Category Archives: Book Reviews

Teaching the Revolution.

Anthony Millevolte is professor for chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Colleges where he also teaches the history of science courses. When he was teaching an introductory course on the so-called Copernican or Astronomical Revolution he realised that there was no suitable modern textbook available for such a course so he decided to write one: The Copernican Revolution: Putting the Earth into Motion.[1] His resolve to do so was strengthened when he realised that some people wee still teaching such courses using Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution from 1957. He writes, “As well written as it is, the obviously unavoidable weakness of Kuhn’s text is that it doesn’t reflect over a half century of active scholarship in this field”[2]. Being somewhat less diplomatic than Millevolte I would add that Kuhn’s book was flawed in some aspects in 1957 and those flaws haven’t improved in the almost sixty years since.


Millevolte’s book is exactly what he set out to write an introductory textbook for college students on the developments in European astronomy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries centred on the period between Copernicus and Galileo. Having above referred to the so-called Copernican Revolution I should point out that Millevolte doesn’t believe in a revolution either, as he explains in the final chapter of the book, An Epilogue, but uses the term in his title because it “reflects a long-standing historical convention – not because it accurately summarizes a series of events that unfolded over many centuries”[3].

The first three chapters could be summarized as setting the scene, giving a quick survey of European astronomy prior to the Renaissance. Consisting of only eight-two pages they don’t offer much depth but however cover all of the salient points clearly and accurately. All the chapters of the book have excellent endnotes and these contain references to the extensive bibliography helping any reader who wishes to pursue any given topic further.

The fourth chapter is devoted to Renaissance astronomy and Copernicus and contains one of the few minor criticisms that I have of the book. In his biographical sketch of Copernicus Millevolte makes some errors only significant to a pedant like me, which however could profitably corrected in a second edition. Otherwise this like all the other chapters in the book is clearly presented and the history of science is as far as it goes correct.

In his introduction Millevolte says that in the process of writing he realised why nobody had written such an up to date textbook. He writes, “It turns out that the experts disagree on a good many of the central elements of the story – so much so that it is sometimes challenging to identify an acceptable narrative”[4]. On this point I agree with him so one should bear this in mind when considering any criticism that I might make here. Despite this problem throughout the book Millevolte had managed to produce a clear, coherent narrative suitable for beginners. On those points that are contentious he includes clearly written, extensive endnotes, which list alternative viewpoints, thus managing very successfully to have his cake and eat it, too.

Having set the astronomical revolution in motion Millevolte produces one chapter each on Tycho Brahe and Kepler and three on Galileo. Here I would complain that the balance is false as Kepler contributed far more to the astronomical revolution than Galileo. However the traditional narrative always favours Galileo over Kepler and as this is a college textbook Millevolte stays within the tradition. He does however redress the balance somewhat in the final chapter where he attributes equal weight to Kepler and Galileo in establishing heliocentricity. I still think this gives too much credit to Galileo but it is it is better than the standard mythology that gives almost all the credit to Galileo and almost none to Kepler.

In his chapters on Galileo Millevolte also tend to emphasise positive aspects of Galileo’s activities oft by simply omitting the negative. For example whilst discussing the dispute between Galileo and Orazio Grassi concerning comets, that led to Galileo writing Il Saggiatore, whilst conceding that Galileo’s attacks on Grassi were, to say the least, immoderate Millevolte neglects to mention that on the question of whether the comets were sub- or supralunar Grassi was in the right and Galileo very much in the wrong.

The same subject turns up in the discussion of the third day in the Dialogo, which is devoted amongst other things to the novas and that they were supralunar. Millevolte claims that Galileo devoted space to this theme because “there remained many Aristotelians who refused to believe the novas were located beyond the sphere of the moon”[5]. This may well have been but the Jesuit, who were without doubt the leading geocentric astronomers, had already accepted the supralunar status of the novas in the sixteenth century. Galileo is here flogging the proverbial dead horse. Again not mentioned by Millevolte, who in general fails to make the important distinction between Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic and/or Tychonic astronomy; a distinction that played a central and significant role in the gradual acceptance of heliocentricity. Geocentric astronomers were prepared to abandon Aristotelian cosmology when the evidence showed it to be wrong but not to give up geocentric astronomy without clear evidence against it and for heliocentricity.

Concerning day four of the Dialogo, Millevolte fails to mention that Galileo’s much favoured theory of the tides was in fact refuted by the empirical facts.

All of the above points whilst, in my opinion important, are for an introductory text not absolutely essential and should not be thought to lead to a negative assessment of Millevolte’s book.

The closing chapter of the book delivers a brief but very clear assessment of the further progress towards heliocentricity up to and including Isaac Newton. As already mentioned the book has an extensive bibliography and the endnotes to each chapter deal skilfully with many of the historically contentious points in the story. I personally would have welcomed an index. The book is attractively illustrated with black and white pictures and diagrams.

