The Superior Stamp Collector

Today is John Flamsteed’s birthday; the man who would go on to become the first ever Astronomer Royal of England was born on this day in 1646. Like many of his contemporaries he was a self taught astronomer and actually earned his living as an ordained Anglican priest. However his work as an astronomer was impressive enough that when Charles II was persuaded to build a Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675 Flamsteed was chosen to be its first master. An indication of Charles’ somewhat ambiguous attitude to science is that although he paid for the building, designed by none less than Christopher Wren not only Britain’s leading architect but also a significant astronomer, he failed to supply any instruments; Flamsteed was forced to pay for the necessary equipment out of his own pocket.


Portrait of John Flamsteed by Thomas Gibson Source: Wikimedia Commons

Flamsteed was an excellent astronomer who made many contributions to the development of the science but his fame rest on two things. Firstly he was the first astronomer to recognise that two comets from 1681 and 1682 were in fact one and the same comet on its way to and returning from circling the sun a claim that Isaac Newton, to whom he communicated it, at first rejected but later accepted and which became one of the fundamental insights on which he constructed his universal theory of gravity. Flamsteed’s other great achievement was a celestial atlas which contained a star catalogue of 3000 stars measured to a, for that time, unbelievable level of accuracy, using the latest in telescope and micrometer technology. This star catalogue was to become a serious bone of contention between Newton and Flamsteed.

Newton needed the most actual and accurate data that was available to try and solve the problem of the moon’s orbit, something that he never achieved, and the person who had this data was Flamsteed. Newton put Flamsteed under pressure and Flamsteed was less than co-operative, which led to both of them developing an aversion for the other. Now Newton was not a good person to have as an antagonist as Hook had learnt to his cost and Leibniz would learn in the future. In his exasperation at what he saw as Flamsteed’s deliberate sabotage of his work he persuaded the Queen to appoint a board of controllers for the Royal Observatory with himself as chairman then proceeded to confiscate the manuscript of Flamsteed’s star catalogue. Having obtained the manuscript Newton had it published under the editorship of Edmund Halley. This last act added salt to Flamsteed’s wounds as he was a deeply religious man who regarded Halley as the devil incarnate because of his irreligious behaviour. His hatred of Halley went so far that he refused to use his name only referring to him as Reymers. Nicolai Reymers Baer, known by his Latin name of Ursus, was a 16th century German astronomer who had been accused of having stolen Tycho Brahe’s geocentric-heliocentric model of the solar system and was Tycho’s most hated enemy. Flamsteed venerated Brahe who he regarded as the greatest observational astronomer of all time, excluding himself of course, so his use of the name Reymers for Halley was an expression of his deep loathing. Flamsteed fought back and using his own political connections succeeded in having all of the copies of this ‘pirate’ edition of his star catalogue impounded and destroyed making him one of the few people to best Newton.

This very famous dispute in the history of science is usually presented as a clash of two very strong willed men, which it undoubtedly was, however it was also the clash of two opposing epistemologies, which is encapsulated in Rutherford’s famous bon mot*, “Physics is the only real science. The rest is just stamp-collecting.” Now Newton is the physicist in this case, in fact he is the man who first really developed that which most people understand when they talk about the scientific method. 1) One develops a hypothesis to explain a given set of seemingly related phenomena. 2) One deduces logically consequences of this hypothesis. 3) One tests the deduced conclusions against empirical facts. 4) If the hypothesis survives the testing one adopts it as a scientific theory. Opposed to this Flamsteed was a Baconian, i.e. one of Rutherford’s stamp collectors, his epistemology required the researcher to collect empirical data without forming any hypotheses or theories, first when the data collection is complete or at least far enough developed then the explanatory theories will crystallise out of the data of their own accord. This concept of knowledge is what led Bacon to reject the work of Copernicus and Gilbert amongst others because he was convinced that their ideas were theory and not data led. Flamsteed was a convinced Baconian who regarded Newton’s ‘misuse’ of his incomplete data to test his ‘unfounded’ theories as a form of intellectual rape.

Flamsteed’s finished celestial atlas, his Historia Coelestis Britannica, was first published by his wife in 1725 six years after his death His wife also extracted a subtle revenge on the scientific establishment by removing all of his instruments from the Royal Observatory, you will remember that he had paid for them out of his own pocket, leaving his successor with an empty building.

* If you go here you can read an interesting post by John S. Wilkins on this quote, which includes a long note by myself on the topic somewhere in the comments.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Newton

5 responses to “The Superior Stamp Collector

  1. The Newton-Flamsteed debate was also a big issue in the development of nineteenth-century philosophy of science (especially in Britain). The British at the time had a pretty high set of ethical standards for the behavior of scientists (much, much higher than we do), and had often pointed to Newton as their exemplar, so when new information was published in Baily’s Account of Flamsteed that wasn’t favorable to Newton, it was quite the scandal. As Rigaud, an Oxonian astronomer, indignantly wrote to Whewell, “If Newton’s character is lowered, so is the character of England, and the cause of Religion is injured”! Whewell ended up writing a work, Newton and Flamsteed, to try to put Newton back in a good light and defend the position that good scientific theorizing requires a good moral character against the charge that Newton had acted badly. Baily responded with a Supplement to the Account that defended Flamsteed against the charge that he had acted as he did because he hadn’t understood the importance of Newton’s theory, and Whewell replied in a note in the History of the Inductive Sciences. And, of course, there were much less visible disputes over the matter in various reviews. A fascinating sort of argument, in which the historical event became caught up in the struggle to understand what science itself was.

    • Joe

      That is quite interesting indeed. Nowadays, such a back-and-forth argument would occur on an internet forum. People even today fail to see that the theory and data are more important than egos.

  2. Pingback: Return of the stamp collector « The Renaissance Mathematicus

  3. Pingback: A Boring Century? | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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