Category Archives: History of Optics

Christmas Trilogy 2020 Part 2: Charles brightens up the theatre

There is a strong tendency in the present to view Charles Babbage as a one trick pony i.e., Babbage the computer pioneer. In reality he was a true polymath whose intellectual activities covered a very wide spectrum.

Already as a student at Cambridge, he agitated for major curriculum reform in the mathematics taught and practiced in Britain. He also produced some first class cutting edge mathematics, much of which for some reason he never published. His interest in automation stretched way beyond his computing engines and after extensive research on automations in industry, both throughout Europe and in Britain, he wrote and published a book on the organisation of industrial production, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832), which became a highly influential bestseller, influencing the work of both John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. He was a leader in a campaign to improve the standard of science research in Britain, largely aimed at what he saw as the moribund Royal society, which resulted in his Reflections on the Decline of Science and some of its Causes (1830). As part of this campaign, he was a leading figure in the establishment of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS).


Engraving of Charles Babbage dated 1833 Source: Wikimedia Commons 

His achievements were not confined to purely intellectual activities, he was also an assiduous inventor of mechanical devices and improvement, well outside of his proto computers. For example, he designed and had constructed a four wheeled light carriage for one of his extensive tours of Europe. It was so designed that he could sleep on board and had drawers large enough to stow frock coats and technical plans without folding, as well as a small on board kitchen. However, it is his activities in practical optics that interest me here, in particular his foray into early theatre lighting, which I found fascinating, having, for several years in my youth, been a lighting technician both in theatre and live music.  

An ophthalmoscope is a medical instrument designed to make it possible to observe the interior of the eye by means of a beam of light. The invention of the ophthalmoscope is traditionally attributed to Hermann von Helmholtz in 1851. However, it would appear that Babbage preceded him by four years.

Charles Babbage, the mathematic genius and inventor of what many consider to be the forerunner of today’s computer, his analytical machine, was the first to construct an instrument for looking into the eye. He did this in 1847 but when showing it to the eminent ophthalmologist Thomas Wharton Jones he was unable to obtain an image with it and, thus discouraged, did not proceed further. Little did he know that his instrument would have worked if a minus lens of about 4 or 5 dioptres had been inserted between the observer’s eye and the back of the plano mirror from which two or three holes had been scraped. Some seven years later it was his design and not that of Helmholtz which had been adopted.


The image shows a reconstruction of Babbage’s ophthalmoscope, c. 1847. No actual example survives but this replica was made for the Science Museum in 2003, based upon Wharton Jones’ written description.

Dr. Helmholtz, of Konigsberg, has the merit of specially inventing the ophthalmoscope. It is but justice that I should here state, however, that seven years ago Mr. Babbage showed me the model of an instrument which he had contrived for the purpose of looking into the interior of the eye. It consisted of a bit of plain mirror, with the silvering scraped off at two or three small spots in the middle, fixed within a tube at such an angle that the rays of light falling on it through an opening in the side of the tube, were reflected into the eye to be observed, and to which the one end of the tube was directed. The observer looked through the clear spots of the mirror from the other end. This ophthalmoscope of Mr Babbage, we shall see, is in principle essentially the same as those of Epkens and Donders, of Coccius and of Meyerstein, which themselves are modifications of Helmhotlz’s.

         Wharton-Jones, T., 1854, ‘Report on the Ophthalmoscope’, Chronicle of Medical Science (October 1854).

Around the same time as he built his ophthalmoscope, Babbage designed and built a mechanical, clockwork, programmable, self-occulting, signalling lamp to aid ship to ship and ship to shore communications. He was disappointed that the British marine fleets showed no interest in his invention, but the Russian navy used it against the British during the Crimean War. During the Great Exhibition of 1851, in which Babbage played a central role, he set his signal lamp in the window of his house in the evenings and people passing by would drop in their visiting card with the signalled number written on them. Babbage’s occulting lights were later used in lighthouses in various parts of the world starting in the USA.


Babbage’s mechanical, clockwork, programmable, self-occulting, signalling lamp mechanism

Babbage was a theatre goer and during his phase of light experiments and invention he undertook an interesting project in theatre lighting. During the Renaissance, theatres, such as Shakespeare’s Globe, were open air arenas and performances took place in daylight. Later closed theatre and opera house were lit with chandeliers with the cut glass or crystal prisms dispersing the candlelight in all directions. Of course, the large number of candles needed caused much smoke and the dripping wax was a real problem. By the early nineteenth century theatres were illuminated with gas lamps.

One day during a theatre visit, Babbage noticed that during a moonlit scene the white bonnet of his companion had a pink taint and wondered about the possibility of using coloured light in theatre. He began a serious of interesting experiments with the then comparatively new limelight.

Limelight is an intense illumination created when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of quicklime (calcium oxide). Quicklime can be heated to 2,572°C before melting and the light is produced by a combination of incandescence (the emission of electromagnetic radiation such as visible light e.g., red hot steel) and candoluminescence a form of radiation first observed and investigated in the early nineteenth century.


Diagram of a limelight burner Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with many inventions the oxyhydrogen blowpipe has many fathers and was first developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Bochart de Saron (1730–1794), Edward Daniel Clarke (1769–1822) and Robert Hare (1781–1858) all of whose work followed out of the pneumatic discoveries of Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786), Joseph Priestly (1733–1804), who both discovered oxygen, and Henry Cavendish (1731–1810), who discovered hydrogen.


Nineteenth century bellows-operated oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, including two different types of flashback arrestor John Griffen – A Practical Treatise on the Use of the Blowpipe, 1827 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first to discover and experiment with limelight was the English chemist Goldsworthy Gurney (1792–1875)


Goldsworthy Gurney Source: Wikimedia Commons

but it was the Scottish engineer Thomas Drummond (1797–1840) who, having seen it demonstrated by Michael Faraday (1791–1867),  first exploited its potential as a light source. Drummond built a practical working light in 1826, which he then used as a signal lamp in trigonometrical surveying. The light was bright enough to be seen at a distance of 68 miles by sunlight. Drummond’s application was so successful that limelight was also known as Drummond light and he was falsely credited with its discovery, instead of Gurney.


Thomas Drummond by Henry William Pickersgill. The original picture is in the National gallery of Ireland Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest know public performance illuminated with limelight was an outdoor juggling performance by the magician Ching Lau Lauro (real name unknown) Herne Bay Pier in Kent in 1836. It was first used in theatre lighting in Covent Garden Theatre in 1837. By the 1860s and 1870s limelight was used worldwide in theatres and operas, used to highlight solo performers in the same way as modern spotlights, hence the expression, standing in the limelight. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had been largely replaced by electrical, carbon arc lighting.

 Babbage wanted to take the process one step further and use limelight not just as a very bright white light, but to introduce colour into theatre lighting. Babbage began to experiment with glass cells constructed out of two parallel sheets of glass and filled with solutions of various metal salts, such as chrome and copper. His experiment proved very successful and he developed coloured, limelight spots. Babbage now developed a dance scenario to display his new invention. He proposed replacing the stage footlights with four limelight projectors in the colours red, blue, yellow and purple. His imagined piece had four groups of dancers dressed in white, each of which entered the stage dancing in one of the four pools of light. Dancers springing from one pool of light into another would change colour. Gradually the apertures would widen with the lights crossing each other producing a rainbow of colours through which the dancers would circle. Babbage went on to develop a dramaturgy with dioramas telling an allegorical story.

Babbage discussed his project with Benjamin Lumley, the manager of the Italian Opera House (now Her Majesty’s Theatre) and arranged a demonstration of his new lights. The demonstration took place in the theatre with a smaller group of dancers, and it was apparently a great success. However, because of the fire risk he had two fire engines and their crews on standby during his demonstration and although impressed, Lumley declined a real performance with an audience because of the fire risk. Babbage didn’t develop the idea further.


Portrait of Benjamin Lumley by D’Orsay Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a onetime theatre lighting technician and a historian of science, I would would quite like the idea of staging a modern version of Babbage’s little dance fantasy. I would also like to draw this episode in his life to the attention of all the Ada Lovelace acolytes, who are firmly of the opinion that Babbage was only capable of thinking about mathematics and therefore the imaginative flights of fancy in the Analytical Engine memoir notes must be entirely the work of Lady King.

Leave a comment

Filed under History of Optics, History of Technology

The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part L


By the end of the eighteenth century, Newton’s version of the heliocentric theory was firmly established as the accepted model of the solar system. Whilst not yet totally accurate, a reasonable figure for the distance between the Earth and the Sun, the astronomical unit, had been measured and with it the absolute, rather than relative, sizes of the orbits of the known planets had been calculated. This also applied to Uranus, the then new planet discovered by the amateur astronomer, William Herschel (1738–1822), in 1781; the first planet discovered since antiquity. However, one major problem still existed, which needed to be solved to complete the knowledge of the then known cosmos. Astronomers and cosmologists still didn’t know the distance to the stars. It had long been accepted that the stars were spread out throughout deep space and not on a fixed sphere as believed by the early astronomer in ancient Greece. It was also accepted that because all attempts to measure any stellar parallax down the centuries had failed, the nearest stars must actually be at an unbelievably far distance from the Earth.

Here we meet a relatively common phenomenon in the history of science, almost simultaneous, independent, multiple discoveries of the same fact. After literally two millennia of failures to detect any signs of stellar parallax, three astronomers each succeeded in measuring the parallax of three different stars in the 1830s. This finally was confirmation of the Earth’s annual orbit around, independent of stellar aberration and gave a yardstick for the distance of the stars from the Earth.

The first of our three astronomers was the Scotsman, Thomas Henderson (1798–1844).


Thomas Henderson Source: Wikimedia Commons

Henderson was born in Dundee where he also went to school. He trained as a lawyer but was a keen amateur astronomer. He came to the attention of Thomas Young (1773-1829), the superintendent of the HM Nautical Almanac Office, after he devised a new method for determining longitude using lunar occultation, that is when a star disappears behind the Moon. Young brought him into the world of astronomy and upon his death recommended Henderson as his successor.


Copy of a portrait of Thomas Young by Henry Briggs Source: Wikimedia Commons

Henderson didn’t receive to post but was appointed director of the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. The observatory had only opened in 1828 after several years delay in its construction. The first director Fearon Fallows (1788–1831), who had overseen the construction of the observatory had died of scarlet fever in 1831 and Henderson was appointed as his successor, arriving in 1832.


The Royal Observatory Cape of Good Hope in 1857 Illustrated London News, 21 March 1857/Ian Glass Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Cape played a major role in British observational astronomy. In the eighteenth century, it was here that Charles Mason (1728–1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733–1779), having been delayed in their journey to their designated observational post in Sumatra, observed the transit of Venus of 1761. John Herschel (1792–1871), the son and nephew of the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, arrived at the Cape in 1834 and carried extensive astronomical observation there with his own 21-foot reflecting telescope. cooperating with Henderson successor Thomas Maclear. In 1847, Herschel published his Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope, which earned him the Copley Medal of the Royal Society.

Manuel John Johnson (1805–1859), director of the observatory on St Helena, drew Henderson’s attention to the fact that Alpha Centauri displayed a high proper motion.


Ladder Hill Observatory St Helena Source

Proper motion is the perceived motion of a star relative to the other stars. Although the position of the stars relative to each other appears not to change over long periods of time they do. There had been speculation about the possibility of this since antiquity, but it was first Edmund Halley, who in 1718 proved its existence by comparing the measured positions of prominent stars from the historical record with their current positions. A high proper motion is an indication that a star is closer to the Earth.

Aimed with this information Henderson began to try to determine the stellar parallax of Alpha Centauri. However, Henderson hated South Africa and he resigned his position at the observatory in 1833 and returned to Britain. In his luggage he had nineteen very accurate determinations of the position of Alpha Centauri. Back in Britain Henderson was appointed the first Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1834 and professor for astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, position he held until his death.

Initially Henderson did not try to determine the parallax of Alpha Centauri from his observational data. He thought that he had too few observations and was worried that he would join the ranks of many of his predecessors, who had made false claims to having discovered stellar parallax; Henderson preferred to wait until he had received more observational data from his assistant William Meadows (?–?). This decision meant that Henderson, whose data did in fact demonstrate stellar parallax for Alpha Centauri, who had actually won the race to be the first to determine stellar parallax, by not calculating and publishing, lost the race to the German astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784–1846).


Portrait of the German mathematician Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel by the Danish portrait painter Christian Albrecht Jensen Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Henderson, Bessel was a self-taught mathematician and astronomer. Born in Minden as the son of a minor civil servant, at the age of fourteen he started a seven-year apprenticeship as a clerk to an import-export company in Bremen. Bessel became interested in the navigation on which the company’s ships were dependent and began to teach himself navigation, and the mathematics and astronomy on which it depended. As an exercise he recalculated the orbit of Halley’s Comet, which he showed to the astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers (1758–1840), who also lived in Bremen.


Portrait of the german astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias Olbers (lithography by Rudolf Suhrlandt Source: Wikimedia Commons

Impressed by the young man’s obvious abilities, Olbers became his mentor helping him to get his work on Halley’s Comet published and guiding his astronomical education. In 1806, Olbers obtained a position for Bessel, as assistant to Johann Hieronymus Schröter (1745–1816) in Lilienthal.


Johann Hieronymus Schröter Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here Bessel served his apprenticeship as an observational astronomer and established an excellent reputation.


Schröter’s telescope in Lilienthal on which Bessel served his apprenticeship as an observational astronomer

Part of that reputation was built up through his extensive correspondence with other astronomers throughout Europe, including Johann Carl Fried Gauss (1777–1855). It was probably through Gauss’ influence that in 1809 Bessel, at the age of 25, was appointed director of the planned state observatory in Königsberg, by Friedrich Wilhelm III, King of Prussia.


Königsberg Observatory in 1830. It was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Bessel oversaw the planning, building and equipping of the new observatory, which would be his home and his workplace for the rest of his life. From the beginning he planned to greatly increase the accuracy of astronomical observations and calculation. He started by recalculated the positions of the stars in John Flamsteed’s stellar catalogue, greatly increasing the accuracy of the stellar positions. Bessel also decided to try and solve the problem of determining stellar parallax, although it would be some time before he could undertake that task.

One of the astronomers with whom Bessel took up contact was Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve (1793–1864), who became a good friend and his rival in the search for stellar parallax, although the rivalry was always good natured. Struve was born the son of Jacob Struve (1755–1841), a schoolteacher and mathematician, in Altona then in the Duchy of Holstein, then part of the Denmark–Norway Kingdom and a Danish citizen.


Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve Source: Wikimedia Commons

Whilst he was still a youth, his father sent him to live in Dorpat (nowadays Tartu) in Estonia with his elder brother, to avoid being drafted into the Napoleonic army. In Dorpat he registered as a student at the university to study, at the wish of his father, philosophy and philology but also registered for a course in astronomy. He financed his studies by working as a private tutor to the children of a wealthy family. He graduated with a degree in philology in 1811 and instead of becoming a history teacher, as his father wished, he took up the formal study of astronomy. The university’s only astronomer, Johann Sigismund Gottfried Huth (1763–1818), was a competent scholar but was an invalid, so Struve basically taught himself and had free run of the university’s observatory whilst still a student, installing the Dolland transit telescope that was still packed in the crates it was delivered in. In 1813 he graduated PhD and was, at the age of just twenty, appointed to the faculty of the university. He immediately began his life’s work, the systematic study of double stars.


The old observatory building in Dorpat (Tartu) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Bessel, Struve was determined to increase the accuracy of observational astronomy. In 1820 whilst in München, to pick up another piece of observational equipment, he visited Europe’s then greatest optical instrument maker, Joseph Fraunhofer (1787–1826), who was putting the finishing touches to his greatest telescopic creation, a refractor with a 9.5-inch lens.


Joseph Fraunhofer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Struve had found his telescope. He succeeded in persuading the university to purchase the telescope, known as the ‘Great Refractor’ and began his search for observational perfection.


Frauenhofer’s Great Refractor Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Struve, Bessel turned to Fraunhofer for the telescope of his dreams. However, unlike Struve, whose telescope was a general-purpose instrument, Bessel desired a special purpose-built heliometer, a telescope with a split objective lens, especially conceived to accurately measure the distance between two observed objects. The first  really practical heliometer was created by John Dolland (1706–1761) to measure the variations in the diameter of the Sun, hence the name. Bessel needed this instrument to fulfil his dream of becoming the first astronomer to accurately measure stellar parallax. Bessel got his Fraunhofer in 1829.


Königsberger Heliometer Source: Wikimedia Commons

One can get a very strong impression of Bessel’s obsession with accuracy in that he devoted five years to erecting, testing, correcting and controlling his new telescope. In 1834 he was finally ready to take up the task he had set himself. However, other matters that he had to attend to prevented him from starting on his quest.

The Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi (1746–1826), famous for discovering the first asteroid, Ceres, had previously determined that the star 61 Cygni had a very high proper motion, meaning it was probably relatively close to the Earth and this was Bessel’s intended target for his attempt to measure stellar parallax.


Giuseppe Piazzi pointing at the asteroid Ceres Painting by Giuseppe Velasco (1750–1826). Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was also Struve’s favoured object for his attempt but, unfortunately, he was unable in Dorpat with his telescope to view both 61 Cygni and a reference star against which to measure any observable parallax, so he turned his attention to Vega instead. In 1837, Bessel was more than somewhat surprised when he received a letter from Struve containing seventeen preliminary parallax observations of Vega. Struve admitted that they were not yet adequate to actually determine Vega’s parallax, but it was obvious that he was on his way. Whether Struve’s letter triggered Bessel’s ambition is not known but he relatively soon began a year of very intensive observations of 61 Cygni. In 1838 having checked and rechecked his calculations, and dismantled and thoroughly examined his telescope for any possible malfunctions, he went public with the news that he had finally observed a measurable parallax of 61 Cygni. He sent a copy of his report to John Herschel, President of the Royal Astronomical Society in London. After Herschel had carefully studied the report and after Bessel had answered all of his queries to his satisfaction. Herschel announced to the world that stellar parallax had finally been observed. For his work Bessel was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Just two months later, Henderson, who had in the meantime done the necessary calculations, published his measurement of the stellar parallax of Alpha Centauri. In 1839 Struve announced his for Vega. Bessel did not rest on his laurels but reassembling his helioscope he spent another year remeasuring 61 Cygni’s parallax correcting his original figures. 

