For those who haven’t been paying attention

Galileo Galilei was found guilty and sentenced by the Inquisition on 22 June 1633; as usual this anniversary has produced a flurry of activity on the Internet much of it unfortunately ill informed. This is just a very brief note for all those who haven’t being paying attention.

The crime of which Galileo was found guilty was “vehement suspicion of heresy” and not heresy. This might appear to some to be splitting hairs but within the theological jurisdiction of the Catholic Church the difference is a highly significant one. Had the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy then a death sentence would have followed almost automatically. As they only found him guilty of the lesser charge “vehement suspicion of heresy” it was possible for him to be sentenced to life in prison commuted the next day to house arrest.

And please Richard Coles, and anybody else stupid enough to quote it, the claim that he said Eppur si muove (and yet it moves) upon being sentenced is almost certainty a myth.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

The Renaissance Mathematicus Road Show 2015


At an ungodly hour next Wednesday morning I shall climb into the belly of the big metal bird and fly across the ocean of Athlant to the land of dreams, sunshine and water shortages, California. Why I’m leaving the seclusion and safety of my monk’s cell in Middle Franconia to visit the Bay Area will first be revealed in full upon my return. That is not the purpose of this post.

I shall be very busy over the weekend from 26 to 28 June, and no I don’t have tickets for Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara (sadly), but having taken a 9000 km and 9 hour flight upon myself I thought I’d hang around for a few days in the San Francisco area. If any of the readers of this blog, (are there any readers of this blog?) would like to meet up for a chat, drink (no alcohol), meal, walk or whatever I shall be freely available for such activities from Monday 29 June to Thursday 2 July and would be pleased to meet you, whoever you are. I love meeting my blog and Twitter friends in the flesh and all such meetings over the last six years or so have been both pleasant and stimulating.

If you are in the Bay Area that week and would like to meet up just drop me a line per email, in the comments or on Twitter and we can work something out. I have no fixed commitments over those four days so I’m very flexible.


Filed under Autobiographical

Three strikes and you’re out!

Recently on Twitter I stumbled across the cartoon entitled An Age-Old Argument, reproduced below. It’s not the first time I’ve come across it, as it’s one of those things that does the rounds of the social media sites at regular intervals. This time it was tweeted by Calestous Juma (@calestous) who describes himself as a Harvard Kennedy School Professor working on science & innovation for development. In his tweet he asked for, ‪”Any‪ more examples of such arguments? scientific evidence”. It had been retweeted by @AnneGlover_EU , that is Anne Glover Former Chief Scientific Adviser to Jose Manuel Barroso 2012-2014. These are obviously both people who, when it comes to science, could be expected to know what they are talking about. However it becomes clear that when one analyses the cartoon, which they are boosting that this is not the case.

An age-old argument

As you can see the cartoon has four panels of which the first three supposedly depict episodes from the history of science where ignorant people ignored scientific evidence in the same way as denialists do now in the climate debate. Juma and Glover, like many others, obviously think that the cartoonist has scored three home runs in his historical depictions. However as anyone knowledgeable of the history of science can see what we have here are three hoary old myths of science leading to three strikes and an out. Put differently, people like Juma and Glover should not be spreading ignorant and misleading rubbish as this.

Our first panel has the people in the Middle Ages believing that the earth was flat and refusing to believe that it’s a sphere. This is probably the most widespread and stupid myth in the whole history of science. Since antiquity nobody in Europe qualified to express an opinion on the subject believed that the earth was anything but a sphere. The claim that Europeans in the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat is a baseless myth created in the nineteenth century. So no homerun, strike one!

To be quite honest the second panel baffles me as it depicts something that never ever took place anywhere at anytime. Gravity is a term used since antiquity to describe the fact that if you let something drop it falls to the ground. Nobody ever challenged this purely descriptive term. In the late seventeenth century Isaac Newton demonstrated that the same force that causes things on earth to fall to the ground also prevents orbiting planets from shooting off at a tangent to their orbits, as the law of inertia would require, thus creating the idea of universal gravity. On the whole those capable of understanding Newton’s mathematical theories accepted them but the Cartesians and the Leibnizians objected to Newton’s inability to explain just what exactly the force of gravity was or should be. Their mechanical philosophical understanding of nature making them suspicious of Newton’s action at a distance. This scientific debate took place in the eighteenth century not the seventeenth and never included any denial of the phenomenon of gravity. So no homerun, strike two!

