Category Archives: Autobiographical

Eleven

Eleven is a number word in English that derives from the Old English ęndleofon, which is first attested in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. There are cognates in all the Germanic languages, all of which have the same meaning of ‘one is left’. Left that is having counted up to ten. This is of course, a clear linguistic indication that we use, and have long used, a ten based, or decimal, number system contingent on the fact that through evolutionary chance we possess ten fingers or digits. Just to round up the picture twelve and its equivalents in other Germanic languages originally meant ‘two are left’ before we move onto thirteen, fourteen etc., which are simply three plus ten, four plus ten and so on and so fourth.

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Coming back to eleven, on this day one year ago we celebrated, in our own inimitable way, the glorious tenth anniversary of the Renaissance Mathematicus that we are still here 366 days later, don’t forget that 2020 is a leap year, means that your favourite malcontent, #histSTM blogger has managed to fill yet another year with his incoherent scribblings. Counting up to ten we have one left. Ignoring such trivial matters, as the current world pandemic not much has changed in the world of the Renaissance Mathematicus. I have somehow managed, against my usually tendency to wander off and start something else, to complete another twenty-five slices of my, in the meantime, monumental series on the emergence of modern astronomy, bringing the word count up to a guesstimated fifty to sixty thousand. An end is actually in sight even if we haven’t quite reached it yet. This will be when the real work starts if I really want to turn it into a book. I need to go back to the beginning and basically rewrite the entire thing!

Turning to other matters, today is purely by chance the religious festival Corpus Christi or to give it it’s official title Dies Sanctissimi Corporis et Sanguinis Domini Iesu Christi (Day of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ the Lord), a Christian liturgical solemnity celebrating the Real Presence of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the elements of the Eucharist, to quote Wikipedia.

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Corpus Christi procession. Oil on canvas by Carl Emil Doepler Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now you might think that this particular piece of Catholic mumbo-jumbo (you might remember that one of the things that divided Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation, is that Protestants stopped believing that the bread and wine actually changed into the body and blood of Christ) has little or nothing to do with the history of science, you would be wrong.

To start with we need to address the chance bit. Corpus Christi, which is anchored to Easter, is one of those movable feasts in the Church calendar the irregular occurrences of which are determined by the Gregorian calendar, the introduction of which involved some very intricate astronomy and mathematics, which have the been the subject of a couple of blog posts here.

The actually Church feast was suggested by and campaigned for, thirty years long by Juliana of Liège (c. 1192–1258) prioress of the double canonry of Liège and her wish was granted by Pope Urban IV, who commissioned his chief theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) to compose an office for the Feast of Corpus Christi to be celebrated on the Thursday after Pentecost, which is itself celebrated fifty days after Easter Sunday. Thomas Aquinas plays a very central role in the history of European science, as it was he together with his teacher Albertus Magnus (before 1200–1280), who made Aristotelian natural philosophy acceptable for the Catholic Church, thus establishing it as the predominant scientific corpus in the European High Middle Ages.

The next #histSTM connection with the feast of Corpus Christi actually occurred in the life of Galileo. In his Il Saggiatore Galileo speculated a little bit with the ancient Greek theory of atomism. Because of this he was denounced anonymously to the Inquisition. The denunciation claimed that atomism contradicted the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation, which was based on the medieval Aristotelian theory of matter.  This distinguished between substantial and accidental properties of matter. In this theory the appearance of a piece of matter is accidental but its true nature is substantial. According to the transubstantiation theory the bread and the wine change in their substance into the body and blood of Christ whilst retaining the accidental appearance of bread and wine. If, however, the Aristotelian theory of matter were to be replaced with atomism this theory would no longer function. The Inquisition never proceeded against Galileo in this matter but it is of note that in England Thomas Harriot and Sir Walter Raleigh were held and questioned on a similar charge somewhat earlier.

Returning to personal matters, as is usually my wont in my birthday posts, I recently had an acrimonious exchange with one of my readers, whose comments were from the beginning aggressive, insulting and historically false. I tried to reason with him and he just got more abusive in his tone. In the end I blocked him and erased his comments but I found his parting shot insult, and it was clearly meant as an insult, fascinating; he stated that I was not a historian but a storyteller.

This is interesting because, as is very clear to see history and story share the same etymological root, the Latin historia, “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” from Greek historia “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries; knowledge, account, historical account, record, narrative.” It is not until the late 15thcentury that the two differentiated meanings for history and story began to slowly appear. In German the same word, Die Geschichte means both story and history, the different meanings depending on context.

