Category Archives: History of Astronomy

The Huygens Enigma

The seventeenth century produced a large number of excellent scientific researches and mathematicians in Europe, several of whom have been elevated to the status of giants of science or even gods of science by the writers of the popular history of science. Regular readers of this blog should be aware that I don’t believe in the gods of science, but even I am well aware that not all researches are equal and the contributions of some of them are much greater and more important than those of others, although the progress of science is dependent on the contributions of all the players in the science game. Keeping to the game analogy, one could describe them as playing in different leagues. One thing that has puzzled me for a number of years is what I regard as the Huygens enigma. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens, who was born on the 14 April 1629, was a top premier league player but when those pop history of science writers list their gods they never include him, why not?

Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher, Museum Hofwijck, Voorburg Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher, Museum Hofwijck, Voorburg
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christiaan was the second son of Constantijn Huygens poet, composer, civil servant and diplomat and was thus born into the highest echelons of Dutch society. Sent to university to study law by his father Christiaan received a solid mathematical education from Frans van Schooten, one of the leading mathematicians in Europe and an expert on the new analytical mathematics of Descartes and Fermat. Already as a student Christiaan had contacts to top European intellectuals, including corresponding with Marine Mersenne, who confirmed his mathematical talent to his father. Later in his student life he also studied under the English mathematician John Pell.

Already at the age of twenty-five Christiaan dedicated himself to the scientific life, the family wealth sparing him the problem of having to earn a living. Whilst still a student he established himself as a respected mathematician with an international reputation and would later serve as one of Leibniz’s mathematics teachers. In his first publication at the age of twenty-two Huygens made an important contribution to the then relatively new discipline of probability. In physics Huygens originated what would become Newton’s second law of motion and in a century that saw the development of the concept of force it was Huygens’ work on centripetal force that led Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton to the derivation of the inverse square law of gravity. In fact in Book I of Principia, where Newton develops the physics that he goes on to use for his planetary theory in Book III, he only refers to centripetal force and never to the force of gravity. Huygens contribution to the Newtonian revolution in physics and astronomy was substantial and essential.

In astronomy Christiaan with his brother Constantijn ground their own lenses and constructed their own telescopes. He developed one of the early multiple lens eyepieces that improved astronomical observation immensely and which is still known as a Huygens eyepiece. He established his own reputation as an observational astronomer by discovering Titan the largest moon of Saturn. He also demonstrated that all the peculiar observations made over the years of Saturn since Galileo’s first observations in 1610 could be explained by assuming that Saturn had a system of rings, their appearance varying depending on where Saturn and the Earth were in their respective solar orbits at the time of observations. This discovery was made by theoretical analysis and not, as is often wrongly claimed, because he had a more powerful telescope.

In optics Huygens was, along with Robert Hooke, the co-creator of a wave theory of light, which he used to explain the phenomenon of double refraction in calcite crystals. Unfortunately Newton’s corpuscular theory of light initially won out over Huygens’ wave theory until Young and others confirmed Huygens’ theory in the nineteenth century.

Many people know Huygens best for his contributions to the history of clocks. He developed the first accurate pendulum clocks and was again along with Robert Hooke, who accused him of plagiarism, the developer of the balance spring watch. There were attempts to use his pendulum clocks to determine longitude but they proved not to be reliable enough under open sea conditions.

Huygens’ last book published posthumously, Cosmotheoros, is a speculation about the possibility of alien life in the cosmos.

Huygens made important contributions to many fields of science during the second half of the seventeenth century of which the above is but a brief and inadequate sketch and is the intellectual equal of any other seventeenth century researcher with the possible exceptions of Newton and Kepler but does not enjoy the historical reputation that he so obviously deserve, so why?

I personally think it is because there exists no philosophical system or magnum opus associated with his contributions to the development of science. He work is scattered over a series of relatively low-key publications and he offers no grand philosophical concept to pull his work together. Galileo had his Dialogo and his Discorsi, Descartes his Cartesian philosophy, Newton his Principia and his Opticks. It seems to be regarded as one of the gods of science it is not enough to be a top class premier league player who makes vital contributions across a wide spectrum of disciplines, one also has to have a literary symbol or philosophical methodology attached to ones name to be elevated into the history of science Olympus.

P.S. If you like most English speakers think that his name is pronounced something like Hoi-gens then you are wrong, it being Dutch is nothing like that as you can hear in this splendid Youtube video!


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Newton

The Reformation, Astrology, and Mathematics in Schools and Universities.

