Category Archives: History of Astronomy

A misleading book title that creates the wrong impression

A new biography of Johannes Kepler has just appeared and although I haven’t even seen it yet, let alone read it, it brings out the HistSci Hulk side of my personality. What really annoys me on David Love’s book, Kepler and the Universe[1], is the title or rather the subtitle, How One Man Revolutionised Astronomy. Now, I for one have for many years conducted a private campaign to persuade people not to claim that we live in a Copernican Cosmos, a standard cliché, but that we live in a Keplerian Cosmos, because it was the very different elliptical system of Kepler that helped heliocentricity to its breakthrough and not the system of Copernicus. However Love’s subtitle immediately evokes the spectre of the lone genius and for all his undoubted brilliance Kepler was not a lone genius and especially not in terms of his cosmology/astronomy.

A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unknown artist Source: Wikipedia Commons

A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unknown artist
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Even a cursory examination of Kepler’s road to his system will immediately reveal his intellectual debts and his co-conspirators, both willing and unwilling. First off is naturally Copernicus himself. Kepler did not conceive a heliocentric system from scratch but was, on his own admission a glowing admirer or even acolyte of the Ermländer scholar. This admiration is one of the principle reasons that we don’t truly acknowledge Kepler’s achievement but tend to dismiss it as having just dotted the ‘Is’ and crossed the ‘Ts’ in Copernicus’ system, a demonstrably false judgement. Kepler, of course, didn’t help the situation when he titled the most simple and readable version of his system, and the one that together with the Rudolphine Tables had the most influence, the Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae. Not a smart move! Whatever, we are already at two men who revolutionised astronomy.

Nicolaus Copernicus 1580 portrait (artist unknown) in the Old Town City Hall, Toruń Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicolaus Copernicus 1580 portrait (artist unknown) in the Old Town City Hall, Toruń
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler did not discover Copernicus himself but was introduced to him by his teacher Michael Maestlin at the University of Tübingen. Usually Maestlin gets mentioned in passing as Kepler’s teacher and then forgotten but he played a very important role in Kepler’s early development. In reality Maestlin was himself one of the leading European astronomers and mathematicians in the latter part of the sixteenth century, as well as being by all accounts an excellent teacher. He was also one of the very few supporters of both Copernican astronomy and cosmology. This meant that he gave Kepler probably the best foundation in the mathematical sciences that he could have found anywhere at the time, as well as awakening his interest in Copernican thought. It was also Maestlin who decided Kepler would be better off becoming a teacher of mathematics and district mathematician rather than training for the priesthood; a decision that Kepler only accepted very, very reluctantly. Even after he had left Tübingen Maestlin continued to support the young Kepler, although he would withdraw from him in later years. Maestlin edited, corrected and polished Kepler’s, so important, first publication, the Mysterium Cosmographicum. In fact Maestlin’s contributions to the finished book were so great he might even be considered a co-author. Some people think that in later life Kepler abandoned the, for us, rather bizarre Renaissance hypothesis of the Cosmographicum, but he remained true to his initial flash of inspiration till the very end, regarding all of his later work as just refinements of that first big idea. Maestlin’s contribution to the Keplerian system was very substantial. And then there were three.

Michael Maestlin Source: Wikimedia Commons

Michael Maestlin
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho! Without Tycho Brahe there would be no Keplerian System. Tycho and Kepler are the Siamese twins of elliptical astronomy joined at the astronomical data. Without Tycho’s data Kepler could never have built his system. This duality is recognised in many history of astronomy texts with the two, so different, giants of Renaissance astronomy being handled together. The popular history of science writer, Kitty Ferguson even wrote a dual biography, Tycho and Kepler, The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens[2], a title that of course contradicts Love’s One Man. Her original title was The Nobleman and His Housedog, with the rest as a subtitle, but it seems to have been dropped in later editions of the book. The ‘housedog’ is a reference to Kepler characterising himself as such in the horoscope he wrote when he was twenty-five years old.

