No he didn’t, no they didn’t and no it wasn’t.

Sometime I just wonder why I bother. I sit in my little corner of the Internet trying to convince people to ditch the myths that they believe to be history of science and instead to replace them with the true facts. Then along comes the once upon a time noble BBC and post on their website, History Extra, the article 12 giant leaps for mankind – from carnivorism to Magna Carta in which:

We asked 12 historians to nominate alternative moments in the past that they consider to be great leaps for mankind. Interviews by Rob Attar

Several of the twelve historians are suitably famous: For example Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Jerry Brotton, Allan Chapman, Patricia Fara and Jim Bennett all of whose work I know and respect.


However a Colin Russell, who I don’t know and can’t find with the help of Wikipedia and Google, delivered up: Galileo explores the heavens with his telescope – Italy, 1609, mythology pure:

I will make a line-by-line analysis of Collin Russell’s words of wisdom:

When Galileo became the first person to turn a telescope to the skies, it changed our view of the universe.

 Galileo was not the first person to turn a telescope to the skies. Already in the last week of September 1608 as Hans Lipperhey demonstrated his new invention to the assembled prominence in The Hague it was turned to the skies “and even the stars which normally are not visible for us, because of the scanty proportion and feeble sight of our eyes, can be seen with this instrument.” The quote is taken from Embassies of the King of Siam Sent to his Excellency Prince Maurits, Arrived in The Hague on 10 September 1608, the French newsletter that carried the news of the advent of the telescope throughout Europe.

If instead he meant the first astronomer/astrologer/mathematician/natural philosopher or whatever then that honour goes to Thomas Harriot and not to Galileo. There is fairly strong but not conclusive evidence that Simon Marius also turned his telescope to the heavens before Galileo.

 He discovered new facts about the Sun, Moon and planets, which were totally incompatible with the old theory that the sky above Earth was unchanging and perfect.

 This sentence is actually true but that had been substantial evidence that the heavens were not unchanging throughout the sixteenth century, before the invention of the telescope, with the observation of various comets and a nova all of which were determined by various expert observers to be supraluna, the earliest of these already in the 1530s. The telescopic observations merely added more evidence of this fact.

Instead they strongly supported the rival and newer heliocentric theory of Copernicus.

 These telescopic observations seriously damaged the accepted Aristotelian cosmology but had not effect on the prevailing Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy and in no way supported the heliocentric theory of Copernicus. The telescopic observations of the phases of Venus, not mentioned by Russell, made contemporaneously by Harriot, Marius, Lembo and Galileo were not compatible with the Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy but were just as compatible with a Tychonic or semi-Tychonic geo-heliocentric system as with a heliocentric one and for various other empirical reasons most astronomers chose the geo-heliocentric models.

Galileo’s telescope stimulated him to write his contentious book Two World Systems (1630), which more than anything else helped to establish Copernicanism.

 Initially Galileo’s telescope stimulated him to write his Sidereus Nuncius (1610), which, as he was well aware, offered no conclusive support for a heliocentric model. His Dialogo (Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World System) is not centred on the telescopic observations, although the play an important role, but on his ill-advised and ill-fated theory of the tides; an ingenious but fatally flawed empirical theory supposed to support a moving earth. The book also suffers from the fact that it pits the Ptolemaic geocentric model against the Copernican heliocentric one, whereas in fact as it was published the two chief world systems were a Tychonic geo-heliocentric one with diurnal rotation and Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric system. Galileo was simply behind the times!

This book in no way “more than anything else helped to establish Copernicanism.” Firstly Copernicanism was never established but had by 1630 been superceded by Kepler’s elliptical astronomy and secondly the two books that did most to establish a heliocentric model, before there was actually empirical proof for it, were Kepler’s Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae, an unfortunate title as it is about his own system and not Copernicus’, and his Tabulae Rudolphinae.

Once again we have someone incorrectly attributing the whole of early telescopic astronomy to Galileo. I would in fact agree with Russell that the invention of the telescope and its application to astronomy could be considered as a “giant leap for mankind”, however to attribute that giant leap to Galileo alone is pure hagiography and historically false. I would have started with the invention of the telescope by Lipperhey and others in 1608 and then moved on to its early application in astronomy by Harriot, Marius, Galileo, Lembo, Grienberger, and others. In fact it is the very fact that those early observations were made independently by several astronomers that led to them being accepted very rapidly by the astronomical community.



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18 responses to “No he didn’t, no they didn’t and no it wasn’t.