It is one of the ironies of the medieval universities that mathematics played almost no role in undergraduate education. It is ironical because the curriculum was nominally based on the seven liberal arts of which the mathematical sciences – arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy – formed one half, the quadrivium. Although the quadrivium was officially a large part of the curriculum in reality the four mathematical disciplines were paid little attention and hardly taught at all. This only began to change in the fifteenth century with the rise of astro-medicine or iatromathematics, to give it its formal name. With the rise of this astrology-based medicine the humanist universities of Northern Italy and Kraków introduced chairs of mathematics to teach astrology to their students of medicine. This of course entailed first teaching mathematics and then astronomy in order to be able to do astrology and thus mathematics gained a first foothold in the European universities. Ingolstadt became the first German university to introduce a chair for mathematics, also for teaching astrology to medical students, in the 1470s. It became an important centre for seeding new chairs at other universities with its graduates. Stabius and Stiborius going from there to Vienna with Celtis, for example. However there was no systematic introduction of mathematics into the university curriculum as of yet, this would first come as a result of the Reformation and the educational reforms of Philip Melanchthon.

Melanchthon in 1526: engraving by Albrecht Dürer Translation of Latin caption: «Dürer was able to draw Philip’s face, but the learned hand could not paint his spirit». Source: Wikimedia Commons

Melanchthon in 1526: engraving by Albrecht Dürer Translation of Latin caption: «Dürer was able to draw Philip’s face, but the learned hand could not paint his spirit».
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Melanchthon was born Philip Schwartzerdt in Bretten near Karlsruhe on 16 February 1497. A great nephew of Johann Reuchlin a leading humanist scholar Philip changed his name to Melanchthon, a literal Greek translation of his German name, which means black earth, at Reuchlin’s suggestion. Melanchthon was a child prodigy who would grow up to be Germany’s greatest humanist scholar. He studied at Heidelberg University where he was denied his master degree in 1512 on account of his youth. He transferred to Tübingen where he came under the influence of Johannes Stöffler, one of those Ingolstadt graduates, a leading and highly influential mathematician/astrologer.

Johannes Stöffler Source Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Stöffler
Source Wikimedia Commons

The cosmograph Sebastian Münster was another of Stöffler’s famous pupils. Stöffler also has a great influence on several of the Nürnberger mathematician-astronomers, especial Johannes Schöner and Georg Hartmann. Under Stöffler’s influence Melanchthon became a passionate supporter of astrology.

On Reuchlin’s recommendation Melanchthon became professor of Greek at Luther’s University of Wittenberg at the age of twenty-one and thus a central figure in the Reformation. One of the major problems faced by the reformers was the fact that the education system was totally in the hands of the Catholic Church, which meant that they had to start from scratch and create their own school and university system; this task was taken on by Melanchthon, who became Luther’s Preceptor Germania, Germany’s Schoolmaster.

Because of his own personal passion for astrology Melanchthon introduced mathematics into the curriculum of all the Lutheran schools and universities. He invented a new type of school on a level between the old Church Latin schools and the universities that were devised to prepare their pupils for a university education. The very first of these was the Eigidien Oberschule in Nürnberg, which opened in 1526 with Johannes Schöner, as its first professor for mathematics.


These type of school created by Melanchthon would become the Gymnasium, still today the highest level secondary schools in the German education system.

In Wittenberg he appointed Johannes Volmar (1480-1536) professor for the higher mathematic, music and astronomy, and Jakob Milich (1501- 1559) professor for the lower mathematic, arithmetic and geometry, in 1525. Their most famous students were Erasmus Reinhold, who followed Volmar on the chair for higher mathematics when he died in 1536, and Georg Joachim Rheticus, who followed Milich on the chair for lower mathematics, in the same year when Milich became professor for medicine. Schöner, Reinhold and Rheticus were not the only mathematicians supported by Melanchthon, who played an important role in the dissemination of the heliocentric astronomy. Although following Melanchthon’s lead these Protestant mathematicians treated the heliocentric hypothesis in a purely instrumentalist manner, i.e. it is not true but is mathematically useful, they taught it in their university courses alongside the geocentric astronomy.

As a result of Melanchthon’s passion for astrology the Lutheran Protestant schools and universities of Europe all had departments for the study of mathematics headed by qualified professors. The Catholic schools and universities would have to wait until the end of the sixteenth century before Christoph Clavius did the same for them, although his motivation was not astrology. Sadly Anglican England lagged well behind the continent with Oxford first appointing professors for geometry and astronomy in the 1620s at the bequest of Henry Savile, who had had to go abroad to receive his own mathematical education. Cambridge only followed suit with the establishment of the Lucasian Chair in 1663, whose first occupant was Isaac Barrow followed by that other Isaac, Newton. In 1705 John Arbuthnot could still complain in an essay that there was not one single school in England that taught mathematics.





