Unsound History of the Sound of Space

Those readers, who have been around for a number of years, will know that from time to time the Renaissance Mathematicus has hosted guest posts. One thing that we are very proud of is the very high standard of the authors, who have delivered up, at our invitation, those literary #histSTM highpoints. We only host the best! Todays guest post continues this tradition with a real star of the world of science, science writing and #histSTM, Tom McLeish FRS. Tom was Professor of Physics at Durham University, where he was one of the initiators and chief investigators of the on going Ordered Universe international research project: Interdisciplinary Readings of Medieval Science: Robert Grosseteste (c.1170–1253).


!4th Century portrait of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tom is now Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York (I think he’s doing a slow tour of the beautiful cathedral cities of England). His most recent, in fact very recent, publication is a book that you all should read The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity in Science and Art (OUP, 2019).

Recently he tweeted some truly horrendous #histSTM errors in a BBC publication, I’ll let him explain further, and I immediately thought that would be something for the HIST_SCI HULKTMbut then thought it would be nice if Tom wrote a guest post about it himself. I asked, he said yes and so I give you the HIST_SCI HULK’s mild mannered, but very erudite cousin Tom McLeish.

For some years now I have been treating myself to the weekly delight and lifelong education in the history of science that is Thony Christie’s ‘Renaissance Mathematicus’ blog. To be invited to write a guest instalment is therefore a great surprise and joy. But I’ll rapidly wrap up my imposter syndrome in a few tight twists of context before getting on with the main task of joining the host author in calling out bad and sloppy history of science – and calling for getting it right – for both writers and readers of this blog know that getting history right matters.

As much as I look forward to the weekly arrival of the R-mathematicus email alert, I also anticipate the annual publication of the BBC Proms guide. Science and music are equal passions for me, and as far as I am concerned, music doesn’t get more exciting than the best classical music festival in the world – the London Promenade series of summer concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Although the science I do professionally turns around the physics of soft materials and biophysics, astronomy was my childhood gateway to the study of nature, and is still my own amateur scientific passion. So when I discovered that a chosen theme of this year’s Prom concerts was space, responding to the 50thanniversary of the first human moon landing, I became understandably excited. Sure enough, the usually well-researched and written Proms Guide contained a promising article by Neil Brand, The Sound of Space.

The first page takes the reader on a musical pathway through the scores for science fiction films – an area of expertise for Brand, and a good read. But his thesis that the cosmos and music have been linked for centuries requires some history of science. This is where, as is sadly so often the case, the source-checking (frankly even encyclopaedia checking) runs out. A first indication that trouble is afoot appears in the categorisation of Cicero’s Dream of Scipioas a ‘philosophical treatise’. This marvellous dream-discourse is just the closing portion of the 6thbook of Cicero’s De res publica– the whole work really a political treatise, though highly expansive. It is very significant for the imaginative tradition of viewing the Earth from Space, as I have noted elsewhere , but does indeed mention the ‘music of the spheres’, the author’s point. So we read on for now.


The Universe, the Earth in the centre, surrounded by the seven planets within the zodiacal signs Images from a 12th-century manuscript of Macrobius’ Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis Source: Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, ms. NKS 218 4° via Wikimedia Commons

Enter Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), one of my personal Renaissance/Early-Modern astronomical heroes. I ceaselessly find it impressive that Kepler was able to deduce the three propositions concerning planetary motion that we now refer to as ‘Kepler’s Laws’, including the discovery of the elliptical orbit of Mars (and the other planets) from naked eye observations. He could not have done this, however, without the equally heroic contribution of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who improved the accuracy of stellar positional measurements over his predecessors by two orders of magnitude – and this without a telescope. It was Tycho’s observations that enabled Kepler to deduce the elliptical planetary motion, work begun around 1601 but first published in his Astronomia Nova of 1609. Given that the first telescopic astronomical observations were not made until Thomas Harriot and then Galileo Galilei turned their primitive telescopes skyward in 1609, it is strange that Brand is able to assure us that Kepler used ‘observation through early telescope lenses’ to establish his laws of motion.

A decade’s error may perhaps be forgivable (though not the silence on Tycho Brahe), but errors of, several centuries and more stretches all generosity on my part. For Brand then attempts to link Kepler casually to the adoption of music within the ‘quadrivium’ of mathematical subjects taught in medieval universities.

It is elementary educational history that the structure of the ‘Liberal Arts’, for which the quadrivium formed the second year of study, was conceived by the time the late Roman commentator Macrobius wrote about them (interestingly in a lengthy commentary on the Dream of Scipio, see above!) around 430 AD. There is strong corroboration for this early adoption two centuries later from Isidore of Seville in his compendious Etymologies. Music remained a mathematical art from late antiquity, through the cathedral schools and early universities of the high middle ages to Kepler’s own time.

Brand’s final science-history sin is an even stranger one. For in the next section he introduces us to William Herschel, a Hanoverian, who emigrated to England in 1757. Herschel is a fascinating figure, most famous for his discovery of the first new planet since antiquity – Uranus, in 1781.


William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott Source: Wikimedia Commons

But in an astonishingly dense sweep of double confusion, Brand tells us that Herschel managed this feat ‘through careful calculation with superb new and enormously large optical telescopes.’ The discovery was actually made by observing the tiny greenish disk of Uranus move over several nights against the background of stars, and through a relatively small reflecting telescope[1]. Herschel’s massive 40’ reflector was not operational before 1789, and no more than a twinkle in its designer’s eye in 1781. Brand’s other confusion is, of course, with the discovery of Neptune. This was indeed effected by calculation (simultaneously by Le Verrier in France and Adams in England), following perturbations noticed in the orbit of Uranus. Le Verrier’s theoretical predictions of the whereabouts of the planet that accounted for Uranus’ wanderings lead to the 1846 observational discovery of Neptune in Berlin by Johan Galle.

The reason that the mangling of Herschel’s history is strange, especially in a BBC Proms Guide, is that he was first a musician, not an astronomer. Composer, singer and oboist, his first position in England was as director of the military band in Durham. His later moves to Birmingham and then Bath were also to musical posts, and only in the last did his astronomical interests begin to dominate. His famous sister Carolyn accompanied him, also as a singer, and in parallel career development became an astronomer in her own right, discovering several comets, and recording their observations meticulously. But in the musical phase of his career, William himself composed 24 symphonies and three remarkable oboe concertos among other pieces. It is perhaps the greatest pity of all that, in a year dedicated to music and astronomy, none has found a place at any of the 2019 Prom performances, where they might have embodied a beautiful and historical sound of space.

[1]If you are ever in the area, the Herschel Museum of Astronomy  in Bath, situated in Herschel’s old place of residence, is a delight and you can go out into the back garden where he made his discovery of Uranus.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

4 responses to “Unsound History of the Sound of Space

  1. Laurence Cox

    As Tom is too modest to mention this himself, he is also the author of “Faith and Wisdom in Science”. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/sep/19/faith-wisdom-science-tom-mcleish-review

    • Actually Tom’s post had almost no information on his work or publications. All of the background information on the author was supplied by yours truly.

      • Laurence Cox

        I mentioned it because it is the one book of his that I own. Now you have told me about his new book, I will have to get that as well.

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