Book of ideas

If I get asked in a formal or semi-formal context how I describe what I do, my answer is that I’m a narrative historian of the contextual history of science. That quite a mouthful and might sound, to some, rather pretentious. If I get asked what that means, my answer is I’m a storyteller. I don’t regard being called a storyteller as an insult; I regard it as a compliment.

 

 

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Time

Who is the old man shuffling into the kitchen? I don’t recognise him

Where has the youth gone, who on warm summer evenings

Ran barefoot through the streets of the small Welsh town

After a long day uncovering the remains of a Roman fort

His long hair and his thoughts flowing free on the gentle breeze

Now I sit, with naked skull, in doctors’ waiting rooms wondering

Where does the time go?

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Tis the season to be jolly

This is one of those very occasional blog posts that has nothing whatsoever to do with #histSTM, so if you come here just for that, you don’t need to read further.

We have entered that time of year with the winter solstice, Christmas, Hanukah, New Years and all the rest, when celebration in all its various forms is written big in most peoples calendars: office parties, department parties, club parties, private parties or just more trips to restaurants or the pub. It is a period when many people eat and drink to excess, which is their choice and not mine to comment on but I do want to say a few words for those, who don’t drink alcohol.

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There are various reasons why people don’t, won’t or can’t drink alcohol. Not just Islam but other religious communities forbid the consumption, some, like myself, are alcoholics, addicted to alcohol, who no longer imbibe, others have medical conditions or take medicament that make it unwise or even possibly dangerous for them to consume alcohol, some sensible car drivers only sit behind the steering wheel with zero per mil, lastly there are those, who simply don’t like alcohol. Given this fact there are some points that anybody planning or hosting a party or other form of gathering with refreshments should take into consideration.

If you are going to a restaurant or bar then you don’t have to do anything, as they should have a range of non-alcoholic drinks on offer. However, I experienced, all too often, that especially restaurant have a very small range of mostly poor quality alcohol free drinks at extortionate prices.

The following is purely fictitious but I have experienced variations on the described scenario very often over the years that I have abstained from drinking alcohol. Your genial host, Mr Important (it’s always a man), explains that he drove thirty kilometres to this small private brewery to fetch a couple of barrels of their really special bitter or he knows this chap who does this deal on this super vintage Bordeaux from a little vineyard or your might not know this dry white but it’s a super drop from South Africa that’s equal to anything from Germany and half the price or he’s got Dave the barman from the luxury hotel down the road to mix cocktails for the evening, two of those will put you flat on your back. If you are lucky he remembered at the last moment that there might be some poor sods, who don’t drink alcohol, so he got a couple of plastic bottles of cheap fizzy sugar water from the discounter down the road. Not only is this totally inadequate it is totally insulting. Mr Important is keen to impress his boozing friend by going to a lot of trouble and expense to get them something of real quality to drink but he doesn’t give a shit about the teetotallers. Don’t be Mr Important.

If you are organising a gathering or party with refreshments, as well as getting an attractive range of alcoholic drinks, make sure that you have an equally attractive range of alcohol free ones, too. The abstemious car driver might enjoy an alcohol free beer or wine but not all non-drinkers do. A selection of good quality fruit juices and both fizzy and still mineral waters is a good place to start. Some of the traditional mixers, bitter lemon, ginger ale, etc. are also often enjoyed by people who don’t drink alcohol. I’m rather partial to a St Clement’s myself, bitter lemon and orange juice, fifty-fifty. These days there are good ranges of, often organic, fizzy drinks without too much sugar available, buy a selection. You can also offer both tea and coffee, which will probably also be appreciated by some of your alcohol drinking guest at the end of the evening.

If you do employ Dave the barman to mix cocktails, make sure that he also has ingredients and recipes for a range of mocktails, that’s cocktails without alcohol if you didn’t know. If you offer your guests a welcoming drink, a glass of sparkling wine for example, or an aperitif then make sure you have an attractive alcohol free alternative on offer as well.

My final point is perhaps the most important if you wish to be a good and conscientious host. If you offer somebody an alcoholic drink and they decline, do not under any circumstances try to persuade them to change their mind. Simply accept their choice and offer them something alcohol free instead.

I hope you all enjoy your seasonal festivities and that if you are throwing a party that you make it possible for the non-drinkers to also enjoy theirs. All of this, of course, applies when you are organising a party at other times of the year.

 

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On Becoming German

Ten days ago I got my Personalausweis (identity card), which kind of make me feel like a real German citizen for the first time, although my certificate of naturalisation was issued on the 15 October and I officially became a German citizen when it was handed to me 21 October. It’s a rather strange feeling to become a citizen of another country, although as a EU citizen I retain my British citizenship and am thus a dual national.