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

It’s the wrong telescope.

I know I announced a blogging hiatus yesterday, but I have some time evenings and I simply couldn’t ignore this.

Caroline Herschel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Today is Caroline Herschel’s birthday and Google have celebrated it with a doodle, which is cool and an overdue acknowledgement of a great lady astronomer. If you don’t already know who Caroline Herschel is then you should read the two Guardian articles by Stuart Clark and Becky Higgitt. Google’s doodle is all well and good but I have a complaint, it’s the wrong telescope.

The Google doodle for Caroline Herschel’s 266th birthday. Photograph: google

The Google doodle for Caroline Herschel’s 266th birthday. Photograph: google

If you look at the picture Caroline is standing behind a mounted telescope and in the animated version of the doodle she bends down to look through the telescope as a comet flies passed overhead. This is to acknowledge the fact that she is most well known for the eight comets that she discovered. So what’s my problem? The telescope displayed in the doodle is a refractor that is a telescope with lenses at the front, the objective, and at the back, the eyepiece or ocular. The problem is that the Herschels, that is Caroline and her brother William, used reflectors; that is telescopes that have a mirror and not a lens as objective and then a lens or lenses as the eyepiece to observe the image created by the mirror. To be precise they used Newtonian reflectors that they built themselves. That they used Newtonians was rather unusual at the time because most other professional, or serious amateur like the Herschels, astronomers used Gregorian reflector telescopes, which are of a different design. The Gregorian is actually superior but the Newton is simpler to construct and this is almost certainly the reason that William stuck with Newtonians.

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Refractor. Herschel Museum Bath Source: Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Added: 17 March 2016

If you go to the article Caroline Lucretia Herschel – comet huntress (h/t Tony Angel)on the second page you can see sketches of the comet-sweeper Newtonian reflectors that William built for Caroline, which are not quite as elegant or impressive as the telescope pictured above but which served their purpose admirably.

The fact that the doodle shows a refractor and not a reflector is, viewed historically, not a trivial matter. In the eighteenth century the reflectors were capable of resolving much weaker light sources than the contemporary refractors and were thus superior for the type of deep space celestial mapping that William Herschel pioneered and which he taught to his younger sister. To show Caroline using a refractor and not a Herschel Newtonian reflector is a complete historical misrepresentation and totally misleading.

Now Google might argue that your average Google doodle viewer would probably not recognise a Herschel Newtonian reflector as a telescope and therefore they put a simple refractor in the picture as a generic telescope that people would recognise as such. All well and good but I can best explain my aversion by a simple analogy.

Lewis Hamilton is the current world Formula One racing champion. I want you to imagine the following. Next season Hamilton wins his fourth world championship and Google celebrate the occasion with one of their doodles, unlikely but you never know. So we get a cartoon of the well know figure of Lewis Hamilton in a Formula One racing car but he is not driving a Mercedes, the team for which he drives and has won two of his three titles up till now, but a Ferrari because that is the generic racing car that most people see in their minds eye when they think of racing cars. The Lewis Hamilton fans would probably launch a crusade against the Google head quarters in Mountain View and hang the offending doodler from a lamppost.

As far as I’m concerned in the history of science details matter a lot and the fact that the Herschels used Newtonian reflectors is not a triviality but an important factor in the astronomical achievements for which they are justifiably renowned. It should also be pointed out that this renown led to William becoming one of the commercially most successful telescope constructors in the eighteenth century because other astronomers wanted to own one of those telescopes, which had made the discoveries of William and Caroline possible.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

Christoph and the Calendar

The first substantive history of science post that I wrote on this blog was about the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christoph Clavius. I wrote this because at the time I was preparing a lecture on the life and work of Clavius to be held in his hometown Bamberg. Clavius is one of my local history of science celebrities and over the years I have become the local default Clavius expert and because of his involvement in the Gregorian calendar reform of 1572 I have also become the local default expert on that topic too.

Christoph Clavius

Christoph Clavius

All of this means that I have become very sensitive to incorrect statements about either Clavius or the Gregorian calendar reform and particularly sensitive to false statements about Clavius’ involvement in the latter. Some time back the Atlas Obscura website had a ‘time week’ featuring a series of blog post on the subject of time one of which, When The Pope Made 10 Days Disappear, was about the Gregorian calendar reform and contained the following claim:

The new lead astronomer on the project, Jesuit prodigy Christopher Clavius, considered this and other proposals for five years.

