The continuing saga of io9’s history of science inanities.

I made a sort of deal with myself to, if possible, avoid io9 and above all the inane utterances of Esther Inglis-Arkell. Unfortunately I fell for a bit of history of science click bait on Twitter and stumbled into her attempt to retell the story of the degenerating relations between Isaac Newton and John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal. I say attempt but that is actual a misuse of the word because it somehow implies making an effort, something that Ms Inglis-Arkell is not willed to do. Her post resembles something half read, half understood and then half forgotten spewed out onto the page in a semblance of English sentences. It in no way approaches being something that one could honestly label history of science story telling even if one were to stretch this concept to its outer most limits.

I have blogged on the relations between Newton and Flamsteed on a number of occasion but let us look at Ms Inglis-Arkell miserable attempt at telling the story and in so doing bring the correct story out into the open. Our storyteller opens her tale thus:

Isaac Newton reached the level of genius in two different disciplines: physics and making people miserable. This is a tale of his accomplishments in the latter discipline. The object of his scorn, this time, is a poor astronomer named John Flamsteed, who made the mistake of not being agreeable enough.

I tend to dislike the term genius but if one is going to apply it to Newton’s various activities then one should acknowledge that as an academic he also reached the level of genius as a mathematician, as a theoretical astronomer and as an instrument maker and not just as a physicist. Credit where credit is due. On the subject of his making people miserable, John Flamsteed was anything but a saint and as I pointed out in an earlier post, Grumpy old astronomers behaving badly or don’t just blame Isaac!, in the dispute in question both of them gave as good as he got.

We now get to the factual part of the story where our storyteller displays her grasp of the facts or rather her lack of one:

Flamsteed and Newton started their acquaintance on good terms. They spent the 1680s happily corresponding about two lights in the sky, seen in 1680, which were either two comets or one comet that made two trips by Earth. This got Flamsteed interested in cataloguing [sic] the heavens. If enough information was compiled about the lay of the night sky, astronomers would be able to understand all kinds of things about the shape of the universe and how its various pieces worked. By the mid-1690s, Flamsteed was the Astronomer Royal and was making a star catalogue which he would publish when it was completed.

Remember that bit about half read and half forgotten? John Flamsteed had been installed by Charles II as Astronomer Royal for the newly commissioned Royal Observatory at Greenwich on 22 June 1675 “forthwith to apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so-much desired longitude of places, for the perfecting the art of navigation.” Not by the mid-1690s as Ms Inglis-Arkell would have us believe. I love the bit about how, astronomers would be able to understand all kinds of things about the shape of the universe and how its various pieces worked”, Which basically just says that she doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about so she’ll just waffle for a bit and hope nobody notices. The Observatory itself wasn’t finished till 1685 but by the beginning of the 1680 Flamsteed was already busily fulfilling his obligations as official state astronomical observer.

The early 1680s saw a series of spectacular comets observable from Europe, and Flamsteed along with all the other European astronomers devoted himself to observing their trajectories and it was a conjecture based on his observations that led to his correspondence with Newton. He observed two comets in 1680, one in November and the second in mid December. Flamsteed became convinced that they were one and the same comet, which had orbited the sun. He communicated his thoughts by letter to Isaac Newton (1642–1727) in Cambridge, the two hadn’t fallen out with each other yet, and Newton initially rejected Flamsteed’s findings. However on consideration he came to the conclusion that Flamsteed was probably right and drawing also on the observations of Edmund Halley began to calculate possible orbits for the comet. He and Halley began to pay particular attention to observing comets, in particular the comet of 1682. By the time Newton published his Principia, his study of cometary orbits took up one third of the third volume, the volume that actually deals with the cosmos and the laws of motion and the law of gravity. By showing that not only the planets and their satellite systems obeyed the law of gravity but that also comets did so, Newton was able to demonstrate that his laws were truly universal. Note that Flamsteed two-in-one comet was orbiting the sun and not “one comet that made two trips by Earth”; this will come up again in the next paragraph:

Newton, meanwhile, believed that returning comets might be drawn to the Earth by some mysterious force. They might circle the Earth, in fact, the way the Moon circled the Earth. Perhaps, the force that drew the Moon and the comets might be the same. Newton wanted to study his “Moon’s Theory,” and to do so he needed the information in Flamsteed’s catalogue, incomplete though it was. Newton had risen to the rank President of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; the titles might leave one in doubt as to who had the power, but Newton’s fame and connections far outstripped Flamsteed’s. When Isaac Newton wanted information from the catalogue, he wanted it immediately, whether it was published or not.