It is a move I have been considering making for several years now, but as a ADDer with dysgraphia I hate, fear and loathe all bureaucracy, so my innerer Schweinehund (translates roughly as internal lazy hound) kept me from making it. The result of the Brexit referendum finally pushed me to get off my fat arse and do something but even then my inertia held me back. Last autumn I paid two hundred plus euro and took my German language and German citizenship exams. The first shouldn’t have been necessary, as I took and passed the much harder university German Language exam three decades ago but couldn’t prove it, the records have got lost, so I spent a whole day proving that I could master the German language. The citizenship exam was a joke. You have to answer 33 multiple-choice questions, 28 of which are taken from a catalogue of 3000 questions that you can read and learn on the Internet (I didn’t bother) and 5 specific to the German State in which you live, in my case Bavaria. To pass you have to get at least 17 right. You have 60 minutes for the exam; I took 4 minutes and I wasn’t the fastest. I got 31 right and am annoyed because I know one that I got wrong but have no idea what the other one was!

Having taken this step I still kept putting off having to actually deal with the bureaucracy. Eventually on 27 March just four days before the final Brexit deadline (remember that?!) I finally pulled myself together and submitted my application for German citizenship; with all the forms, documents and whatever that I had to submit, the pile was literally three centimetres thick; the Germans are very thorough. And then you sit and wait! I was actually fairly convinced that my application would be rejected because of lack of financial support. Having led a rather fucked up life, I live on a basic state pension, which is a pittance and have no financial resources whatsoever. I got more and more nervous as the next Brexit deadline approached fearing, I would become an undesirable alien in my country of residence. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I received the letter telling me to come and collect my certificate of naturalisation.

Having changed my nationality or rather acquired a second one as I am now a dual national, as I said above, I suppose I should feel something but I don’t and don’t really know what I’m supposed to feel.

I’m a white, middle class male born of British parents in Clacton-on-Sea of all places, so I suppose I couldn’t really be more British. However, as I pointed out in an earlier post my mother, although British, was born in Burma and grew up in British India first coming to Europe at the age of thirty-one. I’ve never really identified as British. It’s a word I fill in, in the appropriate section on official forms that ask for my nationality and it’s what is on the front of my passport. I enjoy watching sport but have never been particularly or even mildly fanatical about any team. Except for in rugby, which I played and enjoyed at school, and the Olympics there are no British sports teams but separate ones for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I take an Englishman’s perverse pleasure, I think the term is schadenfreude, in watching the inevitable English bating collapse in test matches or another golden generation of English soccer players crashing out of yet another European/World Cup. But that’s about it. I’ve never understood sentiments like “my country right or wrong” or dying for “king and country.” I’m a lifelong pacifist, who would adopt Bertrand Russell’s policy if those that I love and care for were threatened by fascism or anything similar and do what ever was necessary to oppose.

I vaguely identify as a West European; I have lived in England, Wales, Belgium, Sweden and the largest part of my life in Germany, Middle Franconia to be precise. Beyond that, I have travelled and holidayed in Denmark, Holland, France, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, Andorra and Lichtenstein. However, my family background and my upbringing have led me to regard all culture and peoples to be fundamentally the same and to abhor discrimination of any sort.

I identify Middle Franconia in general and the area in and around Erlangen in particular, as being my Wahlheimat, Heimat is the German for home, home town, home country but has connotations of belonging that can’t really be translated into English and Wahlheimat is Heimat of choice. It’s where I feel at home, comfortable and everything else considered where I would like to live out the rest of my life. All of this was true before I applied for German citizenship and being granted it hasn’t really changed anything.

Going through the process of acquiring a new nationality has shown me that the word nationality really doesn’t have any deep meaning for me at all. I probably shouldn’t but I worry slightly about this realisation.

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Robert Hunter (June 23 1941–September 23 2019)

If you don’t like the Grateful Dead then don’t read this. The Grateful Dead and especially the songs of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter have been the soundtrack of my life for the last fifty years. Those songs have given me hope when I was down and transported me to the stars when I was up. They have accompanied me through all the up and downs, along the twisting and turning highway that has been my life, the strange diversions and dead ends. They were always there a mental bedrock to which I could cling whatever happened.

Robert Hunter was one of the truly great lyricists of the rock era, with all of the literary and high art implications that lyricist rather than simple songwriter carries. The breadth and depth of emotional colours that his words could and do magic into existence are seemingly infinite. The music and words of Garcia and Hunter are attuned to my soul in a way no other music is, was or ever will be and I own and listen to a very wide spectrum of music. Robert Hunter’s lyrics melded perfectly with Jerry Garcia’s liquid gold guitar lines.