Taken as a whole Millevolte has fulfilled his original resolve extremely well and what we have here is a first class up to date textbook on one of the most important episodes in the history of astronomy. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wishes to read an introductory text on the subject to inform and educate themselves and especially to anyone wishing to teach an introductory course on the subject to college students or even to the upper classes/grades of grammar schools, high schools etc. Currently priced at circa $17 US on most students should be able to afford a copy.


[1] Anthony Millevolte, The Copernican Revolution: Putting the Earth into Motion, Tuscobia Press, 2014.

[2] Millevolte, p. iv

[3] Millevolte, p. 294

[4] Millevolte, p. v

[5] Millevolte, p. 270


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Uncategorized

From astronomy to literature – Bridging the gap

Recent years have seen more and more people proclaiming a crisis in the humanities. In an age where politicians seem to have mutated into one-track worshippers of the Gods of Mammon anything, which can’t be measured in terms of the profits it will generate, preferably in the short rather than the long-term, is placed on the list for defunding. Humanities departments are ‘downsized’ (a hideous euphemism), threatened with closure or simply closed as not cost-effective. In an aged increasingly dominated by a weird mix of profit maximisation and techno-scientism the humanities have apparently been weighed and not found wanting, but categorised as superfluous to requirements. In this situation it is helpful to be reminded that the sciences and humanities have throughout their existence regularly stimulated and cross-fertilised each other. Within the history of science one historian who dedicated her life to documenting and illuminating that symbiosis was Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894–1981), who devoted her ample talents to examining the connections between literature and science during the so-called scientific revolution. I’m quite happy to state that in my early days as a wannabe historian of science Marjorie Hope Nicolson was one of my guiding lights showing me that science is not an activity divorced from society but one deeply immersed in it. This lady of literature and science has found a worthy successor in Anna Henchman and her recently published work The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy & the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature[1].


The nineteenth century saw, with major developments in a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines, in what some have called the second scientific revolution. Already beginning in the late eighteenth century both physical optics and astronomy experienced wide reaching advances, which in turn led to an extensive reconsideration of humanities’ place in the world and the world’s place in the cosmos. It is this reassessment of humankind’s vision of itself and its place in the cosmos, its origins in the sciences of optics and astronomy and its reflections in the contemporary literature that forms the subject of Henchman’s book.

Mercury Venus

Following an introduction laying out her game plan and introducing the reader to various concepts important to her theme the book is divided into two sections Observers in Motion and Astronomy and the Multiplot Novel. In the former Henchman takes the reader through a discussion of astronomy, optics and points of view centred around the writings of John Herschel, probably the most significant figure in both astronomy and optics in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. Then moving on to a wider sweeping discussion of philosophical perspectives. Next up is journalist and essayist Thomas de Quincy, best known to modern readers for his Confessions of an Opium-Eater (which your reviewer confesses to having read in his youth) but here considered for his attempts to come to terms with the emerging modern astronomy and cosmology in his 1846 essay Systems of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes. Rosse had the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world constructed at his observatory in Ireland and did much to open up the field of deep space astronomy inaugurated by Charles Messier and William Herschel in the eighteenth century. This work did much to unsettle mankind’s view of the universe and its place in it. This disturbance is the subject of de Quincy’s essay, which Henchman dissects, from several different directions, with great skill. The third and final part of the first section concerns itself with the way that the new astronomy is reflected in the work of one of the Victorian period’s most loved poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson. To quote just one sentence, “Tennyson is unique among his contemporaries, not perhaps in the extent to which he uses stellar imagery, but in the extent to which he requires that imagery to be consistent with astronomical observation”.


The second section of the book turns, as its title clearly states, to the nineteenth-century multiplot novel and the analogies to be found there to the astronomical universe, which in the nineteenth century was rapidly transitioning from the comparatively small and homely cosmos that humanity had inhabited, as the centre of, from the beginnings of human awareness up to the eighteenth century into a the vast unfathomable space of multitudinous galaxies a small corner of which we inhabit today. After a brief introductory chapter aptly entitled Novels as Celestial Systems Henchman delivers two chapters of in depth analysis of the works of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. The second section, and the book, closes out with the chapter Narratives on a Grand Scale: Astronomy and Narrative Space in which Henchman suggests, “…that much as individual characters have cosmological conceptions–views of the totality of things– so do works of fiction. Novelists such as Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens create fictional cosmoses, each of which behaves according to a logic of its own. This unstated logic makes an entire narrative space feel stable or unstable, coherent or incoherent, complete or partial.” This chapter closes with a comparison, in these terms, of the presentations of the Napoleonic wars in Hardy’s The Dynasts and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Mud moulded ball