The brief statement contains three major inaccuracies, the most important of which, is that Clavius as not the lead astronomer, or lead anything else for that matter, on the project. This is a very widespread misconception and one to which I devote a far amount of time when I lecture on the subject, so I thought I would clear up the matter in a post. Before doing so I would point out that I have never come across any other reference to Clavius as a prodigy and there is absolutely nothing in his biography to suggest that he was one. That was the second major inaccuracy for those who are counting.

Before telling the correct story we need to look at the wider context as presented in the article before the quote I brought above we have the following:

A hundred years later, Pope Gregory XIII rolled up his sleeves and went for it in earnest. After a call for suggestions, he was brought a gigantic manuscript. This was the life’s work of physician Luigi Lilio, who argued for a “slow 10-day correction” to bring things back into alignment, and a new leap year system to keep them that way. This would have meant that years divisible by 100 but not by 400 (e.g. 1800, 1900, and 2100) didn’t get the extra day, thereby shrinking the difference between the solar calendar and the Earthly calendar down to a mere .00031 days, or 26 seconds.

Luigi LIlio Source: Wikimedia Commons

Luigi LIlio
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is correct as far as it goes, although there were two Europe wide appeals for suggestions and we don’t actually know how many different suggestions were made as the relevant documents are missing from the Vatican archives. It should also be pointed out the Lilio was a physician/astronomer/astrologer and not just simply a physician. Whether or not his manuscript was gigantic is not known because it no longer exists. Having decided to consider Lilio’s proposal this was not simply passed on to Christoph Clavius, who was a largely unknown mathematicus at the time, which should be obvious to anybody who gives more than five minutes thought to the subject.

The problem with the calendar, as far as the Church was concerned, was that they were celebrating Easter the most important doctrinal festival in the Church calendar on the wrong date. This was not a problem that could be decided by a mere mathematicus, at a time when the social status of a mathematicus was about the level of a bricklayer, it was far too important for that. This problem required a high-ranking Church commission and one was duly set up. This commission did not consider the proposal for five years but for at least ten and possibly more, again we are not sure due to missing documents. It is more than likely that the membership of the commission changed over the period of its existence but because we don’t have the minutes of its meetings we can only speculate. What we do have is the signatures of the nine members of the commission who signed the final proposal that was presented to the Pope at the end of their deliberations. It is to these names that we will now turn our attention.

The names fall into three distinct groups of three of which the first consists of the high-ranking clerics who actually lead this very important enquiry into a fundamental change in Church doctrinal practice. The chairman of the committee was of course a cardinal,Guglielmo Sirleto (1514–1584) a distinguished linguist and from 1570 Vatican librarian.

Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The vice chairman was Bishop Vincenzo Lauro (1523–1592) a Papal diplomat who was created cardinal in 1583. Next up was Ignatius Nemet Aloho Patriarch of Antioch and head of the Syriac Orthodox Church till his forced resignation in 1576. Ignatius was like his two Catholic colleagues highly knowledgeable of astronomy and was brought into the commission because of his knowledge of Arabic astronomy and also to try to make the reform acceptable to the Orthodox Churches. The last did not function as the Orthodox Churches initially rejected the reform only adopting it one after the other over the centuries with the exception of the Russian Eastern Orthodox Churches, whose church calendar is still the Julian one, which is why they celebrate Christmas on 6 7 January.

Our second triplet is a mixed bag. First up we have Leonardo Abela from Malta who functioned as Ignatius’ translator, he couldn’t speak Latin, and witnessed his signature on the commissions final report. He is followed by Seraphinus Olivarius an expert lawyer, whose role was to check that the reform did not conflict with any aspects of cannon law. The third member of this group was Pedro Chacón a Spanish mathematician and historian, whose role was to check that the reform was in line with the doctrines of the Church Fathers.

Our final triplet consists of what might be termed the scientific advisors. Heading this group is Antonio Lilio the brother of Luigi and like his brother a physician and astronomer. He was here to elucidate Luigi’s plan, as Luigi was already dead. The lead astronomer, to use the Atlas Obscura phase, was the Dominican monk Ignazio Danti (1536–1582) mathematician, astronomer, cosmographer, architect and instrument maker.

Ignazio Danti Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ignazio Danti
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a distinguished career Danti was cosmographer to Cosimo I, Duke of Tuscany whilst professor of mathematics at the university of Pissa, professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna and finally pontifical mathematicus in Rome. For the Pope Danti painted the Gallery of Maps in the Cortile del Belvedere in the Vatican Palace and deigned and constructed the instruments in the Sundial Rome of the Gregorian Tower of Tower of Winds above the Gallery of Maps.

