Category Archives: History of Astrology

A multi-functional book for a multi-functional instrument

Probably the most talked about astronomical instrument in recent years is the so-called Antikythera Mechanism, several corroded chunks of bronze gear work found in the sea of the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera at the end of the nineteenth century.


The Antikythera mechanism (Fragment A – front); visible is the largest gear in the mechanism, approximately 140 millimetres (5.5 in) in diameter Source: Wikimedia Commons

Historian of ancient astronomy, Alexander Jones, who was a member of one of the teams investigating and interpreting the mechanism, has now written a book about it, A Portable Cosmos.[1]


I say that he has written a book but in fact it is really several books in one. The first two chapters deal with the story of the original discovery and recovery of the mechanism. They also sketch the history of the succession of investigations and interpretations of the mechanism that have taken place between its discovery and the present. The longest section of the book deals with a detailed description of the external aspects of the mechanism, its dials, scales and pointers. The penultimate chapter is an examination of the physical aspects of the mechanism, its gears and gear shafts. The final chapter, an afterword, is titled The Meaning of the Mechanism. For me, the most fascinating element of the book is that Jones in his explanations of the functions of the dials and pointers delivers up a comprehensive introduction to the histories of astronomy, astrology and cosmology of ancient Babylon and Greece, in fact I would rate it as the best such introduction that I have ever read.

Despite his very obviously high level command of the material Jones does not baffle with science but writes in a light and very accessible style and I for one found the book highly readable. Of interest is the fact that because large parts of the mechanism are missing and what is there is highly damaged there is not a general agreement under the experts, who have worked on the mechanism, about how to interpret the function or purpose of numerous aspects of it. Jones doesn’t just express his own well-informed and well-reasoned explanations but draws his readers’ attention to alternative suggestions and interpretations, explaining why he prefers his own chosen one. Having said this archaeoastronomer Doris Vickers, who recommended the book to me suggested also consulting the official Greek Antikythera Mechanism Research Project website, which has more information and other viewpoints to those of Jones.

The book has a very useful glossary of technical terms, endnotes (regular readers already know my views on endnotes contra footnotes), a comprehensive bibliography so you can read up on those interpretations that deviate from Jones’ and a good index.

To quote a cliché, if you only read one book on the Antikythera Mechanism, then it really should be this one. It kept me occupied and entertained during my recent four days in hospital and proved to be an excellent companion for that period and I would whole heartedly recommended for happier circumstances as well.

[1] Alexander Jones, A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World, OUP, Oxford, 2007


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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Technology, Uncategorized

Who cares about facts? – Make up your own, it’s much more fun!

Math Horizons is a magazine published by Taylor & Francis for the Mathematical Association of America aimed at undergraduates interested in mathematics: It publishes expository articles about “beautiful mathematics” as well as articles about the culture of mathematics covering mathematical people, institutions, humor, games, cartoons, and book reviews. (Description taken from Wikipedia, which attributes it to the Math Horizons instructions for authors January 3 2009). Apparently, however, authors are not expected to adhere to historical facts, they can, it seems, make up any old crap.

The latest edition of Math Horizons (Volume 25, Issue 3, February 2018) contains an article by a Stephen Luecking entitled Albrecht Dürer’s Celestial Geometry. As I am currently, for other reasons, refreshing my knowledge of Albrecht the mathematician I thought, oh that looks interesting I must read that. I wish I hadn’t.

Luecking’s sub-title seems innocent enough: Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer designed a specialty compass for astronomical drawings, but when you read the article you discover that Luecking says an awful lot more and most of it is hogwash. What does he have to say?


Albrecht Dürer Self-Portrait 1500 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), noted Renaissance printer and painter, twice left his native Germany for sojourns to Italy, once from 1494 to 1495 and again from 1505 to 1507. During those years his wide-ranging intellect absorbed the culture and thinking of noted artists and mathematicians. Perhaps the most important
 outcome of these journeys was his
introduction to scientific methods. 
His embrace of these methods
 went on to condition his thinking 
for the rest of his life. 

So far so good. However what Dürer absorbed on those journeys to Italy was not scientific methods but linear perspective, the mathematical method, developed in Northern Italy in the fifteenth century, to enable artists to represent three dimensional reality realistically in a two dimensional picture. Dürer played a significant role in distributing these mathematical techniques in Europe north of the Alps. His obsession with mathematics in art led to him developing the theory that the secret of beauty lay in mathematical proportion to which de devoted a large part of the rest of his life. He published the results of his endeavours in his four-volume book on human proportions, Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion, in the year of his death, 1528.


Title page of Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion showing the monogram signature of artist Source: Wikimedia Commons

If Dürer wanted to learn scientific methods, by which, as we will see Luecking means astronomy, he could and probably did learn them at home in Nürnberg. Dürer was part of the humanist circle of Willibald Pirckheimer, he close friend and patron.