All three measurements were accepted by the astronomical community and both Henderson and Struve were happy to acknowledge Bessel’s priority. There was no sense of rivalry between them and the three men remained good friends. Modern measurements have shown that Bessel’s figures were within 90% of the correct value, Henderson’s with in 75%, but Struve’s were only within 50%. The last is not surprising as Vega is much further from the Earth than either Alpha Centauri or Cygni 61 making it parallax angle much, much smaller and thus considerably more difficult to measure.

In the sixteenth century Tycho Brahe rejected heliocentricity because the failure to detect stellar parallax combined with his fallacious big star argument meant that in a heliocentric system the stars were for him inconceivably far away. I wonder what he would think about the fact that Earth’s nearest stellar neighbour Proxima Centauri is 4.224 lightyears away, that is 3. 995904 x 1013 kilometres!



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

Microscopes & Submarines

The development of #histSTM in the early decades of the Dutch Republic, or Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, to give it its correct name, was quite extraordinary. Alongside the development of cartography and globe making, the most advanced in the whole of Europe, there were important figures such as the engineer, mathematician and physicist, Simon Stevin, the inventors of the telescope Hans Lipperhey and Jacob Metius, the mathematical father and son Rudolph and Willebrord Snel van Royan and Isaac Beeckman one of the founders of the mechanical philosophy in physics amongst others. However, one of the most strange and wonderful figures in the Netherlands during this period was, without doubt, the engineer, inventor, (al)chemist, optician and showman Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel (1571–1631).


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drebbel is one of those larger than life historical figures, where it becomes difficult to separate the legends and the myths from the known facts, but I will try to keep to the latter. He was born to Jacob Drebbel an Anabaptist in Alkmaar in the province of North Holland. He seems not to have received much formal education but in about 1587 he started attending the Academy of the printmaker, draftsman and painter Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617) in Haarlem also in North Holland.


Hendrick Goltzius – Self-Portrait, c. 1593-1594 – Google Art Project Source: Wikimedia Commons

Goltzius was regarded as the leading engraver in the Netherlands during the period and he was also an active alchemist. Drebbel became a skilled engraver under Goltzius’ instruction and also acquired an interest in alchemy. In 1595 he married Sophia Jansdochter Goltzius, Hendrick’s younger sister. They had at least six children of which four survived into adulthood. The legend says that Sophia’s prodigal life style drove Drebbel’s continual need to find better sources for earning money.


Drebbel’s town plan of Alkmaar 1597 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drebbel initially worked as an engraver, cartographer and painter but somewhere down the line he began to work as an inventor and engineer.


Astronomy [from the series The Seven Liberal Arts]. Engraving by Drebbel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not surprisingly, for a Netherlander, he a turned to hydraulic engineering receiving a patent for a water supply system in 1598. In 1600 he built a fountain at the Noorderpoort in Middelburg and at the end of his life living in England he was involved in a plan to drain the Fens. At some point, possibly when he was living in Middelburg, he learnt the craft of lens grinding, which would play a central roll in his life.

Also in 1598 he acquired a patent for Perpetuum mobile but which he, however, had not invented. The so-called Perpetuum mobile was a sort of clock, which was in reality powered in changes by the air temperature and air pressure had actually been invented by Jakob Dircksz de Graeff (1571–1638), an influential politician and natural philosopher, who was a friend of both Constantijn Huygens and René Descartes, and Dr Pieter Jansz Hooft (1574/5–1636) a politician, physician and schoolteacher.


Jakob Dircksz de Graeff Source: Wikimedia Commons


Pieter Jansz Hooft (1619), Attributed to Michiel van Mierevelt Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drebbel not only patented the Perpetuum mobile but also claimed to have invented it. His increasing reputation driven by this wonder machine earned his an invitation to the court of King James VI &I in London as the guest of the crown prince Henry in 1604. When on the court in London the Queen accidentally broke the Perpetuum mobile, Drebbel was unable to repair it.


The barometric clock of Cornelis Drebbel patented in 1598 and then known as “perpetuum mobile”. Print by Hiesserle von Choda (1557-1665) Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the court in London he was responsible for staging masques, a type of play with poetry, music, dance, and songs that was popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He designed and built the stage sets and wonderful machines to enchant the audiences. Drebbel was by no means the only scientist-engineer to be employed to stage such entertainments during the Early Modern Period but he appears to have been very good at it. It was almost certainly Drebbel, who through his contacts imported from the Netherlands the first ever telescope to be seen in England, which was presented to James at the high point of a masque in 1609. He also built a magic lantern and a camera obscura with which he also entertained the members of the court.

Drebbel’s reputation grew to the point where he received an invitation to the court of the Holly Roman Empire, Rudolf II, in Prague in October 1610. Rudolf liked to surround himself with what might be termed wonder workers. Amongst those who had served in this capacity in Prague were Tycho Brahe, John Dee, Edward Kelley, Johannes Kepler and Jost Bürgi. There are no reports of any interactions between Drebbel and either Kepler or Bürgi, who were all on the court of Rudolf at the same time. In Prague he once again functioned as a court entertainer or showman.


AACHEN, Hans von – Portrait of Emperor Rudolf II Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rudolf was deposed by his brother Archduke Mathias in 1611and Drebbel was imprisoned for about a year. Following the death of Rudolf in 1612, Drebbel was released from prison and returned to London. Here, however, his situation was not as good as previously because Henry, his patron, had died in 1612. He kept his head above water as a lens grinder and instrument maker.

As a chemist Drebbel published his best-known written work Een kort Tractaet van de Natuere der Elemente (A short treatise of the nature of the elements) (Haarlem, 1621).


He was supposedly involved in the invention of the explosive mercury fulminate, Hg(CNO)2, but this is disputed. He also developed other explosive mixtures. He invented a chicken incubator with a mercury thermostat to keep it at a constant, stable temperature. This is one of the earliest feedback controlled devices ever created. He also developed and demonstrated a functioning air conditioning system.


Error-controlled regulator using negative feedback, depicting Cornelius Drebbel’s thermostat-controlled incubator of circa 1600. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He didn’t himself exploit one of his most successful discoveries, one that he made purely by accident. He dropped a flask of aqua regia (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid, normally used to dissolve gold) onto a tin windowsill and discovered that stannous chloride (SnCl2) makes the colour of carmine (the red dye obtained from the cochineal insect) much brighter and more durable. Although Drebbel didn’t exploit this discovery his daughters Anna and Catherina and their husbands the brothers, Abraham and Johannes Sibertus Kuffler (a German inventor and chemist) did, setting up dye works originally in Leiden and then later in Bow in London. The colour was known as Colour Kuffler of Bow Dye and was very successful. Kuffler later continued his father-in-law’s development of self-regulating ovens that he demonstrated to the Royal Society.

In the early 1620s Constantijn Huygens, the father of Christiaan, came to London on a diplomatic mission. He made the acquaintance of Drebbel, who demonstrated his magic lantern and his camera obscura for the Dutch diplomat. Huygens was much impressed by his landsman and for a time became his pupil learning how to grind lenses, a skill that he might have passed onto his sons.


Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is not known, who actually invented the microscope and it’s more than likely that the principle of the microscope was discovered by several people, all around the same time, who like Galileo looked through their Galilean or Dutch telescope the wrong way round. What, however, seems to be certain is that Drebbel is the first person known to have constructed a Keplerian telescope, that is with two convex lenses rather than a concave and a convex lens. As with all of his other optical instruments, Drebbel put on microscope demonstration introducing people to the microscopic world, as always the inventor as showman.

Drebbel’s most famous invention was without doubt his submarine. This is claimed to be the first-ever navigable submarine but has become the stuff of legends, how much of story is fact is difficult to assess. His submarine consisted of a wooden frame covered in leather, and one assumes waterproofed in someway; it was powered by oar.


Artistic representation of Drebbel’s submarine, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

It had bladders inside that were filled with water to enable the submarine to submerge; the bladders were emptied when the vessel was required to surface. In total between 1620 and 1624 Drebbel built three different vessels increasing in size. The final submarine had six oars and could carry up to sixteen passengers. Drebbel gave public demonstrations with this vessel on the river Thames. According to reports the vessel dived to a depth of four to five metres and remained submerged for three hours traveling from Westminster and Greenwich and back again. Assuming the reports to be true, there has been much speculation as to how fresh air was supplied inside the closed vessel. These speculations include a mechanical solution with some form of snorkel as well as chemical solutions with some sort of chemical apparatus to generate oxygen. It is also reported that Drebbel took King James on a dive under the Thames. Despite all of this Drebbel failed to find anybody, who would be prepared to finance a serious use of his submarine.

In the later 1620s Drebbel served the Duke of Buckingham as a military advisor but his various suggestions for weapons proved impractical and failed, the British blaming  the inventor and Drebbel blaming the English soldiers, finally ruining whatever reputation he still had. As already stated above towards the end of his life he was supposedly involved in a scheme to drain the Fens but the exact nature of his involvement remains obscure. Drebbel died in financial straights in 1633 in London, where he was scraping a living running a tavern on the banks of the Thames.

















Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Cartography, History of Chemistry, History of Optics, History of Technology, Renaissance Science

A scientific Dutchman

For many decades the popular narrative version of the scientific revolution started in Poland/Germany with Copernicus moving on through Tycho in Denmark, Kepler in Germany/Austria, Galileo et al in Northern Italy, Descartes, Pascal, Mersenne etc., in France and then Newton and his supporters and opponents in London. The Netherlands simply didn’t get a look in except for Christiaan Huygens, who was treated as a sort of honorary Frenchman. As I’ve tried to show over the years the Netherlands and its scholars–Gemma Frisius, Simon Stephen, Isaac Beeckman, the Snels, and the cartographers–actually played a central role in the evolution of the sciences during the Early Modern Period. In more recent years efforts have been made to increase the historical coverage of the contributions made in the Netherlands, a prominent example being Harold J Cook’s Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age.[1]

A very strange anomaly in the #histSTM coverage concerns Christiaan Huygens, who without doubt belongs to the seventeenth century scientific elite. Whereas my bookcase has an entire row of Newton biographies, and another row of Galileo biographies and in both cases there are others that I’ve read but don’t own. The Kepler collection is somewhat smaller but it is still a collection. I have no idea how many Descartes biographies exist but it is quite a large number. But for Christiaan Huygens there is almost nothing available in English. The only biography I’m aware of is the English translation of Cornelis Dirk Andriesse’s scientific biography of Christiaan Huygens, The Man Behind the Principle.[2] I read this several years ago and must admit I found it somewhat lacking. This being the case, great expectation have been raised by the announcement of a new Huygens biography by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Dutch Light: Christiaan Huygens and the Making of Science in Europe.[3]


So does Aldersey-Williams fulfil those expectations? Does he deliver the goods? Yes and no, on the whole he has researched and written what is mostly an excellent biography of the Netherland’s greatest scientist[4] of the Early Modern Period but it is in my opinion marred by sloppy history of science fact checking that probably won’t be noticed by the average reader but being the notorious #histSTM pedant that I am I simply can’t and won’t ignore.[5]

My regular readers will known that I describe myself as a narrative contextual historian of science and I personally believe that if we are to understand how science has evolved historical then we have to tell that story with its complete context. This being the case I’m very happy to report that Aldersey-Williams is very much a narrative contextual historian, who tells the complete story of Christiaan Huygens life within its wider context and not just offering up a list of his scientific achievements. In fact what the reader gets for his money is not just a biography of Christiaan but also a biography of his entire family with some members being given more space than other. In particular it is a full biography of Christiaan and his father Constantijn, who played a significant and central role in shaping Christiaan’s life.

The book opens by setting the scientific scene in the early seventeenth-century Netherlands. We get introduced to those scientists, who laid the scientific foundations on which Christiaan would later build. In particular we get introduced to Simon Steven, who shaped the very practice orientated science and technology of the Early Modern Netherlands. We also meet other important and influential figures such as Hans Lipperhey, Isaac Beeckman, Willebrord Snel, Cornelius Drebbel and others.

There now follows what might be termed a book within a book as Aldersey-Williams delivers up a very comprehensive biography of Constantijn Huygens diplomat, poet, composer, art lover and patron and all round lover of knowledge. Constantijn was interested in and fascinated by almost everything both scientific and technological. His interest was never superficial but was both theoretical and practical. For example he was not only interested in the newly invented instruments, the telescope and the microscope, but he also took instruction in how to grind lenses and that from the best in the business. Likewise his love for art extended beyond buying paintings and patronising artists, such as Rembrandt, but to developing his own skills in drawing and painting. Here Aldersey-Williams introduces us to the Dutch term ‘kenner’ (which is the same in German), which refers to someone such Constantijn Huygens, whose knowledge of a subject is both theoretical and practical. Constantijn Huygens married Suzanna von Baerle for love and they had five children over ten years, four sons and a daughter, Christiaan was the second oldest, and Suzanna died giving birth to their daughter, also named Suzanna.

Constantijn Huygens brought up his children himself educating them in his own polymathic diversity with the help of tutors. When older the boys spent brief periods at various universities but were largely home educated. We now follow the young Christiaan and his older brother, also Constantijn, through their formative young years. The two oldest boys remained close and much of Christiaan’s astronomical work was carried out in tandem with his older brother. We follow Christiaan’s early mathematical work and his introduction into the intellectual circles of Europe, especially France and England, through his father’s widespread network of acquaintances. From the beginning Christiaan was set up to become either a diplomat, like his father, grandfather and brothers, or a scientist and it is the latter course that he followed.

Aldersey-Williams devotes an entire chapter to Christiaan’s telescopic observations of Saturn, with a telescope that he and Constantijn the younger constructed and his reputation making discovery of Titan the largest of Saturn’s moons, and the first discovered, and his determination that the strange shapes first observed by Galileo around Saturn were in fact rings. These astronomical discoveries established him as one of Europe’s leading astronomers. The following chapter deals with Huygens’ invention of the pendulum clock and his excursions into the then comparatively new probability theory.

Saturn and the pendulum clock established the still comparatively young Huygens as a leading light in European science in the second half of the seventeenth century and Aldersey-Williams now takes us through ups and downs of the rest of Christiaan’s life. His contact with and election to the Royal Society in London, as its first foreign member. His appointment by Jean-Baptist Colbert, the French First Minister of State, as a founding member of the Académie des sciences with a fairy generous royal pension from Louis XIV. His sixteen years in Paris, until the death of Colbert, during which he was generally acknowledged as Europe’s leading natural philosopher. His initial dispute over light with the young and comparatively unknown Newton and his tutorship of the equally young and unknown Leibniz. His fall from grace following Colbert’s death and his reluctant return to the Netherlands. The last lonely decade of his life in the Netherlands and his desire for a return to the scientific bustle of London or Paris. His partial rapprochement with Newton following the publication of the Principia. Closing with the posthumous publication of his works on gravity and optics. This narrative is interwoven with episodes from the lives of Constantijn the father and Constantijn his elder brother, in particular the convoluted politics of the Netherlands and England created by William of Orange, whose secretary was Constantijn, the younger, taking the English throne together with his wife Mary Stewart. Christiaan’s other siblings also make occasional appearances in letters and in person.

Aldersey-Williams has written a monumental biography of two generations of the Huygens family, who played major roles in the culture, politics and science of seventeenth century Europe. With a light, excellent narrative style the book is a pleasure to read. It is illustrated with 37 small grey in grey prints and 35 colour plates, which I can’t comment on, as my review proof copy doesn’t contain them. There are informative footnotes scattered through out the text and the, by me hated, hanging endnotes referring to the sources of direct quotes in the text. Here I had the experience more than once of looking up what I took to be a direct quote only to discover that it was not listed. There is an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources and I assume an extensive index given the number of blank pages in my proof copy. There were several times when I was reading when I had wished that the index were actually there.

On the whole I would be tempted to give this book a glowing recommendation were it not for a series of specific history of science errors that simple shouldn’t be there and some general tendencies that I will now detail.

Near the beginning Aldersey-Williams tells us that ‘Stevin’s recommendation to use decimals in arithmetical calculations in place of vulgar fractions which could have any denominator [was] surely the sand-yacht of accountancy … Thirty years later, the Scottish mathematician John Napier streamlined Stevin’s notation by introducing the familiar comma or point to separate off the fractional part…” As is all too often the case no mention is made of the fact that Chinese and Arabic mathematicians had been using decimal fractions literally centuries before Stevin came up with the concept. In my opinion we must get away from this Eurocentric presentation of the history of science. Also the Jesuit mathematician Christoph Clavius introduced the decimal point less than ten years after Stevin’s introduction of decimal fractions, well ahead of Napier, as was its use by Pitiscus in 1608, the probable source of Napier’s use.

We also get told when discussing the Dutch vocabulary that Stevin created for science that, “Chemistry becomes scheikunde, the art of separation, an acknowledgement of the beginnings of a shift towards an analytical science, and a useful alternative to chemie that severs the etymological connections with disreputable alchemy.” This displays a complete lack of knowledge of alchemy in which virtually all the analytical methods used in chemistry were developed. The art of separation is a perfectly good term from the alchemy that existed when Stevin was creating his Dutch scientific vocabulary. Throughout his book Aldersey-Williams makes disparaging remarks about both alchemy and astrology, neither of which was practiced by any of the Huygens family, which make very clear that he doesn’t actually know very much about either discipline or the role that they played in the evolution of western science, astrology right down to the time of Huygens and Newton and alchemy well into the eighteenth century. For example, the phlogiston theory one of the most productive chemical theories in the eighteenth century had deep roots in alchemy.

Aldersey-Williams account of the origins of the telescope is a bit mangled but acceptable except for the following: “By the following spring, spyglasses were on sale in Paris, from where one was taken to Galileo in Padua. He tweaked the design, claimed the invention as his own, and made dozens of prototypes, passing on his rejects so that very soon even more people were made aware of this instrument capable of bringing the distant close.”