I listen to music when I write and about eighty per cent of the time it’s the Grateful Dead. Hundred Year Hall, to which Hunter wrote some very beautiful sleeve notes, is blasting out of the stereo system, as I write these inadequate words.

I cried when I heard that Jerry Garcia had died fourteen years ago, something that surprised more than a little but which I accepted. I’m crying now having heard of the passing of Robert Hunter. I, and I suspect many others, own him an unpayable debt for all of the joy, sustenance in dark times and peace of mind that he has given me through his wonderful songs.

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Chilli’s story

Sacha will always remain Honorary Editor in Chief in perpetuity but we now have a new Supervisory Editor here at the Renaissance Mathematicus, her name is Chilli and this is her story.

When Sascha died, having been a dog owner for nigh on thirty years, I started looking round for a new dog. Not a replacement, you can’t replace a dog, as each one has a unique personality. I failed to find the right one, as a dog becomes your life partner, especially if you live alone, it has to feel right and none of the dogs I considered did. I then figured that all three of my dogs had found me, so if I were destined to have a new dog, it would also find me. In the mean time I became a dog sitter. I looked after other peoples dogs in the times when they couldn’t, took them for walk, fed them, provided them with a home for weekends when their owners were away. This is how I came to know Chilli.

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Chilli practicing being a rock

Chilli was a family dog living not very far away from me, who I already knew from walks with Sascha in the woods behind my flat. She lived together with a woman and her husband and their two kids. It was the kids I mostly met when walking in the woods. The couple got divorced and the kids grew up and got jobs and it came about that the mother, who worked full time, was left alone with Chilli. She would rush home during her lunch breaks to take Chilli out for a quick walk. One day, having learnt that I was a dog sitter, she asked me if I would take Chilli out at lunch times during the week; I work at home. I suggested instead that I pick Chilli up in the mornings, walk her, feed her, play with her and then return her home in the evenings. And so it came about that Chilli became my daytime, working week dog.

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Chilli checking out the airfield at a local air show

After about nine months the daughter, who was living in Nürnberg, became pregnant and having stopped working decided to take Chilli to live with her and her new family. And so Chilli and I parted company. Fast-forward about fifteen months, the first baby is now a toddler and the daughter is pregnant for the second time. Chilli, who is now an old lady, does not like the high-speed toddler, who zooms around the family home and starts growling softly whenever said infant gets too close. The mother is justifiably worried that Chilli might snap at her child and injure it, so I got a telephone call from her mother for whom I had originally dog sat Chilli. She explained the situation and asked if I would, under the circumstances, be prepared to give Chilli a new home. After due consideration I agreed and so Chilli has now moved in with me. We are two old folks who just want a little bit of peace and quiet.

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TEN!

Sometimes the lights are shinning on me

Other times I can barely see

Lately it occurs to me

What a long strange trip it’s been

 

That we regard tenth or hundredth anniversaries as being special is actually just an accident of evolution. Because we have ten fingers, we based our most commonly used counting system on the number ten. If we had twelve fingers we would celebrate twelfth and one hundred and forty-fourth anniversaries instead; can’t see many people getting a telegram from the Queen on that system. If like the Simpsons we only had three fingers on each hand, we could make whoopee every six years with an extra big party every thirty-six years.

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Today the Renaissance Mathematicus turns ten–time to blow up the balloons, hang out the bunting and bake a cake. I am in somewhat of a state of denial and disbelief that I have apparently managed to keep producing almost coherent scribblings on a fairly regular basis for all of ten years. As I have oft repeated in the past, when I started I wouldn’t have given this blog more than a ten per cent chance of surviving ten weeks let alone ten years. I also wouldn’t have seriously expected to gain more than ten readers. Instead of which we have the following, I think, mind boggling set of statistics for what is, after all, more than somewhat of a niche product in the grand scheme of all things Internet.

This is the 875th post on the Renaissance Mathematicus, there have been 1,318,488 views of those posts from 629,179 visitors, who have made 8.8 thousand comments. The Renaissance Mathematicus has 5,692 followers.

I’ve never counted but a rough guestimate is that in the last ten years I’ve written something north of half a million words! That 500,000! And I still claim I couldn’t write a book!

I don’t usually look at my blog statistics, as I see them as a sort of trap. Oh my god, so many readers, am I writing the right things to satisfy them? What, so few readers I must write something more popular/attractive/controversial or whatever to make my blog more attractive. No thanks! I just write what I want to write, ignore the statistics and if somebody reads what I write, fine. If not, also fine. In other words the only reason I trotted the statistics out today is because it’s my tenth boggiversary. If you want to see the statistics again come back in another ten years, assuming I’m still going or even still alive!

