Category Archives: Book Reviews

Isaac goes to town

I appear to have become something of a fan of the Cambridge University historian of science, Patricia Fara. The first book of hers that I read, and that some years ago, was Newton: The Making of a Genius (Columbia University Press, 2002), an excellent deconstruction of the myths that grew up around England’s most lauded natural philosopher during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I do not own this volume, but I do own her Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (Pimlico, 2004), which delivers what the title promises. A detailed look at women, who contributed to enlightenment science and, who usually get ignored in mainstream history of science. I also own her An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment (Icon Books: 2002), a delightful romp through the first century of the scientific investigation of phenomenon of electricity. Also on my bookshelf is her ScienceA Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), a fresh and provocative one volume overview of the history of science. To round out my Fara collection I also have her Sex, Botany & EmpireThe Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (Icon Books, 2003) on my to-read-pile; I mean who could resist a title like that from an author with a proven track record for excellent history of science narratives.

Patricia Fara’s latest publication returns to the subject of England’s most iconic natural philosopher, Isaac Newton, but deals not with his science but the last thirty years of his life after he had effectively abandoned the production of new science and mathematics for the life of a gentleman about town, Life after GravityIsaac Newton’s London Career[1].

Before I go into detail, this book maintains the high standards of historical research and literary excellence that Fara has consistently displayed over her previous publication. 

Anybody, who is reasonably acquainted with Newton’s biography will already know that he turned his back on Cambridge and academia in 1696, to move to London to become first Warden and then in 1699 Master of the Royal Mint. This move enabled him to become President of the Royal Society in 1704, an integral part of the socio-political power structure in the capitol during the next thirty years, and also to become immensely wealthy. It is to this part of Newton’s life that Fara turns her sharp and perceptive eye and which she analyses with her acerbic, historical scalpel.

I have over the decades read a lot of Newton biographies, as well as papers and books that deal with specific aspects of his life and work, including aspects of the last thirty years of his life that he spent living in London, such as Tom Levenson’s excellent Money for NothingThe South Sea Bubble and the Invention of Modern Capitalism. Despite this, I learnt a lot of new things from Fara’s excellent small volume.

Fara’s book is actually two interlinked narratives; the contextual biography of Newton’s years in London is interwoven with an analysis of William Hogarth’s 1732 painting, The Indian Emperor. Or the Conquest of Mexico. As performed in the year 1731 in Mr Conduitt’s, Master of the Mint, before the Duke of Cumberland etc. Act 4, Scene 4.

This painting by Hogarth shows a performance of a heroic drama, written by John Dryden (1631–1700) and first performed in 1665, being performed by a group of children in the drawing room of the town house of John Conduitt (1688–1737), the husband of Newton’s niece and one time housekeeper, Catherine Barton; Conduitt was also Newton’s successor as Master of the Mint. This picture depicts several of the main characters of the book’s biographical narrative, including Newton as a bust mounted on the wall. It also reflects some of the main themes of the books such as imperialism. The interweaving of the descriptions of the painting and the various episodes of Newton’s life in London is a very powerful literary device and is representative for the fact that Fara’s book is deeply contextual and not just a simple listing of Newton’s activities during those last thirty years of his life.

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which deals mainly with Newton’s various residences in London and his general domestic life, within the context of early eighteenth-century London. The second section turns the reader’s attention to Newton’s reign at the Royal Society and the reign of the first Hanoverian King, George I, and his family and court with whom Newton was intimately involved. The final section takes the reader to the Royal Mint and also turns the spotlight on English imperialism.

I’m not going to go into much detail, for that you’ll have to read the book and I heartily recommend that you do so, but I want to draw attention to two prominent aspects of the book that I found particularly good.

The first is, surprising perhaps in a Newton biography, a good dose of feminist historiography. As one would expect from the author of Pandora’s Breeches and more recently A LAB of ONE’S OWNScience and Suffrage in the First World War(OUP, 2018)–I love the indirect Virginia Woolf reference–Fara pays detailed attention to the women in her narrative. 

In her description of life in the Tower of London, where the Mint was situated and where Newton initially lived when he moved to London, she introduces the reader to Elizabeth Tollet (1694-1754). Tollet, a poet and translator, was the handicapped daughter of George Tollet a Royal Navy, who lived with her father in the Tower. Unusually for the time, she was highly educated, Fara uses her diaries to describe life in the Tower and also features some of her poems that dealt with Newtonian natural philosophical themes and her elegy, On the Death of Sir Isaac Newton (1727).

Fara also paints a very sympathetic portrait of Queen Anne (1665–1714), who ruled over Britain for slightly more that the first decade of the eighteenth century. She has often been much maligned by her biographers and Fara presents her in a more favourable light. Newton niece and sometime housekeeper, Catherine Barton (1679–1739), naturally, features large and in this context Fara discusses an interesting aspect of male chauvinism from the period, of which I was previously unaware. The habit of older gentlemen having sexual relations with much younger, often closely related, women sometimes within a marital relationship, sometimes not. She details the case of Robert Hooke (1635–1703), who slept with his niece Grace. She speculates, whether Voltaire’s claim that Newton got his job at the Mint, because Charles Montagu (1661–1715) had slept with Catherine Barton is true or not. If he had, she would have been a teenager at the time.

The section on the Hanoverian court concentrates on Caroline of Ansbach (1683–1737), George I daughter-in-law, a fascinating woman, who enjoyed intellectual relations with both Leibniz and Newton. Effectively abandoning the former for the latter, when she moved, with the court, from Hanover to London. Fara’s book is worth the purchase price alone, for her presentation of the women surrounding Newton during his London residency.

The second aspect of the book that I would like to emphasise is Fara’s treatment of British imperialism and the associated exploitation and racism during the first third of the eighteenth century. Recently, there have been major debates about various aspects of these themes. In the general actually debate on racism, historians have pointed out that the modern concept of racism is a product of the eighteenth century. Others have opposed this saying that one should instead emphasise the eighteenth century as the century of the Enlightenment, quoting Newtonian physics and astronomy as one of its great contributions, apparent unsullied by associations with Empire and slavery. Coming from a different direction the debate on the restoration of art works stolen by the colonial powers, Britain leading the pack, has cast another strong spotlight on this period and its evils.

Fara tackles the themes head on. She goes into detail about how the gold that Newton minted in large quantities, the major source of his own private wealth, came from British exploitation of Africa. She also goes into quite a lot of detail concerning the joint stock companies, set up to further Britain’s imperial aims, to establish and exploit its colonies and their active involvement in the slave trade. As well as profiting from the African gold that he minted for the British government, Newton also profited from his extensive investments in the East India Company and initially from his investments in the South Sea Company, both of which were involved in the slave trade. He, of course, famously also lost heavily in the collapse of the South Sea Company’s share price. Fara successfully removes the clean white vest that many attempt to award Newton in this context.

Fara’s book is much more that a portrait of Newton’s final three decades, it is also a wide ranging and illuminating portrait of London in the first third of the eighteenth century, its social life, its economics, its politics, and its imperialism. This is not just the London of Newton, but also of Swift, Defoe, Pope, and many others. Everything is carefully and accurately researched and presented for the reader in an attractive, easy to read, narrative form. The book has endnotes, which are just references to the very extensive bibliography. There is also as very good index.

The book is illustrated with a block of colour illustration, which are repeated in black and white at the relevant points in the text, and here I must make my only negative comment on Fara’s otherwise excellent book. The quality of the reproduction of colour prints is at best mediocre and, in my copy at least the black and white prints are so dark as to render them next to useless. Something went wrong somewhere.

As should be clear, if you have read your way through all of this review,  I think this is an excellent book and I can’t recommend it enough. If I had a five-star system of valuation, I would be tempted to give Fara’s volume six, with perhaps half a star taken off for the poor quality of the illustrations, for which, of course, the author is not responsible. In my opinion it is a must read for anybody interested in Newton and his life but also for those more generally interested in the Augustan Age. If you one of those general interested in reading, well written, accessible, entertaining, and informative history books then you can add Fara’s tome to your reading list without reservations.


[1] Patricia Fara, Life after GravityIsaac Newton’s London Career, OUP, Oxford, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Newton

Divining the future in the past

This book review needs a little background. Some readers will know the blog post I wrote about meeting historian of astrology, Darrel Rutkin, on a country bus in 2014, whilst reading Monica Azzolini’s excellent The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan. Later I also wrote a review of Darrel’s equally excellent Sapientia AstrologicaAstrology, Magic and Natural Knowledgeca. 1250–1800: I.Medieval Structures (1250–1500)Conceptual, Institutional, Socio-Political, Theologico-Religious and Cultural. As I wrote in that review Darrel was in Erlangen as a fellow at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities: Fate, Freedom and Prognostication. Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe

The ICRH, for short, is a major international research institute set up to study the histories of divination and prognostication in China and in Medieval Europe. The post-doctoral fellows, many of them established professors, come to Erlangen for a period of time, between six and twenty-four months, to immerse themselves in the research of a specific aspect of these histories. There is much exchange between the fellows, who as well as following their own research take part in reading sessions, workshops, and conferences. During the semester there is a lecture every Tuesday evening given in turn by one of the fellows on the topic of their research, an incredible spectrum of themes. Since I met Darrel in 2014, I have been a regular audient of these lectures and have learnt an incredible amount. Although not a fellow, I even had the honour of holding a lecture in which I presented the recently published English version of our volume on the life and work of Simon Marius, concentrating in my lecture on his role as a Renaissance astrologer. I’m pleased to say that my lecture was well received. 

One long term aim of this research project, which has now been running for more that ten years, was to produce handbooks on Prognostication and Prediction in Chinese Civilisation and Prognostication in Premodern Western Society. This is a review of the latter, which has now been published under the title, Prognostication in the Medieval World: A Handbook.[1]

Volume I opens with an introductory essay by the editors that clearly lays out the why, how and wherefor of the handbook. They also explain the guidelines given to the authors of the individual essays to try and ensure a unity in approach and presentation, making this a genuine handbook and not a random collection of papers. This is followed by nine introductory surveys covering, Divination in Antiquity, the Pre-Christian Celtic World, Prognostication in the Germanic Languages, Prognostication among Slavs in the Middle Ages, Prognostication in the Medieval Western Christian World, Prognostication in the Medieval Eastern Christian World, Prognostication in the Medieval Jewish Culture, Prognostication in the Medieval Islamic World, and Prognostication in Early Modern Times –Outlook.

The main section of the book gathers groups of essays under types of divination: Eschatology and Millenarism, Prophecy and Visions, Dream Interpretation, Mantic Arts, Astral Sciences, Medical Prognostication, Calendrical Calculations, Weather Forecasting and closes with a single essay on Quantifying Risks.

The various authors are all experts in their individual fields and the quality of the separate essays is uniformly high. A lot of effort has been invested in assuring that the handbook is a truly useful reference work.

Volume II is much shorter than Volume I, a mere 290 pages to 710, but is an important and significant supplement to the essays in Volume I. To quote the general introduction:

The third section offers a “Repertoire of Written Sources and Artifacts.” This consists of detailed representations of text genres, text corpora, individual works or descriptions of certain objects as concrete manifestations of prognostication. The articles, which are concise in comparison to the chapters in the previous sections, are equipped with a bibliography which is divided into “Primary Sources” and Secondary Literature.”

The entire handbook radiates legendary German thoroughness. It is attractively presented with a pleasant to read typography and illustrated with good quality mostly colour images. Each individual essay has an extensive bibliography, and in that respect, Volume II speaks for itself. There is a very comprehensive general index at the end of Volume II. 

This is definitely not bedtime reading but a reference book and with an official price of €279, but currently available from Amazon Germany for €219, Amazon America for $208, and Amazon UK for £226, not within the reach of the average scholar but intended for institution libraries. However, this is a reference work that should definitely adorn the shelves of every library that caters to medieval historians.


[1] Prognostication in the Medieval World: A Handbook, 2 Vols., edited by Matthias Heiduk, Klaus Herbers and Hans-Christian Lehner, De Gruyter Reference, Berlin & Boston, 2021. 

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astrology, Mediaeval Science

Don’t major publishers use fact checkers or copyeditors anymore?

Trying to write a comprehensive history of science up to the scientific revolution in a single volume is the historian of science’s equivalent to squaring the circle. It can’t actually be done, it must fall short in various areas, but doesn’t prevent them from trying. The latest to attempt squaring the history of science circle is Ofer Gal in his The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution[1].

Gal’s book has approximately 380 pages and given what I regard as the impossibility of his task, I decided, if possible, to cut him some slack in this review. To illustrate the problem, David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science[2], with which Gal is definitely competing, has approximately 370 pages and only goes up to 1450 and has been criticised for its omissions. The Cambridge History of Science requires three volumes with an approximate total of 2250 pages to cover the same period as Gal and its essays can best be regarded as introductions to further reading. 

CUP are marketing Gal’s book as a textbook for schools and university students, which means, in my opinion, a higher commitment to historical factual accuracy, so where I might be prepared to cut some slack on possible omissions, I’m not prepared to forgive factual errors. If you are teaching beginners, which this book aims to do, then you have an obligation to get your facts right. The intended textbook nature is reflected in the academic apparatus. There is no central bibliography of sources, instead at the end of each section there is a brief list of primary and secondary sources for that section. This is preceded by a list of essay type questions on the section; questions that are more of a philosophical than historical nature. The book has neither foot nor endnotes but gives occasional sources for quotes within the main text in backets. 