Portrait of Tycho Brahe (1596) Skokloster Castle Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Tycho Brahe (1596) Skokloster Castle
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho invited Kepler to come and work with him in Prague when the Counter Reformation made him jobless and homeless. Tycho welcomed him back when Kepler went off in a huff at their first meeting. It was Tycho who assigned him the task of calculating the orbit of Mars that would lead him to discover his first two laws of planetary motion. It has been said that Tycho’s data had just the right level of accuracy to enable Kepler to determine his elliptical orbits. Any less accurate and the slight eccentricities would not have been discernable. Any more accurate and the irregularities in the orbits, thus made visible, would have made the discovery of the elliptical form almost impossible. It has also been said that of all the planets for which Tycho had observation data Mars was the one with the most easily discernable elliptical orbit. Serendipity seems to have also played a role in the discovery of Kepler’s system. The high quality of Tycho’s data also led Kepler to reject an earlier non-elliptical solution for the orbit of Mars, which another astronomer would probably have accepted, with the argument that it was not mathematically accurate enough to do honour to Tycho’s so carefully acquired observational data.

Tycho was anything but a one-man show and his observatory on the island of Hven has quite correctly been described as a research institute. A substantial number of astronomer, mathematicians and instrument maker came and went both on Hven and later in Prague over the almost thirty years that Tycho took to accumulate his data. The number of people who deserve a share in the cake that was Kepler’s system now reaches a point where it become silly to count them individually.

Our list even includes royalty. Rudolph II, Holly Roman Emperor, was the man, who, at Tycho’s request, gave Kepler a position at court, even if he was more than somewhat lax at paying his salary, official to calculate the Rudolphine Tables, a task that would plague Kepler for almost thirty years but would in the end lead to the acceptance of his system by other astronomers. Rudolph also appointed Kepler as Tycho’s successor, as Imperial Mathematicus, after the latter’s untimely death, thus giving him the chance to continue his analysis of Tycho’s data. Rudolph could just as easily have sacked him and sent him on his way. Tycho’s heirs did not assist Kepler in his struggle to maintain access to that all important data, which belonged to them and not the Emperor, causing him much heartache before they finally allowed him to use Tycho’s inheritance. After he had usurped his brother, Rudolph, in 1612, Matthias allowed Kepler to keep his official position and title as Imperial Mathematicus, although sending him away from court, a fact that certainly assisted Kepler in his work. Being Imperial Mathematicus gave him social status and clout.

Rudolph II portrait by Joseph Heinz the Elder Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rudolph II portrait by Joseph Heinz the Elder
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler described his long and weary struggles with the orbit of Mars as a battle, but he did not fight this battle alone. In a long and fascinating correspondence with the astronomer, David Fabricius, Kepler tried out his ideas and results with a convinced supporter of Tycho’s system. Kepler would present his ideas and David Fabricius subjected them to high level and very knowledgeable criticism. Through this procedure Kepler honed, refined and polished his theories to perfection before he submitted them to public gaze in his Astronomia Nova, Knowing that they would now withstand high-level professional criticism. David Fabricius, who never met Kepler, nevertheless took a highly active role in the shaping of the Keplerian system[3].

Monument for David and Johann Fabricius in the Graveyard of Osteel

Monument for David and Johann Fabricius in the Graveyard of Osteel

Even after Kepler’s death the active participation of others in shaping his astronomical system did not cease. Jeremiah Horrocks corrected and extended the calculations of the Rudolphine Tables, enabling him to predict and observe a transit of Venus, an important stepping-stone in the acceptance of the elliptical astronomy. Horrocks also determined that the moon’s orbit was a Keplerian ellipse, something that Kepler had not done.


Stained glass roundel memorial in Much Hoole Church to Jeremiah Horrocks making the first observation and recording of a transit of Venus in 1639. The Latin reads "Ecce gratissimum spectaculum et tot votorum materiem": "oh, most grateful spectacle, the realization of so many ardent desires". It is taken from Horrocks's report of the transit

Stained glass roundel memorial in Much Hoole Church to Jeremiah Horrocks making the first observation and recording of a transit of Venus in 1639. The Latin reads “Ecce gratissimum spectaculum et tot votorum materiem”: “oh, most grateful spectacle, the realization of so many ardent desires”. It is taken from Horrocks’s report of the transit

Cassini, together with Riccioli and Grimaldi, using a heliometer determined that either the orbit of the sun around the earth or the earth around the sun, the method can’t determine which is true, is an ellipse another important empirical stepping-stone on the road to final acceptance for the system.

Giovanni Cassini Source: Wikimedia Commons

Giovanni Cassini
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicholas Mercator produced a new mathematical derivation of Kepler’s second law around 1670. Kepler’s own derivation was, as he himself admitted, more than a little suspect, viewed mathematically. The first and third laws had been accepted by the astronomical community fairly easily but the second law was a major bone of contention. Mercator’s new derivation basically laid the dispute to rest.

