wikimedia Commons

So-called Chaucer Astrolabe dated 1326, similar to the one Chaucer describes, British Museum
Source: Wikimedia Commons

However this brief post is not about the astrolabe as a scientific instrument in itself but rather the last point in my brief list above the astrolabe as a work of art and a status symbol. One of the reasons for people’s interest in astrolabes is the fact that they are simply beautiful to look at. This is not a cold, functional scientific instrument but an object to admire, to cherish and desire. A not uncommon reaction of people being introduced to astrolabes for the first time is, oh that is beautiful; I would love to own one of those. And so you can there are people who make replica astrolabes but buying one will set you back a very pretty penny.

That astrolabes are expensive is not, however, a modern phenomenon. Hand crafted brass, aesthetically beautiful, precision instruments, they were always very expensive and the principal market would always have been the rich, often the patrons of the instrument makers. The costs of astrolabes were probably even beyond the means of most of the astronomers who would have used them professionally and it is significant that most of the well know astrolabe makers were themselves significant practicing astronomers; according to the principle, if you need it and can’t afford it then make it yourself. Other astronomers would probably have relied on their employers/patrons to supply the readies. With these thoughts in mind it is worth considering the claim made by David King, one of the world’s greatest experts on the astrolabe, that the vast majority of the surviving astrolabes, made between the tenth nineteenth centuries – about nine hundred – were almost certainly never actually used as scientific instruments but were merely owned as status symbols. This claim is based on, amongst other things, the fact that they display none of the signs of the wear and tear, which one would expect from regular usage.

Does this mean that the procession of astrolabes was restricted to a rich elite and their employees? Yes and no. When European sailors began to slowly extend their journeys away from coastal waters into the deep sea, in the High Middle Ages they also began to determine latitude as an element of their navigation. For this purpose they needed an instrument like the astrolabe to measure the elevation of the sun or of chosen stars. The astrolabe was too complex and too expensive for this task and so the so-called mariners astrolabe was developed, a stripped down, simplified, cheaper and more robust version of the astrolabe. When and where the first mariner’s astrolabe was used in not known but probably not earlier than the thirteenth century CE. Although certainly not cheap, the mariner’s astrolabe was without doubt to be had for considerably less money than its nobler cousin.


Mariner’s Astrolabe Francisco de Goes 1608 Source: Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Firenze

Another development came with the advent of printing in the fifteenth century, the paper astrolabe. At first glance this statement might seem absurd, how could one possibly make a high precision scientific measuring instrument out of something, as flexible, unstable and weak as paper? The various parts of the astrolabe, the planisphere, the scales, the rete star-map, etc. are printed onto sheets of paper. These are then sold to the customer who cuts them out and pastes them onto wooden forms out of which he then constructs his astrolabe, a cheap but serviceable instrument. One well-known instrument maker who made and sold printed-paper astrolabes and other paper instruments was the Nürnberger mathematician and astronomer Georg Hartmann. The survival rate of such cheap instruments is naturally very low but we do actually have one of Hartmann’s wood and paper astrolabes.

Hartmann Paper Astrolabe Source: Oxford Museum of History of Science

Hartmann Paper Astrolabe
Source: Oxford Museum of History of Science

In this context it is interesting to note that, as far as can be determined, Hartmann was the first instrument maker to develop the serial production of astrolabes. Before Hartmann each astrolabe was an unicum, i.e. a one off instrument. Hartmann standardised the parts of his brass astrolabes and produced them, or had them produced, in batches, assembling the finished product out of these standardised parts. To what extent this might have reduced the cost of the finished article is not known but Hartmann was obviously a very successful astrolabe maker as nine of those nine hundred surviving astrolabes are from his workshop, probably more than from any other single manufacturer.

Hartmann Serial Production Astrolabe Source: Museum Boerhaave

Hartmann Serial Production Astrolabe
Source: Museum Boerhaave


If this post has awoken your own desire to admire the beauty of the astrolabe then the biggest online collection of Medieval and Renaissance scientific instruments in general and astrolabes in particular is the Epact website, a collaboration between the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, the British Museum, the Museum of the History of Science in Florence and the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden.

This blog post was partially inspired by science writer Philip Ball with whom I had a brief exchange on Twitter a few days ago, which he initiated, on our mutual desire to possess a brass astrolabe.






Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, History of Technology, Mediaeval Science, Renaissance Science


DO IT! is the title of a book written by 1960s Yippie activist Jerry Rubin. In the 1970s when I worked in experimental theatre groups if somebody suggested doing something in a different way then the response was almost always, “Don’t talk about it, do it!” I get increasingly pissed off by people on Twitter or Facebook moaning and complaining about fairly trivial inaccuracies on Wikipedia. My inner response when I read such comments is, “Don’t talk about it, change it!” Recently Maria Popova of brainpickings posted the following on her tumblr, Explore:

The Wikipedia bio-panels for Marie Curie and Albert Einstein reveal the subtle ways in which our culture still perpetuates gender hierarchies in science. In addition to the considerably lengthier and more detailed panel for Einstein, note that Curie’s children are listed above her accolades, whereas the opposite order appears in the Einstein entry – all the more lamentable given that Curie is the recipient of two Nobel Prizes and Einstein of one.

How ironic given Einstein’s wonderful letter of assurance to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared that her gender would hold her back. 

When I read this, announced in a tweet, my response was a slightly ruder version of “Don’t talk about it, change it!” Within minutes Kele Cable (@KeleCable) had, in response to my tweet, edited the Marie Curie bio-panel so that Curie’s children were now listed in the same place as Einstein’s. A couple of days I decided to take a closer look at the two bio-panels and assess Popova’s accusations.

Marie Curie c. 1920 Source Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie c. 1920
Source Wikimedia Commons

The first difference that I discovered was that the title of Curie’s doctoral thesis was not listed as opposed to Einstein’s, which was. Five minutes on Google and two on Wikipedia and I had corrected this omission. Now I went into a detailed examination, as to why Einstein’s bio-panel was substantially longer than Curie’s. Was it implicit sexism as Popova was implying? The simple answer is no! Both bio-panels contain the same information but in various areas of their life that information was more extensive in Einstein’s life than in Curie’s. I will elucidate.

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under ‘Residences’ we have two for Curie and seven for Einstein. Albert moved around a bit more than Marie. Marie only had two ‘Citizenships’, Polish and French whereas Albert notched up six. Under ‘Fields’ both have two entries. Turning to ‘Institutions’ Marie managed five whereas Albert managed a grand total of twelve. Both had two alma maters. The doctoral details for both are equal although Marie has four doctoral students listed, whilst Albert has none. Under ‘Known’ for we again have a major difference, Marie is credited with radioactivity, Polonium and Radium, whereas the list for Albert has eleven different entries. Under ‘Influenced’ for Albert there are three names but none for Marie, which I feel is something that should be corrected by somebody who knows their way around nuclear chemistry, not my field. Both of them rack up seven entries under notable awards. Finally Marie had one spouse and two children, whereas Albert had two spouses and three children. In all of this I can’t for the life of me see any sexist bias.

Frankly I find Popova’s, all the more lamentable given that Curie is the recipient of two Nobel Prizes and Einstein of one, comment bizarre. Is the number of Nobel Prizes a scientist receives truly a measure of their significance? I personally think that Lise Meitner is at least as significant as Marie Curie, as a scientist, but, as is well known, she never won a Nobel Prize. Curie did indeed win two, one in physics and one in chemistry but they were both for two different aspects of the same research programme. Einstein only won one, for establishing one of the two great pillars of twentieth-century physics, the quantum theory. He also established the other great pillar, relativity theory, but famously didn’t win a Nobel for having done so. We really shouldn’t measure the significance of scientists’ roles in the evolution of their disciplines by the vagaries of the Nobel awards.



Filed under History of Chemistry, History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science

The Huygens Enigma

The seventeenth century produced a large number of excellent scientific researches and mathematicians in Europe, several of whom have been elevated to the status of giants of science or even gods of science by the writers of the popular history of science. Regular readers of this blog should be aware that I don’t believe in the gods of science, but even I am well aware that not all researches are equal and the contributions of some of them are much greater and more important than those of others, although the progress of science is dependent on the contributions of all the players in the science game. Keeping to the game analogy, one could describe them as playing in different leagues. One thing that has puzzled me for a number of years is what I regard as the Huygens enigma. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens, who was born on the 14 April 1629, was a top premier league player but when those pop history of science writers list their gods they never include him, why not?

Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher, Museum Hofwijck, Voorburg Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher, Museum Hofwijck, Voorburg
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christiaan was the second son of Constantijn Huygens poet, composer, civil servant and diplomat and was thus born into the highest echelons of Dutch society. Sent to university to study law by his father Christiaan received a solid mathematical education from Frans van Schooten, one of the leading mathematicians in Europe and an expert on the new analytical mathematics of Descartes and Fermat. Already as a student Christiaan had contacts to top European intellectuals, including corresponding with Marine Mersenne, who confirmed his mathematical talent to his father. Later in his student life he also studied under the English mathematician John Pell.