The opening sentences of this paragraph are a confession of complete incompetence for somebody, who, if I remember correctly, has a degree in physics. We are of course talking about the force of gravity, so why not call it that? Anyone who has studied physics at school knows that according to the law of gravity any two bodies “attract each other” something that Newton had spelled out very clearly in his Principia, which was published in 1687 before the dispute that Inglis-Arkell is attempting to describe took place. So the comets are not being “drawn to the Earth by some mysterious force”. In fact they are not being drawn to the Earth at all and there are certainly not circling it. Flamsteed’s careful observations and astute deduction had correctly led Newton to the conclusion that the force of gravity causes some comets to orbit the sun. As we shall see shortly when Newton and Flamsteed got in each others hair about Newton’s need for fresh observational date on the moon he was still Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge and still ten years away from becoming President of the Royal Society. However before I go into detail let us look at Inglis-Arkell’s account of the affair.

You can get a lot done when you’re friends with the Queen, but it still took a lot of time for Isaac Newton to get what he wanted from John Flamsteed. First Flamsteed sent assistants’ work instead of his own. Newton was exasperated with the mistakes they had made. Newton wrote nasty letters. Flamsteed wrote nasty diary entries. Newton turned to the royal Prince George, asking him to order Flamsteed to write a book that would include all his current data. Flamsteed just couldn’t get it together to produce the book, much as he must have wished to comply with his Prince’s order.

Newton inspected the Royal Observatory. Flamsteed guarded the equipment so jealously that the two physically fought over it. Flamsteed ended that day with a very smug diary entry declaring that the “instruments… were my own.”

Now the Astronomer Royal was not only disobeying Isaac Newton but the actual Royals, and so it’s impressive that Flamsteed managed to keep his prestigious appointment. He didn’t lose his position or his data for over a decade. It wasn’t until 1712 that Newton was able to influence Queen Anne and Prince George enough to force Flamsteed to publish his data in a small volume. Still, Flamsteed was bitter at the defeat.

Our intrepid wanna-be historian of science has conflated and confused three separate struggles between the two protagonists into one, getting her facts wrong along the way and even making thinks up, not a very good advertisement for a website that wishes to inform its readers or maybe this is one of their sci-fi contributions.

Let us take a look at what really happened. In an incredible tour de force Newton wrote and published his Principia in the three years between 1684 and 1687 and as I noted above Flamsteed’s recognition that some comets orbit the sun went on to play a central role in this ground-breaking work. In his magnum opus Newton was able to demonstrate that the whole of the then known cosmos lay under the rule of the law of gravity. It determined the elliptical orbits of the planets around the sun as well as the orbits of the then known satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. It converted the comets from irregular prophets of doom into celestial objects with regular but extremely long orbits. Everything seemed to fit neatly into place in a clockwork cosmos. Well almost everything! The earth’s closest neighbour appeared not to want to obey the dictates of gravity. Although Newton managed to get a fairly good approximation of a gravity-determined orbit for the moon it wasn’t anywhere near as good as he would have liked.

The problem lies on the size of the moon. Having an unusually large mass for a satellite the moon is involved in a gravitational system with both the earth and the sun, the classical three-body problem. As a result its orbit is not a smooth ellipse but being pulled hither and thither by both the earth and the sun its orbit contains many substantial irregularities making it very difficult to calculate. There is in fact no general analytical solution to the three-body problem, as was finally proved in the nineteenth century by Henri Poincaré. The physicist or astronomer is forced to calculate each irregularity step by step, the situation that Newton found himself in whilst writing the Principia.

In 1693 Newton was contemplating a second edition of the Principia and decided to tackle the moon’s orbit anew. This required new observational data and the person who was in procession of that data was Flamsteed. Newton never the most diplomatic of men at the best of times was even more grumpy than usual in the early 1690s. He was recovering from what appears to have been some sort of major mental breakdown, he was tackling one of the few mathematical problem that would always defeat him (the moon’s orbit, which was finally solved by Laplace in his Exposition du système du monde at the end of the eighteenth century), and he was frustrated by his situation in Cambridge and was looking for a suitable position in recognition of his, in the meantime, considerable status in London. The latter would be solved by Charles Montagu appointing him Warden of the Mint in 1696. His approach to Flamsteed to obtain the data that he required was high handed to say the least. Flamsteed, also an irritable man, who was overworked, underpaid and underfinanced in his efforts to map the entire heavens, was less than pleased by Newton’s imperious demands but delivered the requested data none the less. Newton failed to solve his problem and blaming Flamsteed and his data demanded more. Flamsteed feeling put upon grumbled but delivered; and so the pair of grumpy old men continued, each developing an intense dislike of the other. In the end Newton’s demands became so impossible that Flamsteed started sending Newton raw observational data letting him calculate the lunar positions for himself. It is difficult to say where this vicious circle would have led if Newton had not lost interest in the problem and shelved it, and the plans for a second edition of Principia, in 1695. By now the two men were totally at loggerheads but would have nothing more to do with each other for the next nine years.