Firstly Galileo claimed that he devised the principle of the telescope and constructed his own purely on verbal descriptions without having actually seen one but purely on his knowledge of optics. He never claimed the invention as his own and the following sentence is pure rubbish. Galileo and his instrument maker produced rather limited numbers of comparatively high quality telescopes that he then presented as gifts to prominent political and Church figures.

Next up we have Willebrord Snel’s use of triangulation. Aldersey-Williams tells us, “ This was the first practical survey of a significant area of land, and it soon inspired similar exercises in England, Italy and France.” It wasn’t. Mercator had previously surveyed the Duchy of Lorraine and Tycho Brahe his island of Hven before Snel began his surveying in the Netherlands. This is however not the worst, Aldersey-Williams tells us correctly that Snel’s survey stretched from Alkmaar to Bergen-op-Zoom “nearly 150 kilometres to the south along approximately the same meridian.” Then comes some incredible rubbish, “By comparing the apparent height of his survey poles observed at distance with their known height, he was able to estimate the size of the Earth!”

What Snel actually did, was having first accurately determined the length of a stretch of his meridian using triangulation, the purpose of his survey and not cartography, he determined astronomically the latitude of the end points. Having calculated the difference in latitudes it is then a fairly simple exercise to determine the length of one degree of latitude, although for a truly accurate determination one has to adjust for the curvature of the Earth.

Next up with have the obligatory Leonard reference. Why do pop history of science books always have a, usually erroneous, Leonardo reference? Here we are concerned with the camera obscura, Aldersey-Williams writes: “…Leonardo da Vinci gave one of the first accurate descriptions of such a design.” Ibn al-Haytham gave accurate descriptions of the camera obscura and its use as a scientific instrument about four hundred and fifty years before Leonardo was born in a book that was translated into Latin two hundred and fifty years before Leonardo’s birth. Add to this the fact that Leonardo’s description of the camera obscura was first published late in the eighteenth century and mentioning Leonardo in this context becomes a historical irrelevance. The first published European illustration of a camera obscura was Gemma Frisius in 1545.

When discussing Descartes, a friend of Constantijn senior and that principle natural philosophical influence on Christiaan we get a classic history of mathematics failure. Aldersey-Williams tells us, “His best known innovation, of what are now called Cartesian coordinates…” Whilst Descartes did indeed cofound, with Pierre Fermat, modern algebraic analytical geometry, Cartesian coordinates were first introduced by Frans van Schooten junior, who of course features strongly in the book as Christiaan’s mathematics teacher.

Along the same lines as the inaccurate camera obscura information we have the following gem, “When applied to a bisected circle (a special case of the ellipse), this yielded a new value, accurate to nine decimal places, of the mathematical constant π, which had not been improved since Archimedes” [my emphasis] There is a whole history of the improvements in the calculation of π between Archimedes and Huygens but there is one specific example that is, within the context of this book, extremely embarrassing.

Early on when dealing with Simon Stevin, Aldersey-Williams mentions that Stevin set up a school for engineering, at the request of Maurits of Nassau, at the University of Leiden in 1600. The first professor of mathematics at this institution was Ludolph van Ceulen (1540–1610), who also taught fencing, a fact that I find fascinating. Ludolph van Ceulen is famous in the history of mathematics for the fact that his greatest mathematical achievement, the Ludophine number, is inscribed on his tombstone, the accurate calculation of π to thirty-five decimal places, 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288…

Next up we have Christiaan’s correction of Descartes laws of collision. Here Aldersey-Williams writes something that is totally baffling, “The work [his new theory of collision] only appeared in a paper in the French Journal des Sçavans in 1669, a few years after Newton’s laws of motion [my emphasis]…” Newton’s laws of motion were first published in his Principia in 1687!

Having had the obligatory Leonardo reference we now have the obligatory erroneous Galileo mathematics and the laws of nature reference, “Galileo was the first to fully understand that mathematics could be used to describe certain laws of nature…” I’ve written so much on this that I’ll just say here, no he wasn’t! You can read about Robert Grosseteste’s statement of the role of mathematics in laws of nature already in the thirteenth century, here.

Writing about Christiaan’s solution of the puzzle of Saturn’s rings, Aldersey-Williams say, “Many theories had been advanced in the few years since telescopes had revealed the planet’s strange truth.” The almost five decades between Galileo’s first observation of the rings and Christiaan’s solution of the riddle is I think more than a few years.

Moving on Aldersey-Williams tells us that, “For many however, there remained powerful reasons to reject Huygens’ discovery. First of all, it challenged the accepted idea inherited from Greek philosophers that the solar system consisted exclusively of perfect spherical bodies occupying ideal circular orbits to one another.” You would have been hard put to it to find a serious astronomer ín 1660, who still ascribed to this Aristotelian cosmology.

The next historical glitch concerns, once again, Galileo. We read, “He dedicated the work [Systema Saturnium] to Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici, who was patron of the Accademia del Cimento in Florence, who had supported the work of Huygens’ most illustrious forebear, Galileo.” Ignoring the sycophantic description of Galileo, one should perhaps point out that the Accademia del Cimento was founded in 1657 that is fifteen years after Galileo’s death and so did not support his work. It was in fact founded by a group of Galileo’s disciples and was dedicated to continuing to work in his style, not quite the same thing.

Galileo crops up again, “the real power of Huygens’ interpretation was its ability to explain those times when Saturn’s ‘handles’ simply disappeared from view, as they had done in 1642, finally defeating the aged Galileo’s attempts to understand the planet…” In 1642, the year of his death, Galileo had been completely blind for four years and had actually given up his interest in astronomy several years earlier.

Moving on to Christiaan’s invention of the pendulum clock and the problem of determining longitude Aldersey-Williams tells us, “The Alkmaar surveyor Adriaan Metius, brother of the telescope pioneer Jacob, had proposed as long ago as 1614 that some sort of seagoing clock might provide the solution to this perennial problem of navigators…” I feel honour bound to point out that Adriaan Metius was slightly more than simply a surveyor, he was professor for mathematics at the University of Franeker. However the real problem here is that the clock solution to the problem of longitude was first proposed by Gemma Frisius in an appendix added in 1530, to his highly popular and widely read editions of Peter Apian’s Cosmographia. The book was the biggest selling and most widely read textbook on practical mathematics throughout the sixteenth and well into the seventeenth century so Huygens would probably have known of Frisius’ priority.

Having dealt with the factual #histSTM errors I will now turn to more general criticisms. On several occasions Aldersey-Williams, whilst acknowledging problems with using the concept in the seventeenth century, tries to present Huygens as the first ‘professional scientist’. Unfortunately, I personally can’t see that Huygens was in anyway more or less of a professional scientist than Tycho, Kepler or Galileo, for example, or quite a long list of others I could name. He also wants to sell him as the ‘first ever’ state’s scientist following his appointment to the Académie des sciences and the accompanying state pension from the king. Once again the term is equally applicable to Tycho first in Denmark and then, if you consider the Holy Roman Empire a state, again in Prague as Imperial Mathematicus, a post that Kepler inherited. Galileo was state ‘scientist’ under the de’ Medici in the Republic of Florence. One could even argue that Nicolas Kratzer was a state scientist when he was appointed to the English court under Henry VIII. There are other examples.

Aldersey-Williams’ next attempt to define Huygens’ status as a scientist left me somewhat speechless, “Yet it is surely enough that Huygens be remembered for what he was, a mere problem solver indeed: pragmatic, eclectic and synthetic and ready to settle for the most probable rather than hold out for the absolutely certain – in other words. What we expect a scientist to be today.” My ten years as a history and philosophy of science student want to scream, “Is that what we really expect?” I’m not even going to go there, as I would need a new blog post even longer than this one.

Aldersey-Williams also tries to present Huygens as some sort of new trans European savant of a type that had not previously existed. Signifying cooperation across borders, beliefs and politics. This is of course rubbish. The sort of trans European cooperation that Huygens was involved in was just as prevalent at the beginning of the seventeenth century in the era of Tycho, Kepler, Galileo, et al. Even then it was not new it was also very strong during the Renaissance with natural philosophers and mathematici corresponding, cooperating, visiting each other, and teaching at universities through out the whole of Europe. Even in the Renaissance, science in Europe knew no borders. It’s the origin of the concept, The Republic of Letters. I suspect my history of medieval science friend would say the same about their period.

In the partial rapprochement between Huygens and Newton following the Publication of the latter’s Principia leads Aldersey-Williams to claim that a new general level of reasonable discussion had entered scientific debate towards the end of the seventeenth century. Scientists, above all Newton, were still going at each other hammer and tongs in the eighteenth century, so it was all just a pipe dream.

Aldersey-Williams sees Huygens lack of public profile, as a result of being in Newton’s shadow like Hooke and others. He suggests that popular perception only allows for one scientific genius in a generation citing Galileo’s ascendance over Kepler, who he correctly sees as the more important, as another example. In this, I agree with him, however he tries too hard to put Huygens on the same level as Newton as a scientist, as if scientific achievement were a pissing contest. I think we should consider a much wider range of scientists when viewing the history of science but I also seriously think that no matter how great his contributions Huygens can’t really match up with Newton. Although his Horologium oscillatorium sive de motu pendularium was a very important contribution to the debate on force and motion, it can’t be compared to Newton’s Principia. Even if Huygens did propagate a wave theory of light his Traité de la lumière is not on a level with Newton’s Opticks. He does have his Systema saturniumbut as far as telescopes are concerned Newton’s reflector was a more important contribution than any of Huygens refractor telescopes. Most significant, Newton made massive contributions to the development of mathematics, Huygens almost nothing.

Talking of Newton, in his discussion of Huygens rather heterodox religious views Aldersey-Williams discussing unorthodox religious views of other leading scientists makes the following comment, “Newton was an antitrinitarian, for which he was considered a heretic in his lifetime, as well as being interested in occultism and alchemy.” Newton was not considered a heretic in his lifetime because he kept his antitrinitarian views to himself. Alchemy yes, but occultism, Newton?

I do have one final general criticism of Aldersey-Williams’ book. My impression was that the passages on fine art, poetry and music, all very important aspects of the life of the Huygens family, are dealt with in much greater depth and detail than the science, which I found more than somewhat peculiar in a book with the subtitle, The Making of Science in Europe. I’m not suggesting that the fine art, poetry and music coverage should be less but that the science content should have been brought up to the same level.

Despite the long list of negative comments in my review I think this is basically a very good book that could in fact have been an excellent book with some changes. Summa summarum it is a flawed masterpiece. It is an absolute must read for anybody interested in the life of Christiaan Huygens or his father Constantijn or the whole Huygens clan. It is also an important read for those interested in Dutch culture and politics in the seventeenth century and for all those interested in the history of European science in the same period. It would be desirable if more works with the wide-ranging scope and vision of Aldersey-Williams volume were written but please without the #histSTM errors.

[1] Harold J Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2007

[2] Cornelis Dirk Andriesse, The Man Behind the Principle, scientific biography of Christiaan Huygens, translated from Dutch by Sally Miedem, CUP, Cambridge, 2005

[3] Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Dutch Light: Christiaan Huygens and the Making of Science in Europe, Picador, London, 2020.

[4] Aldersey-Williams admits that the use of the term scientist is anachronistic but uses it for simplicity’s sake and I shall do likewise here.

[5] I have after all a reputation to uphold


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Newton

Giambattista della Porta the most polymathic of all Renaissance polymaths?

Giambattista della Porta (1535(?)–1615) is well known to historians of Renaissance science but for the general public he remains a largely unknown figure. If he is known at all,  he is often written off as an occultist, because of the title of his most well known work Magia Naturalis. In fact in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries he was a highly respected and influential member of the Italian Renaissance scientific community. Although he wrote and published profusely over a wide range of scientific and related topics he made no really major discoveries and produced no major inventions and unlike his contemporaries, Kepler and Galileo, who were both well acquainted with his work, he has been largely forgotten.


Giambattista della Porta Source: Wikimedia Commons

Giambattista Della Porta were born at Vico Equense, Near Naples, probably sometime in 1535 (he created the confusion about his birth date), the third of four sons of the nobleman Nardo Antonio dell Porta of whom three survived childhood.  His parental home resembled an intellectual salon where the boys were continually exposed to and educated by visiting philosophers, mathematicians, poets and musicians. Their education was completed by private tutors, who also taught the boys the attributes of a gentleman, dancing, riding, skilled performance in tournaments and games and how to dress well. Della Porta never attended university but enjoyed life as a well educated polymathic, gentleman of leisure. If he can be considered to have had a profession, then it is that of a dramatist, he wrote more than twenty theatrical works, but it is his extensive activities in the sciences that interest us here.

Already in 1558, at the age of 23, he published the fist version of his most well known work, the Magia Naturalis in four books, a sort of encyclopaedia of the Renaissance sciences. From the beginning it was a bestseller running to five editions in Latin within the first ten years with translations into Italian (1560), French (1565), Dutch (1566) and English (1658). A vastly expanded version in twenty books was published in 1589. This final version covers a wide range of topics:


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Book 1: Of the Causes of Wonderful Things Book 2: Of the Generation of Animals Book 3: Of the Production of New Plants Book 4: Of Increasing Household-Stuff Book 5: Of Changing Metals Book 6: Of Counterfeiting Glorious StonesBook 7: Of the Wonders of the Load-Stone Book 8: Of Physical Experiments Book 9: Of Beautifying Women Book 10: Of Distillation Book 11: Of Perfuming Book 12: Of Artificial Fires Book 13: Of Tempering Steel Book 14: Of CookeryBook 15: Of Fishing, Fowling, Hunting, etc. Book 16: Of Invisible Writing Book 17: Of Strange Glasses Book 18: Of Static Experiments Book 19: Of Pneumatic Experiment Book 20: Of the Chaos

The contents range from fairly banal parlour tricks, over engineering, experimental science, horticulture and husbandry to every day things. At the very beginning della Porta is very careful to explain what exactly he mean by the term natural magic:

There are two sorts of Magick; the one is infamous, and unhappy, because it has to do with foul Spirits and consists of incantations and wicked curiosity; and this is called Socery; an art which all learned and good men detest; neither is it able to yield an truth of reason or nature, but stands merely upon fancies and imaginations, such as vanish presently away, and leave nothing behind them; as Jamblicus writes in his book concerning the mysteries of the Egyptians. The other Magick is natural; which all excellent wise men do admit and embrace, and worship with great applause; neither is there any thing more highly esteemed, or better thought of, by men of learning. The most noble Philosophers that ever were, Pythagorus, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato forsook their own countries, and lived abroad as exiles and banished men, rather than as strangers; and all to search out and to attain this knowledge; and when they came home again, this was the Science which they professed, and this they esteemed a profound mystery. They that have been most skillful in dark and hidden points of learning, do call this knowledge the very highest point, and the perfection’s of Natural Sciences; inasmuch that if they could find out or devise amongst all Natural Sciences, any one thing more excellent or more wonderful then another, that they would still call by the name of  Magick. Others have named it the practical part of natural Philosophy, which produces her effects by the mutual and fit application of one natural thing unto another.

The association of Magick with natural philosophy is continued in della Porta’s definition of the Magician:

This is what is required to instruct a Magician, both what he must know, and what he must observe; that being sufficiently instructed in every way, he may bring very strange and wonderful things to us. Seeing Magick, as we showed before, as a practical part of natural Philosophy, it behooves a Magician and one that aspires to the dignity of the profession, to be an exact and very perfect Philosopher.

Despite the very diverse nature of the Magia Naturalis it does contain elements of genuine experimental science. For example, it contains the first experimental disproof of the widely held medieval belief that garlic disables magnets. He also experimented with the cooling properties of dissolving nitre in water. As described here by Andrea Sella (@SellaTheChemist)

As well as the Magia Naturalis della Porta wrote and published a large number of monographs on a very wide range of topics. Cryptography was a popular topic in Renaissance Europe, the most famous book being Johannes Trithemius’ Poligraphia, della Porta published his De Furtivis Literarum Notis (1563), which contain innovative cryptographical ideas.


In 1586 he published a work on physiognomy De humana physiognomonia libri IIII,


From De humana physiognomonia, 1586 Source: Wikimedia Commons

which was still being referenced in the nineteenth century, two years later a book on phytonomy (the science of the origin and growth of plants), Phytognomonica, which contains the first observations on fungal spores.


Phytognomonica, 1588 Source: Wikimedia Commons

These two books confirm della Porta’s adherence to the Renaissance doctrine of signatures. This theory claimed that it was possible to determine the nature of things based on their external appearances.

This was by no means the limit to della Porta’s publishing activities. He also wrote an agricultural encyclopaedia, separate volumes on various fruit bearing trees, books on mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, military engineering, distillation and in 1589 a book on optics, his De refractione optics. We shall return to the latter.


This incredible literary outpouring was just part of his scientific activity, in about 1560 he founded an academic society, Accademia dei Segreti (Academia Secratorum Naturae), the Academy of the Secrets of Nature, which is considered to be the earliest scientific society. The academy met regularly in della Porta’s home and membership was open to all but to become a member one had to present a new secret of nature that one had discovered. We know what some of those new secrets were as della Porta included them in the twenty volume version of his Magia Naturalis. In 1578 della Porta was summoned to Rome and investigated by the Pope. We do not know the exact grounds for this summons but he was forced to shut down his academy on suspicion of sorcery. This is to a certain extent ironic because della Porta was very careful in all his writing to avoid controversial topics particularly religious ones.

Although it was shut down the Accademia dei Segreti, would later have a major influence on another, much more renowned, early scientific academy, Federico Cesi’s Accademia dei Lincei. Cesi was a huge admirer of della Porta and as a young man travelled to Naples to visit the older natural philosopher. On his return home he founded his own academy, whose name was inspired by a line from the preface of the Magia Naturalis:

… with lynx like eyes, examining those things which manifest themselves, so that having observed them, he may zealously use them.

In 1610 della Porta became the fifth member of the Accademia dei Lincei, one year before Galileo.

Another important aspect of Renaissance science was the establishment of private natural philosophical museums also known as Wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosity. Della Porta had, as to be expected, a particular fine cabinet of curiosity that would influence others to create their own, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher for example.