Cassini in his new role as director of the Paris observatory showed empirically that the satellite systems of both Jupiter and Saturn also obeyed Kepler’s third law extending it effectively to all orbitary systems and not just the planets of the solar system.

Lastly Newton derived Kepler’s first and second laws from his axiomatic system of dynamics giving them the true status of laws of physics. This led Newton to claim that the third law was Kepler’s but the first two were his because he, as opposed to Kepler, had really proved them

As we can see the list of people involved in revolutionising astronomy in the seventeenth century in that they replaced all the geocentric systems with a Keplerian elliptical system is by no means restricted to ‘one man’ as claimed in the subtitle to David Love’s book but is quite extensive and very diverse. There are no lone geniuses; science is a collective, collaborative enterprise.





[1] David Love, Kepler and the Universe: How One Man Revolutionized Astronomy, Prometheus Books, 2015

[2] Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler, The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens, Walker Books, 2002

[3] For a wonderful description of this correspondence and how it contributed to the genesis of Astronmia Nova see James Voelkel’s excellent, The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia nova, Princeton University Press, 2001


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

Hans Holbein and the Nürnberg–Ingolstadt–Vienna Renaissance mathematical nexus.

There is a strong tendency, particularly in the popular history of science, to write about or present scientists as individuals. This leads to a serious distortion of the way that science develops and in particular propagates the lone genius myth. In reality science has always been a collective endeavour with its practitioners interacting in many different ways and on many different levels. In the Renaissance, when travelling from one end of Europe to the other would take weeks and letters often even longer, one might be excused for thinking that such cooperation was very low level but in fact the opposite was the truth, with scholars in the mathematical sciences exchanging information and ideas throughout Europe. A particularly strong mathematical nexus existed in the Southern German speaking area between the cities of Nürnberg, Ingolstadt and Vienna in the century between 1450 and 1550. Interestingly two of the paintings of the Northern Renaissance artist Hans Holbein the Younger open a door into this nexus.

Holbein (c. 1497–1543) was born in Augsburg the son of the painter and draughtsman Hans Holbein the Elder. As a young artist he lived and worked for a time in Basel where he became acquainted with Erasmus and worked for the printer publisher Johann Froben amongst others. Between 1526 and 1528 he spent some time in England in the household of Thomas More and it is here that he painted the second portrait I shall be discussing. The next four years find him living in Basel again before he returned to England in 1532 where he became associated with the court of Henry VIII, More having fallen out of favour. It was at the court that he painted, what is probably his most well know portrait, The Ambassadors in 1533.

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The painting shows two courtiers, usually identified as the French Ambassador Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur standing on either side of a set of shelves laden with various books and instruments. There is much discussion was to what the instruments are supposed to represent but it is certain that, whatever else they stand for, they represent the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry music and astronomy, the four mathematical sciences taught at European medieval universities. There are two globes, on the lower shelf a terrestrial and on the upper a celestial one. The celestial globe has been positively identified, as a Schöner globe and the terrestrial globe also displays characteristics of Schöner’s handwork.

Terrestrial Globe The Ambassadors Source Wikimedia Commons

Terrestrial Globe The Ambassadors
Source Wikimedia Commons

Celestial Globe The Ambassadors Source Wikimedia Commons

Celestial Globe The Ambassadors
Source Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Schöner (1477–1547) was professor for mathematics at the Egidienöberschule in Nürnberg, the addressee of Rheticus’ Narratio Prima, the founder of the tradition of printed globe pairs, an editor of mathematical texts for publication (especially for Johannes Petreius the sixteenth centuries most important scientific publisher) and one of the most influential astrologers in Europe. Schöner is a central and highly influential figure in Renaissance mathematics.

