History of science on the Internet – the gift that keeps giving

Dear readers it is time once again for the Hist–Sci Hulk to flex his muscles and give a couple of Internet authors a good kicking for the crime of spreading history of science nonsense. First up we have a website called StarTeach Astronomy Education, who describe themselves as follows:

 

StarTeach Astronomy Education is a multimedia web-based astronomy education program designed especially for K-12 students and their teachers. The primary goal of the program is to aid in the classroom instruction of astronomy by providing a multimedia supplement that is available to schools with internet capability. In addition, it can also be used as research material for individual students.

The StarTeach Astronomy Education Program was created by Leslie Welser when she was a graduate student in the University of Nevada, Reno Physics Department. StarTeach has been recently updated to include topics for more advanced readers.

The section to which my attention was inadvertently directed was under the drop down menu Ancient Cultures with the title Arab and Islamic Astronomy.

Alone this title causes problem. Only yesterday I had an Internet exchange with Peter Adamson, the excellent creator of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast and author of many books and articles based on that podcast, how exactly to describe the philosophy and science produced in the Middle Ages by the inhabitants of those areas of the world dominated by Islamic culture. The answer is certainly not Arab and Islamic, which would seem to suggest two separate areas of production or if only one that the astronomy was only produced by Islamic Arabs. The latter is definitively not the case as we have Arabs, Jews, Persians, Syriac Christians and various others. The subject is complex enough to warrant its own blog post, which I might or might not write sometime in the future.

The article opens with the following:

During the period when Western civilization was experiencing the dark ages [my emphasis], between 700-1200 A.D., an Islamic empire stretched from Central Asia to southern Europe.

The sound you can hear echoing around the world, is the sound of thousands of medievalist weeping and rending their clothes at the use of the term ‘the dark ages’. The preferred term is Early Middle ages. I should point out that the Arabic-Islamic dominance of a substantial part of the Eurasian landmass extended several centuries past 1200 CE and one of the things that Peter Adamson and I discussed is the fact that this empire actually split up fairly early into competing caliphates. Leaving out some minor quibbles we now come to this:

Another important religious use for astronomy was for the determination of latitude and longitude. Using the stars, particularly the pole star, as guides, several tables were compiled which calculated the latitude and longitude of important cities in the Islamic world.

Whereas you can determine latitude using altitude of the sun or the pole star and a bit of relatively simple trigonometry, you cannot determine longitude in this way. In fact the only way available in the Middle Ages to determine longitude astronomically is by simultaneous observation of eclipses, lunar or solar, and then comparing the timings. Next up with have:

Aside from religious uses, astronomy was used as a tool for navigation. The astrolabe, an instrument which calculated the positions of certain stars in order to determine direction, was invented by the Greeks and adopted and perfected by the Arabs (see picture below).

To quote David King, one of the world’s leading authorities on both the astrolabe and Islamic astronomy, the astrolabe was never used for navigation! It was actually the next sentences that finally provoked me into writing this blog post:

The sextant was developed by the Arabs to be a more sophisticated version of the astrolabe. This piece of technology ultimately became the cornerstone of navigation for European exploration.

When I first read this wonderful bullshit-double-whammy, I seriously started banging my head on my desk and praying for quick release from my pain. We are here confronted by a common problem in the history of science, the use of the same name for two or more completely different instruments. Our, by the way anonymous, I wouldn’t want to attach my name to this crap either, author apparently has no idea that the astronomical sextant and the navigational sextant are two completely different beast that apart from a scale representing one sixth of a circle, hence the name, have very little in common.

The astronomical sextant, to which the author intended to refer here, is anything but more sophisticated than the astrolabe and is in fact much, much simpler. It is a simple scale engraved on a segment, one sixth of a circle, with sights mounted on it used to determine the position of stars. I refer the reader to the Wikipedia article for more details. The navigational sextant, also not derived from the astrolabe, is a much more complex beast invented in the seventeenth century, the story of which you can read here. A change of topic:

Science was considered the ultimate scholarly pursuit in the Islamic world, and it was strongly supported by the nobility. Most scientists worked in the courts of regional leaders, and were financially rewarded for their achievements. In 830, the Khalifah, al-Ma’muun, founded Bayt-al-Hikman, the ‘House of Wisdom’, as a central gathering place for scholars to translate texts from Greek and Persian into Arabic. These texts formed the basis of Islamic scientific knowledge.

