Category Archives: 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

Has The Renaissance Mathematicus gone over to the dark side?

As the ultimate anti-establishment, indie rock band, The Grateful Dead, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, commented something along the lines of, it’s like the neighbourhood whore, if she stands on the corner long enough then eventually she becomes part of the establishment. And so it has came to pass than your friendly neighbourhood indie, anti-establishment, arse kicking, history of science blogger, The Renaissance Mathematicus, got asked, no, not asked, invited to submit an article to the latest edition[1] of the British Society for the History of Science online journal Viewpoints! He, being the publicity whore that he is, putting aside all thoughts of tarnishing his brand or weakening his reputation accepted with alacrity. And so it is that you, dear readers, can peruse his words of wisdom in the latest edition of that honourable establishment publication. For those that brave of vicissitudes of this dubious blog at regular intervals there is nothing in the latest outpourings of the #histsci hooligan that will be new to you but there are, with certainty, many other good and worthy things to read in this excellent journal, so why don’t you just stroll on over and indulge in some first class history of science story telling.

[1] When I originally wrote this post it was the latest edition of Viewpoint but I couldn’t find a link so I never posted this. Now that I have found a link it’s still the latest issue but no longer dew fresh.


Filed under Autobiographical, History of science, Myths of Science

Something personal – Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Back in the 1970s I was for a time the manager (read general dogsbody) of the black box theatre space in the local arts centre. Early one morning we got asked if we could put on a poetry reading by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko on the same evening, the performance would be advertised during the day on the local BBC radio and by word of mouth on the culture grapevine. The theatre was free so I had no objections, they would have been overruled if I had had any. So it was agreed that we would go ahead with this almost spontaneous event.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

My preparations were not arduous, light the stage with some general background lighting and set up a couple of microphones. Come the afternoon and the great man appeared for a quick technical run through. As we met Yevgeny greeted me extremely warmly proclaiming, “You look just like my good friend Gary Snyder!” For those who don’t know, Gary Snyder is a Zen Buddhist Beat Poet and environmentalist who featured heavily in some of Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novels. I was a big Kerouac and Gary Snyder fan and felt very chuffed by this warm greeting.

Come the evening the theatre was sold out and the poetry reading went without a hitch. Yevgeny would read, or better said perform one of his poems in Russian, he was a very expressive reader, and his lady translator, and bed partner, would then read her English translation. This was done with one exception; Yevgeny performed his own English translation of the poem The City of Yes and The City of No. An incredibly powerful performance.

Following the poetry reading the self appointed cultural elite of the city had organised a party to celebrate Yevgeny’s visit. I was grudgingly invited (you don’t invite the servants!), I suspect at Yevgeny’s insistence, and we all trooped off to the house of one of the literati. Now Yevgeny was not interested in being buttonholed by any of the literary groupies eager to have a conversation with the great poet, so he grabbed a glass of wine and proceeded to start an animated conversation with me about god and the world. And so the night continued, Yevgeny and I got wonderfully drunk and chewed the cud like long lost friends, whilst the literary groupies hovered, hoping to get at least a couple of words with the great man. When Yevgeny had drunk enough he made his excuses and left and I wended my way home, happily drunk, followed I suspect by the curses of the city’s self appointed cultural elite. That should have been the end of the story, one of many happy memories in a chaotic life full of weird turns and unexpected diversions, but…

Fast-forward forty years. In the small village where I live in Southern Germany one of my neighbours is a Russian lady (a nuclear submarine engineer, I kid you not!) who I got to know because we travelled into town on the same bus everyday. We became good friends and one day I discovered that she went to university with one of Yevgeny’s granddaughters and had often been in his apartment and knew him well. It is truly a small world as the cliché has it.

All of this means that I was saddened to learn this morning that Yevgeny Yevtushenko had died yesterday; another small element of my youth has gone.


Filed under Autobiographical

An anniversary

My mother died fifty years ago at midnight on the 24th December 1966. I had just turned fifteen, five days before, and was in many senses still fairly immature. At nine o’clock in the evening I was having my first ever adult conversation with my mother, on the subject of religion, enquiring what religious views she and my father held. I had recently come to the conclusion that I was an atheist and was curious what views my parents held. We were not a religious family and didn’t discus such things, so I was genuinely curious. She told me that my father was an atheist but that she was an agnostic. She added however that she categorically rejected all organised religions and having grown up in India in a Christian family she had personally experienced Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, so her rejection was well informed. In the middle of this, for me, fascinating conversation my mother suffered a massive heart attack and three hours later she was dead.

