Category Archives: History of Mathematics

Can we please stop (mis)quoting Albert on Emmy, it’s demeaning?

Emmy Noether, whom I’ve blogged about a couple of times in the past, is without any doubt one of the greats in the history of mathematics, as is well documented by the testimonials written by some of the greatest contemporary mathematicians and physicists and collected in Auguste Dick’s slim but well research biography, Emmy Noether: 1882–1935.

Emmy Noether c. 1930
Source:Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday was World Maths Day and the Royal Society tweeted portraits of mathematicians with links to articles all day, one of those tweets was about Emmy Noether. The tweet included a paraphrase of a well known quote from Albert Einstein, after all what could be better than a quote from old Albert the greatest of the great? Well almost anything actually, as the Einstein quote is highly demeaning. As given informally by the Royal Society it read as follows:

Emmy Noether was described by Einstein as the most important woman in the history of mathematics.

What Einstein actually wrote in a letter to the New York Times on the occasion of her death in 1935 was the following:

In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered, methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians.

In the same year, but before she died, Norbert Wiener wrote:

Miss Noether is… the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived; and the greatest woman scientist of any sort now living, and a scholar at least on the plane of Madame Curie.

Now I’m sure that the Royal Society, Albert Einstein and Norbert Wiener all meant well, but take a step back and consider what all of them said in their different ways, Emmy Noether was pretty good for a woman [my emphasis].

Emmy Noether was one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, male or female, man or woman, about that there is absolutely no doubt, to qualify that praise with the term woman is quite simple demeaning.

In my mind it triggers the text of Melanie Safka’s mega pop hit from 1971, Brand New Key:

I ride my bike, I roller skate, don’t drive no car

Don’t go too fast, but I go pretty far

For somebody who don’t drive

I been all around the world

Some people say, I done all right for a girl [my emphasis]

On twitter, space archaeologist, Alice Gorman (@drspacejunk) took it one stage further, in my opinion correctly, and asked, “Dare I cite Samuel Johnson’s aphorism about the talking dog?” For those who are not up to speed on the good doctor’s witticisms:

I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” – Boswell: Life

Can we please in future when talking about Emmy Noether resist the temptation to quote those who affix their praise of her mathematical talents with the term woman and just acknowledge her as a great mathematician?

 

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Filed under History of Mathematics, Ladies of Science

A Lady Logician

Today George Boole is regarded as one of the founders of the computer age that now dominates our culture.

George Boole
Source: Wikimedia Commons

His algebra lies at the base of computer circuit design and of most computer programming languages and Booleans power the algorithms of the ubiquitous search engines. As a result two years ago the bicentenary of his birth was celebrated extensively and very publically. All of this would have been very hard to predict when his work on the algebra of logic first saw the light of day in the nineteenth century. His first publication Mathematical Analysis of Logic (1847) was largely ignored by the wider world of mathematics and his definitive presentation of his logic An Investigation of the Laws of Thought on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities fared little better, initially attracting very little attention. It was only some time after his death that Boole’s logical works began to attract deeper interest, most notably in Germany by Ernst Schröder and in America by Charles Sanders Peirce.

Charles Sanders Peirce
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1883 Peirce published Studies in Logic: by Members of the Johns Hopkins University, edited by himself it contained seven papers written largely by his students. Of central interest is the fact that it contains a doctoral thesis, On the Algebra of Logic, written by a women, Christine Ladd.

Christine Ladd’s life story is a casebook study of the prejudices that women, who wished to enter academia suffered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born 1 December 1847 (the year Boole published his first logic book) in Windsor, Connecticut the daughter of Eliphalet and Augusta Ladd, she grew up in New York and Windsor. Her mother and her aunt Julie Niles brought her up to believe in education for women and women’s rights. Her mother died in 1860 but her father initially supported her wish for advanced education and enrolled her at Welshing academy in a two year course for preparing students for college; she graduated as valedictorian in 1865 but now her father opposed her wish to go on to college. Only by arguing that she was too ugly to get a husband was she able to persuade her father and grandmother to allow her to study at the women’s college Vassar. She entered Vassar in 1866 but was forced by financial difficulties to leave before completing her first year. She now became a schoolteacher until her aunt helped her to finance her studies and she returned to Vassar.

At Vassar the pioneering female astronomer Maria Mitchell took her under her wing and fostered her developing interest in physics and mathematics.

