In history getting labels right is important

This is a post about history in general but it applies just as much to the history of science. I have over the years written several posts about the problems of attributing nationalities or even countries of origins to historical figures and this post discusses another example of this, where the attributions are about ahistorical as you can get. What is it this time that has piqued my ire? It was the title of an article in The Guardian that contains historical attributions that are ahistorical, anachronistic and quite frankly xenophobic.

Did Dutch hordes kill off the early Britons who started Stonehenge?

Strong words, strong claims, so what is wrong with this title? The article is about the spread into Britain from the continent of the so-called Beaker folk, a European wide Neolithic-Bronze Age culture that existed from around 2900 BCE to 1800 BCE. Archaeologists and prehistorians define cultures through characteristic behaviours or artefacts. The Beaker culture is so named because of the habit of burying their dead with distinctive ceramic pots or beakers. This cultural group moved into Britain around 2500 BCE and the article claims that DNA analysis has shown that the previous inhabitants disappear out of the genetic record to be replaced by the newcomers. All well and good so what’s my beef?

First off, the title suggests that the original population were killed off by invading Europeans but the previous population were, like the Beaker people, themselves European immigrants, as had and have been all of the inhabitants of the British Isles. It is not known when exactly the Neolithic culture that started building Stonehenge arrived in Britain but they were with certainty not Britons! One moment there! If they are living in Britain they are Britons, right? Wrong!

The name Britons for inhabitants of this island derives from the reports of the fourth-century Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia (that’s Marseille). Pytheas supposedly circumnavigated the island and referred to its inhabitants as Pretani and the island as Prettanikē; these are the origins of the words Briton and Britain. The words he is using are thought to be transliterations into Greek of the names used by the inhabitants that Pytheas met, who are not even Beaker people but members of a later wave of immigrants the Celts. We don’t have a name for the Neolithic folk who started building Stonehenge but they were not Britons.

We have the same problem with the Beaker people being called Dutch in the title. There were settlements of the Beaker people all over Europe but they thought to have originated in what is now Spain. The group that crossed the Channel onto the British Island are said by the historical geneticists to have come from what is now the Northern Netherlands but that in no way makes them Dutch.

The Dutch are, like the English, a Low German dialect speaking Germanic folk. They originated in what is today Southern Scandinavia and Northern Germany and because of climate change moved southwards into the Netherlands between 850 and 750 BCE so once again long after the Beaker culture had died out.

What we actually have is one wave of immigrants from the European continent being supplanted by another wave of immigrants from the European continent. The former are not Britons and the latter are not Dutch and to claim that they were, is a massive historical distortion and has, as I said at the beginning a strong stench of xenophobia. The British Isles has on and off, since about 42,000 years BP (before the present), been occupied by successive waves of immigrants from the European continent the last being the Normans, a Norse culture residing in France, in 1066 CE.

Almost all areas in the world have similar histories of habitation and historians or people writing historical articles should be very, very careful when attaching labels to peoples or geographical areas in their writings.

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Perpetuating the myths addendum – ‘The Copernican Shock

Frequent Renaissance Mathematicus commentator (comment-writer, commenter, commentor), Phillip Helbig, sent me an interesting email in response to my previous blog post. In skewering the Nadlers’ comic book I didn’t actually comment on every single detail of everything that was wrong with it, one of the things I left out was Galileo saying:

It is not the center of the cosmos it is a planet just like the others and they all orbit the sun.

As Phillip correctly pointed out in the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian geocentric model of the cosmos the Earth was not viewed as the centre of the cosmos but rather as the bottom. I wrote a brief post long ago quoting a wonderful passage by Otto von Guericke, the inventor of the vacuum pump on exactly this topic:

Since, however, almost everyone has been of the conviction that the earth is immobile since it is a heavy body, the dregs, as it were, of the universe and for this reason situated in the middle or the lowest region of the heaven

Otto von Guericke; The New (So-Called) Magdeburg Experiments of Otto von Guericke, trans. with pref. by Margaret Glover Foley Ames. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Boston/London, 1994, pp. 15 – 16. (my emphasis)

Phillip then asks, “So what was the “shock” of the Copernican Revolution (how many even get that pun?)?  Was it demoting humanity from the centre of the universe, or promoting the Earth to be on par with the other heavenly bodies?”

Before I answer his question I would point out that the idea that Copernicus had demoted the Earth from the centre of the cosmos first emerged much later, sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, as an explanation for the supposed irrational rejection of the heliocentric hypothesis. Of course as is now well known, or at least should be, the initial rejection of the heliocentric hypothesis was not irrational but was based on solid common sense and the available empirical scientific evidence nearly all of which spoke against it. For a lot, but by no means all, of the astronomical arguments read Chris Graney’s excellent Setting Aside All Authority.

So back to Phillip’s question, what was the real Copernican shock? The answer is as simple as it is surprising, there wasn’t one. The acknowledgement and acceptance of the heliocentric hypothesis was so gradual and spread out over such a long period of time that it caused almost no waves at all.