At the beginning of her brief five-page conclusion Henchman questions her own title. “What, then, is the sky within?” Her book is a stimulating and provocative attempt to answer this question for Victorian writers and their attitude to the rapidly changing, expanding and challenging science of astronomy in their century. Henchman in, what is a comparatively short book packed full of information and analysis, very deftly juggles a large amount knowledge from the fields of nineteenth-century literature, astronomy, cosmology, philosophy, and optics together with modern philosophy and literature theory. The stimulating text is complimented with many well-chosen astronomical and optical illustrations printed in engaging shades of grey (Three of which appear above). An important aspect of any academic book is the academic apparatus, which is here first class. Extensive and informative endnotes (that I, like most academic readers, prefer footnotes to endnotes should already be well known to regular readers of this blog!) are complimented by an equally extensive bibliography and a comprehensive index.

This is very clearly an academic rather than a popular or semi-popular book and it can and, in my opinion, should be read by any academic from student through doctoral student to lecturer and professor not only in literature studies but also in the history of science or nineteenth-century history in general. All of these would benefit from reading this book with its all-round perspective crossing numerous discipline boundaries. It would be a great win for the more general reader if Henchman were to turn her obvious scholarly and writing talents to producing a more popular version of her research in a further volume. I learned much reading this book and I’m certain that many others will also do so.




[1] Anna Henchman, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy & the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of science

Retelling a story – this time with all the facts

Before 1995 probably only a handful of people interested in the history of navigation had ever heard of the English clockmaker John Harrison and the role he played in the history of attempts to find a reliable method of determining longitude at sea. This situation changed radically when Dava Sobel published her book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time[1] in that year. This volume caught the public imagination and very rapidly became one of the most successful popular history of science and technology books of all time. It was followed just three years later by a lavishly illustrated expanded edition. Just one year after that followed the equally lavish television documentary film based on the book. By the year 2000 at the latest John Harrison had become a household name and a British scientific hero on a level with Newton and Darwin.

P.L. Tassaert's half-tone print of Thomas King's original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library,

P.L. Tassaert’s half-tone print of Thomas King’s original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library,

All of this would have been well and good if Sobel had actually adhered to the first three words of her subtitle, The True Story…, but unfortunately she sacrificed historical accuracy to the expediency of telling a good story, basically reducing a complex historical narrative to the fairy tale of a poor honest hero, John Harrison, overcoming adversity to finally triumph against the evil machination of his dishonest scheming opponent the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. Sobel’s lurid narrative proved, as already stated, commercially very successful but left its readers with a highly distorted view of what actually took place in the long eighteenth century in the endeavours to find a method of determining longitude and the role that the various people involved played in those endeavours. In particular Nevil Maskelyne was left in the popular public imagination looking rather like the devil’s evil cousin.


Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne Source Wikimedia

Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne
Source Wikimedia

About five years ago a major historical research project, under the auspices of the Arts & Humanities Research Council, was set up by Cambridge University and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on the history of the British Board of Longitude, the official body set up to oversee and direct the search for a method to determine longitude at sea in the eighteenth century. Led by Simon Schaffer for the University of Cambridge and Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt for the National Maritime Museum this project featured a cast of excellent doctoral and post doctoral researchers some of whose findings can be found on the excellent Longitude Project Blog. To date this research project has produced a remarkable list of achievements. Alongside a volume of papers on the much maligned Nevil Maskelyne, which has just appeared and which I am looking forward very much to reading,


the whole of the Board of Longitude archive has been digitized and made available online to researchers. Currently on at the Museum in Greenwich is a major exhibition Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, which you can still visit if you hurry, it closes on the 4th of January 2015. If you are uncertain whether or not it’s worth visiting, it has just been awarded the British Society for the History of Science Great Exhibitions Award for 2014! If like myself you are unable for some reason to make the journey to Greenwich do not despair you can bring the exhibition into your own living room by acquiring the accompanying book Finding Longitude: How Ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem[2] by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt, a review of which is the actually subject of this post.

Finding Longitude001

My review is actually very simple this book is magnificent. If you have any interest in the histories of navigation, sea voyages, astronomy, clocks, John Harrison, Nevil Maskelyne, Tobias Mayer, and a whole ship’s cargo of other related and interrelated topics then buy this book! I guarantee you that you won’t regret it for one second. It combines thorough research, first class scholarship, excellent writing, unbelievably lavish illustrations, fascinating narratives and historical accuracy in one superb and, for what it is, surprisingly low priced large format volume. Unlike Sobel’s, from a historians standpoint, ill-starred volume, this work really does tell the true story of the solution of the longitude problem with all its complex twists and turns giving all the participants their dues. Although written for the general reader this book should also find a home on the bookshelves of any working historian of navigation, astronomy, horology, sea voyages or just the science and technology of the long eighteenth century.

This book will take you on a voyage through the choppy waters of eighteenth century science, politics and technology and deliver you up on the shores of the nineteenth century much more knowledgeable then you were when you boarded ship and entertain and delight you along the way. It will also make for a first class Christmas present.

