If you’re going to blog about history of science then at least do the legwork.

In 2012 I found it necessary on two occasions to pour scorn onto the attempts of Esther Inglis-Arkell to blog about the history of science on the io9 website. In the end I gave up having come to the conclusion, not only because of her contributions, that io9 was, despite according to Wikipedia being “named one of the top 30 science blogs by Michael Moran of The Times’ Eureka Zone blog“, definitely not a place to go for anything resembling sensible history of science. However I recently had recourse to visit this quagmire of questionable information to trace the source of a dubious history of science claim. Entering the name Tycho Brahe into the sites search engine the first thing offered was a post about Denmark’s most notorious astronomer written by Esther Inglis-Arkell at the beginning of December. Against my better judgement I decided to read this pre-Christmas offering and very much wished that I hadn’t succumbed to temptation. This post with the title The Bitterest Scientific Duel in History Was Over “Geoheliocentrism” is to put it mildly pretty awful.

Before we examine the post let us consider the title. I have on numerous occasions argued that one should not use superlatives in the history of science, or in history in general come to that, terms such as ‘first’, ‘greatest’, etc., are to be avoided at all cost and the situation here is no different. ‘Bitterest scientific duel”? Really? What about Galileo contra Scheiner on sunspots or Galileo contra Grassi on the nature of comets? Hooke contra Huygens on the watch spring? Hooke contra Newton on everything under the sun or Newton contra Leibniz on the invention of the calculus? That’s just picking some of the cherries off the cake. In the Early Modern period disputes over priority, plagiarism, scientific interpretation and numerous other things were part of the daily bread of scholars. If should think that it was only the mathematical sciences which went in for verbal warfare try the dispute between Leonhart Fuchs and Janus Cornarius, which used language that would make a drunken sailor blush.

EIA’s introduction is also somewhat less than fortunate, she writes, “His bitterest fight involved three famous astronomers of the 16th century, and their battle over the best theory about how Earth was at the center of the universe“. This less than perfect sentence seems to imply that the dispute was about competing cosmological systems, it wasn’t. The dispute was about whether Nicolaus Reimers Bär, generally known as Ursus, had plagiarised the Tychonic system from its Danish creator. Tycho said he had, Ursus denied the charge. EIA’s confusion is not restricted to the introduction as in the following paragraph she writes:

[Tycho] published a geoheliocentric version of the universe, with both the Earth and Sun at the center of the solar system. The “system of the world” was well-received, and an improvement on the existing geocentric model. It was not unique. Nicolaus Reimarus also published a book, titled “Fundamentals of Astronomy,” that replaced the geocentric model.

First off in Tycho’s system “both the Earth and Sun are not at the center of the solar system”! The earth is at the centre and is orbited by the sun, which in turn is orbited by the five planets. Here it is also very clear that EIA is not aware that with slight differences they both published the same system. Tycho claiming that Ursus had plagiarised him and Ursus claiming that he had developed/discovered the system independently. In the interest of fairness it should be pointed out that Paul Wittich, Duncan Liddel, Helisaeus Röslin and Simon Marius all claimed to have independently developed/ discovered a Tychonic system: In fact Gingerich and Westman argue a very good case that Tycho and Ursus both plagiarised Wittich!

I’m not going to discuss the whole story here although I might write a post about it in the future but anybody who wants to read up on it for themselves should, to get a full and balanced picture, read Edward Rosen’s Three Imperial Mathematicians: Kepler Trapped between Tycho Brahe and Ursus, Nicholas Jardine’s The Birth of the History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler’s ‘A Defence of Tycho against Ursus’ with Essays on its Provenance and Significance and Owen Gingerich’s and Robert S. Westman’s The Wittich Connection: Conflict and Priority in Late Sixteenth Century Cosmology, as well as Victor Thoren’s The Lord of Uraniborg: A biography of Tycho Brahe and Dieter Launert’s Nicolaus Reimers (Raimarus Ursus) (this is in German). If that is not enough volume 36 (2005) of the Journal for the History of Astronomy (which is open access) has nine papers by Jardine et al on the subject and volume 44 (2013, not open access) has an interesting paper Trying Ursus: A Reappraisal of the Tycho-Ursus Priority Dispute by Juan D. Serrano. All of this literature means that there really is no excuse for EIA not to get her story right!