Due to the fact that women could not do experiment work in laboratories she was forced to choose mathematics[1] over physics, a decision that she regretted all of her life. She graduated from Vassar in 1869 and became a secondary school teacher of mathematics and science in Washington, Pennsylvania. Over the next nine years she published six items in The Analyst: A Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics and three in the American Journal of Mathematics. More importantly she took a very active part in the mathematical questions column of the Educational Times, the journal of the College of Preceptors in London, a profession body for schoolteachers. This mathematical questions column was a very popular forum for nineteenth century mathematicians and logicians with many leading practitioners contribution both question and solutions. For example the nineteenth-century Scottish logician Hugh McColl published his first logical essays here and Bertrand Russell’s first mathematical publication can also be found here[2]. Ladd contributed a total of seventy-seven problem and solution to the Education Times, which would prove highly significant for her future career.

In 1878 she applied for and won a fellowship to study mathematics at the Johns Hopkins University. Her fellowship application was simply signed C. Ladd and the university had assumed that she was male. When they realised that she was in fact a woman, they withdrew their offer of a fellowship. However the English professor of mathematics at Johns Hopkins, James J. Sylvester, who knew of Ladd’s abilities from those Educational Times contribution insisted on the university honouring the fellowship offer.

James Joseph Sylvester
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the time Johns Hopkins did not have a very good reputation but Sylvester did, in fact he was a mathematical star, not wishing to lose him the university conceded and allowed Ladd to take up her three-year scholarship. However her name was not allowed to be printed in circulars and basically the university denied her existence. At the beginning she was only allowed to attend Sylvester’s classes but as it became clear that she was an exceptional student she was allowed to attend classes by other professors.

In the year 1879 to 1880 she studied mathematics, logic and psychology under Charles Sanders Peirce becoming the first American women to be involved in psychology. Under Peirce’s supervision she wrote her doctoral thesis On the Algebra of Logic, which was then, as mentioned above, published in 1883. Although she had completed all the requirements of a doctoral degree Johns Hopkins University refused to award her a doctorate because she was a woman. They only finally did so forty-four years later in 1927, when she was already seventy-eight years old.

In 1882 she married fellow Johns Hopkins mathematician Fabian Franklin and became Christine Ladd-Franklin, the name by which she is universally known today. As a married woman she was barred from holding a paid position at an American university but she would lecture unpaid for five years on logic and psychology at Johns Hopkins and later at Columbia University for thirty years.

In the 1880s she developed an interest in vision and theories of colour perception publishing her first paper on the subject in 1887. She accompanied her husband on a research trip to Germany 1891-92 and used the opportunity to study with the psychologist Georg Elias Müller (1850–1934) in Göttingen

George Elias Muller
Source: Wikimedia Commons

and with the physiologist and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) in Berlin.

Hermannvon Helmholtz in 1848
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1894 she returned alone to Germany to work with physicist Arthur König (1856–1901), with whom she did not get on and whom she accused of having stolen her ideas, and again in 1901 to work with Müller.

Portrait of Arthur Konig from Pokorny, J.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a result of her researches she developed and published her own theories of colour vision and the causes of colour blindness that were highly influential.

Ladd-Franklin was a tireless campaigner for women’s rights and even persuaded the inventor of the record player, Emile Berliner, to establish a fellowship for female professors, the Sarah Berliner postdoctoral endowment, in 1909, which she administered for the first ten years and which is still awarded annually.

Emile Berliner
Source: Wikimedia Commons

She herself continued to suffer rejection and humiliation as a female academic. In 1904 the British psychologist Edward Titchener (1867–1927) founded a society for experimental psychologists, “The Experimentalists”, and although he knew Ladd-Franklin well her barred her, as a woman, from membership. A decision, which she fought against in vain for many years. Women were only permitted to attend following Titchener’s death.

Edward Bradford Kitchener
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the discrimination that she suffered Christine Ladd-Franklin published many papers in the leading journals and her work was held in high regard. She died of pneumonia, aged 82, in 1930. Today the American Association for women in Psychology have an annual Christine-Ladd Franklin Award, awarded for significant and substantial contributions to the Association.

Christine Ladd-Franklin
(1847–1930)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although she struggled against prejudice and discrimination all of her life and never received the formal recognition that should have been her due, Christine Ladd-Franklin made significant contributions to the fields of Boolean algebra and colour vision for which she is highly regarded today. Through her fighting spirit and unbending will she helped open the doors of scientific research and academia for later generations of women.

 

 

[1] It is interesting to note that barred from access to academia and its institutions a small but significant number of women managed to some extent to break through the glass ceiling in logic and the mathematics in the nineteenth century, because these are subjects in which one can make an impression with nothing more than a pencil and a piece of paper.