Engraving of Willibald Pirckheimer at 53 by Albrecht Dürer, 1524. We live by the spirit. The rest belongs to death. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Franconian houses are built around a courtyard; Dürer was born in the rear building of the Pirckheimer house on the market square in Nürnberg. Although his parents bought their own house a few years later Albrecht and Willibald remained close friends and possibly even lovers all of their lives. Pirckheimer was a big supporter of the mathematical sciences—astronomy, mathematics, cartography and astrology—and his circle included, amongst others, Johannes Stabius, Johannes Werner, Erhard Etzlaub, Georg Hartmann, Konrad Heinfogel and Johannes Schöner all of whom were either astronomers, mathematicians, cartographers, instrument makers or globe makers some of them all five and all of them friends of Dürer.

Next up Luecking tells us:

One notable
consequence was Dürer’s abandonment of astrological subject
matter—a big seller for a printer
and publisher such as himself—in favor of astronomy.


Albrecht Dürer Syphilis 1496 Syphilis was believed to have an astrological cause Source: Wikimedia Commons

Luecking offers no evidence or references for this claim, so I could offer none in saying that it is total rubbish, which it is. However I will give one example that shows that Albrecht Dürer was still interested in astrology in 1517. Lorenz Beheim (1457–1521) was a humanist, astrologer, physician and alchemist, who was a canon of the foundation of the St Stephan Church in Bamberg, he was a close friend of both Pirckheimer and Dürer and corresponded regularly with Pirckheimer. In a letter from 8 December 1517 he informed Pirckheimer that Johannes Schöner was coming to Nürnberg with printed celestial globes that could be used for astrology, which if his wished could be acquired by him and Albrecht Dürer. He would not have passed on the information if he thought that they wouldn’t be interested. Beheim also cast horoscopes for both Pirckheimer and Dürer.


Gores for Johannes Schöner’s Celestial Globe 1517  Source: Hans Gaab, Die Sterne Über Nürnberg: Albrecht Dürer und seine Himmelskarten von 1515, Nürnberger Astronomische Gesellschaft, Michael Imhof Verlag, 2015 p. 115


Next up Luecking starts, as he means to go on, with pure poppycock. All of the above Nürnberger mathematician, who all played significant roles in Dürer’s life, were of course practicing astrologers.

Astronomy was not to be a casual interest. Just before his second trip to Italy, Dürer published De scientia motus orbis, a cosmological treatise by the Persian Jewish astronomer Masha’Allah ibn Atharī (ca. 740–815 CE). Since Masha’Allah wrote the treatise for laymen and included ample illustrations, it was a good choice for introducing Europeans to Arabic astronomy.

The claim that Dürer published Masha’Allah’s De scientia motus orbis is so mind bogglingly wrong anybody with any knowledge of the subject would immediately stop reading the article, as it is obviously a complete waste of time and effort. The book was actually edited and published by Johannes Stabius and printed by Weissenburger in Nürnberg in 1504.

The woodcut illustrations came from the workshop of Albrecht Dürer, but probably not from Dürer himself. There were traditionally attributed to Hans Süß von Kulmbach (1480–1522), one of Dürer’s assistants, who went on to become a successful painter in his own right, but modern research has shown that Süß didn’t move to Nürnberg until 1505, a year after the book was published.


Hans Süß portrait  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although Luecking wants Masha’Allah to be an astronomer he was in fact a very famous astrologer, who amongst other things cast the horoscope for the founding of Bagdad. De scientia motus orbis is indeed a book on Aristotelian cosmology and physics but it includes his theory that there are ten heavenly spheres not eight as claimed by Aristotle. His extra heavenly spheres play a significant role in his astrological theories. It is very common practice for astrologers, starting with Ptolemaeus, to publish their astronomy and astrology in separate books but they are seen as complimentary volumes. From their beginnings in ancient Babylon down to the middle of the seventeenth century astronomy and astrology were always seen as two sides of the same coin.


Title page De scientia motus orbis Although this woodcut is usually titled The Astronomer I personally think the figure looks more like an astrologer Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1509 Dürer purchased the entire library of Regiomontanus (1436–1476 CE) from the estate of Nuremberg businessman Bernhard Walther. Regiomontanus was Europe’s leading astronomer,
a noted mathematician, and a designer of astronomical instruments. Walther had sponsored Regiomontanus’s residency in Nuremberg between 1471 and 1475. Part of Walther’s largesse was to provide a print shop from which Regiomontanus published the world’s first scientific texts ever printed.

Regiomontanus was of course first and foremost an astrologer and most of those first scientific texts that he published in Nürnberg were astrological texts. Walther did not sponsor Regiomontanus’ residency in Nürnberg but was his colleague and student in his endeavours in the city. An analysis of Walther’s astronomical observation activities in Nürnberg after Regiomontanus’ death show that he too was an astrologer rather than an astronomer. When Regiomontanus came to Nürnberg he brought a very large number of manuscripts with him, intending to edit and publish them. When he died these passed into Walther’s possession, who added new books and manuscripts to the collection. The story of what happened to this scientific treasure when Walther died in 1504 is long and very complicated. In fact Dürer bought not “the entire library” but a mere ten manuscripts not when he bought Walther’s house, the famous Albrecht Dürer House, in 1509 but first in 1522.

