The astronomical librarian 

I’m continuing my look at the French mathematician astronomers of the seventeenth century with some of those, who were both members of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc’s group of telescopic, astronomical observers, as well as Marin Mersenne’s informal Academia Parisiensis, starting with Ismael Boulliau (1605–1694), who like Peiresc and Mersenne was also a prominent member of the Republic of Letters with about 5000 surviving letters. 

Ismael Boulliau Source: Wikimedia Commons

Boulliau was born in Loudun, France the second son of Ismael Boulliau a notary and amateur astronomer and Susanne Motet on 28 September 1605. The first son had been born a year earlier and was also named Ismael, but he died and so the name was transferred to their second son. Both of his parents were Calvinists. His father introduced him to astronomy and in his Astronomia philolaica (1645) Ismael junior tells us that his father observed both Halley’s comet in 1607 and the great comet of 1618. The later was when Boulliau was thirteen years old, and one can assume that he observed together with his father. 

Probably following in his father’s footsteps, he studied law but at the age of twenty-one he converted to Catholicism and in 1631, aged twenty-six, he was ordained a priest. In 1632 he moved to Paris and began to work for Pierre Dupuy (1582–1651) and his brother Jacques (1591–1656), who were keepers of the Bibliothèque du Roi, today the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Boulliau held this position until the death of the Dupuy brothers and during that time travelled widely in Europe collecting books and manuscripts for the library. 

Pierre Dupuy Source: Wikimedia Commons

Boulliau also enjoyed the patronage of the powerful and influential de Trou family, who were closely connected with the library and who financed his book collecting travels. Following the death of the Dupuy brothers he became employed by the French ambassador to the United Provinces, a member of the de Trou family, a secretary and librarian. In 1666, following a dispute with his employer, he became librarian at the Collège de Laon in Paris. For the last five years of his live he returned to the priesthood in the Abbey St Victor near Paris where he died aged 89. Although Boulliau was an active member of Mersenne’s Academia Parisiensis he never became a member of the Académie des sciences, but he was elected one of the first foreign associates of the Royal Society on 4 April 1667. 

Abbey of St. Victor, 1655 Source: Wikimedia Commons

 Like Peiresc, Boulliau was a polymath with extensive knowledge of a wide range of humanities topics, which was useful in his work as a librarian, but, as with Peiresc, it is scientific activities that are of interest here. He continued to make astronomical observations throughout his life, which were of a high level of accuracy. In his Principia, Newton puts him on a level with Kepler for his determination of the planetary orbits. In Book 3 Phenomenon 4 of Principia Newton writes: 

But of all astronomers, Kepler and Boulliau have determined the magnitude of the orbits from observations with the most diligence. 

Boulliau’s first significant scientific publication was, however, not in astronomy but in optics, his De natura lucis (On the Nature of Light) (1638) based on the discussions he was having with Gassendi on the topic. This work is not particular important in the history of optics but it does contain his discussion of Kepler’s inverse square law for the propagation of light.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

His first astronomical work Philolaus (1639), which places him firmly in the Copernican heliocentric camp but not, yet a Keplerian was next. 

He now changed tack once again with a historical mathematical work. In 1644, he translated and published the first printed edition of Theon of Smyrna’s Expositio rerum mathematicarum ad legendum Platonem utilium a general handbook for students of mathematics of no real significance. Continuing with his mathematical publications. In 1657, he published De lineis spiralibus (On Spirals) related to the work of Archimedes and Pappus on the topic.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much later in 1682, he published Opus novum ad arithmeticam infinitorum, which he claimed clarified the Arithmetica infinitorum(1656) of John Wallis (1616–1703).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

All of Boulliau’s work was old fashioned and geometrical. He rejected the new developments in analytical mathematics and never acknowledged Descartes’ analytical geometry. As we shall see, his astronomy was also strictly geometrical. He even criticised Kepler for being a bad geometer. 

