Category Archives: History of Astronomy

School days

It is the middle of August and also the middle of what in German is known as Saure-Gurken-Zeit, in English as the silly season and in American as the dog days. It’s that time when parliaments are in recess, the politicians on holiday and the press is full of silly man bites dog stories. Even the history of science community is in a sort of half sleep with little happening and many of its members conspicuous by their absence. This being the case I though I would write a somewhat frivolous post this week before I too disappear off on holiday or a gathering of the clan in the beautiful city of Bath to be more precise.

It is common practice for schools to boast about the famous politicians, sports persons and show business celebrities who once, as snotty nosed kids, ran screaming through their corridors but what about the scientists? Which notable or significant scientist got their education at the pedagogical institution where you acquired the ability to write grammatical sentences and to find the derivatives of simple trigonometrical functions? To start the ball rolling I shall tell you of my historical scientific school chums and I hope you will tell me of yours in the comments.

I will admit to having an advantage as the grammar school that I attended has a somewhat more than eight hundred year history giving them lots of time to have educated one or other scientific luminary. From September 1963 till July 1969 I was a pupil of Colchester Royal Grammar School (CRGS) for boys, one of England’s most elite state schools; the first four years as a day boy, the last to as a boarder. Founded at the beginning of the thirteenth century, 1206 to be precise, and adorned with not one but two royal charters, Henry VIII (1539) and Elizabeth I (1584), it has boasted one of the highest Oxbridge entrance rates and best A-level averages almost every year since the WWII. It would be very surprising if this august educational institution had not thrown up a notable scientist over the centuries and in fact it can boast at least three.

School House CRGS pre-1908. The first floor window to the left of the main entrance in the middle was my bedroom for two years.
Source Wikimedia Commons

CRGS’s first and possibly most famous scientist (if you’ll excuse the anachronistic use of the term) was William Gilbert (1544–1603). Born in Colchester he followed his time at the school by becoming one of those Oxbridge statistics in 1558, St. John’s College Cambridge to be precise, where he graduated BA in 1561, MA in 1564 and MD in 1569. He moved to London where he followed a successful medical career. Elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians he became their president in 1600. He became personal physician to Elizabeth I in 1601 and to James IV and I and 1603 the year of his death.

William Gilbert (1544–1603) artist unknown.
Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Gilbert is of course most famous for his De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on That Great Magnet the Earth) published in London in 1600, regarded as one of the first ‘modern’ science books. This legendary scientific publication was much admired in its time and exercised a great influence on the development of experimental physics in the first half of the seventeenth century. Galileo praised it but thought it had too little mathematics and Kepler based his theory of a planetary force holding/driving the planets in their orbits on a magnetic monopole theory derived from Gilbert’s book. Based on his false belief that a terrella (a spherical magnet) revolves on its axis and his correct assumption that the earth is a large spherical magnet, Gilbert hypothesised a diurnal rotation for the earth. His theory had a major influence on the acceptance of a helio-geocentric system with diurnal rotation (as opposed to one without) in the first half of the seventeenth century.

There is a certain irony in the fact that although Gilbert is thought to have attended CRGS, as his name is attached to another school in Colchester, The Gilberd School. Gilberd is an alternative spelling of the family name.

We fast-forward almost a century to CRGS’s next scientific luminary, Francis Hauksbee (1660-1730). Not as famous as Gilbert, Hauksbee is still a notable figure in the history of science. Also a born Colcestrian, Hauksbee original apprenticed as a draper to his older brother in 1678 but at some point he became an assistant to Isaac Newton. In 1703 he became Robert Hooke’s successor as curator, experimentalist and instrument maker at the Royal Society.

From 1705 onwards he concentrated his experimental efforts on the phenomenon of electricity, a word coined by Gilbert in his De Magnete, publishing his investigations in his Physico-Mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects in 1709. In 1708 he independently discovered Charles’s law of gasses. Being something of an unsung hero of science it is fitting that in 2009 the Royal Society created the Hauksbee Awards to recognise “the unsung heroes of science, technology, engineering and maths for their work and commitment.”

We now spring into the nineteenth century to a scientist who whilst probably not as well known as Gilbert was truly one of the giants of science in his time, George Biddle Airy (1801– 1892).

George Biddell Airy (1801-1892)
John Collier / 1883
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Alnwick in Northumberland he attended CRGS after an elementary school in Hereford. Like Gilbert he went up to Cambridge University, in his case Trinity College, in 1819. He graduated senior wrangler in in 1823, became a fellow of Trinity in 1824 and became Lucasian professor of mathematics, Newton’s chair, in 1826. He moved to the Plumian chair of astronomy in 1828 and was appointed director of the new Cambridge observatory. The list of Airy’s appointments and scientific achievements is too long for this light summer post – he published 518(!) scientific papers in his long live – but he was most notably Astronomer Royal from 1835 until his retirement in 1881.

George Biddell Airy caricatured by Ape in Vanity Fair Nov 1875
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As you can see CRGS can boast a trio of notable scientist in its long history, what about your alma mater? I do have to admit that I was expelled from CRGS in 1969 and finished my schooling at Holland Park Comprehensive in the school year 69–70. Much younger than CRGS, Holland Park was in my time as famous as the older establishment, as the flag ship educational establishment in the Labour government’s scheme to turn the English school system into a comprehensive one. I must admit that I know of no famous scientists who have emerged from Holland Park and my own memories of my one year there are largely of getting stoned and dropping acid; come on it was the late 60s and Notting Hill Gate!


Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of Physics, History of science

American eclipse tourism in the nineteenth century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy

The House of Blaeu vs.The House of Hondius – The Battle of the Globes and Atlases

There is a South to North trajectory in the evolution of the modern mathematical cartography in Europe over the two hundred years between fourteen hundred and sixteen hundred. Ptolemaic mathematical cartography re-entered Europe in Northern Italy with the first translation into Latin of his Geographia by Jacobus Angulus in 1406. Following this the first modern first modern cartographers, including Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, were also situated in Northern Italy. By the middle of the fifteenth century the main centre of cartographical activity had moved north to Vienna and was centred around Kloster-Neuburg and the University with its First Viennese School of Mathematics, Georg von Peuerbach and Johannes Regiomontanus. Towards the end of the century printed editions of Ptolemaeus’ work began to appear both north and south of the Alps. The beginning of the sixteenth century saw the main centres of cartographic development in the Southern German sphere. Two principle schools are identifiable, the Nürnberg-Vienna school, whose main figures are Johannes Stabius, Peter Apian and Johannes Schöner, and the South-Western school with Waldseemüller and Ringmann in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges and Sebastian Münster in Basel. Again by the middle of the century the centre had once again moved northwards to Leuven and the Flemish school founded by Gemma Frisius and including the two great atlas makers Abraham Ortelius and Gerard Mercator. At the start of the seventeenth century the final step northwards had been taken and the new state of The United Provinces (The Netherlands) had taken the lead in modern cartography. This final step is the subject of this post.

Willem Janszoon Blaeu was born into a prosperous herring trading family in Alkmaar or Uitgeest in 1471. As would have been expected he was sent at an early age to Amsterdam to learn the family trade but it did not appeal to him and he worked instead as a carpenter and clerk in the office of his cousin. In late 1595 his life took a radical turn when he travelled to Hven to study astronomy under Tycho Brahe. It is not known what level of foreknowledge Blaeu took to Hven with him but he spent six months there studiously learning astronomy, instrument making, geodesy and cartography with Tycho and his staff. When he started his observing marathon Tycho had had a large brass globe constructed on which he, over the years, engraved the positions of all the stars that he had measured. Blaeu was given permission to transfer this data to a globe of his own. In 1596 he returned to Alkmaar and his wife Maertgen Cornilisdochter who bore his eldest son Joan on 21 September. On 21 February 1598 Blaeu in Alkmaar and Tycho in Hamburg both observed a lunar eclipse to determine the relative longitude of the two cities.

Portrait of Willem Janszoon Blaeu Artist unknown

Sometime in 1598/9 Blaeu took his family to Amsterdam and set up shop as a printer, instrument maker, globe maker and cartographer; making his first celestial globe, 34 cm diameter, for Adriaan Anthoniszoon, using Tycho’s data; this was the first publication of that data. However Blaeu’s new career was not going to be simple as he had an established competitor, Jocodus Hondius.

Jocodus Hondius was born Joost de Hondt in Wakken and grew up in Ghent, both now in Belgium, on 14 October 1563. He received an education in mathematics and learnt engraving, drawing and calligraphy. He had already established himself as a successful engraver when he was forced by the Spanish, as a Calvinist, to flee to London in 1584. In London he worked for and with Richard Hakluyt and Edward Wright and expanded his knowledge of geography and cartography through contact with the English explorers Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish and Walter Raleigh. Around 1589 he published a wall map in London showing Drake’s voyage around the world. In 1593 he moved back to The Netherlands, establishing himself in Amsterdam.

Self-portrait of Jodocus Hondas taken from one of his maps

Portrait of Francis Drake by Jodocus Hondas from his Drake world map

He formed an alliance with the Plantin printing house in Leiden for who he made several globes. In 1602 he matriculated at the University of Leiden to study mathematics. In 1604 he made the most important decision of his career in that he bought the copper printing plates of the of both Mercator’s edition of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia and Mercator’s Atlas from his heirs.He published a new edition of Mercator’s Ptolemaeus, Claudïï Ptolemaeï Alexandrini geographicae libri octo graecog latini, in the same year. He set up his own publishing house in Amsterdam in December 1604. In the sixteenth century Mercator’s Atlas had failed to establish itself in a market dominated by Ortelius’ Theatum Orbis Terrarum, however Hondius republished it in 1606 with 36 new maps and it became a best seller.

Atlas sive Cosmographiae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Frabicati Figura
Mercator (left) and Hondius (right) shown working together on tittle page of 1630 Atlas
Slightly ironical as they never met and both were dead by then.

Meanwhile Blaeu had established himself as a globe maker and astronomer. Following the tradition established by Johannes Schöner and continued by Mercator Blaeu issued a pair of 23.5 cm globes, terrestrial and celestial, in 1602. His rival Hondius introduced the southern constellation on a celestial globe produced in cooperation with the astronomer-cartographer Petrus Plancius in 1598. Blaeu followed suite in 1603. Hondius produced a pair of 53.5 cm globes in 1613; Blaeu countered with a pair of 68 cm globes in 1616, which remained the largest globes in production for over 70 years.

