Category Archives: Book Reviews

To Explain the Weinberg: The discovery of a Nobel Laureate’s view of the history of science

In my dim and distant youth, I was an ardent fan of twentieth-century physics and consumed a large quantity of popular books and articles (mostly New Scientist and Scientific American) on the subject as well as graduating to some high-grade serious history of science on both relativity and quantum physics. One of the books I read was The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe by theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg. This book impressed me very much, as it did the reviewers at the time, and I came away with a deep respect for Steven Weinberg as a science writer. Now in his eighties Weinberg is still highly active and this year he published his own history of science, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. This book proved to be highly contentious because of Weinberg’s avowed presentist approach to writing history of science and its appearance generated a lot of debate some of which I collected in one edition of Whewell’s Gazette (scroll down to book reviews). This situation led me to the thought that I should read and review Weinberg’s tome for myself, a thought that for various reasons didn’t really appeal. However rescue was at hand. Chris Graney, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and more than welcome guest blogger, has taken on the task, read, analysed and reviewed To Explain the World and it is with great pleasure and some relief (I won’t have to read it after all) that I present his thoughts on Weinberg’s book to the eager readers of the Renaissance Mathematicus.

In To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, author Steven Weinberg covers science history from the Milesians of ancient times to the Standard Model of today. His emphasis is on physics and astronomy, and he includes thirty-five ‘Technical Notes’ for the mathematically advanced reader that explain the physics and mathematics of things such as ellipses, refraction, and centripetal acceleration. His treatment of science’s history is not just a re-hashing of stock stories: he gives attention to Tycho Brahe; he does not lionize Galileo. He tries to show what he thinks science is and is not. The average Joe or Jane who has a casual interest in science and history and wants an overview by a prominent scientist should read the book. He or she will learn quite a few things, most of them not wrong.

However, the Renaissance Mathematicus is about neither casual interest in the history of science, nor history in which most things are not wrong, nor deference to prominent authors. And so, having generally recommended this book, I have two big specific criticisms of it: one regards facts; and the other regards philosophizing.


Weinberg makes factual errors. For example, in Chapter 10 on Medieval Europe, he discusses how the French cleric Jean Buridan rejected the Aristotelian idea that all motion requires a mover and introduced the idea that objects remain in motion once set in motion. Buridan called this impetus. Weinberg mischaracterizes impetus, saying that it was a foreshadowing of the modern idea of momentum, not momentum itself. “He [Buridan] never identified the impetus carried by a body as its mass times its velocity,” writes Weinberg (p. 133), “which is how momentum is defined in Newtonian physics.”

This is not correct. Buridan wrote regarding impetus that a moving body is impressed with —

…a certain impetus or a certain motive force of the moving body, in the direction toward which the mover was moving the moving body, either up or down, or laterally, or circularly. And by the amount the [mover] moves that moving body more swiftly, by the same amount it will impress in it a stronger impetus… by the amount more there is of matter, by that amount can the body receive more of that impetus and more intensely.

Thus Buridan plainly says that impetus is proportional to mass and proportional to velocity. That is mass-times-velocity momentum. He differs from modern momentum only in that he does not separate angular momentum, moment of inertia, etc. He uses momentum to explain the motion of bouncing balls, vibrating strings, and falling bodies in a manner consistent with Newtonian physics. He says that in the absence of resistive forces that will corrupt momentum, an object will continue in motion forever.

The Buridan quote above is from Edward Grant’s Source Book in Medieval Science p. 276-277. Weinberg cites the Source Book twice in that chapter, but not regarding Buridan. Regarding Buridan he cites the Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

Buridan is not the only instance of Weinberg getting things wrong. He says a number of weird things about the appearance of stars, mostly because he insists on discussing the stars in modern terms of brightness, rather than of size as they were traditionally viewed. He tries to explain the term magnitude (p. 88), never drawing the connection to size. This creates problems in a number of places, most notably when he wonders how Copernicus could speak of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars all being seen to be circular in shape — “how could [Copernicus] know anything about the shape of the stars?” Weinberg asks (p. 155; I wonder how he thought Copernicus might know anything about the shape of the planets?). The answer is found by looking at the sky with good eyes. Then one sees that Copernicus (like Ptolemy and Tycho and many others) was right and that all these bodies do appear round to the eye. They appear as little round dots — the more prominent ones look like larger round dots, the less prominent like smaller round dots. Thus the term magnitude — size — and thus Copernicus’s comments.