On the left hand side of the lower shelf is a copy of Peter Apian’s Ein newe und wolgegründete underweisung aller Kauffmanns Rechnung in dreyen Büchern, mit schönen Regeln und fragstücken begriffen (published in Ingolstadt in 1527) held open by a ruler. This is a popular book of commercial arithmetic, written in German, typical of the period. Peter Apian (1495–1552) professor of mathematics at the University of Ingolstadt, cartographer, printer-publisher and astronomer was a third generation representative of the so-called Second Viennese School of Mathematics. A pupil of Georg Tannstetter (1482–1535) a graduate of the University of Ingolstadt who had followed his teachers Johannes Stabius and Andreas Stiborious to teach at Conrad Celtis’ Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum, of which more later. Together Apian and Tannstetter produced the first printed edition of the Optic of Witelo, one of the most important medieval optic texts, which was printed by Petreius in Nürnberg in 1535. The Tannstetter/Apian/Petreius Witelo was one of the books that Rheticus took with him as a present for Copernicus when he visited him in 1539. Already, a brief description of the activities of Schöner and Apian is beginning to illustrate the connection between our three cities.

Apian's Arithmetic Book The Ambassadors Source: Wikimedia Commons

Apian’s Arithmetic Book The Ambassadors
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Sebastian Münster (1488–1552), the cosmographer, sent out a circular requesting the cartographers of Germany to supply him with data and maps for his Cosmographia, he specifically addressed both Schöner and Apian by name as the leading cartographers of the age. Münster’s Cosmographia, which became the biggest selling book of the sixteenth century, was first published by Heinrich Petri in Basel in 1544. Münster was Petri’s stepfather and Petri was the cousin of Johannes Petreius, who learnt his trade as printer publisher in Heinrich’s printing shop in Basel. The Petri publishing house was also part of a consortium with Johann Amerbach and Johann Froben who had employed Hans Holbein in his time in Basel. Wheels within wheels.

The, mostly astronomical, instruments on the upper shelf are almost certainly the property of the German mathematician Nicolaus Kratzer (1487–1550), who is the subject of the second Holbein portrait who will be looking at.

Nicolas Kratzer by Hans Holbein Source: Wikimedia Commona

Nicolas Kratzer by Hans Holbein
Source: Wikimedia Commona

Born in Munich and educated at the universities of Cologne and Wittenberg Kratzer, originally came to England, like Holbein, to become part of the Thomas More household, where he was employed as a tutor for More’s children. Also like Holbein, Kratzer moved over to Henry VIII’s court as court horologist or clock maker, although the clocks he was responsible for making were more probably sundials than mechanical ones. During his time as a courtier Kratzer also lectured at Oxford and is said to have erected a monumental stone sundial in the grounds of Corpus Christi College. One polyhedral sundial attributed to Kratzer is in the Oxford Museum for the History of Science.

Polyhedral Sundial attributed to Nicolas Kratzer Source: MHS Oxford

Polyhedral Sundial attributed to Nicolas Kratzer
Source: MHS Oxford

In 1520 Kratzer travelled to Antwerp to visit Erasmus and here he met up with Nürnberg’s most famous painter Albrecht Dürer, who regular readers of this blog will know was also the author of a book on mathematics. Dürer’s book contains the first printed instructions, in German, on how to design, construct and install sundials, so the two men will have had a common topic of interest to liven there conversations. Kratzer witnessed Dürer, who was in Antwerp to negotiate with the German Emperor, painting Erasmus’ portrait and Dürer is said to have also drawn a portrait of Kratzer that is now missing. After Kratzer returned to England and Dürer to Nürnberg the two of them exchanged, at least once, letters and it is Kratzer’s letter that reveals some new connections in out nexus.

Albrecht Dürer selfportrait Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer selfportrait
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his letter, from 1524, Kratzer makes inquires about Willibald Pirckheimer and also asks if Dürer knows what has happened to the mathematical papers of Johannes Werner and Johannes Stabius who had both died two years earlier.

Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530) a close friend and patron of Dürer’s was a rich merchant, a politician, a soldier and a humanist scholar. In the last capacity he was the hub of a group of largely mathematical humanist scholars now known as the Pirckheimer circle. Although not a mathematician himself Pirckheimer was a fervent supporter of the mathematical sciences and produced a Latin translation from the Greek of Ptolemaeus’ Geōgraphikḕ or Geographia, Pirckheimer’s translation provided the basis for Sebastian Münster’s edition, which was regarded as the definitive text in the sixteenth century. Stabius and Werner were both prominent members of the Pirckheimer circle.

Willibald Pirckheimer by Albrecht Dürer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Willibald Pirckheimer by Albrecht Dürer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The two Johanneses, Stabius (1450–1522) and Werner (1468–1522), had become friends at the University of Ingolstadt where the both studied mathematics. Ingolstadt was the first German university to have a dedicated chair for mathematics. Werner returned to his hometown of Nürnberg where he became a priest but the Austrian Stabius remained in Ingolstadt, where he became professor of mathematics. The two of them continued to correspond and work together and Werner is said to have instigated the highly complex sundial on the wall of the Saint Lorenz Church in Nürnberg, which was designed by Stabius and constructed in 1502.

