Howler of the Week.

When reading an academic text I sometimes stumble across an error that makes me instantly doubt the intellectual abilities of the author. I’m not talking about a simple typo or glaring grammatical error here but of a serious factual error of the type that should have been instantly obvious to anybody reading it. This is assuming that anybody reading the text would, per definition, bring the necessary background knowledge to their study of the material. This week I came across just such an error that I thought I would share with my readers.

The book in question is Matthias Dorn’s Das Problem der Autonomie der Naturwissenschaften bei Galilei (this translates as The Question of the Autonomy of Science in the Writings of Galileo). This is a doctoral thesis that was published as Sudhoffs Archiv Beihefte 43 in 2000. Sudhoffs Archiv is a renowned German journal for the history of science, in particular the history of medicine established by Karl Sudhoff, legendary historian of medicine and Paracelsus expert, in 1907. The Beihefte (Supplements) is a series of history of science monographs started in 1961.

The work in question discusses the philosophical question, as to what extent Galileo actually advocated autonomy for science in his writings, a not insignificant historical question when considering Galileo’s problems with the Catholic Church and one that is not as open and shut as many modern commentators appear to think.

Now this work is a published doctoral dissertation, which, in theory at least, has been scrupulously read by Dr Dorn, himself, his supervisor (a highly prominent German philosopher now retired), a couple of examiners and an editor from the publishers so one could assume that it should be free of the sort of errors that would get an undergraduate an instant F in a term paper. This is however definitely not the case.

The sentence in question that so piqued my historical interest and raised my pedantic ire is the opening sentence of the second chapter of the book. If it had been buried at the bottom of the page somewhere in the middle of an interminably long chapter, two thirds of the way through the book then one might be inclined to halfway forgive one or other of those listed above for having overseen it but given its prominent position on page 17 of the work there is really no excuse for its continued presence in the finished product. Let us examine the beast.

Fürst Cesi, der Begründer der Accademia dei Licei, berief in Jahre 1610 Galileo Galilei zum „ Ersten Mathematiker und Philosophen des Großherzogtums der Toskana“.

For those of my readers who are not fluent in “The Awful German Language”, as Mark Twain so charmingly expressed it, I shall translate:

Prince Cesi, the founder of the Accademia dei Lincei, appointed Galileo Galilei “First Mathematician and Philosopher of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany” in the year 1610.

Those readers who are moderately knowledgeable on the subject of the biography of Galileo are probably already banging their heads on their desks but for those who are not I shall elucidate.

Federico Cesi (1585 – 1630) was indeed the founder of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1603, an important early scientific society, of which Galileo became a member in 1611, that gave both the telescope and the microscope their names and amongst other things published two of Galileo’s most important works, his Letters on Sunspots in 1613 and The Assayer in 1623. However Cesi, born in Rome, was the scion of an important Umbrian aristocratic family and had absolutely nothing to do with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which would have been very surprised indeed if he had appointed anyone to anything within its sovereignty.

Federico Cesi Pietro Fachetti

Federico Cesi
Pietro Fachetti

The man who appointed Galileo “First Mathematician and Philosopher of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany” in 1610 was, of course, Cosimo II de Medici (1590 – 1621), an ex private pupil of Galileo’s, who acceded to the title of Grand Duke upon the death of his father Ferdinando I de Medici in 1609 and to whom Galileo dedicated his Sidereus Nuncius and after whom he named the four largest moons of Jupiter, The Medicean Stars, with exactly the hope of obtaining this appointment.

Cosimo II de Medici  Justus Sustermans

Cosimo II de Medici
Justus Sustermans

One can take it on good authority that Federico Cesi and Cosimo II de Medici are not one and the same person although they were, without doubt, two of Galileo’s most important patrons.

I really can’t fathom how anyone writing an academic work on Galileo could confuse two such prominent figures in his career and it is even more of a mystery to me how all of the supposed experts who read and examined this doctoral thesis could have overseen such a massive howler and allowed it to go into print.


Filed under History of science, Humour, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

10 responses to “Howler of the Week.

  1. Quite a shocker, you are right! It is not always easy to find the right examiner for a doctoral dissertation, but any academic with a basic knowledge of early modern history of science would know the difference between Cesi and Cosimo II. To make things worse this was published in a prestigious series. I would forgive the student (students are students and we are all fallible), much less the advisor and the examiners.

    • Thony C

      In principle I agree with you that the advisors and examiners should know better, however in this case the “student” was taking his second doctorate, the first was in geology, and was 42 years old when he graduated.

      Strangely enough he is also a Pastor in The Seventh Day Adventists!

  2. You’re a hard man, Thony. When I was in the publishing business, we used to call errors like this one “hallucinations.” I’d want to see some evidence that the author didn’t know that Cesi wasn’t Cosmo before I assumed that he didn’t just cheerfully write the sentence in a moment of pure glitch. Authors make inexplicable errors all the time; and their editors just as frequently miss ’em, sometimes because they everyone in question is so familiar with the right answer that they assume that that’s what they’re reading.

    Of course I tend to be indulgent towards errors of this sort because of my own proclivities. I have a Type O personality.

  3. This looks like what a friend of mine termed a “brain-fart”.

  4. Michael Weiss

    While I find it strange to be a 7th Day Adventist, just because of my own (ir)religious proclivities, why is it strange for a Pastor in that church to be writing such a dissertation?

  5. Pingback: The Giants’ Shoulders #62: Alpha Pappa | A Glonk's HPS Blog

  6. I suspect there was more than a little tongue-in-cheek in this post, but I wonder what school you went to that you think that any undergrad making such an obvious and egregious error in a paper would earn an instant F.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s