There are other examples of, if not errors, at least odd phrasing:

  • Weinberg tries (p. 58) to distinguish a gnomon (“simply a vertical pole, placed in a level patch of ground open to the Sun’s rays”) from a sundial (“different from a gnomon; its pole is parallel to the Earth’s axis rather than to the vertical direction, so that its shadow at a given hour is in the same direction every day. This makes a sundial more useful as a clock, but useless as a calendar.”). But all shadows fall in the same direction at a given hour, and so both the vertical pole and the sundial pole can be used to keep time; and all shadows vary in length with the seasons, and so both can be used to mark the time of year.
  • He cites Newton as noting that “the observed phases of the five planets other than Earth show that they revolve around the Sun [p. 237]”, but Jupiter and Saturn show no observable phases, and Mars only shows a gibbous phase consistent with it having a certain position relative to Sun and Earth. Only the phases of Venus and Mercury prove their motions around the Sun. Newton did talk about phases of all five planets (in his Phenomena), but Weinberg’s phrasing is odd.
  • He says the Inquisition gave a public formal order censoring Copernican books (p. 184), but according to Maurice Finocchiaro, the historian who translated and published the relevant documents, the Inquisition took no formal action; it was the Congregation for the Index (which Weinberg does mention elsewhere) that issued the censoring order.
  • Weinberg states that Kepler made a case for heliocentrism “based on mathematical simplicity and coherence, not on its better agreement with observations [p. 172]”, but Kepler seems to indicate otherwise. “It behoves us,” Kepler wrote, “to whom by divine benevolence such a very careful observer as Tycho Brahe has been given, in whose observations an error of 8′ of Ptolemy’s computation could be disclosed, to recognize this boon of God with thankful mind and use it by exerting ourselves in working out the true form of celestial motions….”

Almost all the errors/oddities that I have pointed out here could have been fixed with relatively little effort, and without substantially changing the book. I have read complaints from historians concerning Weinberg writing about history as a non-historian, and in particular writing as a scientist who judges the past by his own standards as a scientist of today (see Steven Shapin’s review in the Wall Street Journal; there was an editorial about this in Physics in Perspective). In my opinion, Weinberg is clear about his approach, often stating “I think this” or “I don’t think that”. An example is found in his discussion of Descartes, where he both praises Descartes (“This was Descartes at his best as a scientist [p. 209]”) and criticizes him (“The writings of Descartes on scientific method have attracted much attention among philosophers, but I don’t think they have had much positive influence on the practice of scientific research…. [p. 213]”). I have no complaint with what Weinberg is doing. His position is clear. The reader can consider accordingly. But Weinberg is obligated to get the historical facts right.


Weinberg peppers To Explain the World with comments related to philosophy and religion, some of which are problematic. For instance, at one point Weinberg writes “whatever the final laws of nature may be, there is no reason to suppose that they are designed to make physicists happy [p. 165]”. But then later we find, “We learn how to do science, not by making rules about how to do science, but from the experience of doing science, driven by desire for the pleasure we get when our methods succeed in explaining something [p. 214].” And so apparently science exists because indeed the laws of nature are designed to make physicists happy — a sentiment Weinberg repeats elsewhere (p. 248, 255).

Weinberg also writes, “Modern science is impersonal…; it has no sense of purpose; and it offers no hope for certainty…. We learn not to worry about purpose…. We learn to abandon the search for certainty [p. 254-255]”. But then later we find, “…the Standard Model provides a remarkably unified view of all types of matter and force (except for gravitation) that we encounter in our laboratories, in a set of equations that can fit on a single sheet of paper. We can be certain that the Standard Model will appear as at least an approximate feature of any better future theory [p. 264].” And so apparently there is hope for certainty after all.

