Category Archives: Autobiographical

Imre and me – a turning point

Today is once again the anniversary of the day I started this blog nine years ago. Nine years‽ I have difficulty believing that I have really churned out blog posts on a regular basis, with only minor breaks, for nine years now. It has become something of a tradition that on my blog anniversary I post something autobiographical and I have decided this year to maintain that tradition and explain why, when asked, I always name Imre Lakatos’ Proof and Refutations not just as my favourite book but as the most important/influential book in my life.

As regular readers might have gathered my life has been anything but the normal career path one might expect from a white, middle class, British man born and raised in Northeast Essex. It has taken many twists and turns, detoured down one or other dark alleyway, gone off the rails once or twice and generally not taken the trajectory that my parents and school teachers might have hoped or expected it to take.

In 1970 I went to university in Cardiff to study archaeology but after one year I decided that archaeology was not what I wanted to do and dropped out. I however continued to live in Cardiff apart from some time I spent living in Belgium and but that’s another story. During this period of my life I earned my living doing a myriad of different things whilst I was supposedly trying to work out what it was that I actually wanted to do. As I’ve said on several occasions I became addicted to the history of mathematics at the age of sixteen and during this phase of my life I continued to teach myself both the history of maths and more generally the history of science.

In 1976 my life took another left turn when I moved to Malmö in Sweden.


Image of Malmö (Elbogen) in Scania, Southern Sweden from a German book (Civitates orbis terrarum, Vol. IV, by G. Braun & F. Hogenberg) .1580 Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was not my first attempt to move to Sweden there had been another abortive attempt a couple of years earlier but that is also another story. This time the move was not instituted by me but by my then partner K. K was a qualified nursery nurse and had applied for a job looking after the children of a pair of doctors in Malmö and her application had been successful. The couple agreed to my accompanying K on the condition that to pay my part of the rent of the flat (that went with the job) I would look after their garden until such time as I found work.

So after witnessing the rained out but brilliant Bob Marley open air in Cardiff football stadium in the summer of 76, we set of for a new life in Malmö. Not having employment my role was to do the cleaning, shopping, cooking and looking after the garden, all things I had been doing for years so no sweat. This left me with a lot of spare time and it wasn’t long before I discovered the Malmö public library. The Swedes are very pragmatic about languages; it is a country with a comparatively small population that lives from international trade so they start learning English in kindergarten. The result in that the public library has lots and lots of English books including a good section on the history and philosophy of mathematics and science, which soon became my happy hunting ground. Card catalogues sorted by subject are a great invention for finding new reading matter on the topic of your choice.

At that point in life I was purely a historian of mathematics with a bit of history of science on the side but in Malmö public library I discovered two books that would change that dramatically. The first was Stephan Körner’s The Philosophy of Mathematics–mathematics has a philosophy I didn’t know that–and the second was Karl Popper’s collection of papers, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Both found their way back to our flat and were consumed with growing enthusiasm. From that point in my life I was no longer a historian of mathematics and science but had become that strange two-headed beast a historian and philosopher of mathematics and science.

Given the fundamental difference between empirical science and logically formal mathematics my next move might seem to some to be somewhat strange. However, I began to consider the question whether it would be possible to construct a Popperian philosophy of mathematics based on falsification. I gave this question much thought but made little progress. In 1977, for reasons I won’t expand upon here, we returned to the UK and Cardiff.

In Cardiff I continued to pursue my interest in both the histories and philosophies of mathematics and science. In those days I bought my books in a little bookshop in the Morgan Arcade in Cardiff.


Morgan Arcade Source: Wikimedia Commons

One day the owner, whose name I can’t remember but who knew my taste in books said, “I’ve got something here that should interest you” and handed me a copy of Imre Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery[1]. I now for the first time held in my hands a Popperian philosophy of mathematics or as Lakatos puts it a philosophy of mathematics based on the theories of George Pólya, Karl Popper and Georg Hegel, a strange combination.