I think Qur’anic scholars might well dispute the claim that “Science was considered the ultimate scholarly pursuit in the Islamic world.” Another topic to which I might one day devote a whole blog post is the fact that the House of Wisdom, as it is usually presented, such as here, is a myth. For details see Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbāsid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10thcenturies).

I could go on and on but I will just consider one last gem:

One of the greatest Islamic astronomers was al-Khwarizmi (Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi), who lived in the 9th century and was the inventor of algebra[my emphasis].

The ancient Babylonians and the Indians would be amazed to discover that al-Khwarizmi invented algebra. His book, Al-kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala, introduced algebra into medieval Europe and part of its title gave the discipline its modern name but algebra was being practice literally millennia before al-Khwarizmi was born.

Interestingly this dog’s dinner of an article, that is intended to educate school kids, isn’t based on academic literature on the subject but offers as its sources links to five other Internet articles, three of which no longer exist and one of which is about the navigational sextant and as such irrelevant.

My second candidate for a Hist_Sci Hulk kicking is from Quillette a self styled platform for free thought and is a review by Jared Marcel Pollen (whoever he is) of Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History. An extremely tedious review of an extremely tedious book by an extremely tedious person that wouldn’t normally occupy my thought stream for longer than thirty seconds were it not for the following totally fucked up piece of history of astronomy.

This also allows Shapiro to skirt the obvious hostility the church showed toward intellectual inquiry for centuries. Shapiro writes as if the church had never banned a book or burned a heretic:

Contrary to popular opinion, new discoveries weren’t invariably seen as heretical or dangerous to the dominion of the Church; in fact, the Church often supported scientific investigation.

The Church was indeed the only place where any kind of inquiry could be conducted at the time. It was the only place where people were literate and enjoyed steady funding and access to instruments. But the Church only encouraged inquiry to the extent that it could reinforce and expand its own doctrine, which is a bit like the state telling you that you are free to make whatever art you like, just as long as you don’t criticize the regime.

What we have here is the standard popular presentation of the medieval Catholic Church as some sort of all-powerful totalitarian state. The reality was actually somewhat different. The Church was not able to exercise the sort of total intellectual control that Pollen is here claiming and surprisingly diverse positions were possible and existed in reality .

Also Pollens claim that, “The Church was indeed the only place where any kind of inquiry could be conducted at the time. It was the only place where people were literate and enjoyed steady funding and access to instruments” is of course total rubbish. Just to take the example of the three leading writers on astronomy in the reception phase of Copernican heliocentricity–Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei–all three of them were court mathematicians outside of the various churches. There are plenty of other examples of important and influential scholars from this period, who found employment outside of the churches.

The first major scientific challenge to the Church was heliocentrism. But Shapiro claims this was hardly an issue: “Nicolas Copernicus studied in parochial school and served the Church of Warmia as medical advisor; his publication of De revolutionibus… in March 1542, included a letter to Pope Paul III.”

Copernicus was in fact a canon of Frombork cathedral and as such part of the government of the prince-bishopric of Warmia. His role was much wider than that of cathedral physician. De revolutionibus was published in 1543 not 1542 but did in fact contain a dedicatory letter to Pope Paul II.

In fact, Copernicus had finished his treatise years earlier (there are records indicating that the manuscript had been completed as early as the 1530s), but he withheld it, aware that its publication could be life-threatening, and circulated only a few anonymous copies to his close friends.

The bulk of De revolutionibus was, as far as we can tell, finished by about 1530, however the reasons for Copernicus not publishing at that time are complex and contrary to popular opinion had very little to do with any fear of persecution by the Church and its publication would certainly not have been life-threatening; that claim is complete rubbish based on hindsight and fail interpretations of the cases of Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei. Despite censoring Copernicus for his relationship with his housekeeper, Danticus, the Prince-Bishop of Warmia, supported Copernicus work and even invited Gemma Frisius, who Danticus supported, to come to Frombork to work with Copernicus. Tiedmann Giese, Bishop of Kulm, an influential cleric and Copernicus’ best friend, had been urging him to publish for years. Lastly Nicholas Schönberg, Cardinal of Capua, wrote a letter to Copernicus urging him to make his work public. This letter was included in the front material of De revolutionibus. As can be seen Copernicus had solid support for his work within the Church hierarchy. After its publication there was no initial opposition to De revolutionibus from the side of the Church. Copernicus is considered to have held back with publication because he couldn’t provide the proof of the heliocentric hypothesis that he wished to. There were no anonymous copies of De revolutionibus circulated to close friends! I assume our author is confusing De revolutionibus with the Commentariolus, Copernicus unpublished manuscript, which first propagated his heliocentric hypothesis from around 1510.

