A man with a strange name.

In 1597 the young mathematics teacher in Graz, Johannes Kepler, wrote to a friend that he had received a letter from an Italian with a very strange name; in fact his forename was exactly the same as his family name. The letter was from the Paduan professor of mathematics Galileo Galilei, or in the Latin in which he wrote to Kepler, Galileus Galileus, who was born on the 15th of February 1564. In his letter Galileo thanked Kepler for his book, Mysterium Cosmographicum a strange Renaissance piece of Platonic Pythagorean mathematical mysticism that however revealed its author to be a very good mathematical astronomer, and declared himself to be a secret admirer of the theories of Copernicus. This letter has led to a very common myth in the popular history of science.

Kepler a young unknown mathematician had published his book, his first, in 1596 and like many first authors had tried to win himself a reputation in that he sent gratis copies of his book to the leading experts throughout Europe, amongst others the Imperial Mathematicus in Prague, Nicolai Reymers Baer called Ursus, Tycho Brahe in Hven and according to the myth the famous Galileo Galilei in Padua. The first two addressees are correct and in fact would cause Kepler much stress as the two astronomers were mortal enemies however he never sent a copy to Galileo because he had never heard of him, which was not surprising as Galileo was completely unknown outside of Northern Italy at this point of his life. So how could Galileo send him the letter, mentioned above, thanking him for the book?

Shortly after the publication of his book one of Kepler’s friends was setting out on a journey to Rome and just before he left Kepler gave him two copies of his book asking him to give them to anybody he met on his travels who might be interested in them.  Kepler’s friend went off to Rome and having completed his business set off back to Austria. On the return journey he had reached Padua when he suddenly remembered Kepler’s book. Hurrying to the local university he found the professor for mathematics and pressed both copies into his hands briefly explaining their provenance. The professor quickly skimmed the introduction and dashed off the letter to the author mentioned above. Neither professor nor author had ever heard of the other before and so Kepler’s amusement over the Latin rendition of Galileo’s name.

Kepler immediately wrote a long gushing reply and so tried to initiate what might have become one of the most important correspondences in the history of science. I say tried because Galileo never replied to Kepler’s letter. In fact it would be 1610 before Kepler, in the meantime Imperial Mathematicus and most important mathematician in Europe, heard from the Paduan professor again; Galileo wrote to Kepler seeking his support for his Sidereus Nuncius. Kepler did not disappoint and wrote a long equally gushing letter of support, which Galileo published in Venice without the author’s permission but again did not answer. In books on the history of science you will often see references to the Galileo Kepler correspondence but this should be regarded with a dose of healthy scepticism because a correspondence in the conventional meaning of the term between these two giants of science of the early modern period hardly exists.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science

21 responses to “A man with a strange name.

  1. Galileo was completely unknown in Europe in 1597? Not quite: his father Vincenzo had been active working for some years in music theory, revising the notation systems of Hucbald and Aretino with Erycius Puteanus c.1600, see Hope, Mediaeval Music: An Historical Sketch ISBN 978-1-40868-650-8. Puteanus is the classic definer of the Brussels Sevens integral in the layout of the Grand’Place.
    BUT, Kepler was in Graz, in Austria, under the Austrian Hapsburg Rudolph II, and so at political and alchemical odds with the Brussels school. He most likely would not therefore have been aware of the other work. Interestingly enough, Vincenzo and Puteanus’ work was rounded off by Athanasius Kircher some years later, who was appointed Kepler’s successor as Imperial Mathematicus in 1633, but suffered a journey worthy of Jonah getting there: he was reassigned to the Vatican while en route, never got to hear of it, but was shipwrecked off Rome en route. He arrived in town to find he was at the right place at the right time, without instructions…

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  3. I rather like this ‘letter’ addressed to leading members of the church and printed in 1588.

    “The Empitome is not yet published but it shall be
    when the bishops are at convenient Leasure to
    view the same. In the mean time let them
    be content with this learned epistle

    Printed overseas in Europe within two furlongs
    of a Bouncing Priest at the cost and charges
    Of M. Marprelate, gentleman”

    Marprelate tract ‘Epistle’ 1588

  4. jeb

    No but a nice connection. The rehtoric of the Welsh preachers and the rhetorical tradition of the British stage do seem to be related to each other. The preachers style was used as an exempla of good practise for the declamatory style.

    The material surrounding the Marprelete tracts may have some bearing in these matters. It’s relationship with both stage and comedy is well drawn. The Death of Doctor Jonathan Swift gives a nice example of the way in which this form of material was distibuted in print first and then oraly.

    This type of material may also have been used
    in the teaching of the art of rhetoric, which would have formed part of what the dancing master taught to young Gentlemen and ladies of the period along with manners etc. and also the lesser sorts who would also require such training to tackle life on the restoration stage I suspect.

    The above material from the epistle has more dramatic effect spoken than written, it scans rather well. As indeed does Swifts poem.

    Which is certianly still used by teachers in such arts.

    The teacher of manners has a long relationship with the theatre.