Map of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia - Gallery of Maps - Vatican Museums. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Map of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia – Gallery of Maps – Vatican Museums.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the calendar reform the Pope appointed him Bishop of Altari. Danti was one of the leading mathematical practitioners of the age, who was more than capable of supplying all the scientific expertise necessary for the reform, so what was the role of Christoph Clavius the last signer of the commission’s recommendation.

The simple answer to this question is that we don’t know; all we can do is speculate. When Clavius (1538–1612) first joined the commission he was, in comparison to Danti, a relative nobody so his appointment to this high level commission with its all-star cast is somewhat puzzling. Apart from his acknowledged mathematical skills it seems that his membership of the Jesuit Order and his status as a Rome insider are the most obvious reasons. Although relative young the Jesuit Order was already a powerful group within the Church and would have wanted one of theirs in such a an important commission. The same thought concerns Clavius’ status as a Rome insider. The Church was highly fractional and all of the other members of the commission came from power bases outside of Rome, whereas Clavius, although a German, as professor at the Collegio Romano counted as part of the Roman establishment, thus representing that establishment in the commission. It was probably a bit of all three reasons that led to Clavius’ appointment.

Having established that Clavius only had a fairly lowly status within the commission how did the very widespread myth come into being that he was somehow the calendar reform man? Quite simply after the event he did in fact become just that.

When Pope Gregory accepted the recommendations of the commission and issued the papal bull Inter gravissimas on 24 February 1582, ordering the introduction of the new calendar on 4 October of the same year,


he granted Antonio Lilio an exclusive licence to write a book describing the details of the calendar reform and the modifications made to the process of calculating the date of Easter. The sales of the book, which were expected to be high, would then be the Lilio family’s reward for Luigi Lilio having created the mathematical basis of the reform. Unfortunately Antonio Lilio failed to deliver and after a few years the public demand for a written explanation of the reform had become such that the Pope commissioned Clavius, who had by now become a leading European astronomer and mathematician, to write the book instead. Clavius complied with the Pope’s wishes and wrote and published his Novi calendarii romani apologia, Rome 1588, which would become the first of a series of texts explaining and defending the calendar reform. The later was necessary because the reform was not only attacked on religious grounds by numerous Protestants, but also on mathematical and astronomical grounds by such leading mathematicians as François Viète and Michael Maestlin. Over the years Clavius wrote and published several thousand pages defending and explicating the Gregorian calendar reform and it is this work that has linked him inseparably with the calendar reform and not his activities in the commission.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of science, Local Heroes, Renaissance Science

The orbital mechanics of Johann Georg Locher a seventeenth-century Tychonic anti-Copernican

Our favourite guest blogger Chris Graney is back with a question. Busy translating the Disquisitiones mathematicae de controversis et novitatibus astronomicis (1614) of Johann Georg Locher, a student of Christoph Scheiner at the University of Ingolstadt, he came across a fascinating theory of orbital mechanics, which he outlines in this post. Chris’s question is how does this theory fit in with seventeenth-century force dependent orbital theories? Read the post and enlighten Chris with your history of astronomy wisdom!

Did Johann Georg Locher write something very interesting in 1614 about how the Earth could orbit the Sun under the influence of gravity? I am hoping that the RM and his many readers might be able to weigh in on this.

Who is Locher? He is the author of the 1614 Disquisitiones Mathematicae (Mathematical Disquisitions), an anti-Copernican book known primarily because Galileo made sport of it within his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican. It is the “booklet of theses, which is full of novelties” that Galileo has the anti-Copernican Simplicio drag out in order to defend one or another wrong-headed idea. Galileo describes the booklet’s author as producing arguments full of “falsehoods and fallacies and contradictions,” as “thinking up, one by one, things that would be required to serve his purposes, instead of adjusting his purposes step by step to things as they are,” and as being excessively bold and self-confident, “setting himself up to refute another’s doctrine while remaining ignorant of the basic foundations upon which the greatest and most important parts of the whole structure are supported.” As far as I can tell, little is known about Locher himself other than what he says in his book: he was from Munich; he studied at Ingolstadt under the Jesuit astronomer Christopher Scheiner. This is the same Scheiner who Galileo debated regarding sunspots. Some writers treat the Disquisitions as Scheiner’s work.