This is still the copy that I bought on that fateful day in the small bookshop in the Morgan Arcade forty plus years ago

Lakatos was born Imre Lipschitz in Debrecen, Hungary in 1922. He studied mathematics, physics and philosophy graduating from the University of Debrecen in 1944. Following the German invasion in 1944 he formed a Marxist resistance group with his girlfriend and later wife. During the occupation he changed his Jewish name to Molnár to avoid persecution. After the War he changed it again to Lakatos in honour of his grandmother, who had died in Auschwitz. After the War he became a civil servant in the ministry of education and took a PhD from the University of Debrecen in 1948. He also studied as a post doc at the University of Moscow. Involved in political infighting he was imprisoned for revisionism from 1950 to 1953. One should point out that in the post War period Lakatos was a hard-line Stalinist and strong supporter of the communist government. His imprisonment however changed his political views and he began to oppose the government. Out of prison he returned to academic life and translated Georg Pólya’s How to Solve It[2] into Hungarian. When the Russians invaded in 1956, Lakatos fled to the UK via Vienna. He now took a second PhD at the University of Cambridge in 1961 under R.B. Braithwaite. In 1960 he was appointed to a position at the LSE where he remained until his comparatively early death at the age of 51 in 1974.


Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science – Professor Imre Lakatos, c1960s Source: Wikimedia Commons

The book that I had acquired is a large part of Lakatos’ 1961 PhD thesis, published in book form posthumously[3], and extends Popper’s philosophy of logical discovery into the realm of mathematics. In his seminal work The Logic of Scientific Discovery, (which I had read shortly after discovering his Conjectures and Refutations) Karl Popper moved the discussion in the philosophy of science from justification to discovery. Most previous work in the philosophy of science had been devoted to attempting to justify the truth of accepted scientific theories; Popper’s work was concerned on a formal level at how we arrive at those theories. The same situation existed in the philosophy of mathematics. Philosophers of mathematics were concerned with the logical justification of proven mathematical theorems. Lakatos turned his attention instead to the historical evolution of mathematical theorem.

Proofs and Refutations is written in the form of a Socratic dialogue, although the discussion has more than two participants. A teacher and his class, the students all have Greek letters for names, who are trying to determine the relationship between the number of vertices, edges and faces in polyhedra, V-E+F = 2; a formula now known as the Euler characteristic or Euler’s Gem[4]. The discussion in the class follows and mirrors the evolution in spacial geometry that led to the discovery of this formula. Lakatos giving references to the historical origins of each step in the footnotes. The discussion takes the reader down many byways and cul de sacs and on many detours and around many corners where strange things are waiting to surprise the unwary reader.

The book is thoroughly researched and brilliantly written: erudite and witty, informative on a very high level but a delight to read. I don’t think I can express in words the effect that reading this book had on me. It inspired me to reach out to new heights in my intellectual endeavours, although I knew from the very beginning that I could never possibly reach the level on which Lakatos resided. Before reading Proofs and Refutations, history of mathematics had been a passionate hobby for me; afterwards it became the central aim in my life. I applied to go back to university in Cardiff to study philosophy, having already matriculated six years earlier to study archaeology this meant a one to one interview with a head of department. I completely blew the interview; I always do!

In 1980 I moved to Germany and in 1981 I applied to go to university in Erlangen to study mathematics, which I was able to do after having spent a year learning German. I wanted to choose philosophy as my subsidiary, which meant an interview with a professor. The man I met was Christian Thiel, a historian of logic and mathematics although I didn’t know that at the time, who was just starting his first year as professor, although he had earlier studied in Erlangen. We clicked immediately and although he no longer remembers on that day we discussed the theories of Imre Lakatos. As I documented here Christian Thiel became my mentor and is indirectly more than somewhat responsible for this blog

I have read a lot of books in my life and I continue to do so, although now much more slowly than in the past, but no book has ever had the same impact on me as Proofs and Refutations did the first time I read it. This is why I always name it when asked questions like, what was the most important book you have read or what is your all time favourite book.


[1] Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery, eds. John Worrall and Elie Zahar, CUP, Cambridge etc., 1976

[2] How to Solve It is a wonderful little volume describing methods for solving mathematical problems; its methodology can also be used for a much wider range of problems and not just mathematical ones.

[3] Part of the thesis had been published as a series of four papers paper under the title Proofs and Refutations in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 14 1963-64. The main part of the book is an expanded version of those original papers.

[4] I recommend David S. Richeson, Euler’s Gem, University Press Group Ltd., Reprint 2012


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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Mathematics, Uncategorized

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible


I am currently engaged in copyediting the English translations of a collected volume of history of science papers. The translations are mostly crappy and the English more than somewhat dubious. The result is that it is difficult, irritating, exasperating and at time down right shitty. The official deadline was 30 September but I am not to blame, as I had not even received the majority of the typescripts by then!

Add to this the fact that I am trying to cope with three different moderately serious physical health problems. The end result of all this is that my mental health is starting to deteriorate. I am currently even more of an aggressive, obnoxious arsehole than usual.

