Category Archives: Book Reviews

American eclipse tourism in the nineteenth century

Steve Ruskin has achieved the history of astronomy equivalent of squaring the circle; he has written a popular history of astronomy book that is informative, enlightening, entertaining and at the same time both historically and scientifically accurate. A rare phenomenon in an age where all too many authors of popular history of science books throw accuracy out of the window in favour of a good narrative.

I assume that by now all of the readers of this blog will be aware that America is being treated to the spectacular of a total solar eclipse on 21 August this year; this event has been dubbed The Great American Eclipse! This is by no means the first great eclipse that America has experienced and Steve Ruskin has written a book on the eclipse from 1878, which in the age of the new technology of instant world wide communication with the telegraph and viable long distant travel with steam ships and steam trains became a mass eclipse tourism phenomenon.

Ruskin’s book, America’s First Great Eclipse: How Scientists, Tourists, and the Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878 Changed Astronomy Forever [1], is divided into three sections. The first deals with the period leading up to the eclipse, the publication of the event and the preparations for it. The second, the eclipse itself and the observations made both by the professional astronomers and by the lay tourists. The third deals with the results of those observations both the scientific evaluations and the popular public reactions.

One of the things that makes this book very good is the authors extensive use of and generous quotes from the contemporary news sources, newspapers and magazines. Ruskin lets those involved and present at the time speak for themselves, mostly just providing a framework for them to do so. The reader experiences the lead up to the eclipse, the eclipse itself and the very public aftermath, as it was experienced in the nineteenth century.

As an astronomy historian Ruskin’s main historical point, announced in the subtitle, concerns high altitude astronomical observation. He argues that the eclipse, whose path ran through the Rocky Mountains, triggered the modern debate on the advantages, or possibly lack of them, of making astronomical observations at high altitude, where the atmosphere is thinner. Several of the professional observers took the opportunity of trying mountain top observation, with all the strategic problems that this involved, in order to test the hypothesis that this would lead to better results. Although the results, in this case, were not totally convincing the debate they provoked led eventually to the construction of the first permanent high altitude observatories.

As this is a popular book there are no foot or endnotes and no index but there is a fairly extensive bibliography of original sources and books for further reading, which are also clearly referenced in the text. This is a delightful little book and I heartily recommend anybody travelling later this month to experience this year’s Great American Eclipse to acquire a copy, either paper or electronic, to read on their journey. Naturally, it is also an informative and recommended lecture for those not able or willing to join this year’s eclipse tourists.

[1] Steve Ruskin, America’s First Great Eclipse: How Scientists, Tourists, and the Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878 Changed Astronomy Forever, Alpine Alchemy Press, 2017


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy

Perpetuating the myths

Since the re-emergence of science in Europe in the High Middle Ages down to the present the relationship between science and religion has been a very complex and multifaceted one that cannot be reduced to a simple formula or a handful of clichés. Many of the practitioners, who produced that science, were themselves active servants of their respective churches and many of their colleagues, whilst not clerics, were devoted believers and deeply religious. On they other had there were those within the various church communities, who were deeply suspicious of or even openly hostile to the newly won scientific knowledge that they saw as a threat to their beliefs. Over the centuries positions changed constantly and oft radically and any historian, who wishes to investigate and understand that relationship at any particular time or in any given period needs to tread very carefully and above all not to approach their research with any preconceived conclusions or laden down with personal prejudices in one direction or another.

In the nineteenth century just such preconceived conclusions based on prejudice became dominant in the study of the history of science propagated by the publications of the English-American chemist John William Draper and his colleague the American historian and educator Andrew Dickson White. These two scholar propagated what is now know as the Conflict or Draper-White Thesis, which claims that throughout history the forces of science and religion have been in permanent conflict or even war with each other. Draper wrote in his provocatively titled, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)

The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.

In 1876 in his equally provocative The Warfare of Science, White wrote:

In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science—and invariably. And, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed, for the time, to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good of religion and of science.

Twenty years later White ramped up the heat in his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

Draper’s and White’s polemics became widely accepted and Galileo, Darwin and other figures out of the history of science came to be regarded as martyrs of science, persecuted by the bigoted forces of religion.

