Category Archives: History of Astronomy

Sorry Caroline but Maria got there first!

Astronomer Caroline Herschel observed her first comet on 1 August 1786 an anniversary that was celebrated by various people on Twitter yesterday. Unfortunately many of them, including for example NASA History Office (@NASAhistory), claimed that on this date she became the 1st woman to discover a comet. This is quite simply not true.

Maria Margarethe Kirch (née Winkelmann), the wife of Gottfried Kirch the Astronomer Royal of Berlin, discovered the comet of 1702 (C/1702 H1) on 21 March 1702 that is forty-eight years before Caroline Herschel was born. Unfortunately the discovery was published by her husband and it was he who was incorrectly acknowledged as the discoverer. In 1710 Gottfried admitted the error and publically acknowledged Maria as the discoverer but she was never official credited with the discovery.

Both Maria Kirch and Caroline Herschel were excellent astronomers with much important work to their credit. However credit where credit is due, Caroline was not the first woman to discover a comet, Maria was.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

σῴζειν τὰ φαινόμενα, sozein ta phainomena

For all those, who like myself, can’t actually speak or read ancient Greek the title of this post is a phrase well known in the history of astronomy ‘saving the phenomena’, also sometimes rendered as ‘saving the appearances’. This post is in response to a request that I received from a reader asking me to explain what exactly this expressions means.

The phrase saving the phenomena was first introduced into the history of astronomy discourse by the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century French physicist and historian of science, Pierre Duhem. Duhem used the expression in the title of his work on physical theory Sauver les Phénomènes. Essai sur la Notion de Théorie Physique de Platon à Galilée, (1908), which was translated into English in 1969, as To Save the Phenomena, an Essay on the Idea of Physical Theory from Plato to Galileo. In this work Duhem argued that all mathematical astronomy from Plato up to Copernicus consisted of mathematical models designed to save the phenomena and were not considered to represent reality. The phenomena that needed to be saved were the so-called Platonic axioms, i.e. that the seven planets (Mercury, Venus, Moon, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) move in circles at a constant speed. It is fairly obvious that the planets do not move in circles or at a constant speed thus posing a difficult problem for the mathematical astronomers, in order to save the phenomena they have to present a mathematical model, which can account for the apparent irregularity of planetary motions in the form of a more fundamental real regularity.

Duhem’s thesis suffers from several historical problems. He bases his argument on a quote from Simplicius’ On Aristotle, On the Heavens, which dates from the sixth century CE. According to Simplicius Plato challenged the astronomers to solve the following problem:

“…by hypothesizing what uniform and ordered motions is it possible to save the phenomena relating to planetary motions.”[1]

Simplicius goes on to say:

“In the true account the planets do not stop or retrogress nor is there any increase or decrease in their speeds, even if they appear to move in such ways … the heavenly motions are shown to be simple and circular and uniform and ordered from the evidence of their own substance.”

Simplicius attribution of the concept of saving the phenomena to Plato is made more than nine hundred years after Plato lived. In fact there is no mention in the work of Plato of the principle of uniform circular motion, the earliest known example being in Aristotle. The earliest example of the phrase ‘saving the phenomena’ occurs in Plutarch’s On the Face in the Orb of the Moon, from the first century CE and does not refer to planetary motions but to Aristarchus’ attempt to explain the revolution of the sphere of the fixed stars and the movement of the Sun through heliocentricity.

We find some support for the view of Simplicius in the introduction to astronomy of Geminus of Rhodes in the first century BCE, although he doesn’t use the explicit phrase to save or saving the phenomena, he writes:

“For the hypothesis, which underlies (hupokeitai) the whole of astronomy, is that the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets move circularly and at constant speed (isotachôs) in the direction opposite to that of the cosmos. The Pythagoreans, who first approached such investigations, hypothesized that the movements of the Sun, Moon, and the five wandering stars are circular and uniform … For this reason, they put forward the question: how would the phenomena be accounted for (apodotheiê) by means of uniform (homalôn) and circular motions.”

As we can see Geminus attributes the concept of uniform circular motion to the Pythagoreans and not Plato. It should be pointed out that neither Simplicius nor Geminus was a mathematical astronomer.

Duhem also claimed that the most significant of all Greek astronomers, Ptolemaeus, adhered to the principle of saving the phenomena in his Syntaxis Mathematiké, the only substantial work of Greek mathematical astronomy to survive. However a careful reading of Ptolemaeus clearly shows that he regarded his models as representing reality and not just as saving the phenomena.