We now turn to the one panel that some people might consider depicts historical reality. We have a man in the nineteenth century rejecting the theory of evolution on the basis of religion. Images of the infamous Oxford debate, between Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, and Samuel, ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, spring instantly to mind. Unfortunately we have to do with another modern myth. There was no significant religious objection to the theory of evolution during the nineteenth century. I realise here that I’m stepping outside of my historical comfort zone (nineteenth century, life sciences!) and some might challenge my competence to make such a claim. However I offer as substantiation a couple of blog posts by historian and philosopher of biology, and Renaissance Mathematicus friend, John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts, herehere and here that explain the subject. So no homerun, strike three and out!

I do wish scientist and science communicators who wish to promote scientific thinking against the denialists and their ilk would desist from spreading and propagating rubbishy myths of science, as history of science.


Filed under Myths of Science

Now We Are Six.

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,

I was nearly new.

When I was Three

I was hardly me.

When I was Four,

I was not much more.

When I was Five,

I was just alive.

But now I am Six,

I’m as clever as clever,

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever[1].

Pooh Sticks E H Shepard

Pooh Sticks E H Shepard

The Renaissance Mathematicus emerged in cyberspace on 11 June 2009 with the post Who Am I and Why Am I Here? Since then I have celebrated each anniversary with a special post for the occasion. If you click on the links in the numbers in A. A. Milne’s splendid little poem above, you will be taken to the post for the respective year. As is my wont I see such occasions as a time to reflect upon the blog and what it means to me to write it. Today I want to consider what the most important thing that writing this blog has brought me, apart from teaching me how to write at all, and that is membership of a worldwide history of science community.

When I first became interested in the history of mathematics, as a teenager, finding people with whom I could share my enthusiasm was virtually impossible, a situation that didn’t change appreciably as I grew older. This didn’t stop me from boring friends and acquaintances with, in my opinion, exciting tales of Archimedes, Isaac Newton and George Boole on all possible occasions. Finally in the 1980s, as a mature student in Germany, I became part of a small circle of lecturers, professors and fellow students who shared my interests in and enthusiasm for the histories of mathematics, science, technology and medicine, whilst at the same time serving my apprenticeship as a historian in a research project into the history of mathematical logic. In the 1990s I left the university because of health issue and lost my history of science discussion circle for many years returning to history of science isolation.

In 2002, on the occasion of my professor’s sixty-fifth birthday I returned to university circles and found history of science discussion partners, some old, some new. I also became involved in a history of astronomy group in Nürnberg. I’m still involved with the latter but it is very small and very specialised. My contract group at the university gradually dissolved. People moved away, others retired and again I found myself drifting into isolation.

Things first began to change as I entered the Internet and discovered web sites dealing with various aspects of the history of science and really took off when I began to blog myself. Over the last six years through this blog and my activities managing On Giants’ Shoulders the monthly history of science blog carnival, my presence on Twitter and in the last year as editor of the weekly #histSTM links list Whewell’s Gazette I have become a fully integrated member of a literally world spanning network of historians of science, technology, mathematics, medicine, cartography, alchemy, astrology etc. etc. Professionals and amateurs, professors and lecturers, students, postgrads and postdocs, passionate addicts like myself and people with a casual or even passing interest all are present and all are more than welcome. I can sit at my control centre, my trusty iMac, and whilst I drink my early morning tea communicate with the other members of this wonderful network in India, Australia, North and South America, Africa and all the countries of Europe. Whilst totally isolated in my small flat in Middle Franconia I am more connected to the world of #histSTM than I have ever been, in a way that I could not have begun to imagine thirty years ago.

The Internet #histSTM community is my extended family and I own all of its members more than I can ever repay. I won’t name names otherwise this will become my longest post ever but I will say thank you to each and everyone of you and I hope we will share many more anniversaries here at the Renaissance Mathematicus.

[1] A. A. Milne, Now We Are Six, Methuen, 1927


Filed under Autobiographical

Creating a holy cow.

Whenever I think that the deification of Ada Lovelace can’t get anymore ridiculous somebody comes along and ups the ante. The latest idiocy was posted on Twitter by the comedian Stephen Fry (of whom I’m a big fan!). Mr Fry tweeted:

Ada Lovelace & Alan Turing for the next £20 note! Nominate here [link removed] Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. [my emphasis]

My comments will only concern Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, although the comment I have highlighted also has issues when applied to Alan Turing.

Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. Let us briefly examine the prejudice that the Countess of Lovelace, née Byron, suffered. Born into the English aristocracy she unfortunately lost her “mad, bad and dangerous to know” father at the tender age of one month. However her mother’s family were extremely wealthy, the main reason Byron who was destitute had married her, and so Ada lacked for nothing throughout her childhood. It should be also pointed out that her mother enjoyed a very high social status, despite her disastrous marriage.