[2] In my days as a logic historian I spent a not very pleasant two weeks in the British Newspaper Library in Colindale (the tenth circle of hell), amongst other things, going through the Educational Times looking for contributions on the algebra of logic. During this search I came across the Bertrand Russell contribution, which I showed, some time later, to a leading Russell scholar of my acquaintance, who shall remain here nameless. Imagine my surprise when shortly afterwards an article was published by said Russell expert explaining how he had discovered Russell’s first ever mathematical publication in the Mathematical Questions column of The Educational Times. He made no mention of the fact that it was actually I who had made the discovery.

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Filed under History of Logic, History of Mathematics, History of science, Ladies of Science, Uncategorized

The history of mathematics is not that simplistic.

The Conversation recently posted an article with the title, Five ways ancient India changed the world – with maths, which to be honest left much to be desired as a piece of mathematical history. First off, if you are going to write about #histSTM then a piece of good advice is avoid BuzzFeed style lists, history should never be presented as a collection of bullet points; such an approach is bound to produce dubious and inaccurate claims and statements, as in this case.

The first major problem with this piece is the title; in reality it should read four contributions that Brahmagupta made to the history of mathematics with his Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta and one development in Indian mathematics, which failed to transfer outside of India.

The first four elements of the list are the number system, zero, solutions of quadratic equations and rules for negative numbers, which are all, as I said above, taken from Brahmagupta’s Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta, which was written in the seventh century CE. Both zero and negative numbers are parts of the number system so we really only have one item not three but I will return in detail to this and the quadratic formula later. First I want to deal with the fifth item on the list, basis for calculus.

This is something I blogged about several years ago in a brief outline of the history of calculus. What we have here is the so-called Kerala School of mathematics, which flourished in the 14th to 16th centuries and did some quite remarkable work on infinite series, anticipating work that was first done in Europe in the 17th century. This work is indeed the basis on which calculus stand, however there are various caveats that need to be made here about any potential influence on the world. First the extent to which the Kerala School anticipated calculus is debatable. George Gheverghese Joseph from whose book The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics (Penguin) I first learnt of the Kerala School is convinced that what they had is a full blown calculus, whereas Kim Plofker in her excellent Mathematics in India (Princeton UP) is far less convinced. However the real problem is that although Joseph sets up a plausible route of cultural transfer from Kerala to Europe, all investigations have drawn a blank and there is absolutely no evidence for such a transfer. As far as we know the Kerala School flourished and died without influencing the history of mathematics outside of their own circle. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the history of science.

Let us return to Brahmagupta. His text is indeed the text that introduced the so-called Hindu-Arabic decimal place value number system to the world outside of India, first to the Islamic Empire and then through them to medieval Europe. However this wasn’t the only place value number system from antiquity and not even the only decimal one. The Chinese also had a decimal place value number system and historians of mathematics still don’t know if the Chinese influenced the Indians or the Indians the Chinese or whether the two systems developed totally independently of each other. Of course the Babylonians also had, much earlier than the Indians, a place value number system but a base sixty (sexagesimal) one not a base ten (decimal) one. There was certainly knowledge transfer between Babylon and India did the Indians get the idea of a place value number system from the Babylonians? We do know that the Indians took over a lot of their astronomy from the Greeks and Greek astronomers used the Babylonian sexagesimal place value numbers system in their astronomical texts, did a knowledge transfer take place here? A lot of unanswered questions but although we do have the decimal place value numbers system from Brahmagupta there are still a lot of open questions as to where he got it from.

With zero as a number we are on safer ground, although the Babylonians did develop and use a place holder zero, as did the Greeks in their astronomical texts, it really does appear that zero as a number, and not just a place holder, is a genuine unique India invention. There is however even here an important caveat; Brahmagupta thought one could divide by zero, which as every modern school kid knows is not on.

Turning to negative numbers, whilst Brahmagupta does indeed correctly describe their use in his Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta he wasn’t the first to do so. In this case the Chinese beat him to it in The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, which dates from 202-186 BCE, so some eight hundred years before Brahmagupta. The author of the article write that “European mathematicians were reluctant to accept negative numbers as meaningful” but so were Islamic mathematicians and also some prominent later Indian mathematicians.

In his piece the author write:

In his seminal text, the astronomer Brahmagupta introduced rules for solving quadratic equations (so beloved of secondary school mathematics students)

Whilst it is true that Brahmagupta presents what is now know as the quadratic formula the Babylonians knew how to solve them at least two thousand years earlier. They however used two formulas for the two solutions based on the so-called reduced quadratic (where the parameter for x2 is reduced to 1 by division). The Babylonians of course rejected negative and imaginary solutions. Euclid solves quadratic equations geometrically, which is why we call them quadratic, meaning square). So there were methods for solving quadratic equations long before Brahmagupta.