The most famous case of saving the phenomena can be found in Andreas Osiander’s Ad lectorum (to the reader) appended to the front of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. In this infamous piece Osiander, who had seen the book through the press writes:

For it is the duty of an astronomer to compose the history of the celestial motions through careful and expert study. Then he must conceive and devise the causes of these motions or hypotheses about them. Since he cannot in any way attain the true causes, he will adopt whatever suppositions enable the motions to be computed correctly from the principles of geometry for the future as well as the past. The present author has preformed both these duties excellently. For these hypotheses need not to be true nor even probable. On the contrary, if they provide a calculus consistent with the observations that is enough. [2]

As can be clearly seen here Osiander is suggesting to the reader that Copernicus’ work is just a mathematical hypothesis and thus need not be regarded as mirroring reality. It is clear from the rest of his text that Osiander is trying to defuse any objections, religious or otherwise, that Copernicus’ heliocentricity might provoke. Of course his claims stand in contradiction to Copernicus’ text where it is obvious that Copernicus believes his system to reflect reality. Because Osiander’s Ad lectorum was published anonymously, it was assumed by many people that it was written by Copernicus himself a confusion that was only cleared up at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

It is not clear whether Osiander was appealing to a two thousand year old tradition of saving the phenomena, as Duhem would have us believe, or whether he, and possibly Petreius the publisher, had devised a strategy to avoid censure of the book and Copernicus’ radical idea.

Although many people continue to quote it as a historical fact it is highly doubtful that Duhem’s thesis of the saving of the phenomena ruling mathematical astronomy for the two thousand years from Plato to Galileo is true and it is fairly certain that most if not all mathematical astronomers, like Ptolemaeus, believed the models that they devised to be true representations of reality.

 

[1] This and all other quote from the Greek are taken from Mark Schiefsky, “To save the phenomena” and curve fitting” (pdf)

[2] On The Revolutions, translation and commentary by Edward Rosen, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, pb., 1992, p. XX

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For those who haven’t been paying attention

Galileo Galilei was found guilty and sentenced by the Inquisition on 22 June 1633; as usual this anniversary has produced a flurry of activity on the Internet much of it unfortunately ill informed. This is just a very brief note for all those who haven’t being paying attention.

The crime of which Galileo was found guilty was “vehement suspicion of heresy” and not heresy. This might appear to some to be splitting hairs but within the theological jurisdiction of the Catholic Church the difference is a highly significant one. Had the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy then a death sentence would have followed almost automatically. As they only found him guilty of the lesser charge “vehement suspicion of heresy” it was possible for him to be sentenced to life in prison commuted the next day to house arrest.

And please Richard Coles, and anybody else stupid enough to quote it, the claim that he said Eppur si muove (and yet it moves) upon being sentenced is almost certainty a myth.

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Teaching the Revolution.

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

Millevolte001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Millevolte, p. iv

[3] Millevolte, p. 294

[4] Millevolte, p. v

[5] Millevolte, p. 270

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Asterisms and Constellations and how not to confuse them with Tropical Signs.

If you are going to write about something, especially if you intend to lay bare somebody else’s ignorance, it pays to actually know what you are talking about otherwise you could well end up looking like a total idiot, as does Anna Culaba in her article on the RYOT website, The Stars and Your Astrological Signs Have Been Lying to You This Whole Time. I should point out that Ms Culaba is by no means the first person to publically embarrass themselves pontificating on this subject, in fact it’s a reoccurring theme much loved by scientists and science fans who want to take a cheap shot at astrology. Indeed, as we will see later Ms Culaba, in her article, is in fact just regurgitating the content of a BBC website. So what exactly does our intrepid science fan say in her blog post?