First up, there was nothing very new in Copernicus suggesting a heliocentric cosmos. As should be well known it had already been proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in the third century BCE and Ptolemaeus’ Syntaxis Mathematiké (Almagest) contains a long section detailing the counter arguments to it, which were well known to all renaissance and medieval astronomers. Also in the centuries prior to Copernicus various scholars such as Nicholas of Cusa had extensively discussed both geocentric models with diurnal rotation and full heliocentric ones. All that was new with Copernicus was an extensive mathematical model for a heliocentric cosmos.

At first this was greeted with some enthusiasm as a purely hypothetical model with the hope that it would deliver better predictions of the heavenly movements than the geocentric models for use in astrology, cartography, navigation etc. However it soon became apparent that Copernicus was not really any better than the older models, as it was based on the same inaccurate and oft corrupted data as Ptolemaeus, so the interest waned, although it was these inaccuracies in both model that inspired Tycho Brahe to undertake his very extensive programme of new astronomical observations on which Kepler would base his models.

As Robert Westman pointed out, in a now legendary footnote, between the publication of De revolutionibus in 1543 and 1600 there were only ten people in the whole world, who accepted Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmology, not exactly earth shattering. Even after 1600 the acceptance of a heliocentric worldview only increased very slowly and in gradual increments as the evidence for it accumulated.

The first two factors are the work of Kepler and the early telescopic discoveries. Because Kepler couldn’t or rather didn’t deal with the physical problems of a moving earth his work initially fell on deaf ears. The early telescopic discoveries only refuted a pure Ptolemaic geocentric model but were consistent with a Tychonic geo-heliocentric one and as this had a stationary earth, it became the model of choice. Of interest, and I think up till now not adequately explained, a Tychonic model with diurnal rotation, i.e. a spinning earth, became the preferred variation. A partial step in the right direction. Kepler’s publication of the Rudolphine Tables in 1627 led to an acceptance of his elliptical astronomy at least for calculations if not cosmologically. Then Cassini, with the help of Riccioli, demonstrated with a heliometer in the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna that the sun’s orbit around the earth or the earth’s orbit around the sun was indeed a Keplerian ellipse, but couldn’t determine which of the two possibilities was the right one. Another partial step in the right direction.

Both Kepler’s first and third laws, solidly empirical, were now accepted but his second law still caused problems. Around 1670 Nicholas Mercator provided a new solid proof of Kepler’s second law and it is about then that the majority of European astronomers finally accepted heliocentricity, although it was Kepler’s elliptical astronomy and not Copernicus’ model; the two models were regarded as competitors; also there was still a distinct lack of empirical proof for a heliocentric cosmos.

The developments in physics over the seventeenth century combined with the discovery of the physical reality of the atmosphere and Newton’s gravitation law finally solved the problems of why, if the earth is moving various disasters don’t occur: high winds, atmosphere blowing away etc., all of those arguments already listed by Ptolemaeus. The final empirical proofs of the annual orbit, Bradley and stellar aberration in 1727, and diurnal rotation, measuring the shape of the earth, around 1750, were delivered in the eighteenth century.

As can been seen by this very brief outline of the acceptance and confirmation of heliocentrism it was a process that took nearly two hundred years and proceeded in small increments so there was never anything that could possibly be described as a shock. As already stated above the concept that the ‘Copernican Revolution’ caused consternation or was a shock is a myth created sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century to explain something that never took place. One might even call it fake news!

Addendum: A lot of the themes touched on here are dealt with in greater detail in my The transition to heliocentricity: The Rough Guides series of blog posts

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Perpetuating the myths

Since the re-emergence of science in Europe in the High Middle Ages down to the present the relationship between science and religion has been a very complex and multifaceted one that cannot be reduced to a simple formula or a handful of clichés. Many of the practitioners, who produced that science, were themselves active servants of their respective churches and many of their colleagues, whilst not clerics, were devoted believers and deeply religious. On they other had there were those within the various church communities, who were deeply suspicious of or even openly hostile to the newly won scientific knowledge that they saw as a threat to their beliefs. Over the centuries positions changed constantly and oft radically and any historian, who wishes to investigate and understand that relationship at any particular time or in any given period needs to tread very carefully and above all not to approach their research with any preconceived conclusions or laden down with personal prejudices in one direction or another.

In the nineteenth century just such preconceived conclusions based on prejudice became dominant in the study of the history of science propagated by the publications of the English-American chemist John William Draper and his colleague the American historian and educator Andrew Dickson White. These two scholar propagated what is now know as the Conflict or Draper-White Thesis, which claims that throughout history the forces of science and religion have been in permanent conflict or even war with each other. Draper wrote in his provocatively titled, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.

In 1876 in his equally provocative The Warfare of Science, White wrote:

In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science—and invariably. And, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed, for the time, to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good of religion and of science.

Twenty years later White ramped up the heat in his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

Draper’s and White’s polemics became widely accepted and Galileo, Darwin and other figures out of the history of science came to be regarded as martyrs of science, persecuted by the bigoted forces of religion.

Throughout the twentieth century historians of science have striven to undo the damage done by the Draper-White thesis and return the history of the relationship between science and religion to the complex and multifaceted reality with which I introduced this post. They were not helped in recent decades by the emergence of the so-called New Atheists and the ill considered and unfortunately often historically ignorant anti-religious polemics spewed out by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, supposedly in the name of freedom of thought. I have, although a life-long atheist myself, on more than one occasion taken up arms, on this blog, against the sweeping anti-religious generalisations with respect to the history of science spouted by the new atheist hordes.