Gal’s book opens with a thirty-page section titled, Cathedrals, which left me wondering what to expect, when I began reading. Actually, I think it is possibly the best chapter in the whole book. What he does is to use the story of the origins and construction of the European medieval cathedrals to illustrate an important distinction, in epistemology, between knowing-how and knowing-that. It is also the first indication that in the world of the traditional history and philosophy of science Gal is more of a philosopher than a historian, an impression that is confirmed as the book progresses. At times throughout the book, I found myself missing something, actual science.

Chapter two takes the reader into the world of ancient Greek philosophy and give comparatively short and concise rundowns on the main schools of thought, which I have to admit I found rather opaque at times. However, it is clear that Gal thinks the Greeks invented science and that Aristotle is very much the main man. This sets the tone for the rest of the book, which follows a very conventional script that is, once again in my opinion, limited and dated. 

The following section is the Birth of Astronomy, which Gal attributes entirely to the Greeks, no Egyptians, no Babylonians. He starts with Thomas Kuhn’s two sphere model that is the sphere of the Earth sitting at the centre of the sphere of the heavens and here we get a major factual error. He writes:

For the astronomers of ancient Mesopotamia and the Aegean region, that model was of two spheres: the image of our Earth, a sphere, nestled inside the bigger sphere of the heavens.

Unfortunately, for Gal, the astronomers of ancient Mesopotamia were flat earthers. Later in the section, Gal informs us that Babylonian astronomy was not science. I know an awful lot of historians of astronomy, who would be rather upset by this claim. Rather bizarrely in a section on ancient astronomy, the use of simple observation instruments is illustrated with woodcuts from a book from 1669 showing a cross-staff, first described in the 14th century by Levi den Gerson, and a backstaff, which was invented by John Davis in 1594. In the caption the backstaff is also falsely labelled a sextant. He could have included illustration of the armillary sphere and the dioptra, instruments that Hipparchus and Ptolemy actually used, instead.

Apart from these errors the section is a fairly standard rundown of Greek astronomical models and theories. As, apparently, the Greeks were the only people in antiquity who did science and the only science worth mentioning here is astronomy, we move on to the Middle Ages.

We get presented with a very scant description of the decline of science in late antiquity and then move on to the The Encyclopedic Tradition. Starting with the Romans, Cicero gets a positive nod and Pliny a much more substantial one. Under the medieval encyclopedist, we get Martianus Capella, who gets a couple of pages, whereas Isidore and Bede only manage a couple of lines each. We then get a more substantial take on the medieval Christian Church, although Seb Falk would be disappointed to note the lack of science here, the verge-and-foliot escapement and computus both get a very brief nod. Up next is the medieval university, which gets a comparatively long section, which however contains, in this context, a very strange attack on the university in the twenty first century. Gal also opinions:

They [medieval students] would study in two ways we still use and one which we have regrettably lost.

The three ways he describes are the lectura, the repititio, and the desputatio, so I must assume that Gal wishes to reintroduce the desputatio into the modern university! Following this are two whole pages on The Great Translation Project. This is somewhat naturally followed by Muslim Science. The section on the medieval university is slightly longer than that devoted here to the whole of Muslim science, with a strong emphasis on astronomy. In essence Gal has not written a book on the origins of modern science but one on the origins of modern astronomy with a couple of side notes nodding to other branches of the sciences. He devotes only a short paragraph to al-Haytham’s optics and the medieval scholars, who adopted it. Put another way, the same old same old. 

The next section of the book bears the title The Seeds of Revolution and begins with a six-page philosophical, theological discourse featuring Ibn Rushd, Moshe ben Maimon and Thomas Aquinas. We now move on to the Renaissance. In this section the only nominal science that appears is Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective as an example of “the meeting of scholar and artisan.” A term in the title of the next subsection and throughout the section itself left me perplexed, The Movable Press and Its Cultural Impact. Can anybody help me? The history of printing is one of my areas of study and I have never ever come across the movable type printing press simply referred to as “the movable press.” I even spent half an hour searching the Internet and could not find the term anywhere. Does it exist or did Gal create it? The section itself is fairly standard. This is followed by a long section on Global Knowledge covering navigation and discovery, global commerce, practical mathematics driven by commerce, trade companies, and the Jesuits.

We then get a section, which is obviously a favourite area of Gal, given to space that he grants it, magic. Now I’m very much in favour of including what I would prefer to give the general title occult theories and practices rather than magic in a text on the history of science, so Gal wins a couple of plus points for this section. He starts with a philosophical presentation of the usual suspects, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, Kabbala et al. He then moves on to what he terms scientific magic, by which he means alchemy and astrology, which he admits are not really the same as magic, excusing himself by claiming that both are based on a form of magical thinking. He then attempts to explain each of them in less than three pages, producing a rather inadequate explanation in each case. In neither case does he address the impact that both alchemy and astrology actually had historically on the development of the sciences. Moving on we have Magic and the New Science. Here we get presented with cameos of the Bacons, both Roger and Francis, Pico della Mirandola, and Giambattista della Porta. 

When dealing with Roger Bacon we get another example of Gal’s historical errors, he writes:

This enabled him to formulate great novelties, especially in optics. Theoretically, he turned Muslim optics into a theory of vision; practically, he is credited with the invention of the spectacles.

Here we have a classic double whammy. He didn’t turn Muslim optics into a theory of vision but rather took over and propagated the theory of vision of Ibn al-Haytham. I have no idea, who credits Roger Bacon with the invention of the spectacles, in all my extensive readings on the history of optics I have never come across such a claim, maybe just maybe, because it isn’t true.

Roughly two thirds of the way through we are now approaching modern science with a section titled, The Moving Earth. I’ll start right off by saying that it is somewhat symbolic of what I see as Gal’s dated approach that the book that he recommends for Copernicus’ ‘revolution’ is Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, a book that was factually false when it was first publish and hasn’t improved in the sixty years since. But I’m ahead of myself.

The section starts with a very brief sketch of Luther and the reformation, which function as a lead into a section titled, Counter-Reformation and the Calendar Reform. Here he briefly mentions the Jesuits, whom he dealt with earlier under Global Knowledge. He writes:

The Jesuits, as we’ve pointed out, turned from the strict logicism of traditional Church education to disciplines aimed at moving and persuading: rhetoric, theater, and dance. Even mathematics was taught (at least to missionaries-to-be) for its persuasive power.

Ignoring this rather strange presentation of the Jesuit strictly logical Thomist education programme, I will just address the last sentence. Clavius set up the most modern mathematical educational curriculum in Europe and probably the world, which was taught in all Jesuit schools and colleges throughout the world, describing it as “even mathematics was taught” really is historically highly inaccurate. Gal now delivers up something that I can only describe as historical bullshit, he writes: (I apologies for the scans but I couldn’t be arsed to type all of it.)

I could write a whole blog post trying to sort out this rubbish. The bit about pomp and circumstance is complete rubbish, as is, in this context, the section about knowing the exact time that had passed, since the birth of Christ. The only concern here is trying to determine the correct date on which to celebrate the movable feasts associated with Easter. The error in the length of the Julian year, which was eleven minutes not a quarter of an hour, also has nothing to do with the procession of the equinoxes but simply a false value for the length of the solar year. The Julian calendar was also originally Egyptian not Hellenistic. The Church decided vey early on to determine the date of Easter astronomically not by observation in order not to be seen following the Jewish practice. The calendar reform was not part of/inspired by the Reformation/Counter-Reformation but it had been on the Church’s books for centuries. There had been several reforms launched that were never completed, usually because the Pope, who had ordered it, had died and his successor had other things on his agenda when he mounted the Papal Throne. Famously, Regiomontanus died when called to Rome by the Pope to take on the calendar reform. The calendar reform that was authorized by the Council of Trent, had been set in motion several decades before the Council. Ptolemy’s Almagest had reached Europe twice in translations, both from the Greek and from Arabic, in the twelfth century and not first in the fifteenth century. What was published in the fifteenth century and had a major impact, Copernicus learnt his astronomy from it, was Peuerbach’s and Regiomontanus’ Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemae 

 Just to close although it has nothing to do with the calendar reform, the name Commentariolus for Copernicus’ short manuscript from about 1514 on a heliocentric system, was coined much later by Tyco Brahe.  

We now move on to Copernicus. His section on Copernicus and his astronomy is fairly good but we now meet another problem. For his Early Modern scientists, he includes brief biographical detail, which; as very much a biographical historian, I approve of, but they are unfortunately strewn with errors. He writes for example that Copernicus was “born in Northern Poland then under Prussian rule.” Copernicus was born in Toruń, at the time an autonomous, self-governing city under the protection of the Polish Crown. After briefly sketching Copernicus’ university studies he writes: 

“Yet Copernicus had no interest in vita activa: throughout his life he made his living as a canon in Frombork (then Frauenburg), a medieval privilegium (a personally conferred status) with few obligations…” 

The cathedral canons in Frombork were the government and civil service of the prince-bishopric of Warmia and Copernicus had very much a vita activa as physician to the bishop, as consultant on fiscal affairs, as diplomat, as governor of Allenstein, organizing its defences during a siege by the Teutonic Order, and much more. Copernicus’ life was anything but the quiet contemplative life of the scholar. Later he writes concerning Copernicus’ activities as astronomer, “his activities were supported by the patronage of his uncle, in whose Warmia house he set up his observatory.” Whilst Copernicus on completion of his studies initially lived in the bishop’s palace in Heilsberg from 1503 till 1510 as his uncle’s physician and secretary, following the death of his uncle he moved to Frombork, and it is here that he set up his putative observatory. Gal also writes, “It took him thirty years to turn his Commentariolus into a complete book – On the Revolutions – whose final proofs he reviewed on his death bed, never to see it actually in print.” The legend says the finished published book was laid in his hands on his death bed. He would hardly have been reviewing final proofs, as he was in a coma following a stroke.

This might all seem like nit picking on my part but if an author is going to include biographical details into, what is after all intended as a textbook, then they have an obligation to get the facts right, especially as they are well documented and readily accessible.

Rheticus gets a brief nod and then we get the standard slagging off of Osiander for his ad lectorum. Here once again we get a couple of trivial biographical errors, Gal refers to Osiander as a Lutheran and as a Protestant priest. Osiander was not a Lutheran, he and Luther were rivals. Protestants are not priests but pastors and Osiander was never a pastor but a Protestant preacher. Of course, Gal has to waste space on Bruno, which is interesting as he largely ignores several seventeenth century scientists, who made major contributions to the development of modern science, such as Christiaan Huygens. 

We are now well established on the big names rally towards the grand climax. Up next is Tycho Brahe, who, as usual, is falsely credited with being the first to determine that comets, nova et all were supralunar changing objects, thus contradicting Aristotle’s perfect heavens cosmology. History dictates that Kepler must follow Tycho, with a presentation of his Mysterium Cosmographicum. Gal says that Kepler’s mother “keen on his education” “sent him through the Protestants’ version of a Church education – grammar school, seminary and the University of Tübingen.” No mention of the fact that this education was only possible because Kepler won a scholarship. Gal also tells us:

By 1611, Rudolf’s colorful court brought about his demise, as Rudolf was forced off his throne by his brother Mathias, meaning that Kepler had to leave Prague. The last two decades of his life were sad: his financial and intellectual standing deteriorating, he moved back to the German-speaking lands – first to Linz, then Ulm, then Regensburg, and when his applications to university posts declined, he took increasingly lower positions as a provincial mathematician. … He died in poverty in Regensburg in 1630…

First off, Rudolph’s Prague was German speaking. Although Mathias required Kepler to leave Prague, he retained his position as Imperial Mathematicus (which Gal falsely names Imperial Astronomer), although actually getting paid for this post by the imperial treasury had always been a problem. He became district mathematicus in Linz in 1612 to ensure a regular income, a post he retained until 1626. He moved from Linz to Ulm in 1626 in order to get his Rudolphine Tables printed and published, which he then took to the Book Fair in Frankfurt, to sell in order to recuperate the costs of printing. From 1628 he was court advisor, read astrologer, to Wallenstein in Sagan. He travelled to the Reichstag in Regensburg in 1630, where he fell ill and died. He had never held a university post in his life and hadn’t attempted to get one since 1600. 

Having messed up Kepler’s biography, Gal now messes up his science. Under the title, The New Physical Optics, Gal gets Kepler’s contribution to the science of optics horribly wrong. He writes:

Traditional optics was the mathematical theory of vision. It studied visual rays: straight lines which could only change direction: refracted by changing media or reflected by polished surfaces. Whether these visual rays were physical entities or just mathematical representations of the process of vision, and what this process consisted of, was much debated. (…) But there was no debate that vision is a direct, cognitive relation between the object and the mind, through the eye. Light, in all of these theories, had an important, but secondary role:

(…)

Kepler abolished this assumption. Nothing of the object, he claimed, comes to and through the eye. The subject matter of his optics was no longer vision but light:

This transformation in the history of optics was not consummated by Kepler at the beginning of the seventeenth century but by al-Kindi and al-Haytham more than seven hundred years earlier. This was the theory of vision of al-Haytham mentioned above and adopted by Roger Bacon. 

We then get a reasonable account of Kepler’s Astronomia nova, except that he claims that Kepler’s difficulties in finally determining that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse was because he was trapped in the concept that the orbits must be circular, which is rubbish. Else where Gal goes as far as to claim that Kepler guessed that the orbit was an ellipse. I suggest that he reads Astronomia nova or at least James Voelkel’s excellent analysis of it, The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova (Princeton University Press, 2001) to learn how much solid mathematical analysis was invested in that determination.