Hondas celestial globe 1600
Source: Linda Hall Library

A matching pair of Blaeu globes

As an astronomer Blaeu discovered the star P Cygni, only the third variable star to be discovered. In 1617 Willebrord Snellius published his Eratosthenes Batavus (The Dutch Eratosthenes) in which he described his measurement of a meridian arc between Alkmaar and Bergen op Zoom. This was done in consultation with Blaeu, who had learnt the art of triangulation from Tycho, using a quadrant, with a radius of more than 2 metres, constructed by Blaeu. Blaeu specialised in publishing books on navigation beginning in 1605 with his Nieuw graetbouck and established himself as the leading Dutch publisher of such literature.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Title page
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Quadrant constructed by Blaeu for Snellius now in Museum Boerhaave in Leiden
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jodocus Hondius died in 1612 and his sons Jodocus II and Henricus took over the publish house later going into partnership with Jan Janszoon their brother in law. They continued to publish new improved version of the Mercator-Hondius Atlas. Blaeu had already established himself as the successful publisher of wall maps when he began planning a major atlas to rival that of the house of Hondius. That rivalry is also reflected in a name change that Blaeu undertook in 1617. Up till then he had signed his work either Guilielmus Janssonius or Willem Janszoon, now he started add the name Blaeu to his signature probably to avoid confusion with Jan Janszoon (Janssonius), his rival.

Jan Janszoon Original copperplate from his Atlas Novus 1647

In 1630 the strangest episode in the battle of the globes and atlases took place when Jodocus II’s widow sold 37 of the copper plates of the Mercator-Hondius Atlas to Willem Blaeu. He published them together with maps of his own in his Atlantic Appendix in 1631. In 1636 Blaeu published the first two volumes of his own planned world atlas as Atlas Novus or Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, thus reviving the old Ortelius name.

In 1633 the States General (the government of the United Provinces) appointed Blaeu mapmaker of the Republic. In the same year he was appointed cartographer and hydrographer of the Vereenighde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) – The Dutch East India Company. His son Joan inherited the VOC position, as did his grandson Joan II; The Blaeu family held this prestigious position from 1633 till 1712.

Willem Blaeu had great plans to publish several more volumes of his world atlas but he didn’t live to see them realised, dying 21 October 1638. The publishing house passed to his two sons Joan (1596-1673) and Cornelis (c.1610-1644). The last two volumes prepared by Willem appeared in 1640 and 1645. Joan completed his father’s atlas with a sixth volume in 1655.

Along with all his other achievements Willem Janszoon Blaeu made a substantial improvement to the mechanical printing press by adding a counter weight to the pressure bar in order to make the platen rise automatically. This ‘Blaeu’ or ‘Dutch’ press became standard throughout the low countries and was also introduced into England. The first printing press introduced into America in 1639 was a Blaeu press.

Although he held a doctorate in law, Joan devoted his life to the family cartographic publishing business. In 1662 he set the high point of the atlas battle with the House of Hondius with the publication of the Atlas Maior; containing 600 double page maps and 3,000 pages of text it was the most spectacular atlas of all time. Along with its lavish maps the Atlas Maior contained a map of Hven and pictures of the house and stellar observatory on the island where Willem Janszoon Blaeu first learnt his trade. Whereas Willem was careful not to take sides in the dispute between the different systems for the cosmos – geocentric, heliocentric, geo-heliocentric – in the Atlas Maior, Joan committed to heliocentricity.

Joan Blaeu. By J.van Rossum
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Blaeu Atlas Maior 1662-5, Volume 1
Nova Et Accvratissima Totius Terrarvm Orbis Tabvla
Source: National Library of Scotland

The rivalry between the Houses of Hondius and Blaeu, pushing each other to new heights of quality and accuracy in their maps and globes led to them totally dominating the European market in the first half of the sixteenth century, particularly in the production of globes where they almost had a monopoly. Globes in the period, which weren’t from one of the Amsterdam producers, were almost always pirated copies of their products.

As an interesting footnote, as with all things mathematical England lagged behind the continent in cartography and globe making. Although there had been earlier single globes made in on the island, England’s first commercial producer of terrestrial and celestial globes, Joseph Moxon, learnt his trade from Willem Janszoon Blaeu in Amsterdam. In 1634 Blaeu had published a manual on how to use globes, Tweevoudigh onderwijs van de Hemelsche en Aerdsche globen (Twofold instruction in the use of the celestial and terrestrial globes). In the 1660s, Moxon published his highly successful A Tutor to Astronomie and Geographie. Or an Easie and speedy way to know the Use of both the Globes, Cœlestial and Terrestrial : in six Books, which went through many editions, however the first edition was just an English translation of Blaeu’s earlier manual.

The Dutch painter Jan Vermeer often featured globes and maps in his paintings and it has been shown that these are all reproductions of products from the Blaeu publishing house.

Vermeer’s Art of Painting or The Allegory of Painting (c. 1666–68)
With Blaeu Wall Map
Google Art Project Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jan Vermeer The Astronomer with Blaeu celestial globe and right on the wall a Blaeu wall map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jan Vermeer The Geographer with Blaeu terrestrial globe and again right a Blaeu wall map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Blaeu wall map used in Vermeers’ The Astronomer and The Geographer

We tend to emphasise politicians, artists and big name scientists, as the people who shape culture in any given age but the cartographic publishing houses of Hondius and Blaeu made significant contributions to shaping the culture of The United Provinces in the so-called Dutch Golden Age and deserve to be much better known than they are.






Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Navigation, History of science, Renaissance Science

Did Eratosthenes really measure the size of the earth?