So it was with more than slight sense of despair that I read the preview in The Atlantic of

A Graphic Novel About 17th-Century Philosophy with the title Heretics!

This is described by its publishers the Princeton University Press as follows:

An entertaining, enlightening, and humorous graphic narrative of the dangerous thinkers who laid the foundation of modern thought

The Atlantic’s review/preview confirmed my darkest suspicions. We get informed:

Dark spots across the sun, men burned at the stake, an all-powerful church that brooks no idea outside its dogma—there is no subject so imbued with drama, intrigue, and fast-paced action as 17th-century Western philosophy. And thus no medium does it justice like the graphic novel.

No, really.

Heretics!, a graphic novel by Steven and Ben Nadler, introduces readers to what is arguably the most interesting, important, and consequential period in the history of Western philosophy. While respecting recent scholarship on 17th-century thought, [my emphasis] the Nadlers sought to make these stories and ideas as accessible and engaging to as broad an audience as possible without condescension. At times, this called for some historical liberties and anachronism. (Full disclosure: there were no laptop computers or iPods in the 17th century.)

We are back in Draper-White territory with a vengeance! The last thing that the Nadlers do is to respect recent scholarship, in fact they turn the clock back a long way, deliberately avoiding all the work done by modern historians of science.

The sample chapter provided by The Atlantic starts with Giordano Bruno, who else, much loved as a martyr for science by the new atheist hordes.

Source: The Atlantic

We see here that, as usual, Bruno’s cosmology is featured large, whilst his theological views are tucked away in the corner. Just two comments, Bruno was by no stretch of the imagination a scientist, read this wonderful essay by Tim O’Neill if you don’t believe me, and his “highly unorthodox” theological views included denial of the trinity, denial of Jesus’ divinity and denial of the virgin birth any one of which would have got him a free roasting courtesy of the Catholic Church if he had never written a single word about cosmology.

Up next, prime witness for the prosecution, who else but our old friend Galileo Galilei. We get the hoary old cliché of him throwing rocks off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which he almost certainly never did.

We now move on to Galileo the astronomer,

Source: The Atlantic

who having made his telescopic discoveries claims that, “Copernicus was right.”

Source: The Atlantic

Know what, in 1615 Galileo was very careful not to claim that because he knew that it was a claim that he couldn’t back up. What he did do, which brought him into conflict with the Church was to suggest that the Church should change its interpretations of the Bible, definitely not on for a mere mathematician in the middle of the Counter Reformation and for which he got, not unsurprisingly, rapped over the knuckles. In 1616 Pope Paul V did not condemn Copernicus’s theory as heresy, in fact no pope ever did.

We then have Galileo sulking in his room and he isgoing to show them! In fact Galileo courted the Catholic Church and was a favourite of the papal court in Rome; he received official permission from Pope Urban VIII to write his Diologo. I’m not going to go into the very complex detail as to why this backfired but a couple of short comments are necessary here. At that time the heliocentric theory did not do a much better job of explain the phenomena in the heavens and on earth. Galileo’s book is strong on polemic and weak on actual proofs. Also, and I get tired of pointing this out, Galileo was not condemned as a heretic but found guilty of grave suspicion of heresy. There is a massive legal difference between the two charges. Paying attention to the fine detail is what makes for a good historian. We close, of course with the classic cliché, “And yet the earth moves.” No, he didn’t say that!

Source: The Atlantic

We then get a comic book description of the differences between the philosophies of Aristotle and Descartes that unsurprisingly doesn’t do either of them justice. All of this is of course only a lead up to the fact that Descartes decided not to publish his early work explicating his philosophy including his belief in heliocentricity, Traité du monde et de la lumière, on hearing of Galileo’s trial and punishment. This is dealt with by the Nadlers with a piece of slapstick humour, “Zut alors! I don’t want to get into trouble too!” Has anybody ever actually heard a Frenchman say “Zut alors!”?

Source: The Atlantic

This episode in intellectual history is actually of great interest because as far as is known Descartes is the only author in the seventeenth century who withdrew a book from publication because of the Pope’s edict against teaching heliocentricity. He appears to have done so not out of fear for his own safety but out of respect for his Jesuit teachers, whom he did not wish to embarrass. This was rather strange as other Jesuits and students of Jesuit academies wrote and published books on heliocentrism merely prefacing them with the disclaimer that the Holy Mother Church in its wisdom has correctly condemned this theory but it’s still quite fun to play with it hypothetically. The Church rarely complained and appearances were maintained.

This very superficial and historically highly inaccurate comic book in no way does justice to its subject but will do a lot of damage to the efforts of historians of science to present an accurate and balanced picture of the complex historical relationship between science and religion.