Conserving my mental health has been the number one priority in my life for a number of years now, so I have decided that I need to reduce the stress in my life. This means that I will not be blogging for the next couple of weeks. I am planning on being back for my usual Christmas trilogy if all goes well.

To keep you occupied in my absence you can offer your opinions on the following thoughts. The man who more than anyone else in responsible for the existence of this blog the Albino Aussie Anthropoid,TM John Wilkins, has once again tackled the problem of those that say , evolution is ‘just’ a theory.

I personally think that scientists and science communicators are themselves partially to blame. A theory is actually what the denialists think it is, a point of view, an idea, a standpoint, as in, “I don’t know why she left him but I have a theory.” The theory of evolution and all other scientific theories are just that they are scientific theories and not just theories; a scientific theory being a tested hypothesis that explains the given scientific facts. Scientist and science communicators need to stop being lazy and start saying scientific theory and not just sloppily saying theory.


Filed under Autobiographical

School days

It is the middle of August and also the middle of what in German is known as Saure-Gurken-Zeit, in English as the silly season and in American as the dog days. It’s that time when parliaments are in recess, the politicians on holiday and the press is full of silly man bites dog stories. Even the history of science community is in a sort of half sleep with little happening and many of its members conspicuous by their absence. This being the case I though I would write a somewhat frivolous post this week before I too disappear off on holiday or a gathering of the clan in the beautiful city of Bath to be more precise.

It is common practice for schools to boast about the famous politicians, sports persons and show business celebrities who once, as snotty nosed kids, ran screaming through their corridors but what about the scientists? Which notable or significant scientist got their education at the pedagogical institution where you acquired the ability to write grammatical sentences and to find the derivatives of simple trigonometrical functions? To start the ball rolling I shall tell you of my historical scientific school chums and I hope you will tell me of yours in the comments.

I will admit to having an advantage as the grammar school that I attended has a somewhat more than eight hundred year history giving them lots of time to have educated one or other scientific luminary. From September 1963 till July 1969 I was a pupil of Colchester Royal Grammar School (CRGS) for boys, one of England’s most elite state schools; the first four years as a day boy, the last to as a boarder. Founded at the beginning of the thirteenth century, 1206 to be precise, and adorned with not one but two royal charters, Henry VIII (1539) and Elizabeth I (1584), it has boasted one of the highest Oxbridge entrance rates and best A-level averages almost every year since the WWII. It would be very surprising if this august educational institution had not thrown up a notable scientist over the centuries and in fact it can boast at least three.

School House CRGS pre-1908. The first floor window to the left of the main entrance in the middle was my bedroom for two years.
Source Wikimedia Commons

CRGS’s first and possibly most famous scientist (if you’ll excuse the anachronistic use of the term) was William Gilbert (1544–1603). Born in Colchester he followed his time at the school by becoming one of those Oxbridge statistics in 1558, St. John’s College Cambridge to be precise, where he graduated BA in 1561, MA in 1564 and MD in 1569. He moved to London where he followed a successful medical career. Elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians he became their president in 1600. He became personal physician to Elizabeth I in 1601 and to James IV and I and 1603 the year of his death.

William Gilbert (1544–1603) artist unknown.
Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Gilbert is of course most famous for his De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on That Great Magnet the Earth) published in London in 1600, regarded as one of the first ‘modern’ science books. This legendary scientific publication was much admired in its time and exercised a great influence on the development of experimental physics in the first half of the seventeenth century. Galileo praised it but thought it had too little mathematics and Kepler based his theory of a planetary force holding/driving the planets in their orbits on a magnetic monopole theory derived from Gilbert’s book. Based on his false belief that a terrella (a spherical magnet) revolves on its axis and his correct assumption that the earth is a large spherical magnet, Gilbert hypothesised a diurnal rotation for the earth. His theory had a major influence on the acceptance of a helio-geocentric system with diurnal rotation (as opposed to one without) in the first half of the seventeenth century.

There is a certain irony in the fact that although Gilbert is thought to have attended CRGS, as his name is attached to another school in Colchester, The Gilberd School. Gilberd is an alternative spelling of the family name.

We fast-forward almost a century to CRGS’s next scientific luminary, Francis Hauksbee (1660-1730). Not as famous as Gilbert, Hauksbee is still a notable figure in the history of science. Also a born Colcestrian, Hauksbee original apprenticed as a draper to his older brother in 1678 but at some point he became an assistant to Isaac Newton. In 1703 he became Robert Hooke’s successor as curator, experimentalist and instrument maker at the Royal Society.