Whilst by no means whishing to diminish the undoubted Indian contributions to the history of mathematics, what I am trying to make clear here is that any aspect of the history of mathematics or science has a context, a pre-history and a post-history and to ignore those aspect when presenting any given aspect automatically produces a distorted and misleading picture.

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Hyping the history of mathematics

A while back the Internet was full of reports about a sensational discovery in the history of mathematics. Two researchers had apparently proved that a well know Babylonian cuneiform clay tablet (Plimpton 322), which contains a list of Pythagorean triples, is in fact a proof that the Babylonians had developed trigonometry one thousand years before the Greeks and it was even a superior and more accurate system than that of the Greeks. My first reaction was that the reports contained considerably more hype than substance, a reaction that was largely confirmed by an excellent blog post on the topic by Evelyn Lamb.

Plimpton 322, Babylonian tablet listing pythagorean triples
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was followed by an equally excellent and equally deflating essay by Eduardo A Escobar an expert on cuneiform tablets. And so another hyped sensation is brought crashing down into the real world. Both put downs were endorsed by Eleanor Robson author of Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History and a leading expert on Babylonian mathematics.

Last week saw the next history of mathematics press feeding frenzy with the announcement by the Bodleian Library in Oxford that an Indian manuscript containing a symbol for zero had been re-dated using radio carbon dating and was now considered to be from the third to fourth centuries CE rather than the eight century CE, making it the earliest known Indian symbol for zero. This is of course an interesting and significant discovery in the history of mathematics but it doesn’t actually change our knowledge of that history in any really significant way. I will explain later, but first the hype in the various Internet reports.

A leaf from the Bakhshali Manuscript, showing off Indian mathematical genius. A zero symbol has been highlighted in the image.
Courtesy of the Bodleian Library

 

We start off with Richard Ovenden from Bodleian Libraries who announced, “The finding is of “vital importance” to the history of mathematics.”

Bodleian Library Carbon dating finds Bakhshali manuscript contains oldest recorded origins of the symbol ‘zero’

The Guardian leads off with an article by Marcus Du Sautoy: Much ado about nothing: ancient Indian text contains earliest zero symbol. Who in a video film and in the text of his article tells us, “This becomes the birth of the concept of zero in it’s own right and this is a total revolution that happens out of India.”

The Science Museum’s article Illuminating India: starring the oldest recorded origins of ‘zero’, the Bakhshali manuscript, basically repeats the Du Sautoy doctrine,

Medievalists.net makes the fundamental mistake of entitling their contribution, The First Zero, although in the text they return to the wording, “the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero that we use today.”

The BBC joins the party with another clone of the basic article, Carbon dating reveals earliest origins of zero symbol.

Entrepreneur Cecile G Tamura summed up the implicit and sometimes explicit message of all these reports with the following tweet, One of the greatest conceptual breakthroughs in mathematics has been traced to the Bakhshali manuscript dating from the 3rd or 4th century at a period even earlier than we thought. To which I can only reply, has it?

All of the articles, which are all basically clones of the original announcement state quite clearly that this is a placeholder zero and not the number concept zero[1] and that there are earlier recorded symbols for placeholder zeros in both Babylonian and Mayan mathematics. Of course it was only in Indian mathematics that the place-holder zero developed into the number concept zero of which the earliest evidence can be found in Brahmagupta’s Brahmasphuṭasiddhanta from the seven century CE. However, this re-dating of the Bakhshali manuscript doesn’t actually bring us any closer to knowing when, why or how that conceptual shift, so important in the history of mathematics, took place. Does it in anyway actually change the history of the zero concept within the history of mathematics? No not really.

Historians of mathematics have known for a long time that the history of the zero concept within Indian culture doesn’t begin with Brahmagupta and that it was certainly preceded by a long complex prehistory. They are well aware of zero concepts in Sanskrit linguistics and in Hindu philosophy that stretch back well before the turn of the millennium. In fact it is exactly this linguistic and philosophical acceptance of ‘nothing’ that the historian assume enabled the Indian mathematicians to make the leap to the concept of a number signifying nothing, whereas the Greeks with their philosophical rejection of the void were unable to spring the gap. Having a new earliest symbol in Indian mathematics for zero as a placeholder, as opposed to the earlier recorded words for the concept of nothingness doesn’t actually change anything fundamental in our historical knowledge of the number concept of zero.

There is a small technical problem that should be mentioned in this context. Due to the fact that early Indian culture tended to write on perishable organic material, such as the bark used here, means that the chances of our ever discovering manuscripts documenting that oh so important conceptual leap are relatively low.

