Questions on spots

Ye Olde Statistician posted the following comment on my post on Johann Fabricius


There is an article on Google Books: “The Discovery of the Sunspots” by M.A. Lancaster, in Popular Science Monthly, Sept. 1897, that puts Harriot last among the discoverers, Galileo first (summer of 1610), and refers consistently to Scheiner as “the false Apelles”. He also indicates that while both Galileo and Scheiner had seen sunspots before Fabricius, neither attached much importance to them until after Fabricius’ tract appeared. At that point both men began meticulous measured observations, though Lancaster credits only Galileo. The link that might take you there is:

Yeah, “Popular Science Monthly”. But he does seem to have some ducks lined up. Comments?


Harriot is an interesting and puzzling case in the history of science, he did important and significant research in many areas of science and mathematics and was as a scientist at least on a level with contemporaries such as Kepler with whom he corresponded and Galileo. However the only thing he published in his lifetime was a pamphlet on Raleigh’s first colony in Roanoke, Virginia as an advertising brochure to help win support for a future colony. When he died he instructed his scientific executors to publish his algebra book and that was all. Unfortunately they did publish his algebra but only after castrating it and removing all of Harriot’s innovations, the rest of his scientific papers remained unpublished. In the 19th century Zach and Riguad both examined the papers and did Harriot’s reputation considerably more harm than good but that is a long story and wont be dealt with here. The author of the article takes Riguad’s false claim instead of Zach’s correct one and therefore relegates Harriot to fourth place.


In reality Harriot first observed sunspots with his telescope on 18th December 1610 and this is the first written record of a telescopic sunspot observation. Galileo makes problems because in the course of his priority dispute with Scheiner he kept moving the goal posts claiming newer and earlier occasions when he happened to mention his observation of the sunspots to one or other of his acquaintances. Under the circumstances these claims are highly dubious and to accept them in more an act of faith than acceptance of proven historical fact. The earliest confirmed mention of sunspots by Galileo are all in 1611.


When the Augsburger banker Marc Welser published Scheiner’s first three letter’s on sunspots the author used the pseudonym ‘Apelles latens post tabulam’ (Apelles hiding behind the picture) a reference to a story in which the Greek painter (4th century BCE) hid behind one of his own paintings to eves drop on somebody criticising the work. Scheiner is thought to have used a pseudonym because of his status as a Jesuit monk whose superiors did not wish him to openly indulge in scientific controversy.


Scheiner did not observe sunspots before Fabricius and with Galileo it is difficult to say. Fabricius’ pamphlet was almost certainly not the trigger for their activities in this area as neither of them ever mentions Fabricius either in their published or in their private writings. They genuinely seem to have been totally unaware of Fabricius and his work.


However having said all of that thanks for the link the article is fascinating. If you want to follow up on the history of early telescopic sunspot observations and the Scheiner Galileo priority dispute then the definitive work on the subject is the recently published Galileo Galilei & Christoph Scheiner: On Sunspots, Eileen Reeves and Albert van Helden, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2010.



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