St Lorenz Church Nürnberg Sundial 1502 Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

St Lorenz Church Nürnberg Sundial 1502
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

It was also Werner who first published Stabius’ heart shaped or cordiform map projection leading to it being labelled the Werner-Stabius Projection. This projection was used for world maps by Peter Apian as well as Oronce Fine, France’s leading mathematicus of the sixteenth century and Gerard Mercator, of whom more, later. The network expands.

Mercator cordiform world map 1538 Source: American Geographical Society Library

Mercator cordiform world map 1538
Source: American Geographical Society Library

In his own right Werner produced a partial Latin translation from the Greek of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, was the first to write about prosthaphaeresis (a trigonometrical method of simplifying calculation prior to the invention of logarithms), was the first to suggest the lunar distance method of determining longitude and was in all probability Albrecht Dürer’s maths teacher. He also was the subject of an astronomical dispute with Copernicus.

Johannes Werner Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Werner
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regular readers of this blog will know that Stabius co-operated with Albrecht Dürer on a series of projects, including his famous star maps, which you can read about in an earlier post here.

Johannes Statius Portrait by Albrecht Dürer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Statius Portrait by Albrecht Dürer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

An important non-Nürnberger member of the Pirckheimer Circle was Conrad Celtis (1459–1508), who is known in Germany as the arch-humanist. Like his friend Pirckheimer, Celtis was not a mathematician but believed in the importance of the mathematical sciences. Although already graduated he spent time in 1489 on the University of Kraków in order to get the education in mathematics and astronomy that he couldn’t get at a German university. Celtis had spent time at the humanist universities of Northern Italy and his mission in life was to demonstrate that Germany was just as civilised and educated as Italy and not a land of barbarians as the Italians claimed. His contributions to the Nuremberg Chronicle can be viewed as part of this demonstration. He believed he could achieve his aim by writing a comprehensive history of Germany including, as was common at the time its geography. In 1491/92 he received a teaching post in Ingolstadt, where he seduced the professors of mathematics Johannes Stabius and Andreas Stiborius (1464–1515) into turning their attention from astrology for medicine student, their official assignment, to mathematical cartography in order to help him with his historical geography.

Conrad Celtis Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Celtis
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unable to achieve his ends in Ingolstadt Celtis decamped to Vienna, taking Stabius and Stiborius with him, to found his Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum as mentioned above and with it the so-called Second Viennese School of Mathematics; the first had been Peuerbach and Regiomontanus in the middle of the fifteenth century. Regiomontanus spent the last five years of his life living in Nürnberg, where he set up the world’s first scientific publishing house. Stiborius’ pupil Georg Tannstetter proved to be a gifted teacher and Peter Apian was by no means his only famous pupil.

The influence of the Nürnberg–Ingolstadt–Vienna mathematicians reached far beyond their own relatively small Southern German corridor. As already stated Münster in Basel stood in contact with both Apian and Schöner and Stabius’ cordiform projection found favour with cartographers throughout Northern Europe. Both Apian and Schöner exercised a major influence on Gemma Frisius in Louvain and through him on his pupils Gerard Mercator and John Dee. As outlined in my blog post on Frisius, he took over editing the second and all subsequent editions of Apian’s Cosmographia, one of the most important textbooks for all things astronomical, cartographical and to do with surveying in the sixteenth century. Frisius also learnt his globe making, a skill he passed on to Mercator, through the works of Schöner. Dee and Mercator also had connections to Pedro Nunes (1502–1578) the most important mathematicus on the Iberian peninsular. Frisius had several other important pupils who spread the skills in cosmography, and globe and instrument making that he had acquired from Apian and Schöner all over Europe.

Famously Rheticus came to Nürnberg to study astrology at the feet of Johannes Schöner, who maintained close contacts to Philipp Melanchthon Rheticus patron. Schöner was the first professor of mathematics at a school designed by Melanchthon. Melanchthon had learnt his mathematics and astrology at the University of Tübingen from Johannes Stöffler (1452–1531) another mathematical graduate from Ingolstadt.