My horoscope for today (I’m a Virgo) according to Astrology.com reads, “Today, explore an aspect of an unfamiliar religion or culture. Today is a day to make plans and aim high.” There are only two things that are keeping me from leaving work right now: one, I don’t really believe that the stars can determine what will happen in my life and two, I wasn’t really born under the star sign that the world told me I was born into. According to the BBC, about 86 percent of people are actually born under a different sign than the one they think. This is because 2,000 years ago, when the Ancient Greeks first created the zodiacs, the star signs corresponded to the position of the sun relative to the constellations that appeared in the sky the day people were born. Unfortunately, during that time people didn’t know of the phenomenon known as the precession. Live Sciences reports that the precession is when the Earth continually wobbles around its axis in an almost 26,000-year cycle thanks to the gravitational attraction of the moon. Thanks to this phenomenon, the constellations some people live and die by have actually drifted away from us. This means that constellations are now actually off by a month. So if you were born between August 11 to September 16 you’re not the picky and critical Virgo that you thought you were — you’re really an ambitious Leo whose strength of purpose allows you to accomplish many, many things. And if you’re astrological world hasn’t been rocked enough, if you thought you had your star sign wrong, wait until some of you realize that there’s actually a 13th zodiac sign known as the Ophiuchus. According to the BBC, the Ancient Greeks deliberately left out the original zodiac so that ancient astrologers would be able to divide the sun’s 360 degree path into 12 equal parts. Where does Ophiuchus fit into the zodiac calendar? It goes between Scorpio and Sagittarius, so if you were born between November 30 and December 18 consider yourself an Ophiuchus. You’re probably very secretive and good at hide and seek.

I have reproduced the whole of Ms Culaba’s screed here to save me having to quote it in little bits, merely removing the links from the original. If you read it through you what will discover is the central claim that astrologers were too stupid to realise the astronomical phenomenon of precession and so you were not actually born under the star sign that they claim you were. There are two general points to be made here, firstly astrologers were well aware of precession and secondly Ms Culaba and the source she is quoting don’t know the fundamental difference between constellations and tropical signs. So for the benefit of Ms Culaba and all others who are confused by the topic we will have a Renaissance Mathematicus guide to asterisms, constellations, the zodiac and tropical signs.

If you go out on a dark night with a clear sky in an area with little or no light pollution (and if you have never done so you should, it’s awesome) and look up in the heavens you will see a myriad of stars looking down on you in a vast blue black vault. If you are not a trained astronomer you will probably find no means of orienting your gaze in this confusion of twinkling lights. This problem was confronted by all human cultures since the dawn of human existence. The human brain seems to be programmed for pattern recognition and so, like children with a join up the dots picture book, all cultures started to create pictures by imagining lines joining up or outlining eye-catching groups of stars and giving these pictures names. These pictures, and they exist in all human cultures, are known technically as asterisms. These asterisms help the observing eye gain orientation when traversing the vast dome of the night sky and early astronomers started compiling lists of the most prominent such join-up-the-dots-pictures or asterisms in order to use them as a scaffolding for mapping the heavens. Those asterisms contained in such formal lists are called constellations. Our modern, western list of constellations has its origins in ancient Babylonian astrology/astronomy and comes down to us via the ancient Greeks and the medieval Islamic astronomers. In his Syntaxis Mathematiké, Ptolemaeus lists 48 constellations by name. Currently, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recognises 88 named constellations. We now need to turn our attention to the origins of the zodiac.

Viewed from the earth, and before the beginning of the so-called space age that was the only way possible to view the heavens, the sun appears to orbit the earth once every year. In fact the year is defined as the time it takes for the sun to orbit the earth. The path the sun follows on its way around the earth is called the ecliptic and is tilted at approximately 23 degrees to the earth’s equator. This tilt, known as the obliquity of the ecliptic, is the reason why we have seasons on the earth. The six planets visible to the naked eye and know in antiquity – Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – all appear to orbit the earth in the plane of the ecliptic making this imaginary belt around the heavens very important for the study of astronomy. The earliest known mapping of the ecliptic is contained in a set of Babylonian clay tablets known as the MUL.APIN, which date from around 1000 BCE. Here the path of the moon’s orbit is described or mapped with 17 or 18 (the text is somewhat ambiguous) constellations and stars. The moon’s orbit is tilted at about five degrees to the ecliptic. This mapping was still in use around 700 BCE. By around 500 BCE the 17/18 constellations/stars had be replaced by twelve constellations of varying sizes. Circa 420 BCE the Babylonians had replaced those twelve constellations with twelve equal divisions of the ecliptic comprising 30° segments. These segments were named after the constellations they replaced and form the zodiac that was taken over by the Greeks and made its way down to us. Those segments are known technically as tropical or sun signs, form the basis of zodiacal astrology and are abstract geometrical segment of the ecliptic and not constellations. The constellations slowly circle the heavens due to precession, the tropical signs do not! If an astrologer says you were born under the sign Virgo it means that the sun was in the 30° segment of the ecliptic that bears the name Virgo at the moment of your birth. This has nothing apart from the name in common with the constellation Virgo.