For anybody who is interested in the real story I recommend John Hadley Brooke’s classic Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (1991) and Peter Harrison’s, soon to be equally classic, The Territories of Science and Religion (2015). On reading The Atlantic review/preview Peter Harrison tweeted the following:

Oh dear…. Not the optimal format for communicating the complexities of history – Peter Harrison (@uqharri)

James Ungureanu another expert on the relations between science, religion and culture also tweeted his despair on reading The Atlantic review/preview:

When I saw this earlier, I died a little. It must be right because it’s funny! – James C Ungureanu (@JamesCUngureanu)

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Bringing the heavens down to earth

The Frisian Protestant pastor and amateur astronomer, David Fabricius, was beaten to death by one of his parishioners on 7 May 1617. Because he corresponded with both Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and was quite a significant figure in Early Modern astronomy the Society for the History of Astronomy had a short post on Facebook commemorating his death on last Sunday, which contained the following claim:

David Fabricius was, following Galileo’s lead, one of the early users of the telescope in astronomy[1]

This claim contains two factual errors. The first is that it was Johannes, David’s son, who introduced the telescope into the Fabricius household and not David, although David soon joined his son in his telescopic observations. I’ll explain further later.

The Fabricii, father and son, remain largely unknown to the world at large but a monument to them both was erected in the churchyard in Osteel, where David had been village pastor, in 1895.

The second error is more serious because it indirectly perpetuates a widespread myth concerning the introduction of the telescope into astronomy and Galileo’s role in it. There is a popular perception that Galileo, and only Galileo, had the genius, the wit, the vision to realise that the newly invented telescope could be used as an astronomical instrument and that he singlehandedly pioneered this new discipline, telescopic astronomy. This is of course complete rubbish and seriously distorts the early history of the telescope in astronomy and does a major disservice to all of the others who contributed to that early history. I will admit to having done a small fist pump when I read the following in John Heilbron’s Galileo biography:

The transformation of the Dutch gadget into an instrument powerful to discover novelties in the heavens did not require a Galileo. His unique strength lay in interpreting what he saw.[2]

That the telescope could be used as an astronomical instrument was recognised during its very first public demonstration by its inventor, the German/Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lipperhey, which took place at the court of Prince Maurice of Nassau in Den Haag during the Dutch-Spanish Peace Conference on an unknown day between 25 and 29 September 1608. We have a detailed account of this demonstration from a French flyer or newsletter describing the first visit of the Ambassador of Siam to Europe, the Ambassador being present at the demonstration. Through this flyer the news of the new invention spread rapidly throughout Europe. Amongst the other descriptions of the wonderful abilities of this “…device by means of which all things at a very great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses…” we can read the following:

The said glasses are very useful at sieges & in similar affairs, because one can distinguish from a mile’s distance & beyond several objects very well, as if they are near & even the stars which normally are not visible for us, because of the scanty proportion and feeble sight of our eyes, can be seen with this instrument. [my emphasis]

The first astronomer to build and use a telescope as an astronomical instrument was Thomas Harriot, who drew a sketch of the moon using a telescope on 26 July 1609 before Galileo even had a telescope.

Thomas Harriot’s 1609 telescopic sketch of the moon

This of course raises the question where Harriot obtained his knowledge of this instrument. In the early phase of the telescopes existence it became a common habit to present heads of state and other worthies telescopes as presents. In England James I (VI of Scotland) was presented with one at the end of an elaborate masque created for the occasion by Ben Jonson, the Renaissance playwright. The telescope was obtained from the United Provinces through the offices of Cornelis Drebbel, the Dutch inventor and scholar, who was employed at James’ court. This telescope was probably Harriot’s, who enjoyed good connections to court circles, introduction to the instrument.

Portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Oriel College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Harriot did not observe alone. In London he observed together with his instrument maker Christopher Tooke in London, whilst Harriot’s pupil the landowner and MP, Sir William Lower observed in Wales, together with his neighbour John Prydderch, with a telescope made by Harriot and Tooke. Each pair took turns in observing comparing their results and then Harriot and Lower compared results by letter. This meant that they could be reasonably certain that what they had observed was real and not some optical artefacts produced by the poor quality of the lenses they were using. So here we have four telescopic astronomical observers independent of Galileo’s activities.

In Franconia Simon Marius also built and used telescopes in 1609, at the time unaware of the similar activities of Galileo in Padua. As I have written in another blog post Marius discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter just one day later and independently of Galileo. Marius also made the first telescopic observations of the Andromeda Nebula, significant because the Andromeda Nebula would later become the first galaxy to be recognised as a galaxy outside of our galaxy.

Simon Marius frontispiece from his Mundus Jovialis

Another telescopic pioneer in Southern Germany was the Jesuit astronomer in Ingolstadt, Christoph Scheiner, who famously became embroiled in a dispute with Galileo over who had first observed sunspots with a telescope and what exactly they were.

Christoph Scheinet (artist unknown)

The dispute was rather pointless, as Harriot had actually observed sunspots earlier than both of them and Johannes Fabricius, to whom we will turn next, had already published a report on his sunspot observations unknown to the two adversaries. Christoph Scheiner and his assistant, another Jesuit astronomer, Johann Baptist Cysat, would go on to make several important contributions to telescopic astronomy.