From 1705 onwards he concentrated his experimental efforts on the phenomenon of electricity, a word coined by Gilbert in his De Magnete, publishing his investigations in his Physico-Mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects in 1709. In 1708 he independently discovered Charles’s law of gasses. Being something of an unsung hero of science it is fitting that in 2009 the Royal Society created the Hauksbee Awards to recognise “the unsung heroes of science, technology, engineering and maths for their work and commitment.”

We now spring into the nineteenth century to a scientist who whilst probably not as well known as Gilbert was truly one of the giants of science in his time, George Biddle Airy (1801– 1892).

George Biddell Airy (1801-1892)
John Collier / 1883
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Alnwick in Northumberland he attended CRGS after an elementary school in Hereford. Like Gilbert he went up to Cambridge University, in his case Trinity College, in 1819. He graduated senior wrangler in in 1823, became a fellow of Trinity in 1824 and became Lucasian professor of mathematics, Newton’s chair, in 1826. He moved to the Plumian chair of astronomy in 1828 and was appointed director of the new Cambridge observatory. The list of Airy’s appointments and scientific achievements is too long for this light summer post – he published 518(!) scientific papers in his long live – but he was most notably Astronomer Royal from 1835 until his retirement in 1881.

George Biddell Airy caricatured by Ape in Vanity Fair Nov 1875
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As you can see CRGS can boast a trio of notable scientist in its long history, what about your alma mater? I do have to admit that I was expelled from CRGS in 1969 and finished my schooling at Holland Park Comprehensive in the school year 69–70. Much younger than CRGS, Holland Park was in my time as famous as the older establishment, as the flag ship educational establishment in the Labour government’s scheme to turn the English school system into a comprehensive one. I must admit that I know of no famous scientists who have emerged from Holland Park and my own memories of my one year there are largely of getting stoned and dropping acid; come on it was the late 60s and Notting Hill Gate!


Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of Physics, History of science

“One man takes the credit, one man takes the blame…”

Er war einst groß in Spiel mit den Symbolen,

War viele Künste, viele Sprachen Meister,

War ein weltkundiger, ein weit gereister,

Berühmter Mann, gekannt bis zu den Polen,

Umgeben stets von Schülern und Kollegen.

Ein Fragment von den Gedichten des jungen Josef K.[1]


In my blog anniversary post yesterday I explained how I came to live in Germany; today in what is a sort of continuation of that post, I will explain how I came to evolve from a rank amateur deeply interested in the histories of mathematics and science into a full blown quasi-professional historian of science. This post is a tribute to the man who is responsible for that evolution, my friend, mentor and teacher Christian Thiel, who celebrates his eightieth birthday today.


I tell a joke that when I first came to Germany I could only speak six words of German: ja, nein, bitte, danke, Bier and Scheiße. In reality this was almost the truth, so the first task I set myself, when I decided to stay, was to learn the language. As well as buying teach-yourself books, I also started attending German courses at the adult education evening classes in Nürnberg. These were actually very good but were, as far as I was concerned, far too slow and so I began to look around for alternatives. Somebody told me that the local university in Erlangen ran courses in German as a foreign language, so I trundled off to investigate. It turned out that to register for these courses I needed to apply for a place as a normal student at the university. Now I had dropped out of university in Cardiff ten years earlier, with the intention of returning to higher education when I had sorted out what it was that I really wanted to study, so I thought why not. I registered to become a maths student and was thus admitted to the German as a foreign language course.

I now spent a year learning German at the university in the mornings and working as an industrial cleaner in the afternoons. The course was very intensive, as the students are expected to be capable of taking a degree course in any academic subject in German at the end of it. To my own surprise I passed the course with flying colours and was now qualified to start my studies as a student of mathematics.

In those days the first degree in mathematics at the university of Erlangen was a diploma, equivalent of a master’s degree at an English university. Alongside the main subject students had to choose a subsidiary subject. In the 1970s I had become very interested in the philosophy of science and so I thought I would take a shot at that. One chair in the philosophy department was also offering a seminar in constructive geometry for the coming semester. I had no idea what constructive geometry was but it was an added incentive to choose philosophy as my subsidiary. The chair in question was one specialising in history and philosophy of science; I decided to go take a look see.