It is not the astrologers who display ignorance of the precession of the equinox, to give the phenomenon its full name, but Ms Culaba who displays total ignorance of both astronomy and astrology. This is not a very good situation to be in if you are going to write about the history of science and yes we are talking about the history of science here, the zodiac with its tropical signs was originally conceived for astronomical purposes. Ms Culaba might be excused because she did not originate this particular piece of history of science rubbish but is merely regurgitating false information from what she obviously thought was a reliable source, the BBC.

Here we have the presenter of Stargazing Live, a high prestige BBC science programme, Dara O Brian presenting the world with high-grade bullshit under the BBC’s banner. O Brian and his co-presenter Brian Cox should know better and I find it a total disgrace that the fee payers money is being wasted on such rubbish under the guise of educational television, both the presenters and the Beeb should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

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Calendrical confusion or just when did Newton die?

Today there is general agreement throughout the world that for commercial and international political purposes everybody uses the Gregorian calendar, first introduced into the Catholic countries of Europe in 1582. However Europeans should never forget that for other purposes other cultures have their own calendars often wildly at odds with the Gregorian one. Tomorrow is for example the Persian New Year’s a festival, which marks the first day of spring. The Persian calendar is not only used in Iran but in many other countries that were historically under Persian influence. Tomorrow also marks the first day of the year 1394 for Persians. Earlier all cultures used their own calendars a bewildering array of lunar calendars, lunar-solar calendars and pure solar calendars making life very difficult for both astronomers and historians. Trying to find out what a given date in an original document is, or better would have been, on our ‘universal’ Gregorian calendar is often a complex and tortuous problem. Astronomers whose observations of the heavens need to span long periods of time solved the problem for themselves by introducing a standard calendrical scale into which they then converted all historical astronomical data from diverse cultures. Throughout late antiquity, the Islamic Empire and well into the European Early Modern Period astronomers used the Egyptian solar calendar for this purpose. You can still find astronomical dates given according to this system in Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. In modern times they introduced the Julian day count for this purpose.

Within Europe the most famous calendrical confusion occurred in the early centuries following the introduction in Catholic countries of the Gregorian calendar. Exactly because it was Catholic most Protestant states refused, at first, to introduce it, meaning that Europe was running on two different time scales making life difficult for anybody having to do outside of their own national borders, in particular for traders. This problem was particularly acute in The Holy Roman Empire of German States that patchwork of small, medium and large states, principalities and independent cities that occupied most of middle Europe. Neighbouring states were often of conflicting religious affiliation meaning that people living in the border regions only needed to go a couple of kilometres down the road to go ten days backwards or forwards in time. The only people who were happy with this system were the calendar makers who could sell two sets of calendars Gregorian, so-called new style or ‘ns’ and Julian, so-called old-style or ‘os’. Some enterprising printer publishers even printed both calendars in one pamphlet, for a higher price of course.

Within Germany the problem was finally solved at the end of the seventeenth century, largely due to the efforts of Erhard Weigel who campaigned tirelessly to get the Protestant states to adopt the Gregorian calendar, which they finally did on 1 January 1700. England as usual had to go its own way.

Although John Dee, the court advisor on all things mathematical, recommended the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century the Anglican Bishops blocked its adoption because it came from the Pope and the Anglican Church couldn’t be seen cowing down to the Vatican. Even when the Protestant German states finally accepted that adopting the Gregorian calendar was more rational than any religious prejudices the English still remained obdurate, not prepared to have anything to do with Catholicism. England final came into line in 1752. So what about Isaac Newton?

Many Internet sources are saying that Isaac Newton died on 20 March almost none of them say whether this is new-style or old-style. Most of the sources give 1727 as the year of death a few 1726. Most sources give Newton’s life span as 1642–1727, others 1642–1726 and yet others 1643–1727, what is going on here?

Isaac Newton was born 25 December 1642 according to the Julian calendar that is old-style. If converted to the Georgian calendar, we have to add ten days, and so his date of birth was 4 January 1643 new-style. Things become slightly more complicated with his date of death. Newton died 20 March 1726 according to the Julian calendar that is old-style. Converting to the Georgian calendar we now have to add eleven days because the Julian calendar has slipped another day behind the Gregorian one so his date of death is 31 March 1727 new-style. Wait a minute we just jumped a year what happened here? When Julius Caesar introduced the solar calendar in Rome he moved the New Year from the traditional Roman spring equinox, 25 March, to the first of January. During the Middle Ages the Church moved the New Year back to 25 March. With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar New Year’s Day moved back to 1 January. However England still retaining the medieval version of the Julian calendar kept 25 March as New Year’s Day. Thus at the time of Newton’s death 1727 started on 25 March in England meaning that Newton died 20 March 1726 (os).