Such contradictions arise because Weinberg juxtaposes an insistence on purposelessness with an insistence that science is purposeful and inevitable because it uncovers a beautiful (i.e. makes physicists happy) reality, or at least it approaches that reality over time (p. 252, 254, 268). He describes the Standard Model (p. 264-265) as impersonal, lacking element of purpose, not being deduced from mathematics or philosophical preconceptions, and not following straightforwardly from observation of nature, yet he then states that it is a product of guesswork and aesthetic judgment, validated by its successes. Is there nothing personal, purposeful, and philosophically preconceived in aesthetic judgment? In closing the last chapter Weinberg writes, “Still, we have come a long way on this path, and are not yet at its end…. It is toward a more fundamental physical theory that the wide-ranging scientific principles we discover have been, and are being, reduced [p. 268]”. Is there nothing personal, purposeful, and hope-filled about being on a path, moving toward some fundamental end but not yet being there? The point here is not to argue for purpose in science or for a nature designed to make physicists happy, but to illustrate the contradictions in Weinberg’s philosophical musings.

Unfortunately, where Weinberg is more consistent in his philosophizing is on religion, and there he does a disservice to science. To Explain the World is not especially hard on religion as these things go, but Weinberg does insert comments that seem religion-unfriendly, and entirely disposable. There is a comment about the Copernican “demotion of earth” (p. 156) being a problem for all religions; a comment about the works of Descartes being placed on the Index of books forbidden to Roman Catholics (p. 213); a comment about how even if Galileo had been mistaken it would still have been wrong for the church to sentence him to imprisonment and deny his right to publish, just as it was wrong to burn Giordano Bruno for being a heretic (p. 187-188).

Each of these are isolated remarks that do not tie in with the rest of the text, and each can be debated. Kepler thought the Copernican system actually elevated Earth’s position up from the sump of the universe. As for the church being wrong about censorship and treatment of Galileo, well, Weinberg is clear on judging the past by the standards of today, and no, we do not do such things today. But he is selecting what to judge. It was also wrong to execute people for who-knows-what crime and to stick their heads on pikes by the dozen on the town bridge for everyone and their toddler to see, as was done at the time, and we do not do such things today. Yes, some church people in the seventeenth century behaved like ogres. But at that time a lot of other people behaved like ogres in many ways, too. To insert comments about these ogres but not those ogres is to select your data points, and, as judged by the standards of the modern scientist, that is poor practice.


Impaled heads on the south gate of London Bridge, 

from Claes Visscher’s Panorama of London in 1616.

This selecting of data points extends more deeply than just throwaway comments. Weinberg’s discussion of figures such as Kepler, Boyle, and Newton omits just how large religion loomed in their thinking. The Kepler discussion is the most egregious example of this (Weinberg does include some references to religion regarding Boyle and Newton). Kepler was an astronomer who wrote about how he originally wanted to be a theologian but how he was able to glorify God through astronomy; who saw the Holy Trinity reflected in the Copernican universe, with the Sun representing God the Father and thus properly placed at the focus of elliptical orbits; whose Mysterium Cosmographicum (which Weinberg discusses) was an effort to uncover the mathematical rationale God used in building the solar system. But none of this is in To Explain the World. Weinberg portrays Kepler as simply a Platonist who applied to historical accidents an interest in mathematical oddities (p. 163-164). Perhaps most annoying is the following Kepler quote, which Weinberg includes (p. 179) to illustrate how Kepler challenged opponents of Copernicus:

Advice for Idiots. But whoever is too stupid to understand astronomical science, or too weak to believe Copernicus without affecting his faith, I would advise him that, having dismissed astronomical studies, and having damned whatever philosophical opinions he pleases, he mind his own business and betake himself home to scratch in his own dirt patch, abandoning this wandering about the world.

Now look at Kepler’s words in a larger context:

So everything the psalmodist said of the world relates to living things. He tells nothing that is not generally acknowledged, because his purpose was to praise things that are known, not to seek out the unknown. It was his wish to invite men to consider the benefits accruing to them from each of these works of the six days.

I, too, implore my reader, when he departs from the temple and enters astronomical studies, not to forget the divine goodness conferred upon men, to the consideration of which the psalmodist chiefly invites. I hope that, with me, he will praise and celebrate the Creator’s wisdom and greatness, which I unfold for him in the more perspicacious explanation of the world’s form, the investigation of causes, and the detection of errors of vision. Let him not only extol the Creator’s divine beneficence in His concern for the well-being of all living things, expressed in the firmness and stability of the Earth, but also acknowledge His wisdom expressed in its motion, at once so well hidden and so admirable.