Johann Baptist Cysat, holding a Jacob’s staff

Johannes Fabricius brought his telescope home from the University of Leiden, where he had almost certainly learnt of this instrument through the lectures of Rudolph Snel van Royan, professor of mathematics and father of the better know Willibrord Snel of Snell’s law of refraction fame. Rudolph Snel van Royan was probably the first university professor to lecture on the telescope as a scientific instrument already in 1610.

Rudolph Snel van Royan
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is also known that Cort Aslakssøn and Christian Longomontanus acquired lenses and built their own telescopes in the first couple of years of telescopic astronomy in Copenhagen, but unfortunately I haven’t, until now, been able to find any more details of activities in this direction. If any of my readers could direct me to any literature on the subject I would be very grateful.

Christian Severin known as Longomontanus

Turning to Italy we find the astronomers on the Collegio Romano under the watchful eye of Christoph Clavius making telescopic astronomical observations before Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius in 1610, using a Dutch telescope sent to Odo van Maelcote by one of his earlier students Peter Scholier. Grégoire de Saint-Vincent would later claim that he and Odo van Maelcote were probably the very first astronomers to observe Saturn using a telescope. It was the astronomers of the Collegio Romano, most notably Giovanni Paolo Lembo and Christoph Grienberger, who would then go on to provide the very necessary independent confirmation of the discoveries that Galileo had published in the Sidereus Nuncius.

As can be seen Galileo was anything but the singlehanded pioneer of telescopic astronomy in those early months and years of the discipline. What is interesting is that those working within the discipline were not isolated lone warriors but a linked network, who exchanged letter and publications with each other.

Some of the connections that existed between the early telescopic astronomers are listed here: Harriot had corresponded extensively with Kepler and was very well informed about what Tycho and the other continental astronomers were up to. David Fabricius corresponded with Kepler and Tycho and even visited Tycho in Prague but unfortunately didn’t meet Kepler on his visit. Johannes would later take up correspondence with Kepler. Tycho corresponded with Magini in Bologna who passed on his news to both Galileo and Clavius. Clavius was also very well informed of all that was going on in European astronomy by the Jesuit network. Almost all of the Jesuit astronomers were students of his. Marius corresponded with Kepler, who published many of his astronomical discoveries before he did, and with David Fabricius, whom he had got to know when he visited Tycho in Prague to study astronomy. Longomontanus had earlier been Tycho’s chief assistant and corresponded with Kepler after he left Prague to return to Copenhagen. Interestingly another of Tycho’s assistants, Johannes Eriksen, visited both David Fabricius in Friesland and Thomas Harriot in London on the same journey.

What we have here is not Galileo Galilei as singlehanded pioneer of telescopic astronomy but a loosely knit European community of telescopic astronomers who all recognised and utilised the potential of this new instrument shortly after it appeared. They would soon be joined by others, in this case mostly motivated by Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, a few of them even supplied with telescopes out of Galileo’s own workshop. However what is very important to note is that although Galileo was without doubt the best telescopic observer of that first generation and certainly won the publication race, all of the discoveries that he made were also made independently and contemporaneously by others, so nothing would have been lost if he had never taken an interest in the spyglass from Holland.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Because I pointed out the errors contained in this claim in a comment, it has now been removed from the Facebook post!

[2] J. L. Heilbron, Galileo, OUP, 2010, p. 151

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One line to rule them all

A standard concept in the modern politico-military terminology is that of mission creep. This describes the, in the last sixty or seventy years often observed, phenomenon of a military intervention by a dominant power that starts with a so-called police action with a couple of hundred combatants and then within a couple of years grows to a full scale military operation involving thousands of troops and the expenditure of sums of money with an eye watering large number of zeros at the end. Famous examples of mission creep were the Americans in Viet Nam and the Russians in Afghanistan. In fact since the Second World War the American have become world champions in mission creep.

As a historian I, and I strongly suspect virtually all of my historian colleagues, experience a form of mission creep in every field of study to which I turn my attention. In fact the progress of my entire career as a historian of science has been one massive example of mission creep. It all started, at the age of sixteen, when I first learned that Isaac Newton was the (co)discoverer/inventor[1] of the calculus that I so loved at school. (Yes, I know that makes me sound a little bit strange but there’s no accounting for taste). This of course set me off on the trail of the whole history of mathematics, but that is not what I want to talk about here; let us stick with Newton. At some point I started to wonder why Newton, whom I saw as very much the theoretical mathematician and physicist, should have invented a telescope. This set me on the trail of the entire history of the telescope and because the telescope is an optical instrument, with time, the history of optics, not just in the early modern period but backwards through time into the European Middle Ages, the Islamic Empire and Antiquity. Of course Newton is most well known as physicist and astronomer and at some point I started investigating the pre-history of his work in astronomy. This eventually led me back to the Renaissance astronomers, not just Copernicus but all those whose work provided the foundations for Copernicus’s own work.

At some point it became very clear to me that to talk of Renaissance astronomers was in some sense a misnomer because those who pursued the study of astronomy in this time did so within a discipline that encompassed not just astronomy but also astrology, cartography (with a large chunk of geography and history in the mix), navigation, surveying, geodesy as well as the mathematical knowledge necessary to do all of these things. These were not separate disciplines as we see them now but different facets of one discipline. Over the years my studies have expanded to cover all of these facets and one into which I have delved very deeply is the history of cartography with the associated history of surveying. All of this is a rather longwinded explanation of why I have been reading Charles Withers’ new book Zero Degrees[2]

 

This book describes the history of how the Greenwich Meridian became the Prime Meridian.