As always Galileo must follow Kepler. We get a very brief introduction to the Sidereus Nuncius and then an account of Galileo as a social climber that carries on the series of biographical errors. Gal writes:

Galileo’s father Vincenzo (c. 1520–1591) (…) A lute player of humble origins, he taught himself musical theory and acquired a name and enough fortune to marry into minor (and penniless) nobility with a book on musical theory, in which he relentless and venomously assaulted the canonical theory as detached from real musical practices. 

This is fascinatingly wrong, because Gal gives as his source for Galileo’s biography John Heilbron’s Galileo, where we can read on page 2 the following:

Although Galileo was born in Pisa, the hometown of his recalcitrant mother, he prided himself on being a noble of Florence through his father, Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and musical theorist. Vincenzo’s nobility did not imply wealth but the right to hold civic office and he lived in the straitened circumstances usual in his profession. His marriage to Giulia, whose family dealt in cloth, was a union of art and trade. 

The errors continue:

…he returned to the University of Pisa to study medicine, but stayed in the lower faculties and taught mathematics there from 1589. Two years later, he moved to Padua, his salary rising slightly from 160 Scudi to 160 Ducats a year. In 1599, he invented a military compass and dedicated it to the Venetian Senate to have his salary doubled and his contract extended for six years. When Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623), Galileo’s friend and minor patron, arranged for the spyglass to be presented and dedicated to the Senate in 1609, Galileo’s salary was doubled again and he was tenured for life.

Galileo actually broke off his medical studies and left the university, took private lessons in mathematics and was then on the recommendation of Cardinal del Monte, the Medici Cardinal, appointed to the professorship for mathematics in Pisa. He didn’t invent the military or proportional compass and didn’t dedicate it to the Senate and his salary wasn’t doubled for doing so. Although he did manufacture and sell a superior model together with paid lessons in its use. His salary wasn’t doubled for presenting a telescope to the Senate but was increased to 1000 Scudi.  

Of course, we have a section titled, The Galileo Affair: The Church Divorces Science, the title revealing everything we need to know about Gal’s opinion on the topic. No, the Church did not divorce science, as even a brief survey of seventeenth century science following Galileo’s trial clearly shows. Gal states that, “The investigation of the Galileo affair was charged to Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine…”, which simply isn’t true. He naturally points out that Bellarmine, “condemned Bruno to the stake some fifteen years earlier.” Nothing like a good smear campaign.

At one point Gal discuses Bellarmine’s letter to Foscarini and having quoted “…if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. 

makes the following interesting statement:

Bellarmine was no wide-eyed champion of humanist values. He was a powerful emissary of a domineering institution, and he wasn’t defending only human reason, but also the Church’s privilege to represent it. He wasn’t only stressing that the Church would abide by “a true demonstration,” but also that it retained the right to decide what the criteria for such a demonstration were, and when they’ are met. [my emphasis]

The emphasised statement is at very best highly questionable and at worst completely false. Bellarmine was a highly intelligent, highly educated scholar, who had earlier in his career taught university courses in astronomy. He was well aware what constituted a sound scientific demonstration and would almost certainly have acknowledged and accepted one if one was delivered, without question. 

On Galileo’s questioning by the Roman Inquisition Gal writes:

After the first interrogation, he [Galileo] reached a deal which didn’t satisfy the pope and was interrogated again.

This is simply factually wrong; no deal was reached after the first interrogation. 

This review is getting far too long, and I think I have already delivered enough evidence to justify what is going to be my conclusion so I will shorten the next sections. 

Gal suddenly seems to discover that there were scientific areas other than astronomy and there follows a comparatively long section on the history of medicine that starts with William Harvey then back tracks to ancient Greece before summarising the history of medicine down to the seventeenth century. This is in general OK, but I don’t understand why he devotes four and a half pages to the Leechbook a relatively obscure medieval English medical text, whereas midwives warrant less than two pages. 

We are on the home stretch and have reached The New Science, where we discoverer that Galileo originated the mechanical philosophy. Really? No, not really. First up we get told that Buridan originated impetus theory. There is no mention of Johann Philoponus, who actually originated it or the various Arabic scholars, who developed it further and from whom Buridan appropriated it, merely supplying the name. We then get Galileo on mechanics, once again with very little prehistory although both Tartaglia and Benedetti get a mention. Guidobaldo del Monte actually gets acknowledged for his share in the discovery of the parabola law. However, Gal suggests that the guessed it! It’s here that he states that Kepler guessed that the orbit of Mars is an ellipse. 

Up next the usual suspects, Descartes and Bacon and I just can’t, although he does, surprisingly, acknowledge that Bacon didn’t really understand how science works. Whoever says Bacon must say scientific societies, with a long discourse on the air pump, which seems to imply that only Boyle and Hooke actually did air pump experiments. 

We now reach the books conclusion Sciences Cathedral, remember that opening chapter? This is, naturally, Newton’s Principia.  Bizarrely, this section is almost entirely devoted to the exchange of letters between Hooke and Newton on the concept of gravity. Or it appears somewhat bizarre until you realise that Gal has written a whole book about it and is just recycling. 

Here we meet our last botched biographical sketch. Having presented Hooke’s biography with the early demise of his father and his resulting financial struggles to obtain an education, Gal turns his attention to Isaac and enlightens his readers with the following:

Isaac Newton: While Hooke was establishing his credentials as an experimenter and instrument builder in Oxford, Isaac Newton (1642–1726) was gaining a name as a mathematical wiz in Cambridge. Like, Hooke, he was an orphan of a provincial clergy man from a little town in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England, and like him he had to work as a servant-student until his talents shone through. 

Hannah Newton-Smith née Ayscough, Newton’s mother, would be very surprised to learn that Isaac was an orphan, as she died in 1679, when Isaac was already 37 years old. She would be equally surprised to learn that Isaac’s father, also named Isaac, who died before he was born, was a provincial clergyman. In reality, he was a yeoman farmer. Hannah’s second husband, Newton’s stepfather, Barnabus Smith was the provincial clergyman. Woolsthorpe where Newton was born and grew up was a very little town indeed, in fact it was merely a hamlet. Unlike Hooke who had to work his way through university, Newton’s family were wealthy, when he inherited the family estate, they generated an annual income of £600, a very large sum in the seventeenth century. Why his mother insisted on him entering Cambridge as a subsizar, that is as a servant to other students is an unsolved puzzle. Gal continues:

Newton was a recluse, yet he seemed to have had an intellectual charisma that Hooke lacked. He became such a prodigy student of the great mathematician Isaac Barrow (1630–1677) that in 1669 Barrow resigned in his favour from Cambridge’ newly established, prestigious Lucasian Professorship pf Mathematics.

Here Gal is recycling old myths. Newton was never a student of Isaac Barrow. Barrow did not resign the Lucasian chair in Newton’s favour. He resigned to become a theologian. However, he did recommend Newton as his successor. Further on Gal informs us that:

Newton waited until Hooke’s death in 1703 to publish his Opticks – the subject of the earlier debate – and became the Secretary of the Royal Society, which he brought back from the disarray into which it had fallen after the death of Oldenburg and most of its early members.

I’m sure that the Royal Society will be mortified to learn that Gal has demoted its most famous President to the rank of mere Secretary. This chapter also includes a discussion of the historical development of the concept of force, which to put it mildly is defective, but I can’t be bothered to go into yet more detail. I will just close my analysis of the contents with what I hope was just a mental lapse. Gal writes:

Newton presents careful tables of the periods of the planets of the planets as well as those of the moons of Jupiter and Mercury [my emphasis].

I assume he meant to write Saturn.

To close I will return to the very beginning of the book the front cover. As one can see it is adorned with something that appears at first glance to be an astrolabe. However, all the astrolabe experts amongst my friends went “what the fuck is that?” on first viewing this image. It turns out that it is a souvenir keyring sold by the British Museum. Given that the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge has some very beautiful astrolabe, I’m certain that the CUP could have done better than this. The publishers compound this monstrosity with the descriptive text:

Cover image: habaril, via Getty Images. Brass astrolabe, a medieval astronomical navigation instrument.

We have already established that it is in fact not an astrolabe. The astrolabe goes back at least to late antiquity if not earlier, the earliest known attribution is to Theon of Alexandria (C. 335–405 CE), and they continued to be manufactured and used well into the nineteenth century, so not just medieval. Finally, as David King, the greatest living expert on the astrolabe, says repeatably, the astrolabe is NOT a navigation instrument.

Gal’s The Origins of Modern Science has the potential to be a reasonable book, but it is not one that I would recommend as an introduction to the history of science for students. Large parts of it reflect an approach and a standard of knowledge that was still valid thirty or forty years ago, but the discipline has moved on since then. Even if this were not the case the long list of substantive errors that I have documented, and there are probably others that I missed, display a shoddy level of workmanship that should not exist in any history book, let alone in an introductory text for students.  


[1] Ofer Gal, The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution, CUP, Cambridge 2021.

[2] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western ScienceThe European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2nd edition 2007. 

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Uncategorized

Kill or Cure!

One of the defining aspects of the so-called scientific revolution was the massive increase in experimentation as a method to discover or confirm knowledge of the natural world, replacing the empirical observation or experience of Aristotelian scientia. Ignoring the trivial and fatuous, but unfortunately still widespread, claim that Galileo invented experimental science, it is an important area of the history of Early Modern science to trace and analyse how, when and where this methodological change took place. This transition, a very gradual one, actually took place in various areas of knowledge acquisition during the Renaissance and might well be regarded as one of the defining features of Renaissance science, separating it from its medieval predecessor.

One, perhaps surprising, area where this transition took place was in the testing of poisons and their antidotes, as brilliantly researched, described, analysed and reported by Alisha Rankin in her new book, The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science.[1]

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The starting point  for Rankin’s fascinating story is that it was apparently considered acceptable for a large part of the sixteenth century to test poisons and above all their supposed antidotes on human beings. No, you didn’t misread that last sentence, during the sixteenth century test on poisons and their antidotes were carried out by physicians, with the active support of the ruling establishment, on condemned prisoners, truly shades of Mengele and Auschwitz.

This medical practice of testing didn’t, however, begin in the Renaissance but there are precedence cases throughout history beginning in antiquity and occurring intermittently all the way up to the Renaissance. Testing poisons and their antidotes mostly on animals, although tests on criminals existed as well. Rankin’s opening chapter is a detailed sketch and analysis of poison trials that preceded the Renaissance, as well as a general history of poisons and their antidotes.

Her second chapter then deals in detail with the trial ordered by Pope Clement VII in 1524 of the antidote Oleum Clementis created by the surgeon Gregorio Caravita. Here a new chapter in the history of testing was opened, as this antidote was tested on two condemned prisoners under the supervision of a physician. Both prisoners were given a dose of a known strong poison and one was given a dose of the antidote. The prisoner, who received the antidote survived and the trial and its results were publicised creating a medical sensation.

Rankin explains that there was an obsession with poison and poisoning amongst the rich and powerful during the Renaissance, so the interest in methods of both detecting poisons and combating their effects was very strong amongst those in power, the most likely victims of an attempted poisoning. This also meant that there was an interest amongst physicians, apothecaries, and empirics to find or create such potions, as a route to fame and fortune.

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Having set the scene, in the rest of her book Rankin takes us through the sixteenth century through periods of testing on both humans and animals, into the seventeenth and the scientific revolution. Along route she introduces us to newly invented antidotes and their inventors/discoverers but also to an incredible amount of relevant contextual information.

We learn, for example, that poison antidotes were not considered poison specific but worked against all poisons, if they worked at all. We also learn that plagues were not, like other more common ailments, to be caused by an imbalance of the four humours, as taught by Galen, but were a poisoning of the body, so that a poison antidote, should or would function as a cure for plagues as well.

Alongside the purely medical descriptions, we also get the full spectrum of the social, political, cultural, ethical, and economic contexts in which the poison trials took place. A poison trial sanctioned by a head of state and carried out by a learned physician had, naturally, a completely different status to one carried out by an empiric on the town square during a local fair.

(I’m still hunting for a possible translation into modern English of the term empiric. This is, usually, simply translated as quack, and whilst it is true that many empirics were what we would now call quacks, the spectrum of their medical activities was not just confined to conning people. Quite a lot of them did offer genuine medical services, no more and no less effective than those of the university educated physicians.)

Rankin goes into great detail on how the physicians sought to present their trials, so that they were seen to be scholarly as opposed to the snake-oil salesman trials of the empirics. Writing detailed protocols of the progress of the victim’s condition following the administration of the poison dose and the antidote, noting times and nature of vomiting, sweating, diarrhoea etc, giving their trials at least the appearance of a controlled experiment. This is contrasted with the simple public presentations of the empirics.

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Also, important, and highly relevant to the historical development of science, Rankin discusses and analyses the use of the terms, ‘experience’, ‘experiment’, and ‘proof’ in the descriptions of poison trials. The transition from Aristotelian experience to empirical experiment being one of the defining characteristics of the scientific revolution.

In the final section of her book Rankin expands her remit to cover the history of the universal cures on offer during the period, both the exotic imported kind as well as the locally discovered/invented ones.

An important element of the whole story that Rankin deals with extensively is how the various vendors of antidotes and universal cures advertised and promoted their wares. Hereby, the question whether reports of successful trials or testimonials from cured patient carried the greater weight is examined. We are of course well into the age of print and there was a flourishing market for books and pamphlets praising one’s own wonder products or damning those of one’s rivals.