Boulliau’s most important publication was his second astronomical text Astronomia philolaica (1645).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this highly influential work, he fully accepted Kepler’s elliptical orbits but rejects almost all of the rest of Kepler’s theories. As stated above his planetary hypothesis is strictly geometrical and centres round his conical hypothesis:

“The Planets, according to that astronomer [Boulliau], always revolve in circles; for that being the most perfect figure, it is impossible they should revolve in any other. No one of them, however, continues to move in any one circle, but is perpetually passing from one to another, through an infinite number of circles, in the course of each revolution; for an ellipse, said he, is an oblique section of a cone, and in a cone, betwixt the vertices of the ellipse there is an infinite number of circles, out of the infinitely small portions of which the elliptical line is compounded. The Planet, therefore, which moves in this line, is, in every point of it, moving in an infinitely small portion of a certain circle. The motion of each Planet, too, according to him, was necessarily, for the same reason, perfectly equable. An equable motion being the most perfect of all motions. It was not, however, in the elliptical line, that it was equable, but in any one of the circles that were parallel to the base of that cone, by whose section this elliptical line had been formed: for, if a ray was extended from the Planet to any one of those circles, and carried along by its periodical motion, it would cut off equal portions of that circle in equal times; another most fantastical equalizing circle, supported by no other foundation besides the frivolous connection betwixt a cone and an ellipse, and recommended by nothing but the natural passion for circular orbits and equable motions,” (Adam Smith, History of Astronomy, IV.55-57).

Boulliau’s Conical Hypothesis [RA Hatch] Source: Wikimedia Commons

Boulliau’s theory replaces Kepler’s second law, and this led to the Boulliau-Ward debate on the topic with the English astronomer Seth Ward (1617–1689), the Savilian Professor of astronomy at Oxford University.

Bishop Seth Ward, portrait by John Greenhill Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ward criticised Boulliau’s theory in his In Ismaelis Bullialdi astro-nomiae philolaicae fundamenta inquisitio brevis (1653), also pointing out mathematical errors in Boulliau’s work. 

Boulliau responded to Ward’s criticisms in 1657, acknowledging the errors and correcting but in turn criticising Ward’s model in his De lineis spiralibus. A year earlier Ward had published his own version of Keplerian astronomy in his Astronomia geometrica (1656).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This exchange failed to find a resolution but this very public debate between two of Europe’s leading astronomers very much raised awareness of Kepler’s work and was factor in its eventual acceptance of Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric astronomy. 

It was in his Astronomia philolaica that Boulliau was the first to form an inverse squared theory of attraction between the sun and the planets. 

As for the power by which the Sun seizes or holds the planets, and which, being corporeal, functions in the manner of hands, it is emitted in straight lines throughout the whole extent of the world, and like the species of the Sun, it turns with the body of the Sun; now, seeing that it is corporeal, it becomes weaker and attenuated at a greater distance or interval, and the ratio of its decrease in strength is the same as in the case of light, namely, the duplicate proportion, but inversely, of the distances that is, 1/d2 ​.

Here we see the influence of Kepler’s theory of light propagation, which as noted Boulliau discussed in his De natura lucis. However, having set up this hypothesis Boulliau goes on to reject it. 

… I say that the Sun is moved by its own form around its axis, by which form it was ignited and made light, indeed I say that no kind of motion presses upon the remaining planets … indeed [I say] that the individual planets are driven round by individual forms with which they were provided …

Despite Boulliau’s rejection of his own hypothesis, during Newton’s dispute with Hooke over who should get credit for the theory of gravity, he gives Boulliau the credit in a letter to Edmond Halley.

…so Bullialdus [i.e., Boulliau] wrote that all force respecting ye Sun as its center & depending on matter must be reciprocally in a duplicate ratio of ye distance from ye center, & used that very argument for it by wch you, Sr, in the last Transactions have proved this ratio in gravity. Now if Mr Hook from this general Proposition in Bullialdus might learn ye proportion in gravity, why must this proportion here go for his invention?

In 1667, Boulliau published a final astronomy book, Ad astronomos monita duo in which he was the first to establish the periodicity of the variable star, Mira Ceti.

Source:

His estimate of the period 333 days was only out by a one day. Mira had first been recognised as a variable star by David Fabricius beginning 3 August 1596.

Apart from his publications Boulliau kept Mersenne’s correspondence network alive for another thirty years after Mersenne’s death, communicating with Leopoldo de’ Medici (1617–1675) in Italy, Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687) in Danzig and Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695). Huygens first imparted his discovery of the rings of Saturn to Boulliau and Boulliau distributed Huygens’ System sarturnium (1658) in Paris. Boulliau also distributed Pascal’s Letters D’Amos Dettonville (1658–1659) to English and Dutch mathematicians, his challenge on the mathematics of the cycloid, an important publication in the development of calculus.

Ismael Boulliau is a prime example of a scholar, who didn’t make any major discoveries or develop any major theories himself but still had a very significant influence on the development of science.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of science

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