In 1515, Dürer and Austrian cartographer and mathematician Johannes Stabius produced the first map of the world portraying the earth as a sphere.


Johannes Statius portrait by Albrecht Dürer Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Stabius-Dürer world map was not “the first map of the world portraying the earth as a sphere”. The earliest know printed world map portraying the earth as a sphere is a woodcut in a Buchlein über die Kunst Corsmographia, (Booklet about the Art of Cosmographia) published in Nürnberg in about 1490. There are others that predate the Stabius-Dürer map most notably on the title page of Waldseemüller’s Die Welt Kugel (The Earth Sphere) published in Straßburg in 1509.

There are no surviving copies of the Stabius-Dürer world map from the sixteenth century so we don’t actually know what it was produced for. The woodblocks survived and were rediscovered in the 18th century.

It is however dedicated to both the Emperor Maximilian, Stabius’s employer who granted the printing licence, and Cardinal Matthäus Lang, so it might well have been commissioned by the latter. Lang commissioned the account of Magellan’s circumnavigation on which Schöner based his world map of that circumnavigation.

Afterward, Stabius proposed continuing their collaboration by publishing a star map—the first such map published in Europe. Their work relied heavily on data assembled by Regiomontanus, plus refinements from Walther.

It will probably not surprise you to discover that this was not “the first such map published in Europe. It’s the first printed one but there are earlier manuscript ones, two of which from 1435 in Vienna and 1503 in Nürnberg probably served as models for the Stabius–Dürer–Heinfogel one. Their work did not rely “heavily on data assembled by Regiomontanus, plus refinements from Walther” but was based on Ptolemaeus’ star catalogue from the Almagest. There is a historical problem in that there was not printed copy of that star catalogue available at the time so they probably work from one or more manuscripts and we don’t know which one(s). The star map contains the same dedications to Maximilian and Lang as the world map so one again might have been a commission from Lang, Stabius acting as the commissioning agent. Stabius and Lang studied together at the University of Ingolstadt.


Stabs-Dürer-Heinfogel Star Map Northern Hemisphere Source: Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales

For more details on the star maps go here

The star map required imprinting the three- dimensional dome of the heavens onto a two- dimensional surface without extreme distortions, a task that fell to Stabius. He used a stereographic projection. In this method, rays originate at the pole in the opposite hemisphere, pass through a given point in the hemisphere, and yield a point on a circular surface.

You will note that I have included the name of Konrad Heinfogel to the producers of the map and it was actually he, and not Stabius, who was responsible for the projection of the map and the location of the individual stars. In fact in this project Johannes Stabius as commissioning agent was project leader, Konrad Heinfogel was the astronomical expert and Albrecht Dürer was the graphic artist hired to draw the illustration. Does one really have to point out that in the sixteenth century star maps were as much, if not more, for astrologers than for astronomers.

Luecking now goes off on an excurse about the history of stereographic projection, which ends with the following paragraph.

As the son of a goldsmith, Dürer’s exposure to stereographic projection would have been by way of the many astrolabes being fabricated in Nuremburg, then Europe’s major center for instrument makers. As the 16th century moved on, the market grew for such scientific objects as astrology slipped into astronomy. Handcrafted brass instruments, however, were affordable only to the wealthy, whereas printed items like the Dürer-Stabius maps reached a wider market.

Nürnberg was indeed the major European centre for the manufacture of scientific instruments during Dürer’s lifetime but scientific instrument makers and goldsmiths are two distinct professional groups, so Luecking’s argument falls rather flat, although of course Dürer would have well acquainted with the astrolabes made by his mathematical friends. Astrolabes are of course both astrological and astronomical instruments and astrology did not slip into astronomy during the 16th century. In fact the 16th century is regarded by historians as the golden age of astrology.

There now follows another excurse on the epicycle-deferent model of planetary orbits as a lead up to the articles thrilling conclusion.

In his 1525 book Die Messerung (On Measurement), Dürer presents an instrument of his own design used to draw these and other more general curves. This compass for drawing circles upon circles consisted of four telescoping arms and calibrated dials. An arm attached to the first dial could rotate in a full circle, a second arm fixed to another dial mounted on the end of this first arm could rotate around the end of the first arm, and so on.


Dürer’s four arm compass


Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirkel und Richtscheyt Title Page

The title of Dürer’ 1525 book is actually Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt (Instructions for Measuring with Compass and Straightedge). It is a basic introduction to geometry and its applications, which Dürer wrote when he realised that his Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion was too advanced for the artist apprentices that he thought should read it. The idea was first read and digest the Underweysung then read the Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion.

Luecking tells us that:

As a trained metalsmith, Dürer possessed the expertise to craft this complex tool. Precision calibration and adjustable arms allowed its user to plot an endless number of curves by setting the length of each telescoping arm and determining the rate at which the arms turned. This, in effect, constituted manual programming by setting the parameters of each curve plotted.