Rankin tells a highly comprehensive tale of a fascinating piece of Renaissance medical history. It is thoroughly researched and presented in exhaustive detail. A true academic work, it has extensive endnotes (unfortunately not footnotes), a voluminous bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, and an excellent index. It is also pleasantly illustrated with the, in the meantime ubiquitous, grey scale illustrations. However, despite the academic rigour, Rankin has a light, literary style and her prose is truly a pleasure to read.

I really enjoyed reading this book and I would say that this volume is a must read for anybody involved in the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance medicine but also more generally for those working on the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance science, or simply Early Modern and/or Renaissance history. I would also recommend it, without reservations, for any general readers, who like to read well written accounts of interesting episodes in history.

[1] Alisha Rankin, The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of medicine

A flawed survey of science and the occult in the Early Modern Period

There is no shortage of good literature on the relationships between science and magic, or science and astrology, or science and alchemy during the Early Modern Period so what is new in Mark A. Waddell’s Magic, Science, and Religion in Early Modern Europe[1]? Nothing, because it is not Waddell’s aim to bring something new to this material but rather to present an introductory textbook on the theme aimed at university students. He sets out to demonstrate to the uninitiated how the seemingly contradictory regions of science, religion and magic existed in the Early Modern Period not just parallel to but interwoven and integrated with each other.  Waddell’s conception is a worthy one and would make for a positive addition to the literature, his book is however flawed in its execution.

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Image with thanks from Brian Clegg

The book actually starts well, and our author sets out his planned journey in a lengthy but clear and informative introduction. The book itself is divided into clear sections each dealing with a different aspect of the central theme. The first section deals with the Renaissance discoveries of hermeticism and the cabala and the concept of natural magic, as a force to manipulate nature, as opposed to demonic magic. Although limited by its brevity, it provides a reasonable introduction to the topics dealt with. My only criticisms concerns, the usual presentation of John Dee as a magus, whilst downplaying his role as a mathematician, although this does get mentioned in passing. However, Waddell can’t resist suggesting that Dee was the role model for Marlowe’s Faustus, whereas Faustus is almost certainly modelled on Historia von D. Johann Faustus, a German book containing legends about the real Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–c. 1541) a German itinerant alchemist, astrologer, and magician of the German Renaissance. A note for authors, not just for Waddell, Dee in by no means the only Renaissance magus and is not the role model for all the literary ones.

Waddell’s second section deals with demonic magic, that is magic thought to draw its power from communion with the Devil and other lesser demons. As far as I can tell this was the section that most interested our author whilst writing his book. He manages to present a clear and informative picture of the period of the European witch craze and the associated witch hunts. He deals really well with the interrelationship between the belief in demonic witchcraft and the Church and formal religion. How the Church created, propagated and increasingly expanded the belief in demonic magic and witches and how this became centred on the concept of heresy. Communion with the devil, which became the central theme of the witch hunts being in and of itself heretical.

Following this excellent ´section the book starts to go downhill. The third section of the book deals with magic, medicine and the microcosm. Compared with the good presentation of the previous section I can only call this one a mishmash. We get a standard brief introduction to medieval academic medicine, which Waddell labels premodern, with Hippocrates, Galen and a nod to Islamic medical writes, but with only Ibn Sīnā mentioned by name. This is followed by a brief description of the principles of humoral medicine. Waddell correctly points out the academic or learned doctors only represent one group offering medical assistance during this period and gives a couple of lines to the barber-surgeons. It is now that the quality of Waddell’s presentation takes a steep nosedive.

Having correctly pointed out that medieval academic medicine was largely theoretical he then, unfortunately, follows the myth of “and then came Andy”! That is, we jump straight into Andreas Vesalius and his De fabrica, as I quote, “the beginnings of what we would understand as a rigorous and empirical approach to the study of anatomy.” Strange, only two weeks ago I wrote a post pointing out that Vesalius didn’t emerge out of the blue with scalpel raised high but was one step, albeit a very major one, in a two-hundred-year evolution in the study of anatomy. Of course, Waddell dishes up the usual myth about how seldom dissection was before Vesalius and corpses to dissect were rare etc, etc. Whereas, in fact, dissection had become a regular feature of medical teaching at the European universities over that, previously mentioned two-hundred-year period. Waddell closes his Vesalius hagiography with the comment that Vesalius’ De fabrica “was a crucial step in the more widespread reform of medical theory and practice that took place over the next 150 years” and although his book goes up to the middle of the eighteenth century, we don’t get any more information on those reforms. One of his final comments on Vesalius perpetuates another hoary old myth. He writes, “Vesalius made it permissible to question the legacy of antiquity and, in some cases, to overturn ideas that had persisted for many hundred years.” Contrary to the image created here, people had been challenging the legacy of antiquity and overturning ideas since antiquity, as Edward Grant put it so wonderfully, medieval Aristotelian philosophy was not Aristotle’s philosophy. The same applies to all branches of knowledge inherited form antiquity.

Having dealt with Vesalius, Waddell moves on to the philosophy of microcosm-macrocosm and astro-medicine or as it was called iatromathematics, that is the application of astrology to medicine. His basic introduction to the microcosm-macrocosm theory is quite reasonable and he then moves onto astrology. He insists on explaining that, in his opinion, astrology is not a science but a system of non-scientific rules. This is all well and good but for the people he is dealing with in the Early Modern Period astrology was a science. We then get a guide to astrology for beginners which manages right from the start to make some elementary mistakes. He writes, “You might know what your “sign” is, based on when you were born […]. These refer to the twelve (or according to some, thirteen) signs of the Western zodiac, which is the band of constellations through which the Sun appears to move over the course of a year.” The bullshit with thirteen constellations was something dreamed up by some modern astronomers, who obviously know nothing about astrology, its history or the history of their own discipline for that matter, in order to discredit astrology and astrologers. The only people they discredited were themselves. The zodiac as originally conceived by the Babylonians a couple of millennia BCE, mapped the ecliptic, the apparent annual path of the Sun around the Earth, using seventeen constellations. These were gradually pared down over the centuries until the Western zodiac became defined around the fifth century BCE as twelve equal division of the ecliptic, that is each of thirty degrees, starting at the vernal or spring equinox and preceding clockwise around the ecliptic. The most important point is that these divisions, the “signs”, are not constellations. There are, perhaps unfortunately, named after the constellations that occupied those positions on the ecliptic a couple of millennia in the past but no longer do so because of the precession of the equinoxes.

Although, Waddell gives a reasonable account of the basics of astro-medicine and also how it was integrated with humoral medicine but then fails again when describing its actual application. A couple of examples:

There were cases of surgeons refusing to operate on a specific part of the body unless the heavens were aligned with the corresponding zodiac sign, and it was not uncommon for learned physicians to cast their patient’s horoscope as part of their diagnosis.

[……]

Though the use of astrology in premodern medicine was common, it is less clear how often physicians would have turned to astrological magic in order to treat patients. Some would have regarded it with suspicion and relied instead on genitures alone to dictate their treatment, using a patient’s horoscope as a kind of diagnostic tool that provided useful information about that person’s temperament and other influences on their health. Astrological magic was a different thing altogether, requiring the practitioner to harness the unseen forces and emanations of the planets to heal their patient rather than relying solely on a standard regimen of care.

This is a book about the interrelationships between magic, religion and science during the Early Modern period, but Waddell’s lukewarm statements here, “there were cases of surgeons refusing to operate…, not uncommon for learned physicians…” fail totally to capture the extent of astro-medicine and its almost total dominance of academic medicine during the Renaissance. Beginning in the early fifteenth century European universities established the first dedicated chairs for mathematics, with the specific assignment to teach astrology to medical students.

During the main period of astrological medicine, the most commonly produced printed products were wall and pocket calendars, in fact, Gutenberg printed a wall calendar long before his more famous Bible. These calendars were astronomical, astrological, medical calendars, which contained the astronomical-astrological data that enabled physicians and barber-surgeons to know when they should or should not apply a particular treatment. These calendars were universal, and towns, cities and districts appointed official calendar makers to produce new calendars, every year. Almost no physician or barber-surgeon would consider applying a treatment at an inappropriate time, not as Waddell says, “cases of surgeons refusing to operate.” Also, no learned physicians in this time would begin an examination without casting the patient’s horoscope, to determine the cause, course and cure for the existing affliction. The use of what Waddell calls astrological magic, by which he means astrological talismans, by learned physicians was almost non-existent. This is aa completely different area of both astrology and of medicine.

Within the context of the book, it is obvious that we now turn to Paracelsus. Here Waddell repeats the myth about the name Paracelsus, “The name by which he is best known, Paracelsus, is something of a mystery, but historians believe that it was inspired by the classical Roman medical writer Celsus (c. 25 BCE–c. 50 CE). The prefix “para-“ that he added to that ancient name has multiple meanings in Latin, including “beyond,” leading some to speculate that this was a not-so-modest attempt to claim a knowledge of medicine greater than that of Celsus.” This is once again almost certainly a myth. Nowhere in his voluminous writings does Paracelsus mention Celsus and there is no evidence that he even knew of his existence. Paracelsus is almost certainly a toponym for Hohenheim meaning ‘up high’, Hohenheim being German for high home. By the way, he only initially adopted Paracelsus for his alchemical writings. The rest of his account of Paracelsus is OK but fails to really come to grips with Paracelsus’ alchemy.

To close out his section on medicine, Waddell now brings a long digression on the history of the believe in weapon salve, a substance that supposedly cured wounds when smeared on the weapon that caused them, an interesting example of the intersection between magic and medicine. However, he misses the wonderful case of a crossover into science when Kenhelm Digby suggested that weapon salve could be used to determine longitude.

 

The next section A New Cosmos: Copernicus, Galileo, and the Motion of the Earth, takes us into, from my point of view, a true disaster area:

In this chapter, we explore how the European understanding of the cosmos changed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was on the single greatest intellectual disruptions in European history, and in some ways we are still feeling its effects now, more than 450 years later. The claim that our universe was fundamentally different from what people had known for thousands of years led to a serious conflict between different sources of knowledge and forms of authority, and forced premodern Europe to grapple with a crucial question: Who has the right to define the nature of reality?

This particular conflict is often framed by historians and other commentators as a battle between science and religion in which the brave and progressive pioneers of the heliocentric cosmos were attacked unjustly by a tyrannical and old-fashioned Church. This is an exaggeration, but not by much. [my emphasis]

Waddell starts with a standard account of Aristotelian philosophy and cosmology, in which he like most other people exaggerates the continuity of Aristotle’s influence. This is followed by the usual astronomers only saved the phenomena story and an introduction to Ptolemy. Again, the continuity of his model is, as usual, exaggerated. Waddell briefly introduces the Aristotelian theory of the crystalline spheres and claims that it contradicted Ptolemy’s epicycle and deferent model, which is simply not true as Ptolemy combined them in his Planetary Hypothesis. The contradiction between the two models is between Aristotle’s astronomical mathematical homocentric spheres used to explain the moments of the planets (which Waddell doesn’t mention), which were imbedded in the crystalline spheres, and the epicycle-deferent model. Waddell then hypothesises a conflict between the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic system, which simply didn’t exist for the majority, people accepting a melange of Aristotle’s cosmology and Ptolemy’s astronomy. There were however over the centuries local revivals of Aristotle’s homocentric theory.

Now Copernicus enters stage right:

Copernicus had strong ties to the Catholic Church; he was a canon, which meant he was responsible for maintaining a cathedral (the seat of a bishop or archbishop), and some historians believe he was ordained as a priest as well.

If a student writes “some historians” in a paper they normally get their head torn off by their teachers. Which historians? Name them! In fact, I think Waddell would have a difficult time naming his “some historians”, as all the historians of astronomy that I know of, who have studied the question, say quite categorically that there is no evidence that Copernicus was ever ordained. Waddell delivers up next:

Most probably it [De revolutionibus] was completed by the mid-1530s, but Copernicus was reluctant to publish it right away because his work called into question some of the most fundamental assumptions about the universe held at the time.

It is now generally accepted that Copernicus didn’t published because he couldn’t provide any proofs for his heliocentric hypothesis. Waddell:

He did decide to circulate his ideas quietly among astronomers, however, and after seeing his calculations were not rejected outright Copernicus finally had his work printed in Nuremberg shortly before his death.

Here Waddell is obviously confusing Copernicus’ Commentariolus, circulated around 1510 and  Rheticus’ Narratio prima, published in two editions in Danzig and Basel, which I wouldn’t describe as circulated quietly. Also, neither book contained  calculations. Waddell now tries to push the gospel that nobody really read the cosmological part of De revolutionibus and were only interested in the mathematics. Whilst it is true that more astronomers were interested in the mathematical model, there was a complex and intensive discussion of the cosmology throughout the second half of the sixteenth century. Waddell also wants his reader to believe that Copernicus didn’t regard his model as a real model of the cosmos, sorry this is simply false. Copernicus very definitely believed his model was a real model.

 Moving on to Tycho Brahe and the geo-heliocentric system Waddell tells us that, “[Tycho] could not embrace a cosmology that so obviously conflicted with the Bible. It is not surprising, then, that the Tychonic system was adopted in the years following Brahe’s death in 1601”

At no point does Waddell acknowledge the historical fact that also the majority of astronomers in the early decades of the seventeenth century accepted a Tychonic system because it was the one that best fit the known empirical facts. This doesn’t fit his hagiographical account of Galileo vs the Church, which is still to come.

