Category Archives: History of Astronomy

Isaac and the apple – the story and the myth

The tale of Isaac Newton and the apple is, along with Archimedes’ bath time Eureka-ejaculation and Galileo defiantly mumbling ‘but it moves’ whilst capitulating before the Inquisition, is one of the most widely spread and well known stories in the history of science. Visitors to his place of birth in Woolsthorpe get to see a tree from which the infamous apple is said to have fallen, inspiring the youthful Isaac to discover the law of gravity.

The Woolsthorpe Manor apple tree Source:Wikimedia Commons

The Woolsthorpe Manor apple tree
Source:Wikimedia Commons

Reputed descendants of the tree exist in various places, including Trinity College Cambridge, and apple pips from the Woolsthorpe tree was taken up to the International Space Station for an experiment by the ‘first’ British ISS crew member, Tim Peake. Peake’s overalls also feature a Principia patch displaying the apple in fall.

Tim Peake's Mission Logo

Tim Peake’s Mission Logo

All of this is well and good but it leads automatically to the question, is the tale of Isaac and the apple a real story or is it just a myth? The answer is that it is both.

Modern historians of Early Modern science tend to contemptuously dismiss the whole story as a myth. One who vehemently rejects it is Patricia Fara, who is an expert on Newtonian mythology and legend building having researched and written the excellent book, Newton: The Making of Genius[1]. In her Science: A Four Thousand Year History she has the following to say about the apple story[2]:

More than any other scientific myth, Newton’s falling apple promotes the romantic notion that great geniuses make momentous discoveries suddenly and in isolation […] According to simplistic accounts of its [Principia’s] impact, Newton founded modern physics by introducing gravity and simultaneously implementing two major transformations in methodology: unification and mathematization. By drawing a parallel between an apple and the Moon, he linked an everyday event on Earth with the motion of the planets through the heavens, thus eliminating the older, Aristotelian division between the terrestrial and celestial realms.


Although Newton was undoubtedly a brilliant man, eulogies of a lone genius fail to match events. Like all innovators, he depended on the earlier work of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and countless others […]


The apple story was virtually unknown before Byron’s time. [Fara opens the chapter with a Byron poem hailing Newton’s discovery of gravity by watching the apple fall].

Whilst I would agree with almost everything that Fara says, here I think she is, to quote Kepler, guilty of throwing out the baby with the bath water. But before I explain why I think this let us pass review of the myth that she is, in my opinion, quite rightly rejecting.

The standard simplistic version of the apple story has Newton sitting under the Woolsthorpe Manor apple tree on a balmy summer’s day meditation on mechanics when he observes an apple falling. Usually in this version the apple actually hits him on the head and in an instantaneous flash of genius he discovers the law of gravity.

This is of course, as Fara correctly points out, a complete load of rubbish. We know from Newton’s notebooks and from the draughts of Principia that the path from his first studies of mechanics, both terrestrial and celestial, to the finished published version of his masterpiece was a very long and winding one, with many cul-de-sacs, false turnings and diversions. It involved a long and very steep learning curve and an awful lot of very long, very tedious and very difficult mathematical calculations. To modify a famous cliché the genius of Principia and the theories that it contains was one pro cent inspiration and ninety-nine pro cent perspiration.

If all of this is true why do I accuse Fara of throwing out the baby with the bath water? I do so because although the simplistic story of the apple is a complete myth there really was a story of an apple told by Newton himself and in the real versions, which differ substantially from the myth, there is a core of truth about one step along that long and winding path.