[1] Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Fourth Estate, London, 1995

[2] Richard Dunn & Rebekah Higgitt, Longitude: How Ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem, Collins and Royal Museums Greenwich, London 2014


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Cartography, History of Navigation, History of science

A little learning is a dangerous thing

“A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: 

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again. 

Fired at first sight with what the muse imparts,

In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts 

While from the bounded level of our mind 

Short views we take nor see the lengths behind 

But more advanced behold with strange surprise,

New distant scenes of endless science rise!”

In a recent New Yorker essay Adam Gopnik delivered up his view of Galileo Galilei. The essay is long and meandering and I don’t intend to do a complete analysis but there is one central point of Gopnik’s that I do wish to discuss. He gets off to a lousy start by calling Galileo “The founder of modern science”. I’ve already dealt with this elsewhere and don’t intend to repeat myself here. However Gopnik returns to the theme towards the end of his essay with proof! He begins with the following:

Contemporary historians of science have a tendency to deprecate the originality of the so-called scientific revolution, and to stress, instead, its continuities with medieval astrology and alchemy. And they have a point. It wasn’t that one day people were doing astrology in Europe and then there was this revolution and everyone started doing astronomy. Newton practiced alchemy; Galileo drew up all those horoscopes. But if you can’t tell the difference in tone and temperament between Galileo’s sound and that of what went before, then you can’t tell the difference between chalk and cheese.

Those historians of science can make their claims but Gopnik, a literary critic/humourist/art critic [please choose the appellation for Gopnik that best fits your prejudices or lack of them: see comments] knows better! He has read a book!

The difference is apparent if you compare what astrologers actually did and what the new astronomers were doing. “The Arch-Conjuror of England” (Yale), Glyn Parry’s entertaining new biography of Galileo’s contemporary the English magician and astrologer John Dee, shows that Dee was, in his own odd way, an honest man and a true intellectual. He races from Prague to Paris, holding conferences with other astrologers and publishing papers, consulting with allies and insulting rivals. He wasn’t a fraud. His life has all the look and sound of a fully respectable intellectual activity, rather like, one feels uneasily, the life of a string theorist today.

Now I have read the same book and although that book is excellent it, in my opinion, suffers from a major deficiency that I actually discussed on twitter a while back with Ted Hand (@t3dy) a historian of alchemy. However before we turn to Parry’s book and its deficiency let us see how Gopnik uses it to justify his belief in Galileo’s modernity.

The look and the sound of science . . . but it does have a funny smell. Dee doesn’t once ask himself, “Is any of this real or is it all just bullshit?” If it works, sort of, and you draw up a chart that looks cool, it counts. Galileo never stopped asking himself that question, even when it wasn’t bullshit but sounded as though it might well be. That’s why he went wrong on the tides; the-moon-does-it-at-a-distance explanation sounds too much like the assertion of magic. The temperament is not all-seeing and curious; it is, instead, irritable and impatient with the usual stories.

So there we have it. Galileo may have been a practicing astrologer but he was also a questioning scientist whereas his near contemporary John Dee was just a gullible pseudo-scientist. Case closed. Galileo is different. He is the founder of modern science as claimed. Gopnik 1 historians of science 0.

Unfortunately for Gopnik reading one book on Dee, no matter how good, isn’t enough. He has fallen head first into the error illustrated by the famous quote from Alexander Pope with which this post is headed, “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. If instead he had drunk deep of the springs of Dee scholarship he would not have so confidently labelled Dee chalk to Galileo’s cheese.

What is Parry’s deficiency and why is Gopnik wrong?

To understand the problem we have to look at how John Dee’s image has changed over the centuries. In the 16th century Dee was a highly respected member of the European scientific community highly involved in mathematics, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, cartography, navigation and history. By the middle of the 17th century his star was fading fast and he was largely forgotten then Meric Casaubon published the so-called Angel Diaries, Dee’s supposed conversations with angels through the medium Edward Kelly. Through this publication of previously unknown material Dee became the archetypal Renaissance magus in the popular imagination, a dabbler in magic probably in league with the devil.

This remained the public persona of Dee right up to the beginning of the twentieth century and he became a notorious trans-continental figure turning up as the essence of sorcery in several works of fiction. In the twentieth century, however, historians began to investigate and re-assess the real historical John Dee and the role that he played in European Renaissance culture. What emerged was a very different figure from the archetypal Renaissance magus. The last forty or fifty years has seen the publication of many academic papers and a series of monographs containing biographical studies of Dee, illustrating various aspects of his highly complex character. Glyn Parry’s The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee is the latest such biography to be published.