Throughout the twentieth century historians of science have striven to undo the damage done by the Draper-White thesis and return the history of the relationship between science and religion to the complex and multifaceted reality with which I introduced this post. They were not helped in recent decades by the emergence of the so-called New Atheists and the ill considered and unfortunately often historically ignorant anti-religious polemics spewed out by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, supposedly in the name of freedom of thought. I have, although a life-long atheist myself, on more than one occasion taken up arms, on this blog, against the sweeping anti-religious generalisations with respect to the history of science spouted by the new atheist hordes.

So it was with more than slight sense of despair that I read the preview in The Atlantic of

A Graphic Novel About 17th-Century Philosophy with the title Heretics!

This is described by its publishers the Princeton University Press as follows:

An entertaining, enlightening, and humorous graphic narrative of the dangerous thinkers who laid the foundation of modern thought

The Atlantic’s review/preview confirmed my darkest suspicions. We get informed:

Dark spots across the sun, men burned at the stake, an all-powerful church that brooks no idea outside its dogma—there is no subject so imbued with drama, intrigue, and fast-paced action as 17th-century Western philosophy. And thus no medium does it justice like the graphic novel.

No, really.

Heretics!, a graphic novel by Steven and Ben Nadler, introduces readers to what is arguably the most interesting, important, and consequential period in the history of Western philosophy. While respecting recent scholarship on 17th-century thought, [my emphasis] the Nadlers sought to make these stories and ideas as accessible and engaging to as broad an audience as possible without condescension. At times, this called for some historical liberties and anachronism. (Full disclosure: there were no laptop computers or iPods in the 17th century.)

We are back in Draper-White territory with a vengeance! The last thing that the Nadlers do is to respect recent scholarship, in fact they turn the clock back a long way, deliberately avoiding all the work done by modern historians of science.

The sample chapter provided by The Atlantic starts with Giordano Bruno, who else, much loved as a martyr for science by the new atheist hordes.

Source: The Atlantic

We see here that, as usual, Bruno’s cosmology is featured large, whilst his theological views are tucked away in the corner. Just two comments, Bruno was by no stretch of the imagination a scientist, read this wonderful essay by Tim O’Neill if you don’t believe me, and his “highly unorthodox” theological views included denial of the trinity, denial of Jesus’ divinity and denial of the virgin birth any one of which would have got him a free roasting courtesy of the Catholic Church if he had never written a single word about cosmology.

Up next, prime witness for the prosecution, who else but our old friend Galileo Galilei. We get the hoary old cliché of him throwing rocks off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which he almost certainly never did.

We now move on to Galileo the astronomer,

Source: The Atlantic

who having made his telescopic discoveries claims that, “Copernicus was right.”

Source: The Atlantic

Know what, in 1615 Galileo was very careful not to claim that because he knew that it was a claim that he couldn’t back up. What he did do, which brought him into conflict with the Church was to suggest that the Church should change its interpretations of the Bible, definitely not on for a mere mathematician in the middle of the Counter Reformation and for which he got, not unsurprisingly, rapped over the knuckles. In 1616 Pope Paul V did not condemn Copernicus’s theory as heresy, in fact no pope ever did.

We then have Galileo sulking in his room and he isgoing to show them! In fact Galileo courted the Catholic Church and was a favourite of the papal court in Rome; he received official permission from Pope Urban VIII to write his Diologo. I’m not going to go into the very complex detail as to why this backfired but a couple of short comments are necessary here. At that time the heliocentric theory did not do a much better job of explain the phenomena in the heavens and on earth. Galileo’s book is strong on polemic and weak on actual proofs. Also, and I get tired of pointing this out, Galileo was not condemned as a heretic but found guilty of grave suspicion of heresy. There is a massive legal difference between the two charges. Paying attention to the fine detail is what makes for a good historian. We close, of course with the classic cliché, “And yet the earth moves.” No, he didn’t say that!

Source: The Atlantic

We then get a comic book description of the differences between the philosophies of Aristotle and Descartes that unsurprisingly doesn’t do either of them justice. All of this is of course only a lead up to the fact that Descartes decided not to publish his early work explicating his philosophy including his belief in heliocentricity, Traité du monde et de la lumière, on hearing of Galileo’s trial and punishment. This is dealt with by the Nadlers with a piece of slapstick humour, “Zut alors! I don’t want to get into trouble too!” Has anybody ever actually heard a Frenchman say “Zut alors!”?