As a teenager Dürer did indeed serve an apprenticeship under his father as a goldsmith, but immediately on completing that apprenticeship he undertook a second apprenticeship as a painter with Michael Wolgemut from 1486 to 1490 and dedicated his life to painting and fine art printing. Luecking has already correctly stated that Nürnberg was the major European centre for scientific instrument making and Dürer almost certainly got one of those instrument makers to produce his multi-armed compass. Luecking describes the use to which Dürer put this instrument in drawing complex geometrical curves. He then goes on to claim that Dürer might actually have constructed it to draw the looping planetary orbits produced by the epicycle-deferent model. There is absolutely no evidence for this in the Underweysung and Luecking’s speculation is simple pulled out of thin air.

To summarise for those at the back who haven’t been paying attention. Dürer did not absorb scientific methods in Italy. He did not abandon astrology for astronomy. He didn’t publish Masha’Allah’s De scientia motus orbis, Johannes Stabius did. Dürer only bought ten of Regiomontanus’ manuscripts and not his entire library. The Stabius-Dürer world map was not “the first map of the world portraying the earth as a sphere”. The Stabius–Dürer–Heinfogel star charts were the first star-charts printed in Europe but by no means the first ones published. Star charts are as much astrological, as they are astronomical. Astrology did not slip into astronomy in the 16th century, which was rather the golden age of astrology. There is absolutely no evidence that Dürer’s multi-arm compass, as illustrated in his geometry book the Underweysung, was ever conceived for drawing the looping orbits of epicycle-deferent planetary models, let alone used for this purpose.

It comes as no surprise that Stephen Luecking is not a historian of mathematics or art for that matter. He is the aged (83), retired chairman of the art department of DePaul University in Chicago.

Whenever I come across an article as terrible as this one published by a leading scientific publisher in a journal from a major mathematical organisation such as the MAA I cringe. I ask myself if the commissioning editor even bothered to read the article; it was certainly not put out to peer review, as any knowledgeable Dürer expert would have projected it in an elegant geometrical curve into his trashcan. Above all I worry about the innocent undergraduates who are subjected to this absolute crap.


















Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, Renaissance Science

Conversations in a sixteenth century prison cell

Science writer Michael Brooks has thought up a delightful conceit for his latest book.* The narrative takes place in a sixteenth century prison cell in Bologna in the form of a conversation between a twenty-first century quantum physicist (the author) and a Renaissance polymath. What makes this conversation particularly spicy is that the Renaissance polymath is physician, biologist, chemist, mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, philosopher, inventor, writer, auto-biographer, gambler and scoundrel Girolamo Cardano, although Brooks calls him by the English translation of his name Jerome. In case anybody is wondering why I listed autobiographer separately after writer, it is because Jerome was a pioneer in the field writing what is probably the first autobiography by a mathematician/astronomer/etc. in the Early Modern Period.


Portrait of Cardano on display at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews. Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what do our unlikely pair talk about? We gets fragments of conversation about Jerome’s current situation; a broken old man rotting away the end of his more than extraordinary life in a prison cell with very little chance of reprieve. This leads to the visitor from the future, relating episodes out of that extraordinary life. The visitor also picks up some of Jerome’s seemingly more strange beliefs and relates them to some of the equally, seemingly strange phenomena of quantum mechanics. But why should anyone link the misadventures of an, albeit brilliant, Renaissance miscreant to quantum mechanics. Because our author sees Jerome the mathematician, and he was a brilliant one, as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather of quantum mechanics!


As most people know quantum mechanics is largely non-deterministic in the conventional sense and relies heavily on probability theory for its results. Jerome wrote the first mathematical tome on probability theory, a field he entered because of his professional gambling activities. He even included a section about how to cheat at cards. I said he was a scoundrel. The other thing turns up in his Ars Magna (printed and published by Johannes Petreius the publisher of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in Nürnberg and often called, by maths historians, the first modern maths book); he was the first person to calculate with so-called imaginary numbers. That’s numbers using ‘i’ the square root of minus one. Jerome didn’t call it ‘i’ or the numbers imaginary, in fact he didn’t like them very much but realised one could use them when determining the roots of cubic equation, so, holding his nose, that is exactly what he did. Like probability theory ‘i’ plays a very major role in quantum mechanics.

What Michael Brooks offers up for his readers is a mixture of history of Renaissance science together with an explanation of many of the weird phenomena and explanations of those phenomena in quantum mechanics. A heady brew but it works; in fact it works wonderfully.

This is not really a history of science book or a modern physics science communications volume but it’s a bit of both served up as science entertainment for the science interested reader, lay or professional. Michael Brooks has a light touch, spiced with some irony and a twinkle in his eyes and he has produced a fine piece of science writing in a pocket-sized book just right for that long train journey, that boring intercontinental flight or for the week in hospital that this reviewer used to read it. If this was a five star reviewing system I would be tempted to give it six.