Fold-out engraving from Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599), the earliest illustration of a natural history cabinet Source: Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta made minor contribution to the advance of science and engineering over a wide range of disciplines but I first ran into della Porta in the context of the history of optics and it his association with this history that I want to look at in somewhat more detail. The early seventeenth century saw both a significant turn in the theory of optics and independently of that the invention of the telescope, an instrument that would go one to revolutionise astronomy, della Porta played a minor roll in both of these things.

The invention of the telescope, by Hans Lipperhey, first became public in September 1608 and the role it would play in the future of astronomy became explosively obvious when Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius in March 1610. Already in August 1609 della Porta wrote a letter to Federico Cesi claiming to have invented the telescope, he wrote:

I have seen the secret use of the eyeglass and it’s a load of balls [coglionaria] in any case it is taken from book 9 of my De Refractione.[1]

Here della Porta’s memory is faulty, he is after all over seventy years old, what he is referring to is not in the De Refractione but rather in Chapter 10 of Book 17 of Magia Naturalis (1589). Here we find the following suggestive description:

Concave Lenticulars will make one see most clearly things that are afar off.  But Convexes, things near at hand.  So you may use them as your sight requires.  With a Concave Lenticulars you shall see small things afar off very clearly.  With a Convex Lenticular, things nearer to be greater, but more obscurely.  If you know how to fit them both together, you shall see both things afar off, and things near hand, both greater and clearly.  I have much helped some of my friends, who saw things afar off, weakly, and what was near, confusedly, that they might see all things clearly.  If you will, you may.

The lens combination that della Porta describes here is indeed that of the Dutch or Galilean telescope but as van Helden say, and I agree with him, he is here describing some form of spectacles but not a telescope. Kepler, however, who owned a copy of Magia Naturalis credits him with being the inventor of the telescope in his Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo (Conversation with the Starry Messenger) (1610), where he wrote that a recent Dutch invention had been made public years earlier in Magia Naturalis. In 1641 Pierre Gassendi stated that the actual invention had been made by chance by Metius [Jacob Metius (after 1571–1628), who applied for a patent for a telescope two weeks later than Lipperhey] the idea for a similar one had been published years earlier by della Porta.

Later della Porta would graciously admit that his fellow Lynx, Galileo, had achieved much more with his telescope that he, della Porta, could have ever have hoped to do, whilst not abandoning his claim to having first conceived of the telescope.

Della Porta also played a small role in the history of the camera obscura, describing the improvement to the image obtained by placing convex lens into the pinhole, something probably first suggested by Gerolamo Cardano. He also suggested, this time as the first to do so, using a concave mirror to project the image onto a sheet of paper to facilitate drawing it. The popularity of the Magia Naturalis did much to spread knowledge of the camera obscura and its utility as a drawing instrument. Interestingly della Porta compared his camera obscura with the human eye but, unlike Kepler, failed to make the connection that the lens focuses the image on the retina. He continued to believe like everybody before him that the image in perceived in the lens itself.


First published picture of camera obscura in Gemma Frisius’ 1545 book De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica Source: Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta’s role in the turn in the theory of optics is less disputed but not so widely discussed.  Ancient Greek optics was almost exclusively about theories of vision and when taken up and developed in the Islamic Middle Ages this too remained the emphasis. Ibn al-Haytham in his work on optics showed that one could combine an intromission theory of vision with the geometric optics of Euclid, Hero and Ptolemaeus, who had all propagated an extramission theory of vision. This was a major development in the history of optics. In the thirteenth century Robert Grosseteste introduced optics as a central element in both his vision of science and his theology, which led to it being established as a mathematical discipline on the medieval university. Shortly after Roger Bacon, John Peckham and Witelo introduced al-Haytham’s theories on optics into the medieval European mainstream founding what became known as the perspectivist school of optics. Strangely there were no real further developments in the theory of optics down to the end of the sixteenth century when Johannes Kepler, almost singlehandedly, turned the study of optics from one of theories of vision to one of theories of light, thereby ending the reign of the perspectivists. I say almost singlehandedly but he did have two predecessors, who made minor contributions to this turn, Francesco Maurolico (1494–1575) and della Porta.

One major flaw in the perspectivist theory was its treatment of spherical convex lenses and spherical concave mirrors, which said that the images created by them appeared at a single focus point; this is a fallacy. This flaw was in the theory from its inception in the thirteenth century and remained unchecked and uncorrected all the way down to the end of the sixteenth century. The fact that the don’t create their images at a single focal point is, of course, the cause of spherical aberration, something that would plague the construction of telescopes and microscopes well into the eighteenth century. The man who corrected this error in optical theory was della Porta.  Using a mixture of experiments and analytical light ray tracing he came very close to the correct solution an important step towards Kepler’s light ray based theory of optics.


Della Porta’s ray tracing analysis of the reflection of a spherical concave mirror A. Mark Smith, “From Sight to Light: The Passage from Ancient to Modern Optics”, Chicago University Press, 2015 p. 349

Giambattista della Porta is an interesting example of a widespread phenomenon in the history of science. In his own times he was highly respected and regarded, throughout Europe, as a leading natural Philosopher. His books, translated into many languages, were bestsellers and that even long after his death. Johannes Kepler was a fan and Galileo disliked him because he saw him as a serious rival for the position of top dog natural philosopher, a position that Galileo very much desired for himself. However, today most people have never even heard of him and if then he is largely dismissed as a minor irrelevance or even, because of the title of his major work, as some sort of anti-science occultist. But if historians really want to understand what was going on in the scientific community of Europe in the Early Modern Period then they have to take figures like della Porta seriously and not just focus on the ‘big names’ such as Kepler and Galileo.













[1] Quoted from David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2002, ppb. p. 101 Albert van Helden in his The Invention of the Telescope, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1977, Reprint, 2008, translates the phrase with coglionaria as …”it’s a hoax” pp. 44-45

1 Comment

Filed under History of Optics, History of science, Renaissance Science

The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXXIX

The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXXIX

One of the most often repeated false statements in the history of science is that Isaac Newton discovered gravity. Of course he didn’t discovery it, it’s all around us. You can observe gravity every time you drop something. Making the claim more precise, by saying Newton discovered the law of gravity, doesn’t really improve the situation much. What Newton did do was he proved the law of gravity and made the fairly rational assumption based on the available evidence that this law applies universally to all bodies in the cosmos. An assumption that is not written in stone and has been questioned in the present time for the general theory of relativity, the theory that replaced the Newtonian theory of universal gravity and of which the Newtonian theory of gravity is a very good approximation for local cases. However we don’t want to take the path to modern theories of cosmology and dark matter but want to stay firmly in the seventeenth century with Newton.

We can start with a brief survey of theories of gravity before Newton. Originally gravity was the Latin term applied to Aristotle’s explanation of why, when dropped, things fall to the ground. Aristotle thought that objects did so through a form of vital attraction, returning to their natural home, consisting predominantly of the elements earth and water. Fire and air rise up. This only applied to the Earth, as things beyond the Moon were made of a fifth element, aether, the quintessence, for which the natural form of motion was uniform circular motion.

This neat model wouldn’t work, however for Copernicus’ heliocentric model, which disrupted the division between the sublunar and supralunar worlds. To get around this problem Copernicus suggested that each planet had its own gravity, like the Earth. So we have terrestrial gravity, Saturnian gravity, Venusian gravity etc. This led Alexander von Humboldt, in the 19th century, to claim that Copernicus should be honoured as the true originator of the universal theory of gravity, although it is by no means clear that Copernicus thought that he planetary gravities were all one and the same phenomenon.

The whole concept became even more questionable when the early telescopic astronomers, above all Galileo, showed that the Moon was definitely Earth like and by analogy probably the other planets too. At the end of a long line of natural philosophers stretching back to John Philoponus in the sixth century CE, Galileo also showed that gravity, whatever it might actually be, was apparently not a vitalist attraction but a force subject to mathematical laws, even if he did get the value for the acceleration due to gravity ‘g’ wrong and although he didn’t possess a clear concept of force.. Throughout the seventeenth century other natural philosophers, took up the trail and experimented with pendulums and dropped objects. A pendulum is of course an object, whose fall is controlled. Most notable were the Jesuit, natural philosopher Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671) and the Dutch natural philosopher Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695). Riccioli conducted a whole series of experiments, dropping objects inside a high tower, making a direct confirmation of the laws of fall. Both Riccioli and Huygens, who independently of each other corrected Galileo’s false value for ‘g’, experimented extensively with pendulums in particular determining the length of the one-second pendulum, i.e. a pendulum whose swing in exactly one second. As we will see later, the second pendulum played a central roll in an indirect proof of diurnal rotation. Huygens, of course, built the first functioning pendulum clock.

Turning to England, it was not Isaac Newton, who in the 1670s and 80s turned his attention to gravity but Robert Hooke (1635–1703), who was Curator of Experiments for the newly founded Royal Society. Like Riccioli and Huygens Hooke experimented extensively with dropping objects and pendulums to try and determine the nature of gravity. However his experiments were not really as successful as his continental colleagues. However, he did develop the idea that it was the force of gravity that controlled the orbits of the planets and, having accepted that comets were real solid objects and not optical phenomena, also the flight paths of comets. Although largely speculative at this point Hooke presented a theory of universal gravity, whilst Newton was still largely confused on the subject. Hooke turned to Newton in a letter with his theory in order to ask his opinion, an act that was to lead to a very heated priority dispute.

Before we handle that correspondence we need to go back to the beginnings of the 1670s and an earlier bitter dispute between the two.  In 1672 Newton announced his arrival on the European natural philosophy scene with his first publication, a letter in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1671/72), A New Theory of Light and Colours, which described the experimental programme that he had carried out to demonstrate that white light actually consisted of the colours of the spectrum.


Newton’s original letter. Source: Royal Society

This brilliant piece of experimental optics did not receive the universal praise that, reading it today, we might have expected, in fact it was heavily criticised and attacked. Some critics were unable to reproduce Newton’s experimental results, probably because their prisms were of too poor quality. However, others, Hooke to the fore, criticised the content. Hooke and Huygens, the two current leaders in the field of optics both criticised Newton for interpreting his results within the framework of a particle theory of light, because they both propagated a wave theory of light. Newton actually wrote a paper that showed that his conclusions were just as valid under a wave theory of light, which, however, he didn’t publish. The harshest criticism came from Hooke alone, who dismissed the whole paper stating that he had already discovered anything of worth that it might contain . This did not make Newton very happy, who following this barrage of criticism announced his intention to resign from the Royal Society, to which he had only recently been elected.  Henry Oldenburg (c. 1619–1677), secretary of the Royal Society, offered to waive Newton’s membership fees if he would stay. Newton stayed but had little or nothing more to do with the society till after Hooke’s death in 1703. Newton did, however, write a very extensive paper on all of his optical work, which remained unpublished until 1704, when it formed a major part of his Opticks.

By  1679 tempers had cooled and Robert Hooke, now secretary of the Royal Society, wrote to Isaac Newton to enquire if he would be interested in reopening his dialogue with the Royal Society. In the same letter he asked Newton’s opinion on his own hypothesis that planetary motions are compounded of a tangential motion and “an attractive motion towards the centrall body…” Hooke is here referencing his Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth from Observations (1674, republished 1679),


which contains the following fascinating paragraph:

This depends on three Suppositions. First, That all Coelestial Bodies whatsoever, have an attractive or gravitating power towards their own Centers, whereby they attract not only their own parts, and keep them from flying from the, as we observe the earth to do, [here Hooke is obviously channelling Copernicus] but that they do also attract all other Coelestial Bodies that are within the sphere of their activity … The second supposition is this, That all bodies whatsoever that are put into a direct and simple motion, will so continue to move forward in a streight line, till they are by some other effectual power deflected and bent into a Motion, describing a Circle, Ellipsis, or some other more compounded Curve Line. [the principle of inertia, as propounded by Descartes] The third supposition is, That these attractive powers are so much the more powerful in operating, by how much nearer the body wrought upon is to there own Centers. Now what these several degrees are I have not yet experimentally verified…

Whether or not this is truly a universal theory of gravity is a much-debated topic, but if not, it comes very close and was moving much more in that direction than anything Newton had produced at the time. As we shall see later this was to cause not a little trouble between the two rather prickly men.

Newton declined the offer of a regular exchange of ideas, claiming that he was moving away from (natural) philosophy to other areas of study. He also denied having read Hooke’s paper but referred to something else in it in a later letter to Flamsteed. However, in his reply he suggested an experiment to determine the existence of diurnal rotation involving the usually dropping of objects from high towers. Unfortunately for Newton, he made a fairly serious error in his descripting of the flight path of the falling object, which Hooke picked up on and pointed out to him, if unusually politely, in his reply. Newton of course took umbrage and ended the exchange but he did not forget it.

In our next episode we will deal with the events leading up to the writing and publication of Newton’s great masterpiece, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), which include the repercussions of this brief exchange between Hooke and its author.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of Physics, Renaissance Science

How to create your own Galileo

Writing this book review caused me a great deal of of stress, even leading to sleepless night when I made the mistake of reading the offending piece of literature as bedtime reading. The review itself has become horrendously long and I must at times fight my instinct to add even more explanations, as to why this or that was wrong. It is in the words of that excellent history of science author, Matthew Cobb, ‘baggy and rambling’ and should actually be radically edited but I just can’t be arsed to do it, so I’m simply posting the whole monstrosity. For those, who don’t want to read the whole thing, and I wouldn’t blame you, the first three and the last five paragraphs offer a sort of synopsis of the whole thing.

Since I began writing book reviews on a more regular basis I have tried only to review books that I personally find good and which I think might be of interest to those who come here to read my weekly scribblings. I decided that on the whole it isn’t worth wasting time and energy writing about uninteresting, mediocre or simply bad books. However, occasionally a book come along that I feel duty bound, given my reputation as a #histSTM grouch, to debunk as a favour to my readers so that they don’t waste their time and energy reading it; today’s review is one such.

Some time back I wrote a post about the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, which started with the fact that she has been used as a sort of blank slate onto which numerous people down the centuries have projected their images of what they would have wanted her to be. In the case of Hypatia this is fairly easy, as the rest of my post pointed out we know next to nothing about the lady. Another figure, who has been used extensively over the years as a silhouette, which people fill out according to their own wishes is Galileo Galilei; in his case this is more difficult as we actually know an awful lot about the Tuscan mathematician’s life and work. However, this has not prevented numerous authors from creating their own Galileos.

The latest author, who has decided to present the world with his Galileo, is the astrophysicist and very successful author of popular books on mathematics and science, Mario Livio with his Galileo and the Science Deniers.[1] I might not have bothered with this book but Livio is a very successful pop science book author, as is made very clear by the fact that the hardback and paperback were both issued simultaneously and at very low prices; the publishers expect it to sell well, so it will unfortunately have a big impact on uninformed peoples perceptions of Galileo. I say unfortunately, which, of course, gives readers of this review a very strong clue as to what I think of this book. Quite simply don’t bother, it brings nothing new to our knowledge of Galileo and in fact is full of, at times, quite serious historical errors, serious that is if you’re a historian, who takes getting the facts right seriously.


The opening sentences starts with a couple of wonderful errors and also lays out Livio’s version of Galileo:

Being an astrophysicist myself, I have always been fascinated by Galileo. He was, after all, not only the founder of modern astronomy and astrophysics–the person who turned an ancient profession into the universe’s deepest secrets and awe-inspiring wonders–but also a symbol of the fight for intellectual freedom.

I think Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler might want a word with Livio about, who exactly is the founder of modern astronomy. Also, excuse the language, but what the fuck did Galileo ever do for astrophysics? The final half sentence tells us into which silhouette Livio has decided to pour his Galileo; Livio’s Galileo is the white knight of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, who has mounted his charger and taking up his lance sets off to kill the anti-science dragon of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. This is, of course not a new Galileo but a well-known old model, which historians of science have spent a lot of time and effort dismantling over the last fifty plus years.

Central to the problems with Livio’s book is that he completely ignores the historical context in which the Galileo story took place. His is totally a presentist view in which he applies the social rules and moral judgements of the twentieth-first century to the various occurrences he sketches in the early seventeenth century. This is quite simply very bad historiography. He compounds this error by trying to draw parallels between Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic Church and the current problems with science denialists in our times, hence the title of his book. To do this he simply denies Galileo’s critics any scientific basis for their criticism whatsoever, Galileo is science, his critics are anti-science. A rather simplistic and historically highly inaccurate presentation of the known facts.

Just to make clear what exactly the historical context was, there existed no freedom of speech or freedom of thought under any civil or religious authority anywhere in Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century; such social concepts still lay in the future. There is a slight irony in the fact that the current wave of science denialists, against whom Livio’s book is directed, are in fact exercising their, protected by law, rights of freedom of thought and speech. More importantly the Holy Roman Catholic Church was not just a religion and a church but also a powerful political and judicial body with judicial rights over all within its dominion and this in an age of absolutism with the Pope as the most absolute of all absolute rulers. All authorities both civil and religious reserved for itself the right to determine what its subject were permitted to express in public, the Catholic Church was in no way unique in claiming and exercising this right.

Still in the preface to Livio’s book we find his first distortion of the historical scientific facts, he writes that Galileo’s telescopic discoveries, “All but destroyed the stability of the Earth-centered Ptolemaic universe.” Here Livio, and not only here, fails to differentiate between Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy. All of the telescopic discoveries, with the exception of the phases of Venus, demolished aspects of Aristotelian cosmology but had no significance for Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy. The discovery of the phases of Venus, of course, refuted a pure geocentric system but was perfectly compatible with a Tychonic geo-heliocentric system, which then became the default alternative to a heliocentric system. With two notable exceptions that I will deal with later Livio makes no clear mention of the fact that the telescopic discoveries were made within the same approximately three year period not only by Galileo but simultaneous by others, so if Galileo had never used a telescope it would have made very little difference to the subsequent history of astronomy. This makes rather a mockery of Livio’s next dubious claim, “his [Galileo’s] ideas became the basis on which modern science has been erected.” This is much less true than Livio and other Galileo groupies would have us believe. Galileo made a contribution but others in the seventeenth century actually contributed significantly more.