Last Thursday was Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and The Guardian chose to mark the occasion with an article by astrophysicist turned journalist and novelist, Stuart Clark, who chose to regale his readers with a bit of history of science. The big question was would he get it right? He has form for not doing so and in fact, he succeeded in living up to that form. His article entitled Summer solstice: the perfect day to bask in a dazzling scientific feat, recounted the well know history of geodesy tale of how Eratosthenes used the summer solstice to determine the size of the earth.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene was the chief librarian at the great library of Alexandria in the third century BC. So the story goes, he read in one of the library’s many manuscripts an account of the sun being directly overhead on the summer solstice as seen from Syene (now Aswan, Egypt). This was known because the shadows disappeared at noon, when the sun was directly overhead. This sparked his curiosity and he set out to make the same observation in Alexandria. On the next solstice, he watched as the shadows grew small – but did not disappear, even at noon.

The length of the shadows in Alexandria indicated that the sun was seven degrees away from being directly overhead. Eratosthenes realised that the only way for the shadow to disappear at Syene but not at Alexandria was if the Earth’s surface was curved. Since a full circle contains 360 degrees, it meant that Syene and Alexandria were roughly one fiftieth of the Earth’s circumference away from each other.

Knowing that Syene is roughly 5000 stadia away from Alexandria, Eratosthenes calculated that the circumference of the Earth was about 250,000 stadia. In modern distance measurements, that’s about 44,000km – which is remarkably close to today’s measurement of 40,075km.

Eratosthenes also calculated that the tilt of the Earth’s polar axis (23.5 degrees) is why we have the solstice in the first place.

Illustration showing a portion of the globe showing a part of the African continent. The sunbeams shown as two rays hitting the ground at Syene and Alexandria. Angle of sunbeam and the gnomons (vertical pole) is shown at Alexandria, which allowed Eratosthenes’ estimates of radius and circumference of Earth.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Whilst it is correct that Eratosthenes was chief librarian of the Alexandrian library one should be aware that the Mouseion (Shrine of the Muses, the origin of the modern word, museum), which housed the library was more akin to a modern academic research institute than what one envisages under the word library. Eratosthenes was according to the legends a polymath, astronomer, cartographer, geographer, mathematician, poet and music theorist.

From the information that during the summer solstice the sun was directly overhead in Syene at noon, and cast no shadows and that a gnomon in Alexandria 5000 stadia north of Syene did cast a shadow, Eratosthenes did not, and I repeat did not, realise that the Earth’s surface was curved. Eratosthenes knew that the Earth’s surface was curved, as did every educated Greek scholar in the third century BCE. Sometimes I get tired of repeating this but the first to realise that the Earth was a sphere were the Pythagoreans in the sixth century BCE. Aristotle had summarised the empirical evidence that showed that the Earth is a sphere in the fourth century BCE, in writings that Eratosthenes, as chief librarian in Alexandria, would have been well acquainted with. Put simply, Eratosthenes knew that he could, using trigonometry, calculate the diameter of the Earth’s sphere with the data he had accumulated, because he already knew that it was a sphere.

The next problem with the account given here is one that almost always turns up in popular version of the Eratosthenes story; there wasn’t just one measure of length in the ancient Greek world known as a stadium but quite a collection of different ones, all differing in length, and we have absolutely no idea which one is meant here. It is in the end not so important as all of them give a final figure with 17% or less error compared to the true value, which is for the method used quite a reasonable ball park figure for the size of the Earth. However this point is one that should be mentioned when recounting the Eratosthenes story. Eratosthenes may or may not have calculated the tilt of the Earth’s axis but this is of no real historical significance, as the obliquity of the ecliptic, as it is also known, was, like the spherical shape of the Earth, known well before his times.

An astute reader might have noticed that above I used the expression, according to the legends, when describing Eratosthenes’ supposed talents. The problem is that everything we know about Eratosthenes is hearsay. None of his alleged many writings have survived. We only have second hand reports of his supposed achievements, most of them centuries after he lived. This raises the question, how reliable are these reports? A comparable situation is the so-called theorem of Pythagoras, well known to other cultures well before Pythagoras lived and only attributed to him long after he had died.

The most extreme stance is elucidated by historian of astronomy, John North, in his one volume history of astronomy, Cosmos:

None of Eratosthenes’ writings survive, however, and some have questioned whether he ever found either the circumference of the Earth, or – as is often stated – the obliquity of the ecliptic, on the basis of measurements.

So what is our source for this story? The only account of Eratosthenes’ measurement comes from the book On the Circular Motions of the Celestial Bodies by the Greek astronomer Cleomedes and with that the next problems start. It is not actually known when Cleomodes lived. On the basis of his writings Thomas Heath, the historian of Greek mathematics, thought that text was written in the middle of the first century BCE. However, Otto Neugebauer, historian of ancient science, thought that On the Circular Motions of the Celestial Bodies was written around 370 CE. Amongst historians of science the debate rumbles on. North favours the Neugebauer date, placing the account six centuries after Eratosthenes’ death. What exactly did Cleomodes say?

The method of Eratosthenes depends on a geometrical argument and gives the impression of being slightly more difficult to follow. But his statement will be made clear if we premise the following. Let us suppose, in this case too, first, that Syene and Alexandria he under the same meridian circle, secondly, that the distance between the two cities is 5,000 stades; 1 and thirdly, that the rays sent down from different parts of the sun on different parts of the earth are parallel; for this is the hypothesis on which geometers proceed Fourthly, let us assume that, as proved by the geometers, straight lines falling on parallel straight lines make the alternate angles equal, and fifthly, that the arcs standing on (i e., subtended by) equal angles are similar, that is, have the same proportion and the same ratio to their proper circles—this, too, being a fact proved by the geometers. Whenever, therefore, arcs of circles stand on equal angles, if any one of these is (say) one-tenth of its proper circle, all the other arcs will be tenth parts of their proper circles.