But whoever is too stupid to understand astronomical science, or too weak to believe Copernicus without affecting his faith, I would advise him that, having dismissed astronomical studies and having damned whatever philosophical opinions he pleases, he mind his own business and betake himself home to scratch in his own dirt patch, abandoning this wandering about the world. He should raise his eyes (his only means of vision) to this visible heaven and with his whole heart burst forth in giving thanks and praising God the Creator. He can be sure that he worships God no less than the astronomer, to whom God has granted the more penetrating vision of the mind’s eye, and an ability and desire to celebrate his God above those things he has discovered.

To talk about Kepler as a Platonist while leaving out this aspect of Kepler is to select the data points. (Note — “Advice to Idiots” is a marginal note in Kepler’s book, not part of the text itself.)

My real job is to be a community college professor — to, ahem, Bring Science to The Community — and I absolutely hate the sort of thing Weinberg is doing. Not only is selecting the data not in the spirit of science, it does a disservice to science in general, and makes my job harder in particular. Why? Because Weinberg is in the USA (Texas, specifically), and here in the USA (especially Texas) we have many flare-ups over religion, science, school textbooks, and the like. See the March issue of National Geographic, whose cover story is “The War on Science” for a recap. I experience this issue directly with a number of my students. Weinberg, by choosing to highlight books on the Index or the troubles of Galileo, while being silent on the deep religious motivations of people like Kepler, skews the story of science in such a way as to add fuel to those flare-ups, when he could instead help to cool them down (he is not alone in this regard). Kepler is obviously a possible point of connection between “science people” and “religion people”. It is in science’s interest to emphasize such points of connection, as science is not winning in “The War on Science”. We need what allies (or at least non-enemies) we can get. Science needs prominent writers like Weinberg to talk up Kepler’s religion just as much as they talk up the Inquisition. Weinberg’s philosophy comments and selecting the data points on religion is a missed opportunity for science.

Read it — but with eyes open

The problems with facts and philosophizing are significant in To Explain the World, but they will not prevent its readers from learning a good deal about science and its long history. Indeed, the amount of history touched upon is at times itself a drawback. Chapter 9 on Arab scientists is a particular example of this. Here Weinberg introduces one scientist after another — in two pages of text (p. 110-111) we meet, and leave, Omar Khayyam, Ibn Sahl, Jabir ibn Hayyan, al-Kindi, al-Razi, and Ibn Sina. But, most readers probably know nothing about any of these scientists, and after finishing the book they will know something. And, the problems with facts and philosophizing will not prevent readers from picking up some technical details on physics and mathematics — although those readers should be aware that Weinberg occasionally includes mathematical material that many readers will not follow. For example, his discussion of the derivative, which includes invoking the idea that squares and cubes of small terms can be neglected (p. 223), will likely be useless to readers not already familiar with that material. The readers can just wade through and continue on, knowing they will likely learn something about the derivative no matter what. The problem regarding technical material is not aided by the absence of any illustrations in the main text, where they are often needed — where Weinberg describes Kepler’s nesting of Platonic solids, for instance (p. 162).

The problems with Weinberg’s book will not prevent readers from learning a good deal about science and its history, and will not prevent them from getting a scientist’s perspective on this subject. Read To Explain the World. Just keep your eyes open for its problems.


Filed under Book Reviews

Teaching the Revolution.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Millevolte, p. iv

[3] Millevolte, p. 294

[4] Millevolte, p. v

[5] Millevolte, p. 270


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Uncategorized

From astronomy to literature – Bridging the gap

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


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

Mercury Venus

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


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

Mud moulded ball

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

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




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


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

Retelling a story – this time with all the facts

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

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

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

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


Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne Source Wikimedia

Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne
Source Wikimedia

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


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

Finding Longitude001

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

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

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

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


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

A little learning is a dangerous thing

“A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: 

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again. 

Fired at first sight with what the muse imparts,

In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts 

While from the bounded level of our mind 

Short views we take nor see the lengths behind 

But more advanced behold with strange surprise,

New distant scenes of endless science rise!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Science in Antiquity: A book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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