One last comment from the preface, Livio writes:

He insisted on publishing many of his scientific findings in Italian [actually Tuscan not Italian] (rather than Latin), for the benefit of every educated rather than for a limited elite.

In the early seventeenth century almost every educated person would per definition have been able to read and write Latin; Latin was the default language of education.

Reading the opening chapter of Livio’s book, Rebel with a Cause, I constantly had the feeling that I had been transported back to the 1960s and 70s, when I first began to read books about the history of science in general and Galileo in particular. It as if the last fifty plus years of history of science research had never taken place, he even relies on Einstein and Bertrand Russell as his historical authorities, at times I shuddered. He goes so far as to tell us that the Renaissance happened because people discovered that they were individuals! I can’t remember when I last read this particular piece of inanity and I would be curious who actually put it into the world. The final page of this chapter contains all of the classic Galileo clichés.

Perhaps most important, Galileo was the pioneer and star of advancing the new art of experimental science. He realised that he could test or suggest theories by artificially manipulating various terrestrial phenomena. He as also the first scientist whose vision and scientific outlook incorporated methods and results that were applicable to all branches of science.

There is a long historical list of people who would disagree–Archimedes, Ptolemaeus, al-Haytham, Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, William Gilbert and a whole host of alchemists starting with Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān (for Livio opinion on alchemy see below)–just to name the most prominent. Modern research has also conclusively shown that artisanal practice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries played a significant role in the development of empirical, experimental science. Livio’s last sentence here is also rather dubious, apart from some rather trivial aspects, there are no methods and results that are applicable to all branches of science.

…in four areas he revolutionised the field: astronomy and astrophysics; the laws of motion and mechanics; the astonishing relationship between mathematics and physical reality […]; and experimental science.

Despite everything, Galileo’s contributions to astronomy were rather minimal and he certainly didn’t revolutionise the field, others such as Kepler, whom he ignored, did. I am still trying to work out what his contributions to astrophysics could possibly be? His real major contribution was indeed to motion and mechanics but he was no means alone in this others such as Simon Stevin and Isaac Beeckman made substantial contributions to the new developments in these areas. The mathematics thing, to which Livio keeps returning, is baloney and I shall deal with it separately later. Galileo made contributions to the development of experimental science but he was by no means alone in this and to say he revolutionised it is hyperbole.

The only defense remaining to those obstinately refusing to accept the conclusions implied by the accumulating weight of empirical facts and scientific reasoning was to reject the results almost solely on the basis of religious or political ideology

Here Livio betrays his own tactic, put crudely, throughout the book he twists the historical facts in order to try and make out that there no legitimate scientific objections to Galileo’s claims, however there were.

The next chapter is the usual enthusiastic fan boy description of Galileo’s talents as an all round humanist and contains nothing particularly objectionable but does contain a strong indication of the superficiality of Livio’s historical knowledge. He writes, “First, at age twenty-two, Galileo, already had the chutzpah to challenge the great Aristotle on topics related to motion…” People had been consistently challenging the great Aristotle on topics related to motion since the sixth century CE and Galileo was merely joining a long tradition of such work. Livio also casually calls Aristotle’s theory of motion impetus! Impetus was, of course, a theory initially developed by John Philoponus in the sixth century CE when seriously challenging Aristotle’s theory of motion. On a side note Livio says that the tools to treat such variables such as velocity and acceleration, i.e. calculus, were first developed by Newton and Leibniz. Other seventeenth century mathematicians who contributed substantially to the development of the calculus such as Cavalieri, de Saint-Vincent, Fermat, Pascal, Descarte, John Wallis and Isaac Barrow would be very surprised to hear this. On the same page he repeats the myth that Christoph Clavius was “the senior mathematician on the commission that instituted the Gregorian calendar, he wasn’t, Ignazio Danti was.

Clavius turns up as one of the leading mathematicians, who the young Galileo turned to for mentorship when he was trying to establish a reputation as a mathematician and get support to find an appointment as professor of mathematics. Interestingly Galileo’s other mentor Guidobaldo del Monte (1545–1607) appears nowhere in Livio’s book. This is strange as it was del Monte, who acquired the professorship in Pisa for Galileo through his brother Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549–1627), who was the de ‘Medici cardinal and recommended Galileo to the Grand Duke. It was also del Monte, who devised the experiment that led Galileo to the parabola law, which Livio calls one of Galileo’s crowning achievements.

In the next chapter on Galileo’s work on the theory of fall Livio can’t help taking a sideswipe at alchemy and astrology:

It is certainly true that, at their inception, the sciences were not immune to false beliefs, since they are sometimes connected to fictitious fields such as alchemy and astrology. This was partly the reason why Galileo decided later to rely on mathematics, which appeared to provide a more secure foundation.

This off hand rejection ignores completely that astrology was the main driving force behind astronomy since its beginnings in antiquity down to the seventeenth century and that all the leading Renaissance astronomers, including Galileo, were practicing astrologers. The practice of astrology/astronomy, of course, requires a high level of mathematical ability. Alchemy developed virtually all of the experimental methods and the necessary equipment to carry out those experiments on which chemistry was built.

Now in Padua, where Galileo was also professor of mathematics, a position that he once again acquired with the assistance of del Monte, we get the story of Galileo’s three lectures on the nova of 1604. Livio informs us that “Christoph Clavius confirmed the null parallax determination–that is, no shift had been observed–but refused to accept its implications as compelling.”

This is once again Livio’s tactic of trying to discredit the Jesuits. The implications that he is talking about are that the heavens are not unchanging as claimed by Aristotle. Clavius observed the nova of 1572 and already in 1581 published a digression on the subject fully accepting that the nova was supralunar and that the heavens were not unchanging. He included this in his Sphaera in 1585, the most widely read astronomy textbook in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and he probably thus had the most influence in persuading others that change had occurred in the heavens. He also included the same results for the novae of 1600 and 1604, so what is Livio talking about? Clavius was unable to explain what these novae were but then again nobody else in the seventeenth century could either.

We now move on to Galileo, telescopic astronomy and the Sidereus Nuncius. Although he actually talks about other telescopic astronomers–Scheiner, Marius, Harriot, Fabricius–they are only offered bit parts in Livio’s screenplay, which follows the usual path of giving Galileo credit for everything. He attributes the discovery of Earthshine, the Moon illuminated by sunlight reflected by the Earth, to Galileo, whereas it was previously discovered by Leonardo, who didn’t publish, and Michael Mästlin, who did. He attributes the discovery of stars that can’t be seen without a telescope to Galileo, whereas this was already noted in the printed account of the first telescope demonstration in Den Hague, the source of Sarpi’s and thus Galileo’s first knowledge of the telescope. We then get one of the most bizarre claims made by Livio in the book:

Even more consequential for the future of astrophysics was Galileo’s discovery that stars varied enormously in brightness, with some being a few hundred times brighter than others.

Coming from a professional astrophysicist I find this statement mind boggling. The difference in brightness between celestial objects is obvious to anybody with reasonable eyesight, who simply looks up at the night sky in an area without light pollution. Astronomers even use a six-point scale to designate the different levels of brightness, which is termed magnitude; this was first introduced by Ptolemaeus around 150 CE!

We then get a very brief account of the star size argument as originated by Tycho, which Livio falsely claims Galileo dismissed by saying that the observed star discs are merely artefacts. They are in fact merely artefacts but Galileo didn’t say this. He accepts their existence and uses a completely different argument to try and dismiss the star size argument.

We now arrive at the Moons of Jupiter and Simon Marius. Livio mentions Marius several times in his book but insists on calling him Simon Mayr, his birth name, why? Marius issued all of his publications under the Latinised version of his name and so historian refer to him as Simon Marius. Livio doesn’t call Copernicus, Kopernik or Tycho, Tyge their birth names, so why does he call Marius, Mayr? What he writes about Marius and the Moons of Jupiter left me, as a Marius expert, totally flabbergasted:

What would have undoubtedly annoyed Galileo no end is that the Galilean satellites are known today by the names assigned to them by the German astronomer Simon Mayr rather than as the “Medici stars.” Mayr may have independently discovered the satellites before Galileo, but he failed to understand that the moons were orbiting the planet. [my emphasis]

First off, the names were suggested by Kepler not Marius, who however first published them specifically mentioning the fact that they were suggested by Kepler. Secondly Marius discovered the moons, famously, one day later than Galileo, any confusion about who discovered what when being produced by use of different calendars, Gregorian and Julian. Thirdly, the clause that I have emphasised above is pure and utter bullshit. Marius knew very well that the moons orbited Jupiter and he calculated the orbits, calculations that he published before Galileo. Marius’ calculations are also more accurate than those of Galileo. Should Livio doubt any of this I can send him scans of the relevant pages of Mundus Jovialis in the original Latin or in German and/or English translation. Livio now brings the story of Galileo hating Marius because he accused him of being behind Baldessar Capra’s plagiarism of Galileo’s proportional compass pamphlet in 1606. Marius had been Capra’s mathematics teacher earlier in Padua. Livio fails to mention that the accusations are provably false. Galileo in 1607 had himself cleared Marius of any involvement in the case and the whole episode took place a year after Marius had left Padua.

We now move on to the peculiar shape of Saturn and the discovery of the phases of Venus. In the later case we get absolutely no mention that the phases of Venus were discovered independently by Harriot, Marius, and the astronomers of the Collegio Romano, the latter almost certainly before Galileo. Livio notes correctly that the discovery of the phases definitively refutes the possibility of a pure geocentric system. However, it does not refute a geo-heliocentric Tychonic system. Livio admits this very grudgingly:

…but could not definitely dispose of Brahe’s geocentric-heliocentric compromise […]. This left a potential escape route for those Jesuit astronomers who were still determined to avoid Copernicanism.

Throughout his book Livio tries to imply that there is no real justification for supporting the Tychonic system, whereas it was not only the Jesuits, who did so but many other astronomers as well because the empirical evidence supported it more that a heliocentric one, of which more later. However, Livio consistently ignores this fact because it doesn’t fit his fairy-tale narrative.

Livio deals fairly conventionally with the telescopic discovery of sunspots and the discussion on their nature between Galileo and Christoph Scheiner and although he ends his account by noting the publication of Scheiner’s Rosa Ursina sive Sol (1626–1630) he makes no mention of the fact that the book is a masterpiece of astronomy, far better than anything Galileo published in the discipline. As should always be noted, due to the haste in which he wrote and published it, Sidereus Nuncius was closer to a press report than a scientific publication. He does however mention, what he calls “some further comments he made later in the book The Assayer, which the Jesuit astronomer took to be directed at him personally, did turn him into an unappeasable enemy.” Galileo actual vehemently and totally falsely accused Scheiner of plagiarism in The Assayer, which he later compounded by plagiarising Scheiner’s work in his own Dialogo. Scheiner’s antagonism is understandable. We now get the real reason why Livio keeps badmouthing the Jesuits; he sees them as behind Galileo’s trial in 1633. He writes, “This marked just the beginning of a conflict with the Jesuits, which would culminate in the punitive actions against Galileo in 1633.” This is an old myth and quite simply not true, the Jesuits did not come to Galileo defence but they were also not responsible for his trial.

We now come to objections to the telescopic discoveries:

How could anyone be sure that what Galileo was seeing was a genuine phenomenon and not a spurious artifact produced by the telescope itself?

Not only wasn’t there a convincing theory of optics a that could demonstrate that the telescope doesn’t deceive, they contended but also the validity of such a theory in itself based on mathematics, was questionable. [my emphasis]


Livio tries to imply that both objections are just anti-science nit picking but they are in fact very solid, very necessary scientific question that had to be asked and to be answered if people were going to accept the validity of the telescopic discovery. To the first general objection, although Galileo, an excellent observer, made none himself, there were numerous cases of published discoveries that turned out to be merely optical artefacts in the early years of telescopic astronomy. Not really surprising given the really poor quality of the instruments being used, Galileo’s included.

That an optical theory of the telescope didn’t exist was a very serious problem, as it would be with any new scientific instrument. If you can’t explain how the instrument works how do you expect people to accept the results? Kepler solved the problem with his Dioptrice published in 1611, which explained fully and scientifically how lenses and lens combinations function, describing various different types of telescope. Galileo dismissed and mocked, what is now regarded as a milestone in the history of geometrical optics. The last clause is, once again, Livio spouting total crap. Theories of optics had been geometrical, i.e. mathematical, since at least, in the fourth century BCE and even Aristotle classified optics as one of the mixed sciences, i.e. those such as astronomy that are dependent on mathematics for their proofs. Kepler’s book was accepted by all those qualified to pass judgement on the matter, with the notable exception of Galileo, who didn’t want to share the limelight with anybody, and together with Kepler’s earlier Pars Optica (1604) formed the foundations of modern scientific optics.

The reference to mathematics here is Livio’s attempt to create or propagate a myth that before Galileo, nobody conceived of a mathematics-based science. It is time to tackle that myth. Livio argues that Aristotle rejected mathematics in science and that Aristotelians regarded anything proof based on mathematics as not valid. He, of course, finds an obscure Aristotelian contemporary of Galileo’s to quote to prove this but does not quote any evidence to the contrary or even appear to think that some might exist. He is very wrong in this. Because, in Aristotle’s opinion, mathematics does no deal with the real world the results of mathematic are not episteme or scientia or as we would say knowledge. He however makes allowances for the so-called mixed sciences, astronomy, optics and statics. Livio acknowledges this status for astronomy but argues with the medieval Aristotelians that astronomical mathematical models are mere calculating devices and not models of reality; describing cosmological reality was the domain of the philosophers and not the mathematical astronomers. He also claims that this was still the situation in the second decade of the seventeenth century, it wasn’t. Beginning with Copernicus astronomers began to claim that their mathematical models were models of reality and by the time of Galileo’s first dispute with the Catholic Church this had become the generally accepted state of the discipline. The debate was which mathematical model describes the real cosmos?

It is a standard cliché in the history of science that one of the major factors that drove the so-called scientific revolution was the mathematization of science. Like many clichés there is more that a modicum of truth in this claim. Livio believes it is absolutely central and one of the major themes of his book is that Galileo was the first to mathematize science in his experiments on motion and the laws of fall. This is quite simply not true and Livio can only maintain his claim by steadfastly ignoring the history of mathematics in science prior to Galileo or did he even bother to look if there was any?

Starting with Galileo’s researches into motion and fall there is a three hundred year history of experimental and mathematical investigation into exactly this area starting with the Oxford Calculatores, who derived the mean speed theorem, which lies at the heart of the laws of fall and going down to Giambattista Benedetti (1530–1590), who produced all of the arguments and thought experiments on the subject for which Galileo is famous. There is much more, which I have already dealt with in an earlier post and won’t repeat here.Galileo knew of all of this work. The Archimedean renaissance in mathematics and the sciences, replacing the authority of Aristotle with that of Archimedes, in which Galileo is a major figure, does not start with Galileo but goes back at least to Regiomontanus (1436–1476).  The works of Archimedes were edited by Thomas Venatorius (1488–1551) and printed and published in a bilingual Greek and Latin edition in Basel in 1544. In general the sixteenth century saw a massive increase in the application of mathematics to a wide range of subjects, a development that was already well underway in the fifteenth century, including linear perspective in art, cartography, surveying, navigation, physics and astronomy. Galileo in no way started the mathematization but represents, together with several of his contemporaries such as Johannes Kepler, Simon Stevin, Christoph Clavius and Isaac Beeckman, a temporary high point in these developments. All four of those contemporaries were actually better mathematicians than Galileo.

On the question of the epistemological status of mathematical proofs, which Livio clearly states was still doubted in Galileo’s time, Christoph Clavius, who many people don’t realise was an excellent epistemologist, had already changed perceptions on this when Galileo was still a child. Clavius a Jesuit and thus by definition a Thomist Aristotelian used Aristotle’s own arguments to demonstrate that mathematical proofs have the same epistemological status as philosophical proofs. He even went to the extent of translating parts of the Elements of Euclid into Aristotelian syllogisms to show that mathematical proofs transport truth in the same way as philosophical, logical ones. Clavius’ influence was massive, he fought to get mathematics accepted as part of the educational reform programme of the Jesuits and then got the mathematical sciences established as a central part of the curriculum in Catholic schools, colleges and university also training the necessary teachers to carry out his programme. There is a reason why the young Galileo turned to Clavius, when seeking a mentor for his mathematical ambitions.

Taking all of this together the roll of mathematics and status of mathematical proofs in the sciences was very different in the early seventeenth century than the picture that Livio serves up. Far from being ground breaking Galileo’s (in)famous quote from The Assayer  “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics” (which Livio offers up several times in his book) was actually stating a truth that had been generally accepted by many natural philosophers and mathematicians for many decades before Galileo put pen to paper.

Returning to Galileo’s telescope discoveries, Livio tells us that Kepler published his letter praising Galileo’s telescopic discoveries under the title Dissertio cum Nuncio Sidero (1610) then goes on to write: “Galileo was clearly pleased with its content, the letter was reprinted in Florence later in the year.” What Livio neglects to mention is that Galileo was responsible for that edition in Florence, which was a pirate edition published without Kepler’s knowledge and without his permission or consent. Livio makes it appear that the Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano only reluctantly started to try and confirm Galileo’s discoveries and then only when ordered to do so. This is a complete distortion of what actually happened.

The astronomers in the Collegio Romano had their own telescopes and had been making astronomical telescopic observations well before Galileo published the Sidereus Nuncius. They immediately leapt on the pamphlet and set out to try and confirm or refute his observations. They had some difficulties constructing telescopes good enough to make the necessary observations and Christoph Grienberger (1561–1636), who was acting head of the school of mathematics due to Clavius’ advanced age, corresponded with Galileo, who provided copious advice and tips on observing and telescope construction. This was a work of friendly cooperation under fellow mathematicians. After some difficulties they succeeded in providing the necessary confirmation, which they made public and celebrated by throwing a banquet for Galileo when he visited Rome in 1611. As already stated above the Jesuit astronomers probably observed the phases of Venus before Galileo.