When I first started writing this blog I don’t really know what my aim/motivation/purpose was in writing it. I just felt that there were some things that I had collected in the back of my brain over the decades that I might possibly unload and a blog seemed like a good way to do so. Later I began to maybe regard the blog as a sort of substitute for the career I might have had, as a historian of science but for a number of complex reasons didn’t. I can’t say exactly when but somewhere down the line I realised that The Renaissance Mathematicus is not a substitute for anything, it’s me, it’s my calling, it’s what I do. In a different age I might have become a columnist or essayist in a newspaper or journal churning out weekly vignettes and reviews on a diverse range of history of science topics. It seems that is my strength and it’s what I feel comfortable with.

One of the things that became clear to me over the years is that I operate best just being me. I managed the history of science monthly blog carnival On Giants’ Shoulders for five years and complied and collated the online, weekly history of science journal Whewell’s Gazette for three years. These activities meant that I probably read more history of sciences blogs than anybody else in the whole Internet. There were and still are some very, very good history of science writers out there. I used to think I wish I could write as well as or express myself as cleverly as a whole lot of people that I regard as my superiors and betters. Somewhere down the line I stopped comparing, they do their thing I do mine. I now accept that I am who I am and other people do it differently.

In my teens I had already become a convinced atheist, something that has over the years never changed. I find it amusing when I write pieces defending or even praising a religious scientist and self-proclaimed radical atheists accuse me of being an apologist for the Church or Christianity in general, but I digress.  In my youth I was what in England during the religious wars in the seventeenth century was called a Seeker, someone, who doesn’t acknowledge any particular group but is looking for answers. You might say I was looking for a lebensphilosophie or a moral compass or the meaning of life or just somewhere to belong, I don’t really know myself.

I read quite a lot of Western philosophy, a lot of anthropology, a lot of Buddhist and Daoist literature, a lot of esoteric literature especially on the I Ching, the novels of Hermann Hesse, Ken Kessey and Robert Heinlein, and the LSD preachings of Timothy Leary amongst many other diverse things. I also took an awful lot of drugs. I was looking for something but I don’t think I ever truly knew what it was that I was seeking. For what it’s worth my personal lebensphilosophie is a bastard mixture of Buddhism, Daoism, the Ranters[1]and sex and drugs and rock’n’roll (in my case mostly West Coast rock especially the Grateful Dead). If I had a god it would be Shiva, the god of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and death!

Amongst the things I read were the books of Carlos Castaneda supposedly about a Native Middle American shaman Don Juan, the first of which was The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I say supposedly because although Castaneda claimed they were factual accounts, modern scholars think they are fiction. Sometimes when you read a sentence sticks in your mind and becomes part of your personal store of knowledge. For example, somewhere in his writings Leary wrote, based on his interpretation of Vedantic philosophy, “Life is a farce, death is a farce, suicide is the ultimate farce,” a phrase that has literally saved my live a couple of times during the worst periods of my mental illness. The part of Castaneda’s writings that has remained with me and I paraphrase: Don Juan said that there are many different paths through life, it doesn’t matter which path you choose as long as it’s a path with a heart. The Renaissance Mathematicus is my path with a heart, it took me a long time to find it, but it’s never too late.

What about the future? Above I casually mentioned the next ten years but who knows? I do know that I’m not planning on quitting yet. I have enough ideas for blog posts, in petto, to keep going for at least another ten weeks.

Above I mentioned my claim that I wouldn’t be able to write a book, good for sprints but not for marathons. In fact I’m currently contemplating writing not one but two books! Some time ago a reader of my blog who is a very successful science writer offered to help me find a publisher and an editor for a printed-paper version of the blog. I suggested the way I wanted it to be done and he said that the editor would decide how to present the blog in book form. In my life I have taken a lot of left turns and even more detours but I have always decided what to do with my life and have stood by my mistakes and by god I’ve made more than a few. The blog is my baby, it is one hundred per cent my own creation and if it is going to become a book then it will be my book and not that of some editor or other. I am seriously contemplating self-publishing, my concept is to do groups of posts on related subjects–history of cartography, early Dutch science, Renaissance Nürnberg, the Renaissance mathematicus, women in science, and so on–slightly rewritten for book form with a new general introduction for each section. Working title: “The Renaissance Mathematicus Garage Sale!” One of my readers, has successfully self-published and I’m hoping that he’ll give me some tips down the line. Another reader has already offered to help me set the final text for printing, he used to do this for a living, so maybe at some point I shall be running a GoFundMe to help launch the printed version of The Renaissance Mathematicus.