*  Michael Brooks, The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook, Scribe, Melbourne & London, 2017


Filed under Book Reviews, Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Physics, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

Really! – Did the artist have a Tardis?

Those who read the occasional bursts of autobiographical information that appear here on the blog might be aware that I went to university at the tender age of eighteen as an archaeology student. I actually dropped out after one year but continued to work as a professional field archaeologist (that’s a digger to you mate) for several years. Given that I was already interested in the history of astronomy in those days and would eventually abandon archaeology for it, it would seem logical that I would be interested in archaeoastronomy, in particular because I studied under Richard Atkinson who together with Stuart Piggott carried out the first extensive, modern excavation of Stonehenge, the world’s most famous archaeoastronomical monument, in the 1950s. In fact my father also worked on that excavation. This assumption would be correct with reservations. There has been some excellent work in archaeoastronomy but unfortunately there has also been a large amount of highly dubious speculation on the topic.

In my opinion an example of the latter appeared in articles in The Guardian and on the Hyperallergic website a couple of days ago. The Guardian article was entitled, Two suns? No, it’s a supernova drawn 6,000 years ago, say scientists. This article tells us:

For decades, stone carvings unearthed in the Himalayan territory of Kashmir were thought to depict a hunting scene. But the presence of two celestial objects in the drawings has piqued the interest of a group of Indian astronomers.


Source: The Guardian

They have proposed another theory. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of History of Science, the Kashmir rock drawings may be the oldest depiction of a supernova, the final explosion of a dying star, ever discovered.

 “Our first argument was, there cannot be two suns,” Vahia said. “We thought it must have been an object that appeared and attracted the attention of the artists.”

 They settled on Supernova HB9, a star that exploded around 4,600BC.

Rewinding the map of the sky back that far revealed more clues.

Viewed from Kashmir, the supernova would have occurred somewhere near the Orion constellation. “Which is known as the scene of a hunter,” said Vahia.

“The supernova also went off just above the constellation of Taurus, the bull, which is also seen in the drawing,” Vahia added.


Source: The Guardian

So to summarise a group of astrophysicists decide that the rock drawing depicts a supernova from around 4,600 BCE that was visible in the sky in the area of the constellations Orion the hunter and Taurus the bull, which according to the researchers are also depicted in the drawing. It is by the latter claim that my bullshit detectors went off at full volume. I will explain.

The chosen supernova occurred in 4600 BCE, now I’m not an expert on prehistoric Indian asterisms, I don’t even know anybody who is, but I do know something about the Babylonian and ancient Greek ones. Taurus is indeed one of the oldest known asterisms but the earliest known mention of a bull asterism is in the Sumerian record, the Heaven’s Bull, in the third millennium BCE, that’s a couple of thousand years after the chosen supernova. Even worse it is not known whether the Sumerian asterism is the same one as the later Babylonian/Greek asterism Taurus. With Orion we have even more problems. The Sumerian asterism involving the stars of Orion was a sheep. For the ancient Egyptians the stars depicted their god Osiris. It was first the Greeks who created the asterism Orion although some mythologists see Orion as a representation of the Sumerian King Gilgamesh, who also fought a bull. This is of course highly speculative.

So we have astrophysicists identifying a rock drawing in India that is dated to the fifth millennium BCE with the constellations of Orion fighting Taurus, asterisms which don’t appear to have been identified till several thousand years later. Excuse me if I am somewhat sceptical about this identification. Just as a minor point I don’t think that the animal in the drawing actually looks like a bull, more like a stag in my opinion.






Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

Christmas Trilogy 2017 Part 3: Kepler’s big book

Johannes Kepler was incredibly prolific, he published over eighty books and booklets over a very wide range of scientific and mathematical topics during his life. As far as he was concerned his magnum opus was his Ioannis Keppleri Harmonices mundi libri V (The Five Books of Johannes Kepler’s The Harmony of the World) published in 1619 some twenty years after he first conceived it. Today in popular #histsci it is almost always only mentioned for the fact that it contains the third of his laws of planetary motion, the harmonic law. However it contains much, much more of interest and in what follows I will attempt to give a brief sketch of what is in fact an extraordinary book.


A brief glace at the description of the ‘five books’ thoughtfully provided by the author on the title page (1) would seem to present a mixed bag of topics apparently in some way connected by the word or concept harmonic. In order to understand what we are being presented with we have to go back to 1596 and Kepler’s first book Mysterium Cosmographicum (The Cosmographic Mystery). In this slim volume Kepler presents his answer to the question, why are there only six planets? His, to our eyes, surprising answer is that the spaces between the planets are defined by the regular so-called Platonic solids and as the are, and can only be, five of these there can only be six planets.

Using the data from the greatest and least distances between the planets in the Copernican system, Kepler’s theory produces an unexpectedly accurate fit. However the fit is not actually accurate enough and in 1598 Kepler began working on a subsidiary hypothesis to explain the inaccuracies. Unfortunately, the book that he had planned to bring out in 1599 got somewhat delayed by his other activities and obligations and didn’t appear until 1619 in the form of the Harmonice mundi.