Parry’s book, which is excellent and highly recommended for those interested in the subject, is a well researched and minutely documented study of the role played by alchemy and magic in the European royal courts of the sixteenth century, in particular the court of Elizabeth I of England, structured around the life story of John Dee. This is not the first such study but follows in the tradition of R. J. W. Evan’s excellent Rudolph II and his World: A study in intellectual history, 1576–1612 and Bruce T. Moran’s equally excellent The Alchemical World of the German Court: Occult Philosophy and Chemical Medicine in the Circle of Moritz of Hessen (1572–1632) both of which also feature John Dee, albeit in a less central role, who was active on both courts. Both books are regarded as classics and standard works on the role of the occult in Renaissance culture and Parry’s book is a more than worthy companion but there is a minor and important difference. Both Evan’s and Moran’s books were marketed as academic books written for specialists and although Parry’s volume is equally academic his publishers have seized upon Dee’s public popularity and marketed it as a popular book. They have also, and this is the crucial point, marketed it as a biography. This marketing strategy has led Gopnik to the belief that having read Parry’s book he now knows all about John Dee but unfortunately he is highly mistaken.

Parry actually only deals with one aspect of Dee’s multi-faceted nature, his activities as a magus almost completely ignoring Dee the mathematicus and it is here that Gopnik walks straight into a trap of his own making. If instead of just reading Parry’s book he had done some basic research on Dee he would have discovered that Dee and Galileo are by no means so far apart as he would like to think.

Several times in his book Parry alludes to the fact that mathematics plays a very central role in Dee’s whole philosophy but never bothers to elucidate what or why, concentrating instead on Dee’s occult activities leading Gopnik to a totally false picture of Dee the mathematical scientist. Early in his book Parry explains that after graduating from Cambridge Dee paid two visits to the University of Leuven, in the Spanish Netherlands, one short and one substantially longer to study under Gemma Frisius and Gerard Mercator. Parry discusses the astrology that Dee studied under the two Netherlanders but makes no mention of the mathematics. In fact Frisius was one of the leading teachers of the cutting edge mathematical sciences of the age and Dee came back to Britain with the best mathematical education available anywhere in the world at the time. He introduced into Britain, which lagged far behind the rest of Europe in the development of the mathematical sciences, the newest procedures in mathematics, astronomy, cartography and navigation as well as bringing with him the newest terrestrial and celestial globes and astronomical instruments from the workshops of Frisius and Mercator. On his early journeys through Europe Dee also got to know and to learn from other leading European mathematical practitioners such as Pedro Nunes in Portugal and Federico Commandino in Italy.

In his house in Mortlake Dee set up a research centre for the mathematical sciences, which contained the largest private scientific library in Europe, including at least two copies of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, where other interested scholars could and did come to learn and discuss the latest in mathematical knowledge. Dee’s foster son Thomas Digges wrote and published one of the first works on Copernican astronomy in English, which contained the first published partial translation of De revolutionibus into the vernacular. Another acolyte of Dee’s John Feild (sic) published, at Dee’s urging, the first ephemeris based on Copernicus’ work. Dee himself wrote the extensive preface to Henry Billingsley’s English translation of The Elements of Euclid. This preface is an important early work on the philosophy of mathematics. Dee corresponded on mathematical topics with many of the leading mathematicians and astronomers in Europe including a correspondence with Tycho Brahe on the problems of determining the parallax of moving celestial bodies, i.e. comets, a topic at the cutting edge of contemporary astronomical research. Dee was also a close friend and colleague of Thomas Harriot the greatest of English Renaissance mathematicians whose scientific discoveries easily rivalled those of Galileo but because he never published anything remained unknown and unacknowledged.

His English language preface to Billingley’s Euclid was not a one off but is symbolic for one of Dee’s most important contribution that of co-founder of the so-called English school of mathematics. As already mention in the second half of the sixteenth century England lagged behind the rest of Europe in the mathematical sciences. The first person to undertake series efforts to correct this deficit was Robert Recorde who wrote and published a series of textbooks in English covering the mathematical sciences including Copernican astronomy. After Recorde’s death Dee brought out several revised and expanded editions of those textbooks. The two of them started a tradition of English mathematics that stretched through the second half of the sixteenth century all the way through the seventeenth century up to Newton, which encompasses such important figures as William Oughtred, Seth Ward, John Wallis, Christopher Wren and even Newton himself.

Far from being the naïve magician that Gopnik imagines him to have been John Dee was acknowledged and recognised as one of the leading European mathematical practitioners in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. Whose mathematical heritage echoed all the way through the seventeenth century and the creation of modern science.