Any one who has grasped these facts will have no difficulty in understanding the method of Eratosthenes, which is this Syene and Alexandria lie, he says, under the same mendian circle. Since meridian circles are great circles in the universe, the circles of the earth which lie under them are necessarily also great circles. Thus, of whatever size this method shows the circle on the earth passing through Syene and Alexandria to be, this will be the size of the great circle of the earth Now Eratosthenes asserts, and it is the fact, that Syene lies under the summer tropic. Whenever, therefore, the sun, beingin the Crab at the summer solstice, is exactly in the middle of the heaven, the gnomons (pointers) of sundials necessarily throw no shadows, the position of the sun above them being exactly vertical; and it is said that this is true throughout a space three hundred stades in diameter. But in Alexandria, at the same hour, the pointers of sundials throw shadows, because Alexandria lies further to the north than Syene. The two cities lying under the same meridian great circle, if we draw an arc from the extremity of the shadow to the base of the pointer of the sundial in Alexandria, the arc will be a segment of a great circle in the (hemispherical) bowl of the sundial, since the bowl of the sundial lies under the great circle (of the meridian). If now we conceive straight lines produced from each of the pointers through the earth, they will meet at the centre of the earth. Since then the sundial at Syene is vertically under the sun, if we conceive a straight line coming from the sun to the top of the pointer of the sundial, the line reaching from the sun to the centre of the earth will be one straight line. If now we conceive another straight line drawn upwards from the extremity of the shadow of the pointer of the sundial in Alexandria, through the top of the pointer to the sun, this straight line and the aforesaid straight line will be parallel, since they are straight lines coming through from different parts of the sun to different parts of the earth. On these straight lines, therefore, which are parallel, there falls the straight line drawn from the centre of the earth to the pointer at Alexandria, so that the alternate angles which it makes arc equal. One of these angles is that formed at the centre of the earth, at the intersection of the straight lines which were drawn from the sundials to the centre of the earth; the other is at the point of intersection of the top of the pointer at Alexandria and the straight line drawn from the extremity of its shadow to the sun through the point (the top) where it meets the pointer. Now on this latter angle stands the arc carried round from the extremity of the shadow of the pointer to its base, while on the angle at the centre of the earth stands the arc reaching from Syene to Alexandria. But the arcs are similar, since they stand on equal angles. Whatever ratio, therefore, the arc in the bowl of the sundial has to its proper circle, the arc reaching from Syene to Alexandria has that ratio to its proper circle. But the arc in the bowl is found to be one-fiftieth of its proper circle.’ Therefore the distance from Syene to Alexandria must necessarily be one-fiftieth part of the great circle of the earth. And the said distance is 5,000 stades; therefore the complete great circle measures 250,000 stades. Such is Eratosthenes’ method. (This is Thomas Heath’s translation) 

You will note that Cleomedes makes no mention of Eratosthenes determining the spherical shape of the Earth through his observations but writes very clearly of great circles on the globe, an assumption of spherical form. So where does Stuart Clark get this part of his story? In his article he tells us his source:

I first heard the story when it was told by Carl Sagan in his masterpiece TV series, Cosmos.

The article has a video of the relevant section of Sagan’s Cosmos and he does indeed devote a large part of his version of the story to explaining how Eratosthenes used his observations to determine that the Earth is curved. In other words Stuart Clark is just repeating verbatim a story, which Carl Sagan, and or his scriptwriters, made up in 1980 without taken the trouble to verify the accuracies or even the truth of what he saw more than thirty years ago. Carl Sagan said it, so it must be true. I have got into trouble on numerous occasions by pointing out to Carl Sagan acolytes that whatever his talents as a science communicator/populariser, his history of science was to put it mildly totally crap. Every week he pumped his souped-up versions of crappy history of science myths into millions of homes throughout the world. In one sense it is only right that Neil deGasse Tyson presented the modern remake of Cosmos, as he does exactly the same.



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

Perpetuating the myths addendum – ‘The Copernican Shock

Frequent Renaissance Mathematicus commentator (comment-writer, commenter, commentor), Phillip Helbig, sent me an interesting email in response to my previous blog post. In skewering the Nadlers’ comic book I didn’t actually comment on every single detail of everything that was wrong with it, one of the things I left out was Galileo saying:

It is not the center of the cosmos it is a planet just like the others and they all orbit the sun.

As Phillip correctly pointed out in the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian geocentric model of the cosmos the Earth was not viewed as the centre of the cosmos but rather as the bottom. I wrote a brief post long ago quoting a wonderful passage by Otto von Guericke, the inventor of the vacuum pump on exactly this topic:

Since, however, almost everyone has been of the conviction that the earth is immobile since it is a heavy body, the dregs, as it were, of the universe and for this reason situated in the middle or the lowest region of the heaven

Otto von Guericke; The New (So-Called) Magdeburg Experiments of Otto von Guericke, trans. with pref. by Margaret Glover Foley Ames. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Boston/London, 1994, pp. 15 – 16. (my emphasis)

Phillip then asks, “So what was the “shock” of the Copernican Revolution (how many even get that pun?)?  Was it demoting humanity from the centre of the universe, or promoting the Earth to be on par with the other heavenly bodies?”