The hypothesis that Kepler presents us with is a complex mix of ideas taken from Pythagoras, Plato, Euclid, Proclus and Ptolemaeus centred round the Pythagorean concept of the harmony of the spheres. Put very simply the theory developed by the Pythagoreans was that the seven planets (we are talking geocentric cosmology here) in their orbits form a musical scale than can, in some versions of the theory, only be heard by the enlightened members of the Pythagorean cult. This theory was developed out of the discovery that consonances (harmonious sounds) in music can be expressed in the ratio of simple whole numbers to each other (the octave for example is 1:2) and the Pythagorean belief that the integers are the building block of the cosmos.

This Pythagorean concept winds its way through European intellectual history, Ptolemaeus wrote a book on the subject, his Harmonice and it is the reason why music was one of the four disciplines of the mathematical quadrivium along with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. Tycho Brahe designed his Uraniburg so that all the architectonic dimensions from the main walls to the window frames were in Pythagorean harmonic proportion to one another.


Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg Blaeus Atlas Maior 1663 Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is also the reason why Isaac Newton decided that there should be seven colours in the rainbow, to match the seven notes of the musical scale. David Gregory tells us that Newton thought that gravity was the strings upon which the harmony of the spheres was played.

In his Harmony Kepler develops a whole new theory of harmony in order to rescue his geometrical vision of the cosmos. Unlike the Pythagoreans and Ptolemaeus who saw consonance as expressed by arithmetical ratios Kepler opted for a geometrical theory of consonance. He argued that consonances could only be constructed by ratios between the number of sides of regular polygons that can be constructed with a ruler and compass. The explication of this takes up the whole of the first book. I’m not going to go into details but interestingly, as part of his rejection of the number seven in his harmonic scheme Kepler goes to great lengths to show that the heptagon construction given by Dürer in his Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt is only an approximation and not an exact construction. This shows that Dürer’s book was still being read nearly a hundred years after it was originally published.


In book two Kepler takes up Proclus’ theory that Euclid’s Elements builds systematically towards the construction of the five regular or Platonic solids, which are, in Plato’s philosophy, the elemental building blocks of the cosmos. Along the way in his investigation of the regular and semi-regular polyhedra Kepler delivers the first systematic study of the thirteen semi-regular Archimedean solids as well as discovering the first two star polyhedra. These important mathematical advances don’t seem to have interested Kepler, who is too involved in his revolutionary harmonic theory to notice. In the first two books Kepler displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of the mathematical literature.


The third book is devoted to music theory proper and is Kepler’s contribution to a debate that was raging under music theorist, including Galileo’s father Vincenzo Galilei, about the intervals on the musical scale at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Galilei supported the so-called traditional Pythagorean intonation, whereas Kepler sided with Gioseffo Zarlino who favoured the ‘modern’ just intonation. Although of course Kepler justification for his stance where based on his geometrical arguments. Another later participant in this debate was Marin Mersenne.


In the fourth book Kepler extends his new theory of harmony to, amongst other things, his astrology and his theory of the astrological aspects. Astrological aspects are when two or more planets are positioned on the zodiac or ecliptic at a significant angle to each other, for example 60° or 90°. In his Harmonice, Ptolemaeus, who in the Renaissance was regarded as the prime astrological authority, had already drawn a connection between musical theory and the astrological aspects; here Kepler replaces Ptolemaeus’ theory with his own, which sees the aspects are being derived directly from geometrical constructions. Interestingly Kepler, who had written and published quite extensively on astrology, rejected nearly the whole of traditional Greek astrology as humbug keeping only his theory of the astrological aspects as the only valid form of astrology. Kepler’s theory extended the number of influential aspects from the traditional five to twelve.

The fifth book brings all of the preceding material together in Kepler’s astronomical/cosmological harmonic theory. Kepler examines all of the mathematical aspects of the planetary orbits looking for ratios that fit with his definitions of the musical intervals. He finally has success with the angular velocities of the planets in their orbits at perihelion and aphelion. He then examines the relationships between the tones thus generated by the different planets, constructing musical scales in the process. What he in missing in all of this is a grand unifying concept and this lacuna if filled by his harmonic law, his third law of planetary motion, P12/P22=R13/R23.


There is an appendix, which contains Kepler’s criticisms of part of Ptolemaeus’ Harmonice and Robert Fludd’s harmony theories. I blogged about the latter and the dispute that it triggered in an earlier post

With his book Kepler, who was a devoted Christian, was convinced that he had revealed the construction plan of his geometrical God’s cosmos. His grandiose theory became obsolete within less than fifty years of its publication, ironically pushed into obscurity by intellectual forces largely set into motion by Kepler in his Astronomia nova, his Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae and the Rudolphine Tables. All that has survived of his great project are his mathematical innovations in the first two books and the famous harmonic law. However if readers are prepared to put aside their modern perceptions and prejudices they can follow one of the great Renaissance minds on a fascinating intellectual journey into his vision of the cosmos.