I didn’t go through five stages of grief; within twenty-four hours I went from a state of extreme shock, to boiling anger, to total shut down. This was not denial; I was more than aware that my mother was dead but was incapable of grieving or mourning. I refused to attend the funeral; I have no idea why and that was the state I remained in for a very, very long time. Looking back I now know that I desperately needed help, therapy, counselling or whatever but nobody was offering and I didn’t ask.

For the next nine months my two elder sisters and I rather grimly tried to maintain a semblance of family life. We were all fairly capable on a practical level because that was how we had been brought up but there was very little joy in existence at that time. At the end of summer in 67 my sisters both moved out to start their careers and my father dumped me in a boarding school. It was the school where I had been a dayboy for the previous four years so the rupture wasn’t total. For the next two years I was fairly miserable, mildly obstreperous and didn’t really give a shit about anything. The result was that I got expelled. I spent my A-level year living in London attending, the then notorious, Holland Park Comprehensive and consuming vast quantities of drugs. It was after all 69-70. Having scraped together an abysmal set of A-level results I now trundled off to Cardiff to study archaeology. Still not really giving a shit about very much I dropped out after one year.

I was now completely adrift with a head full of mental health problems and would basically remain so until 1993 when my father finally died after having the life slowly sucked out of him by emphysema over a period of about twenty year. As my father died the dams broke and I wept as I have never wept before or since in my life and I cry easily, often and copiously. I wasn’t weeping for my father, I did that later when I took my departure in the hospice and at his funeral, but for my mother. Twenty-seven years of grief, hurt, confusion and god only knows what poured out of me in the hours following the phone call telling me of my father’s death.

This is not a Hollywood movie, so I was not instantly ‘cured’ but took many years to finally come to terms with the circumstances of my mother’s death and find balm for my ravaged soul. Once many years later because of a chance remark about Christmas made by somebody in my presence I became haunted by my father’s voice on the phone dictating the telegram to my grandparents in Australia informing them that my mother had died. It took several weeks of professional psychiatric care and some fairly strong anti-depressants to once again banish that voice out of my head.

However, that night marks an important step in my long and weary fight to regain my mental health, which I talked about in my earlier post about my mental health problems, and now, as then, I’m not writing this to elicit sympathy or to self aggrandise, hey look how I’ve suffered, but in the vague hope that I might help somebody else in a similar situation.

If you have lost somebody you love under tragic circumstances or know somebody who has, in particular children, then please, please make sure that you or they grieve if necessary fetch professional help. Bottling up your grief will seriously damage you, gnawing at your soul like a bad tooth. You might not even be aware of the damage on a conscious level but believe me it’s there.

I don’t celebrate Christmas and never will, my bother and my sisters did and do because they have had children and grandchildren of their own, but I have never had children, which is good because I would have been a lousy parent, I was not even capable of coping with myself let alone being responsible for another vulnerable human being. However this post is my Christmas present for those who might be in need of it. It is given freely and if you can take anything positive from it then you are very welcome to do so.




Filed under Autobiographical

I was robbed (twice)! – Vague ramblings on rites of passage, anniversaries, calendrics and the human desire to control time – on the occasion of the winter solstice.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice Photo: Mark Grant Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice
Photo: Mark Grant
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As I was growing up in a remote corner of North-East Essex there were two birthdays that were considered to mark important moments in a person’s life, the twenty-first and the sixty-fifth. The first marked the entry into adulthood and the second the exit out of the world of work. Both were celebrated as special occasions, the former with a lavish party and, in well off families, with a spectacular coming of age present, the later with a somewhat more sombre ceremony and traditional the presentation of a timepiece (quite why it is/was traditional to give people a timepiece when they retire I have absolutely no idea!) The celebration of such points in ones life are known as rites of passage because they mark the transition from one socio-cultural group to another – coming of age from the community of the children to that of the adults, retirement from the working community to the community of the retired. Humans find it necessary/comforting/important to mark these transitions in some significant way.