Already at the age of twenty-five Christiaan dedicated himself to the scientific life, the family wealth sparing him the problem of having to earn a living. Whilst still a student he established himself as a respected mathematician with an international reputation and would later serve as one of Leibniz’s mathematics teachers. In his first publication at the age of twenty-two Huygens made an important contribution to the then relatively new discipline of probability. In physics Huygens originated what would become Newton’s second law of motion and in a century that saw the development of the concept of force it was Huygens’ work on centripetal force that led Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton to the derivation of the inverse square law of gravity. In fact in Book I of Principia, where Newton develops the physics that he goes on to use for his planetary theory in Book III, he only refers to centripetal force and never to the force of gravity. Huygens contribution to the Newtonian revolution in physics and astronomy was substantial and essential.

In astronomy Christiaan with his brother Constantijn ground their own lenses and constructed their own telescopes. He developed one of the early multiple lens eyepieces that improved astronomical observation immensely and which is still known as a Huygens eyepiece. He established his own reputation as an observational astronomer by discovering Titan the largest moon of Saturn. He also demonstrated that all the peculiar observations made over the years of Saturn since Galileo’s first observations in 1610 could be explained by assuming that Saturn had a system of rings, their appearance varying depending on where Saturn and the Earth were in their respective solar orbits at the time of observations. This discovery was made by theoretical analysis and not, as is often wrongly claimed, because he had a more powerful telescope.

In optics Huygens was, along with Robert Hooke, the co-creator of a wave theory of light, which he used to explain the phenomenon of double refraction in calcite crystals. Unfortunately Newton’s corpuscular theory of light initially won out over Huygens’ wave theory until Young and others confirmed Huygens’ theory in the nineteenth century.

Many people know Huygens best for his contributions to the history of clocks. He developed the first accurate pendulum clocks and was again along with Robert Hooke, who accused him of plagiarism, the developer of the balance spring watch. There were attempts to use his pendulum clocks to determine longitude but they proved not to be reliable enough under open sea conditions.

Huygens’ last book published posthumously, Cosmotheoros, is a speculation about the possibility of alien life in the cosmos.

Huygens made important contributions to many fields of science during the second half of the seventeenth century of which the above is but a brief and inadequate sketch and is the intellectual equal of any other seventeenth century researcher with the possible exceptions of Newton and Kepler but does not enjoy the historical reputation that he so obviously deserve, so why?

I personally think it is because there exists no philosophical system or magnum opus associated with his contributions to the development of science. He work is scattered over a series of relatively low-key publications and he offers no grand philosophical concept to pull his work together. Galileo had his Dialogo and his Discorsi, Descartes his Cartesian philosophy, Newton his Principia and his Opticks. It seems to be regarded as one of the gods of science it is not enough to be a top class premier league player who makes vital contributions across a wide spectrum of disciplines, one also has to have a literary symbol or philosophical methodology attached to ones name to be elevated into the history of science Olympus.

P.S. If you like most English speakers think that his name is pronounced something like Hoi-gens then you are wrong, it being Dutch is nothing like that as you can hear in this splendid Youtube video!


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Newton

Well no, actually he didn’t.

Ethan Siegel has written a reply to my AEON Galileo opinion piece on his Forbes blog. Ethan makes his opinion very clear in the title of his post, Galileo Didn’t Invent Astronomy, But He DID Invent Mechanical Physics! My response is also contained in my title above and no, Galileo did not invent mechanical physics. For a change we’ll start with something positive about Galileo, his inclined plane experiments to determine the laws of fall, the description of which form the bulk of Ethan’s post, are in fact one of the truly great pieces of experimental physics and are what makes Galileo justifiably famous. However the rest of Ethan’s post leaves much to be desired.

Ethan starts off by describing the legendary Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, in which Galileo supposedly dropped two ball of unequal weight of the tower and measured how long they took to fall. The major problem with this is that Galileo almost certainly never did carry out this experiment, however both John Philoponus in the sixth century CE and Simon Stevin in 1586 did so, well before Galileo considered the subject. The laws of fall were also investigated theoretically by the so-called Oxford Calculatores, who developed the mean speed theory, the foundation of the laws of fall, and the Paris Physicists, who represented the results graphically, both in the fourteenth century CE. Galileo knew of the work of John Philoponus, the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists, even using the same graph to represent the laws of fall in his Two New Sciences, as Oresme had used four hundred years earlier. In the sixteenth centuries the Italian mathematician Tartaglia investigated the path of projectiles, publishing the results in his Nova Scientia, his work was partially validated, partially refuted by Galileo. His landsman Benedetti anticipated most of Galileo’s results on the laws of fall. With the exception of Stevin’s work Galileo knew of all this work and built his own researches on it thus rather challenging Ethan’s claim that Galileo invented mechanical physics.