Contrary to the commonly held myth Galileo did not invent modern mathematical science but built his research on a solid foundation a Renaissance mathematical advances that goes back all the way to Georg Peuerbach and Regiomontanus in the middle of the fifteenth century. One of the Renaissance mini-giants on whose shoulders Galileo and his contemporaries constructed their contributions to the evolution of modern science was John Dee. Far from being the contrast obsolescent model to Galileo’s shiny new show room model as Gopnik would have us believe John Dee, in his own way, contributed as much to the creation of modern science as Galileo himself.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Science in Antiquity: A book review

In the last few weeks everybody else has been nominating books of the year or recommending books for Christmas so I thought I would follow the trend and at the same time try to improve my somewhat negative image by actually writing a positive book review. In fact this is not a review of one book but of a whole series of seven books, The Routledge Sciences of Antiquity series. These books are not new but have been available for some years now although one of them saw the release of its second expanded edition on the 1st of November this year. The books are, in no particular order, Ancient Natural History by Roger French (who was before his death also the original general editor of the series), Time in Antiquity by Roland Hannah, Ancient Astrology by Tamsyn Barton, Cosmology in Antiquity by M. R. Wright, Ancient Mathematics by S. Cuomo, Ancient Meteorology by Liba Taub (who is the current general editor) and finally Ancient Medicine by Vivian Nutton. I now own five of the series only missing the volumes by Taub and Hannah, which are high up on my book purchase list, so if anybody wishes to buy The Renaissance Mathematicus a Christmas present…

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow account of all the five volumes that I do own but I’ll start with some general comments about Nutton’s Ancient Medicine, which was the one whose second edition appeared this year. Nutton is one of the leading English historians of medicine and a great expert on medicine in antiquity and especially Galen. This book, which became a standard work on the subject when it first appeared and an instant classic, is now even better in its improved second edition. If you are a student of the history of medicine and this book is not on your bookshelf then something is seriously wrong with your book buying policy.

This brings us to the intended or potential readership for this series. In his general introduction to the series Roger French writes the following:

The purpose of this series of volumes is to provide the reader who is not necessarily a classical scholar with a broad view of some areas of ancient interest to which the term ‘science’ has customarily been attached.

I personally would see the potential readership in undergraduate and postgraduate students of general history, philosophy and both the history and philosophy of science. Of course any reasonably well read scholar with a general interest in antiquity could and would benefit from reading one or more of the volumes in this series. I personally find them very useful as a slightly more advanced historian of science whose area of expertise lies somewhere else (the Early Modern Period) but who vainly attempts to maintain a broad and general picture of the whole of the history of science. A hopeless endeavour but one that I think all historians of science should follow to some extent.

All of the books that I possess in this series are excellently written by top experts in their field (an appellation that also applies to both Hannah and Taub whose volumes I don’t possess) in a style that makes them accessible to the reasonably educated general reader. All of them also posses a full academic apparatus of endnotes (I still prefer footnotes), extensive bibliography and index making it possible for the reader to deepen their knowledge of any points that catch their interest.

One particular aspect of the series that for me increases their value is that they are not standard re-iterations of the supposed facts and myths of the subjects with which they deal but are up to date reassessments of what is known presented in context. French writes:

The ancient material used by philosophers and other in later periods is here described in its ancient context. But the needs of the modern reader, who may want information on one particular area of the sciences, has been kept in mind.

These two purposes, to give ancient ‘science’ in its context and to direct the reader’s attention to fields of study that he recognises, coincides with a fresh look at ancient ‘science’.

This fresh look is wonderfully illustrated for me by Cuomo’s volume, Ancient Mathematics a subject in which I had read extensively before I came to her book. Books on mathematics tend to be strongly internalist dealing with which theorems were first discovered by whom and also often dangerously speculative stretching the often very small set of real facts available, mostly without informing the reader that this is the case. Cuomo’s book is wonderfully contextual giving all of the sources where mathematical knowledge was not only produced but also used and discussed in antiquity whilst continuously reminding the reader just how thin the blanket of available facts really is. A wonderful corrective to all those books that go on for pages about the achievements of one or other of the Greek mathematicians from whom we have absolutely no extant works and whose appearance in the oft many centuries later works of others are at best scant. I heartily recommend this book to anybody who thinks they already ‘know’ about mathematics in antiquity. It’s is startling to discover how much of our standard ‘knowledge’ repeated in numerous reference works is at the best dubious and often plain myths.

If you are looking for a last minute gift for the historian or philosopher of science in your life then one or other of the volumes in this series would I’m sure be gratefully received. One small word of warning whilst the paperbacks are, whilst not cheap, reasonably priced for academic books of this quality the hardbacks are exorbitantly expensive.



1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, History of science

Phrases in the history of science that should be abolished, banned, forbidden, eradicated, annihilated, obliterated, eliminated, jettisoned, extirpated…

Patricia Fara has written a new biography of Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ paternal grandfather and a significant eighteenth century intellectual figure in his own right. Ms Fara is an excellent historian of science and a skilful and entertaining writer whose books are usually to be recommended. Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt also tells me that she is an excellent teacher but I digress. I for one welcome this publication and look forward, in the fullness of time, to acquiring a copy and reading it. So I was pleased when I stumbled across the article on the Oxford University Press’ blog advertising it. Pleased that is until I read the phrase out of the text used as a header for the article:

Erasmus Darwin’s views on evolution, politics and religion were so controversial that he was written out of history [My emphasis] for nearly two centuries.