I found out when the professor held his office hours and went along at the appointed time. He wasn’t there. Knocking on his secretary’s door I asked when the professor would be there. She very kindly rang the professor and said that if I could wait, he would be along soon. I had waited maybe a quarter of an hour when I then met Christian Thiel for the first time. What I didn’t know was that it was not only my first semester as a student at the university but it was also Christian Thiel’s first semester as occupant of that chair. He, an Erlanger, had studied in Erlangen, taken his doctorate and his habilitation there but had then gone away to a chair elsewhere, as was normal in the German academic system. He was now returning to Erlangen to occupy the chair of his own mentor, Paul Lorenzen. What I also didn’t know at the time was that the department secretary had warned Christian Thiel that there was a ‘dangerous looking man’ waiting to see him. I was wearing a complete set of black motorcycle leathers, had my long hair tied back in a ponytail and sported three very prominent silver earrings, dangerous?

Christian Thiel wasn’t at all fazed by my dangerous appearance. We got on from the very first moment and were soon deep in a conversation about maths and the philosophy of science. In the time (ten years!) that I spent studying at Erlangen University more than fifty per cent of the courses that I took were with Christian Thiel. I think I learnt more from him than all of the other teachers that I have had in my life put together. He formed me, any abilities that I might possess as a historian of science I owe largely to Christian Thiel.

The maths department in Erlangen, when I studied, was not interested in the history of mathematics, my main motivation for studying the subject, Christian Thiel, however, was a historian of mathematics and mathematical logic, so after a time I dropped maths and became a student of philosophy with English philology and history as my subsidiaries. This move was also motivated by the fact that very early in my studies Christian Thiel, who obviously saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself, offered me, to my surprise, a position in a major research project into the social history (read external history) of formal logic. I learnt so much in that research project, probably more than in my official studies and it is here that I really became a genuine historian of science. I can’t say how much being offered that chance, as a student, to do real cutting edge historical research meant to me. Without it I would not be sitting here now writing this blog post.

As the title of this blog post says, ‘one man takes the credit, one man takes the blame’ and that man is Christian Thiel and I am very pleased to be able to write this brief tribute to him on my blog on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.

I should point out that this is not the first tribute that I have written to Christian Thiel. The German quote that opens this post is taken from my essay in the Festschrift[2] published in honour of his retirement twelve years ago. This in turn is loosely based on the speech I held at the conference in his honour in Altdorf in 2005. Nearly all of the lectures at the conference related to Christian Thiel as an academic researcher, I had the privilege of honouring Christian Thiel the teacher. There is not a little irony in this. Over the years Christian Thiel has taught many, many successful students, postgraduates and postdocs, I, however, am, so to speak, one of his failures, falling at the final fence and failing to graduate. I closed my speech and my essay with a simple phrase, which I’m going to repeat once again here.


“Thanks Chris, you have been a bloody good teacher.”


[1] A couple of words about the title and the opening quote to this post. The title is a line from Tom Lehrer’s song Lobachevsky. I would like to point out that whilst the title hero of the song has inspired the narrator to plagiarise, Christian Thiel actually taught me and all of his students the exact opposite. I chose the quote because a love of Tom Lehrer and of Hermann Hesse the source of the opening quote are two of the many things that I and Christian Thiel have in common. Das Glasperlenspiel, the source of the opening quote, is my favourite novel and when I set out to learn German, one of my aims was  to be able to read it in German one day. In Germany to become a professor a scholar has to do a sort of second doctorate called a habilitation. When the habilitation thesis has been graded and accepted the potential habilitant then has to hold a habilitation lecture in front of an audience of all of the habilitanten of his faculty. Thiel’s habilitation lecture was on Das Glasperlenspiel.

[2] Thony Christie, The Teacher in G. Löffladt (Hrsg), Mathematik – Logik – Philosophie: Ideen und ihre historischen Wechselwirkungen, Verlag Harri Deutsch, Frankfurt am Main, 2012


Filed under Autobiographical

Open shelved serendipity

One of my favourite radio science programmes is BBC Radio 4’s Science Stories presented by Philip Ball and Naomi Alderman. Yesterday was the first episode of the fifth series of this excellent piece of popular history of science broadcasting. Last week whilst advertising the new series on Twitter Philip Ball let drop the fact that next weeks episode would be about the medieval theologian and scholar Robert Grosseteste, featuring the physicist of the fascinating interdisciplinary University of Durham research project Ordered Universe, Thom McLeish. This brief Internet exchange awoke in me memories of my own first encounter with the medieval Bishop of Lincoln.