In 1704 Newton, by now Master of the Mint and resident in London, was elected President of the Royal Society. On 12 April 1704 Newton took a boat down the river from the Tower of London, home of the Mint, to Greenwich, home of the Royal Observatory, to visit Flamsteed. Surprisingly amicable Newton suggested to Flamsteed that he should speak to Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s consort, on Flamsteed’s behalf about obtaining funds to have Flamsteed’s life work published. Flamsteed was agreeable to having his work published especially as his critics, most notably Edmond Halley and David Gregory, were pointing out that he had nothing to show for almost thirty years of endeavour. However he would have preferred to deal with the matter himself rather than have Newton as his broker. Newton spoke to Prince George and obtained the promise of the necessary funds. Meanwhile Flamsteed drew up a publication plan for his work. He wanted three volumes with his star catalogue the high point of his work in the third and final volume. Newton had other plans. He set up an editorial board at the Royal Society consisting of himself, David Gregory, Christopher Wren, Francis Robartes and John Arbuthnot to oversee the publication. Flamsteed, the author and also a member of the Royal Society, was not included. Newton ignored Flamsteed’s wishes and declared that the star catalogue would be printed in volume one. Newton commissioned a printer to print sample sheets, however Flamsteed found them to be of poor quality and wished to find a new printer. Newton ignored him and gave the printer the commission to print the work ordering Flamsteed to supply the introductory material for the first volume.

One major problem was that the star catalogue was at this time not complete. Flamsteed kept stalling declining to supply with Newton with the catalogue until he could complete it. He needed to calculate the stellar positions from the raw observational data. Newton promised him the money to pay the computers and actually obtained the money from Prince George. Flamsteed employed the computers to do the work and paid them out of his own pocket requesting restitution from Newton. Newton refused to pay up. So the whole sorry affair dragged on until Prince George died in 1708 with which the project ground to an end. If Flamsteed had grown to dislike Newton in the 1690s he truly hated him now.

Things remained quiet for two years then at the end of 1710 John Arbuthnot, who was physician to Queen Anne, suddenly announced that Anne had issued a warrant that appointed the president and others as the council of the Royal Society saw fit to be ‘constant Visitors’ of the Royal Society. As used here visitor means supervisor and it effectively meant that Newton was now Flamsteed’s boss. With their newly won authority Newton and his cronies did everything in their power to make life uncomfortable for Flamsteed over the next few years. On 26 October 1711 Newton summoned Flamsteed to a meeting in Crane Court, the home of the Royal Society, to inform him of the state of the observatory instruments. Here we meet a classic of institutional funding. The Crown had paid to have the Royal Observatory built and having appointed Flamsteed to run it the Crown paid his wages, on a very miserly level, however no money was ever supplied for instruments and so Flamsteed had bought his instruments with his own money. When Newton demanded account of the state of the instruments Flamsteed could prove that they were all his own private property and thus no concern of Newton’s. Newton was far from pleased by this defeat. He now ordered the Royal Ordnance to service, repair and upgrade the instruments and thus to win official control over them. Unfortunately the Ordnance, which, like the Mint, occupied the Tower of London didn’t like Newton so taking sides with Flamsteed informed Newton that there were no funds available for this work. A minor victory for Flamsteed but he had already suffered a major defeat. Before discussing this I should point out that contrary to Ms Inglis-Arkell’s claims, at no time did the elderly combatants resort to any form of physical contact.

On 14 March 1711 Arbuthnot had informed Flamsteed that the Queen had commanded the complete publication of his work; the brief reprieve brought about by the death of Prince George was over. Although the star catalogue, which was all that Newton was interested in publishing, was now finished Flamsteed at first prevaricated again. Arbuthnot wrote to Flamsteed requesting him to deliver up the catalogue, Flamsteed declined with further excuses. Newton exploded and shot off a letter ripping a strip of Flamsteed for defying a Royal command and the fight was now effectively over. Flamsteed met with Arbuthnot and handed over the manuscript requesting conditions concerning the printing and editing to which Arbuthnot acquiesced and promptly ignored. Flamsteed went ballistic, as he discovered that printing was going ahead without his knowledge and even worse his manuscript was being edited by Edmond Halley! Flamsteed by now hated Newton but he reserved his greatest loathing for Halley. It has been much speculated why Flamsteed had such an extreme aversion to Halley but it went so far that he refused to use his name and only referred to him as Reimers after Nicolaus Reimers Bär, whom Flamsteed believed had plagiarised his hero Tycho and was thus the most despicable person in the history of astronomy. Flamsteed had lost all down the line and in 1712 his star catalogue appeared in a large folio volume (not the small volume claimed by Inglis-Arkell). Deeply bitter Flamsteed now swore to publish his life’s work in three volumes, as he had originally planned in 1704, at his own expense and began with the preparation. It should be noted that far from ‘Newton being able to influence Queen Anne and Prince George enough to force Flamsteed to publish his data’, Prince George had by now been dead for four years!