Kupferstich aus der Werkstatt Theodor de Brys, erschienen 1598 im 2. Bd. der Bibliotheca chalcographica Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kupferstich aus der Werkstatt Theodor de Brys, erschienen 1598 im 2. Bd. der Bibliotheca chalcographica
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another of Stöffler’s pupils was Sebastian Münster. During his time in Nürnberg Rheticus became acquainted with the other Nürnberger mathematicians and above all with the printer-publisher Johannes Petreius and it was famously Rheticus who brought the manuscript of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus to Nürnberg for Petreius to publish. Rheticus says that he first learnt of Copernicus’s existence during his travels on his sabbatical and historians think that it was probably in Nürnberg that he acquired this knowledge. One of the few pieces of astronomical writing from Copernicus that we have is the so-called Letter to Werner. In this manuscript Copernicus criticises Werner’s theory of trepidation. Trepidation was a mistaken belief based on faulty data that the rate of the precession of the equinoxes is not constant but varies with time. Because of this highly technical dispute amongst astronomers Copernicus would have been known in Nürnberg and thus the assumption that Rheticus first heard of him there. Interestingly Copernicus includes observations of Mercury made by Bernhard Walther (1430–1504), Regiomontanus partner, in Nürnberg; falsely attributing some of them to Schöner, so a connection between Copernicus and Nürnberg seems to have existed.

In this brief outline we have covered a lot of ground but I hope I have made clear just how interconnected the mathematical practitioners of Germany and indeed Europe were in the second half of the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth. Science is very much a collective endeavour and historians of science should not just concentrate on individuals but look at the networks within which those individual operate bringing to light the influences and exchanges that take place within those networks.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of science, Renaissance Science

The Renaissance Mathematicus “Live & Uming”

Those of you with nothing better to do can listen to a podcast of the Renaissance Mathematicus (that’s me folks!) searching for words, desperately trying to remember names, uming & ahing, thinking on his feet (I was actually sitting down the whole time) and generally stumbling his way through an eighty minute spontaneous, unrehearsed, live interview with Scott Gosnell of Bottle Rocket Science on such scintillated topics, as why the Pope got his knickers in a twist over Galileo or that notorious seventeenth century religious fanatic Isaac Newton. In fact the same boring load of old codswallop that you can read at you leisure here on this blog. As I say if you have nothing more exciting to do, such as watching paint dry or listening to the grass grow, then go listen.

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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

A bewitching lady astronomer

Today in a day for celebrating the role that women have played and continue to play in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the past on similar occasions I have blogged about female astronomers and I have decided today to write a short post about Aglaonice, who is possibly the oldest known lady astronomer.



Aglaonice is a semi-legendary, semi-mythical figure about whom our information is all second hand. She is associated with the witches from Thessaly, who claimed to be able to draw down the moon from its course in the heavens after depriving it of its illumination. The earliest mention of this feat in in Aristophanes The Clouds, first produced in 432 BCE.

Plutarch writing at the end of the first century CE tells us that Aglaonice knew about lunar eclipses and when they occurred. He writes, “ Always at the time of an eclipse of the Moon she pretended to bewitch it and draw it down.” In another passage he writes, “Aglaonice the daughter of Hegetor being thoroughly conversant with the periods of the Full Moon when it is subject to eclipse, and knowing beforehand when the Moon was due to be overtaken by the Earth’s shadow, imposed upon audiences of women and made them all believe that she drew down the Moon”. In late antiquity the poet Apollonius of Rhodes informs his readers that she lost a close relative after one of her performances as a punishment imposed by an outraged Moon goddess.

What is interesting in these accounts is that the moon is usually still visible during a lunar eclipse, only very occasionally does it disappear completely, so if we are to give any credence to these accounts Aglaonice must have carried out her charade during one such eclipse.

Total Lunar Eclipse 27 September 2015 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Total Lunar Eclipse
27 September 2015
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We have no idea when she is supposed to have lived but she obviously predates Plutarch writing about 100 CE and cannot be earlier than about the middle of the third century BCE, which is when the Babylonians first perfected the art of predicting lunar eclipses.

Whatever the case maybe, if Aglaonice existed at all, she must have been a truly bewitching lady astronomer.





