Return of the stamp collector

Yesterday’s birthday boy in neither a mathematician nor should he be obscure, although he is by no means as well known as he should be, it is the observational astronomer John Flamsteed (19 August 1646 – 31 December 1719).


John Flamsteed by Thomas Gibson

Observational astronomy only produced three significant star catalogues in the two thousand years leading up to the 18th century. The first, the Greek catalogue from Hipparchus and Ptolemaeus published by Ptolemaeus in the 2nd century CE, which contained just over 1000 stars mapped with an accuracy that was astounding for the conditions under which it was produced. The second, containing somewhat more that 700 stars plus another 300 borrowed from the Ptolemaeus catalogue, was produced by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in the last quarter of the 16th century, with an accuracy many factors better than his Greek predecessors. Both of these catalogues were produced with naked eye observations. The first catalogue to be produced using telescopic sights on the measuring instruments was that of John Flamsteed published posthumously in 1725, which contains more than 3000 stars measured to a much higher degree of accuracy than that of Tycho.

The website Today in Science History has the following paragraph about Flamsteed

English astronomer who established the Greenwich Observatory, as one of a group of scientists who convinced King Charles II to build a national observatory. Appointed the first Astronomer Royal (1675-1719), Flamsteed was devoted to astronomical measurement, with the task of accurately providing the positions of stars for use in navigation. He eventually produced the first star catalogue, which gave the positions of nearly 3,000 stars. He also worked on the motions of the sun and moon, tidal tables, and was one of the only astronomers to maintain the comets of 1680-1681 were the same, viewed before and after passing around the sun. A quarrelsome man, he argued with Newton and Halley over their requests for access to his astronomical observations.


Unfortunately this is typical of popular presentations of science history as this paragraph contains several substantial historical errors. Flamsteed was not involved in persuading Charles II to build a national observatory this honour goes to the mathematician Jonas Moore who was also the King’s Surveyor-General of the Ordnance. In fact it was Moore, having acted as Flamsteed’s patron since 1670, who after persuading the King to build the Greenwich Observatory also persuaded him to appoint Flamsteed to run it.

This is not a minor point as the establishment of a national observatory in Britain was an important and significant step along the road towards the institutionalisation of science. If Flamsteed an amateur, self-taught but highly respected astronomer had gone to the King and said, “Hey Charlie why don’t you build a Royal Observatory?” he would probably have been thrown into the Tower of London and left to rot. Moore, however, as a high-ranking civil servant, could, with the support of other worthy public representatives of the scientific community such as Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and the Secretary of the Navy Samuel Pepys of diary fame, convince the King of the necessity of state sponsored astronomical research in order to solve the problem of the determination of longitude, one of vital importance to a sea faring nation such as Britain. It should however be noted that although the King coughed up the cash for the building, designed and built by Wren and Hooke, he provided no money for the necessary astronomical instruments and Moore had to pay for them out of his own pocket. Later, after Moore’s death when Flamsteed wanted improved instruments he in turn had to pay for them himself. When Flamsteed died and was succeeded by his most hated enemy Edmund Halley his widow removed the instrument, being Flamsteed’s private property, leaving Halley with an empty building.

As will be obvious from my introduction this was not the ‘first’ star catalogue but the third major one, there had also been a number of minor ones before Flamsteed published his.

I think the worst disservice that this fragment does to Flamsteed is contained in the closing sentence:

A quarrelsome man, he argued with Newton and Halley over their requests for access to his astronomical observations.

This is a myth put about by Newton’s supporters, as the two were still alive and pouring bile and vitriol on to each other’s heads. In fact the first biography of Flamsteed written by the 19th century astronomer Francis Baily was designed to correct this slander. That is not to say that Flamsteed did not argue bitterly with Newton and Halley, he did for many years, but the blame was equally divided and should most probably be more directed at Newton than at Flamsteed.