Just to summarise if you wish to correctly quote Newton’s dates of birth and death then they are 25 December 1642 – 20 March 1726 (os) or 4 January 1643 – 31 March 1727 (ns).

 

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The continuing saga of io9’s history of science inanities.

I made a sort of deal with myself to, if possible, avoid io9 and above all the inane utterances of Esther Inglis-Arkell. Unfortunately I fell for a bit of history of science click bait on Twitter and stumbled into her attempt to retell the story of the degenerating relations between Isaac Newton and John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal. I say attempt but that is actual a misuse of the word because it somehow implies making an effort, something that Ms Inglis-Arkell is not willed to do. Her post resembles something half read, half understood and then half forgotten spewed out onto the page in a semblance of English sentences. It in no way approaches being something that one could honestly label history of science story telling even if one were to stretch this concept to its outer most limits.

I have blogged on the relations between Newton and Flamsteed on a number of occasion but let us look at Ms Inglis-Arkell miserable attempt at telling the story and in so doing bring the correct story out into the open. Our storyteller opens her tale thus:

Isaac Newton reached the level of genius in two different disciplines: physics and making people miserable. This is a tale of his accomplishments in the latter discipline. The object of his scorn, this time, is a poor astronomer named John Flamsteed, who made the mistake of not being agreeable enough.

I tend to dislike the term genius but if one is going to apply it to Newton’s various activities then one should acknowledge that as an academic he also reached the level of genius as a mathematician, as a theoretical astronomer and as an instrument maker and not just as a physicist. Credit where credit is due. On the subject of his making people miserable, John Flamsteed was anything but a saint and as I pointed out in an earlier post, Grumpy old astronomers behaving badly or don’t just blame Isaac!, in the dispute in question both of them gave as good as he got.

We now get to the factual part of the story where our storyteller displays her grasp of the facts or rather her lack of one:

Flamsteed and Newton started their acquaintance on good terms. They spent the 1680s happily corresponding about two lights in the sky, seen in 1680, which were either two comets or one comet that made two trips by Earth. This got Flamsteed interested in cataloguing [sic] the heavens. If enough information was compiled about the lay of the night sky, astronomers would be able to understand all kinds of things about the shape of the universe and how its various pieces worked. By the mid-1690s, Flamsteed was the Astronomer Royal and was making a star catalogue which he would publish when it was completed.

Remember that bit about half read and half forgotten? John Flamsteed had been installed by Charles II as Astronomer Royal for the newly commissioned Royal Observatory at Greenwich on 22 June 1675 “forthwith to apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so-much desired longitude of places, for the perfecting the art of navigation.” Not by the mid-1690s as Ms Inglis-Arkell would have us believe. I love the bit about how, astronomers would be able to understand all kinds of things about the shape of the universe and how its various pieces worked”, Which basically just says that she doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about so she’ll just waffle for a bit and hope nobody notices. The Observatory itself wasn’t finished till 1685 but by the beginning of the 1680 Flamsteed was already busily fulfilling his obligations as official state astronomical observer.

The early 1680s saw a series of spectacular comets observable from Europe, and Flamsteed along with all the other European astronomers devoted himself to observing their trajectories and it was a conjecture based on his observations that led to his correspondence with Newton. He observed two comets in 1680, one in November and the second in mid December. Flamsteed became convinced that they were one and the same comet, which had orbited the sun. He communicated his thoughts by letter to Isaac Newton (1642–1727) in Cambridge, the two hadn’t fallen out with each other yet, and Newton initially rejected Flamsteed’s findings. However on consideration he came to the conclusion that Flamsteed was probably right and drawing also on the observations of Edmund Halley began to calculate possible orbits for the comet. He and Halley began to pay particular attention to observing comets, in particular the comet of 1682. By the time Newton published his Principia, his study of cometary orbits took up one third of the third volume, the volume that actually deals with the cosmos and the laws of motion and the law of gravity. By showing that not only the planets and their satellite systems obeyed the law of gravity but that also comets did so, Newton was able to demonstrate that his laws were truly universal. Note that Flamsteed two-in-one comet was orbiting the sun and not “one comet that made two trips by Earth”; this will come up again in the next paragraph:

Newton, meanwhile, believed that returning comets might be drawn to the Earth by some mysterious force. They might circle the Earth, in fact, the way the Moon circled the Earth. Perhaps, the force that drew the Moon and the comets might be the same. Newton wanted to study his “Moon’s Theory,” and to do so he needed the information in Flamsteed’s catalogue, incomplete though it was. Newton had risen to the rank President of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; the titles might leave one in doubt as to who had the power, but Newton’s fame and connections far outstripped Flamsteed’s. When Isaac Newton wanted information from the catalogue, he wanted it immediately, whether it was published or not.