I’m afraid I must also take umbrage with another of Richard Ovenden’s claims in the original Bodleian report:

 Richard Ovenden, head of the Bodleian Library, said the results highlight a Western bias that has often seen the contributions of South Asian scholars being overlooked. “These surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition,” he said.

Whilst this claim might be true in other areas of #histSTM, as far as the history of the so-called Hindu-Arabic numbers system and the number concept zero are concerned it is totally bosh. Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749-1827) wrote the following:

“It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it has lent to computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of the achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.”

I started buying general books on the history of mathematics more than 45 years ago and now have nine such volumes all of which deal explicitly with the Indian development of the decimal place value number system and the invention of the number concept zero. I own two monographs dedicated solely to the history of the number concept zero. I have four volumes dedicated to the history of number systems all of which deal extensively with the immensely important Indian contributions. I also own two books that are entirely devoted to the history of Indian mathematics. Somehow I can’t see in the case of the massive Indian contribution to the development of number systems that a Western bias has here overseen the contributions of South Asian scholars.

This of course opens the question as to why this discovery was made public at this time and in this overblown manner? Maybe I’m being cynical but could it have something to do with the fact that this manuscript is going on display in a major Science Museum exhibition starting in October?

The hype that I have outlined here in the recent history of mathematics has unfortunately become the norm in all genres of history and in the historical sciences such as archaeology or palaeontology. New discoveries are not presented in a reasonable manner putting them correctly into the context of the state of the art research in the given field but are trumpeted out at a metaphorical 140 decibel claiming that this is a sensation, a discipline re-defining, an unbelievable, a unique, a choose your own hyperbolic superlative discovery. The context is, as above, very often misrepresented to make the new discovery seem more important, more significant, whatever. Everybody is struggling to make themselves heard above the clamour of all the other discovery announcements being made by the competition thereby creating a totally false impression of how academia works and how it progresses. Can we please turn down the volume, cut out the hype and present the results of academic research in history in a manner appropriate to it and not to the marketing of the latest Hollywood mega-bucks, blockbuster?

[1] For those who are not to sure about these terms, a placeholder zero just indicates an empty space in a place value number system, so you can distinguish between 11 and 101, where here the zero is a placeholder. A number concept zero also fulfils the same function but beyond this is a number in its own right. You can perform the arithmetical operations of addition, subtraction and multiplication with it. However, as we all learnt at school (didn’t we!) you can’t divide by zero; division by zero is not defined.

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All at sea

As I’ve said more than once in the past, mathematics as a discipline as we know it today didn’t exist in the Early Modern Period. Mathematics, astronomy, astrology, geography, cartography, navigation, hydrography, surveying, instrument design and construction, and horology were all facets or sub-disciplines of a sort of mega-discipline that was the stomping ground of the working mathematicus, whether inside or outside the university. The making of sea charts – or to give it its technical name, hydrography – combines mathematics, geography, cartography, astronomy, surveying, and the use of instruments so I am always happy to add a new volume on the history of sea charts to my collection of books on cartography and hydrography.

I recently acquired the “revised and updated” reissue of Peter Whitfield’s Charting the Oceans, a British Library publication.

The original edition from 1996 carried the subtitle Ten Centuries of Maritime Maps (missing from the new edition) and this is what Whitfield delivers in his superb tome. The book has four sections: Navigation before Charts, The Sea-Chart and the Age of Exploration, Sea-Charts in Europe’s Maritime Age and War, Empire and Technology: The Last 200 years. As can be seen from these section titles Whitfield not only deals with the details of the hydrography and the charts produced but defines the driving forces behind the cartographic developments: explorations, trade, war and colonisation. This makes the book to a valuable all round introduction of the subject highly recommended to anybody looking for a general overview of the topic.

However, what really makes this book very special is the illustrations.

The Nile Delta, c. 1540, from Piri Re’is Kitab-i Bahriye
Charting the Oceans page 90

A large format volume, more than fifty per cent of the pages are adorned with amazing reproductions of the historical charts that Whitfield describes in his text.

Willem van de Velde II, Dutch Ships in a Calm, c. 1665
Charting the Oceans page 132

Beautifully photographed and expertly printed the illustrations make this a book to treasure. Although not an academic text, in the strict sense, there is a short bibliography for those, whose appetites wetted, wish to delve deeper into the subject and an excellent index. Given the quality of the presentation the official British Library shop price of £14.99 is ridiculously low and a real bargain. If you love maps all I can say is buy this book.

