A terrible fortnight for the HISTSCI_HULK

It’s been a tough two weeks for my old buddy the HISTSCI_HULK, who has now packed his bags and departed for pastures unknown screaming, “you can all kiss my posterior!” That not what he actually said but you get the message. 

So, what has upset the #histSTM pedant this time and what was the straw that finally broke the poor monsters back? It all started with Nicolaus Copernicus’ birthday on 19 February. As per usual this year, numerous people, including myself, posted on social media to mark the occasion. Our attention was drawn to the post on Twitter by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, so we followed the link to their website and were less than happy about what we found there:

A rigid code of respect for ancient cultures and thought governed the early Renaissance, a period during which resistance to traditional concepts was met with hostility. Therefore, the Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, whose ideas changed the course of astronomy forever, did not release his manuscript for publication until he was on his deathbed.

De revolutionibus Source: Wikimedia Commons


The early Renaissance was a period of lively scientific debate characterised by clashes of contrasting, conflicting, and even contradictory theories, and ideas. The debate in astronomy, to which Copernicus contributed, had been rumbling on since at least the middle of the fifteenth century. Also, it is not true that he “didn’t release his manuscript for publication until he was on his deathbed”. Rheticus published his Narratio Prima, as a trial balloon, in 1540. Following its relatively positive reception, Copernicus gave the manuscript of De revolutionibus to Rheticus to take to Petreius in Nürnberg to be published. At the time, as far as we known, he was still healthy. Printing and publishing a book takes time and by the time the book was finished, Copernicus had suffered a stroke and lay on his deathbed. Finally, the reason why Copernicus held De revolutionibus back for so long was because he couldn’t deliver. In the Commentariolus, Copernicus stated he would prove his hypothesis that the cosmos was heliocentric, but he had failed in this endeavour and so was reluctant to publish, a reluctance that was dissolved by the positive reception of the Narratio Prima.

Looking further on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website, under Ancient Times and the Greeks, we find the following: 

Plato wondered why the starlike planets moved relative to the stars. Trying to answer the question was to occupy the attention of astronomers for many centuries.

Plato was more interested in the how rather than the why. Astronomers sought a mathematical explanation for the celestial movements. 

Under Ptolemy’s Planetary System we find the following

In the theory of Ptolemy, the planets moved in small orbits while revolving in large orbits about the Earth. This theory, although incorrect, could explain the apparent motions of the planets and also account for changes in their brightness.

This is an attempt to explain the deferent–epicycle model of planetary motion that Ptolemaeus presented. If one didn’t already know how Ptolemaeus’ system functioned, one certainly would have no idea after reading this. 

This is what is being described: The basic elements of Ptolemaic astronomy, showing a planet on an epicycle (smaller dashed circle), a deferent (larger dashed circle), the eccentric (×) and an equant (•). Source: Wikimedia Commons


Already more than somewhat miffed the HISTSCI_HULK had the misfortune fourteen days later to view the article posted by the magazine History Today to acknowledge the birthday of Gerard Mercator on 5 March, he flipped out completely, thundering:


Let us examine the offending object, the opening paragraph truly is a stinker:

The age of discovery that began with Christopher Columbus, along with Ferdinand Magellan’s conclusive demonstration that the Earth is round, created a demand for new maps and confronted cartographers with the problem of how to depict the spherical Earth on a flat surface. Of the various solutions, or ‘projections’, the one accepted as the best was that of Gerardus Mercator, which is still in use today. It was also Mercator who first used the term ‘atlas’ for a collection of maps.

In my opinion the age of discovery is an unfortunate misnomer, as I pointed out in a fairly recent blog post on the subject, preferring the term, Contact Period. It didn’t start with Columbus but was well underway by the time he found backing for his first voyage. 

… along with Ferdinand Magellan’s conclusive demonstration that the Earth is round …!!

Where to start? 1) Nobody of significance in Europe need a demonstration that the Earth was round in 1521, it had been an accepted fact for around a thousand years by then. 2) Ferdinand Magellan didn’t demonstrate anything, he died on route on the island of Mactan, waging imperialist war against the indigenous inhabitants. 3) Any nineteenth century flat earther would counter the claim that he “conclusive demonstration that the Earth is round” by stating that he merely sailed in a circle around the flat Earth disc.

… created a demand for new maps and confronted cartographers with the problem of how to depict the spherical Earth on a flat surface.

This statement would have historians of mapmaking and map projection tearing their hair out, that’s if they have any to tear out. The problem of how to project a spherical earth onto a flat surface had been extensively discussed by Ptolemaeus in his Geographia in the second century CE, a book that re-entered Europe at the beginning of fifteenth century more than one hundred years before Magellan undertook his fateful voyage. 

Of the various solutions, or ‘projections’, the one accepted as the best was that of Gerardus Mercator, which is still in use today.