Source: The Atlantic

This episode in intellectual history is actually of great interest because as far as is known Descartes is the only author in the seventeenth century who withdrew a book from publication because of the Pope’s edict against teaching heliocentricity. He appears to have done so not out of fear for his own safety but out of respect for his Jesuit teachers, whom he did not wish to embarrass. This was rather strange as other Jesuits and students of Jesuit academies wrote and published books on heliocentrism merely prefacing them with the disclaimer that the Holy Mother Church in its wisdom has correctly condemned this theory but it’s still quite fun to play with it hypothetically. The Church rarely complained and appearances were maintained.

This very superficial and historically highly inaccurate comic book in no way does justice to its subject but will do a lot of damage to the efforts of historians of science to present an accurate and balanced picture of the complex historical relationship between science and religion.

For anybody who is interested in the real story I recommend John Hadley Brooke’s classic Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (1991) and Peter Harrison’s, soon to be equally classic, The Territories of Science and Religion (2015). On reading The Atlantic review/preview Peter Harrison tweeted the following:

Oh dear…. Not the optimal format for communicating the complexities of history – Peter Harrison (@uqharri)

James Ungureanu another expert on the relations between science, religion and culture also tweeted his despair on reading The Atlantic review/preview:

When I saw this earlier, I died a little. It must be right because it’s funny! – James C Ungureanu (@JamesCUngureanu)


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Myths of Science


When I dropped out of academia (for the second time in my life) in the early 1990s, because of serious (mental) health problems, I throttled back my life-long interest in the history of science, giving my energy instead to recovering my mental equilibrium. When, after a break of several years, I returned to an intensive engagement with the history of science, one of the first things I did was to take part in a seminar at the university on Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. This led me to the question, why was De revolutionibus published in Nürnberg? Regular readers will know that I live just down the road from Nürnberg, so this a fairly natural question for me to ask. My attempts to find an answer led to an in depth study of the life and work of Johannes Petreius, the printer publisher who published De revolutionibus and to the early history of the printed book, as Petreius stood in a direct line of descent from Gutenberg through his Basler relatives who had learnt the black art directly from its inventor.

The more general question of the influence of the printed book on the evolution of modern science led quite naturally to a deepened interest in the early history of scientific book publication in which Nürnberg again played a role through Regiomontanus the first printer publisher of scientific books.

Curiously Nürnberg was also the site of the first paper mill north of the Alps, paper being an essentially ingredient in mass production of printed books and this fact led to a strong interest in the history of paper making and to the materials that preceded paper as a medium for transmitting the written word.

Another seminar that I took part in at the university, following my return to the history of science, concerned the history of illustrations in scientific texts, which awakened my interest in the various methods of illustration reproduction and their histories. Another Nürnberger, Albrecht Dürer, played a significant role in that history.

Over the years I acquired a deep interest, and a modicum of knowledge of the histories of all the various aspects of recording knowledge in word and picture, so it was not surprising that my interest was drawn almost magnetically to a fairly recent new publication with the title, The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Times. An interest made even stronger by the fact that the author of this tome is Keith Houston, the author of both the book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, a serious candidate for ultimate geek bedtime reading, and of the blog of the same name. Unable to resist temptation I acquired a copy of The Book.


Having delved deeply into the subject over a number of years I expected to be entertained, Houston is a witty writer, but not really to learn much that was new. I was mistaken, even though I consider myself well informed on the topic I took away much that was new from Houston’s excellent study of the topic.

The Book is divided into four sections, The Page, The Text, Illustrations and Form. The first deals with the history of writing material from papyrus over parchment to paper and the progress from hand-made paper to modern industrial paper production. The second deals with methods of bringing writing onto that material starting with Babylonian cuneiform symbols impressed into clay tablets, outlining the history of ink and moving on to the history of moveable type printing. Once again covering the arc from the cradle of civilisation to the twentieth century. Part three does the same for pictures on the page. The final part deals with the forms that books have taken over the centuries from the papyrus roles to the codex and the various sizes and forms that the codex has adopted down the years. We also get a detailed history of the evolution of bookbinding.