Livio then goes on to draw parallels with the fact that, “The current debate on global warming had to go […] through a similar painful [my emphasis] type of confirmation process.” I find this statement, quite frankly, bizarre coming from a scientist. All scientific discoveries have to be independently confirmed by other scientists, it is a central and highly important part of the whole scientific process. What the astronomers of the Collegio Romano did for Galileo was in no way “painful” but a necessary part of that scientific process for which Galileo was very thankful. I find it particularly bizarre given the very lively current debate on the significant number of scientific papers that have to be retracted because of failing confirmation. Reading Livio in the worst possible light, and not just here but at numerous other points in his narrative, he seems to be saying, if Galileo says it is so, then it must be true and anybody, who dares to criticise him, is in the wrong.

Of course, Livio cannot avoid the myth that, “First Copernicus and Galileo removed the Earth from its central position in the solar system.” Having previously quoted the “Copernicus principle”: the realisation that the Earth, and we human beings, are nothing special…” Also: “ What’s more the Copernican system was bound to be at odds with a worldview that had placed humans at the very center of creation, not only physically but also as a purpose and focus of for the universe’s existence.” Although geometrically central, the philosophers and astronomers in the Renaissance did not regard the Earth’s position as central in any special way. It was far more the bottom, the dregs of the universe. Trying to move the Earth into the heavens was moving it into an exalted place. At least Livio is honest enough to admit that Galileo remained blind to Kepler’s work, although Livio reduces it to just the discovery of elliptical orbits, whereas Kepler actually contributed more to modern astronomy than Copernicus and Galileo together.

Livio now moves on to Galileo’s entry into theology and his Letter to Castelli. As with all Galileo apologists, whist admitting that Galileo was trespassing in the territory of the theologians, he thinks that Galileo was right to do so and what he wrote was eminently sensible and should have been acknowledged and accepted. What Galileo did struck at the vey heart of the Reformation/Counter Reformation dispute that had been raging in Europe for one hundred years and just three years later would trigger the Thirty Years War, which devastated central Europe and resulted in the death of somewhere between one and two thirds of the entire population. The Catholic Church had always claimed that they and only they were permitted to interpret Holy Scripture. Luther claimed in opposition to this that every man should be allowed to interpret it for themselves. This led to schism and the Reformation. The Catholic Church confirmed, with emphasis, at the Council of Trent that only the Church’s own theologians were permitted to interpret the Bible. Now along comes a mere mathematicus, the lowest rang in the academic hierarchy, and cheerfully tells the theologians how to interpret the Holy Writ. The amazing thing is that they didn’t simply throw him into a foul dungeon and throw away the key.  I mentioned earlier that the Church was a judicial organ and the decisions of the Council of Trent were binding laws on all Catholics. Galileo knowingly and very provocatively broke that law and got mildly and unofficially admonished for doing so. Whatever a modern observer may think about the quality of Galileo’s theological arguments is completely irrelevant, it’s the fact that he made them at all that was the offence. However, in doing so he together with Foscarini provoked the Church into taking the heliocentric hypothesis under the microscope. He had been warned, as early as 1613, by various friends including Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII not to do so.

Livio thinks that because he finds Galileo’s arguments in the Letter to Castelli reasonable and ‘because of science’ that the Catholic Church should have cut Galileo some slack and let him reinterpret the Bible. The Catholic Church should abandon their exclusive right to interpret Holy Writ, one of the fundaments of their entire religion, so that a nobody, and despite his celebrity status, in the grand scheme of things Galileo was a nobody, could promote an unproven astronomical hypothesis! This is the same exclusive right for which the same Church was prepared to engage in one of the most devastating wars in European history, just three years later. In his pseudo-historical narrative Livio has here completely lost touch with the historical context.  In fact Livio is not writing history at all but making presentist moral judgements with hindsight.

There is another bizarre statement by Livio where he writes:

All this notwithstanding, however, the Church might have still accommodated (albeit with difficulty) a hypotheticalsystem that would have made it easier for mathematicians to calculate orbits, positions, and appearances of planets and stars as long as such a system could be dismissed as not representing a true physical reality. The Copernican system could be accepted as a mere mathematical framework: a model invented so as to “save the appearances” of astronomical observations–that is, to fit the observed motion of the planets.

I am frankly baffled by this paragraph because that is exactly what the Church did in fact do. They fully accepted heliocentricity as a hypothesis, whilst rejecting it as a real physical description of the cosmos. This is shown very clearly by their treatment of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, which unlike Kepler’s books, for example, was not placed on the Index of forbidden books but was only placed on it until corrected. This correction was carried out by 1620 and consisted only of changing or removing the comparatively few statement in the book claiming that heliocentricity was a real physical description of the cosmos. From 1621 Catholics were free to read the now purely hypothetical De revolutionibus. Livio relates all of this fairly accurately and then drops another clangour. He writes:

In reality, the modifications introduced by Cardinal Luigi Caetani and later by Cardinal Francesco Ingoli were indeed relatively minor and the publication of the revised version was approved in 1620. However, the new edition never reached the press, and so Copernicus’s book remained on the Index of Prohibited Books until 1835!

This is once again complete rubbish. The Catholic Church never intended to publish a new or revised edition of De revolutionibus. What they did was to issue the list of corrections deemed necessary and every Catholic owner of the book was expected to carry out the corrections in the own copies themselves. Quite a few obviously did and we have a number of surviving copies, including Galileo’s own private copy, with the corrections carried out according to the issued instructions. Interestingly almost all of the thus censored copies are in Italy or of Italian provenance, it seems that Catholics outside of Italy didn’t take much notice of the Vatican’s censorship order. De revolutionibuswas of course removed from the Index in 1620 having been corrected. Also, I know of no case of anyone being prosecuted for reading or owning an uncensored copy of the book.

Livio tries to counter the argument that I have presented above that Galileo was admonished because he meddled in theology by claiming that the motivation was one of anti-science. Livio. “[They] were trying only to convince Galileo not to meddle in theology, as a few modern scholars have concluded.” To counter this he brings statements from Grienberger and Bellarmino saying that elements of Copernicus theory contradict passages of Holy Writ. He writes:”[they] were quite intent on crushing the Copernican challenge as a representation of reality because, from their perspective, they were vindicating the authority of Scripture in determining truth.” Dear Dr Livio that is theology! As Bellarmino wrote in his letter to Foscarini, if a contradiction exists between Holy Writ and a proven scientific fact, the heliocentric hypothesis was of course at this point in time no where near being a proven scientific fact, then the theologians have to very carefully considered how to reinterpret Holy Writ; that is what theologians do!

This brings us to Roberto Bellarmino famous letter to Paolo Antonio Foscarini. Foscarini, a monk, had written a book defending heliocentricity and reinterpreting the Bible in a similar way to Galileo. Criticised, he sent his book to Roberto Bellarmino for his judgement; he hoped it would be favourable. The title contains the word Pythagorean, so Livio explains that the Pythagoreans thought Earth etc. orbited a central fire, therefore the comparison with Copernicus’ theory. Livio then writes, “Greek philosopher Heraclides of Pontus added, also in the fourth century BCE that the Earth rotated on its axis too…” As far as can be determined Heraclides proposed diurnal rotation in a geocentric system and not in a heliocentric or Pythagorean one.

Livio goes into a lot of detail about Foscarini’s text and Bellarmino’s letter but I will only mention two points. Livio quotes the paragraph that I have already paraphrased above, “…if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them, than what is demonstrated is false.” Livio adds, “But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. Nor is it the same to demonstrate that by supposing the sun to be at the center and the earth in heaven one can save the appearances, and to demonstrate that in truth the sun is at the center and the earth in the heaven; for I believe the first demonstration may be available, but I have very great doubts about the second, and in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers.”

This is of course eminently sensible and rational. If you want me to accept you scientific theory then show me the proof! Livio doesn’t accept this and goes of into a long diatribe, which demonstrates his own prejudices rather more than any faults in Bellarmino’s logic. He then comes with a totally spurious argument:

If two theories explain all the observed facts equally well, scientists would prefer to adopt, even if tentatively, the simpler one. Following Galileo’s discoveries, such a process would have definitely favoured the Copernican system over the Ptolemaic one, which was what Galileo had been championing all along. The requirement of simplicity would have also given an advantage to Copernicanism over Tycho Brahe’s hybrid geocentric-heliocentric model.

Ignoring the fact that the Ptolemaic system was dead in the water after the discovery of the phases of Venus and so the comparison is a waste of time, any alert reader will immediately spot the massive error in this argument. The two theories, Copernicus and Brahe, do not explain all the observed facts equally well. The Copernican system requires something very central that the Tychonic system does not, terrestrial motion. Livio adds this in a very off hand way, “Of course the ultimate test would have been to find direct proof for the Earth’s motion…” There was in fact absolutely no empirical proof of the Earth’s motion and wouldn’t be until Bradley discovered stellar aberration in 1725! To give the “advantage to Copernicanism over Tycho Brahe’s hybrid geocentric-heliocentric model” would be under the circumstances actually unscientific.

A little bit further on Livio delivers another highly spurious comment, he writes, “…but Bellarmino’s position was extremely rigid. He did not believe that a proof of Copernicanism could ever be found.” Livio is here putting words into Bellarmino’s mouth, who never said anything of the sort, rather he expressed doubt that that such a proof existed.  Livio finishes off his series of spurious attacks on Bellarmino by claiming to prove him theologically wrong. I find it slightly amusing that a twenty-first century astrophysicists claims that Bellarmino, who was universally regarded as the greatest living Catholic theologian and whose reputation as a theologian was such that at the end of his life he was both head of the Index and head of the Inquisition, was theologically wrong.

Things developed as they must and we now have Galileo rushing off to Rome to try and rescue the situation with his infamous theory of the tides. Livio explains the theory and its possible origins then he drops the following jewel:

Albeit wrong, Galileo’s commitment to mechanical easy-to-understand causation made his theory of tides at least plausible.

There is only one possible answer to this claim, bullshit! A theory that states there is only one high tide and one low tide at the same time every day, when there are in fact two of each of which the times travel around the clock over the lunar month (a strong indication of the correct theory of the tides) is anything but a plausible theory. It is as I said bullshit.

We now turn to the committee of consultors set up to examine the theological implications of heliocentricity. Livio of course has much to say against this. His first objection:

Ironically, the same office that had objected vehemently to scientists intruding into theology was now asking the theologians to judge on two purely scientific questions–two of the central tenets of he Copernican model.

Once again Livio appears to have no idea what theology is. The discipline of theology covers all forms of human activity in their entirety. There is absolutely nothing in human existence that doesn’t fall under the remit of theology. Secondly the function of the consultors in this case were being asked to examine the two central tenets of heliocentricity in relation to Catholic religious belief, not a scientific question at all.

Next up, Livio objects to the consultors themselves: “Not one was a professional astronomer or even an accomplished scientist in any discipline.” All of the consultors were highly educated, learned men, who would have had a solid instruction to Ptolemaic astronomy during there education and were more than capable of asking an expert for his advice if necessary.

Consultor: Is there any empirical evidence that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still?

Astronomer: No

Consultor: Is there any empirical evidence that the Sun and not the Earth is at the centre of the cosmos?

Astronomer: No

Simple wasn’t it.


The decisions of the consultors are well know:

On February 24 the Qualifiers delivered their unanimous report: the proposition that the Sun is stationary at the centre of the universe is “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”; the proposition that the Earth moves and is not at the centre of the universe “receives the same judgement in philosophy; and … in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith. (Wikipedia)

Foolish and absurd in philosophy is the scientific judgement and sounds somewhat harsh but can be simply translated as, is not supported by the available empirical evidence. Livio would disagree with both the judgement and my interpretation of it but it is historically fundamentally accurate. The second part of each judgement is of course the theological one. As is also well known the Pope commissioned Cardinal Bellarmino to inform Galileo of the decision and to instruct him not to hold or teach the heliocentric theory. Books, such as those of Kepler, claiming the physical reality of heliocentricity, were placed on the Index and De revolutionibus, as detailed above until corrected, which it was.

Bewilderingly Livio accuses Bellarmino and the Jesuits of failing to support Galileo against the Pope, which displays an incredible ignorance of the Catholic Church, the Pope and the Jesuit Order in the seventeenth century. As stated at the beginning the Catholic Church was a religious, political and judicial power in an age of absolutism and the Pope was an absolutist ruler. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits), and Bellarmino was also a Jesuit, is a religious order dedicated to and directly under the authority of the Pope. Livio’s accusations are totally insane.  He, of course, can’t resist making ahistorical and inaccurate comments about the decision, he writes:

The ruling made by officers of the Church for whom retaining authoritative power over areas totally outside their expertise took priority over open-minded critical thinking informed by scientific evidence.

Livio here continues to ignore/deny the simple fact that the scientific evidence in the early seventeenth century simply did not support an interpretation of heliocentricity as a physical reality and whilst it appears somewhat draconian the Church decision doesn’t actually say anything else.

Livio also launches the presentist moral outrage attack, “[some] argue that some of the responsibility for the prohibition of Copernicanism lies with Galileo himself, because he wouldn’t keep his mouth shut. Such claims are outrages.” Firstly the heliocentric hypothesis was never prohibited only the heliocentric theory, which given its scientific status at the time was in fact, although unnecessarily harsh, justifiable and secondly if Galileo had displayed somewhat more tact, instead of behaving like the proverbial bull in a china shop, things would never have taken the turn that they did.

We move on to the dispute over the nature of comets between the Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grassi and Galileo. Here Livio again displays his ignorance of the history of astronomy. He writes:

Grassi’s theory of comets deviated courageously from the Aristotelian view, which placed comets at about the distance of the Moon. Instead following Tycho Brahe, Grassi proposed that the comets were further out between the Moon and the Sun.


As to the actual nature of comets, many astronomers at the time were sill adopting Aristotle’s theory, which stated that these represented exhalations of the Earth that became visible above a certain height due to combustion, disappearing from view as soon as that inflammable material was exhausted. Grassi, however, again followed Brahe in suggesting that comets were some sort of “imitation planets.”


The modern debate on the nature of comets and whether they were sub- or supralunar began in the fifteenth century with Toscanelli (1397–1482), who tried to track the path of Comet Halley in 1456, as if it were a supralunar object. The debate continued in the work of Georg von Peuerbach (1423–1461), Toscanelli’s one time student, and Peuerbach’s student, Regiomontanus (1436–1476), who wrote a work on how to detect parallax in a moving comet. The debate continued in the 1530’s with many leading European astronomers taking part, including, Johannes Schöner (1477–1547), who published Regiomontanus’ work on comets, Peter Apian (1495–1552), after whom the law concerning comets’ tails in named, Copernicus (1473–1543), Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576) and Jean Pena (1528–1558). The latter two both proposed a theory that comets were translucent, supralunar, bodies that focused the Sun’s rays like a lens creating the comets tail. Tycho’s comet, the great comet of 1577 was observed by astronomers all over Europe and Tycho, Michael Mästlin (1550-1631) and Thaddaeus Hagecius ab Hayek (1525–1600), three leading astronomers, all determined that comets were supralunar. Clavius accepted these results and included the fact that comets were supralunar in his Sphaera. This meant that the official view of the Catholic Church in general and the Jesuits in particular was that comets were supralunar. This view was confirmed again by astronomers throughout Europe observing Comet Halley in 1607. The was nothing courageous about Grassi’s theory of comets and in fact you would be hard put to it to find a serious European astronomer, apart from Galileo, who still adhered to Aristotelian cometary theory in 1618. In the same year Grassi’s Jesuit colleague Johann Baptist Cysat (c. 1587–1657), a student of Christoph Scheiner, became the first astronomer to observe a comet with a telescope giving the first ever description of a comet’s nucleus in his Mathemata astronomica de loco, motu, magnitudine et causis cometae qui sub finem anni 1618 et initium anni 1619 in coelo fulsit. Ingolstadt Ex Typographeo Ederiano 1619 (Ingolstadt, 1619). He followed Tycho Brahe in believing that comets orbited the sun. He also demonstrated the orbit was parabolic not circular.

Galileo, who due to ill health had not observed the comets of 1618, launched a vicious and insulting, unprovoked attack on Grassi’s publication, presenting a view of comets that was totally out of date, ignoring all of the accumulated scientific evidence from the last two centuries on the nature of comets just to put one over on the Jesuits and the supporters of Tycho’s theories. Livio does his best to defend Galileo’s disgusting behaviour but even he admits that Grassi was principally in the right and Galileo simply wrong. Livio goes as far as to claim that because comets has an elongated elliptical orbit (actually only some do) that Galileo’s claim that they travel in straight lines was more correct than Grassi’s claim that they orbit the Sun. In all other instances Livio goes out of his way to emphasise that hindsight shows that Galileo was right and his critics wrong so why the opposite tack here? Comets do orbit the Sun. Livio scrabbles around in the cesspit that is Galileo’s paper on comets looking for crumbs for which he can give Galileo credit.

Livio now criticises Grassi’s answer to Galileo’s attack because it contained sarcastic attacks on Galileo. Talk about pot calling the kettle black. He even brings up the obtuse suggestion that it was actually written by Christoph Scheiner because of his antagonism towards Galileo. This theory has a small problem; Scheiner only became antagonistic towards Galileo after Galileo had viciously insulted him in The Assayer, a publication that still lay in the future. Livio’s whole account of the affair is biased in Galileo’s favour so that it serves as a lead up to The Assayer, for the time being the last document in the dispute, because, as already mentioned, Livio sees it as the document in which Galileo established the place of mathematics in science. Livio’s account of The Assayer and its significance is more than somewhat outlandish.

With very little evidence to base this opinion upon, Galileo thought in 1623 that he knew the answer: the universe “is written in the language of mathematics.” It was this dedication to mathematics that raised Galileo above Grassi and the other scientist of his day, even when his specific arguments fell short of convincing–and even though he assigned to geometry a more important role than it seemed to deserve at the time. His opponents, he wrote, “failed to notice that to go against geometry is to deny truth in broad daylight.”