Having quoted Fara I will now turn to, perhaps Newton’s greatest biographer, Richard Westfall. In his Never at Rest, Westfall of course addresses the apple story:

What then is one to make of the story of the apple? It is too well attested to be thrown out of court. In Conduitt’s version one of four independent ones, …

Westfall tells us that the story is in fact from Newton and he told to on at least four different occasions to four different people. The one Westfall quotes is from John Conduitt, who was Newton’s successor at the Royal Mint, married his niece and house keeper Catherine Barton and together with her provided Newton with care in his last years. The other versions are from the physician and antiquarian William Stukeley, who like Newton was from Lincolnshire and became his friend in the last decade of Newton’s life, the Huguenot mathematician Abraham DeMoivre, a convinced Newtonian and Robert Greene who had the story from Martin Folkes, vice-president of the Royal Society whilst Newton was president. There is also an account from Newton’s successor as Lucasian professor, William Whiston, that may or may not be independent. The account published by Newton’s first published biographer, Henry Pemberton, is definitely dependent on the accounts of DeMoivre and Whiston. The most well known account is that of Voltaire, which he published in his Letters Concerning the English Nation, London 1733 (Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais, Rouen, 1734), and which he says he heard from Catherine Conduitt née Barton. As you can see there are a substantial number of sources for the story although DeMoivre’s account, which is very similar to Conduitt’s doesn’t actually mention the apple, so as Westfall says to dismiss it out of hand is being somewhat cavalier, as a historian.

To be fair to Fara she does quote Stukeley’s version before the dismissal that I quoted above, so why does she still dismiss the story. She doesn’t, she dismisses the myth, which has little in common with the story as related by the witnesses listed above. Before repeating the Conduitt version as quoted by Westfall we need a bit of background.

In 1666 Isaac, still an undergraduate, had, together with all his fellow students, been sent down from Cambridge because of an outbreak of the plague. He spent the time living in his mother’s house, the manor house in Woolsthorpe, teaching himself the basics of the modern terrestrial mechanics from the works of Descartes, Huygens and the Salisbury English translation of Galileo’s Dialogo. Although he came nowhere near the edifice that was the Principia, he did make quite remarkable progress for a self-taught twenty-four year old. It was at this point in his life that the incident with the apple took place. We can now consider Conduitt’s account:

In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge … to his mother in Lincolnshire & whilst he was musing in a garden it came to his thought that the power of gravity (wch brought an apple from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but that this power must extend much further than was normally thought. Why not as high as the moon said he to himself & if so that must influence her motion & and perhaps retain her in her orbit, where-upon he fell to calculating what would be the effect of this supposition but being absent from books & taking common estimate in use among Geographers & our seamen before Norwood had measured the earth, that 60 English miles were contained in one degree latitude on the surface of the Earth his computation did not agree with his theory & inclined him to entertain a notion that together with the force of gravity there might be a mixture of that force wch the moon would have if it was carried along in a vortex…[3]

As you can see the account presented here by Conduitt differs quite substantially from the myth. No tree, no apple on the head, no instantaneous discovery of the theory of gravity. What we have here is a young man who had been intensely studying the theory of forces, in particular forces acting on a body moving in a circle, applying what he had learnt to an everyday situation the falling apple and asking himself if those forces would also be applicable to the moon. What is of note here is the fact that his supposition didn’t work out. Based on the data he was using, which was inaccurate, his calculations showed that the forces acting on the apple and those acting on the moon where not the same! An interesting thought but it didn’t work out. Oh well, back to the drawing board. Also of note here is the reference to a vortex, revealing Newton to be a convinced Cartesian. By the time he finally wrote the Principia twenty years later he had turned against Descartes and in fact Book II of Principia is devoted to demolishing Descartes’ vortex theory.

In 1666 Newton dropped his study of mechanics for the meantime and moved onto optics, where his endeavours would prove more fruitful, leading to his discoveries on the nature of light and eventually to his first publication in 1672, as well as the construction of his reflecting telescope.

The Newtonian Reflector Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Newtonian Reflector
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Over the next two decades Newton developed and extended his knowledge of mechanics, whilst also developing his mathematical skills so that when Halley came calling in 1684 to ask what form a planetary orbit would take under an inverse squared law of gravity, Newton was now in a position to give the correct answer. At Halley’s instigation Newton now turned that knowledge into a book, his Principia, which only took him the best part of three years to write! As can be seen even with this briefest of outlines there was definitely nothing instantaneous or miraculous about the creation of Newton’ masterpiece.