14th-Century Portrait of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln by unknown scribe
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I studied mathematics, philosophy, English philology and history with a strong emphasis on the history and philosophy of science, as a mature student, at the University of Erlangen between 1981 and 1991. It was this period of my life that converted me from an enthusiastic amateur into a university educated and trained researcher into the history of science (For more on this see my post next Monday). When I started this decade of formal studies I held a fairly standard, conservative view of the Scientific Revolution; this started with the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in 1543 and was completed with the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687. What disrupted, one could even say exploded, this idealised picture was my first encounter with Grosseteste.

Erlangen University is a comparatively large university and its main library is, like that of almost all such institutions, closed shelf. However the department libraries are almost all open shelf and as a student I developed the habit of browsing library bookshelves with no particular aim in view. The Bavarian State university library system has for book purchases an emphasis policy. Each Bavarian university library has a collecting emphasis so that specialist books in a particular discipline are only bought/collected by one university but are available to all the others through the interlibrary loan system. This is a method of making the available funds go further. Erlangen’s collection emphasis is philosophy, including the history and philosophy of science, so the philosophy department library is particularly well stocked in this direction.

One day fairly early in my time as a student in Erlangen I was cruising the history and philosophy of science bookshelves in the philosophy department library when my eyes chanced upon a rather unimposing, fairly weighty book by some guy called Alistair Crombie (I had know idea who he was then) with the title Robert Grosseteste and the origins of experimental science: 1100 – 1700. I have no idea what motivated me to take that volume home with me but I did and once I started reading didn’t stop until I had reached the end. This was a whole new world to me, the world of medieval science, of whose existence I had been blissfully unaware up until that point in time. Reading Crombie’s book radically changed my whole understanding of the history of science.

Here was this twelfth/thirteenth century cleric, lecturer at Oxford University (and possibly for a time chancellor of that august institution), who went on to become Bishop of Lincoln, teaching what amounted to empirical mathematical science.

Grosseteste’s Tomb and Chapel in Lincoln Cathedral
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be pointed out that whilst Grosseteste was strong on mathematical empirical science in theory, his work was somewhat lacking in the practice of that which he preached. Crombie has Grosseteste standing at the head of a chain of scholars that include Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, the Oxford Calculators (about whom there is a good podcast from History of Philosophy without any gaps) and the Paris Physicists in the fourteenth century and so on down to Isaac Newton at the end of the seventeenth century. Unknown to me at the time Crombie was presenting a modernised version of the Duhem Thesis that the scientific revolution took place in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and not as the standard model has it, and as I had believed up till I read Crombie’s book, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This was the start of a long intellectual journey for me during which I read the works of not only Crombie but of Edward Grant, Marshal Clagett, John Murdoch, David Lindberg, A. Mark Smith, Toby Huff and many other historians of medieval science. This journey also took me into the fascinating world of Islamic science, which in turn led me to the histories of both Indian and Chinese science although I still have the impression that in all these areas medieval European science, Islamic science, and Indian and Chinese science I have till now barely scratched the surface.

As I said above this journey started with Crombie’s book and Robert Grosseteste discovered whilst aimlessly browsing the shelves in the department library. This is by no means the only important and influential book that I have discovered for myself by this practice of browsing in open shelf department libraries. On one occasion I went looking for one specific book on map projection in the geography department library and, after a happy hour or two of browsing, left with an armful of books on the history of cartography. On another occasion I discovered, purely by accident, The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton edited by Logan Pearsall Smith in the English Department Library. Wotton a sixteenth/seventeenth century English diplomat was a passionate fan of natural philosophy, who sent the first copies of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, fresh off the printing press to London on its day of publication in 1610.

There are many other examples of the scholarly serendipity that my habit of browsing open shelf library shelves has brought me over the years but I think I have already made the point that I wanted to when I set out to write this post. Libraries are full of wonderful, vista opening books, so don’t wait for somebody to recommend them to you but find an open shelf library and go and see what chance throws you way, it might just change your life.







Filed under Autobiographical, History of science, Mediaeval Science

The Man from Nowhere

This post has nothing to do with the history of science, so if you come here just for that, you don’t need to read this.

I just had an exchange on the Internet with an acquaintance, who knows that I’m British (at least according to my passport) but had forgotten that I live in Germany. He suggested I would pay for something in pounds sterling and I pointed out that it would be Euro for me. His response was that many of us live away from home: he’s an Irishman who lives in America. This exchange reminded me of a post that I started to write but never finished and inspired me to finish it.