Galileo’s central achievement was to provide empirical proof of the laws of fall with his ingenious ramp experiments but even here there are problems. Galileo’s results are simply too good, not displaying the expected experimental deviations, leading Alexander Koyré, the first great historian of Galileo’s work, to conclude that Galileo never did the experiments at all. The modern consensus is that he did indeed do the experiments but probably massaged his results, a common practice. The second problem is that any set of empirical results requires confirmation by other independent researchers. Mersenne, a great supporter and propagator of Galileo’s physics, complains of the difficulties of reproducing Galileo’s experimental results and it was first Riccioli, who finally succeeded in doing so, publishing the results in 1651.

A small complaint is Ethan’s claim that Galileo’s work on the laws of fall “was the culmination of a lifetime of work”. In fact although Galileo first published his Two New Sciences in 1638 his work on mechanics was carried out early in his life and completed well before he made his telescopic discoveries.

The real problem with Ethan’s post is what follows the quote above, he writes:

…and the equations of motion derived from Newton’s laws are essentially a reformulation of the results of Galileo. Newton indeed stood on the shoulders of giants when he developed the laws of gravitation and mechanics, but the biggest titan of all in the field before him was Galileo, completely independent of what he contributed to astronomy.

This is quite simply wrong. After stating his first two laws of motion in the Principia Newton writes:

The principles I have set forth are accepted by mathematicians and confirmed by experiments of many kinds. By means of the first two laws and the first two corollaries Galileo found that the decent of heavy bodies is the squared ratio of the time that the motion of projectiles occurs in a parabola, as experiment confirms, except insofar as these motion are somewhat retarded by the resistance of the air.

As Bernard Cohen points out, in the introduction to his translation of the Principia from which I have taken the quote, this is wrong because, Galileo certainly did not know Newton’s first law. As to the second law, Galileo would not have known the part about change in momentum in the Newtonian sense, since this concept depends on the concept of mass which was invented by Newton and first made public in the Principia.

I hear Galileo’s fans protesting that Newton’s first law is the law of inertia, which was discovered by Galileo, so he did know it. However Galileo’s version of the law of inertia is flawed, as he believes natural unforced motion to be circular and not linear. In fact Newton takes his first law from Descartes who in turn took it from Isaac Beeckman. Newton’s Principia, or at least his investigation leading up to it, are in fact heavily indebted to the work of Descartes rather than that of Galileo and Descartes in turn owes his greatest debts in physics to the works of Beeckman and Stevin and not Galileo.

An interesting consequence of Newton’s false attribution to Galileo in the quote above is that it shows that Newton had almost certainly never read Galileo’s masterpiece and only knew of it through hearsay. Galileo’s laws of fall are only minimally present in the Principia and then only mentioned in passing as asides, whereas the parabola law occurs quite frequently whenever Newton is resolving forces in orbits but then only as Galileo has shown.

One small irony remains in Ethan’s post. He loves to plaster his efforts with lots of pictures and diagrams and videos. This post does the same and includes a standard physics textbook diagram showing the force vectors of a heavy body sliding down an inclined plane. You can search Galileo’s work in vain for a similar diagram but you will find an almost identical one in the work of Simon Stevin, who worked on physical mechanics independently of and earlier than Galileo. Galileo made some very important contributions to the development of mechanical physics but he certainly didn’t invent the discipline.


Filed under History of Mathematics, History of Physics, Myths of Science, Newton

A bit on the side

Galileo by Justus Sustermans/Wikipedia

Galileo by Justus Sustermans/Wikipedia

For those of my readers who don’t follow me on Twitter or Facebook I have indulged in my favourite pastime, slagging of Galileo Galilei, but this time in an opinion piece in the online science journal AEON. If you’ve already read my old Galileo post Extracting the stopper, this is just a shorter punchier version of the same. If not or if you want to read the updated sexy version then mosey on over to AEON and read Galileo’s reputation is more hyperbole than truth.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

The Reformation, Astrology, and Mathematics in Schools and Universities.