The argument was indeed about the use, or as he saw it the abuse, of Flamsteed’s observations, however as I have said in the past this was more than just a battle about data this was a major clash between two conflicting philosophies of science. Before explaining Flamsteed’s reluctance to supply Newton with data I will just outline how this dispute escalated. Irritated by what he saw as Flamsteed’s attempts to sabotage his research Newton persuaded the Crown to appoint a committee to control the work of the Royal Observatory with himself as chairman. This committee stuffed full of Newton’s cronies came to the conclusion that Flamsteed’s results were the property of the nation and that Flamsteed should be compelled to hand them over to the nation i.e. Newton. This was indeed done with John Arbuthnot carrying out the dirty deed and carrying off Flamsteed’s life work from Greenwich in a cab. Newton then had the data published by Halley, a particularly bitter blow to Flamsteed who loathed Halley who he, being a very devout Christian, believed to be an atheist. However Flamsteed also had his friends at court and after some successful lobbying managed to get Newton’s actions rescinded and, what he saw as, the pirate edition of his work withdrawn and destroyed. The whole episode is one of the most shaming in the history of English science in which Newton can only be said to have acted despicably, unfortunately not the only occasion on which he did so.

What does all of this have to do with the philosophy of science? I have written about this before but I think it is something that bears repeating. It is quite common to conflate the scientific methodologies of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton claiming that Newton’s work is an example of Bacon’s empiricism in action, as if there were only one form of empiricism, this is however fundamentally false. Baconian science, famously referred to as stamp collecting by Rutherford, says that the scientist should form no theories but just collect facts or raw data. When he has collected enough material then the theories explaining the area under examination will some how crystallise out of the mass. Newton’s approach was almost the exact opposite. The researcher looks at a collection of seemingly related phenomena and forms a theory to explain them. He then devises experiments or searches for data to test his theories. Newton was of course a methodological Newtonian (this statement is not as stupid as it might at first glance seem, Descartes for example was as scientist not a methodological Cartesian but that is another story) whereas Flamsteed was a convinced Baconian. Newton required Flamsteed’s data to confirm or refute his various astronomical theories about for example the moon whereas Flamsteed thought that his data should only be viewed as a whole, when completed (but when is the collection of data completed?) in order to then derive theories. Given that both men were strong willed, driven pioneers of science this situation could only end in disaster and it did.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Newton

16 responses to “Return of the stamp collector

  1. Instrumentation technology and its availability surely correlates with one’s philosophy of science. If you’ve got a telescope or a cloud chamber or an automated DNA sequencer, it makes sense to do surveys and postpone the theorizing, perhaps indefinitely.* If you’ve got a theory, on the other hand, you build instruments designed specifically to test your ideas or embody them as in the case of Newton’s reflecting telescope which, I understand, served to support his theories on chromatic aberration. Peter Galison’s book Image and Logic got me thinking about this nexus between instrumentation and philosophy of science.

    *Buy a food processor and you will suddenly have a need to make your own peanut butter. The mania for comprehensive surveys like the human genome project is understandable on many grounds, some of them rational; but the fundamental explanation tracks the answer to the old question, “Why does a dog lick his balls?”

    • Does science drive technique or does technique drive science? Or perhaps they are both driven by other social factors.

      Newton developed his reflecting telescope as a result of his discovery of chromatic aberration and his mistaken belief that it was impossible to construct an achromatic lens. However both James Gregory and Cassagrain designed superior reflecting telescopes before Newton whilst knowing nothing about chromatic aberration. However neither of these telescopes could be built at that time because of lack of technique necessary to grind the mirrors.

      I don’t own a food processor but I do have an electric hand blender with a nut chopper attachment that I use to make my own pesto.

  2. Irritated by what he saw as Flamsteed’s attempts to sabotage his research Newton persuaded the Crown to appoint a committee to control the work of the Royal Observatory with himself as chairman.

    In popular culture Newton is often portrayed as a man with Asperger or at least a complete lack of social skills. But then it’s strange he was so good at this kind of macchiavellian scheming.

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  4. beckyfh

    Sorry – coming a bit late to this one, but:

    Although Flamsteed was Moore’s protege, and was brought into the committee discussions at his request, he was key to persuading Charles II that an new observatory was the answer. He tested the longitude-determining method that the Sieur de St Pierre had proposed, commented on its usefulness and demonstrated how much was lacking in basic astronomical data at this time.

    Regarding Newton’s behaviour and temperament, it’s interesting to note that Flamsteed always blamed the influence of Halley and others, although he did say that Newton was “insidious, ambitious, and excessively covetous of praise, and impatient of contradiction”.

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