The opening sentences of this paragraph are a confession of complete incompetence for somebody, who, if I remember correctly, has a degree in physics. We are of course talking about the force of gravity, so why not call it that? Anyone who has studied physics at school knows that according to the law of gravity any two bodies “attract each other” something that Newton had spelled out very clearly in his Principia, which was published in 1687 before the dispute that Inglis-Arkell is attempting to describe took place. So the comets are not being “drawn to the Earth by some mysterious force”. In fact they are not being drawn to the Earth at all and there are certainly not circling it. Flamsteed’s careful observations and astute deduction had correctly led Newton to the conclusion that the force of gravity causes some comets to orbit the sun. As we shall see shortly when Newton and Flamsteed got in each others hair about Newton’s need for fresh observational date on the moon he was still Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge and still ten years away from becoming President of the Royal Society. However before I go into detail let us look at Inglis-Arkell’s account of the affair.

You can get a lot done when you’re friends with the Queen, but it still took a lot of time for Isaac Newton to get what he wanted from John Flamsteed. First Flamsteed sent assistants’ work instead of his own. Newton was exasperated with the mistakes they had made. Newton wrote nasty letters. Flamsteed wrote nasty diary entries. Newton turned to the royal Prince George, asking him to order Flamsteed to write a book that would include all his current data. Flamsteed just couldn’t get it together to produce the book, much as he must have wished to comply with his Prince’s order.

Newton inspected the Royal Observatory. Flamsteed guarded the equipment so jealously that the two physically fought over it. Flamsteed ended that day with a very smug diary entry declaring that the “instruments… were my own.”

Now the Astronomer Royal was not only disobeying Isaac Newton but the actual Royals, and so it’s impressive that Flamsteed managed to keep his prestigious appointment. He didn’t lose his position or his data for over a decade. It wasn’t until 1712 that Newton was able to influence Queen Anne and Prince George enough to force Flamsteed to publish his data in a small volume. Still, Flamsteed was bitter at the defeat.

Our intrepid wanna-be historian of science has conflated and confused three separate struggles between the two protagonists into one, getting her facts wrong along the way and even making thinks up, not a very good advertisement for a website that wishes to inform its readers or maybe this is one of their sci-fi contributions.

Let us take a look at what really happened. In an incredible tour de force Newton wrote and published his Principia in the three years between 1684 and 1687 and as I noted above Flamsteed’s recognition that some comets orbit the sun went on to play a central role in this ground-breaking work. In his magnum opus Newton was able to demonstrate that the whole of the then known cosmos lay under the rule of the law of gravity. It determined the elliptical orbits of the planets around the sun as well as the orbits of the then known satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. It converted the comets from irregular prophets of doom into celestial objects with regular but extremely long orbits. Everything seemed to fit neatly into place in a clockwork cosmos. Well almost everything! The earth’s closest neighbour appeared not to want to obey the dictates of gravity. Although Newton managed to get a fairly good approximation of a gravity-determined orbit for the moon it wasn’t anywhere near as good as he would have liked.

The problem lies on the size of the moon. Having an unusually large mass for a satellite the moon is involved in a gravitational system with both the earth and the sun, the classical three-body problem. As a result its orbit is not a smooth ellipse but being pulled hither and thither by both the earth and the sun its orbit contains many substantial irregularities making it very difficult to calculate. There is in fact no general analytical solution to the three-body problem, as was finally proved in the nineteenth century by Henri Poincaré. The physicist or astronomer is forced to calculate each irregularity step by step, the situation that Newton found himself in whilst writing the Principia.