Recently the UK’s prime minister Theresa May said, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world you’re a citizen of nowhere”. My immediate response, as a nominal British citizen, was the title of this post, because I have, I think, every reason to consider myself a citizen of the world. I will explain.

My father’s family were lowland Scots but he was born and brought up in London, although his parents made sure that he stayed in touch with his Scottish roots. My mother’s family were Northern Irish protestants but she was born in Rangoon in Burma, a third generation colonialist in British India, and spent the first thirty plus years of her life living in Burma and Northern India. Her family were tea planters. My brother, the eldest child of the family, was born in Lahore, at the time part of India today in Pakistan. My eldest sister was, like my mother, born in Rangoon, in fact in the same hospital. My father served in the Royal Indian Army during WWII, which is how he met my mother. She was the matron of the hospital where he was treated for malaria. After the war he became a civil servant and they settled down to life in India. However in 47/48, with independence they moved back to Britain, to Derbyshire. My younger sister was born in Buxton. In 1951 they moved to North-East Essex and I, for my sins, was born in Clacton-on Sea, although my parents lived in an agricultural village about seven miles inland, where I spent the first fifteen years of my life.

I then spent two years at boarding school in Colchester, Britain’s oldest city (or so they claim); living in central London in the school holidays. Having been thrown out of my boarding school, thank god, I spent one year living in central London and going to school in Holland Park. Having acquired a ropy set of A-levels I trundled off to Cardiff in Wales, which would be my main base for the next ten years. Whilst based in Cardiff I had periods of living in Brussels in Belgium and in Malmö in Southern Sweden. I have now lived in Middle Franconia in Southern Germany for thirty-seven years. Are you still paying attention at the back there?

I have a younger half sister (we share a father), who like her mother is Dutch, although her mother was born in Java and spent a substantial part of her childhood in a Japanese concentration camp. My half sister also has three mother tongues having grown up in England, Holland and Columbia. My step mother (not my half-sister’s mother), who is an fantastic lady and one of my best friends, is English but spent part of her childhood in the Middle East and as a young woman married an Indian and lived in Northern India for several years. Expelled from Burma following the war my mother’s family all moved to Western Australia where they thrived and prospered. I sometimes have the feeling that I’m related to half of the population of Perth. My brother’s daughter, my eldest niece, married an American, who she met in Munich when they were both working for Siemens, and now lives in Florida with her two charming American daughters.

I have lived in five different European countries – England, Wales (and don’t make the mistake of thinking England and Wales are the same country), Belgium, Sweden and Germany. Although I was born there, I was always regarded as an incomer in the conservative, rural, North-East Essex community where I grew up and after my mother died, when I was fifteen, I became effectively rootless, a vagabond whose home was wherever his bed was. In later life I have found a home in Middle Franconia, Erlangen is my Heimat, a German word, which is not really translatable; it means much more than simply home. However my true home for the last ten years has been the Internet and the readers of my blogs, the people I follow on social media and who follow me and the people I communicate with through comment columns and email come literally from all over the world. A day in which I converse with people from Australia, India, North and South America and half the countries of Europe is a normal day in my current life.

Although I now call Erlangen my Heimat, I still identify with North-East Essex where I grew up and first found my way in the world. I identify with the London of the late 1960s where I discovered sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. I identify with Cardiff and the ten years of my life that did most to shape the person that I am today. I identify with Brussels where I learnt for the first time what it means to live is a foreign culture, although I had a strong inkling of this from my time working with Welsh language theatre companies. I identify with Malmö, where I discovered both the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of science and for the first time set myself the aim of becoming a historian and philosopher of science; an aim of which this blog is the end product. Being a historian of the subjects has also taught me that the evolution of mathematics, science, medicine and technology has never respected national, cultural, religious or language boundaries. I am drawn to Asia not only because it is where my mother came from but also because my father was a lecturer for art and archaeology of South-East Asia and I grew up as much on anecdotes of lands such as Viet Nam and Indonesia as any tales of European countries.

I am a historian of astronomy and all those who have looked up to the stars, rather than down to their feet, have always been awed by the vastness of space. On a cosmic scale we cling to the surface of a very small lump of rock, circling a comparatively small star, on the edge of a not particularly big galaxy of which there are a couple of zillion out there. For me national boundaries, counties, continents and whatever dividing lines people think up, and they are all of them artificial constructs, have very little substantive meaning. I am a citizen of the world and if that makes me a nowhere man then it’s a label that I wear with pride.