This whole paragraph contains so much that is wrong that it is difficult to know where to start.  I have already explained above that by the time Galileo wrote this infamous piece of purple prose it was widely accepted by both mathematician and natural philosophers that the future of science lay in an intensive mathematization. A process that was well under way when Galileo wrote something that was not new and sensational but a common place. A lot of contemporary scientists were dedicated to mathematics, such as Johannes Kepler, Simon Steven and Isaac Beeckman. In fact the last two both contributed at least as much to the development of mathematical physics in the seventeenth century as Galileo if not more. Unfortunately their achievements tend to get blended out on the popular level by the Galileo myth machine of which, Livio is just the latest in a long line of operators.

To raise Galileo above Grassi because of his dedication to mathematics is more than a joke; it’s grotesque. Earlier in his account of the dispute between Grassi and Galileo, Livio acknowledged that Grassi was an excellent optical physicist and an equally excellent architect both disciplines are fundamentally mathematical disciplines. He also points out that Grassi succeeded Grienberger as professor for mathematics at the Collegio Romano, who had succeeded Clavius. The chair for mathematics at the Collegio Romano was unique in European universities. Clavius had set up what we would now call an institute for advanced mathematics, a roll that both Grienberger and Grassi kept alive. This institute was dedicated to exemplifying, establishing and developing the roll of mathematics in the sciences. The Collegio Romano was quite simply the most advanced school for mathematics and its application anywhere in Europe. As far as geometry goes the standard textbook for geometry throughout most of the seventeenth century was Christoph Clavius’ Euclides Elementorum Libri XV, Rom 1574, note the date. This was not simply a new translation of Euclid’s classic but a modernised, simplified, streamlined textbook that was used extensively by both Catholic and Protestant educational establishments; the last edition was printed in 1717.

Shortly after the above passage on Galileo’s supposed revolutionary thoughts on mathematics we get the following throwaway line:

Galileo introduced the revolutionary departure from the medieval, ludicrous notion that everything worth knowing was already known.

When I read this I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, rip my hair out (if I had any), or simply go out and throw myself off a high cliff in the face of such imbecilic drivel. I strongly suspect that any of my history of medieval science friends and colleagues will react similarly should they happen to read the above sentence. Starting at the very latest with the translation movement in the twelfth century medieval science was an evolving developing field with advances in a wide range of disciplines. The medieval scholars laid the foundations upon which Galileo built his own achievements. I would be quite happy to give Dr Livio a very long reading list of good books on medieval science to help him find a way out of his ignorance.

At the end of his chapter on The Assayer Livio warms up the old discovery of Pierto Redondi that Galileo was denounced to the Inquisition for the bits of primitive atomism contained in The Assayer. This was indeed true but the accusation was dismissed and nothing came of it, as Livio admits. Livio, however, now writes a whole paragraph about how important atomism, he actually means particle physics, is in modern physics, mentioning quarks, leptons, gage bosons etc., etc. I wonder how Livio would react if he knew that the principle source of atomism in the seventeenth century is now considered to be the German alchemist Daniel Sennert (1572–1637) reviving the theories of the thirteenth century alchemist Paul of Taranto. You remember alchemy one of those fictitious fields together with astrology that scientists sometime connected to.

Next up the Dialogo: Livio acknowledges that there were external political and social factors that affected the situation within the Vatican in the years leading up to the publication of the Dialogo. He starts with the astrological scandal. In 1630 an astrological prognostication predicting the Pope’s death was made and circulated by, to quote Livio, the abbot of Saint Praxedes in Rome. Livio then tells us, “some of Galileo’s adversaries tried to pin the blame on Galileo…” What Livio neglects to mention is that although Galileo was in this case innocent there were plausible ground for suspecting him, it was a case of guilt by association. Firstly, Galileo was known to be a practicing astrologer. Secondly, the abbot of Saint Praxedes, Orazio Morandi had been a good friend of Galileo’s since at least 1613. Thirdly, following an audience with the Pope concerning the forthcoming Dialogo in 1630, Galileo took part in a supper with Moriandi in Saint Praxedes together with Rafaello Visconti (Master of the Sacred Palace), another friend of Galileo’s, who read the manuscript of the Dialogo for Niccolò Ricardi the censor, who never actually read it, and an appraiser of the Inquisition. When Morandi was arrested for his horoscope and thrown into the Vatican’s dungeon, Visconti was also implicated and banished from the Vatican. That Galileo came under suspicion by association is hardly surprising. This was not a plot against Galileo as Livio claims.

We then have a wonderfully mangled piece of history from Livio, who write:

Unfortunately, this was not the end of the trials and tribulations Galileo had to endure for the publication of the Dialogo. Most significant of these was the sudden death on August 1, 1630, of Federico Cesi, the founder and sole source of funding for the Accademia dei Lincei. As a result the printing had to be done in Florence, outside of Riccardi’s jurisdiction. After some negotiations, it was agreed that Father Jacinto Stefani, a consultor of the Inquisition in Florence, would be in charge, but only after Riccardi approved the introduction and conclusion.

Although Cesi’s death was a serious blow to Galileo’s plans because he Cesi was supposed to finance the publication of the Dialogo, but this was not the reason why it was published in Florence and not in Rome. What actually happened is that after Galileo had returned to Florence from Rome with his manuscript the plague broke out in Florence. Restrictions on travel imposed by the authorities meant that Galileo could not return to Rome to oversee the printing and publication of his book. He requested permission from Riccardi to get the book published in Florence instead, but as already mentioned Riccardi hadn’t actually read the book intending to review the pages as they came of the printing press instead, having accepted Visconti’s recommendation. Riccardi was now in a pickle and wanted Galileo to send him a copy of the manuscript but due to the immense cost of producing such a copy, Galileo was very reluctant to do so.  Riccardi agreed to Galileo just sending the introduction and conclusion to Rome to be controlled and the rest being controlled in Florence by Stefani. Galileo and his circle of supporters now manipulated and even oppressed the two censors and played them against each other. The result was that the imprimatur was granted by Stefani under the impression that Ricarrdi had already cleared the manuscript for publication in Rome, he hadn’t, without actually controlling the text himself. Galileo had an imprimatur that had been obtained under false pretences, which meant that he didn’t actually have an imprimatur at all. All of this came out during the investigations following publication, which contributed to Galileo’s being prosecuted but did not play a role in the actual trial.

All of this, which Livio doesn’t mention at all, is important because when dealing with the trial Livio several times emphasises that the Church had given Galileo to publish the book as it was because he had not one but two imprimaturs, whereas in fact formally he didn’t have one at all.

Livio now tells us:

There is a certain sleight of hand in the title. [Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, Ptolemaic and Copernican, Propounding Inconclusively in the Philosophical Reasons as Much for the One Side as for the Other] Even if one were to ignore the fact that the Aristotelian and the Ptolemaic systems were not identical, there was at least one other world system that in terms of agreement with observations was superior to the Ptolemaic: Tycho Brahe’s Hybrid system in which the planets revolved around the Sun, but the Sun itself revolved around the Earth. Galileo always regarded that system as unnecessarily complex and contrived, and he also thought that he’d found proof for the Earth’s motion through the phenomenon of the tides, so in striving to hand Copernicanism a clear victory (although formally the book was inconclusive) he probably didn’t want to confuse the issue with superfluous qualifications.

Once again so much to unpick. Livio obviously doesn’t understand that the system propagated by the Catholic Church before Copernicus was an uneasy mixture of Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian cosmology, not Aristotelian astronomy, which is a whole different kettle of fish that had been revived by some in the sixteenth century and against which Clavius had fought tooth and nail. In fact he devotes much more space to refuting the Aristotelian homocentric astronomy in his Sphaera than he devotes to refuting Copernicus. The developments in astronomy since Copernicus published De revolutionibus had left Aristotelian cosmology in shreds and Clavius had been quite happy to also jettison that, so for Clavius, speak the Catholic Church, the world system was simply the Ptolemaic.

In fact Galileo’s whole title and thus his whole book is a complete sham By 1630 the two chief systems of the world were the Tychonic system and Johannes Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric system, which was regarded as separate from and as a competitor to Copernicus’ system. The Ptolemaic system had been killed off by the discovery of the phases of Venus and the plausible assumption that Mercury would also orbit the Sun as its general behaviour was identical to that of Venus; the phases of Mercury were first observed in 1639. Galileo just used Ptolemy as a fall guy for his sham Copernican victory. Copernicus’ heliocentric system had been rendered totally obsolete by Kepler’s discovery of the three laws of planetary motion, empirically based mathematical laws I would point out, which Galileo just completely ignored clinging to Copernicus’ ‘unnecessarily complex and contrived’ system of deferents and epicycles. Livio’s dismissal of the Tychonic system as ‘superfluous qualifications’ is put quite simply a joke, especially given that the Tychonic system was at the time the leading contender as the world system because of the failing evidence of terrestrial motion.

Livio without realising it now points out the central problem with the Dialogo:

The Dialogo is one of the most engaging science texts ever written. There are conflicts and drama, yes, but also philosophy, humor, cynicism, and poetic usage of language, so that the sum is much more than its parts.

All of the above is true except that as a piece of astronomy the sum is much less than its parts, which I will explain shortly. There is no doubt whatsoever that for all of his undeniably polymathic talents, Galileo’s greatest gift was as a polemicist. A friend of mine, who is a Galileo expert, calls him the first science publicist and this is a function that he carried out brilliantly. Yes, the Dialogo is a brilliant piece of literature, which is probably unequalled by any other scientific publication in the entire history of science. However, its literary brilliance appears to have blinded many of its readers to the fact that as a piece of astronomy it’s total crap.

As already mention, Galileo struts on to the stage to discuss what he calls the two chief world systems but actually delivers up is a sham battle between two obsolete and refuted systems. He clung stubbornly to his completely false theory that comets are mere optical illusions originating on the Earth against a mass of solid, empirical, scientific evidence that comets were in fact supralunar celestial objects that orbited the Sun. Something that Galileo was no prepared to accept because it was first proposed by Tycho, who saw it as supporting evidence for his system. He clung to Copernicus’ deferents and epicycles rather than acknowledge Kepler’s much simpler, empirically proven elliptical orbits. In fact, Galileo completely ignores Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, by far and away, the best scientific supporting evidence for a heliocentric system because if he did acknowledge them he would have to hand the laurels for proving the superiority of the heliocentric system to Kepler instead of winning them for himself, his one and only aim in the whole story. Last but by no means least he structures his whole book and his argument around his totally ludicrous theory of the tides. One of the greatest mysteries in Galileo’s life is why he, an undeniably brilliant scientist, clung so tenaciously to such an obviously bankrupt theory.

Galileo’s masterwork sailed majestically past the actually astronomy debate in the 1630s and played little or no role in the ensuing astronomical discussion of the seventeenth century in which it was largely ignored being of no real relevance. It only became crowned as a classic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when Galileo was declared to be a scientific martyr

Livio, like so many others, blinded by the radiance of Galileo’s rhetoric sees the matter somewhat differently. In a surprisingly short presentation of the book he praises Galileo’s achievements. There are a couple of minor points that I would like to pick up on, Livio delivers up once again the myth of heliocentricity removing the Earth from its central place in the cosmos:

More important, the act of removing humans from their central place in the cosmos was too brutal to be remedied by some philosophical pleasantries at the end of a debate from a very different tone.

The whole central place in the cosmos myth is one created in the late eighteenth century and I know of no seventeenth century use of it to criticise the heliocentric hypothesis. In a bit of waffle towards the end of this chapter Livio says the “He [Galileo] did his best…” If Galileo had truly done his best he would not have ignored the most compelling evidence for the heliocentric hypothesis, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. He goes on to say that, “History has indeed proved that Galileo was right,” it hasn’t Galileo was wrong and Kepler was right.

Livio gives a fairly short and largely accurate account of Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition and the events leading up to following the publication of the book. The only major error being, as mentioned above, his insistence that the book had two imprimaturs. Livio acknowledges that the judgement of the three clerics, commissioned to read the book and determine whether Galileo taught or defended in anyway the heliocentric theory, that he had in fact done just that and thus broken the order from 1616 was correct. Although he can’t avoid a dig at Melchior Inchofer, the Jesuit under the three. This was the charge that was brought against Galileo and of which he was found guilty. He also can’t avoid turning up the emotional rhetoric, “What happened on the following day remains one of the most shameful events in our intellectual history.” Galileo deliberately and wilfully broke the law and received the standard punishment for having done so, which included abjuring. There is an old saying under criminals, if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime. Galileo was arrogant enough to think that he could put one over on the Catholic Church and get away scot-free, it turned out that he couldn’t.

We get a short, once again, rather gushing account of the Discorsi, Galileo real claim to fame but Livio rather spoils it by once again trying to claim that Galileo created modern science.

Through an ingenious combination of experimentation (for example, with inclined planes), abstraction (discovering mathematical laws), and rational generalisation (understanding that the same laws apply to all accelerated motions), Galileo established what has since become the modern approach to the study of all natural phenomena.

Although in the case of the studies presented by Galileo in the Discorsi he proved himself to be an excellent experimental scientist, all of these things had been done by others before Galileo and independently by others contemporaneously to Galileo. He was only one amongst other who helped to establish this methodology. Galileo was part of the evolution of a new scientific methodology that had started long before he was born and which he did not initiate. Like many others before him Livio also falsely attributes Newton’s first law, the principle of inertia, to Galileo. Whilst Galileo did indeed produce a version of the principle of inertia, Newton took his first law from the works of René Descartes, who in turn had taken it from Isaac Beeckman, who had formulated it independently of Galileo.

The next chapter of Livio’s book is an obtuse story of an account of the Galileo affair commissioned by the Vatican in the 1940s and then not published but then published under the name of a different author in the 1960s. The sole aim of this chapter is simply to take another gratuitous swing at the Catholic Church. The book closes with a fairly long digression on Einstein’s views on science and religion, which brings us to a major problem with the book, apart from the historical inaccuracies, it tries to be too many things at once.

One thing that I have mentioned in passing is Livio’s attempts to draw parallels between what happened to Galileo and the current crop of science deniers. The analogies simply don’t work because no matter how hard Livio tries to claim the opposite, Galileo’s critics in astronomy, especially the Jesuits, were not science deniers but just as much scientists as Galileo, who argued for an equally valid, in fact empirically more valid, system of astronomy, the Tychonic one, as Galileo’s heliocentric system. All the way through the book Livio keeps trying to disqualify the Tychonic system as unscientific but in the first half of the seventeenth century it was just as scientific as the heliocentric hypothesis. The only person practicing science denial here is Livio. He also wants to present the book as a discussion of the general relationship between science and religion but the whole time he argues from a presentist standpoint and refuses to view the relationship in Galileo’s time in its correct historical context. Lastly he actually wants to sell the book as a new biography of Galileo presented with the insights of a working astrophysicist, his own claim at the beginning of the book. Unfortunately it is here that he fails most.

He enters his story with a preconceived image of Galileo as a white knight on his mighty charger fighting for freedom of speech and freedom of thought in the sciences and as the originator and creator of modern experimental and mathematical science. With this image firmly in mind, from the start of his narrative, he fills out the picture with a classic case of confirmation bias. He completely ignores any real facts from the history of science that might force him to rethink his preconceived image of his hero. There is no mistaking the fact that is a strong element of hero worship in Livio’s vision of Galileo. Instead of describing the real state of science in the early seventeenth century, he present the reader with a comic book version of Aristotelian philosophy from the thirteenth century making it easier for him to present Galileo as some sort of superman, who dragged natural philosophy kicking and screaming into the modern world, whilst singlehandedly creating modern science. Edward Grant the eminent historian of medieval science (a discipline that Livio probably thinks doesn’t exist, because he seems to think that there was no medieval science), once very perceptively wrote that Aristotelian philosophy was not Aristotle’s philosophy and went on to point out that it is very difficult to define Aristotelian philosophy, as it kept on evolving and changing down the centuries. The Thomist philosophy of the Jesuits in the first third of the seventeenth century was a very different beast to the Aristotelian philosophy that Thomas Aquinas propagated in the thirteenth century. The historical distortions that Livio presents would be funny if they weren’t so grotesque.

On the question of Galileo being ‘a symbol of the fight for intellectual freedom, a lifetime of studying and thinking about Early Modern science has brought me to the conclusion that he wasn’t. In my opinion Galileo didn’t really care about such abstractions as freedom of thought, freedom of speech or intellectual freedom, all he cared about was his own vainglory. As Mario Biagioli clearly shows in his Galileo Courtier,[2] Galileo was a social climber. He was a relatively unknown, middle aged, professor of mathematics, who overnight became the most celebrated astronomer in Europe because of his telescopic discoveries. Alone the way he presented those discoveries shows his principle aim was to see what he could gain socially from them. Galileo loved his celebrity status and revelled in it. His engagement for heliocentricity was all motivated by the thought that if he could prove it true, then he would become even more famous and even more feted. To achieve this aim he lied, cheated and plagiarised. He attacked and viciously stomped on all those he regarded as competitors in his strivings for fame and adulations. He also deliberately ignored any evidence for heliocentricity presented by others (see Kepler’s laws of planetary motion) that might mean that they get the laurels and not he. Galileo might have been a great scientist but he was also a vain egoist. I think all of this might go someway to explaining his extraordinary blindness to the enormous inadequacies of his theory of the tides.

Reading this book made me very angry. The only positive thing I can say about it is that Livio is an excellent writer and the book is very well written and easy to read, but in the end even this must be viewed negatively. Mario Livio is a prominent scientist and the very successful author of popular books on mathematics and science. Because of his reputation non-specialist journals will have glowing reviews of his book, mostly written by people, who are neither Galileo experts and nor historians of science. If it follows the normal pattern for such books, specialist journals and professional historians of science will decline to review it, because it’s a pop book. The book will almost certainly become a genre bestseller and another generation of readers will acquire a mythical image of Galileo Galilei and a totally false impression of Renaissance science, something I have battled against in the eleven years that I have been writing this blog.