(1) All of the illustration from the Harmonice mundi in this post are taken from the English translation The Harmy of the World by Johannes Kepler, Translated into English with an Introduction and Notes by E.J. Aston, A.M. Duncan and J.V. Field, American Philosophical Society, 1997


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

The Albrecht Dürer or should that be the Bernhard Walther House?

On Saturday I did my history of astronomy tour of Nürnberg for some readers of this blog who were visiting the city[1]. As usually it ended at Nürnberg’s biggest tourist attraction the Albrecht Dürer House. There are of course good reasons for including Nürnberg’s most famous artist in such a tour, as readers of this blog should know. He wrote and published the very first printed maths book in German and was the artist involved in creating the first every printed European star maps. However this is another reason for including this building in a history of astronomy tour. Before it became the Albrecht Dürer House it had been the Bernhard Walther House and this was one of the reasons that motivated Dürer to purchase it. But who, I hear you say, was Bernhard Walther?

Bernhard Walther (Albrecht Dürer) House on Tiergärtentor Nürnberg
Photo: Monica Weidemann
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Bernhard Walther was born in Memmingen in Bavaria in 1430. The first really reliable fact we have about his life is when he became a citizen of Nürnberg in 1467; remember Nürnberg was an independent city-state in the fifteenth century. He was the general manager of the Nürnberg trading post of the Memmingen merchant traders the Vöhlin-Welser-Company. When Regiomontanus came to Nürnberg in 1471, he and Walther became friends and Walther became his astronomical assistant and companion. The accounts that claim that Walther was Regiomontanus’ patron are false, as are also the claims that the two of them built an observatory financed by Walther. They carried out their astronomical observations with portable instruments out in the streets. As well as astronomy Walther apparently learnt Greek from Regiomontanus, who had learnt the language whilst a member of Cardinal Bessarion’s household in Italy. We know of Walther’s abilities in the ancient language because they are mentioned in an ode that Conrad Celtis, the so-called arch humanist, wrote in his honour.

Regiomontanus had come to Nürnberg, according to his own account, to reform astronomy in two ways; firstly by starting a new programme of astronomical observations to replace those of Ptolemaeus corrupted by centuries of copying and recopying in manuscripts and secondly by printing and publishing new editions of the astronomical literature cleared of their errors through careful philological editing. Regiomontanus had chosen Nürnberg for his programme because the city made the best scientific instruments and because of its extensive communications network being aware of the fact that his programme was only achievable with the active assistance of other European astronomers. In an age without postal services, Nürnberg, as a major European trading city, had a private communications system second only to that of Venice.

Walther assisted Regiomontanus in both of his reform endeavours but they had only succeeded in publishing nine items, including the publishing house’s ambitious publication programme, when Regiomontanus again left Nürnberg in the direction of Rome to answer the Pope’s call to work on a calendar reform in 1475. Regiomontanus never returned from that journey, dying in Rome in 1476, presumable during some sort of epidemic. Walther did not continue the publishing endeavour, although he bought up Regiomontanus extensive collection of manuscripts, but he did carry on making a series of basic simple astronomical observations for the next almost thirty years. This was the first such series of astronomical observations carried out in Early Modern Europe, making Walther to an important if minor figure in the history of astronomy.

As the general manager of the trading company Walther occupied a house on the West side of the market place in Nürnberg, today Market Place No. 11. The original hose was destroyed in the Second World War.

Walther’s trading depot was on the west side of the Nürnberg market place, next door to the right of where the Körn & Berg bookshop now stands.

When he finally retired, seventy years old, he sold the house on the market place and bought the house on Tiergärtentor (The Zoo Gate) in 1501, which is now known as the Albrecht Dürer House. Walther substantially rebuilt the house adding the whole of what is now the top floor. He also had a small window let into the south gable with a stone window ledge; he used this window to make his astronomical observations resting his observing instruments on that stone ledge, this was his observatory. We know that Walther had this window constructed because in the document with which the city council gave permission for its construction, Walther had to give a guarantee that he wouldn’t empty his chamber pot out on to the roof of the neighbouring building.

Walther House with Observatory Window in the south gable
Photo: Nora Reim
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Walther’s observation programme was comparatively simple and consisted largely of regularly determining the altitude of the Sun, observing eclipses and determining the positions of the planets during conjunctions etc. The latter set of observations leads to the assumption that the observations were principally for use by astrologers. This is not surprising as Regiomontanus was a practicing astrologer, with a very good reputation, whose stated intention in reforming astronomy was in order to improve astrological predictions. He claimed that such predictions were often wrong because the astronomical data on which they were based was inaccurate. Three of Walther’s observations found their way into Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, although we don’t know how they got there. Copernicus falsely attributes part of the used data to Johannes Schöner. In 1544 Schöner did publish Regiomontanus’ and Walther’s observations in his Scripta clarissimi Mathematici M. Joannis Regiomontani. Walther’s observation were, for their time, highly accurate only to be first superceded by those of Tycho Brahe at the end of the century.