I don’t know about you but the phrase “written out of history” evokes in me images of George Orwell’s 1984 and the re-writing of the history books, newspapers etc. every time the countries involved in the global war switched alliances. Or maybe those Stalinist era Politburo Mayday Parade photographs in which prominent politicians have been airbrushed out because they have, in the meantime, been shipped off to the Gulag for some real or imagined offense against the ruling party.

Whatever else might have happened to him in the last two hundred plus years, dear OUP, Erasmus Darwin has at no time been “written out of history”. If you mean that, in your opinion, he has not received the attention that he deserves from historians then say so, but don’t try to express your opinion in some sort of meaningless and completely false hyperbolic bovine excreta.


Filed under Book Reviews

Dava Sobel tries her hand at historical fantasy.

Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time is almost certainly the most successful popular history of science book published in the last fifty years. This is to some extent understandable as it is a well written enthralling tale of one mans battle against the establishment to solve a great scientific challenge, the determination of longitude at sea. It suffers however from a major flaw, it is a distortion of the real history it is claiming to relate. Sobel makes this tale of a complex episode in the history of science into a struggle between good, represented by John Harrison, and evil represented by Nevil Maskelyne, a severe distortion of the historical facts. To discover more about what really took place I recommend reading the posts at The Board of Longitude Project Blog, my concern here is Sobel’s latest history of science outing A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos.

When I first read her Longitude I was very impressed by the story that she told about a period and a development in the history of science about which I then knew very little. Unfortunately for Ms Sobel I was so impressed that I decided to investigate further and started to acquire and read the academic literature on the subject and fairly quickly learnt that Sobel’s version of the story was anything but accurate. Having made this experience I was more than sceptical when I first discovered that Sobel had chosen the life and work of Copernicus as the subject for her latest book. I feared that she would make a mess of it and unfortunately my fears have been confirmed. One can get a first impression of how Sobel deals with the subject from an interview she gave about the book earlier this year in Cosmos.

Cosmos: What is A More Perfect Heaven about

Sobel: It’s about Copernicus and how he was talked into publishing his crazy idea, heliocentrism. It was an idea he developed in his youth and told only a few people about and promised he would write a book on the subject. He eventually did, but he worked on the book for decades and became increasingly fearful he would be laughed at and that people would use the Bible to claim his idea was irreligious.

Here we have Sobel repeating the old myth that Copernicus didn’t want to publish because he feared the religious reaction; this has been dismissed by historians of science for decades. Copernicus didn’t publish because he couldn’t deliver. In his Commentariolus he had claimed he would provide proof that the world (read universe or solar system) was heliocentric. He was nowhere near being able to deliver that proof and that is why he hesitated to publish his book.

Sobel: He seems to have decided not to publish it, but then he was surprised to get a visit from a young German mathematician, a brilliant man called Rheticus, who was a colleague of Martin Luther. Rheticus was on a self-improvement journey and he learned about Copernicus’s work while in Nuremberg, so he went off to see him – a journey of 500km. Copernicus’s region of Poland was Catholic, and the bishop had banished all Lutherans, so when this fellow showed up it was a conflict on several levels.

Except in the formal sense that they were both professors at the same university Rheticus was not a colleague of Luther’s and the suggestion that he was is part of Sobel’s disinformation tactic.

Sobel: I remember learning that story in 1973 – the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth. There was an article by science historian Edward Rosen in a magazine called Sky and Telescope, and I remember thinking what a great play it would make. The characters are different in every way, but they came together on this one idea and somehow Copernicus managed to keep them there for two years, and Rheticus helped him complete the book.

Here we have the core of Sobel’s distortion of history, which I will deal with later but I find it significant that Sobel bases her work on a source that is anything but up to date or accurate for that matter.

After a lot of hesitation as to whether I really wanted to waste my money on a book that I was fairly certain was not very good I finally succumbed and bought the Kindle edition. Sadly, to have my worst suspicions confirmed.

The book is in three sections. The first is a conventional biography of Copernicus, which however doesn’t really deal with his astronomy. The second, and major, part of the book is written in the form of a play and is a fictional reconstruction of what occurred between Copernicus and Rheticus when the latter visited Frauenburg and persuaded the reluctant author to part with his manuscript and allow it to be published. The final part deals with the reception and further developments of the heliocentric hypothesis, Kepler, Galileo etc.