I was going on nineteen when the British government decided to reduce the age of majority from twenty-one to eighteen meaning that my transition into adulthood took place on some arbitrary date by act of parliament without any form of acknowledgement/ceremony or whatever. As the title of this post says, I was robbed! Two days ago I celebrated my sixty-fifth birthday or rather didn’t celebrate but I still turned sixty-five. The German government is in the process of incrementally raising the retirement age to sixty-seven so I would have been due to retire at sixty-five and six months. However that same government persuaded me to retire at the beginning of September, actually carried out retrospectively meaning once more I was robbed of my rite of passage. As, however, I am self employed in that work that I do, and continue to do, there would have been nobody to hand around the cucumber sandwiches and the plastic glasses of cheap bubbly or to hold a boring and embarrassing speech whilst presenting me with my timepiece anyway.

Being from a non-religious, middle class, English household, and not for example Jewish, I did not undergo a biological coming of age at a nominal puberty such as the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. That is unless you count the eleven plus exam and the transition from primary school to secondary school. Which, at my very elite and very posh, grammar school included the tradition of being dragged through a hedge backwards or having ones head stuck in a toilet bowl and flushed by members of the fifth form during the mid morning break on the first day of school, delights that I managed somehow to avoid. By the time I reached the fifth form the tradition had thankfully died out.

Human seem to have some sort of innate desire to mark time and to celebrate certain events on some sort of regular basis. On the secular side birthdays, wedding anniversaries, first meetings, for some final school exams and whatever. On the religious side, for all religions, a whole cartload of religious festivals of various types. As political communities independence days, armistice days and an assortment of other national holidays. These celebrations and the rites of passage discussed above have one thing in common they are almost all arbitrary, the one exception being anniversaries to which we will return to in a minute.

The only natural timekeepers that we have are the diurnal rotation of the earth, the phases of the moon and the apparent passage of the sun around the ecliptic, which give us respectively the day, the (lunar) month and the year. All other divisions of time are of our own devising and as such arbitrary. Calendars were invented to help us keep track of those days that we have chosen to mark out for special attention of some sort – a public holiday, a religious observance or whatever. They are crib sheets for rites and rituals, which as already remarked almost all take place on arbitrary days. Good examples of arbitrary ritual days are the rapidly approaching Christmas and New Years festivals, as I have pointed out for the latter in an earlier post, different cultures having different New Years celebrations on differing dates.

The only rituals that are in a sense not arbitrary are, because the solar year is periodic, anniversaries. These occur, with a little bit of fudging, once every three hundred and sixty-five days. The fudging is necessary because the solar year is, as should be well-known, a little bit longer than three hundred and sixty-five days. With the Gregorian calendar we have a tolerably good system of fudging, although other calendars, the Jewish and Islamic ones for example, do things differently.

Because the ecliptic is tilted at approximately twenty-three degrees with relation to the equator, known technically as the obliquity of the ecliptic, we have as a result the seasons and also four days in the solar year that are not arbitrary. These are the equinoxes and the solstices. The equinoxes are the days in spring, the vernal equinox around the twentieth of March, and autumn, the autumnal equinox around the twenty-second of September, when the sun appears to be over the equator and the day and night are equally long. The summer solstice (Northern hemisphere, winter for Southern hemisphere) takes place when the sun appears to be over the Tropic of Cancer (approximately 23° of latitude north of the equator), that is its Northern most point on its journey around the ecliptic, around the twenty-first of June, and marks the longest day and shortest night in the Northern hemisphere and vice versa in the Southern hemisphere. The winter solstice (Northern hemisphere, summer for Southern hemisphere) takes place when the sun appears to be over the Tropic of Capricorn (approximately 23° of latitude south of the equator), that is its Southern most point on its journey around the ecliptic, around the twenty-first of December, and marks the shortest day and longest night in the Northern hemisphere and vice versa in the Southern hemisphere.

Many of the folk customs that occur around these days are celebrations of these astronomical events, their origins often forgotten, as they are co-opted into other, oft religious, celebrations. This is certainly true for many of the Christmas customs, which have their origins in various winter solstice celebrations, now lost in the mists of history.

I celebrate neither Christmas nor New Years but am prepared to acknowledge the winter solstice as a fulcrum or turning point of the year, so I wish all of my readers all the best for their next three hundred and sixty-five and a bit days journey around the sun, it is of course we who orbit the sun and not the sun us, and may you enjoy in your own ways those arbitrary calendrical dates that you choose to celebrate.


Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy

Whilst I was away


As you may have noticed I have, after a comparatively long break, begun blogging again. When I stopped, I wrote a post saying that my inability to finish my review of David Wootton’s The Invention of Science was my reason for doing so and whilst this was true it doesn’t actually explain why the break has become so extended. Because over the years I have built up a collection of intelligent, loyal, benevolent and sympathetic readers I think that they have earned an explanation for my absence.

Two years ago on the fifth anniversary of the Renaissance Mathematicus I wrote a post explaining that I have suffered mental health problems nearly all of my life to a large extent, but not exclusively, caused by a combination of AD(non-H)D and dysgraphia and that writing this blog started as attempt to cure a forty year long writer’s block. One of the side effects of this double whammy of so-called learning difficulties is that I have always had massive problems with any form of bureaucratic bullshit that involves filling in forms. Please don’t make the mistake of saying, “oh nobody likes filling in forms” that is like telling somebody with clinical depression that everybody gets sad from time to time. I really have major psychological problems with all types of official forms. The content is in itself not really a problem; it is actually sitting down and confronting the offending object that is often nigh on impossible. The result is that I have always done such things at or mostly (well) past the final deadline and there have been periods when piles of official letters have accumulated unopened, often for months at a time, and often with disastrous results.

In September the German employment service forced me to take early retirement, I would have been due to retire in May next year so not that early. Due to my more than somewhat erratic work record, not unrelated to my mental health problems, and the fact that I have been officially unfit for work for almost the last twenty years, mental health problems combined with physical infirmities, my earned old age pension might just stretch to buying you a beer if we go to a very cheap bar. All of this meant that I had to apply for a German state social security pension (Grundsicherung im Alter).

Now this application consists of a very long complicated bureaucratic form to which one also has to collect a lot of official documents. Having completed this and sent it off, a couple of weeks later one gets another set of forms and another list of required documents. Having completed this a couple of weeks later you get… You get the picture? Unfortunately for me whilst I was going through the bureaucratic equivalent of Dante’s Inferno I also had to apply for a new British Passport, my old one being due to expire in the middle of October, as well as doing my tax returns for 2015, only one week past the final deadline. To make my life perfect I was also attempting to get a new extraordinary treatment for my back problems granted by my health insurance, whose bureaucratic hurdles equal those of the state social security pension application. The result of this bureaucratic tsunami over the last weeks has seen me scraping along and sometimes crossing the boundary to a major clinical depression, which sucked out all the will and energy I might have had for blogging or anything else for that matter. In the middle of this I actually held a public lecture on Babbage’s & Boole’s contributions to the history of computing, which I prepared literally the night before and held on autopilot. It went surprising well.

The current state of play is that I have a new passport, my tax affairs have been dealt with for another year and my state social security pension has been granted. My application for back treatment has been rejected, which is par for course and was expected and I now have to appeal the decision, more bureaucratic bullshit. I seem to have managed to avoid a full-blown depression and whilst I am feeling fairly battered, things are starting to look decidedly better. One positive aspect of the whole affair is that ten years ago such an episode in my life would almost certainly have had me back in a psychiatric hospital chewing the curtains, so I seem to be making progress, whatever that might be.

Of course for the readers of my blog the million dollar question is, have I finished my review of David Wootton’s The Invention of Science to which the answer in no but I am working on it. I think and I hope that you can expect regular history of science blog posts again here at the Renaissance Mathematicus and I look forward, as ever, to your comments.


Filed under Autobiographical

A public service announcement

For several months I have been writing a review essay of David Wootton’s fascinating and challenging book The Invention of Science, or better said not writing, as I have stalled, hit a roadblock, lost the thread or whatever. This being the case I have been doing what apparently writers are supposed to do in such situations writing other things. Now this is all very well but all that has happened is that I have found it increasingly more difficult to return to my review essay and complete it, so I have decided this has got to stop. Today I recommenced writing my review essay and have decided that I won’t write or post anything else until I do finish it, which might take some time. How long I can’t say at the moment. Until then nothing new will appear here at The Renaissance Mathematicus, I hope the break won’t be too long. When however blogging does resume here, normal service and frequency will be resumed, as I have several new posts already in the pipeline.



Filed under Autobiographical