She was, as a young women, tutored and mentored by the elite of the scientific community in Victorian London, including Charles Babbage, Augustus De Morgan, Sir Charles Wheatstone and Mary Somerville, all of whom helped and encouraged her in her scientific studies. She married the wealthy Baron William King who was soon elevated to Earl of Lovelace and who also supported her scientific endeavours without any restrictions. Somehow I fail to see to what the term prejudice could possibly be referring. Rich, pampered and supported by the very elite of London’s scientific community doesn’t sound like prejudice to me.

It was Wheatstone who suggested that she translate the Menabrea memoire on the Analytical Engine in emulation of her mentor Mary Somerville’s translation of Laplace, a far greater and much more complex work. So there is no suggestion of the pioneer here. Somerville herself was just one of several women, albeit the greatest, who wrote works popularizing the mathematical sciences in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. So Ada was in no way a pioneer but rather following the crowd.

It might be argued that her notations to the memoire qualify her as a pioneer, however I remain firmly convinced that the notes were very much a Babbage-Lovelace co-production with Babbage providing the content and Lovelace the turns of phrase. At best she was a scientific journalist or communicator. The pioneer was Babbage. There is strong evidence to support this interpretation, which gets swept under the carpet by the acolytes of the Cult of the Holy Saint Ada.

I shall be writing a longer post on one central aspect of the cult’s mythologizing later in the summer so stayed tuned.

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Filed under History of Computing, Myths of Science

A twelve-year flash of genius

Last week the Observer had an article celebrating the 250th anniversary of James Watt’s invention of the separate condenser steam engine, James Watt and the sabbath stroll that created the industrial revolution, that manages to perpetuate a whole series of myths about the history of science and technology despite being based on genuine historical facts. The title alone made not only myself, but also numerous others, cringe for two different reasons the second of which, concerning the Industrial Revolution, I will elucidate later. First of all I shall analyse a very crass form of the flash of genius myth that forms the central theme of the article.

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819) by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819)
by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what is the flash of genius that Robin McKie, Science Editor of The Observe, presents to us here? Let him tell us in his own words:

In 1765, Watt – then an instrument-maker based at Glasgow University – was working on a Newcomen pump, a state-of-the-art device in which steam pushed a piston through a cylinder. Water was then sprayed into the cylinder, cooling it and causing the steam to condense, creating a vacuum behind the piston that sucked it back into its original position. More steam was pumped in and the piston was pushed forward again. It was a very powerful process but also a very inefficient one. Constantly heating and then cooling the engine’s huge cylinder required huge amounts of heat and coal. Steam engines like these had only limited usefulness. Then Watt set off on his walk. When he was halfway across the green, the idea of a separate condenser came into his mind. Such a device would, he realised, create a vacuum that would help suck in the engine’s piston but still allow its main cylinder to operate at a constant temperature.

What is the source for this astounding story? In fact it is to be found in Watt’s own reminiscences. Let us examine the original:

I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon. I had entered the Green by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street – had passed the old washing-house. I was thinking about the engine at the time and had gone as far as the Herd’s house when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might there condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the Golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.[1]

So there we have it, a genuine example of the decried and much derided by grumpy old historians of science and technology, such as myself, flash of genius. It exists or does it? What McKie neglects to mention but which Uglow supplies in great detail is the long, complex and convoluted back-story that led up to this insight and the struggles that followed it.

In 1757, a full eight years before that Sabbath stroll, James Watt was established in Glasgow as a maker and repairer of scientific and musical instruments, a trade that he had travelled to London to learn. He had been approached by John Robinson, who had the visionary idea of carriages driven by steam-power and who wanted Watt to build him a model of one. At this point in his life Watt admits he was totally ignorant on the subject but intrigued by Robinson’s idea he plunged into a study of all he could find concerning the work of those early steam pioneers Papin, Savery, and Newcomen after his first attempt to construct a steam-engine had failed dismally. At this point in his life Watt had never actually seen a working steam engine but fate intervened. In the summer of 1757 Watt was appointed Mathematical Instrument Maker at the University of Glasgow. Over the years Watt continued his researches into steam power, which I won’t go into detail here, and in 1760 Watt’s friend Professor Anderson commissioned Watt to bring the University’s defective demonstration model Newcomen steam-engine into working order. It was the chronic inefficiency of this machine that spurred Watt into trying to develop a better more efficient steam-engine. Efforts that would finally lead to his ‘spontaneous’ revelation on that Sabbath afternoon in 1765!