Houston has researched his topic exceedingly well and delivers his cornucopia of information in a well-digested and easily accessible form for the reader, with a healthy portion of humour. One aspect of the book that appealed to me as a history of science myth buster is Houston’s use of multiple layers of historical story telling. For example, he takes a topic and tells his readers how its history was understood and presented in the nineteenth century. Then he explains how modern research showed this to be wrong and represents the history from this standpoint. Having gone into great detail he then explodes this version by showing why it can’t be true. I’m not going to go here into any great detail, as it would spoil the fun for future readers, and it really is fun, but Houston gives his readers a useful lesson in the evolution of the historiography of his subject.

One thing that has to be said is that The Book is beautifully produced with much obvious loving care for detail. It is printed with a very attractive typeface on lovely paper both of which make it a real pleasure to hold and to read. It comes bound in heavy light-grey carton boards joined together by dark read spinal binding tape. Its gatherings are, as befits a book about the history of the book, stitched and not glued. Throughout the book, starting with the cover, all of the bits and pieces that a book consists of are bracketed and labelled with their corrected technical terms. The book is beautifully illustrated, each illustration possessing an extensive explanatory text of its own. There are a helpful further reading list, extensive endnotes (as always I would have preferred footnotes) and an equally extensive index. Despite being just over 400 pages long, and being a high quality, beautifully produced, bound book it retails at a ridiculously low price. The publishers offer it at $29.95 but it can be had for less than twenty pounds, euro or dollar depending on your location.

If you have any interest in the history of the book as an object or the history of moveable type printing then I can only recommend acquiring a copy of Keith Houston’s wonderful book on the book.



Filed under Book Reviews, Early Scientific Publishing

He fought for his mother

There are not many books about the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler in which he only plays a supporting role but this is the case in Ulinka Rublack’s The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother[1]. In fact in Rublack’s excellent book even Kepler’s mother, Katherina, the nominal subject of the book only really takes a supporting role; the lead role being taken by the context within which the whole tragic story unfolds and it is exactly this that makes this book so excellent.


Regular readers of this blog will know that I champion the claims of Johannes Kepler to being the most significant natural philosopher of the Early Modern Period against the rival claims of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton et al. So I am naturally interested in any new books that appear with Kepler as their subject. Having looked closely at one of the strangest events in Kepler’s unbelievably bizarre life, the arrest and trial of his mother, Katherina, on a charge of witchcraft – and having blogged about it twice – my interest was particularly piqued by an announcement of a new book on this topic. A decent, well-researched book in English devoted exclusively to the subject would be a very positive addition to the Kepler literature. Rublack’s book is just the bill.

Nearly all accounts of Katherina Kepler’s ordeal are merely chapters or sections in more general books about Kepler’s life and work and mostly deal chronologically with the original accusations of witchcraft, counter accusations, the attempted violent intimidation of Katherina, the frustrated strivings to bring charges against her tormentors, her arrest and finally the trial with its famous defence by Johannes. Except for thumbnail sketches of those involved very little attempt is ever made to place the occurrences into a wider or more general context and this is, as already said above, exactly the strength of Rublack’s book.

Rublack in having devoted an entire book to the whole affair draws back from the accusations, charges, counter charges and the trial itself to flesh out the story with the social, cultural, political and economic circumstances in which the whole sorry story took place. In doing so Rublack has created minor masterpiece of social history. Her research has obviously been deep and thorough and she displays a fine eye for detail, whilst maintaining a stirring narrative style that pulls the reader along at a steady pace.

One point in particular intrigued me having read all the prepublication advertising for the book, including several illuminating interviews on the subject with the author, as well as short essays by her. Rublack takes what might be seen as a strong feminist stand against the previous, exclusively male, characterisations of Katherina Kepler, all of which painted her as a mean spirited, crabby, old hag, who was, so to speak, largely to blame for the situation in which she found herself. Having over the years read almost all of these accounts I was curious how Rublack would justify her rejection of these portrayals of Katherina, which I knew were based on Kepler’s own accounts of his mother. Rublack does not disappoint. She points out quite correctly that Kepler’s description of his mother was written when he was still very young and is part of an almost psychopathic put down of himself and all those related or connected to him and calls rather his own mental state into question. Interestingly we have virtually no other accounts of Katherina from Johannes’ pen and to judge her purely on this one piece of strange juvenilia is probably, as Rublack makes very clear, a bridge too far. Piecing together all of the, admittedly scant, evidence Rublack paints a much more sympathetic picture of Katherina, a hard working, illiterate, sixteenth/seventeenth-century peasant woman, who had never had it easy in life but still managed to raise her children well and give them chances that she never had.