It is one of the ironies of the medieval universities that mathematics played almost no role in undergraduate education. It is ironical because the curriculum was nominally based on the seven liberal arts of which the mathematical sciences – arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy – formed one half, the quadrivium. Although the quadrivium was officially a large part of the curriculum in reality the four mathematical disciplines were paid little attention and hardly taught at all. This only began to change in the fifteenth century with the rise of astro-medicine or iatromathematics, to give it its formal name. With the rise of this astrology-based medicine the humanist universities of Northern Italy and Kraków introduced chairs of mathematics to teach astrology to their students of medicine. This of course entailed first teaching mathematics and then astronomy in order to be able to do astrology and thus mathematics gained a first foothold in the European universities. Ingolstadt became the first German university to introduce a chair for mathematics, also for teaching astrology to medical students, in the 1470s. It became an important centre for seeding new chairs at other universities with its graduates. Stabius and Stiborius going from there to Vienna with Celtis, for example. However there was no systematic introduction of mathematics into the university curriculum as of yet, this would first come as a result of the Reformation and the educational reforms of Philip Melanchthon.

Melanchthon in 1526: engraving by Albrecht Dürer Translation of Latin caption: «Dürer was able to draw Philip’s face, but the learned hand could not paint his spirit». Source: Wikimedia Commons

Melanchthon in 1526: engraving by Albrecht Dürer Translation of Latin caption: «Dürer was able to draw Philip’s face, but the learned hand could not paint his spirit».
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Melanchthon was born Philip Schwartzerdt in Bretten near Karlsruhe on 16 February 1497. A great nephew of Johann Reuchlin a leading humanist scholar Philip changed his name to Melanchthon, a literal Greek translation of his German name, which means black earth, at Reuchlin’s suggestion. Melanchthon was a child prodigy who would grow up to be Germany’s greatest humanist scholar. He studied at Heidelberg University where he was denied his master degree in 1512 on account of his youth. He transferred to Tübingen where he came under the influence of Johannes Stöffler, one of those Ingolstadt graduates, a leading and highly influential mathematician/astrologer.

Johannes Stöffler Source Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Stöffler
Source Wikimedia Commons

The cosmograph Sebastian Münster was another of Stöffler’s famous pupils. Stöffler also has a great influence on several of the Nürnberger mathematician-astronomers, especial Johannes Schöner and Georg Hartmann. Under Stöffler’s influence Melanchthon became a passionate supporter of astrology.

On Reuchlin’s recommendation Melanchthon became professor of Greek at Luther’s University of Wittenberg at the age of twenty-one and thus a central figure in the Reformation. One of the major problems faced by the reformers was the fact that the education system was totally in the hands of the Catholic Church, which meant that they had to start from scratch and create their own school and university system; this task was taken on by Melanchthon, who became Luther’s Preceptor Germania, Germany’s Schoolmaster.

Because of his own personal passion for astrology Melanchthon introduced mathematics into the curriculum of all the Lutheran schools and universities. He invented a new type of school on a level between the old Church Latin schools and the universities that were devised to prepare their pupils for a university education. The very first of these was the Eigidien Oberschule in Nürnberg, which opened in 1526 with Johannes Schöner, as its first professor for mathematics.


These type of school created by Melanchthon would become the Gymnasium, still today the highest level secondary schools in the German education system.

In Wittenberg he appointed Johannes Volmar (1480-1536) professor for the higher mathematic, music and astronomy, and Jakob Milich (1501- 1559) professor for the lower mathematic, arithmetic and geometry, in 1525. Their most famous students were Erasmus Reinhold, who followed Volmar on the chair for higher mathematics when he died in 1536, and Georg Joachim Rheticus, who followed Milich on the chair for lower mathematics, in the same year when Milich became professor for medicine. Schöner, Reinhold and Rheticus were not the only mathematicians supported by Melanchthon, who played an important role in the dissemination of the heliocentric astronomy. Although following Melanchthon’s lead these Protestant mathematicians treated the heliocentric hypothesis in a purely instrumentalist manner, i.e. it is not true but is mathematically useful, they taught it in their university courses alongside the geocentric astronomy.

As a result of Melanchthon’s passion for astrology the Lutheran Protestant schools and universities of Europe all had departments for the study of mathematics headed by qualified professors. The Catholic schools and universities would have to wait until the end of the sixteenth century before Christoph Clavius did the same for them, although his motivation was not astrology. Sadly Anglican England lagged well behind the continent with Oxford first appointing professors for geometry and astronomy in the 1620s at the bequest of Henry Savile, who had had to go abroad to receive his own mathematical education. Cambridge only followed suit with the establishment of the Lucasian Chair in 1663, whose first occupant was Isaac Barrow followed by that other Isaac, Newton. In 1705 John Arbuthnot could still complain in an essay that there was not one single school in England that taught mathematics.





Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of science, Renaissance Science, University History