A brief explanation for those who are not really clear what a meridian is; a meridian (or line of longitude) is any ‘straight’ line on the globe of the of the earth connecting the North Pole with the South Pole, where here straight means taking the shortest path between the two poles, as a meridian is by nature curved because it lies on the surface of the globe. Meridians are by their very nature arbitrary, abstract and non-real. We can chose to put a meridian wherever we like, they are an artificial construct and not naturally given. The Prime Meridian is a singular, unique, universally accepted meridian from which all other meridians (lines of longitude) are measured. The recognition of the necessity for a Prime Meridian is a fairly recent one in human history and Withers’ book deals with the history of the period between that recognition in the Early Modern Period to the realisation of a Prime Meridian at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The first thing that Withers made me aware of is that a meridian is not a singular object but one that has at least four separate functions and at least two different realisations. Meridians are used for navigation, for time determination, for cartography and for astronomy. The latter is because astronomers project our latitude and longitude coordinate system out into space in order to map the heavens. Nothing says that one has to use the same meridians for each of these activities and for much of the period of history covered by Withers people didn’t.

On the realisation of meridians Withers distinguishes two geographical and observed. The majority of meridians in use before the late seventeenth century were geographical. What does this mean? It meant that somebody simply said that they make their measurements or calculations from an imaginary line, the meridian, through some given geographical point on the surface of the earth. Ptolemaeus to whom we own our longitude and latitude coordinate system, although he had predecessors in antiquity, used the Azores as his zero meridian although he didn’t know with any real accuracy where exactly the Azores lay. Also the Azores is a scattered island group and he doesn’t specify exactly where within this island group his zero meridian ran. We have a lovely example of the confusion caused by this inaccuracy. On 4 May 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter caetera, which granted the Crowns of Castile and Aragon all the lands to the west and south of a meridian 100 leagues and south of the Azores or the Cape Verde islands.

This led to a whole series of treaties and papal bulls carving up the globe between Spain (Castile and Aragon) and Portugal. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas moved the line to a meridian 370 leagues west of the Portuguese Cape Verde islands now explicitly giving Portugal all new discoveries east of this meridian. I’m not going to go into all the gory details but this led to all sorts of problems because nobody actually knew where exactly this meridian or its anti-meridian on the other side of the globe lay. Ownership disputes in the Pacific between Spain and Portugal were pre-programmed. These are classical examples of geographical meridians.

The Cantino planisphere of 1502 shows the line of the Treaty of Tordesillas.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first observed meridian in the Early Modern Period was the Paris Meridian surveyed by Jean-Félix Picard in the 1660s. Such meridians are called observed because their exact position on the globe is determined astronomically using a transit telescope.

In the Early Modern Period there was no consensus as to which meridian should be used for which purpose and on the whole each country used its own zero meridian. I fact it was not unusual for several different zero meridians to be used for different purposes or even the same purpose, with one country. For geographers, cartographers and navigators crossing borders chaos ruled. The awareness that a single Prime Meridian would be beneficial for all already existed in the seventeenth century but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that serious moves were made to solve the problem.

The discussion were long and very complicated and involved scientific, political and pragmatic considerations, which often clashed with each other. On the political level nationalism, of course, raised its ugly head. Surprisingly, at least for me, there was also a very heated discussion as to whether the Prime Meridian should be a geographical or an observed meridian. I personally can discern no reasons in favour of a geographical Prime Meridian but various participants in the discussions could. Another problem was one or more Prime Meridians? Separate ones for cartography, navigation, astronomy and time determination.

Withers deals with all of these topics in great detail and very lucidly in his excellent summery of all of the discussions leading up to the International Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884, which forms the climax of his book.

The delegates to the International Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is a truly fascinating piece of the history of science and in Withers it has found a more than worthy narrator and I recommend his book whole-heartedly for anybody who might be interested in the topic. Very important is his penultimate chapter Washington’s Afterlife. Every year in October people in the Internet announce that on this day in 1884 (I can’t be bothered to look up the exact date) the Greenwich Meridian became the world’s Prime Meridian and every year my #histsci soul sisterTM Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt (who played a significant role in the genesis of Withers’ book, as can be read in the acknowledgements) announces no it didn’t, the resolutions reached in Washington were non-binding. In fact the acceptance of Greenwich as the Prime Meridian took quite some time after the Washington Conference, some even accepting it initial only for some but not all the four functions sketched above. France, whose Paris Meridian was the main contender against Greenwich, only finally accepted Greenwich as the Prime Meridian in 1912.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles about Withers’ book. In the preface he outlines the structure of the book saying what takes place in each section. He repeats this in greater detail in the introduction. Then he starts each chapter with a synopsis of the chapter’s contents, often repeating what he has already said in the introduction, and closes the chapter with a summary of its contents. It was for this reader a little bit too much repetition. My second quibble concerns the illustrations and tables of which there are a fairly large number in the book. These are all basically black and white but are in fact printed black on a sort of pastel grey. I assume that the book designer thinks this makes them somehow artistically more attractive but I personally found that it makes it more difficult to determine the details, particularly on the many maps that are reproduced. Whatever I wouldn’t let these rather personal minor points interfere with my genuine whole-hearted recommendation.