We now get introduced to Tycho:

The dual publication was bound to cause bad feelings. Tycho Brahe was a great drinking buddy, but he did not have an even temper when it came to academic debate. He’d lost part of his nose in a duel with his third cousin over a difference in their appraisal of mathematical formula. He was also a dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat who avoided marrying a woman because she was a commoner, despite the fact that they lived together for 30 years and had eight children.

That the duel in which Tycho lost part of his nose was over some sort of mathematical dispute (version differ) is apocryphal or put less politely, a myth with no basis in fact, put into the world by Pierre Gassendi. Tycho did not avoid marrying Kirstin Jørgensdatter, because he was a noble and she was a commoner, they couldn’t marry formally, it being illegal at that time in Denmark. However under a Jutish law (accepted at the time), “the woman who for three winters lived openly as wife in a house, eating and drinking and sleeping with the man of the house and possessing the keys to the household, should be his true wife”[1]. Tycho’s and Kirstin’s marriage was thus under Danish law a legitimate one and their children were also legitimate and not bastards but having a commoner as mother they were themselves commoners and could not inherit Tycho’s titles or properties. They could however and did inherit his astronomical observational data, a fact that caused Johannes Kepler much stress.

We then get introduced to Ursus:

Reimarus started his life lower, and arguably rose higher. As a child he was a pig herder. (Confusingly, this seemed to earn him the nickname of “Bear” or “Ursus.”) His academic performance helped him rise quickly, and his book on the true shape of the universe earned him a position as the Imperial Astronomer to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II.

Nicolaus Reimers’ nickname Bär (English bear, Latin Ursus) naturally, had nothing to do with his activities as a swineherd, which took place when he was eighteen years old not when he was a child, but was a name he adopted in 1588 because of his relationship to the Baren clan, a notable family in Dithmarschen. He was born in Hennstedt in Dithmarschen, an area in North Germany.

EIA goes on to say that Brahe circulated his accusations against Ursus in a letter “amongst the other imperial scientists”. Whilst it’s true that Brahe originally spread his accusations against Ursus in his correspondence with other scholars, not just one letter, I have no idea who ‘the other imperial scientists’ are supposed to be? However, the dispute first really blew up when he published a volume of his scientific correspondence in 1596 in which he included his correspondence on the topic of Ursus and his intellectual theft with Christian Rothmann, astronomer on the court of Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel. Rothmann, who knew Ursus personally from a period he had spent in Kassel, and didn’t like him, fanned the flames from his side with some choice gratuitous insults. Ursus was not amused.

EIA tells us, “Reimarus replied to the allegations in an astronomy journal“. This is a clear proof that EIA has no idea what she is talking about. Ursus’ reply was actually in the form of a book, De astronomicis hypothesibus, published in 1597. He could not have replied in an astronomical journal because there weren’t any in the sixteenth century. I don’t actually know when or where the first astronomical journal was published but certainly not before the eighteenth century. The first ever academic journal was the Journal des sçavans of which the first edition appeared on Monday 5 January 1665 two months ahead of the first edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which celebrates its 350th birthday this year. Ursus’ book set new levels for invective in an academic dispute.

The non-existent astronomical journal might seem to be a rather trivial error to non-historians of science but in reality it is anything but trivial. The media with which scholars communicate, disseminating and discussing their results is a very important and very central theme in the history of science. The error that EIA makes is a very high level error. It is as if a military or political historian describing the Battle of Culloden would claim that Bonnie Prince Charlie was driven away from the battlefield in a Rolls Royce.

Not content with all her errors up to now EIA now drops a major clanger:

Then he did something he lived to regret – if only briefly. He mentioned that Johannes Kepler, another famous astronomer, had sided with him in this little dispute. He even included a letter from Kepler, full of extravagant praise, in which Kepler declared that good old Ursus had taught him everything he knew about brilliant mathematics. When one of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians of the age was on his side, how could he be wrong?