Next up Waddell presents Kepler and his Mysterium Cosmographicum and seems to think that Kepler’s importance lies in the fact that he was ac deeply religious and pious person embraced a heliocentric cosmos. We then get an absolute humdinger of a statement:

There is more that could be said about Kepler, including the fact that he improved upon the work of Copernicus by proposing three laws of planetary motion that are still taught in schools today. For the purpose of this chapter, however, Kepler is significant as someone who embraced heliocentricity and [emphasis in the original] faith.

With this statement Waddell disqualifies himself on the subject of the seventeenth century transition from a geocentric cosmos to a heliocentric one. Kepler didn’t propose his three laws he derived them empirically from Tycho’s observational data and they represent the single most important step in that transition.

We now have another Waddell and then came moment, this time with Galileo. We get a gabled version of Galileo’s vita with many minor inaccuracies, which I won’t deal with here because there is much worse to come. After a standard story of the introduction of the telescope and of Galileo’s improved model we get the following:

[Galileo] presented his device to the Doge (the highest official in Venice) and secured a truly impressive salary for life from the Venetian state. Mere weeks later he received word from the court of the Medici in Galileo’s home in Tuscany, that they wanted a telescope of their own. The Venetian leaders, however had ordered Galileo to keep his improved telescope a secret, to be manufactured only for Venetian use, and Galileo obliged, at least temporarily.

When they bought Galileo’s telescope they thought, erroneously, that they were getting exclusive use of a spectacular new instrument. However, it soon became very clear that telescopes were not particularly difficult to make and were freely available in almost all major European towns. They were more than slightly pissed off at the good Galileo but did not renege on their deal. The Medici court did not request a telescope of their own, but Galileo in his campaign to gain favour by the Medici, presented them with one and actually travelled to Florence to demonstrate it for them. We now move on to the telescopic discoveries in which Waddell exaggerates the discovery of the Jupiter moons. We skip over the Sidereus Nuncius and Galileo’s appointment as court philosophicus and mathematicus in Florence, which Waddell retells fairly accurately. Waddell now delivers up what he sees as the great coup:

The problem was that the moons of Jupiter, while important, did not prove the existence of a heliocentric cosmos. Galileo kept searching until he found something that did: the phases of Venus.

The discovery of the phases of Venus do indeed sound the death nell for a pure geocentric system à la Ptolemy but not for a Capellan geo-heliocentric system, popular throughout the Middle Ages, where Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun, which orbits the Earth, or a full Tychonic system with all five planets orbiting the Sun, which together with the Moon orbits the Earth. Neither here nor anywhere else does Waddell handle the Tychonic system, which on scientific, empirical grounds became the most favoured system in the early decades of the seventeenth century.

We then get Castelli getting into deep water with the Grand Duchess Christina and, according to Waddell, Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. He never mentions the Letter to Castelli, of which the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina was a later extended and improved version, although it was the Letter to Castelli, which got passed on to the Inquisition and caused Galileo’s problems in 1615. Waddell tells us:

In 1616 the Inquisition declared that heliocentrism was a formal heresy.

In fact, the eleven Qualifiers appointed by the Pope to investigate the status of the heliocentric theory delivered the following verdict:

( i ) The sun is the centre of the universe (“mundi”) and absolutely immobile in local motion.

( ii ) The earth is not the centre of the universe (“mundi”); it is not immobile but turns on itself with a diurnal movement.

All unanimously censure the first proposition as “foolish, absurd in philosophy [i.e. scientifically untenable] and formally heretical on the grounds of expressly contradicting the statements of Holy Scripture in many places according to the proper meaning of the words, the common exposition and the understanding of the Holy Fathers and learned theologians”; the second proposition they unanimously censured as likewise “absurd in philosophy” and theologically “at least erroneous in faith”.

However, the Qualifiers verdict was only advisory and the Pope alone can official name something a heresy and no Pope ever did.

Waddell gives a fairly standard account of Galileo’s meeting with Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino in 1616 and moves fairly rapidly to the Dialogo and Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition in 1633. However, on the judgement of that trial he delivers up this gem:

Ultimately, Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” which marked his crime as far more serious than typical, run-of-the-mill heresy.

One really should take time to savour this inanity. The first time I read it, I went back and read it again, because I didn’t think anybody could write anything that stupid. and that I must have somehow misread it. But no, the sentence on page 131 of the book reads exactly as I have reproduced it here. Maybe I’m ignorant, but I never knew that to be suspected of a crime was actually “far more serious” than actually being found guilty of the same crime. One of my acquaintances, an excellent medieval historian and an expert for medieval astronomy asked, “WTF is run-of-the-mill heresy?” I’m afraid I can’t answer her excellent question, as I am as perplexed by the expression, as she obviously is.

Enough of the sarcasm, the complete sentence is, of course, total bollocks from beginning to end. Being found guilty of suspicion of heresy, vehement or not, is a much milder judgement than being found guilty of heresy. If Galileo had been found guilty of heresy, there is a very good chance he would have been sentenced to death. The expression “run-of-the-mill heresy” is quite simple total balderdash and should never, ever appear in any academic work.

Waddell now draws his conclusions for this section, and they are totally skewed because he has simple ignored, or better said deliberately supressed a large and significant part of the story. In the final part of this section, “Science versus Religion?”, he argues that the Church was defending its right to traditional truth against Galileo’s scientific truth. He writes:

This was not a fight between winners and losers, or between “right” and “wrong.” Instead, this is a story about power, tradition, and authority, about who gets to decide what is true and on what grounds.

[……]

Organised religion, exemplified here by the Catholic Church, had an interest in preserving the status quo [emphasis in original] for many reasons, some of which were undeniably self-serving.

[……]

The ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy were still taught in virtually every European university well into the seventeenth century, making the Church’s allegiance to these ideas understandable. At the same time, the Church also recognised another source of authority, the Christian scriptures, which stated clearly that the Earth did not move. On both philosophical and theological grounds, then, the Church’s position on the immobility of the Earth was reasonable by the standards of the time.  

The above quotes have more relationship to a fairy tale than to the actual historical situation. Due to the astronomical discoveries made since about 1570, by1630 the Catholic Church had abandoned most of the Aristotelian cosmology and never adopted  Aristotelian astronomy. They fully accepted that the phases of Venus, almost certainly observed by the Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano before Galileo did, refuted the Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy. Instead by 1620 the Church had officially adopted the Tychonic geo-heliocentric astronomy, not, as Waddell claims, on religious grounds but because it best fit the known empirical facts. Despite efforts since 1543, when Copernicus published De revolutionibus, nobody, not even Galileo, who had tried really hard, had succeeded in finding any empirical evidence to show that the Earth moves. Waddell’s attempt to portrait the Church as at best non-scientific or even anti.scientific completely ignores the fact that Jesuit and Jesuit educated mathematicians and astronomer were amongst the best throughout the seventeenth century. They made significant contributions to the development of modern astronomy before the invention of the telescope, during Galileo’s active period, in fact it was the Jesuits who provided the necessary scientific confirmation of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries, and all the way up to Newton’s Principia. Their record can hardly be described as anti-scientific.

The Church’s real position is best summed up by Roberto Bellarmino in his 1615 letter to Foscarini, which is also addressed to Galileo:

Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. 

Put simple prove your theory and we the Church will then reinterpret the Bible as necessary, which they in fact did in the eighteenth century following Bradley’s first proof that the Earth does actually move.

Waddell then goes off on a long presentist defence of Galileo’s wish to separate natural philosophy and theology, which is all well and good but has very little relevance for the actual historical situation. But as already stated, Waddell is wrong to claim that the phases of Venus prove heliocentrism. Worse than this Galileo’s Dialogo is a con. In the 1630s the two chief world systems were not Ptolemy and Copernicus, the first refuted and the second with its epicycle-deferent models, which Galileo continues to propagate, abandoned, but the Tychonic system and Kepler’s ecliptical astronomy, which Waddell like Galileo simply chose to ignore.

One last comment before I move on. Somewhere Waddell claims that Galileo was the first to claim that the Copernicus’ heliocentric model represented reality rather than simply saving the phenomena. This is historically not correct, Copernicus, Tycho and Kepler all believed that their models represented reality and by 1615, when Galileo first came into confrontation with the Church it had become the norm under astronomers that they were trying to find a real model and not saving the phenomena.

Waddell’s account of the early period of the emergence of modern astronomy sails majestically past the current historical stand of our knowledge of this phase of astronomical history and could have been written some time in the first half of the twentieth century but should not be in a textbook for students in the year 2021.

With the next section we return to some semblance of serious state-of-the-art history. Waddell presents and contrasts the mechanical philosophies of Pierre Gassendi and René Descartes and their differing strategies to include their God within those philosophies. All pretty standard stuff reasonably well presented. The section closes with a brief, maybe too brief, discourse on Joseph Glanvill’s attempts to keep awareness of the supernatural alive against the rationalism of the emerging modern science.

The penultimate section deals with the transition from the Aristotelian concept of an experience-based explanation of the world to one based on experiments and the problems involved in conforming the truth of experimental results. In my opinion he, like most people, gives far too much attention/credit to Francis Bacon but that is mainstream opinion so I can’t really fault him for doing so. I can, however, fault him for presenting Bacon’s approach as something new and original, whereas Bacon was merely collating what had been widespread scientific practice for about two centuries before he wrote his main treatises. Specialist historians have been making this public for quite some time now and textbooks, like the one Waddell has written, should reflect these advances in our historical awareness.

Waddell moves on to alchemy as another source of experimentation that influenced the move to an experiment-based science in the seventeenth century. To be honest I found his brief account of alchemy as somewhat garbled and meandering, basically in need of a good editor. He makes one error, which I found illuminating, he writes:

Aristotle in particular had taught that all metals were composed of two principles: Mercury and Sulphur

Aristotle thought that metals were composed of two exhalations, one is dry and smoky, the other wet and steamy. These first became widely labeled as Mercury and Sulphur in the ninth century writings of the Arabic alchemist Jābir ibn-Hayyān, who took it from the mid-ninth century work, the Book of the Secrets of Creation by Balīnūs. I find this illuminating because I don’t know things like this off by heart, I just knew that Mercury-Sulphur was not from Aristotle, and so have to look them up. To do so I turned to Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy. Now, according to Waddell’s bibliographical essays at the end of the book, Principe is his main source for the history of alchemy, which means he read the same paragraph as I did and decided to shorten it thus producing a fake historical statement. When writing history facts and details matter!

Having introduced alchemy we now, of course, get Isaac Newton. Waddell points out that Newton is hailed as the epitome of the modern scientist, whereas in fact he was a passionate exponent of alchemy and devoted vast amounts of time and effort to his heterodox religious studies. The only thing that I have to criticise here is that Waddell allocates Newton and his Principia to the mechanical philosophy, whereas his strongest critics pointed out that gravity is an occult force and is anything but conform with the mechanical philosophy. Waddell makes no mention of this here but strangely, as we will see does so indirectly later.

The final section of the book is a discussion of the enlightenment, which I found quite good.  Waddell points out that many assessments of the enlightenment and what supposedly took place are contradicted by the historical facts of what actually happened in the eighteenth century.

Waddell draws to a close with a five-page conclusion that rather strangely suddenly introduces new material that is not in the main text of the book, such as Leibniz’s criticism that Newton’s theory of gravity is not mechanical. It is in fact more a collection of after thoughts than a conclusion.

The book ends with a brief but quite extensive bibliographical essay for each section of the book, and it was here that I think I found the reason for the very poor quality of the A New Cosmos section, he writes at the very beginning:

Two important studies on premodern astronomy and the changes it experienced in early modern Europe are Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (Penguin Books, 1990) and Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Harvard University Press, 1992)

The Sleepwalkers was originally published in 1959 and The Copernican Revolution in 1957, both are horribly outdated and historically wildly inaccurate and should never be recommended to students in this day and age.

All together Waddell’s tome  has the makings of a good and potentially useful textbook for students on an important set of themes but it is in my opinion it is spoilt by some sloppy errors and a truly bad section on the history of astronomy in the early modern period and the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church.

[1] Mark A. Waddell, Magic, Science, and Religion in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & London, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of medicine, History of science, Renaissance Science

Review of a book I have not read and have absolutely no intention of wasting money on!

Since this blog post was written, Professor Screech has recognised and acknowledged that he erred in his book and has made changes in the text reflecting the criticism in this post, which are already in the ebook version and will soon appear in a new print edition. To what extent he has made changes, I cannot at the moment say, but I shall be receiving a print copy of the amended book and will report when I have read it. The OUP blog post discussed here has already been amended.

Timon Screech is an art historian, who is professor for Japanese art of the Early Modern Period at SOAS in London. He is the author of numerous books and in his newest publication has decided to turn his hand to the history of astronomy at the beginning of the seventeenth century, namely the early years following the invention of the telescope, the result is a train wreck! The offending object is, The Shogun’s Silver Telescope: God, Art and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600–1625. OUP, 2020.

9780198832034

If, as I state in the title to this blog post, I have not read this book, and in fact have no intentions of wasting my time and money in doing so, how can I claim that it is a train wreck? OUP have been kind enough to provide a description of the book on the Internet and Professor Screech has posted a lecture on YouTube in which he elucidates the central thesis of his work. These contain enough statements that make it very clear that that central thesis is a festering heap of dodo dung.

The OUP description opens thus:

Over the winter of 1610-11, a magnificent telescope was built in London. [my emphasis] It was almost two metres long, cast in silver and covered with gold. This was the first telescope ever produced in such an extraordinary way, worthy of a great king or emperor. Why was it made and who was it going to?