Title page to the English edition of Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer’s Spiegheel der Zeevaert, 1588
Charting the Oceans page 109

The A Very Short Introduction series of books published by the Oxford University Press is a really excellent undertaking. Very small format 11×17 and a bit cm, they are somewhere between 100 and 150 pages long and provide a concise introduction to a single topic. One thing that distinguishes them is the quality of the authors that OUP commissions to write them; they really are experts in their field. The Galileo volume, for example, is authored by Stillman Drake, one of the great Galileo experts, and The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction was written by Mr Periodic Table himself, Eric Scerri. So when Navigation: A Very Short Introduction appeared recently I couldn’t resist. Especially, as it is authored by Jim Bennett a man who probably knows more about the topic then almost anybody else on the surface of the planet.

Mr Bennett does not disappoint, in a scant 135-small-format-pages he delivers a very comprehensive introduction to the history of navigation. He carefully explains all of the principal developments down the centuries and does not shy away from explaining the intricate mathematical and astronomical details of various forms of navigation.

Navigation: A Very Short Introduction page 50

The book contains a very useful seven page Glossary of Terms, a short but very useful annotated bibliography, which includes the first edition of Whitfield’s excellent tome, and a comprehensive index. One aspect of the annotated bibliography that particularly appealed to me was his comments on Dava Sobel’s Longitude; he writes:

“[It] …has the disadvantage of being very one-sided despite the more scrupulous work found in in earlier books such as Rupert T. Gould, The Marine Chronometer: Its History and Development (London, Holland Press, 1960); and Humphrey Quill, John Harrison: The Man Who Found Longitude (London, John Baker, 1966)”

I have read both of these books earlier and can warmly recommend them. He then recommends Derek Howse, Greenwich Time and the Discovery of Longitude (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980), which sits on my bookshelf, and Derek Howse, Nevil Maskelyne: The Seaman’s Astronomer, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989), which I haven’t read. However it was his closing comment that I found most interesting:

“A welcome recent corrective is Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt, Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude (Collins: Glasgow, 2014)”. A judgement with which, regular readers of this blog will already know, I heartily concur.

The flyleaf of the Navigation volume contains the following quote:

‘a thoroughly good idea. Snappy, small-format…stylish design…perfect to pop into your pocket for spare moments’ – Lisa Jardine, The Times

Another judgement with which I heartily concur. Although square centimetre for square centimetre considerably more expensive than Whitfield’s book the Bennett navigation volume is still cheap enough (official OUP price £7.99) not to break the household budget. For those wishing to learn more about the history of navigation and the closely related mapping of the seas I can only recommend that they acquire both of these excellent publications.

 

 

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Did Eratosthenes really measure the size of the earth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Measure for measure

The Brexit vote in the UK has produced a bizarre collection of desires of those Leavers eager to escape the poisonous grasp of the Brussels’ bureaucrats. At the top of their list is a return of the death penalty, a piece of errant stupidity that I shall leave largely uncommented here. Not far behind is the wish to abandon the metric system and to return to selling fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces. This is particularly strange for a number of reasons. Firstly the UK went metric in 1965, six years before it joined the EU. Secondly EU regulations actually allows countries to use other systems of weights and measures parallel to the metric system, so there is nothing in EU law stopping greengrocers selling you a pound of carrots or bananas. Thirdly the country having gone metric in 1965, anybody in the UK under the age of about fifty is going to have a very hard time knowing what exactly pounds and ounces are.

Most readers of this blog will have now gathered that I have spent more than half my life living in Germany. Germany is of course one of the founding states of the EU and as such has been part of it from the very beginning in 1957. The various states that now constitute Germany also went metric at various points in the nineteenth century, the earliest in 1806-15, and the latest in 1868. However the Germans are a very pragmatic folk and I can and do buy my vegetables on the market place in Erlangen in pounds and half pounds. The Germans like most Europeans used variation of the predecessors to the so-called Imperial system of weights and measures and simple re-designated the pound (Pfund in German) to be half a kilo. The Imperial pound is actually approximately 454 grams and for practical purposes when buying potatoes or apples the 46-gram difference if negligible. Apparently the British are either too stupid or too inflexible to adopt such a pragmatic solution.

At the beginning of the month Tory dingbat and wanna be journalist Simon Heffer wrote an article in The Telegraph with the glorious title, Now that we are to be a sovereign nation again, we must bring back imperial units. I haven’t actually read it because one has to register in order to do so and I would rather drink bleach than register with the Torygraph. I shall also not link to the offending article, as it will only encourage them. Heffer charges into the fray thus:

But I know from my postbag that there is another infliction from the decades of our EU membership that many would like to be shot of, and that was the imposition of the metric system on large parts of our life. 