It should have become fairly obvious that the current series of posts, “The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic,” is actually the abstract/sketch/backbone for a potential book. When I finish the blog post series, if I like what I have, I will rewrite, refine, improve, expand the whole thing into a book and maybe try to find a publisher, maybe self-publish. All of this is of course future dreams but as Oscar Hammerstein II once wrote, “You’ve gotta have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

[1]If you don’t know who the Ranters were, they were a seventeenth century religious sect, who basically preached amoralism.

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An open letter to an author

Dear Yuval,

if I may? Sometime around the publication in English of your trendy mega bestseller, Sapiens, I read something from you, I can’t remember if it was an essay or an extract from the book, on the Scientific Revolution, as part of the extensive sales campaign for your publication. To say the least, I was, to put it mildly, totally underwhelmed and decided that I really didn’t need to read your book. Since then whenever the subject of your book came up in conversations or on the Internet I made disparaging comments about your abilities as a historian of Early Modern science. Recently it occurred to me that I might be being somewhat unfair, my comments being based on a half remembered short piece of writing and that maybe I ought to give you a second chance. Eventually I ordered your book through interlibrary loan, my university library apparently doesn’t have a copy. When it arrived I sat down to read the Fourth Section of the book entitled The Scientific Revolution. You must excuse me but I have so much that I want to read that I don’t really have time to read your whole book.

The first page of waffle about time travelling peasants and battleships didn’t really impress me but then on the second page I stumbled across the following:

In 1500, few cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most buildings were constructed of mud, wood and straw; a three-story building was a skyscraper. The streets were rutted dirt tracks, dusty in summer and muddy in winter, plied by pedestrians, horses, goats, chickens and a few carts. The most common urban noises were human and animal voices, along with the occasional hammer and saw. At sunset, the cityscape went black, with only an occasional candle or torch flickering in the gloom.

The evocative picture that you paint with your words in this paragraph reminds me of the Hollywood B-movie visions of medieval hovels and unwashed peasants that informed my childhood and in my opinion has about as much truth content as those movies of yore.

I am a historian of Renaissance science, hence the name of this blog, and I live just up the road from the German, Renaissance city of Nürnberg, where, belonging as I do the an active group of local historians, I conduct on a fairly regular basis guided tours of the history of astronomy of that city most, but not all, of which revolves around the year 1500, plus or minus 50 years. For your edification and education I would now like to take you on part of that tour to show what a Middle European city really looked like in 1500.

Before I start I will grant that few European cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants; Nürnberg, then the second biggest German city, only had a population of 40,000. Of course there were much bigger cities in other parts of the world, Middle East, India, China but as the entire world population has been estimated to lay between 400 and 500 million in 1500, it is not surprising that the major cities were much smaller than those of today. Scaling up proportionally a city of 40,000 in 1500 with a world population of 500 million is equivalent to a city of more than 500,000 in today’s world of 7,000 million inhabitants, slightly less than Nürnberg’s current population.

I always start my tour with this sundial, which was created in 1502.

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Lorenzkirche Sundial Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

As you can see it is a quite sophisticated sundial and if you know how, you can read the time on it in three different ways, from sunrise, from midday and according to the Great Nürnberger clock: a system between the medieval local time system and our equinoctial hours: A bit beyond the primitive culture that you sketch. I hear you muttering but what about clocks. We’ll get to one of those a bit later.

The sundial is on the side of the Lorenzkirche, one of Nürnberg’s two parish churches started in 1250 and finished in 1477.

Nürnberg St. Lorenz Türme von Westen

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As you can see it’s a rather impressive sandstone building with a slate roof, as were most of the city buildings in 1500. By the way, the streets were also paved. No dirt tracks here.

Our next station is the Heilige-Geist-Spital built in 1399 as an old peoples residence, a function it still fulfils today.

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Heilige-Geist-Spital Source: Wikimedia Commons

Moving on, we come to the Market Place and the Frauenkirche built between 1352-1362.

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Frauenkirche Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mechanical clock on the facade was built in 1509.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ball above the clock shows the phases of the moon, still accurate today. At twelve-noon everyday there is a complex mechanical display with fanfares by the trumpeters, drum rolls and bell ringing. This is followed by the seven Electors circling the Emperor in the middle, three times. Tourists from all over the world come to Nürnberg to witness this spectacle.

I like this 19th-century picture showing the Schöner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain), also on the Market Place, which was built between 1385-1396.

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Here it is in all its glory, today.

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Schöner Brunnen. In the backgrounfd you can see the towers of the other parish church St. Sebald (14th century) Source: Wikimedia Commons

You might like this house, it was the home of a local artisan, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1525), you might have heard of him?