This book is not perfect, as Rublack relies in her accounts of Johannes on older standard biographies, whilst apparently not consulting some of the more recent scholarly studies of his life and work, and thus repeats several false claims concerning him. However I’m prepared to cut her some slack on this as none of the errors that she (unknowingly?) repeats have any direct bearing on the story of Katherina that she tells so skilfully.

The book is beautifully presented by the OUP. Printed in a pleasant, easy on the eyes typeface and charmingly illustrated with a large number of black and white pictures. The text is excellently annotated, but as always I would have preferred footnotes to endnotes, and there is an adequate index. I personally would have liked a separate bibliography but this might have been sacrificed on cost grounds, the hardback being available at a very civilised price for a serious academic volume. Although having called it that I should point out that the book is very accessible and readable for the non-expert or general reader.

I heartily recommend this book to anybody interested in seventeenth-century history, Johannes Kepler, the history of witchcraft or who just likes reading good informative, entertaining books, if one is allowed to call a book about the sufferings of an innocent woman entertaining. Put simply, it’s an excellent read that deserves to, and probably will, become the standard English text on the subject.

[1] Ulinka Rublack, The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother. OUP, 2015





Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

History (of Science) Books by Women

Last weekend saw several major newspapers publishing their books of the year list. Unfortunately these displayed, in several aspects, a serious lack of balance. Science and history of science books came up more than somewhat short and in some categories the male dominance was glaring. The latter problem provoked the following tweet by historian and history book author Lucy Worsley:

8 of 9 of the ‘history books of the year’ in today’s Times, and 19 out of 21 of ditto in today’s Telegraph, are by men. I’m not impressed. Lucy Worsley

In reaction to this tweet a hash tag sprang into life, #HistoryBooksbyWomen, under which some just listed the names of female history book authors and others tweeted names and book titles. My discipline the history of science is blessed with many excellent female historians, authors of many first class books. This being the case I thought that I might cruise along my bookshelves and present here a lightly annotated list of some of those books by women that have enriched and informed my career as a historian of science.

I start with my #histsci soul sisterTM, Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt, whose volume in the way the nineteenth century saw Isaac Newton, Recreating Isaac, I reviewed here.

Becky is also co-author of the beautiful Finding Longitude, which I reviewed here. (Her co-author Richard Dunn is a man but we won’t hold it against him).

Staying with Newton we have Sarah Dry telling us what happened to his manuscripts in The Newton Papers and Lesley Murdin Under Newton’s Shadow: Astronomical Practices in the Seventeenth Century.


In the world of navigation, cartography and geodesy we have Christine Garwood Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Joyce E. Chaplin Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, Silvia Sumira Globes: 400 Years of Exploration Navigation and Power and Rachel Hewitt Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.


Representing the Middle Ages we have two biographies Nancy Marie Brown The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages and Louise Cochrane Adelard of Bath: The First English Scientist. For fans of automata there is E. R. Truitt’s delightful Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art.


In the early modern period and the emergence of modern science we have Pamela O. Long Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Science, Pamela H. Smith The Body of the Artisan, Paula Findlen Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, Deborah E. Harkness The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Eileen Reeves Galileo’s Glassworks, Lisa Jardine Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution, her Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, her On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren, and her The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London, Ulinka Rublack The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother, Sachiko Kusukawa Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany and Susan Dackerman ed. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early Modern Period Featuring essays by Susan Dackerman, Lorraine Daston, Katherine Park, Susanne Karr Schmidt and Claudia Swann.


Turning to the eighteenth century we have Patricia Fara A Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment, Susannah Gibson Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How eighteenth-century science disrupted the natural order and Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future.


No Renaissance Mathematicus book list would be complete without some esoteric history. We start with Monica Azzolini The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan that I reviewed here, Louise Hill Cuth English almanacs, astrology & popular medicine: 1550–1700, Tamsyn Barton Ancient Astrology, Pamela H. Smith The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, Frances A. Yates The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as well as Ingrid D. Rowland Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Somewhere between the stools Lorraine Daston & Katherine Park Wonders and the Order of Nature.


Mathematics are represented by Kim Plofker Mathematics in India and Serafina Cuomo Ancient mathematics. Astronomy and cosmology by M. R. Wright Cosmology in Antiquity, Kitty Ferguson Measuring the Universe and Jessica Ratcliff The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain.