What we have here is in no way a flash of genius but the end result of eight full years of hard work, a case of the solution to a problem finally appearing in “the prepared mind,” to quote Louis Pasteur.

Watt’s insight was however not really the solution to his problem but the outline of a path that would lead him to that solution. McKie hints at this with the half sentence, “Four years later, he patented the condenser…” McKie had previous informed us the Watt had very quickly made a model of his idea…

Watt's first model condenser. Science Museum London Source Wikimedia Commons

Watt’s first model condenser. Science Museum London
Source Wikimedia Commons

…but what he doesn’t tell us is that turning that model into a real functioning steam-engine turned out to be fraught with problem that would occupy all of Watt’s ingenuity for the next four years and therefor the gap between insight and patent. What seemed at first to be a moment in time that revolutionised the steam engine has now turned into twelve years of research, experimentation and very hard work. Not quite the picture that McKie presents us with in his article. In fact it would 1776 before Watt’s endeavours would finally flower in the installation of the first Boulton-Watt steam-engine almost twenty years after he first began his investigations in steam power. Not quite the instant revolution McKie seems to want to propagate.

McKie’s article contains an equally problematic myth in the second half of the sentence quoted in the previous paragraph, “…and triggered the industrial revolution”. We have now arrived at the second myth contained in the article’s title.

There is a cosy little myth much loved in Britain that the Industrial Revolution equals steam power and steam power equals James Watt therefore James Watt equals the Industrial Revolutions. In a slightly more sophisticated form this is what McKie is serving up here. In whatever form it gets served up, it is of course, viewed historically, total rubbish. I’m not going to produce a complete historical analysis of the contributory factors that formed the Industrial Revolution in a blog post but it suffices to state that they were many and varied forming a complex matrix of forces driving this revolution onwards. Watt’s improvements to the steam-engine constitute only one of those factors. In fact the Industrial Revolution was in full swing well before Boulton & Watt brought their first steam-engine onto the market. If it hadn’t been then Watt might never have found the financial and technical help that he needed to realise his ‘flash of genius’.

One central aspect of the Industrial Revolution was a radical new approach to production. Home piecework and small-scale artisanal workshops were replaced by large-scale central manufactories organised on mass production schemes. Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory constructed in 1761 was one of the leaders of this movement.

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773 Source: Wikimedia Commons

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was Boulton, who required more power to drive his manufactory, who provided the finance and the engineering expertise Watt needed to finally produce his improved steam-engine. At best it can be confidently claimed that the Boulton & Watt steam-engine accelerated the progress of the Industrial Revolution; it didn’t create it as McKie claims.

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commos

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commos

Even worse, as has been pointed out by various people on the Internet and in letters replying to McKie’s article, Boulton & Watt both through their market dominance and through their skilful legal manipulation of deliberately vaguely worded patents prevented or delayed several important developments in the Industrial Revolution, functioning as a brake to progress rather than a promoter. The most famous example was Watt’s opposition to the high-pressure steam-engine, ironically necessary in order to power the steam carriages that triggered Watt’s initial interest in steam power, which almost certainly set back the introduction of the railways by several decades.

What we have here is a classical example of a journalist reducing complex historical context to over simplified journalese, thereby creating or perpetuating myths rather than transmitting useful historical information.

[1] Recounted by JW in 1817 to the Glasgow engineer Robert Hunt: Reminiscences of James Watt, Transactions of Glasgow Archaeological Society, 1859 in Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men, faber and faber, 2002, PB, p. 101


Filed under History of Technology, Myths of Science

On the trail of the Friends of Charles Darwin

This week I was on an expedition to the very edges of civilisation in the wilds of Northern England. On Tuesday I took a local stagecoach to Hebden Bridge, the fabled home of that legendary tribe, The Friends of Charles Darwin.

Hebden Bridge Stagecoach Fare Invoice

Hebden Bridge Stagecoach Fare Invoice

Upon arrival I was challenged by the irate leader of the tribe Richard the Carter,

An irate Richard the Carter

An irate Richard the Carter

who thought I was there to steal his crop of buttercups.

His buttercup crop

His buttercup crop

However I managed to placate him and convince him that my intentions were entirely peaceful. He invited me in for a cup of the strange local brew, Yorkshire Tea and we conversed intensely on a wide range on topics.

When I left he displayed his friendly side, wishing me well on my further travels.

A placated tribal leader

A placated tribal leader

It is possible to become an honorary member of this exotic British tribe just by filling out the Internet membership form.


Filed under Autobiographical