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1500, Nürnberg was a major industrial city, producing a very wide range of metal products, as well as being a leading European trading centre. In fact it was one of the biggest centres in Europe for the production of everything that could be made out of metal. For example, the Nürnberg craftsmen received an order from the Emperor, Charles V (1500–1558), for five thousand suits of armour, so we can assume that there was quite a lot of noise on the streets on the city. Nürnberg traded on a large scale with much of Europe. It was not unusual for the traders to attend the Frankfurter Fair with a waggon train of five hundred waggons

You can get a good overall impression of the city from this illustration out of the Schedelsche Weltchronik (known in English as the Nuremberg Chronicle), the world’s first printed encyclopaedia, printed and published in Nürnberg in 1493.

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Nürnberg as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicles 1493

By now I hope you will realise that the real historical Nürnberg in 1500 was radically different from your fairy tale description of a city in 1500. Having recovered from having read the paragraph reproduced above, I tried to persevere with your book but having come across several more equally dubious paragraphs in the next few pages, I must honestly say that I can’t be bothered. I have better things to do with my time. I can’t claim that this is a review of your book but I certainly won’t be recommending it to anybody, anytime soon.

No hard feelings

Thony

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s Solstice Time Again!

We are deep in what is commonly called the holiday season. For personal reasons I don’t celebrate Christmas and as I explained in this post starting the New Year on 1 January on the Gregorian Calendar is/was a purely arbitrary decision. I wrote there that I consider the winter solstice to be the best choice to celebrate the end and beginning of a solar cycle in the northern hemisphere.

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Stonehenge Winter Solstice

Today at 22:23 UTC the sun will turn at the Tropic of Capricorn and begin its journey northwards to the Tropic of Cancer and the summer solstice.  Tropic comes from the Latin tropicus “pertaining to a turn,” from Greek tropikos “of or pertaining to a turn or change.”

I wish all of my readers a happy solstice and may the next 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds bring you much light, joy, peace and wisdom. We can only hope that they will be better than the last 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds (length of the mean tropical or solar year).

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Don’t criticise what you don’t understand!

I was pleasantly surprised by the level of positive support my latest anti-Ada polemic received on Twitter, I had expected much more negative reaction to be honest. But I did receive two attacks that I would like to comment on more fully here. The first came from a certain Yael Moussaieff (@sachaieff) and reads as follows:

 

It still blows my mind how convinced mediocre men are that they’re not mediocre and that their opinions are in fact urgent and needed.

I’m not really sure in what sense here I am supposedly mediocre: my intelligence, my expertise, my abilities, all three, in all aspects of my existence? And how does Ms Moussaieff (I assume she is a she) know this, never having met me, on the basis of one, what I consider to be a fairly reasonably argued, blog post on the evaluation of the contributions of one Victorian woman to computer science. If she had brought some counter arguments to demonstrate the mediocrity of my thought processes or the mediocrity of my understanding of the historical period or the mediocrity of my abilities as a historian of computing (and I am one, see the reply to the next comment) then perhaps I could understand the intension or meaning of her criticism but for the moment I remain perplexed. Maybe my inability to comprehend is, in itself, a sign of my mediocrity.

Peter Robinson (@PeterRobinson76) chose a different line of attack:

We also love to put down anyone that dares to have popularity. Even long dead women.

To which I spontaneously responded:

There is a difference between a put down and a reasoned argument based on facts. I formally studied and researched both Babbage and Lovelace long before the current Lovelace hagiography started, as a professional historian of logic and computing. What are your qualifications?

For his benefit I would like to elucidate and explain my claim to professionalism in this matter. Some or even most of what I am now going to relate ought to be already known to those who have been reading this blog for a number of years for newer readers it might prove instructive.

Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s I studied as a mature student at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen & Nürnberg. The first two and a half years I studied mathematics with philosophy as my subsidiary. I then changed to philosophy with English philology and history as my subsidiaries. The emphasis of my studies was always on the history and philosophy of science. During this time I worked for ten years as a paid research assistant in a major research project into the history of formal/symbolic/mathematical logic under the supervision of one of the world’s leading logic historians. This means that somebody, who is considered knowledgeable in these things, thought me competent enough to appoint me to this position. The fact that I was still there ten years later shows that he still believed in my competence. Possibly because I was the only English native speaker in the research team, my main area of research was nineteenth century British algebraic logics, which means I was researching Boole, Jevons, De Morgan, Venn, Cayley, McColl and others including the Americans working together with Peirce. Because algebraic logic was just a small part of the much wider field of abstract algebras emerging in the nineteenth century, I also researched Peacock, John Herschel, Babbage, Cayley, Sylvester, William Rowan Hamilton and various others. Calculating machines was also a part of our remit so Babbage and his computers along with the good Countess Lovelace came in for extensive study on my part.