The origins of telescopes are shrouded in mystery. All that is known for sure is that the first one to be patented had been built in Middleburgh, in the Dutch Republic, in October 1608. [my emphasis] The English were soon making their own under the name of “prospective glasses,” for seeing “prospects” or distant views. One had been shown to King James I of England and Scotland in May 1609. The English and Dutch were not alone, for, famously, Galileo obtained a telescope some months later and conducted experiments in Venice. In March 1610, he published his seminal study, The Starry Messenger (so-called in English, though the text is in Latin). King James’s ambassador to Venice sent a copy to the king post-haste, with a letter emphasising the extraordinary importance of the object.

The telescope in question was very probably not built in London but imported from Holland, as was the one shown to James I&VI in 1609. The origins of the telescope, whilst complex, are, of course, not shrouded in mystery; there is in fact quite a lot of very good historical research on the subject. The Dutch city, where Hans Lipperhey (1569–1619) made the telescope mentioned in the next sentence lived, is Middelburg and not Middleburgh, which apparently is a town in the State of New York. Now history is not an exact academic discipline but an interpretative one. From the usually limited facts available the historian tries their best to recreate as accurately as possible that part of the past he is dealing with. Important in this process is that they get the known facts right. We know from that historical research on the origins of the telescope that Lipperhey applied to the States General for a patent for his instrument in Den Hague on 2 October 1608. However, we also know that on 15 December 1608 his request for a patent was denied. Actually, Sir Henry Wotton the English ambassador to Venice sent two copies of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius to London on the day it was published, 12 March 1610.

Up till now the OUP’s account has only been inaccurate and sloppy but now they leave the realm of bad history and enter the world of fantasy or perhaps wishful thinking

The telescope built in London the next year was made for King James I. It was not his to keep but was to be sent in his name to one of the world’s supreme potentates—one the English were desperate to please. This was the Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Why send a telescope? English trade with Asia was the monopoly of the East India Company, founded a decade before, and they were very anxious to open markets in Japan. It was with a telescope that Galileo had made his findings, and although his discoveries were received with enthusiasm in some quarters, this was not the case in others. The Papacy, famously, could not accept his key finding, namely that the earth orbits the sun— [my emphasis] heliocentricity contradicted Scripture, which states that the sun moves. Later Galileo would be summoned before the Inquisition for this, as telescopes became a central battleground between Rome and the Protestant churches. [my emphasis] It had evidently dawned on the East India Company, and perhaps on King James himself, that here was the perfect a way to court Japanese favour. They would show the shogun the latest scientific instrument, and in doing so embarrass the Iberians. Spain and Portugal were already trading successfully in Japan, accompanied by Jesuit missionaries, to whom the English had the highest aversion: the Jesuits were blamed for many things, including Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In Japan, they spent as much time teaching astronomy as theology. A telescope would prove that they were teaching falsehoods, and that the Jesuits were a danger to Japan. [my emphasis]

First up, we have the usual false claim about the Sidereus Nuncius that it provided proof of the heliocentric hypothesis, it didn’t, and Galileo knew well that it didn’t. As a historian one gets tired of busting the same myths over and over again, but once more for those who haven’t been paying attention. The new telescopic discoveries made by 1610, not just by Galileo, disproved two aspects of Aristotelian cosmology, that the heavens were perfect and celestial bodies perfect spheres, and that all celestial bodies orbit a common centre. However, it offered no evidence to truly support or refute any of the three main contending models of the cosmos, geocentricity, heliocentricity and geo-heliocentricity. The later discovery of the phases of Venus eliminated a pure geocentric model, but that was made public well after the Shogun shiny new telescope was on its way to Japan, so needn’t be considered here.

I have looked at the phrase, as telescopes became a central battleground between Rome and the Protestant churches numerous times, from various standpoints and different angles and all that occurs to me is, what the fuck is that supposed to mean? It is simply put baloney, balderdash, poppycock, gibberish, hogwash, drivel, palaver, mumbo jumbo, rubbish, or even more simply, total and utter crap! I’m not even going to waste time, space and effort in trying to analyse and refute it, it doesn’t deserve it. Somebody please flush it down the toilet into the sewers, where it belongs.

The final emphasised sentence is the whole crux of Screech’s argument, as we shall see, it refers to the fact that the Jesuit astronomers in Japan in 1611 were teaching that the cosmos was geocentric, as this was certainly the accepted scientific view of the vast majority of European astronomers in 1611, including those in London, I think claiming that they were teaching falsehoods is historically simply wrong.

OUP now explain how the telescope was delivered to the Shogun in Japan and make a clear statement of Screech’s central thesis:

The telescope was taken out in a flotilla of four vessels in spring 1611. Command was given to John Saris, who had already lived several years in Asia, as the most senior English merchant. Now on his second trip East, he was told to push further on, all the way to Japan, where no English ship had yet gone. Oddly, the Company was aware of one Englishman already living in Japan. This was William Adams, who had gone on a Dutch ship. Many people in London remembered him, and word was that he had married a great Japanese lady. Saris took only one of his ships to Japan (the others went home with nearer Asian goods), arriving in Japan in summer 1613. Adams was contacted and within a few months he and Saris took the telescope to the Shogun’s castle, presenting it together in September at a grand ceremony. The Japanese records show to this. Saris enjoyed success in opening trade with Japan, and by December 1614 was safely back in London. Adams preferred to stay.

Once the English had provided proof that “European astronomy,” as explained in Japan for many years, was all wrong, the Roman Catholic missions lost their value. [my emphasis] They were closed down forthwith, and the Jesuit missionaries were expelled. Their old enemies put to flight, the English looked forward to unfettered trade with what was perhaps the world’s richest country, somewhat grudgingly agreeing to share this with the Dutch.

You will be amazed as to how John Saris provided proof that “European astronomy,” as explained in Japan for many years, was all wrong.

We now turn to our author’s own presentation of his thesis in a 45-minute YouTube video. I shall only be commenting on the relevant statements from this.

(starting at approx. 23 mins) In 1610 Galileo had conducted his extraordinary discoveries.

Actually, he made a large part of them in 1609, he published them in 1610.

The first telescope referred to in England is also in 1609, when one was shown to King James.…We also know that one was on public display in London shortly after the Clove [Saris’ ship] left England [1611] In other words they are still very rare, very special things. Not that many people can get hold of them.  

Screech is obviously not aware of the fact that Thomas Harriot had been making and using telescopes in London since 1609 and by 1611, the group centred on Harriot (Harriot, Christopher Tooke his lens grinder, Sir William Lower and John Prydderch (or Protheroe)) were making and comparing astronomical observation. In fact, Harriot was using telescopes before Galileo.

Even in 1618, a telescope is still a rather unusual thing

Sorry, but no it wasn’t, not in scientific circles

The Japanese record says something that the English record doesn’t say that the telescope was, using their own measurements, about ten feet long. So, it was extremely long and that must have meant that it was actually quite powerful. Possibly more powerful than the one Galileo used. It was two years later so lenses might have improved. Galileo could of course see the rings of Saturn with his.  

There is quite a lot to unpack here, which illustrates that Screech actually knows nothing about the early history of the telescope. For a telescope in 1611, ten feet is quite long not extremely long, telescopes later in the century reached lengths of fifty and sixty feet. However, length does not equal magnification power. For a Dutch or Galilean telescope, the magnification equals the focal length of the objective lens divided by the focal length of the eyepiece lens. So, if the Shogun’s telescope’s objective had a focal length of 120 inches and the eyepiece one of 1 inch, then it would have a magnification of 120. However, if the objective focal length was 8 feet and the eyepiece one 2 feet, its magnification would be only 4. These are not real numbers, just illustrative examples.

Galileo had a four-foot telescope with a magnification of c. 30, meaning an objective with focal length of c. 46.5 inches and an eyepiece focal length of c. 1.5 inches. The next problem is the higher the magnification of a Dutch telescope the smaller the field of vision. A magnification of about 30 is the upper limit for a usable Dutch telescope, anything above that is basically useless. Galileo made most of his discoveries with a telescope with a magnification of about 20. There was also no real improvement in lens making between 1609 and 1611. The telescope delivered to the Shogun was almost certainly of poorer quality than those used by Galileo, who was at the time producing some of the best lenses in Europe. 

The telescope is then presented and Ieyasu and Adams have a big discussion about and about what it means and what did it mean? Galileo, of course, as we all know ran into big problems with the Church, not because he discovered the rings of Saturn, which they didn’t care very much about but because he discovered that the Earth is not the centre of the world.  [my emphasis] Church history, of course, early Ptolemaic astronomy teaches that the Earth is the centre of the world and the Sun revolves around it, which obviously you would think standing on Earth and watching the Sun move. We still say the Sun rises and sets and goes by the clouds. We use these expressions today although they are, of course, astronomical completely incorrect. So, the Church had a problem because the Bible explicitly says that the Sun moves, and you can’t suddenly say that it doesn’t.

The Catholic Church took a great interest in astronomy and Catholic astronomers, many of them Jesuits or Jesuit trained, took a great interest in all of Galileo’s discoveries including the indecipherable something that later turned out to be the rings of Saturn. Galileo, of course, did not then or at any later time discover that the Earth is not the centre of the world. The conflict between the Bible and the heliocentric hypothesis did not became an issue for the Church before 1615!

Now, the Church didn’t care too much about this because heliocentricity was an extremely abstruse thing. Copernicus was even a Roman Catholic priest and he did his discoveries while living with a Roman Catholic bishop in Poland. But Copernicus book has been called the book that nobody ever read, if you get hold of a copy it’s impossible to read it’s in Latin, it’s completely impossible to understand. So, Copernicus’s discovery of heliocentricity had not really bothered anyone. The thing about the telescope is that any person using a telescope can see for themselves that heliocentricity is correct. This would give the Church considerable worries and that’s why they…it was Galileo pulled before the Inquisition; Copernicus had died peacefully in bed. [my emphasis]

Before I start to dismantle it, one should reflect that this heap of garbage was written by a professor for history at a world-famous institute for higher education. I weep. I’m almost ashamed to admit that my father taught history at the same institution.

Where to start? We start with a couple of simple facts. There is nothing abstruse about the heliocentric hypothesis and Copernicus was not a Roman Catholic priest. He was a canon of the Cathedral of Frombork, who never took holy orders. I do hope that Owen Gingerich doesn’t see this video. The expression the book that nobody read is a quote from Arthur Koestler’s popular history of astronomy, The Sleepwalkers. Gingerich spent several decades searching out all the extant copies of the first and second editions of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and analysing the readers’ annotations and marginalia to show that an awful lot of people did read it and did so meticulously. He published the results of his long year endeavours in his, An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (Brill, 2002), a very useful reference book for historians of astronomy. He then published an entertaining autobiographical book detailing some of the adventures he experienced compiling his census, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (Walker & Company, 2004). There was of course a very lively discussion about De revolutionibus and the heliocentric hypothesis amongst European astronomers between its publication in 1543 and 1611. If Professor Screech is too lazy to plough his way through Gingerich’s Census then might I suggest he reads, Pietro Daniel Omodeo, Copernicus in the Cultural Debates of the Renaissance: Reception, Legacy, Transformation (Brill, 2014) & Jerzy Dobrzycki ed., The Reception of Copernicus’ Heliocentric Theory (D Reidel, 1972). He might actually learn something.

Once again, I find myself flabbergasted by a Screech statement, if you get hold of a copy it’s impossible to read it’s in Latin, it’s completely impossible to understand. This man is an academic historian or at least so he claims. Of course, it’s in bloody Latin that was the academic language of communication in the sixteenth century that all professional astronomers used. Also, for a sixteenth century astronomer the book is perfectly understandable.

Once again Screech takes us into cloud cuckoo land, The thing about the telescope is that any person using a telescope can see for themselves that heliocentricity is correct. I have to ask, when looking through this magic telescope, did the observer see little green Martians holding up a neon sign reading, you are now viewing a heliocentric cosmos? It would be 182 years after the publication of De revolutionibus and 117 after the invention of the telescope before somebody was able, using a telescope, to prove that the Earth orbits the Sun, when in 1725 Molyneux and Bradley detected stellar aberration, delivering the first real empirical evidence for heliocentricity. Empirical evidence for diurnal rotation would first come 126 years later, when Foucault demonstrated his pendulum in 1851!

Screech seems to have problems with chronology; he writes, This would give the Church considerable worries and that’s why they…it was Galileo pulled before the Inquisition; Copernicus had died peacefully in bed. Screech’s story takes place between 1611 and 1613. Galileo’s first run in with the Church, concerning heliocentricity, was in 1615/16 and he was first “pulled” before the Inquisition in 1633.

So, the English had clearly turned up with an object, which was a wonderful thing to see in its own right, but it will also confuse and embarrass the Roman Catholic Church [my emphasis].

No, it wouldn’t! 