So have we said all that needs to be said about Newton and his apple, both the story and the myth? Well no. There still remains another objection that has been raised by historians, who would definitely like to chuck the baby out with the bath water. Although there are, as noted above, multiple sources for the apple-story all of them date from the last decade of Newton’s life, fifty years after the event. There is a strong suspicion that Newton, who was know to be intensely jealous of his priorities in all of his inventions and discoveries, made up the apple story to establish beyond all doubt that he and he alone deserved the credit for the discovery of universal gravitation. This suspicion cannot be simply dismissed as Newton has form in such falsification of his own history. As I have blogged on an earlier occasion, he definitely lied about having created Principia using the, from himself newly invented, calculus translating it back into conventional Euclidian geometry for publication. We will probably never know the final truth about the apple-story but I for one find it totally plausible and am prepared to give Isaac the benefit of the doubt and to say he really did take a step along the road to his theory of universal gravitation one summer afternoon in Woolsthorpe in the Year of Our Lord 1666.

[1] Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius, Columbia University Press, 2002

[2] Patricia Fara, Science: A Four Thousand Year History, ppb. OUP, 2010, pp. 164-165

[3] Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, ppb. CUP, 1980 p. 154


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

Tracking the Messenger of the Gods

On 9 May the astronomers of Europe, and other regions, having screwed their sun filters onto their telescopes, will settle down to observe a transit of Mercury. For any not familiar with astronomical jargon that is when the planet Mercury crosses the face of the sun.

Astronomy Picture of the Day: A Mercury Transit Sequence: Image Credit & Copyright Dominique Dierick

Astronomy Picture of the Day: A Mercury Transit Sequence: Image Credit & Copyright Dominique Dierick

Neither as rare nor as spectacular as the similar transits of Venus, it will still be regarded as a major event in the astronomical calendar. Transits of Venus occur in pairs separated by eight years approximately once every one hundred and twenty years. The last pair was in 2004 and 2012. The cycle of occurrences of transits of Mercury is much more complex but there will be a total of fourteen in the twenty-first century with next Monday’s being the third. Because Mercury is much smaller than Venus and much further from the Earth, unlike a transit of Venus which can be observed with the naked-eye (taking the necessary precautions against the sunlight of course), a transit of Mercury can only be observed with a telescope. The French astronomer, Pierre Gassendi, was the first person to observe a transit of Mercury in 1631 but this historic event was preceded by a couple of thousand years of speculation about the orbital path of the Messenger of the Gods.

Pierre Gassendi after Louis-Édouard Rioult. Source: Wikimedia Common

Pierre Gassendi
after Louis-Édouard Rioult.
Source: Wikimedia Common

Both Mercury and Venus when viewed from the Earth never appear to move very far away from the sun leading some astronomers in antiquity to suggest the so-called Heracleidian of Egyptian system in which the two planets orbited the sun whilst the sun orbited the earth in a geocentric system. Thanks to the De nuptiis of Martianus Cappella (fl. 410-420 CE) this partial helio-geocentric model was well known and moderately popular in the Middle Ages, so the idea that Mercury and Venus orbit the sun was not new when Tycho Brahe suggested it in his full helio-geocentric system, in which all the planets, except the moon, orbit the sun which in turn orbits the earth.

Naboth's representation of Martianus Capella's geo-heliocentric astronomical model (1573) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Naboth’s representation of Martianus Capella’s geo-heliocentric astronomical model (1573)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1608 Hans Lipperhey invented the telescope and within a very short time various astronomers began to use it to observe the heavens. In November 1610 Benedetto Castelli (1578–1643) wrote to Galileo reminding him that Copernicus had predicted that Venus would have phases like the moon in a heliocentric system[1].

Benedetto Castelli

Benedetto Castelli Source: Wikimedia Commons

On 11 December Galileo wrote to Kepler informing him that he had discovered those phases, famously putting the information into an anagram, which Kepler failed to decode properly. Galileo was not alone in making these observations, Thomas Harriot in England, Simon Marius in Germany and Giovanni Paolo Lembo in Rome all independently discovered the phases proving that Venus did indeed orbit the sun and by analogy Mercury probably did as well. The telescopes in the early seventeenth century were not powerful enough to resolve the phases of Mercury.