Before I answer his question I would point out that the idea that Copernicus had demoted the Earth from the centre of the cosmos first emerged much later, sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, as an explanation for the supposed irrational rejection of the heliocentric hypothesis. Of course as is now well known, or at least should be, the initial rejection of the heliocentric hypothesis was not irrational but was based on solid common sense and the available empirical scientific evidence nearly all of which spoke against it. For a lot, but by no means all, of the astronomical arguments read Chris Graney’s excellent Setting Aside All Authority.

So back to Phillip’s question, what was the real Copernican shock? The answer is as simple as it is surprising, there wasn’t one. The acknowledgement and acceptance of the heliocentric hypothesis was so gradual and spread out over such a long period of time that it caused almost no waves at all.

First up, there was nothing very new in Copernicus suggesting a heliocentric cosmos. As should be well known it had already been proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in the third century BCE and Ptolemaeus’ Syntaxis Mathematiké (Almagest) contains a long section detailing the counter arguments to it, which were well known to all renaissance and medieval astronomers. Also in the centuries prior to Copernicus various scholars such as Nicholas of Cusa had extensively discussed both geocentric models with diurnal rotation and full heliocentric ones. All that was new with Copernicus was an extensive mathematical model for a heliocentric cosmos.

At first this was greeted with some enthusiasm as a purely hypothetical model with the hope that it would deliver better predictions of the heavenly movements than the geocentric models for use in astrology, cartography, navigation etc. However it soon became apparent that Copernicus was not really any better than the older models, as it was based on the same inaccurate and oft corrupted data as Ptolemaeus, so the interest waned, although it was these inaccuracies in both model that inspired Tycho Brahe to undertake his very extensive programme of new astronomical observations on which Kepler would base his models.

As Robert Westman pointed out, in a now legendary footnote, between the publication of De revolutionibus in 1543 and 1600 there were only ten people in the whole world, who accepted Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmology, not exactly earth shattering. Even after 1600 the acceptance of a heliocentric worldview only increased very slowly and in gradual increments as the evidence for it accumulated.

The first two factors are the work of Kepler and the early telescopic discoveries. Because Kepler couldn’t or rather didn’t deal with the physical problems of a moving earth his work initially fell on deaf ears. The early telescopic discoveries only refuted a pure Ptolemaic geocentric model but were consistent with a Tychonic geo-heliocentric one and as this had a stationary earth, it became the model of choice. Of interest, and I think up till now not adequately explained, a Tychonic model with diurnal rotation, i.e. a spinning earth, became the preferred variation. A partial step in the right direction. Kepler’s publication of the Rudolphine Tables in 1627 led to an acceptance of his elliptical astronomy at least for calculations if not cosmologically. Then Cassini, with the help of Riccioli, demonstrated with a heliometer in the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna that the sun’s orbit around the earth or the earth’s orbit around the sun was indeed a Keplerian ellipse, but couldn’t determine which of the two possibilities was the right one. Another partial step in the right direction.

Both Kepler’s first and third laws, solidly empirical, were now accepted but his second law still caused problems. Around 1670 Nicholas Mercator provided a new solid proof of Kepler’s second law and it is about then that the majority of European astronomers finally accepted heliocentricity, although it was Kepler’s elliptical astronomy and not Copernicus’ model; the two models were regarded as competitors; also there was still a distinct lack of empirical proof for a heliocentric cosmos.

The developments in physics over the seventeenth century combined with the discovery of the physical reality of the atmosphere and Newton’s gravitation law finally solved the problems of why, if the earth is moving various disasters don’t occur: high winds, atmosphere blowing away etc., all of those arguments already listed by Ptolemaeus. The final empirical proofs of the annual orbit, Bradley and stellar aberration in 1727, and diurnal rotation, measuring the shape of the earth, around 1750, were delivered in the eighteenth century.

As can been seen by this very brief outline of the acceptance and confirmation of heliocentrism it was a process that took nearly two hundred years and proceeded in small increments so there was never anything that could possibly be described as a shock. As already stated above the concept that the ‘Copernican Revolution’ caused consternation or was a shock is a myth created sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century to explain something that never took place. One might even call it fake news!

Addendum: A lot of the themes touched on here are dealt with in greater detail in my The transition to heliocentricity: The Rough Guides series of blog posts


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

Bringing the heavens down to earth

The Frisian Protestant pastor and amateur astronomer, David Fabricius, was beaten to death by one of his parishioners on 7 May 1617. Because he corresponded with both Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and was quite a significant figure in Early Modern astronomy the Society for the History of Astronomy had a short post on Facebook commemorating his death on last Sunday, which contained the following claim:

David Fabricius was, following Galileo’s lead, one of the early users of the telescope in astronomy[1]

This claim contains two factual errors. The first is that it was Johannes, David’s son, who introduced the telescope into the Fabricius household and not David, although David soon joined his son in his telescopic observations. I’ll explain further later.

The Fabricii, father and son, remain largely unknown to the world at large but a monument to them both was erected in the churchyard in Osteel, where David had been village pastor, in 1895.