The biography at the beginning of the book is actually quite good although given the nature of the material it is anything but scintillating. Sobel deals with the material well and presents a rounded picture of Copernicus the political administrator and physician, which is what he was. There is nothing new here but as there isn’t a good modern English language biography of the man it might have made for a good book if not for the following section. My only quibble with the first section is that Sobel keeps emphasising Copernicus’ astronomical observations as if they were highly significant. This was not the case. In fact Copernicus made comparatively few observations in his forty odd years as an active astronomer and most of those that he did make were of a comparatively trivial nature. He was not an observational astronomer he was a theoretician.

It is with the second, central, part that the book unravels very spectacularly. Sobel claims to be writing historical fiction in this section, creating a plausible reconstruction of what took place between the two mathematicians during their time together, a period that we know very little about. However what she has produced could at best be called historical fantasy, although the use of the word historical here is very much stretching the point. What we have is a collection of ahistorical cardboard cut out figures spouting soap opera dialogue that is at time so bad it’s embarrassing.

The problems start with the opening scene where Copernicus comes home to find the newly arrived Rheticus sleeping on his doorstep. Rheticus is presented as a sort of naïve, simpleton, teenage astronomical groupie who has just hitch-hiked in from Wittenberg in the clothes he is standing up in and with a bag slung over his shoulder to pay his respects to his hero Copernicus. Historically plausible? Like hell it is. Although relatively young, 25, and given to hero worship Rheticus was the independently wealthy son of a minor Italian aristocrat who was professor of mathematics at a leading European university that was a major centre of humanistic learning. He was travelling with a servant and alone the folio editions of the books that he had brought with him, as a gift for Copernicus would have required the services of a pack mule if not a horse. He in fact checked into a hostelry like any other wealthy and educated visitor and sent a message to Copernicus requesting an audience. Sobel now proceeds to play the religious card for all that it’s worth repeating a standard myth that because we are in the middle of the Reformation and Rheticus is a Lutheran Protestant from Wittenberg visiting a Catholic Prince Bishopric that some how his life must be in danger. What we have here in reality is actually an interesting historical phenomenon because throughout the Reformation and Counter Reformation scholars, who weren’t fire breathing preachers, were treated with consideration and respect on both sides of the divide. As long as they kept their noses out of religious affairs they were free to come and go and to correspond as they pleased. All of the time that Rheticus spent in Ermland he was treated, as what he was, an honoured scholarly guest. Before moving on there is one minor point that relates back to those observations. The naïve groupie on being allowed to view Copernicus’ manuscript asks, so many observations did you make them all yourself? Well no, the vast majority of the observations used in De revolutionibus are taken from other sources. As I said Copernicus was a theoretician not an observer.

The situation in Sobel’s mini-drama gets even worse when we come to Copernicus and the Bishop of Frauenburg. Here we get a repeat of the Longitude scenario with Copernicus presented as a wise and caring saint, a sort of Prussian Albert Schweitzer, who hides the Protestant groupie in his attic like a sixteenth century Anne Frank. As I’ve already pointed out there was no need what so ever for Rheticus to hide anywhere. Even worse is Sobel’s vision of the Bishop of Frauenburg, he, who is never given a name, is presented as a snivelling, paranoid, anti-science cretin, who is determined to bring about the downfall of both Copernicus and his book. A fair representation? Like hell it is.

The real life Bishop of Frauenburg at the time of Rheticus’ visit was Johannes Dantiscus an acknowledge humanist scholar and a crowned poet laureate. He had served for many years as a diplomat for various kings, emperors and princes throughout Europe before entering the church and maintained an extensive correspondence with many leading European scholars. He had personally met Phillip Melanchthon, Rheticus’ superior and mentor, respected him as one of the most learned men of the age but regretted that he was a Protestant. One of his correspondents had been Johann Reuchlin Melanchthon’s uncle and the leading humanist Hebrew scholar in Europe. Dantiscus was a cultivated, highly educated and very knowledgeable man. Far from being anti-science and trying to block Copernicus’ work he sent a copy of Rheticus’ Narratio Prima, the first published account of Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis, to Gemma Frisius in Leuven and tried to persuade him to come to Frauenburg to work together with Copernicus. The real Bishop of Frauenburg didn’t fit Sobel’s simplistic fairy tale of saints and demons and religious and scientific persecution so she invented a completely fictional character who bears no resemblance to Johannes Dantiscus.

All of this would be all well and good if Sobel wasn’t claiming to be producing a plausible reconstruction of what took place in Frauenburg between 1539 and 1541.  However what she presents has absolutely nothing to do with the known facts and whatever did take place was certainly nothing like Sobel’s warped distortion of history.

Reading the third section of the book I got the impression that this was filler material added to bulk out a rather thin volume. It is a very uninspired retelling of standard myths and falsehoods about the history of heliocentrism between 1543 and 1630, which contributes absolutely nothing towards redeeming a truly bad book. If you were thinking of reading or even buying this book save your time and money it’s not worth either the cost or the effort.



Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science