That Venus and Mercury had been shown to orbit the sun was not a proof of heliocentricity, as this was also the case in the Heracleidian as well as various Tychonic and semi-Tychonic systems but it did mean that theoretically it should be possible to observe a transit of one or the other of them. Due to the fact that the orbits of the earth, Venus and Mercury do not all lie in the same plane but are all slightly tilted with respect to each other a visible transit does not occur by every orbit but as mentioned above at semi regular irregular intervals and in order to observe such a transit someone first had to calculate when they would take place. This task was carried out by Johannes Kepler in his Rudolphine Tables based on Tycho Brahe’s observations and published in 1627.

Frontispiece Rudolphine Table 1627 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece Rudolphine Table 1627
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Using the information supplied by Kepler’s tables Gassendi tried to observe a transit of Venus in 1631 unaware that it would take place at nighttime for an observer in Europe. Kepler’s table lacked this level of accuracy. However earlier in the same year, on 7 November, Gassendi had become the first person to observe a transit of Mercury. The first observation of a transit of Venus was made by Jeremiah Horrocks in 1639. Gassendi was very initially cautious in going public with his discovery because his measurements of the size of the planet showed it to be much smaller than previous estimates. However three further transit observations in the seventeenth century, Jeremy Shakerly 1651, Christiaan Huygens 1661 and Edmund Halley 1677, confirmed Gassendi’s first observations and measurements.

Observation of transits of Mercury have long since become routine but that won’t stop the amateur and professional astronomers on next Monday putting up their telescopes to follow the tracks of the Messenger of the Gods as he plods his way across the sun.

[1] For a fuller description of the discovery of the phases of Venus and its significance for the history of heliocentricity see my post The Phases of Venus and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide.




Filed under History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

The Astrolabe – an object of desire

Without doubt the astrolabes is one of the most fascinating of all historical astronomical instruments.

Astrolabe Renners Arsenius 1569 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Astrolabe Renners Arsenius 1569
Source: Wikimedia Commons

To begin with it is not simply one object, it is many objects in one:


  • An astronomical measuring device
  • A timepiece
  • An analogue computer
  • A two dimensional representation of the three dimensional celestial sphere
  • A work of art and a status symbol


This Medieval-Renaissance Swiss Army penknife of an astronomical instrument had according to one medieval Islamic commentator, al-Sufi writing in the tenth century, more than one thousand different functions. Even Chaucer in what is considered to be the first English language description of the astrolabe and its function, a pamphlet written for a child, describes at least forty different functions.

The astrolabe was according to legend invented by Hipparchus of Nicaea, the second century BCE Greek astronomer but there is no direct evidence that he did so. The oldest surviving description of the planisphere, that two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional celestial sphere, comes from Ptolemaeus in the second century CE.

Modern Planisphere Star Chart c. 1900 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Modern Planisphere Star Chart c. 1900
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Theon of Alexandria wrote a thesis on the astrolabe, in the fourth century CE, which did not survive and there are dubious second-hand reports that Hypatia, his daughter invented the instrument. The oldest surviving account of the astrolabe was written in the sixth century CE by John Philoponus. However it was first the Islamic astronomers who created the instrument, as it is known today, it is said for religious purposes, to determine the direction of Mecca and the time of prayer. The earliest surviving dated instrument is dated 315 AH, which is 927/28 CE.

The Earliest  Dated Astrolabe Source: See Link

The Earliest Dated Astrolabe
Source: See Link

It is from the Islamic Empire that knowledge of the instrument found its way into medieval Europe. Chaucer’s account of it is based on that of the eight-century CE Persian Jewish astrologer, Masha’allah ibn Atharī, one of whom claim to fame is writing the horoscope to determine the most auspicious date to found the city of Baghdad.