Ignoring for a moment that “accepted as the best” is total rubbish, which of Mercator’s projections? He used at least two different ones and his son a third. Our author is, of course, referring to the so-called Mercator Projection. First off there is no such thing as “the best projection.” All projections have their strengths and weaknesses and, which projection one uses is dependent, or should be, on the task in hand. The Mercator projection allows a mariner to plot a course of constant compass bearing as a straight line on a sea chart. 

Yes, it was Mercator who first used the term atlas for a collection of maps. Our author at least got that right.

The next paragraph is a potted biography, which is OK but is littered with small inaccuracies:

He was born Gerhard Kremer at Rupelmonde in Flanders (now in Belgium), the seventh and last child of an impoverished German family which had recently moved there. His father was a cobbler, but the surname meant ‘merchant’ and Gerhard turned it into Latin as Mercator after his father and mother died when he was in his teens. A great-uncle who was a priest made sure that he got a good education and after graduating from the University of Louvain in 1532 he studied mathematics, geography and astronomy under Gemma Frisius, the Low Countries’ leading figure in these fields. He learned the craft of engraving from a local expert called Gaspar Van der Heyden and the three men worked together in the making of maps, globes and astronomical instruments for wealthy patrons, including the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

When Mercator was born his parents were only visiting his uncle or great-uncle, it is not known for certain whether he was the brother or uncle of Mercator’s father, in Rupelmonde. Following his birth, they returned to Gangelt in the Duchy of Jülich. Whether the family was German, or Flemish is not known for certain. They first moved permanently to Rupelmonde when Mercator was six years old. He adopted the Latin name of Mercator, meaning merchant as does Kremer, not when his parents died but when his uncle/great-uncle sent him to a Latin school. In the school he became Gerardus Mercator Rupelmundanus. After graduating MA on the liberal arts faculty of the University of Louvain in 1532, he left the university and only returned two years later, in 1534, to study geography, mathematics, and astronomy under the guidance of Gemma Frisius. He learnt the art of globe making when he assisted Frisius and Gaspar Van der Heyden to construct a terrestrial globe in 1535. This is followed by another paragraph of biography:

In 1538 Mercator produced a map of the world on a projection shaped like a pair of hearts. His inability to accept the Bible’s account of the universe’s creation got him into trouble with the Inquisition in 1544 and he spent some months in prison on suspicion of heresy before being released. John Dee, the English mathematician, astrologer and sage, spent time in Louvain from 1548 and he and Mercator became close friends.

The sentences about the cordiform projection (heart shaped, devised by Johannes Stabius before Magellan “sailed around the world” by the way) world maps and about John Dee are OK.  Why he refers to Dee as an astrologer but not Frisius or Mercator, who were both practicing astrologers, puzzles me. I’m also not sure why he calls Dee a sage, or what it’s supposed to mean. However, his account of Mercator’s arrest on suspicion of heresy is simply bizarre. He was arrested in 1543 on suspicion of being a Lutheran. Whilst in prison he was accused of suspicious correspondence with the Franciscan friars of Mechelen. No evidence was found to support either accusation, and he was released after four months without being charged. Nothing to do with, “His inability to accept the Bible’s account of the universe’s creation.”

We are now on the home straight with the final paragraph. Mostly harmless biography but it contains a real humdinger!

In 1552 Mercator moved to Duisburg in the Duchy of Cleves in Germany, where he enjoyed the favour of the duke. He set up a cartographic workshop there with his staff of engravers and perfected the Mercator projection, which he used in the map of the world he created in 1569. It employed straight lines spaced in a way that provided an accurate ratio of latitude and longitude at any point and proved a boon to sailors, though he never spent a day at sea himself [my emphasis]. In the 1580s he began publishing his atlas, named after the giant holding the world on his shoulders in Greek mythology, who was now identified with a mythical astronomer-king of ancient times. Strokes in the early 1590s partly paralysed Mercator and left him almost blind. A final one carried him off in 1594 at the age of 82 and he was buried in the Salvatorkirche in Duisburg.

I studied mathematics at university and have been studying/teaching myself the history of map projections for maybe the last thirty years and I have absolutely no idea what the phrase, straight lines spaced in a way that provided an accurate ratio of latitude and longitude at any point, is supposed to mean. I’m certain the author, when he wrote it, didn’t have the faintest clue what he was saying and tried to bluff. I also pity any reader who tries to make any sense out of it. It’s balderdash, hogwash, gobbledygook, poppycock, mumbo-jumbo, gibberish, baloney, claptrap, prattle, or just plain total-fucking-nonsense! What it definitively isn’t, in anyway whatsoever, is a description of the Mercator projection.