I became better acquainted with the Disquisitions through Dennis Danielson’s work on Milton, in which it plays a part. This prompted me to look at Locher’s work directly. Then I discovered that Locher wields Tycho Brahe’s star size argument against Copernicus, that he illustrates the Disquisitions lavishly, and that the Disquisitions is short. So I decided to read and translate it cover-to-cover.

The Disquisitions turns out to be fascinating. It is nothing like what one might expect from reading the Dialogue. And among the gems within it is this thing that Locher thinks up:

Imagine an L-shaped rod, buried in the Earth, with a heavy iron ball attached to it, as shown in the left-hand figure below. The heaviness or gravity of the ball (that is, its action of trying to reach its natural place at the center of the universe—in 1614 Newtonian physics was many decades in the future; Aristotelian physics was the rule) presses down on the rod, but the rigidity of the rod keeps the ball from falling.

Now imagine the rod being hinged at the Earth’s surface (at point A in the right-hand figure below). The heaviness of the ball will now cause the rod to pivot about the hinge. The ball will fall along an arc of a circle whose center is A, striking the Earth at B.


Now imagine the Earth is made smaller relative to the rod. The same thing will still occur—the rod pivots; the iron ball falls in a circular arc (below left). If the Earth is imagined to be smaller still, the rod will be what hits the ground, not the ball (below right), so the ball stops at C, but the ball still falls in a circular arc whose center is A.


If you imagine the Earth to be smaller and smaller, the ball still falls, driven by its gravity, in a circular arc (below). You can see where Locher is going! He is thinking his way toward a limiting case.


At last Locher says to imagine the rod to be pivoting on the center of the universe itself—the Earth vanishing to a point. Surely, he says, in this situation, a complete and perpetual revolution will take place around that same pivot point A (fiet reuolutio integra & perpetua circa idem A).


Now, he says, we have demonstrated that perpetual circular motion of a heavy body is possible. And if we imagine the Earth in the place of the iron ball, suspended over the center of the universe, now we have a thought experiment (cogitatione percipi possit—it may be able to be perceived by thought) that shows how the Earth might be made to revolve about that center (and about the sun, which would be at the center in the Copernican system). But this sort of thing does not exist, he says, and if it did exist, it would not help the Copernicans any, because no phenomena are saved—that is, no observations are explained—by means of it.

Below is Locher’s sketch of this. Curves MN, OP, and QR are the surface of the Earth, being imagined smaller and smaller. S is the iron ball. A is the center of the universe. Circle CHIC is the path of the orbiting ball.


So it seems that in 1614 an anti-Copernican—a student of one of Galileo’s adversaries—proposed a mechanism to explain the orbit of the Earth, and that mechanism involved a fall under a central force. This is not the Newtonian explanation of Earth’s orbit, but it does have significant elements in common with Newton. And, Locher was definitely an anti-Copernican. Indeed, while he illustrates telescopic discoveries such as the phases of Venus, and states that the telescope shows that the world is structured according to the Tychonic system (sun, moon, and stars circle Earth, planets circle sun), he clearly rejects Copernicus—on the grounds of the star size problem (and the Copernican tendency to invoke the Creator’s majesty to get around that problem) and on the grounds that a moving Earth grossly complicates the motions of bodies moving over its surface.


The history of orbital mechanics is not my bailiwick, so I ask RM readers whether they think Locher is a “first”? Is this really as interesting as it seems to me? Or do RM readers know of others who proposed the “an orbit is a fall under a central force” idea prior to Locher? Whether I search in English or in Latin I can find neither primary nor secondary sources that discuss the Disquisitions’ treatment of orbits, nor can I find primary or secondary sources that discuss orbits and central forces in general prior to the late-seventeenth century. In fact, I can find little written on the Disquisitions itself (outside of its role in the Dialogue), and what I have found typically conflicts with what is actually in the Disquisitions (for example, one author describes the Disquisitions as a book “in which the proponents of Earth’s motion were violently attacked,” but actually Locher’s worst words are for Simon Marius, a fellow supporter of the Tychonic system, while his most favorable words are for Galileo). But many of you are much more well-read than I am.

My searches did turn up one interesting item, however. Locher uses the term forced suspension to describe what is going on in an orbit (motus huius continui caussa est violenta suspensio—the cause of this continuing motion is forced suspension) and I have found that term in what appears to be another seventeenth-century Jesuit’s commentary on the work of Thomas Aquinas.

With luck the translation of Disquisitions will be published in a year or so.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science

The Arch-Humanist

The name Conrad Celtis is not one that you’ll find in most standard books on the history of mathematics, which is not surprising as he was a Renaissance humanist scholar best known in his lifetime as a poet. However, Celtis played an important role in the history of mathematics and is a good example of the fact that if you really wish to study the evolution of the mathematical sciences it is necessary to leave the narrow confines of the mathematics books.