Consumer resistance ensured that our beer is still served in pints (though not in half-pint and pint bottles when bought in supermarkets: brewers please note), and that our signposts are still marked in miles.

As pointed out above it was not the EU who imposed the metric system on British lives but the British government before the UK joined the EU. According to EU regulations you can serve drinks in any quantities you like just as long as the glasses are calibrated, so keeping the traditional pint glasses and mugs in British pubs was never a problem. Alcohol is sold in Germany in a bewildering range of different size glasses depending on the local traditions. My beer drinking German friends (the Germans invented the stuff, you know) particularly like pints of beer because they say that they contain a mouthful more beer that a half litre glass. Sadly many bars in Franconia have gone over to selling beer in 0.4litre glasses to increase their profits, but I digress.

UK signposts are still marked in miles because the government could not afford the cost of replacing all of them when the UK went metric. Expediency not national pride was the motivation here.

Just before Heffer’s diatribe disappears behind the registration wall he spouts the following:

But we have been forced on to the Celsius temperature scale, which is less precise than Fahrenheit

When I read this statement I went back to check if the article had been published on 1 April, it hadn’t! Is the international scientific community aware of the fact that they have been conned into using an inaccurate temperature scale? (I know that scientist actually use the Kelvin temperature scale but it’s the same as the Celsius scale with a different zero point, so I assume by Heffer’s logic(!) it suffers from the same inaccuracy). Will all of those zillions of experiments and research programmes carried out using the Celsius/Kelvin scale have to be repeated with the accurate Fahrenheit scale? Does Simon Heffer actually get paid for writing this crap?

Anders_Celsius

Anders Celcius Portrait by Olof Arenius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Daniel-Gabriel-Fahrenheit

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit

Like myself on being confronted with the bring back imperial weights and measures madness lots of commentators pointed out that the UK went metric in 1965 but is this true? No, it isn’t! The UK actually went metric, by act of parliament over one hundred years earlier in 1864! The nineteenth century contains some pretty stirring history concerning the struggles between the metric and imperial systems and we will now take a brief look at them.

As soon as it became in someway necessary for humans to measure things in their environment it was fairly obvious that they would use parts of their body to do so. If we want a quick approximate measure of something we still pace it out or measure it with the length of an arm or the span of our fingers. So it was natural that parts of the body became the units of measurement, the foot, the forearm, the arm span and so on and so forth. This system of course suffers from the fact that we are not all the same size. My foot is shorter than yours; my forearm is longer than my partners. This led cultures with a strong central bureaucracy to develop standard feet and forearms. The various Fertile Crescent cultures developed sophisticated weights and measures systems, as did the Roman Empire and it is the latter that is the forefather of the imperial system. The Roman foot was between 29.5 and 30 cm, the pace was 2.5 feet and the Roman mile was 5000 feet. The word mile comes from the Latin for thousand, mille. The Roman military, which was very standardised, carried the Roman system of weights and measures to large parts of Europe thus establishing their standards overall.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire their standardised system of weights and measures slowly degenerated and whilst the names were retained their dimensions varied from district to district and from town to town. In the eighth and ninth centuries Karl der Große (that’s Charlemagne for the Brits) succeeded in uniting a substantial part of Europe under his rule. Although he was uneducated and illiterate he was a strong supporter of education and what passed at the time for science and amongst his reforms he introduced a unified system of weights and measures for his entire empire, another forefather of the imperial system. Things are looking quite grim for the anti-European supporters of the imperial system; it was born in Rome the birthplace of the EU and was reborn at the hands of a German, nothing very British here.

Karl’s attempt to impose a unified system of weights and measures on his empire was not a great success and soon after his death each district and town went back to their own local standards, if they ever left them. Throughout the Middle Ages and deep into the Early Modern Period traders had to live with the fact that a foot in Liège was not the same as a foot in Venice and a pound in Copenhagen was not a pound in Vienna.

This chaos provided work for the reckoning masters producing tables of conversions or actually doing the conversions for the traders, as well as running reckoning schools for the apprentice traders where they taught the arithmetic and algebra necessary to do the conversions, writing the textbooks for the tuition as well. The lack of unity in currency and mensuration in medieval Europe was a major driving force in the development algebra – the rule of three ruled supreme.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century Simon Stevin and Christoph Clavius introduced decimal fractions and the decimal point into European mathematics, necessary requirements for a decimal based metric system of mensuration. Already in the middle of the seventeenth century just such a system emerged and not from the dastardly French but from a true blue English man, who was an Anglican bishop to boot, polymath, science supporter, communicator, founding member of the Royal Society and one of its first secretaries, John Wilkins (1614–1672).