[1] Chose the word that best fits your personal philosophy of mathematics

[2] Charles W. J. Withers, Zero Degrees: Geographies of the Prime Meridian, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, London England, 2017

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The problem with superlatives

I have on several occasions in the past written about the problems of the use of certain superlative terms in presentations of the history of science, in particular in popular ones, such as first, father of, founder of and the greatest, as they only lead to a distortion of what really happens in the historical evolution of the scientific disciplines.

The term the greatest reared its ugly head again last week in the form of a tweet by Professor Frank McDonough (@FXMC1957) (historian).

18 April 1955. Albert Einstein (aged 76) died. He was arguably the greatest scientist who ever lived.

If Einstein is arguably the greatest scientist who ever lived, it raises the question, who his competitors might possibly be for this obviously coveted accolade. A typical discussion would almost certainly immediately throw up the names Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and Archimedes, going backwards in time. This almost canonical list, including of course Einstein, throws up a whole series of problems.

For me personally the first problem is that the list almost never includes Johannes Kepler, although any serious and unbiased comparison of their achievements, and they were contemporaries, would show quite clearly that Kepler actually contributed significantly more to the evolution of the sciences than Galileo. However for various reasons Kepler lacks the historical nimbus that Galileo has acquired down the centuries.

The second problem is that one is not actually comparing like with like. The mathematician and maths historian Eric Temple bell, whose book Men of Mathematics ignited my interest in the history of mathematics as a teenager, asked the question, “who was the greatest mathematician of all times?” He came up with a list of three names Archimedes, Isaac Newton and Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss (Gauss was also an extraordinary polymath who made important and significant contributions to astronomy, geodesy, cartography, optics, mechanics and, and…, so why isn’t he ever on the greatest scientist lists?). Bell then argued that it was impossible to say, which of the three was the greatest in terms of their mathematical achievements but Archimedes was operating on a much smaller basis of pre-existing knowledge so his achievements should be judged as greater.

Bell’s argument has a certain historical validity and makes us very much aware of the problems and dangers of trying to compare the achievements of practitioners of science across the depths of time. Galileo’s achievements can only be judged against the background of the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth, Newton’s against the background of the late seventeenth, when the situation in physics and astronomy was very different to that at the beginning of the century. Both of them are separated by a vast gulf in time from Archimedes and although the gap between Newton and Einstein is smaller the difference in background situations is immense. In the end we can only really compare a given scientist with his contemporaries.

Another problem that the canonical list immediately calls to attention is that all four of our candidates are basically mathematical physicists, which displays a strong bias against all the other scientific disciplines. This bias has existed for a very long time and is one of the things that current historians of science try to combat. For a very long time the history of science was seen principally as the history of the exact sciences i.e. mathematics, astronomy and physics. All other disciplines tended to be treaded as somehow secondary. Also the philosophy of science tended to be defined as the philosophy of physics. Returning to our list and its built in bias, not a few life scientists on reading it would say, quite correctly, what about Charles Darwin? Is not the discovery of the principle of evolution equal or even superior to anything discovered by the physicists or the astronomers? Having opened that can of worms somebody might put in a vote for Watson and Crick, after all Matthew Cobb’s excellent book on the discovery of the structure of DNA is titled, Life’s Greatest Secret! Oh dear that nasty superlative has crept in again.

At this point the chemists, who always get left out of such discussions, could well chime in with claims for Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, Humphry Davy, Justus von Liebig and of course Marie Curie (after all she got two Nobels whereas Albert only got one!). Having brought up Humphry Davy a self taught, brilliant scientist, one should immediately think of his famous assistant and successor, the equally self taught, Michael Faraday; now there is a serious candidate for the greatest.

Another problem with this form of historical deification of scientists, the greatest, is that it fosters and perpetuates the myth of the lone genius. Returning to Einstein, undoubtedly an incredibly productive physicist, who contributed substantially to two of the biggest fields in twentieth century physics, his work built on the work of many, many others and contributions were made to the development of his own major discoveries, Relativity and Quantum Theory, by a fairly large group of other mathematicians, physicists and astronomers. No scientist exists in a vacuum but is part of a collective endeavour pushing forward the boundaries of their discipline. Historians of science should not concern themselves with the irrelevant and uninformative question, who’s the greatest, but should rather try to embed individuals into the context in which they did their work and the nexus of others who contributed to that work and those effected by it in their own efforts. Context is everything could well be the motto of this blog.

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Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

The Man from Nowhere

This post has nothing to do with the history of science, so if you come here just for that, you don’t need to read this.

I just had an exchange on the Internet with an acquaintance, who knows that I’m British (at least according to my passport) but had forgotten that I live in Germany. He suggested I would pay for something in pounds sterling and I pointed out that it would be Euro for me. His response was that many of us live away from home: he’s an Irishman who lives in America. This exchange reminded me of a post that I started to write but never finished and inspired me to finish it.