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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Ladies of Science

Science contra Copernicus

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Reaching for the stars

I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday at a conference in the Albrecht Dürer House in Nürnberg. You might ask if I suddenly moved over to the art historians but this was a history of astronomy conference. Dürer wrote an important maths book, which was published in 1525 and which I’ve blogged about in the past. However this wasn’t his first excursion into the mathematical sciences, in 1515 he was involved in the production and publication of the first ever (in Europe, there are earlier Chinese woodblock star chart prints) printed star maps. The conference that I intended was to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of this historical event.

Albrecht Dürer House Nürnberg Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer House Nürnberg
Source: Wikimedia Commons

These star maps or charts are often erroneously referred to as Dürer’s star maps, although in fact Dürer was only one of three people responsible for their creation and was viewed as the junior partner. If you look at the bottom left hand corner of the southern hemisphere map there are three coats of arms.

Direr Southern Hemisphere Star Map Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dürer Southern Hemisphere Star Map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Going from right to left, the first one consisting of a pair of open doors is Dürer’s; the family name being originally Türer, meaning porter, which comes from Türe the German for door. The second a sword flanked by two stars is Conrad Heinfogel’s a priest and astronomer and the third the imperial eagle surmounted by the poet’s laurel wreath is the coat of arms of Johannes Stabius mathematicus and Imperial Historian. The Latin text immediately above the three coats of arms states that Johannes Stabius commissioned the piece, Conrad Heinfogel positioned the stars and Albrecht Dürer circumscribed the images.

Johannes Stabius portrait by Albrecht Dürer

Johannes Stabius portrait by Albrecht Dürer

Johannes Stabius (real name Stöberer; before 1468–1522) was a graduate of Ingolstadt where he became professor of mathematics. He moved with Conrad Celtis to Vienna where he became part of the so-called 2nd Viennese School of Mathematics as well as being appointed Imperial Historian. He is most well known today for the Werner-Stabius cordiform map projection.

Oronce Finé's World Map using a cordiform projection Source: Wikimedia Commons

Oronce Finé’s World Map using a cordiform projection
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He had strong connections to Nürnberg and had previously worked with Dürer on the Triumphal Arch for Maximilian I, one of the largest ever woodblock print.

Maximilian's Triumphal Arch Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maximilian’s Triumphal Arch
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also in 1515 Stabius and Dürer had produced a world map.

Dürer-Stabius World Map 1515 Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Dürer-Stabius World Map 1515
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Conrad Heinfogel (?–1517) (from whom there are no known portraits) had been a pupil of Bernhard Walther (c.1430–1504), who was Regiomontanus’ partner in his astronomical activities in Nürnberg and who continued his work after Regiomontanus died; some of his observations of Mercury would be used by Copernicus in De revolutionibus. Walther had owned the Dürer House before Dürer and this was one of the reasons that Dürer bought it. Amongst his other astronomical activities Heinfogel was employed to position the stars on a set of manuscript star maps produced in Nürnberg in 1503. This earlier set of maps almost certainly served as one of the templates for the 1515 Dürer maps. A probable second source for the maps was a 1435 set of manuscript star maps of unknown provenance now found in Vienna. However the means of transmission of the information from Vienna to Nürnberg is not known.

In the top left hand corner of the southern hemisphere map is the coat of arms of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Cardinal Matthäus Lang and in the top right hand corner a dedication to him. Lang was a fervent supporter of the sciences and it was he, for example, who commissioned the first account of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the earth on which Johannes Schöner based his 1523 globe displaying the route taken. The bottom right hand corner is an acknowledgement of Maximilian I, patron to both Stabius and Dürer.

Dürer Northern Hemisphere Star Map Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dürer Northern Hemisphere Star Map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The four corners of the northern hemisphere map contain portraits of astronomer/astrologers: Top left Aratus 4th century BCE author of the Pænomena an astronomical poem. Top right is Ptolemaeus. Bottom left is Manilius a 1st century CE Roman astrologer, whose astrological poem Astronomica Regiomontanus had published in Nürnberg in 1473. Bottom right is the 10th century CE Persian astronomer al-Sufi, author of a famous star catalogue.

The two star maps are bounded by the ecliptic and contain all of the 1022 stars from the Ptolemaic star catalogue with the Ptolemaic numbering. Dürer produced the images for the forty-eight Ptolemaic constellations. The maps set new standards for star maps in the Renaissance and, because printed and widely distributed, influenced many star maps and celestial globes in the following century. Hans Gaab has identified about sixty such objects most notably Peter Apian’s star map from 1535, a rather unsuccessful attempt to include both hemispheres onto one chart.