We close with a potpourri of titles that don’t quite fit into any of the categories above. We start with two excellent books by Laura J. Snyder, her four-way biography of nineteenth-century Cambridge polymaths The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World and her double seventeenth-century art and science biography Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. Two further biographies are Brenda Maddox Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA and Dorothy Stein Ada: A Life and a Legacy. Patricia Fara gives us a general survey of science history in Science A Four Thousand Year History and a look at the role some women played in that history in Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science & Power in the Enlightenment. Deborah Jaffé also looks at the role of women in science and technology in Ingenious Women: From Tincture of Saffron to Flying Machines. Last but by no means least we have Ingrid D. Rowland’s translation of Vitruvius: Ten Books of Architecture.


This list is of course fairly random and somewhat arbitrary and is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive. All of the books that I have included are in my opinion good and quite a lot of them are excellent. They demonstrate that there is width, depth and variety in the writings produced by women in the history of science taken in its widest sense. Should any misogynistic male of the species turn up in the comments and claim that the above list is only so impressive, and I find it very impressive, because I, in some way, privilege or favour female historians then I must point out that I have many more history of science books by male authors than by female ones on my bookshelves.

If you wish to add your own favourite history of science books authored by women in the comments you are more than welcome.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Ladies of Science

History of Science for Kids

I recently got an email from Chad Lillian with the following request:

I was wondering if you could recommend some books for me about mathematical and scientific history that would be interesting for my 10 year old son to read (or for me to read with him)?  I have looked through your book reviews, but am wondering if there are any books you haven’t reviewed on your blog, but would recommend?

Now I don’t have and never have had children and I also don’t teach children so I am basically the wrong person to answer this question. Can people recommend suitable, preferably myth free, books on the histories of mathematics and science for Chad? make your suggestions in the comments!


Filed under Book Reviews

Science contra Copernicus

One of the most persistent and pernicious myths in the history of astronomy is that Galileo, with his telescopic observations, proved the validity of the Copernican heliocentric hypothesis and thus all opposition to it from that point on was purely based on ignorance and blind religious prejudice. Strangely, this version of the story is particularly popular amongst gnu atheists. I say strangely because these are just the people who pride themselves on only believing the facts and basing all their judgements on the evidence. Even Galileo knew that the evidence produced by his telescopic observations only disproved some aspects of Aristotelian cosmology and full scale Ptolemaic astronomy but other Tychonic and semi-Tychonic geocentric models still fit the available facts. A well as this the evidence was still a long way from proving the existence of a heliocentric model and many physical aspects spoke strongly against a moving earth. Put another way, the scientific debate on geocentrism versus heliocentrism was still wide open with geocentrism still in the most favourable position.

Apart from the inconclusiveness of the telescopic observations and the problems of the physics of a moving earth there were other astronomical arguments against heliocentricity at the time that remain largely unknown today. Christopher M. Graney[1] has done the history of astronomy community a big service in uncovering those arguments and presenting them in his new book Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo[2].


We’ll start with the general summary, as I’ve already stated in an earlier post this is an excellent five star plus book and if you have any interest in this critical period of transition in the history of astronomy then it is quite simply an obligatory text that you must read. So if you follow my advice, what are you getting for your money?

In 1651 the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli published his Almagestum Novum or New Almagest , which contains a list of 126 arguments concerning the motion of the earth, i.e. the heliocentric hypothesis, 49 for and 77 against and it is this list that provides the intellectual scaffolding for Graney’s book. Interestingly in discussion on seventeenth-century astronomy Riccioli’s book, and its list, has largely been dismissed or ignored in the past. The prevailing attitudes in the past seem to have been either it’s a book by a Jesuit so it must be religious and thus uninteresting or, as was taught to me, it’s a historical account of pre-Galilean astronomy and thus uninteresting. In fact before Graney and his wife undertook the work this list had never even been translated into English. As to the first objections only a few of Riccioli’s arguments are based on religion and as Graney points out Riccioli does not consider them to be very important compared with the scientific arguments. As to the second argument Riccioli’s account is anything but historical but reflects the real debate over heliocentrism that was taking place in the middle of the seventeenth century.