Another little known Nürnberg astronomer, Conrad Heinfogel, referred to himself as a pupil of Bernard Walther and it was Heinfogel who provided the astronomical knowledge for Dürer’s star maps.

Largely forgotten today Walther was well known and highly regarded by his contemporaries and the astronomical community down to Tycho and Kepler, Tycho using Walther’s observations to check against his own. Walther died in 1504 and in 1509 Albrecht Dürer bought the house on the Tiergärtentor, partially because being himself a big fan of the mathematical sciences he desired to own Walther’s house. At the same time he also acquired ten manuscripts out of the Regiomontanus/Walther collection including an Elements of Euclid.

If you are ever in Nürnberg go round to the back of the Dürer house and you can see Walther’s observatory for yourself. However please be quite when doing so as the people who live next door get really pissed off with the tourists and the noise that they make.

[1] Any readers of the blog who visit Nürnberg are welcome to the same tour, you just need to arrange it in advance; all you have to do is buy me lunch at the end of it. A low price of a highly entertaining and educational tour that lasts between three and four hours!


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

The poetic astronomer


Regular readers of this blog will know that I can on occasion be a stroppy, belligerent, pedant, who gets rather riled up over people who spread myths of science and who has a tendency to give such people a public kicking on this blog. This tendency earned me the nickname, the HistSci_Hulk in earlier years. The subtitle to a podcast that I stumbled across yesterday on the BBC website provoked my inner Hist_Sci Hulk and has generated this post.

The podcast is a BBC Radio 4 “Radio 4 in Four” four minute documentary on the work of the Indian mathematician and astronomer, Aryabhata: Maths expressed as poetry. The subtitle was: In 5th century India, clever man Aryabhata wrote his definitive mathematical work entirely in verse and long before Galileo, argued the world was round [my emphasis]. It was that final clause that provoked my HistSci_Hulk moment.

I’ve lost count of how many times over the years I have explained patiently and oft not so patiently that educated society in European culture have known and accepted that the world is a sphere since at least the sixth century BCE. This is the most recent account here on the blog. Bizarrely in the podcast no mention is made of Aryabhata’s cosmological or astronomical views, so it is real puzzle as to why it’s mentioned in the subtitle. What is interesting is the fact that as a cosmologist Aryabhata held a fairly rare position, although he was a geocentrist he believed that the earth revolved around its own axis, i.e. geocentrism with diurnal rotation. You can read about the history of this theory here in an earlier blog post.

Statue of Aryabhata on the grounds of IUCAA, Pune. As there is no known information regarding his appearance, any image of Aryabhata originates from an artist’s conception.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

More interesting is the correct fact that Aryabhata wrote his astronomical/mathematical thesis in verse form. As the podcast points out this is because the culture in which he was writing was an oral one and complex facts are easier to remember in verse rather than in prose. What the podcast doesn’t say is that Aryabhata was not the only astronomer/mathematician to express his results in verse and was in this sense by no means unique. In fact he is part of a solid tradition of mathematical Sanskrit poetry.

India was not the only culture to use poetry to express scientific content. Probably the most famous example is the Latin poem De rerum natura by the first century BCE Roman poet Lucretius, which is the most extensive description of the physics of the ancient Greek atomists. The poem played a central role in the revival of atomism in the early modern period; a revival that several historians of science, such as David Lindberg, consider to be a key element in the so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.

In astronomy/ astrology there is a poem from antiquity that played a significant role in the Renaissance. This is the Astronomica probably written by the poet Marcus Manilius in the first century CE; the first printed edition of this was published by Regiomontanus in Nürnberg in 1473.

Many people are not aware of some highly significant scientific poems from the eighteenth century written and published by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Erasmus Darwin (1770; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants was the first work in English to popularise the botanical works of Linnaeus in English. The poem caused something of a scandal because it emphasised the explicit sexual nature of Linnaeus’ system of botanical nomenclature and was thus considered unsuitable for polite society. The Loves of the Plants was published together with another poem, The Economy of Vegetation, a more general poem on scientific progress and technological innovation, of which Darwin as a prominent member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham was very much aware. The Economy of Vegetation expresses an evolutionary view of progress. A footnote to The Loves of the Plants contains the first outlines of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, which he would then expand upon in his prose work Zoonomia. Erasmus Darwin’s is an adaptive theory of evolution and is thus oft referred to as Lamarckian, although as Erasmus preceded Lamarck, maybe his theory should be referred to as Darwinian! A posthumous poem of Darwin’s, The Temple of Nature, contains a full description of his theory of evolution in verse.

Writing this led me to the thought that maybe editors of modern scientific journals should require their authors to submit their papers in iambic pentameters or in Shakespearean blank verse, with the abstracts written as sonnets. It would certainly make reading scientific papers more interesting.




Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science