Conrad Celtis: Gedächtnisbild von Hans Burgkmair dem Älteren, 1507 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Celtis: Gedächtnisbild von Hans Burgkmair dem Älteren, 1507
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born Konrad Bickel or Pyckell, (Conrad Celtis was his humanist pseudonym) the son of a winemaker, in Franconian Wipfield am Main near Schweinfurt on 1 February 1459, he obtained his BA at the University of Cologne in 1497. Unsatisfied with the quality of tuition in Cologne he undertook the first of many study journeys, which typified his life, to Buda in 1482, where he came into contact with the humanist circle on the court of Matthias Corvinus, the earlier patron of Regiomontanus. 1484 he continued his studies at the University of Heidelberg specialising in poetics and rhetoric, learning Greek and Hebrew and humanism as a student of Rudolf Agricola, a leading Dutch early humanist scholar. Celtis obtained his MA in 1485. 1486 found him underway in Italy, where he continued his humanist studies at the leading Italian universities and in conversation with many leading humanist scholars. Returning to Germany he taught poetics at the universities of Erfurt, Rostock and Leipzig and on 18 April 1487 he was crowned Poet Laureate by Emperor Friedrich III in Nürnberg during the Reichstag. In Nürnberg he became part of the circle of humanists that produced the Nürnberger Chronicle to which he contributed the section on the history and geography of Nürnberg. It is here that we see the central occupation of Celtis’ life that brought him into contact with the Renaissance mathematical sciences.

During his time in Italy he suffered under the jibes of his Italian colleges who said that whilst Italy had perfect humanist credentials being the inheritors of the ancient Roman culture, Germany was historically a land of uncultured barbarians. This spurred Celtis on to prove them wrong. He set himself the task of researching and writing a history of Germany to show that its culture was the equal of Italy’s. Celtis’ concept of history, like that of his Renaissance contemporaries, was more a mixture of our history and geography the two disciplines being regarded as two sides of the same coin. Geography being based on Ptolemaeus’ Geographia (Geographike Hyphegesis), which of course meant cartography, a branch of the mathematical sciences.

Continuing his travels in 1489 Celtis matriculated at the University of Kraków specifically to study the mathematical sciences for which Kraków had an excellent reputation. A couple of years later Nicolaus Copernicus would learn the fundamentals of mathematics and astronomy there. Wandering back to Germany via Prague and Nürnberg Celtis was appointed professor of poetics and rhetoric at the University of Ingolstadt in 1491/92. Ingolstadt was the first German university to have a dedicated chair for mathematics, established around 1470 to teach medical students astrology and the necessary mathematics and astronomy to cast a horoscope. When Celtis came to Ingolstadt there were the professor of mathematics was Andreas Stiborius (born Stöberl 1464–1515) who was followed by his best student Johannes Stabius (born Stöberer before 1468­–1522) both of whom Celtis convinced to support him in his cartographic endeavours.

In 1497 Celtis received a call to the University of Vienna where he established a Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum, that is a college for poetry and mathematics, with Stiborius, whom he had brought with him from Ingolstadt, as the professor for mathematics. In 1502 he also brought Stabius, who had succeeded Stiborius as professor in Ingolstadt, and his star student Georg Tanstetter to Vienna. Stiborius, Stabius and Tanstetter became what is known, to historians of mathematics, as the Second Viennese School of Mathematics, the First Viennese School being Johannes von Gmunden, Peuerbach and Regiomontanus, in the middle of the fifteenth century. Under these three Vienna became a major European centre for the mathematical sciences producing many important mathematicians the most notable being Peter Apian.

Although not a mathematician himself Conrad Celtis, the humanist poet, was the driving force behind one of the most important German language centres for Renaissance mathematics and as such earns a place in the history of mathematics. A dedicated humanist, wherever he went on his travels Celtis would establish humanist societies to propagate humanist studies and it was this activity that earned him the German title of Der Erzhumanist, in English the Arch Humanist. Celtis died in 1508 but his Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum survived him by twenty-two years, closing first in 1530



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

The greatest villain in the history of science?

In the popular version of the so-called astronomical revolution Andreas Osiander, who was born on the 19th December 1496 or 1498, is very often presented as the greatest villain in the history of science because he dared to suggest in the ad lectorum (to the reader) that he added to the front of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus that one could regard the heliocentric hypothesis as a mere mathematical model and not necessarily a true representation of the cosmos. Is the judgement of history just and who was Andreas Osiander anyway?