The second error is more serious because it indirectly perpetuates a widespread myth concerning the introduction of the telescope into astronomy and Galileo’s role in it. There is a popular perception that Galileo, and only Galileo, had the genius, the wit, the vision to realise that the newly invented telescope could be used as an astronomical instrument and that he singlehandedly pioneered this new discipline, telescopic astronomy. This is of course complete rubbish and seriously distorts the early history of the telescope in astronomy and does a major disservice to all of the others who contributed to that early history. I will admit to having done a small fist pump when I read the following in John Heilbron’s Galileo biography:

The transformation of the Dutch gadget into an instrument powerful to discover novelties in the heavens did not require a Galileo. His unique strength lay in interpreting what he saw.[2]

That the telescope could be used as an astronomical instrument was recognised during its very first public demonstration by its inventor, the German/Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lipperhey, which took place at the court of Prince Maurice of Nassau in Den Haag during the Dutch-Spanish Peace Conference on an unknown day between 25 and 29 September 1608. We have a detailed account of this demonstration from a French flyer or newsletter describing the first visit of the Ambassador of Siam to Europe, the Ambassador being present at the demonstration. Through this flyer the news of the new invention spread rapidly throughout Europe. Amongst the other descriptions of the wonderful abilities of this “…device by means of which all things at a very great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses…” we can read the following:

The said glasses are very useful at sieges & in similar affairs, because one can distinguish from a mile’s distance & beyond several objects very well, as if they are near & even the stars which normally are not visible for us, because of the scanty proportion and feeble sight of our eyes, can be seen with this instrument. [my emphasis]

The first astronomer to build and use a telescope as an astronomical instrument was Thomas Harriot, who drew a sketch of the moon using a telescope on 26 July 1609 before Galileo even had a telescope.

Thomas Harriot’s 1609 telescopic sketch of the moon

This of course raises the question where Harriot obtained his knowledge of this instrument. In the early phase of the telescopes existence it became a common habit to present heads of state and other worthies telescopes as presents. In England James I (VI of Scotland) was presented with one at the end of an elaborate masque created for the occasion by Ben Jonson, the Renaissance playwright. The telescope was obtained from the United Provinces through the offices of Cornelis Drebbel, the Dutch inventor and scholar, who was employed at James’ court. This telescope was probably Harriot’s, who enjoyed good connections to court circles, introduction to the instrument.

Portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Oriel College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Harriot did not observe alone. In London he observed together with his instrument maker Christopher Tooke in London, whilst Harriot’s pupil the landowner and MP, Sir William Lower observed in Wales, together with his neighbour John Prydderch, with a telescope made by Harriot and Tooke. Each pair took turns in observing comparing their results and then Harriot and Lower compared results by letter. This meant that they could be reasonably certain that what they had observed was real and not some optical artefacts produced by the poor quality of the lenses they were using. So here we have four telescopic astronomical observers independent of Galileo’s activities.

In Franconia Simon Marius also built and used telescopes in 1609, at the time unaware of the similar activities of Galileo in Padua. As I have written in another blog post Marius discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter just one day later and independently of Galileo. Marius also made the first telescopic observations of the Andromeda Nebula, significant because the Andromeda Nebula would later become the first galaxy to be recognised as a galaxy outside of our galaxy.

Simon Marius frontispiece from his Mundus Jovialis

Another telescopic pioneer in Southern Germany was the Jesuit astronomer in Ingolstadt, Christoph Scheiner, who famously became embroiled in a dispute with Galileo over who had first observed sunspots with a telescope and what exactly they were.

Christoph Scheinet (artist unknown)

The dispute was rather pointless, as Harriot had actually observed sunspots earlier than both of them and Johannes Fabricius, to whom we will turn next, had already published a report on his sunspot observations unknown to the two adversaries. Christoph Scheiner and his assistant, another Jesuit astronomer, Johann Baptist Cysat, would go on to make several important contributions to telescopic astronomy.

Johann Baptist Cysat, holding a Jacob’s staff

Johannes Fabricius brought his telescope home from the University of Leiden, where he had almost certainly learnt of this instrument through the lectures of Rudolph Snel van Royan, professor of mathematics and father of the better know Willibrord Snel of Snell’s law of refraction fame. Rudolph Snel van Royan was probably the first university professor to lecture on the telescope as a scientific instrument already in 1610.

Rudolph Snel van Royan
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is also known that Cort Aslakssøn and Christian Longomontanus acquired lenses and built their own telescopes in the first couple of years of telescopic astronomy in Copenhagen, but unfortunately I haven’t, until now, been able to find any more details of activities in this direction. If any of my readers could direct me to any literature on the subject I would be very grateful.

Christian Severin known as Longomontanus

Turning to Italy we find the astronomers on the Collegio Romano under the watchful eye of Christoph Clavius making telescopic astronomical observations before Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius in 1610, using a Dutch telescope sent to Odo van Maelcote by one of his earlier students Peter Scholier. Grégoire de Saint-Vincent would later claim that he and Odo van Maelcote were probably the very first astronomers to observe Saturn using a telescope. It was the astronomers of the Collegio Romano, most notably Giovanni Paolo Lembo and Christoph Grienberger, who would then go on to provide the very necessary independent confirmation of the discoveries that Galileo had published in the Sidereus Nuncius.

As can be seen Galileo was anything but the singlehanded pioneer of telescopic astronomy in those early months and years of the discipline. What is interesting is that those working within the discipline were not isolated lone warriors but a linked network, who exchanged letter and publications with each other.