Theresa May’s comment, which sparked this mild tirade, has the stench of the parochial, racist tinged, xenophobia that is so typical of a certain strain of English thought. It is something that my truly cosmopolitan parents made me aware of, and also warned me about, from a very early age. It is an aspect of English society that I detest and reject with all my heart. My parent taught me to embrace the world and they taught me well. In my youth I was for many years first a Cub and then a Boy Scout, it was one of the few social activities for children in the village where I grew up. One of the Scout laws is (was?), ‘a scout is a brother to every other scout, no mater to what country, class or creed the other may belong’. I have tried to live by an extended version of that law, ‘a human is a sibling to every other human, no mater to what country, class or creed the other may belong. We’s all just humans baby!




Filed under Autobiographical

A birthday amongst the stars

Readers will probably be aware that as well as writing this blog I also hold, on a more or less regular basis, semi-popular, public lectures on the history of science. These lectures are as diverse as this blog and have been held in a wide variety of places. However I have, over the years, held more lectures in the Nürnberg Planetarium than anywhere else and last Thursday I was once again under the dome, this time not to hold a lecture but to help celebrate the ninetieth birthday of this august institution.

Before the twentieth century the term planetarium was a synonym for orrery, a mechanical model, which demonstrates the movements of the planets in the solar system. The beginnings of the planetarium in the modern sense was as Walther Bauersfeld, an engineer of the German optics company Zeiss, produced the plans for the construction of a planetarium projector based on earlier concepts. In 1923 the world’s first planetarium projector, the Zeiss Mark I, was demonstrated in the Zeiss factory in Jena and two months later on 21 October in the Deutschen Museum in Munich. Following further developments the first planetarium was opened in the Deutschen Museum on 7 May 1925.

Zeiss Mark I Planetarium Projector

Various German town and cities followed suit and the city council of Nürnberg signed a contract with Zeiss for a planetarium projector on 12 February 1925. The contract called for the city council to pay Zeiss 150, 000 Reichsmark ( a small fortune) in three instalments and 10% of the takings from the public shows. In a building on Rathenauplatz designed by Otto Ernst Schweizer the Nürnberg planetarium opened ninety years ago on 10 April 1927.

Original Nürnberg Planetarium

Fitted out with a new Zeiss Mark II projector the first of the so-called dumbbell design projectors with a sphere at each end for the north and south hemispheres. It was the world’s ninth planetarium.

Zeiss Mark II Planetarium Projector

From the very beginning the planetarium was born under a bad sign as the NSDAP (Nazi) city councillor, Julius Streicher, (notorious as the editor of the anti-Semitic weekly newspaper Der Stürmer) vehemently opposed the plans of the SPD council to build the planetarium. On 30 January 1933 the NSDAP seized power in Germany and the days of the planetarium were numbered. In November the planetarium director was ‘persuaded’ to recommend closing the planetarium and at the beginning of December it was closed. There were discussions about using the building for another purpose but Streicher, now Gauleiter (district commissioner) of Franconia was out for revenge. In March 1934 the planetarium was demolished on Streicher’s orders, with the argument that it looked too much like a synagogue! However the projector, and all the technical equipment, was rescued and put into storage.

Historischer Kunstbunker Entrance: There are guided tours

During the Second World War the projector was stored together with the art treasures of the city in the Historischer Kunstbunker (historical art bunker), a tunnel under the Castle of Nürnberg.

Following the war, in the 1950s, as Nürnberg was being rebuilt the city council decided to rebuild the planetarium and on 11 December 1961 it was reopened on the new site on the Plärrer, with an updated Zeiss Mark III. During the celebrations for the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Nicolaus Copernicus in 1973, whose De revolutionibus was printed and published in Nürnberg, the planetarium became the Nicolaus-Copernicus-Planetarium. In 1977 the Mark III projector was replaced with a Mark V, which is still in service and in 2010 the planetarium entered the twenty-first century with a digital Full-Dome projector.

Nicolaus-Copernicus-Planetarium am Plärrer in Nürnberg (2013)

The Zeiss Mark V Planetarium Projector in Nürnberg

Since the 1990’s the planetarium has been part of the City of Nürnberg’s adult education complex and alongside the planetarium programme it is used extensively for STEM lectures. I shall be holding my next lecture there on 28 November this year about Vannevar Bush, Claude Shannon, Robert H Goddard and William Shockley- Four Americans Who Shaped the Future (in German!) and if you’re in the area you’re welcome to come and throw peanuts.





Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, Uncategorized