Yes, Ursus did include a very obsequious letter from Johannes Kepler in his book, which did acknowledge Ursus as his teacher (not quite as extremely as EIA would have as believe) but Kepler was not “one of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians of the age”. This is common mistake that people make, if XY became famous he must have always been famous. This is of course not true, famous people must of course go through a process of becoming famous, which can often take many years. When Kepler wrote the embarrassing letter to Ursus he was a completely unknown schoolteacher from the Austrian provinces and in fact this was the motivation for his obsequious letter.

Kepler had just written his first book, the Mysterium Cosmographicum, and in order to try to interest people for his book and start to build a scholarly reputation he sent off gratis copies of the book accompanied with obsequious letters to well-known and influential astronomers and mathematicians, including sending copies to both Tycho and Ursus, who was after all Imperial Mathematicus in Prague.

EIA now adds fuel to the flames of her own historical funeral pyre she informs us:

Even in his own time he was revered, and so the person who actually did teach him had bragging rights. Those rights belonged to Michael Maestlin, Kepler’s math teacher at his university. When Maestlin heard that Kepler was making the Reimarus claim, he was understandably peeved, and fired off a letter to Kepler.

First off at the time of the publication of Ursus’ book Kepler was, as already said, a nobody and by no means revered. In fact the letter from Maestlin was completely different. Before we look briefly at that, calling another scholar your teacher was a fairly standard Renaissance flowery phrase meaning I have learnt so much from reading your work and didn’t faze Maestlin at all. What did faze Maestlin was the letter he received from Tycho complaining about the appearance of Kepler’s letter in Ursus’ book praising the man who had stolen Tycho’s ideas. Maestlin wrote to Kepler to tell him to apologise to Tycho, which Kepler did very quickly. This would prove to be a highly embarrassing situation for Kepler, who a couple of years later, expelled from Austria by the Counter-Reformation, desperately wanted Tycho to give him a job. In fact the noble Dane did give him employment but as his first assignment ordered him to write a book on the dispute exonerating himself and condemning Ursus. Kepler complied, although the book was originally not published, Tycho having died before it was finished, and it is this document that is the subject of Nicholas Jardine’s book mentioned above.

You may ask why I bother to tear this apology for history of science apart, a question I ask myself. What really angers me is that a website with the reach and influence that io9 has allows somebody like Esther Inglis-Arkell to write articles on the history of science, a discipline about which she very obviously knows next to nothing. There are a lot of good historians of science out in the world couldn’t io9 find somebody who knows what they are talking about to write their history of science articles or at least somebody who is prepared to do the leg work and read up on the topic they are writing about before putting fingers to keyboard?

[1] Thoren, p. 46


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

6 responses to “If you’re going to blog about history of science then at least do the legwork.

  1. This is the reason why I NEVER read anything on websites like io9, boingboing, slate and several “science” blogs etc. I see many people share articles from these sites, but I refuse to be misinformed in a money making machine. They are not much different than buzzfeed or any other clickbait website.

  2. Walter Hehl

    In the levels of the knowledge of the history of science there is a large gap between popular science history and real one: Only going to the roots (original books, letters, etc) gives real insight into the flux of historical and scientific developments.

  3. Steve Finnell

    Removed because of blog abuse

  4. I object to anyone using my blog to preach what ever their beliefs so I’m removing your comment. If you try to repeat this abuse I will block you.

  5. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #30 | Whewell's Ghost

  6. RM

    She’s beneath contempt. Her journalistic standards and grasp of her own supposed subject are bad enough. What’s even worse is that she’s apparently in denial about it, and intolerant too. if you’ve ever had the misfortune to patiently correct her in the comments, she’ll just delete your comments and block you. Thankfully it seems that the other io9 editors either take your comments on board, or at least don’t censor them. She’s beyond being a crappy “journalist”; she’s a crappy person.

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