So-called Chaucer Astrolabe dated 1326, similar to the one Chaucer describes, British Museum Source: Wikimedia Commons

So-called Chaucer Astrolabe dated 1326, similar to the one Chaucer describes, British Museum
Source: Wikimedia Commons

However this brief post is not about the astrolabe as a scientific instrument in itself but rather the last point in my brief list above the astrolabe as a work of art and a status symbol. One of the reasons for people’s interest in astrolabes is the fact that they are simply beautiful to look at. This is not a cold, functional scientific instrument but an object to admire, to cherish and desire. A not uncommon reaction of people being introduced to astrolabes for the first time is, oh that is beautiful; I would love to own one of those. And so you can there are people who make replica astrolabes but buying one will set you back a very pretty penny.

That astrolabes are expensive is not, however, a modern phenomenon. Hand crafted brass, aesthetically beautiful, precision instruments, they were always very expensive and the principal market would always have been the rich, often the patrons of the instrument makers. The costs of astrolabes were probably even beyond the means of most of the astronomers who would have used them professionally and it is significant that most of the well know astrolabe makers were themselves significant practicing astronomers; according to the principle, if you need it and can’t afford it then make it yourself. Other astronomers would probably have relied on their employers/patrons to supply the readies. With these thoughts in mind it is worth considering the claim made by David King, one of the world’s greatest experts on the astrolabe, that the vast majority of the surviving astrolabes, made between the tenth nineteenth centuries – about nine hundred – were almost certainly never actually used as scientific instruments but were merely owned as status symbols. This claim is based on, amongst other things, the fact that they display none of the signs of the wear and tear, which one would expect from regular usage.

Does this mean that the procession of astrolabes was restricted to a rich elite and their employees? Yes and no. When European sailors began to slowly extend their journeys away from coastal waters into the deep sea, in the High Middle Ages they also began to determine latitude as an element of their navigation. For this purpose they needed an instrument like the astrolabe to measure the elevation of the sun or of chosen stars. The astrolabe was too complex and too expensive for this task and so the so-called mariners astrolabe was developed, a stripped down, simplified, cheaper and more robust version of the astrolabe. When and where the first mariner’s astrolabe was used in not known but probably not earlier than the thirteenth century CE. Although certainly not cheap, the mariner’s astrolabe was without doubt to be had for considerably less money than its nobler cousin.


Mariner’s Astrolabe Francisco de Goes 1608 Source: Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Firenze

Another development came with the advent of printing in the fifteenth century, the paper astrolabe. At first glance this statement might seem absurd, how could one possibly make a high precision scientific measuring instrument out of something, as flexible, unstable and weak as paper? The various parts of the astrolabe, the planisphere, the scales, the rete star-map, etc. are printed onto sheets of paper. These are then sold to the customer who cuts them out and pastes them onto wooden forms out of which he then constructs his astrolabe, a cheap but serviceable instrument. One well-known instrument maker who made and sold printed-paper astrolabes and other paper instruments was the Nürnberger mathematician and astronomer Georg Hartmann. The survival rate of such cheap instruments is naturally very low but we do actually have one of Hartmann’s wood and paper astrolabes.

Hartmann Paper Astrolabe Source: Oxford Museum of History of Science

Hartmann Paper Astrolabe
Source: Oxford Museum of History of Science

In this context it is interesting to note that, as far as can be determined, Hartmann was the first instrument maker to develop the serial production of astrolabes. Before Hartmann each astrolabe was an unicum, i.e. a one off instrument. Hartmann standardised the parts of his brass astrolabes and produced them, or had them produced, in batches, assembling the finished product out of these standardised parts. To what extent this might have reduced the cost of the finished article is not known but Hartmann was obviously a very successful astrolabe maker as nine of those nine hundred surviving astrolabes are from his workshop, probably more than from any other single manufacturer.

Hartmann Serial Production Astrolabe Source: Museum Boerhaave

Hartmann Serial Production Astrolabe
Source: Museum Boerhaave


If this post has awoken your own desire to admire the beauty of the astrolabe then the biggest online collection of Medieval and Renaissance scientific instruments in general and astrolabes in particular is the Epact website, a collaboration between the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, the British Museum, the Museum of the History of Science in Florence and the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden.

This blog post was partially inspired by science writer Philip Ball with whom I had a brief exchange on Twitter a few days ago, which he initiated, on our mutual desire to possess a brass astrolabe.






Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, History of Technology, Mediaeval Science, Renaissance Science

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