    • Go look at the history of the Martin Marprelete publications again, you’ll see the connection then.
      I’d hate to have to say when the teaching of Rhetoric started, as Boethius’ references to the use of the trivium/quadrivium structure point loosely in the direction of an unbroken derivation from the time of Cicero.
      To fill in the gap for new readers, Rhetoric was one of the three subjects of the Trivium, the secondary-level education orm of the period running up to the late sixteenth century, when sufficient questions started to arise as to create a century of pure doubt before scientific method as we know it starts to be developed properly.
      And for those interested, Rahere was educated at Alleyns’.

  5. jeb

    I should have also included scholars into the above remark as this is a period when the “winning deportment” of the gentleman is crucial in establishing the qualifications, authority and credibility of a scholar.

    I would be tempted to turn to Aristotle for an answer to that one.

    • Or John Dee?
      The credibility of the Scholar depended on his independent wealth, as I think I pointed out elsewhere: this shows, for instance, in the low status accorded to Robert Hooke in the Royal Society, for all that he was the pragmatic technician who got all the experiments to work. However, there are any number of exceptions, not least that of Peter Abelard, the guy who put the Universal into University, and his followers: the entire history of the early University of Paris is riddled with battles between the students and the town, and much the same thing has been said of most Universities ever since,and they were not exactly blindly devoted to the Church doctrine of Aristotle – and in a framework of the influences on Rome, Plato too is important. In a tighter context to the period in question, you could certainly make a contrary argument that the University of Oxford was, from the Reformation up to the First World War, even more conservative than my Victorine baseline, which takes some doing.
      Don’t forget the close parallels between higher education and the Guild structures, either – the higher you get, the more exposed to the status quo you become.

  6. Yes. The notion of wealth and patronage was noted by one historian Ive come across particulary with regard to how such scholars communicate with noble patrons.

    But yes their are going to be many exeptions. So many different contexts and vairiables that to present a static model and set of fixed rules is not going to go very far. As it will have no flexibility and their for no real world application.

    I relate manners to a specific context in the Late 17th cen. James Frasers treatise on second sight and prophecy, based in large part on the growing interest in optic’s. Dee may have formed part of the background to that. Not sure, I have no idea if Dee’s work in this area was taught at Glasgow University when Fraser studied there.

    Frasers work is clearly part of a wider project involving others. A project that would be open to a good deal of sceptisism down South. If I am reading a dispute correctly.

    Fraser was of course dean of the Isles, the introduction to the work carefully lays stress on the sutability of Fraser for handling such a ‘delicate’ subject.

    His position of educated, well mannered but above all man of god may have particular relevance.

    Due to the nature of his religious role he and others may have been expected to police their charges noting potential supernatural phenomena
    and detailing wither it was the natural result of melancholia or subject to more supernatural explanation.

    This is of course open to two further
    discussions, was the activity justified i.e sanctioned by god or unjustified i.e sanctioned by other forces.

    You can trace the history of the development and interaction of law, medecine, philosophy and theology from the 6th century onward in this context.

    Some of these themes develop early in Irish legal texts I would suggest. In later periods when wichcraft trails are still active there are cases of gentlemen scientists operating in the dual role of magistrate. Their is a long relationship of interaction between these distinct career paths.

    Its this dialogue that I stongly suspect I am seeing played out in some of the narrative I study.

    One other example of a slightly diffrent use is the Well known case of the North Berwick Witches involving James the 6th .

    James’s press is activly involved in printing and distributing prophecy for mass consumption (and the consumption of this specific material was very very high). This material often has strong political uses. The fact it is backed by live beliefs is usefull but it perhaps has some dangers.

    i.e if youre ship is sunk at sea as in the case of James. It is open to the two old questions of the lawyer, priest, doctor and indeed the mass of the public I would suggest. Is this action the result of Gods will or the result of other forces?

    James is able to present a number of different postive attributes of kingship using the trail to demonstrate his relationship with God and his role as impartial judge.

    But he is also nipping in the bud the potential for critics to engage in the same tactics he is using to promote his athority. He has a clear understanding
    of the strengths and weakness’s of the material he is manipulating and well aware that such means are open to others.

    I suspect.

  7. jeb

    p.s Rehre if you are familiar with Martin Martin’s
    Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland. I would suggest he read James Frasers ‘letter of introduction’
    (it is in fact an part obituary published with the paper) very carefully or something very similar to it.

    He notes the diet and Humours of the inhabitants of the isles at length. Is very keen to stress that Gaelic medical practise and means of experiment is no different than that of the world of men of letters in more civilized realms.

    Described these days as the fist empirical work of Scottish Ethnology. It’s a busy text, the ethnology is used to demonstrate something else altogether. A project of a rather different nature.

    Martin Martin also has a distinct take on the expedition of one other man of letters to the Isles.