Now ten plus years might seem a rather long time to study as a student but as I said I was a mature student without grant or parental support, which meant I had to earn money to do silly things like pay the rent or even on occasions eat and the pittance paid to research assistants in those days did not cover my daily living costs, so I also worked outside of the university. I had virtually finished my studies with just my master thesis to complete and my final exams to write–not a very big deal, as there was in those days a strong emphasis on continual assessment–when I crashed out with serious mental health problems. You can only burn the candle at both ends for a limited period of time until the two flames meet in the middle. Coming out of the loony bin I chucked my studies because being a qualified historian of science was never going to pay those pesky bills.

When I quit I had completed the entire research for both my master’s thesis and my doctoral thesis. I had written about 50–70% of my master’s thesis and a complete, highly detailed outline for my doctoral thesis. Now it might seem strange that I was writing both theses at the same time but my original master’s thesis, a wide-ranging study of the entire English speaking nineteenth century algebraic logic community, had grown far too big to be a master’s thesis, so I had cut out one section, on the life and work of Hugh McColl, to be my master’s thesis and turned the main project into a potential doctoral thesis. I recently, whilst clearing out some old cartons, came across all the material for that doctoral thesis. I was stunned at how far I had got with it, having in the intervening years forgotten most of the work I had invested. I sat and stared at it for three days then threw it all away.

So you see, if I say that I have researched and studied Babbage and Lovelace in a professional capacity it is simply the truth. I should point out that if I write about either of them now, I don’t rely on my memory of work done long ago but go back and read the original sources that I sorted out and studied then, modifying if necessary my views, as my knowledge has grown over the intervening years. In more recent years I have been paid by reputable, educational institutions to hold public lectures on Mr Babbage and his computing engines, so yes through preparing those lectures my knowledge has grown.

Let us return to my critics. Over the years battling the Ada hagiography I have come to the conclusion that the majority of her acolytes don’t actually bother to look at the sources at all. It seems some of them have read a blog post or an article in a non-academic Internet magazine, highly biased and based on dubious secondary sources rather than primary ones (and yes I am aware of the irony of writing that on a blog post). The rest have only ever read a short précis of those blog posts/articles posted on one or other of the Internet’s social media, which parrot the inaccurate accounts of their sources. This majority continue to parrot this ‘fake news’ without bothering to check whether it is historical accurate. The result is that we now have a major Ada myth industry.

If I had the chance to discuss with Yael, Peter or any of the acolytes who have criticised and attacked me over the years I would ask them the following questions:

Which Ada biography have you read?

 I have read five of which I have what I regard as the two best ones standing on my bookshelf.

What about Babbage? Have you read his autobiography?

It’s actually a fascinating piece of literature covering much more than the computing engines for which Babbage is famous.

Maybe you have instead read the more modern and objective biography contained in Laura Snyder’s “The Philosophical Breakfast Club”?

A wonderful book, as I wrote in my review of it for the journal Endeavour

Have you read his 9thBridgewater Treatise, in which Babbage discusses religion and expands on his theory that one could explain miracles by unexpected changes in computer programmes?

An interesting if slightly bizarre  argument.

Or perhaps, you have read his On the Economy of Machinery Manufactures, the result of his extensive research into automation?

Babbage’s interest in automation drove much of his studies including his work on computing and computers. His On the Economy was a highly influential book in the nineteenth century.

Maybe you have read his unpublished writings on abstract algebra, now in the British Library, that are thought to have inspired George Peacock’s “Treatise on Algebra”?

 I will admit that I haven’t but it’s on my bucket list. I have however read Peacock’s book, fascinating and an important milestone in the history of mathematics,

Maybe you’ve read up on the Analytical Society, the student group Babbage and Herschel created in Cambridge to convince the university to introduce continental methods of analysis to replace Newton?

I stumbled across this intriguing piece of maths history during my research; it shows the dynamic that drove Babbage even from an early age.

This might seem like an intellectual pissing contest but if you wish to criticise me and maybe show me that I have erred, that I am mistaken or that I’m just plain wrong then I expect you to at least do the leg work. I actually like being shown that I am wrong because it means that I have learnt something new and I love to learn, to improve and to expand my knowledge of a subject. It is what I live for. I am a historian of science with a good international reputation that I have worked very hard to earn. I also work very hard to get my facts right. If you criticise me and hold a different opinion on some topic that I have written about but treat me with respect then I will treat you with respect even if I know that you are wrong. If, however, you just gratuitously insult me, as, in my opinion, Yael and Peter have done then I will treat you with disdain and if the mood suits me with a generous portion of sarcasm.

 

 

 

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