In 1693 Newton was contemplating a second edition of the Principia and decided to tackle the moon’s orbit anew. This required new observational data and the person who was in procession of that data was Flamsteed. Newton never the most diplomatic of men at the best of times was even more grumpy than usual in the early 1690s. He was recovering from what appears to have been some sort of major mental breakdown, he was tackling one of the few mathematical problem that would always defeat him (the moon’s orbit, which was finally solved by Laplace in his Exposition du système du monde at the end of the eighteenth century), and he was frustrated by his situation in Cambridge and was looking for a suitable position in recognition of his, in the meantime, considerable status in London. The latter would be solved by Charles Montagu appointing him Warden of the Mint in 1696. His approach to Flamsteed to obtain the data that he required was high handed to say the least. Flamsteed, also an irritable man, who was overworked, underpaid and underfinanced in his efforts to map the entire heavens, was less than pleased by Newton’s imperious demands but delivered the requested data none the less. Newton failed to solve his problem and blaming Flamsteed and his data demanded more. Flamsteed feeling put upon grumbled but delivered; and so the pair of grumpy old men continued, each developing an intense dislike of the other. In the end Newton’s demands became so impossible that Flamsteed started sending Newton raw observational data letting him calculate the lunar positions for himself. It is difficult to say where this vicious circle would have led if Newton had not lost interest in the problem and shelved it, and the plans for a second edition of Principia, in 1695. By now the two men were totally at loggerheads but would have nothing more to do with each other for the next nine years.

In 1704 Newton, by now Master of the Mint and resident in London, was elected President of the Royal Society. On 12 April 1704 Newton took a boat down the river from the Tower of London, home of the Mint, to Greenwich, home of the Royal Observatory, to visit Flamsteed. Surprisingly amicable Newton suggested to Flamsteed that he should speak to Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s consort, on Flamsteed’s behalf about obtaining funds to have Flamsteed’s life work published. Flamsteed was agreeable to having his work published especially as his critics, most notably Edmond Halley and David Gregory, were pointing out that he had nothing to show for almost thirty years of endeavour. However he would have preferred to deal with the matter himself rather than have Newton as his broker. Newton spoke to Prince George and obtained the promise of the necessary funds. Meanwhile Flamsteed drew up a publication plan for his work. He wanted three volumes with his star catalogue the high point of his work in the third and final volume. Newton had other plans. He set up an editorial board at the Royal Society consisting of himself, David Gregory, Christopher Wren, Francis Robartes and John Arbuthnot to oversee the publication. Flamsteed, the author and also a member of the Royal Society, was not included. Newton ignored Flamsteed’s wishes and declared that the star catalogue would be printed in volume one. Newton commissioned a printer to print sample sheets, however Flamsteed found them to be of poor quality and wished to find a new printer. Newton ignored him and gave the printer the commission to print the work ordering Flamsteed to supply the introductory material for the first volume.

One major problem was that the star catalogue was at this time not complete. Flamsteed kept stalling declining to supply with Newton with the catalogue until he could complete it. He needed to calculate the stellar positions from the raw observational data. Newton promised him the money to pay the computers and actually obtained the money from Prince George. Flamsteed employed the computers to do the work and paid them out of his own pocket requesting restitution from Newton. Newton refused to pay up. So the whole sorry affair dragged on until Prince George died in 1708 with which the project ground to an end. If Flamsteed had grown to dislike Newton in the 1690s he truly hated him now.

Things remained quiet for two years then at the end of 1710 John Arbuthnot, who was physician to Queen Anne, suddenly announced that Anne had issued a warrant that appointed the president and others as the council of the Royal Society saw fit to be ‘constant Visitors’ of the Royal Society. As used here visitor means supervisor and it effectively meant that Newton was now Flamsteed’s boss. With their newly won authority Newton and his cronies did everything in their power to make life uncomfortable for Flamsteed over the next few years. On 26 October 1711 Newton summoned Flamsteed to a meeting in Crane Court, the home of the Royal Society, to inform him of the state of the observatory instruments. Here we meet a classic of institutional funding. The Crown had paid to have the Royal Observatory built and having appointed Flamsteed to run it the Crown paid his wages, on a very miserly level, however no money was ever supplied for instruments and so Flamsteed had bought his instruments with his own money. When Newton demanded account of the state of the instruments Flamsteed could prove that they were all his own private property and thus no concern of Newton’s. Newton was far from pleased by this defeat. He now ordered the Royal Ordnance to service, repair and upgrade the instruments and thus to win official control over them. Unfortunately the Ordnance, which, like the Mint, occupied the Tower of London didn’t like Newton so taking sides with Flamsteed informed Newton that there were no funds available for this work. A minor victory for Flamsteed but he had already suffered a major defeat. Before discussing this I should point out that contrary to Ms Inglis-Arkell’s claims, at no time did the elderly combatants resort to any form of physical contact.