And this is where Spain and Portugal come in, hopefully the present given by the king will neutralise the Dutch and show that the English were better than the Dutch but the Spanish and the Portuguese had been there much longer than the Dutch had been there for decades and most of the Spanish are buying and selling, are merchants. But, of course, there are a large number of priests, and the merchants tend to stick to the ports because that’s where they do business but the priest wander all over the place and the priest had had this absolute dream of building a church in Kyoto, which was the capital city at the time, and they had succeeded in doing it.  […] Of course, the missionaries mostly Jesuits […] where seeking conversions. […] But the Jesuits also taught in Japan astronomy and this was absolutely crucial because various Japanese rituals surrounding the court and not the Shogun but the actual Emperor of Japan, it was very important to predict eclipses. This is really key to Japanese political thinking, and over the course of a lunar calendar that went out of sync Japanese astronomers had become less and less able to predict eclipses and the Jesuits could do it. This was also a reason why Christian missions were accepted in China, not to teach the gospel but to teach astronomy. [my emphasis]

I admit, quite freely, that I know nothing about Japanese astronomy in the Early Modern Period, but I do know that this was the function that the Jesuits fulfilled in China in the seventeenth century, which gave them access to Chinese society at the highest levels. They even ran the Chinese office or ministry for astronomy for large parts of that century. This being the case I assume that Screech is correct in saying the same for Japan.

The English had suddenly turned up and they say to the Japanese, all that astronomy they’ve been teaching you for the last fifty years, telling you how important it is, it’s wrong. It’s not only wrong, they know its wrong and they’re teaching you lies. And this must have been what Ieyasu heard in those hours after Saris left the room, while he has in his hands his silver telescope. [my Emphasis]

Just exactly how did the English tell Ieyasu this? As I have already pointed out, he could not have possibly got this information simply by looking through the telescope, as Screech claims, this is pure bullshit.  Screech has obviously never tried to observe the heavens with a replica of an early seventeenth century Dutch or Galilean telescope. If you have never ever used one, and Ieyasu very obviously hadn’t, the very small field of vision means that you see almost nothing. If you are trying to use one without a tripod or some other support, then every slightest tremor of your hand or arms sends the image skittering across the skies. Even worse for Ieyasu, early telescopes suffered from both spherical and chromatic aberration meaning that the image was blurred and had coloured fringes. Add to this that early lenses were of very poor quality and so the images were anything but good and you’re not really going to impress anybody. Almost certainly. Saris and Adams demonstrated the telescope as a terrestrial telescope, as had Lipperhey during his first demonstration in Den Hague in the last September week in 1608.  So, what about Saris and Adams as a source of astronomical information. Saris was a merchant trader and not an astronomer and there is nothing to indicate that he would have been up to date on the actual astronomical/cosmological discussions, let alone that he would have been a, for that time rare, supporter of heliocentricity. Adams is even more unlikely to have been informed of all things astronomical. He had been living in Japan since 1600, so the telescope would have been just as much a novelty for him as it was for Ieyasu. He was however a navigator so he would have had a basic knowledge of astronomy. However, navigators, even today learn geocentric astronomy, so once again no information forthcoming from that quarter.

Saris was given as a result of this permission to open a trading station in Japan and Ieyasu even said you can trade anywhere in my dominions that you wish. […]

Saris sailed back to England at the end of 1613 […] Within months, actually within weeks, even possibly within days of Saris leaving Ieyasu issues an instruction all Jesuit churches must be torn down all priests must leave the country and there was tremendous destruction. And in the early months of 1614 running through into the autumn, was what is often known as the great exile as a vast number of Japanese Christians fled. Mostly they went to the Philippines under Spanish protection or they went to Goa under Portuguese protection. We don’t know the number involved probably in the thousands. Fifty or sixty priest and friars left too […]

Why did it happen then, the Spanish and the Portuguese had been in Japan for fifty year and suddenly in one winter they were told to leave because the English turned up with their telescope.

Screech has turned a correlation into a cause and effect, with a fallacious chain of reasoning based on a series of falsehoods. Analysed rationally the whole argument falls together like a house of cards that was erected with soggy sheets of toilet paper. If we add some more astronomical and historical context then Screech’s whole heap of fact vacant waffle collapses even further.

 Screech informs us that the Japanese, like the Chinese, were interested in the Jesuit’s knowledge of astronomy because of their ability to accurately predict eclipses, which in Asian culture had a massive socio-political and cultural significance. What Screech doesn’t appear to know is that eclipse prediction models are, by nature, fundamentally geocentric as they are based on the relative positions of the Sun and Moon on the ecliptic, the Sun’s apparent path around the Earth. So, the revelation that the solar system is heliocentric and not geocentric, would in this case have no relevance whatsoever.

Next, it pays to take a look at the Jesuits, the early history of the telescope and Asia. Would they have feared, or did they fear the revelations of the telescope? Historically the exact opposite is the case. The Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano, were making telescopic astronomical observations at least as early as Galileo and it was these astronomers, working together with Galileo, who provided the very necessary scientific confirmation of all of his discoveries. Having done so, they threw a large banquet in his honour in Rome. This doesn’t quite fit Screech’s narrative but there is more.

Almost all the telescopes, with possibly only the exception of King James’ present for Ieyasu, introduced into Asia,–India, China and even Japan–in the early part of the seventeenth century were brought there by the Jesuit missionaries. Mainly, like the silver telescope, as presents to impress but also for their own astronomical work. Jesuit missionaries bound for Asia were prepared for their mission at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. We know that from 1615 to 1617 the Jesuit astronomer, Giovanni Paolo Lembo (1570–1618), one of those Collegio Roman astronomers who confirmed Galileo’s discoveries, not only taught those trainee missionaries astronomy but also lens grinding and telescope construction, to enable them to make their own instruments in Asia. The Jesuits were also the first to introduce the heliocentric hypothesis into Asia, which they did in China, in Chinese, during the course of the seventeenth century.

Having completely demolished Screech’s totally crackbrained thesis, could there be another reason why the Jesuits were expelled from Japan shortly after the arrival of the English traders, apart from pure coincidence?

What Screech doesn’t explain in his lecture, maybe he does in his book, but I doubt it, is that there had been serious stress between the Jesuits and the rulers of Japan for several years before the arrival of the English. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan in the mid 1580s was suspicious of the activities of the Catholics and in 1587 he banned Catholicism in Japan. In 1597 twenty-six Christians–six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese laymen–were crucified. Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598 and was succeeded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who also distrusted the Catholics but wished to trade with both Spain and Portugal. The Protestant Dutch provided a counterbalance, so that the Iberian Catholics did not have a trade monopoly. The arrival of the English in 1613, meant that Ieyasu now had two Protestant European trading partners, who would compete because they didn’t like each other, but who both promised not to try and convert the Japanese to Christianity. Ieyasu could now get rid of the despised Catholics, which he then did in 1614. Simple, factual historical explanation without a cock and bull story about a magical telescope that revealed the heliocentric nature of the cosmos when one simply looked through it.

I find it both fascinatingly gruesome but also frightening and ultimately very depressing that a professor of history from a world-renowned university can propagate a thesis based on the early history of the telescope and the history of the most important transition in the history of astronomy, apparently without bothering to learn anything about either discipline. It appears that his sources were something along the lines of the 1920s Boy’s Own Big Book: Galileo’s Persecution by the Nasty Catholics and Enid Blyton’s Guide to the History of Astronomy for Under Fives.

Screech’s only achievement is that with his, The thing about the telescope is that any person using a telescope can see for themselves that heliocentricity is correct, he delivers one of the mind bogglingly stupid history of science statements that I have ever read.

 The main thesis of his book, which he presents in the lecture analysed here, is an abomination and an insult to every historian of the telescope and/or astronomy. Even worse is the fact that OUP, a major academic publisher, published and are promoting this heap of crap, without having subjected it to any sort of control of the accuracy of its historical content. If OUP possessed even a shred of decency, they should withdraw this book from the market, pulp it and issue a public apology to the history of science community.

 

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Reading Euclid

This is an addendum to yesterday review of Reading Mathematics in Early Modern Europe. As I noted there the book was an outcome of two workshops held, as part of the research project Reading Euclid that ran from 2016 to 2018. The project, which was based at Oxford University was led by Benjamin Wardhaugh, Yelda Nasifoglu (@YeldaNasif) and Philip Beeley.

The research project has its own website and Twitter account @ReadingEuclid. As well as Benjamin Wardhaugh’s The Book of Wonders: The Many Lives of Euclid’s Elements, which I reviewed here:

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And Reading Mathematics in Early Modern EuropeStudies in the Production, Collection, and Use of Mathematical Books, which I reviewed yesterday.

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There is also a third online publication Euclid in print, 1482–1703: A catalogue of the editions of the Elements and other Euclidian Works, which is open access and can be downloaded as a pdf for free.

All of this is essential reading for anybody interested in the history of the most often published mathematics textbook of all times.

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There’s more to reading than just looking at the words

When I first became interested in the history of mathematics, now literally a lifetime ago, it was dominated by a big events, big names approach to the discipline. It was also largely presentist, only interested in those aspects of the history that are still relevant in the present. As well as this, it was internalist history only interested in results and not really interested in any aspects of the context in which those results were created. This began to change as some historians began to research the external circumstances in which the mathematics itself was created and also the context, which was often different to the context in which the mathematics is used today. This led to the internalist-externalist debate in which the generation of strictly internalist historians questioned the sense of doing external history with many of them rejecting the approach completely.

As I have said on several occasions, in the 1980s, I served my own apprenticeship, as a mature student, as a historian of science in a major research project into the external history of formal or mathematical logic. As far as I know it was the first such research project in this area. In the intervening years things have evolved substantially and every aspect of the history of mathematics is open to the historian. During my lifetime the history of the book has undergone a similar trajectory, moving from the big names, big events modus to a much more open and diverse approach.

The two streams converged some time back and there are now interesting approaches to examining in depth mathematical publications in the contexts of their genesis, their continuing history and their use over the years. I recently reviewed a fascinating volume in this genre, Benjamin Wardhaugh’s The Book of Wonder: The Many Lives of Euclid’s Elements. Wardhaugh was a central figure in the Oxford-based Reading Euclid research project (2016–2018) and I now have a second volume that has grown out of two workshops, which took place within that project, Reading Mathematics in Early Modern Europe: Studies in the Production, Collection, and Use of Mathematical Books[1]. As the subtitle implies this is a wide-ranging and stimulating collection of papers covering many different aspects of how writers, researchers, and readers dealt with the mathematical written word in the Early Modern Period.

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In general, the academic standard of all the papers presented here is at the highest level.  The authors of the individual papers are all very obviously experts on the themes that they write about and display a high-level of knowledge on them. However, all of the papers are well written, easily accessible and easy to understand for the non-expert. The book opens with a ten-page introduction that explains what is being presented here is clear, simple terms for those new to the field of study, which, I suspect, will probably the majority of the readers.

The first paper deals with Euclid, which is not surprising given the origin of the volume. Vincenzo De Risi takes use through the discussion in the 16th and 17th centuries by mathematical readers of the Elements of Book 1, Proposition 1 and whether Euclid makes a hidden assumption in his construction. Risi points out that this discussion is normally attributed to Pasch and Hilbert in the 19th century but that the Early Modern mathematicians were very much on the ball three hundred years earlier.

We stay with Euclid and his Elements in the second paper by Robert Goulding, who takes us through Henry Savile’s attempts to understand and maybe improve on the Euclidean theory of proportions. Savile, best known for giving his name and his money to establish the first chairs for mathematics and astronomy at the University of Oxford, is an important figure in Early Modern mathematics, who largely gets ignored in the big names, big events history of the subject, but quite rightly turns up a couple of times here. Goulding guides the reader skilfully through Savile’s struggles with the Euclidean theory, an interesting insight into the thought processes of an undeniably, brilliant polymath.

In the third paper, Yelda Nasifoglu stays with Euclid and geometry but takes the reader into a completely different aspect of reading, namely how did Early Modern mathematicians read, that is interpret and present geometrical drawings? Thereby, she demonstrates very clearly how this process changed over time, with the readings of the diagrams evolving and changing with successive generations.

We stick with the reading of a diagram, but leave Euclid, with the fourth paper from Renée Raphael, who goes through the various reactions of readers to a problematic diagram that Tycho Brahe used to argue that the comet of 1577 was supralunar. It is interesting and very informative, how Tycho’s opponents and supporters used different reading strategies to justify their standpoints on the question. It illuminates very clearly that one brings a preformed opinion to a given text when reading, there is no tabula rasa.

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We change direction completely with Mordechai Feingold, who takes us through the reading of mathematics in the English collegiate-humanist universities. This is a far from trivial topic, as the Early Modern humanist scholars were, at least superficially, not really interested in the mathematical sciences. Feingold elucidates the ambivalent attitude of the humanists to mathematical topics in detail. This paper was of particular interest to me, as I am currently trying to deepen and expand my knowledge of Renaissance science.

Richard Oosterhoff, in his paper, takes us into the mathematical world of the relatively obscure Oxford fellow and tutor Brian Twyne (1581–1644). Twyne’s manuscript mathematical notes, complied from various sources open a window on the actual level and style of mathematics’ teaching at the university in the Early Modern Period, which is somewhat removed from what one might have expected.

Librarian William Poole takes us back to Henry Savile. As well as giving his name and his money to the Savilian mathematical chairs, Savile also donated his library of books and manuscripts to be used by the Savilian professors in their work. Poole takes us on a highly informative tour of that library from its foundations by Savile and on through the usage, additions and occasional subtractions made by the Savilian professors down to the end of the 17th century.