Recently the UK’s prime minister Theresa May said, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world you’re a citizen of nowhere”. My immediate response, as a nominal British citizen, was the title of this post, because I have, I think, every reason to consider myself a citizen of the world. I will explain.

My father’s family were lowland Scots but he was born and brought up in London, although his parents made sure that he stayed in touch with his Scottish roots. My mother’s family were Northern Irish protestants but she was born in Rangoon in Burma, a third generation colonialist in British India, and spent the first thirty plus years of her life living in Burma and Northern India. Her family were tea planters. My brother, the eldest child of the family, was born in Lahore, at the time part of India today in Pakistan. My eldest sister was, like my mother, born in Rangoon, in fact in the same hospital. My father served in the Royal Indian Army during WWII, which is how he met my mother. She was the matron of the hospital where he was treated for malaria. After the war he became a civil servant and they settled down to life in India. However in 47/48, with independence they moved back to Britain, to Derbyshire. My younger sister was born in Buxton. In 1951 they moved to North-East Essex and I, for my sins, was born in Clacton-on Sea, although my parents lived in an agricultural village about seven miles inland, where I spent the first fifteen years of my life.

I then spent two years at boarding school in Colchester, Britain’s oldest city (or so they claim); living in central London in the school holidays. Having been thrown out of my boarding school, thank god, I spent one year living in central London and going to school in Holland Park. Having acquired a ropy set of A-levels I trundled off to Cardiff in Wales, which would be my main base for the next ten years. Whilst based in Cardiff I had periods of living in Brussels in Belgium and in Malmö in Southern Sweden. I have now lived in Middle Franconia in Southern Germany for thirty-seven years. Are you still paying attention at the back there?

I have a younger half sister (we share a father), who like her mother is Dutch, although her mother was born in Java and spent a substantial part of her childhood in a Japanese concentration camp. My half sister also has three mother tongues having grown up in England, Holland and Columbia. My step mother (not my half-sister’s mother), who is an fantastic lady and one of my best friends, is English but spent part of her childhood in the Middle East and as a young woman married an Indian and lived in Northern India for several years. Expelled from Burma following the war my mother’s family all moved to Western Australia where they thrived and prospered. I sometimes have the feeling that I’m related to half of the population of Perth. My brother’s daughter, my eldest niece, married an American, who she met in Munich when they were both working for Siemens, and now lives in Florida with her two charming American daughters.

I have lived in five different European countries – England, Wales (and don’t make the mistake of thinking England and Wales are the same country), Belgium, Sweden and Germany. Although I was born there, I was always regarded as an incomer in the conservative, rural, North-East Essex community where I grew up and after my mother died, when I was fifteen, I became effectively rootless, a vagabond whose home was wherever his bed was. In later life I have found a home in Middle Franconia, Erlangen is my Heimat, a German word, which is not really translatable; it means much more than simply home. However my true home for the last ten years has been the Internet and the readers of my blogs, the people I follow on social media and who follow me and the people I communicate with through comment columns and email come literally from all over the world. A day in which I converse with people from Australia, India, North and South America and half the countries of Europe is a normal day in my current life.

Although I now call Erlangen my Heimat, I still identify with North-East Essex where I grew up and first found my way in the world. I identify with the London of the late 1960s where I discovered sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. I identify with Cardiff and the ten years of my life that did most to shape the person that I am today. I identify with Brussels where I learnt for the first time what it means to live is a foreign culture, although I had a strong inkling of this from my time working with Welsh language theatre companies. I identify with Malmö, where I discovered both the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of science and for the first time set myself the aim of becoming a historian and philosopher of science; an aim of which this blog is the end product. Being a historian of the subjects has also taught me that the evolution of mathematics, science, medicine and technology has never respected national, cultural, religious or language boundaries. I am drawn to Asia not only because it is where my mother came from but also because my father was a lecturer for art and archaeology of South-East Asia and I grew up as much on anecdotes of lands such as Viet Nam and Indonesia as any tales of European countries.

I am a historian of astronomy and all those who have looked up to the stars, rather than down to their feet, have always been awed by the vastness of space. On a cosmic scale we cling to the surface of a very small lump of rock, circling a comparatively small star, on the edge of a not particularly big galaxy of which there are a couple of zillion out there. For me national boundaries, counties, continents and whatever dividing lines people think up, and they are all of them artificial constructs, have very little substantive meaning. I am a citizen of the world and if that makes me a nowhere man then it’s a label that I wear with pride.

Theresa May’s comment, which sparked this mild tirade, has the stench of the parochial, racist tinged, xenophobia that is so typical of a certain strain of English thought. It is something that my truly cosmopolitan parents made me aware of, and also warned me about, from a very early age. It is an aspect of English society that I detest and reject with all my heart. My parent taught me to embrace the world and they taught me well. In my youth I was for many years first a Cub and then a Boy Scout, it was one of the few social activities for children in the village where I grew up. One of the Scout laws is (was?), ‘a scout is a brother to every other scout, no mater to what country, class or creed the other may belong’. I have tried to live by an extended version of that law, ‘a human is a sibling to every other human, no mater to what country, class or creed the other may belong. We’s all just humans baby!

 

 

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