The strongest scientific argument contra Copernicus, which occupies pride of place in Graney’s book, is the so-called star size argument, which in fact predates both Galileo and the telescope and was first posited by Tycho Brahe. Based on his determination of the visible diameter of a star, Tycho calculated that for the stars to be far enough away so as to display no visible parallax, as required by a Copernican model with a moving earth, then they must be in reality unimaginably gigantic. A single star would have the same diameter as Saturn’s orbit around the sun. These dimensions for the stars didn’t just appear to Tycho to be completely irrational and so unacceptable. In a Tychonic cosmos, however, with its much smaller dimensions the stars would have a much more rational size. Should anyone think that this argument was not taken seriously, much later in the seventeenth century Christiaan Huygens considered the star size problem to be Tycho’s principle argument against Copernicus.

Many, more modern, historians dismissed the star size problem through the mistaken belief that the telescope had solved the problem by showing that stars are mere points of light and Tycho’s determined star diameters were merely an illusion caused by atmospheric refractions. In fact the opposite was true, early telescopes as used by Galileo and Simon Marius, amongst others, showed the stars to have solid disc shaped bodies like the planets and thus confirming Tycho’s calculations. Marius used this fact to argue scientifically for a Tychonic cosmos whilst Galileo tried to dodge the issue. We now know that what those early telescopic astronomers saw was not the bodies of stars but Airy discs an optical artefact caused by diffraction and the narrow aperture of the telescope and so the whole star size argument is in fact bogus. However it was first Edmond Halley at the beginning of the eighteenth century who surmised that these observed discs were in fact not real.

Graney details the whole history of the star size argument from Tycho down to Huygens revealing some interesting aspect along the way. For example the early Copernicans answered Tycho’s objections not with scientific arguments but with religious ones, along the lines of that’s the way God planned it!

Although the star size argument was the strongest scientific argument contra Copernicus it was by no means the only one and Graney gives detailed coverage of the whole range offering arguments and counter arguments, as presented by the participants in the seventeenth-century debate. Of interest particular here is Riccioli’s anticipation of the so-called Coriolis effect, which he failed to detect experimental thus rejecting a moving earth. Far from being a decided issue since 1610 when Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius heliocentricity remained a scientifically disputed hypothesis for most of the seventeenth century.

Graney’s book is excellently written and clear and easy to understand even for the non-physicists and astronomers. He explains clearly and simply the, sometimes complex, physical and mathematical arguments and it is clear from his writing style that he must be a very good college teacher. The book is well illustrated, has an extensive bibliography and a useful index.

As a bonus the book contains two appendixes. The first is a translation (together with the original Latin text) and technical discussion of Francesco Ingoli’s 1616 Essay to Galileo, a never published but highly important document in the on going discussion on heliocentricity; Ingoli a Catholic cleric argued in favour of the Tychonic system. The second appendix is a translation (together with the original Latin text) and technical discussion of Riccioli’s Reports Regarding His Experiments with Falling Bodies. These experiments are of historical interest as they demonstrate Riccioli’s abilities, as a physicist, as he delivered the first empirical confirmation of Galileo’s laws of fall.

Graney’s book is a first class addition to the literature on the history of astronomy in the seventeenth century and an absolute must read for anyone claiming serious interest in the topic. If you don’t believe me read what Peter Barker, Dennis Danielson and Owen Gingerich, all first class historians of Early Modern astronomy, have to say on the back cover of the book.


[1] Disclosure; Chris Graney is not only a colleague, but he and his wife, Christina, are also personal friends of mine. Beyond that, Chris has written, at my request, several guest blogs here at the Renaissance Mathematicus, all of which were based on his research for the book. Even more relevant I was, purely by accident I hasten to add, one of those responsible for sending Chris off on the historical trail that led to him writing this book; a fact that is acknowledged on page xiv of the introduction. All of this, of course, disqualifies me as an impartial reviewer of this book but I’m going to review it anyway. Anybody who knows me, knows that I don’t pull punches and when the subject is history of science I don’t do favours for friends. If I thought Chris’ book was not up to par I might refrain from reviewing it and explain to him privately why. If I thought the book was truly bad I would warn him privately and still write a negative review to keep people from wasting their time with it. However, thankfully, none of this is the case, so I could with a clear conscience write the positive review you are reading. If you don’t trust my impartiality, fair enough, read somebody else’s review.

[2] Christopher M. Graney, Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo, University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame Indiana, 2015


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science