Philip Beeley reintroduced me to a recently acquired 17th century mathematical friend, Edward Bernard and his doomed attempt to produce and publish an annotated, Greek/Latin, definitive editions of the Elements. I first became aware of Bernard in Wardhaugh’s The Book of Wonder. Whereas Wardhaugh, in his account, concentrated on the extraordinary one off, trilingual, annotated, Euclid (Greek, Latin, Arabic) that Bernard put together to aid his research and which is currently housed in the Bodleian, Beeley examines Bernard’s increasing desperate attempts to find sponsors to promote the subscription scheme that is intended to finance his planned volume. This is discussed within the context of the problems involved in the late 17th and early 18th century in getting publishers to finance serious academic publications at all. The paper closes with an account of the history behind the editing and publishing of David Gregory’s Euclid, which also failed to find financial backers and was in the end paid for by the university.

Following highbrow publications, Wardhaugh’s own contribution to this volume goes down market to the world of Georgian mathematical textbooks and their readers annotations. Wardhaugh devotes a large part of his paper to the methodology he uses to sort and categorise the annotations in the 366 copies of the books that he examined. He acknowledges that any conclusions that he draws from his investigations are tentative, but his paper definitely indicates a direction for more research of this type.

Boris Jardine takes us back to the 16th century and the Pantometria co-authored by father and son Leonard and Thomas Digges. This was a popular book of practical mathematics in its time and well into the 17th century. Jardine examines how such a practical mathematics text was read and then utilised by its readers.

Kevin Tracey closes out the volume with a final contribution on lowbrow mathematical literature and its readers with an examination of John Seller’s A Pocket Book, a compendium of a wide range of elementary mathematical topics written for the layman. Following a brief description of Seller’s career as an instrument maker, cartographer and mathematical book author, Tracey examines marginalia in copies of the book and shows that it was also actually used by university undergraduates.

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The book is nicely presented and in the relevant papers illustrated with the now ubiquitous grey in grey prints. Each paper has its own collection of detailed, informative, largely bibliographical endnotes. The books referenced in those endnotes are collected in an extensive bibliography at the end of the book and there is also a comprehensive index.

As a whole, this volume meets the highest standards for an academic publication, whilst remaining very accessible for the general reader. This book should definitely be read by all those interested in the history of mathematics in the Early Modern Period and in fact by anybody interested in the history of mathematics. It is also a book for those interested in the history of the book and in the comparatively new discipline, the history of reading. I would go further and recommend it for general historians of the Early Modern Period, as well as interested non experts.

[1] Reading Mathematics in Early Modern Europe: Studies in the Production, Collection, and Use of Mathematical Books, eds. Philip Beeley, Yelda Nasifoglu and Benjamin Wardhaugh, Material Readings in Early Modern Culture, Routledge, New York and London, 2021

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A book is a book is a book is a book

 

I assume that most of the people reading this would agree that a book is for reading. The writer of the book puts their words down on the page and the reader reads them; it is a form of interpersonal communication. However, if one stops to think about it books also fulfil many other functions and book historian Tom Mole has not only thought long and deeply about it but has put those thoughts down, as a series of essays, in the pages of a book to read, his delightful The Secret Life of Books: why they mean more than words[1], which has recently appeared in paperback.

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I will say a bit more about Mole’s book about books not just being books to read in a bit, but first I want to sketch what books have meant in my life, thoughts provoked by his opening essay. Mole describes a university professor, he had as a student, whose office slowly disappeared under steadily increasing number of books. Ever more books meant ever more bookcases until the weight threatened the structural integrity of the building. This is a scenario that speaks volumes to me, and I suspect to many other lifelong book consumers.

I grew up in a house full of books. My father was a university teacher, and my mother was a voracious book reader. Reading books was an integral part of our family life, as long as I can remember. We, the four kids in the family, had a playroom, when we were small. In this playroom there was a book cupboard containing a collection of several hundred children’s books, a collection that grew steadily every year. I had taught myself to read by the time I was about three years old and at around the same age I acquired my first library card. Once a week the family would walk the short stretch to the village library, housed in the primary school, and each one of us would choose new reading matter for the following seven days. My mother always returned from these trips with four new novels, which would be consumed before the next outing. That library was a treasure trove; I can still remember the joy I experienced the first time I discovered Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. Later I was always excited to take home a new volume of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers or Richmal Crompton’s William Brown series.

Moving forward in time, when my mother died I, as the only child still living at home, was pushed off to boarding school, there was an excellent school library, and my father and I left our Essex village and moved to London, where my father worked. At the beginning we didn’t have a house, so we lived in the Royal Anthropological Institute on Bedford Square, which my father ran in those days. He had a small bedsitting room with an attached kitchen, that was his office and during the school holidays or weekends home I slept, on an inflatable mattress, on the floor of the Sir Richard Burton Library, that’s the nineteenth century explorer infamous for his translation of The Perfumed Garden. I can assure you that the bookshelves only contained boring tomes on geography, anthropology etc., and no porn, I checked.

When we did finally acquire a house in Colville Place, one of the most beautiful streets in London. My father and I spent several weeks lining the walls of the house with self-constructed bookshelves to house not only his books from our family home but from his office at the RAI and his office at SOAS, where he taught. That house didn’t need any wall paper. During the time that I lived there, now a maturing teenager, I perused many of the fascinating volumes on those shelves covering a bewildering range of topics.

Over the years, books continued to play a very central role in my life and I still own quite a few of the volumes that I acquired over the next decade that very much shaped the historian I am today. For example, Hofstader’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations, Criticism and the Growthof Knowledge edited by Lakatos & Musgrave, Polya’s How to Solve It, and Boyer’s A History of Mathematics. They are old friends and have shared my living spaces for more than forty years.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I moved to Germany forty years ago and one year later I started to study at the University of Erlangen. The professor, who most influenced and shaped me, Christian Thiel, is also a serious book consumer. The walls of his university office were completely covered with books and over the years his desk, the windowsills and the floor all acquired steadily growing piles of books. Thiel is the owner of a fairly large house and he is also a serious collector of logic books, he is said to own the second largest such private collection in the world. The walls of most of the rooms in his house are lined with this collection. It reached a point where his wife dictated that he could only acquire new volumes if he sold the same width in centimetres of the old ones.

The walls of my small appartement, where I am sitting typing this, are also lined with bookshelves, except for the 2,60 metres covered by my CD shelves. Those bookshelves are filled, to overflowing and the piles of not shelved books continue to grow. I keep telling myself that I must stop acquiring books or at least dispose of some of them but the thought of parting with one of them is on a par with the thought of having teeth extracted without anaesthetic and as I write, four new books are winging there way to my humble abode from various corners of the world.

My name is Thony and I am a bookaholic.

Returning to the volume that inspired this autobiographical outburst, as already mentioned above, Tom Mole’s book is really a collection of eight essays each of which deals with a different aspect of the book as not reading matter. There are also three interludes that take a look at books depicted in paintings, surely a topic for a whole book. I’m not going to go into detail because that would spoil the pleasure that the reader will get out of these carefully crafted gems, but I will list the topics as given in the essay titles: 1) Book/Book, 2) Book/Thing, 3) Book/Bookshelf[2] 4) Book/Relationship 5) Book/Life 6) Book/World 7) Book/Technology 8) Book/Future

 The book is completed with a relatively small number of endnotes for each chapter, which include bibliographical references for deeper reading on the given theme and an adequate index.

If you are a book lover then this is definitively a book you will want to own and read. Both the original hardback and the paperback are at almost throwaway prices and this small volume would make a perfect stocking filler for the bookaholic in your life. However, be warned if you do give them this book for Christmas, they probably won’t speak anymore after unpacking it, as their nose will be buried in The Secret Life of Books.

 

[1] Tom Mole, The Secret Life of Books: why they mean more than words, ppb., Elliot & Thompson, London 2020

[2] Mole is going to push me to buy Henry Petroski’s classic study (Mole’s term) The Book on the Bookshelf, London: Vintage, 2000. I already own Petroski’s The Pencil, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004 and it’s brilliant.

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You can con all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t con all of the people all of the time. However, you can con enough people long enough to cause a financial crisis.

 

The name Isaac Newton evokes for most people the discovery of the law of gravity[1] and if they remember enough of their school physics his three laws of motion. For those with some knowledge of the history of mathematics his name is also connected with the creation of calculus.[2] However, Newton lived eighty-four years and his life was very full and very complex, but most people know very little about that life. One intriguing fact is that in 1720/21 Newton lost £25,000 in the collapse of the so-called South Sea Bubble. A modern reader might think that £25,000 is a tidy sum but not the world. However, in 1720 £25,000 was the equivalent of several million ponds today. Beyond this, when he died about eight years later his estate was still worth about the same sum. Taken together this means that Isaac Newton was in his later life a vey wealthy man.

These details out of Newton’s later life raise a whole lot of questions. Amongst other, how did he become so wealthy? What was the South Sea Bubble and how did Newton come to lose so much money when it collapsed? Science writer and Renaissance Mathematicus friend,[3] Tom Levenson newest book, Money for Nothing [4], offers detailed answers to the last two questions but not the first[5].

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Both Newton and the South Sea Bubble play central roles in Levenson’s book but they are actually only bit players in his story. The real theme of the book is the birth of the modern world of political and capitalist finance in which both the creation of the South Sea Company and its eventual collapse played a dominant role. You can find explanations and the origins of all the gobbledegook that gets spouted in tv, radio and print-media finance reports, derivatives, call and put options, etc. It is also here that the significance Newton as a central figure becomes clear. There were other notable figures in the early eighteenth century, who made or lost greater fortunes than the substantial loses that Newton suffered, but he is really here for different and important reasons.

One reason for Newton’s presence is, of course, his role as boss of the Royal Mint during this period and his secondary role as financial consultant and advisor. Another reason is that central feature of this new emerging world of finance was the application of mathematical modelling, parallel to the mathematical modelling in physics and astronomy, in which Newton is very much the dominant figure, not just in the very recently created United Kingdom.  

We get introduced the work of William Petty and Edmond Halley, who applied the recently created branches of mathematics, statistics and probability, to social and political problems.

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I found particular interesting the work of Archibald Hutchinson, who I’d never come across before, who carried out a deep and extensive mathematical analysis of the South Sea Company scheme, basically to turn the national debt into shares of a joint stock company, which promised a dividend, could not work as it existed because the South Sea Company would never generate enough profit to fulfil its commitments to its shareholders. Whilst the South Sea Company was booming and everybody was scrabbling to obtain shares at vastly inflated prices, Hutchinson’s cool analytical warnings of doom were ignored, he was truly a prophet crying in the wilderness. After the event when he had been proved right nobody was interested in hearing, I told you so.

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Another fascinating figure, who was new to me, is John Law, a brilliant mathematician and felon[6], who landed up in France and through his mathematical analysis became the most powerful figure in French financial politics. Law created the comparatively new concept of paper money (new that is in Europe, the Chinese had had printed paper money for centuries by this time) and the Mississippi Company, which served a similar function to the South Sea Company, to deal with the French national debt. The Mississippi Company collapsed just as spectacularly as the South Sea Company and Law was forced to flee France.

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Levenson goes on to show how the French and UK governments each dealt with the financial disasters that their experiments in modern finance had delivered up. The French government basically returned to the old methods, whereas the UK government now moved towards the future world of capitalist finance, which gave them a financial advantage over their much greater and richer rival in the constant wars that the two colonial powers waged against each other throughout the eighteenth century.

The book features a cast that is a veritable who’s who of the great and the infamous in England in the early eighteen century. As well as Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley we have, amongst many others, Johnathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, John Gay, Georg Handel, William Hogarth, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (who played the market and made a fortune), Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax (Newton’s political patron), Christopher Wren and Uncle Bob Walpole and all.

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The book closes with an epilogue, which draws the very obvious parallels between the financial crisis caused by the South Sea Bubble and the worldwide one caused in in 2008 but the collapse of the very rotten American derivative market based on mortgages. Echoing the adage that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. History really does have its uses.

The hard back is nicely presented, with an attractive type face and the apparently, in the meantime, obligatory grey in grey prints. There are not-numbered footnotes scattered throughout the text, which explain various terms or expand on points in the narrative but otherwise the book has, what I regard as the worst option, hanging endnotes giving the sources for the direct quotes in the text. There is an extensive bibliography, which our author has very obviously read and mined and an excellent index.

Levenson has written a big in scope and complex book with multiple interwoven layers of mathematical, financial, political and social history that taken together, illuminate an interesting corner of early eighteenth-century life and outline the beginnings of our modern capitalist world. The result is a dense story that could be a challenge to read but, as one would expect of the professor for science writing at MIT, Levenson is a first class storyteller with a light touch and an excellent feel for language, who guides his readers through the tangled maze of the material with a gentle hand. There is much to ponder and digest in this fascinating and rich slice of truly interdisciplinary history, which will leave the reader, who braves its complexities, enriched and possibly wiser than they were before they entered the world of the notorious South Sea Bubble.

[1] As I have pointed out in the past, he didn’t discover the law of gravity he proved it, which is something different.

[2] As I pointed out long ago in a blog post that is no longer available, neither Newton nor Leibniz invented/discovered (choose your term according to your philosophy of mathematics) calculus, even created is as step too far.

[3] Disclosure: Several years ago, I read through Tom’s original book proposal and more recently one chapter of the book, to see if the facts about Newton were correct, but otherwise had nothing to do with this book apart from the pleasure of reading it.  

[4] Money for Nothing: The South Sea Bubble and the Invention of Modern Capitalism, Head of Zeus ltd., London, 2020.

[5] For this you will have to read other books including, perhaps, Tom’s earlier excellent Newton book, Newton and the Counterfeiters: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston & New York, 2009.

[6] Why I refer to John Law as a felon is a much too intriguing story that I’m going to spoil in in this review; for that you are going to have to read Professor Levenson’s book

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