The book was only published in its entirety on the eve of Copernicus’s death, and the letter to the pope, which was also anonymous, was not written by Copernicus, but by Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran preacher who had been given the job of overseeing the book’s publication. It was an attempt to soften the blow, and states, inter alia, that the author’s findings are only meant to aid the computation of the heavens, and do not even need to be considered true in order for the calculations to be useful.

The implication that Copernicus only gave De revolutionibus free for publication when he was dying is once again total rubbish. Rheticus took the finished manuscript away from Frombork in September 1541 more than eighteen months before Copernicus’ demise. The next sentence is mindboggling for anybody who knows anything about De revolutionibus and its publication history. Copernicus dedicated De revolutionibus to His Holiness Pope Paul III. The anonymous text added by Andreas Osiander during publication was the infamous ad lectorem a totally different text altogether.

The Church would continue to uphold the geocentric model for at least another 150 years, and wouldn’t get around to officially pardoning Galileo until 1992. However, Shapiro claims the persecution of Galileo was merely a PR move by the Church; an attempt to crack down on dissent in response to Protestant accusations of leniency and hypocrisy. The trial of Galileo also saw dozens of astronomical works, including De Revolutionibus, placed on the Church’s “List of Prohibited Books”

Not the geocentric but the geo-heliocentric model of Tycho Brahe, was upheld not only by the Church but also by a very large number astronomers for many decades because the heliocentric model proved extremely difficult to prove. I can’t really comment on Shapiro’s claim, not having read his book and not intending to do so, but whatever the Church’s reasons for the persecution Galileo, and they are very complex, they have absolutely nothing to do with Protestant accusations of leniency and hypocrisy. Galileo is said to have obtained permission from Urban to write his Dialogo, because he claimed that the Protestants were mocking the Catholic Church because of its ignorant stance in the astronomy/cosmology debate. It would appear that Shapiro got his fact confused to put it diplomatically.

“Dozens of astronomical works” is a crass exaggeration and those books that were placed on the Index were placed there in 1616, following Galileo’s first run in with the Church and not in 1633 following his trial. Interestingly, and I get weary of repeating this, De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected, which surprisingly was completed by 1620; the corrected version with only those parts corrected which claimed heliocentricity to be a fact rather than a hypothesis, was then given free by the Church.

What we have here in total is a collection of half remember facts and myths stirred up together with an added sauce of nonsense and then spewed onto the page without any consideration for truth, facts or accuracy. Kind of sums up Quillette in my opinion.

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, Renaissance Science

5 responses to “History of science on the Internet – the gift that keeps giving

  1. John Kane

    It is always a pleasure to see “history” as interpreted by someone who does not know what the hell they are talking about. Pity that some people will believe it.

    Totally OT story,

    Not far from where I grew up we had a fresh-water spring.
    We also had a story of some “woman” being sighted in the fields not far from the spring.

    Two passers–by, in a buggy,–thought that the woman was their sister but when they stopped at the sister’s house, she said that it could not have been her as she had been at home all morning.

    Seventy or eighty years later, I have heard the story of a girl who drowned herself in the spring (for love, of course) and whose spirit still wanders the fields. It is very touching.

    I prefer the original story as it was my father and aunt in the buggy and my other aunt at the house. I really was amazed at the story though.

    We still do not know who the woman in the field was.

  2. Any recommendations on biographies of Copernicus? I keep reading that same misconception (most recently from the new Infinite Powers book).

    • I’m afraid not. All of the older ones, which I have read have issues and I haven’t read any of the more modern ones. My knowledge of Copernicus and his work is based on a large number of academic papers.

  3. “What we have here in total is a collection of half remember facts and myths stirred up together with an added sauce of nonsense and then spewed onto the page without any consideration for truth, facts or accuracy. Kind of sums up Quillette in my opinion.”

    Yes, there are some howlers in Quillette. On the other hand, some of the stuff there is not only good, but would be difficult to get published elsewhere due to exaggerated political correctness.

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