    • The imposition of the English on the Scots started from the Glorious Revolution, or earlier – one can quote the outlawing of harpers under Elizabeth I as a premeditated attempt not merely at suppressing one of the channels of Catholic communications, but also as an attempt to suppress the primary medium sustaining the Scottish gaelic tongue. At the time Martin was writing, Argyle had made it well-nigh impossible to do otherwise than present the gaelic areas as barbaric – see, for instance, how he staged the Glencoe massacre. That even his own troops scarcely sympathised is borne out in the pipe tune used by the attackers, Mhrathan y Ghlinne Seo, Women of this Glen, an overt warning to the residents to flee, which is why so few actually fell at the hands of the troops: they died of exposure instead.
      So such comments as “civilised” may well be taken with a tongue inserted firmly into the cheek. The people were poor, but that was not specific to Scotland. Rather, they were different at a time when difference was dangerous, given that the UK was emerging from 150 years of religious upheaval. I don’t have any specific names, but the simple fact Scotland produced perhaps as many as 10000 doctors between 1750 and 1850 against a few hundred in the UK suggests that either Edinburgh and Glasgow were to a man medically gifted, or that the standard across Scotland was significantly higher than that across England, and that includes the gaelic areas. To my mind, the very spirit of the Enlightenment gives rise to particular risks of this kind of historic revisionism from this period onwards, as they were no longer content simply to write Victor’s History, there is no end of Romantic redefinition to be discounted as well (a particular hatred of Rahere’s is Wikipedia’s persistent use of 18th/19th Century artworks as a portrayal of older history). WS Gilbert was too kind by half when he talked of “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own” in wilful rewriting of the facts.
      If you examine, for instance, the sociological comments of Flora Thompson and Henry Mayhew about the state of poverty in the English coutnryside and working-class London a century ago, there is little difference from those of Martin, Defoe and Boswell two hundred years earlier yet. Or, for that matter, of AJ Cronin’s The Citadel, a mere generation ago, or later yet – I myself have seen the conversion of the kitchen in the family’s Welsh farmhouse, in the last fifteen years, with the removal of the hooks in the ceiling for the slaughter of the pig, and when I was young my family’s Belgian line was still living in a farmhouse with a beaten earth floor. We’re not that far removed from the risk of relapse as to be able to make such comments with ease.
      Not for nothing is SOAS next door to the Warburg Institute, Kipling’s ethnologist spies are still a feature of modern diplomacy.

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  9. Porlock Junior

    A nice bit of history there. Also, the point that the correspondence between the two men didn’t really exist as a correspondence is a good one. They were remarkably different in temperament and in their approaches to science; so maybe it’s no surprise that they carried on no lively discussion on the latest ideas.

    BTW, as to obscurity: the first known mention of Galileo in English comes in 1611, a year after Sidereus Nuncius, in a work by John Donne, no less: Ignatius his Conclave, about Loyola in Hell, which as I recall is somewhere between Dante and Shaw in the X in Hell genre.

  10. Refering to correspondance can be a bit ambigious
    at times.

    This post reminds me of a bit of a mix up I had recently with a title that caused some upset; with someone who I asked the occasional question and sent the odd refrence too and was kind enough on a few occasions to help me with references and asked if he could help with final work.

    Which was most kind.

    I would not have refered to to it as a corrispondance as it was more a case of me asking questions. But


  11. The upset was entirly my fault I use a funny type of mnemomics and named my blog after one. I had just come up with that was particulary sophisticated
    by my standards. As it was in part a complement on the surface. I e-mailed the blog which as yet had no details on it and caused a confused response.

    My error totaly. But not unsimilar in someways to this myth.

    With regard to tongue in cheek rhare I wrote a rough piece on farting that might amuse you. But thats related to Tudor Ireland. No tongue in place but a number of cheek on display.

    Martin Martin was keen to prove they were not melancholic, as he had an interest in proving the existance of second sight. The civilized bit refers to the Beatons as he wanted to stress that Gaelic medical practise and medicinal experement were entirly in keeping with current European methods. Indeed some individuals made a resonable money from Ethnobotany at this time studying Irish herbal practises. But thats somewhat off topic.

    • My own blood is of the Orkneys and Caithness, but the form of second sight Martin describes was rather one of visions than pure seer perception.
      As you probably know, one of Rahere’s team, Roland, was a professional petomane: in return for an annual turn of “Unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum” at Christmas, Henry II let him hold a rather nice manor in Essex. What Eleanor of Aquitaine, chief proponent of courtly geste, made of it is anybody’s guess!

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  13. One point to remember is that Kepler was a Lutheran, Galileo a devout catholic (yes, really, in his way). The Irish philosopher ernan McMullen claimed that it was very surprising that Galileo communicated with Kepler at all, and no surprise at all that he did not refer to Kepler at the famous trial…

    • Actually, even during the Thirty-Years War the flow of correspondence between Catholic and Protestant scientists was remarkably open.Kepler was by no means the only Lutheran with whom Galileo corresponded and Galileo by no means the only Catholic in Kepler’s address book. The Jesuits even offered Kepler Magini’s chair for astronomy in Bologna when he died in 1617, assuring him that he would not have to convert. Kepler, probably wisely, declined the offer

      • That’s most interesting. I’m not surprised that the Gal wasn’t the only Catholic in Kepler’s address book, but I’m surprised there was widespread correspondence in the other direction. My understanding from Ernan was that many Catholic academics were very nervous of doing anything that might be construed as associating with the reformists in these years. Perhaps the Jesuits saw themselves as untouchable, must look it up

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