This wonderful piece of bullshit caused the HISTSCI_HULK to flip out completely. Imitating Charles Atlas, he tore his facsimile edition of the Mercator-Hondius Atlas in half with his bare hands and threw it out of the window. It’s a hard back by the way.

The term Atlas, as used by Mercator had nothing to do with the mythological Greek Titan Atlas, who by the way, holds the cosmos on his shoulders and not the Earth, but rather bizarrely the equally mythical King Atlas of Mauritania, who according to legend was a wise philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer, who is credited with having produced the first celestial globe. As Mercator explains: “I have set this man Atlas, so notable for his erudition, humaneness, and wisdom as a model for my imitation.”

Bizarrely, the article is illustrated, not by Mercator’s 1569 world map based on his projection, but the double planisphere world map from 1587 created by his son Rumold Mercator (1541–1599), which was based on it, and which first appeared in Isaac Casaubon’s edition of Strabo’s Geographia, published in Geneva. It was incorporated into later editions of the Atlas. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

History Today is a popular English monthly history magazine, which according to Wikipedia, and I quote, “presents serious and authoritative history to as wide a public as possible.” Judging by this article, you could have fooled me. History Today has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter, that’s more than 300,000 potential readers for this garbage. The article was written by Richard Cavendish (1930–2016), an Oxford graduate, who specialised in medieval studies. Most well known as a historian of the occult his work, quoting Wikipedia once more, “is highly regarded for its depth of research and agnostic stance towards its sometimes controversial subject matter,” and, “He also wrote regularly for the British journal History Today.” The article was written in 2012, but the editor, Paul Lay, who considered it “serious and authoritative history” then, is the same editor, who thought it suitable to trot out again in 2022. 

Having within a fortnight been confronted by two horrible examples of how not to write popular #histSTM, the HISTSCI_HULK was more than somewhat mentally fragile when he stumbled on the offending object that finally caused him to snap, pack his bag, and depart, vowing never to read another word ever again. The offending object? A page from the book of the four-year-old daughter of a historian, who I know on Twitter:


“He made an amazing discovery.” As we obviously have to do with Galileo’s telescopic discoveries, there were more than one, we will restrict ourselves to those. All of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries were made independently, in the same time period, by other astronomers and they were also confirmed by the Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano, so in fact anybody, who had anything to say on the topic, not only believed him but also congratulated him for having made them. 

“Galileo changed how people think about the Sun and Earth.” If any single person is going to be given credit for that then surely it should be Copernicus. In fact, it is, in my opinion, wrong to credit any single person with this. The shift in perception from a geocentric cosmos to a heliocentric one was a gradual accumulative process to which a fairly number of people contributed.

“He built a new telescope to study space.” I have difficulties with the new in this sentence. Galileo, like quite a large number of people built a so-called Dutch telescope with which to make astronomical observations. He was by no means unique in doing this and not even the first to do so. What should be expressed here is that Galileo was one of a number of people, who constructed telescopes, after it was invented in 1608, in order to make astronomical observations.

“He proved that Earth travels around the Sun.” Apart from the fact that the sentence isn’t even grammatically correct, it should read “the Earth”, it’s simple false. The problem that faced all the early supporters of a heliocentric model of the cosmos was that they simply couldn’t prove the hypothesis.

“People thought it was the other way around.” Of course, they did because that’s what our senses tell us. We all have to learn that it’s not true!

I have a very simple question. Why do people present young, impressionable children with garbage like this?

In case anybody is concerned, I’m sure the HISTSCI_HULK will return when he’s calmed down.  


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, Myths of Science

6 responses to “A terrible fortnight for the HISTSCI_HULK

  1. David Empey

    Sorry if this is a double-post, there was an error when I tried to post before.

    I would hazard a guess that “straight lines spaced in a way that provided an accurate ratio of latitude and longitude at any point” is a reference to the fact that the proportion of the arc-lengths of a degree (say) of latitude and longitude is preserved in the (most well-known) Mercator projection.
    For example, at the equator degrees of latitude and longitude are the same length, about 60 nautical miles (nm), making the ‘ratio of latitude and longitude’ about 1:1. But at 60 degrees of latitude, a degree of longitude is only about 30 nm, while a degree of latitude is still 60 nm, twice that length, and the ‘ratio’ is about 2:1. These ‘ratios’ are preserved in the Mercator projection, I believe.
    But I certainly agree that the phrase is so badly worded as to be useless.

  2. “In the theory of Ptolemy, the planets moved in small orbits while revolving in large orbits about the Earth.”

    (nods sagely) Ah, yes, a large orbit the size of a small orbit.

  3. Michael Traynor

    The poor HISTSCI_HULK! Good read, as always.

    I have a question about “Whilst in prison he was accused of suspicious correspondence with the Franciscan friars of Mechelen.” What were the Friars are Mechelen up to that one could have suspicious communications with them?

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