However Newton might have won a victory but he hadn’t yet won the war and the tide began finally to turn in Flamsteed’s favour. In 1714 Queen Anne died and was succeeded on the throne by George I, Elector of Hanover. The succession also brought with it a change of government. Now Inglius-Arkell claims that George didn’t like Newton but this is not true. He greatly respected Newton who had long been regarded as the greatest natural philosopher in Europe; he even forced his librarian, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who would have loved to have moved to London to escape his Hanoverian backwater (no offense intended to Hannover or the Hanoverians), to stay at home so as not to offend Newton, who was at war with Leibniz when he wasn’t battling Flamsteed. However the succession and the change of government did mean a loss of influence for Newton. In early 1715 Charles Montagu, Lord Halifax, one of the most powerful politicians in England during the previous twenty years and Newton’s political patron, died. Charles Paulet, 2nd Duke of Boulton, the Lord Chamberlin, was a friend of Flamsteed’s and on 30 November 1715 he signed a warrant ordering Newton to return the three hundred remaining copies of the printed star catalogue to Flamsteed. He “made a Sacrifice of them to Heavenly Truth”; i.e. he burnt them.

Flamsteed continued with his project to publish his life’s work at his own expense but died in 1719 before he could finish the project. His widow with the willing help of his two assistants Joseph Crosthwait and Abraham Sharp finished the job and his three-volume Historia coelestis britannica was finally published in 1725, followed by his charts of the constellations the Atlas coelestis, edited by his widow and James Hodgson in 1727. Together they form a fitting monument to one of history’s greatest observational astronomers. Flamsteed had written a long preface for the Historia describing, from his standpoint, in great detail his twenty year long war with Newton but this did not make it into the final printed edition, probably because Newton, by now a living legend, was still very much alive. It only resurfaced a hundred years later. Flamsteed got his revenge, from beyond the grave, on Halley, who followed him as Astronomer Royal. As already explained above, Flamsteed’s observational instruments were his own personal property so when he died his widow stripped the observatory bare leaving Halley an empty building in which to pursue his new office.

The whole, more than twenty year long, farce is one of the more unsavoury episodes in the history of science and certainly not how one would expect two senior officers of state to behave. It is clear that Newton caries most of the blame although Flamsteed was not exactly a model of virtue deliberately fanning the flames through renitent and provocative behaviour. In particular his behaviour towards Halley, who was more than qualified and very capable of editing the star catalogue, was extremely childish and inexcusable.

You might think that I am being very unfair to Ms Inglis-Arkell having turned her very brief account into an overlong post but that is actually the point and her central failure, ignoring all of the factual errors in her version of the story. What I have laid out here are only the bare bones of the whole story, if I were to go into real detail this post would be ten times longer than it already is. Ms Inglis-Arkell attempt to reduce a highly complex series of episodes out of the history of science to a couple of hundred words in a throwaway post could only end in a level of distortion that makes the whole exercise a complete waste of time, effort (not that she seems to expended much of that) and cyberspace.







Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of science, Newton

6 responses to “The continuing saga of io9’s history of science inanities.

  1. A small correction: in 1907 Sundman gave a general analytical solution to the three body problem. However, it’s not computationally practical. See Saari, “A Visit to the Newtonian N-body Problem via Elementary Complex Variables”,

    This does not invalidate Poincare’s work, but to explain the relationship between the two results would be a bit long for a comment.

    • Thanks, I didn’t know about Sundman. Having now read up on him to be correct he didn’t give an analytical solution of the three body problem but proved that such a proof exists. This might seem like nit picking but the difference is a central tenet of constructivist mathematics and logic in which I was schooled at university. The difference between an existence proof and the proof itself can often be immense.

  2. MarylandBill

    Thanks for the summary of this fascinating story. I find io9 to be one of the most frustrating sites on the internet. Its reporting of science and culture seem to be driven principally by the biases of the authors and little attempt ever seems to be made at objectivity.

  3. I do have a question about your last paragraph. Leaving Ms. Inglis-Arkell and her howlers aside, you seem to be saying that any attempt to recount the Newton-Flamsteed affair briefly is doomed to failure — “a complete waste of time [and] effort”. Do you really believe that?

    Suppose, for the sake of argument, that some widely trafficked site asked you to produce a 300 word piece on the N-F affair, or some other complex historical episode. And let’s say they tell you that their backup author is someone you can be pretty sure will make a hash of it. Do you decline?

    • A 300 hundred word precis of this subject or something of similar complexity, if factually correct, would be rather lacking in essential detail and thus relatively worthless so the answer to your question is I would decline.

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #40 | Whewell's Ghost

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