  1. It’s a dirty job … but somebody’s gotta do it …

  2. Pingback: No he didn’t, no they didn’t and no it wasn’t. — The Renaissance Mathematicus – Resting Goth Face

  3. Thonyc – it’s always been like this, and probably always will be. Human being need myths, and they need gossip, so myth-gossip history appeals at a tribal level where intellectual devotion to accurate history tends to put the academic outside the happily-bonding group. Scientists haven’t been immune either, but that’s another problem.

    I have 3 wonderful drawings made in the 1930s, all of Roger Bacon. One shows him consulting with Rubruck over a map (mythical); another shows him peering through a a microscope … and the third shows Roger Bacon beholding the heavens through a telescope!

    All three ideas were believed fact by many of the time, and as you try now, so then then Thorndike was trying vainly to talk facts and sense into the majority… who went on talking about Bacon’s microscope and telescope, and the papers printed it, and Letters to the Editor said what a lovely thing it was to be a white man.. or words to that effect.

    My bug-bear is the myth of a cultural and intellectual ‘fortress Europe’ during the late medieval and Renaissance era. But we all have our crosses… 🙂

  4. As you probably know, in his writings Roger Bacon hypothesised instruments/devices that would fulfil the functions that are actually fulfil by the microscope and the telescope, which is why he is falsely credited with having invented both instruments.

    • Dave Empey

      Was Bacon thinking of something like our telescopes and microscopes, or more of something like a magic mirror or crystal ball? Or is that not really a meaningful distinction?

      • That is indeed a meaningful distinction. There is a long history of accounts of ‘magic’ mirrors enabling the user to see distant things up close. See, Eileen Reeves, Galileo’s Glassworks: The Telescope and the Mirror, where she argues that Galileo on hearing the first reports of the telescope originally thought it was some sort of mirror construction.

  5. Copernicus’ —> Copernicus’s

    • Copernicus’ is perfectly correct

    • Oh no, someone recycling Strunk & White!

      For a contrary viewpoint, hear this:
      Strunk and White is Lot of Bunk and Tripe.

    • Phillip Helbig writes:
      In German, the possessive of a singular noun ending in “s” has just the apostrophe.

      I was taught that German doesn’t use the apostrophe at all for the possessive—they just add ‘s’! (Which they call the genitive.)

      • Fowler in “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage” (under the heading of “possessive puzzles”) says: “It was formerly customary, when when a word ended in -s, to write its possessive with an apostrophe but no additional s…”
        He continues: “In verse, and in poetic or reverential contexts, this custom is retained, and the number of syllables is the same as in the subjective case…”
        “But elsewhere we now usually add the s and the syllable – always when the word is monosyllabic and preferably when it is longer…”

        So Phillip’s suggestion is perfectly reasonable. And please let’s ignore Strunk and White; this is UK English usage we are discussing, not American English.

      • I, as the author of this blog, am going to add a final comment on this debate about apostrophes with two quote from Wikipedia:

        1) Many respected authorities recommend that practically all singular nouns, including those ending with a sibilant sound, have possessive forms with an extra s after the apostrophe so that the spelling reflects the underlying pronunciation.
        2) Although less common, some contemporary writers still follow the older practice of omitting the extra s in all cases ending with a sibilant, […] Some contemporary authorities […] recommend or allow the practice of omitting the extra “s” in all words ending with an “s”

        I was brought up to write my English following what is here described as ‘the older practice’ and I will continue to write my English so until I die and this blog is no more.

  6. “However a Colin Russell, who I don’t know and can’t find with the help of Wikipedia and Google, delivered up: Galileo explores the heavens with his telescope – Italy, 1609, mythology pure:”

    If you are talking about Colin A. Russell (Ph.D and D.Sc London University), he was emeritus professor of history of science and technology at the Open University. I only know of him through his essay “The Conflict of Science and Religion” in ‘Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction’ Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2002.

    You can find more information here at Wiki:

    • I originally thought it couldn’t be Colin A. Russell as he died in 2013 but Jenny Rampling pointed out on Facebook that the article is recycled from 2009, so it could well be he.

  7. Even if one is charitable and interprets Copernicanism to just mean a moving rather than a stationary earth, he was still wrong when he wrote: “But a scientific proof of Copernicanism had to wait till 1838!”

    1838 was the date on which Bessel meaured the first stellar parallax; over a century earlier, in 1727, James Bradley had measured the aberration of light (a.k.a. stellar aberrarion) that needed a moving Earth to explain it.

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