Some of the connections that existed between the early telescopic astronomers are listed here: Harriot had corresponded extensively with Kepler and was very well informed about what Tycho and the other continental astronomers were up to. David Fabricius corresponded with Kepler and Tycho and even visited Tycho in Prague but unfortunately didn’t meet Kepler on his visit. Johannes would later take up correspondence with Kepler. Tycho corresponded with Magini in Bologna who passed on his news to both Galileo and Clavius. Clavius was also very well informed of all that was going on in European astronomy by the Jesuit network. Almost all of the Jesuit astronomers were students of his. Marius corresponded with Kepler, who published many of his astronomical discoveries before he did, and with David Fabricius, whom he had got to know when he visited Tycho in Prague to study astronomy. Longomontanus had earlier been Tycho’s chief assistant and corresponded with Kepler after he left Prague to return to Copenhagen. Interestingly another of Tycho’s assistants, Johannes Eriksen, visited both David Fabricius in Friesland and Thomas Harriot in London on the same journey.

What we have here is not Galileo Galilei as singlehanded pioneer of telescopic astronomy but a loosely knit European community of telescopic astronomers who all recognised and utilised the potential of this new instrument shortly after it appeared. They would soon be joined by others, in this case mostly motivated by Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, a few of them even supplied with telescopes out of Galileo’s own workshop. However what is very important to note is that although Galileo was without doubt the best telescopic observer of that first generation and certainly won the publication race, all of the discoveries that he made were also made independently and contemporaneously by others, so nothing would have been lost if he had never taken an interest in the spyglass from Holland.






[1] Because I pointed out the errors contained in this claim in a comment, it has now been removed from the Facebook post!

[2] J. L. Heilbron, Galileo, OUP, 2010, p. 151


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, Uncategorized

A birthday amongst the stars

Readers will probably be aware that as well as writing this blog I also hold, on a more or less regular basis, semi-popular, public lectures on the history of science. These lectures are as diverse as this blog and have been held in a wide variety of places. However I have, over the years, held more lectures in the Nürnberg Planetarium than anywhere else and last Thursday I was once again under the dome, this time not to hold a lecture but to help celebrate the ninetieth birthday of this august institution.

Before the twentieth century the term planetarium was a synonym for orrery, a mechanical model, which demonstrates the movements of the planets in the solar system. The beginnings of the planetarium in the modern sense was as Walther Bauersfeld, an engineer of the German optics company Zeiss, produced the plans for the construction of a planetarium projector based on earlier concepts. In 1923 the world’s first planetarium projector, the Zeiss Mark I, was demonstrated in the Zeiss factory in Jena and two months later on 21 October in the Deutschen Museum in Munich. Following further developments the first planetarium was opened in the Deutschen Museum on 7 May 1925.

Zeiss Mark I Planetarium Projector

Various German town and cities followed suit and the city council of Nürnberg signed a contract with Zeiss for a planetarium projector on 12 February 1925. The contract called for the city council to pay Zeiss 150, 000 Reichsmark ( a small fortune) in three instalments and 10% of the takings from the public shows. In a building on Rathenauplatz designed by Otto Ernst Schweizer the Nürnberg planetarium opened ninety years ago on 10 April 1927.

Original Nürnberg Planetarium

Fitted out with a new Zeiss Mark II projector the first of the so-called dumbbell design projectors with a sphere at each end for the north and south hemispheres. It was the world’s ninth planetarium.

Zeiss Mark II Planetarium Projector

From the very beginning the planetarium was born under a bad sign as the NSDAP (Nazi) city councillor, Julius Streicher, (notorious as the editor of the anti-Semitic weekly newspaper Der Stürmer) vehemently opposed the plans of the SPD council to build the planetarium. On 30 January 1933 the NSDAP seized power in Germany and the days of the planetarium were numbered. In November the planetarium director was ‘persuaded’ to recommend closing the planetarium and at the beginning of December it was closed. There were discussions about using the building for another purpose but Streicher, now Gauleiter (district commissioner) of Franconia was out for revenge. In March 1934 the planetarium was demolished on Streicher’s orders, with the argument that it looked too much like a synagogue! However the projector, and all the technical equipment, was rescued and put into storage.

Historischer Kunstbunker Entrance: There are guided tours

During the Second World War the projector was stored together with the art treasures of the city in the Historischer Kunstbunker (historical art bunker), a tunnel under the Castle of Nürnberg.

Following the war, in the 1950s, as Nürnberg was being rebuilt the city council decided to rebuild the planetarium and on 11 December 1961 it was reopened on the new site on the Plärrer, with an updated Zeiss Mark III. During the celebrations for the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Nicolaus Copernicus in 1973, whose De revolutionibus was printed and published in Nürnberg, the planetarium became the Nicolaus-Copernicus-Planetarium. In 1977 the Mark III projector was replaced with a Mark V, which is still in service and in 2010 the planetarium entered the twenty-first century with a digital Full-Dome projector.

Nicolaus-Copernicus-Planetarium am Plärrer in Nürnberg (2013)

The Zeiss Mark V Planetarium Projector in Nürnberg

Since the 1990’s the planetarium has been part of the City of Nürnberg’s adult education complex and alongside the planetarium programme it is used extensively for STEM lectures. I shall be holding my next lecture there on 28 November this year about Vannevar Bush, Claude Shannon, Robert H Goddard and William Shockley- Four Americans Who Shaped the Future (in German!) and if you’re in the area you’re welcome to come and throw peanuts.





Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, Uncategorized