Greenhill, John, c.1649-1676; John Wilkins (1614-1672), Warden (1648-1659)

Greenhill, John; John Wilkins (1614-1672), Warden (1648-1659); Wadham College, University of Oxford;

Asked by the society to devise a universal standard of measure he devoted four pages of his monumental An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668) to the subject.

800px-Wilkins_An_Essay_towards_a_real

Title Page Source: Wikimedia Commons

He proposed a decimal system of measure based on a universal measure derived from nature for use between ‘learned men’ of various nations. He considered atmospheric pressure, the earth’s meridian and the pendulum as his universal measure, rejecting the first as susceptible to variation, the second as immeasurable and settled on the length of the second pendulum as his measure of length. Volume should be the cubic of length and weight a cubic standard of water. To all extents and purposes he proposed the metric system. His proposal fell, however, on deaf ears.

lengths001

European units of length in the first third of the 19th century Part 1

lengths002

European units of length in the first third of the 19th century Part 2

As science developed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century it became obvious that some sort of universal system of measurement was a necessity and various people in various countries addressed to subject. In 1790 the revolutionary Assemblée in France commissioned the Académie to investigate the topic. A committee consisting of Jean-Charles de Borda, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Gaspard Monge and Nicolas de Condorcet, all leading scientific figures, recommended the adoption of a decimal metric system based on one ten-millionth of one quarter of the Earth’s circumference. The proposal was accepted by the Assemblée on 30 March 1791. Actually determining the length of one quarter of the Earth circumference turned into a major project fraught with difficulties, which I can’t do justice to here in an already overlong blog post, but if you are interested then read Ken Adler’s excellent The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey That Transformed The World.

1920px-Metre_étalon,_place_Vendôme,_Paris_2008

Standard meter on the left of the entrance of the french Ministère de la Justice, Paris, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons

However Britain needed a unified system of mensuration, as they still had the problem that every town had different local standards for foot, pound etc. John Herschel the rising leading scientific figure wanted a new decimal imperial system based on the second pendulum but in the end parliament decide to stick with the old imperial system taking a physical yard housed in the Houses of Parliament as the standard for the whole of the UK. Unfortunately disaster struck. The Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834 and with it the official standard yard. It took the scientists several years to re-establish the length of the official yard and meanwhile a large number were still advocating for the adoption of the metric system.

Britanski_merki_za_dalzhina_Grinuich_2005

The informal public imperial measurement standards erected at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London, in the 19th century: 1 British yard, 2 feet, 1 foot, 6 inches, and 3 inches. The inexact monument was designed to permit rods of the correct measure to fit snugly into its pins at an ambient temperature of 62 °F (16.66 °C) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The debate now took a scurrile turn with the introduction of pyramidology! An English writer, John Taylor, developed the thesis that the Great Pyramid was constructed using the imperial system and that the imperial system was somehow divine. Strangely his ideas were adopted and championed by Charles Piazzi Smyth the Astronomer Royal of Scotland and even received tacit and indirect support from John Herschel, who rejected the pyramidology aspect but saw Taylor’s pyramid inch as the natural standard of length.

However wiser heads prevailed and the leaders of the British Victorian scientific community made major contributions to the expansion of the metric system towards the SI system, used internationally by scientists today. They applied political pressure and in 1864 the politicians capitulated and parliament passed the Metric (Weights and Measures) Act. This permitted the use of weights and measures in Britain. Further acts followed in 1867, 1868, 1871 and 1873 extending the permitted use of the metre. However the metric system could be used for scientific purposes but not for business. For that, Britain would have to wait another one hundred and one years!

Interestingly, parallel to the discussion about systems of mensuration in the nineteenth century, a discussing took place about the adoption of a single prime meridian for cartographical, navigational, and time purposes. In the end the two main contenders were the observatories in Paris and Greenwich. Naturally neither Britain nor France was prepared to concede to the other. To try and solve the stalemate it was suggested that in exchange for Paris accepting Greenwich as the prime meridian London should adopt the metric system of measurement. By the end of the nineteenth century both countries had nominally agreed to the deal without a formal commitment. Although France fulfilled their half of this deal sometime early in the twentieth century, Britain took until 1965 before they fulfilled their half.

Should the Leavers get their wish and the UK returns to the imperial system of measurement then they will be joining an elite group consisting of the USA, Myanmar and Liberia, the only countries in the world that don’t have the metric system as their national system of measurement for all purposes.

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