Peter Apian Star Map 1535 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Peter Apian Star Map 1535
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the publication of Tycho Brahe’s new and much more accurate star catalogue at the end of the century the Dürer maps ceased to be influential.

Happy conference goers returning from lunch break 19 September 2015

Happy conference goers returning from lunch break 19 September 2015

The conference on Saturday covered all the above in much greater detail and the Dürer house now has a semi-permanent exhibition detailing the history and pre-history of the star maps, including at the moment originals, which however will be replaced by facsimiles in the future. Well worth a visit if you are in Nürnberg. (Get in touch and I’ll do my history of astronomy tour of Nürnberg for you, which ends with the Dürer House!)

If you can read German and wish to know more Hans Gaab, who is a fount of wisdom on all things astronomical historical in Nürnberg, has written a book on the Dürer Star Maps, Die Sterne über Nürnberg: Albrecht Dürer und seine Himmelskarten von 1515 (Schriftenreihe der Nürnberger Astronomischen Gesellschaft) that was officially presented on Friday as part of the celebrations, highly recommended.

The Dürer Star Maps again in a hand coloured edition

Source: Ian Ridpath's Star Tales

Source: Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales

Source: Ian Ridpath's Star Tales

Source: Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales


Filed under History of Astronomy

Misusing Galileo to criticise the Galileo gambit

Yesterday The Guardian website had an article on climate change denialists entitled, Here’s what happens when you try to replicate climate contrarian papers[1].

The article is headed with this portrait of Galileo

Galileo demonstrating his astronomical theories. Climate contrarians have virtually nothing in common with Galileo. Photograph: Tarker/Tarker/Corbis

Galileo demonstrating his astronomical theories. Climate contrarians have virtually nothing in common with Galileo. Photograph: Tarker/Tarker/Corbis

And it opens with the following paragraph:

Those who reject the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming often evoke Galileo as an example of when the scientific minority overturned the majority view. In reality, climate contrarians have almost nothing in common with Galileo, whose conclusions were based on empirical scientific evidence, supported by many scientific contemporaries, and persecuted by the religious-political establishment. Nevertheless, there’s a slim chance that the 2–3% minority is correct and the 97% climate consensus is wrong.

Now it is true that climate change denialists, like denialists in many other areas of scientific consensus, commonly use what is now known as the Galileo Gambit. This involves claiming in some way that Galileo was persecuted for his theories, although he was proved right in the long run. Implying that the denialist will also be proved right in the long run and hailed as another Galileo. Bob Dylan provided the perfect answer to the Galileo Gambit in his song Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream way back in 1965.

I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too”

He said, “You’re not Him

I would not object to the author’s comments on the contrarians misuse of the name of Galileo if her his comment had stopped at, climate contrarians have almost nothing in common with Galileo, however she he goes on to spoil it with what follows.

Although Galileo’s views on heliocentrism, and that is what stands to discussion here, had their origins in empirical observations made with the telescope he unfortunately did not stop there and they were not supported by a consensus of his contemporaries by any means. In fact at the time of Galileo’s trial by the Catholic Church the majority of astronomers qualified to pass judgement on the subject almost certainly rejected heliocentricity, most of them on good scientific grounds.

In his Dialogo, the book that caused his downfall, Galileo knew very well that he did not have the necessary empirical facts to back up the heliocentric hypothesis and so he resorted to polemic and rhetoric and brought as his pièce de résistance, his theory of the tides, which was fatally flawed and contradicted by the empirical evidence even before it hit the printed page.

Although it became largely accepted by the experts by around 1670, the necessary empirical evidence to substantiate heliocentricity didn’t emerge until the eighteenth and in the case of stellar parallax the nineteenth centuries.

I have written about this historical misrepresentation of Galileo’s position on various occasions and I don’t intend to repeat myself in this post. However anybody who is interested can read some of my thoughts in the post collected under the heading, The Transition to Heliocentricity: The Rough Guides. I also strongly recommend Christopher M. Graney’s recently published Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo, my review of which should, hopefully, appear here in the not to distant future.

Addendum: Seb Falk has pointed out that Dana Nuccitelli is a he not a she and I have made the necessary corrections to the text. I apologise unreservedly to Mr Nuccitelli for this error.

[1] h/t to Seb Falk (@Seb_Falk) for drawing my attention to this latest misstatement of Galileo’s scientific situation.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science