On 14 March 1711 Arbuthnot had informed Flamsteed that the Queen had commanded the complete publication of his work; the brief reprieve brought about by the death of Prince George was over. Although the star catalogue, which was all that Newton was interested in publishing, was now finished Flamsteed at first prevaricated again. Arbuthnot wrote to Flamsteed requesting him to deliver up the catalogue, Flamsteed declined with further excuses. Newton exploded and shot off a letter ripping a strip of Flamsteed for defying a Royal command and the fight was now effectively over. Flamsteed met with Arbuthnot and handed over the manuscript requesting conditions concerning the printing and editing to which Arbuthnot acquiesced and promptly ignored. Flamsteed went ballistic, as he discovered that printing was going ahead without his knowledge and even worse his manuscript was being edited by Edmond Halley! Flamsteed by now hated Newton but he reserved his greatest loathing for Halley. It has been much speculated why Flamsteed had such an extreme aversion to Halley but it went so far that he refused to use his name and only referred to him as Reimers after Nicolaus Reimers Bär, whom Flamsteed believed had plagiarised his hero Tycho and was thus the most despicable person in the history of astronomy. Flamsteed had lost all down the line and in 1712 his star catalogue appeared in a large folio volume (not the small volume claimed by Inglis-Arkell). Deeply bitter Flamsteed now swore to publish his life’s work in three volumes, as he had originally planned in 1704, at his own expense and began with the preparation. It should be noted that far from ‘Newton being able to influence Queen Anne and Prince George enough to force Flamsteed to publish his data’, Prince George had by now been dead for four years!

However Newton might have won a victory but he hadn’t yet won the war and the tide began finally to turn in Flamsteed’s favour. In 1714 Queen Anne died and was succeeded on the throne by George I, Elector of Hanover. The succession also brought with it a change of government. Now Inglius-Arkell claims that George didn’t like Newton but this is not true. He greatly respected Newton who had long been regarded as the greatest natural philosopher in Europe; he even forced his librarian, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who would have loved to have moved to London to escape his Hanoverian backwater (no offense intended to Hannover or the Hanoverians), to stay at home so as not to offend Newton, who was at war with Leibniz when he wasn’t battling Flamsteed. However the succession and the change of government did mean a loss of influence for Newton. In early 1715 Charles Montagu, Lord Halifax, one of the most powerful politicians in England during the previous twenty years and Newton’s political patron, died. Charles Paulet, 2nd Duke of Boulton, the Lord Chamberlin, was a friend of Flamsteed’s and on 30 November 1715 he signed a warrant ordering Newton to return the three hundred remaining copies of the printed star catalogue to Flamsteed. He “made a Sacrifice of them to Heavenly Truth”; i.e. he burnt them.

Flamsteed continued with his project to publish his life’s work at his own expense but died in 1719 before he could finish the project. His widow with the willing help of his two assistants Joseph Crosthwait and Abraham Sharp finished the job and his three-volume Historia coelestis britannica was finally published in 1725, followed by his charts of the constellations the Atlas coelestis, edited by his widow and James Hodgson in 1727. Together they form a fitting monument to one of history’s greatest observational astronomers. Flamsteed had written a long preface for the Historia describing, from his standpoint, in great detail his twenty year long war with Newton but this did not make it into the final printed edition, probably because Newton, by now a living legend, was still very much alive. It only resurfaced a hundred years later. Flamsteed got his revenge, from beyond the grave, on Halley, who followed him as Astronomer Royal. As already explained above, Flamsteed’s observational instruments were his own personal property so when he died his widow stripped the observatory bare leaving Halley an empty building in which to pursue his new office.

The whole, more than twenty year long, farce is one of the more unsavoury episodes in the history of science and certainly not how one would expect two senior officers of state to behave. It is clear that Newton caries most of the blame although Flamsteed was not exactly a model of virtue deliberately fanning the flames through renitent and provocative behaviour. In particular his behaviour towards Halley, who was more than qualified and very capable of editing the star catalogue, was extremely childish and inexcusable.

You might think that I am being very unfair to Ms Inglis-Arkell having turned her very brief account into an overlong post but that is actually the point and her central failure, ignoring all of the factual errors in her version of the story. What I have laid out here are only the bare bones of the whole story, if I were to go into real detail this post would be ten times longer than it already is. Ms Inglis-Arkell attempt to reduce a highly complex series of episodes out of the history of science to a couple of hundred words in a throwaway post could only end in a level of distortion that makes the whole exercise a complete waste of time, effort (not that she seems to expended much of that) and cyberspace.

 

 

 

 

 

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