Andreas Osiander portrait by Georg Pencz Source: Wikimedia Commons

Andreas Osiander portrait by Georg Pencz
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Andreas Osiander was born in Gunzenhausen, a small town to the south of Nürnberg, the son of Endres Osannder a smith and Anna Herzog. His father was also a local councillor, who later became mayor. He entered the University of Ingolstadt in 1515 where he, amongst other things, studied Hebrew under Johannes Reuchlin one of the greatest humanist scholars in Germany at that time, the great uncle from Philipp Melanchthon and the leading Hebrew scholar of the age. In 1520 Osiander was ordained a priest and called to Nürnberg to teach Hebrew at the Augustinian Cloister. This had been a major centre for reformatory debate for a number of years and it is here that Osiander became a religious reformer. In 1522 he was appointed preacher at the Saint Lorenz church in Nürnberg and became the leading voice for religious reform in the city. In 1525 Nürnberg, a city-state, became the first state to officially adopt the Lutheran Protestant religion, and Osiander became a highly influential and powerful figure. He was largely responsible for converting Albrecht of Prussia to Protestantism and also had a major influence on Thomas Cranmer, later Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the Common Book of Prayer. A trivial pursuits fact is that Cranmer married one of Osiander’s nieces.

Osiander’s first links with the printer/publisher Johannes Petreius was as the author of polemical religious tracts, which Petreius published. How he became an editor for Petreius is not know. It is also not known when and where Osiander developed his interest in and knowledge of the mathematical sciences. What is certain is that it was Osiander who, after Petreius had discovered Cardano’s books at the book fair in Frankfurt, who wrote to the Italian mathematician/physician/philosopher on Petreius’ behalf offering to publish his books in Germany; an offer that Cardano was more than willing to accept. Osiander then became the editor of those books of Cardano’s that Petreius published over the years; a service for which Cardano thanks him very warmly in the preface to one of his books, praising him highly for his abilities as an editor.

When Rheticus published his account of Copernicus’ heliocentric astronomy in his Narratio Prima, in the form of an open letter addressed to Johannes Schöner, another of Petreius’ editors, it was Osiander who wrote to Rheticus on behalf of the publishing house showing great interest in the cyclical astrological theory of history outlined by Rheticus in his little book.

After Rheticus had brought the manuscript of De revolutionibus to Nürnberg, Philipp Melanchthon pressured him to take up the professorship for mathematics in Leipzig and Osiander took over the task of seeing the text through the press. It is here that Osiander added the ad lectorum to the finished book, which has, over the centuries, pulled down so much odium on his head. Is this harsh judgement of his actions justified or have we, as I believe, been blaming the wrong man for the last four and a half centuries.

In the early days of printing there was no such thing as authors rights. The rights to a book lay with the printer/publisher, who was also the first port of call should the authorities decide that a book or pamphlet was seditious, blasphemous or in any other way unacceptable. And please remember our concepts of freedom of speech simply did not exist in sixteenth-century Europe. The ad lectorum was added to De revolutionibus certainly with Petreius’ knowledge and almost certainly at his instigation. This is confirmed by his reaction as Copernicus’ friend Bishop Tiedemann Giese complained to the city council of Nürnberg about the inclusion of the ad lectorum in his dead friend’s magnum opus. Consulted by the council on the subject Petreius basically flew off the handle and told them to get stuffed, it was his book and he’d put what the hell he liked in it.

Osiander continued to edit the books of Cardano for Petreius but in 1548 the city of Nürnberg accepted the Augsburg Interim an edict issued by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who had just won a decisive victory against the Protestant forces, forcing the Protestant states within the Empire to revert to Catholicism. In a moonlight flit Osiander fled the city of Nürnberg and made his way north to Königsberg, where Albrecht appointed him professor of theology at the newly established university. This caused much bad blood, as Osiander was not a qualified theologian. In this position Osiander became embroiled in a major theological dispute with the supporters of Melanchthon in Wittenberg over the doctrine of justification. This dispute is known in German church history as the Osiander Dispute and led to a schism between the two parties, with Osiander basically forming his own branch of Protestantism.

Osiander died in 1552 a controversial figure both in the history of religion and the history of science. However as I have sketched above I think his bad reputation in the history of science is not really justified and the real villain of the piece, if there is one, is Johannes Petreius. I say if there is one, because many historians are of the opinion that the ad lectorum saved the De revolutionibus from being condemned straight away, when it was published, and allowed the heliocentric hypothesis it contained to spread relatively unhindered and become established.



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