[1] Mario Livio, Galileo and the Science Deniers, Simon & Schuster paperbacks, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, New Delhi, 2020

[2] Mario Biagioli, Galileo Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, ppb. 1994


May 27, 2020 · 8:35 am

The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXXIV

Without any doubt the biggest impact on the discussion of astronomy and cosmology at the beginning of the seventeenth century was made by the invention of the telescope in 1608 and the subsequent discoveries that were made by astronomers with the new revolutionary instrument. That the Moon was not smooth and perfect as claimed by Aristotle but had geological features like the Earth, that the Milky Way and some nebula resolved into separate stars when viewed through the telescope, that the Sun had spots, that Jupiter had four Moons orbiting it and lastly that Venus displayed phases showing that it must orbit the Sun and not the Earth. All of these, for the times, amazing discoveries were made between the end of 1609 and 1613 then the stream of new discoveries dried up as suddenly as it had begun, why? The problem was a technological one.

All of these initial discoveries had been made using so-called Dutch or Galilean telescopes that consisted of a simple tube with two lenses a convex objective at the front and a concave eyepiece at the back.


Optical diagram of Galilean telescope y – Distant object ; y′ – Real image from objective ; y″ – Magnified virtual image from eyepiece ; D – Entrance pupil diameter ; d – Virtual exit pupil diameter ; L1 – Objective lens ; L2 – Eyepiece lens e – Virtual exit pupil – Telescope equals Source: Wikimedia Commons

A simple instrument with a serious drawback, by adjusting the focal lengths of the lenses one can increase the magnifying power of the instrument but the greater the magnifying power the smaller the field of vision. Most of the discoveries were made using telescopes with a magnifying power of between twenty and thirty. With such telescopes, for example, Galileo could only view about one quarter of the Moon at a time. With magnifying powers above thirty the Dutch telescope becomes effectively useless as an astronomical instrument. The discoveries that had been made by 1613 marked the limit of discoveries that could be made with the simple Dutch telescope, another instrument had to be found if new discoveries were to be made.


Galileo’s sketches of the Moon from Sidereus Nuncius. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The solution to the problem had already been presented by Johannes Kepler in his Dioptrice published in 1611.

In this important contribution to the science of optics Kepler not only explained, for the first time, how the Dutch telescope functioned but also what became known as the Keplerian or astronomical telescope with a convex objective and a convex eyepiece. He also described the function of the so-called terrestrial telescope with three convex lenses. The astronomical telescope had a much bigger field of view than the Dutch telescope and could thus be constructed with a much higher magnification.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

It, however, suffered from the problem that whereas the image in the Dutch telescope was upright, in the astronomical telescope it was inverted. Thus the terrestrial telescope the third lens functioning as an inverter, righting the image.

Christoph Scheiner constructed astronomical telescopes for his work observing the Sun.


Scheiner’s astronomical telescope for recording sunspots Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, Scheiner remained an exception, if a prominent one, and in general it took three decades before other astronomers turned from the Dutch telescope to telescopes with convex lenses. This of course raises the question, why? The inverted image in the simple two lens astronomical telescope was one problem, however not for Scheiner, who projected the Sun’s image onto a sheet of paper and could thus simply invert his drawn image when finished. There is, however another reason for the very protracted move away from the Dutch telescope to the astronomical telescope and that reason bears the name Galileo Galilei.

Since the publication of his Sidereus Nuncius in 1610, Galileo had become the authority for all things connected with telescopic astronomy.


Title page of Sidereus nuncius, 1610, by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). *IC6.G1333.610s, Houghton Library, Harvard University Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo was also arrogant enough to reject anything that he didn’t discover or originate. He made rude noises about the astronomical telescope praising the advantages of the Dutch telescope against the astronomical telescope, even though they didn’t exist. He was also very rude about and dismissive of Kepler’s Dioptrice claiming that it was unreadable. His authority was sufficient to hinder the adoption of the astronomical telescope.

One of the first to go against the authority of Galileo and construct and observe with an astronomical telescope was the Italian astronomer Francesco Fontana (c. 1558–1656), who as we saw earlier made the telescope with which Zupi first observed the phases of Mercury.


Fontana drew a new more accurate map of the Moon, discovered the bands visible on Jupiter. He made the first drawings of Mars and discovered its rotation also inferring the rotation of both Jupiter and Saturn. He published a book of all of his discoveries Novae coelestium terrestriumque rerum observationes, et fortasse hactenus non vulgatae  in 1646.


Italian astronomer Francesco Fontana created woodcuts showing the Moon and the planets as he saw them through a self-constructed telescope. In 1646, he published most of them in the book Novae Coelestium, Terrestriumque Rerum Observationes, et Fortasse Hactenus Non Vulgatae. Source

This turned out to be a major problem as the book also contained discoveries that Fontana claimed to have made, for example new moons of Jupiter Saturn and Venues, which simply didn’t exist. The charitable explanation is that these were optical artefacts produced by his telescope. This highlights another major problem of early telescopic astronomy, the quality of the early telescopes ranged from bad to abysmal.

The quality of the glass used to make the lenses was usually fairly poor. Often discoloured and equally often containing inclusions, bubbles created during the cooling of the glass, which interfered with the optical quality of the glass. All the early lenses were spherical, i.e. their curvature was segment of the surface of a sphere. This was the only shape that could be ground and polished with the technology available at the time. Even so, the further one got from the centre of a lens the more it tended to deviate from the correct form. This meant that the image formed by such lenses tended to be fairly severely distorted. The current theory is that the invention of the telescope occurred not when somebody succeeded in grinding and polishing lenses, spectacle makers had been doing that for three hundred years before the telescope emerged, or when somebody came up with the right combination of lenses, there is evidence that the magnifying property of the combination of a convex and a concave lens was known sometime before the breakthrough, but when somebody (Hans Lipperhey?) first came up with the idea of masking the outer edges of the objective lens reducing the available area to the truly spherical centre and thus creating a sharp image at the cost of a loss of light. Another problem was so-called spherical aberration. A spherical lens doesn’t actually focus light to a single point but the image is spread out over a small area causing it to blur. This was already known to Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965–c. 1040), who also knew the solution, lenses shaped according to the surfaces of ellipsoids or hyperboloids but lens makers in the seventeenth century were incapable of grinding such shapes. A much bigger problem was chromatic aberration. This is caused by the fact that simple lenses focus different wavelengths and thus different colours of light at slightly different points, causing coloured fringes on the images.  However, the discovery of chromatic aberration by Isaac Newton still lay in the future and its solution even further in the future. Over time the telescope makers discovered that making objective lenses with very long focal lengths reduced the problem of spherical and chromatic aberration and so throughout the seventeenth century the telescopes got longer and longer. Given all of these optical problems it is not surprising that astronomers made discoveries that were illusions; it is to a certain extent a wonder that they discovered anything at all.

The major breakthrough in the use of the astronomical telescope came with the invention of the multiple lens eyepiece by Anton Maria Schyrleus de Rheita, born Johann Burkhard Schyri  (1604–1660), an Capuchin monk, who had studied optics and astronomy at the University of Ingolstadt, the university of Christoph Scheiner and Johann Baptist Cysat, which, although they were no longer present when he studied there, still maintained a high standard in these disciplines. Schyri built his own telescopes and made astronomical observations. In 1643 he published his observations in his Novem stellae, which was full of new discoveries but like those of Fontana they mostly weren’t. Much more important was the publication in 1645 of his Oculus Enoch et Eliae in which he describe, without illustrations, a terrestrial telescope with a three lens eyepiece, as well a description of a pair of binoculars.


Beginning in 1643 he had already begun to manufacture his new telescope together with the Augsburger instrument maker and optician Johann Wiesel (1583–1662), Germany’s first commercial telescope maker.


Johann Wiesel with one of his telescopes. Copper engraving by Bartholomäus Kilian, 1660 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Wiesel/ Schyri terrestrial telescope, which had an upright image, a wide field of vision and high-level magnification, was a huge success throughout Europe. Not only did they sell well but they were soon copied and used not just on land but also as astronomical instruments. In his book Schyri also coined the terms ocular and objective for telescopes.

The Wiesel/ Schyri telescope broke the dam and opened the market for convex lens, astronomical telescopes. In Italy Eustachio Divini (1610–1685) a clockmaker began to manufacture optical instruments becoming by 1646 the leading optician in Italy selling astronomical telescopes throughout Europe.


Portrait of Eustachio Divini in Carlo Antonio Manzini’s “Dioptrica Pratica” Bologna 1660 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1649 he published his first book of observations centred round a spectacular selenography.


Eustachio Divini Selenography

He would later go on to make detailed observations of Jupiter, the changing shape of the belts, the big red spot and the shadows cast by the satellites. His observation confirmed the axial rotation of the planet.

Divini’s reputation as Europe’s leading telescope maker/astronomer was usurped in 1656 by the still young Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), who designed his own astronomical telescope, which he constructed with his brother Constantijn (1628–1697) and with which he discovered Titan the largest of Saturn’s moons.


Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher, 1671, Museum Boerhaave, Leiden Source: Wikimedia Commons

The year before he had already staked his territory by explaining that the strange observations made by various astronomers of Saturn were in fact differing views of rings surrounding the planet. He explained this in his Systema Saturnium in 1659, which also contained the first telescopic sketches of the Orion Nebula. His explanation of the rings led to a major dispute with Divini, who was convinced that they were a belt of satellites.


Huygens’ explanation for the aspects of Saturn, Systema Saturnium, 1659 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the same year he made the first observations of a surface feature of another planet, Syrtis Major, a volcanic plain on Mars, using it to determine the length of the Martian day.

Divini lost his status as Italy’s prime telescope maker to the Campani brothers Matteo (1620–after 1678) and Giuseppe (1635–1715) in a series of contests staged the Accademia del Cimento to test the quality of their telescopes in 1664, which the Campani brothers won, although largely through skulduggery. Of interest is that the quality of the telescopes were compared by reading printed letters though them, a forerunner of the letter charts in the practice of every ophthalmic optician.


Giuseppe Campani (1635-1715) Telescope with four tubes, Rome, 1666 Florence, Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, inv. 2556

Although Giuseppe Campani was an active astronomer, who made his own observations and discoveries it is their most famous customer, who made the biggest impact, Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625–1712), who became Jean-Dominique when he moved to France in 1669.


Giovanni Cassini artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Employed as an astronomer at the observatory in Panzano by the Marquis Cornelio Malvasia (1603–1664) from 1648, Cassini was able to study under Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671) and Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618–1663), themselves important telescopic astronomers, who produced an important lunar map, at the University of Bologna.


Riccioli/Grimaldi Lunar Map Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1650 he was appointed professor for astronomy at the university. During his time in Bologna Cassini was able, with the assistance of Riccioli and Grimaldi, using a meridian line in the San Petronio Basilica to prove that that either the Sun’s orbit around the Earth or the Earth’s orbit around the Sun was an ellipse thus confirming a part of Kepler’s astronomical system. The experiment was unable to determine if the system was geo-heliocentric or heliocentric.


San Petronio Basilica The winter solstice end of the meridian line Source: Wikimedia Commons

As Europe’s leading telescopic astronomer Cassini discovered and published surface markings on Mars, determined the rotation periods of Mars and Jupiter, discovered four satellites of Saturn–Iapetus and Rhea in 1671 and 1672 followed by Tethys and Dione in 1684–he is also credited with the co-discovery with Robert Hooke of the big red spot on Jupiter. He was able to determine the orbits of the moons of Jupiter with enough accuracy that they could be used as a clock to determine longitude, as originally suggested by Galileo. A spin off of this research was the determination of the speed of light by Cassini’s assistant, Ole Rømer (1644–1710). He also showed that both the moons of Jupiter and Saturn obeyed Kepler’s third law, a fact used later by Newton in his Principia Mathematica.

The problem of aberration and the semi-solution of having objectives with ever-longer focal lengths led to the development of the aerial telescope. These are extremely long focal length telescopes that have an objective lens and an eyepiece but no tube, instead having some mechanism to keep the two lens units aligned. Christiaan Huygens constructed one with a cord between the objective and the ocular.


An engraving of Huygens’s 210-foot aerial telescope showing the eyepiece and objective mounts and connecting string. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The most famous aerial telescope, however, was that of Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687), a wealthy beer brewer and amateur astronomer who lived in Danzig.


Johannes Hevelius and his wife Elizabeth observing together Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hevelius constructed a telescope with a focal length of 150 feet, which became a tourist attraction.


1673 engraved illustration of Johannes Hevelius’s 8 inch telescope with an open work wood and wire “tube” that had a focal length of 150 feet to limit chromatic aberration. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He also built a fully equipped observatory on the roof of his brewery and undertook extensive astronomical observations. He, like other, produced a very detailed map of the Moon, discovered four comets and hypothesised that comets obit the Sun on parabolic orbits, created an extensive star atlas in which he described and named ten new constellations, seven of which are still included in official star maps.

With the exception of the discovery of the five largest moons of Saturn, this second wave of seventeenth century telescopic astronomy, starting in about 1640 and continuing till the end of the century, was not as spectacular as the first one. However by the end of the century the small discoveries had accumulated to create a completely different picture of the heavens to the one that existed at the beginning. Planets were no longer Aristotle’s perfectly smooth, spherical bodies but had satellites and surface features, rotated on their axes and had determinable day lengths. The Moon had been accurately mapped by several independent astronomers and there was absolutely no doubt in the minds of the observers that it was fundamentally earth like. The position of many more stars had been accurately mapped and the orbits of the newly discovered satellites had been accurately determined. The celestial spheres of Aristotle and Ptolemaeus had been totally banished. During this second wave of telescopic observation and discovery telescopic astronomy came of age and became a recognised scientific discipline.

In 1669 Cassini was appointed the first director of the Paris Observatory, which had been founded in 1667 by the French minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683).


An engraving of The Paris Observatory in the beginning of the 18th century with the wooden “Marly Tower” on the right, erected by Cassini to support both tubed and aerial very long telescopes Source: Wikimedia Commons

The founding of the Paris observatory was followed in 1675 with the founding in England of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich by Charles II, with John Flamsteed appointed in the same year as the first Astronomer Royal.


Royal Observatory Greenwich Source: Wikimedia Commons

Berlin came somewhat later in 1700 with the appointment of Gottfried Kirch (1639–1710) but who never lived to see his observatory, which first opened in 1711. What we see here is a radical change in the status of astronomy. Whereas for most of the seventeenth century astronomy had been the province of either private citizens or university professors it now became the province of governments with astronomers appointed as civil servants required to deliver astronomical data for cartographical and navigational purposes.











1 Comment

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

Annus mythologicus

Almost inevitably Newton’s so-called Annus mirabilis has become a social media meme during the current pandemic and the resulting quarantine. Not surprisingly Neil deGrasse Tyson has once again led the charge with the following on Twitter:

When Isaac Newton stayed at home to avoid the 1665 plague, he discovered the laws of gravity, optics, and he invented calculus.

Unfortunately for NdGT and all the others, who have followed his lead in posting variants, both positive and negative, the Annus mirabilis is actually a myth. So let us briefly examine what actually took place and what Isaac actually achieved in the 1660s.


Portrait of Newton at 46 by Godfrey Kneller, 1689 Source: Wikimedia Commons

We will start with the calculus, which he didn’t actually invent at all, neither in the 1660s nor at any other time. Calculus has a more than two thousand year history stretching back to fourth century BCE. The development of calculus accelerated in the seventeenth century beginning with Kepler and Cavalieri and, previous to Newton, reaching a high point in the work of John Wallis. What Newton, like Leibniz, did was to collate, order and expand the work that others had already produced. Let us take a closer look at what Newton actually achieved in the 1660s.

But before we start, one point that various people have made on the Internet is that during this time Newton was a completely free agent with no commitments, obligations or burdens, a bachelor without children. In college his chambers were cleaned by servants and his meals were prepared by others. At home in Woolsthorpe all of his needs were also met by servants. He could and did devote himself to studying without any interruptions.

Newton, who entered Trinity College Cambridge in June 1661, was an indifferent student apparently bored by the traditional curriculum he was supposed to learn. In April 1664 he was due to take a scholarship exam, which would make him financially independent. The general opinion was not positive, however he did pass as he also passed his BA in the following year, when the prognosis was equally negative. Westfall suggests that he had a patron, who recommended that Cambridge retain him.

Freed by the scholarship, Newton now discovered his love and aptitude for the modern mathematics and set off on a two-year intensive study of the subject, almost to the exclusion of everything else, using the books of the leading mathematicians of the period, Descartes (but in the expanded, improved Latin edition of van Schooten), Viète and Wallis. In October 1666 Newton’s total immersion in mathematics stopped as suddenly as it had begun when he wrote a manuscript summarising all that he had internalised. He had thoroughly learnt all of the work available on the modern analytical mathematics, extended it and systematised it. This was an extraordinary achievement by any standards and, although nobody knew about it at the time, established Newton as one of the leading mathematicians in Europe. Although quite amazing, the manuscript from 1666 is still a long way from being the calculus that we know today or even the calculus that was known, say in 1700.

It should be noted that this intense burst of mathematical activity by the young Newton had absolutely nothing to do with the plague or his being quarantined/isolated because of it. It is an amusing fact that Newton was stimulated to investigate and learn mathematics, according to his own account, because he bought a book on astrology at Sturbridge Fair and couldn’t understand it. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Newton does not appear to have believed in astrology but he learnt his astronomy from the books of Vincent Wing (1619–1668) and Thomas Street (1621–1689) both of whom were practicing astrologers.

I said above that Newton devoted himself to mathematics almost to the exclusion of everything else in this period. However, at the beginning he started a notebook in which he listed topics in natural philosophy that he would be interested in investigating further in the future. Having abandoned mathematics he now turned to one of those topics, motion and space. Once again he was guided in his studies by the leaders in the field, once again Descartes, then Christiaan Huygens and also Galileo in the English translation by Thomas Salusbury, which appeared in 1665. Newton’s early work in this field was largely based on the principle of inertia that he took from Descartes and Descartes’ theories of impact. Once again Newton made very good progress, correcting Descartes errors and demonstrating that Galileo’s value for ‘g’ the force of acceleration due to gravity was seriously wrong. He also made his first attempt to show that the force that causes an object to fall to the ground, possibly the legendary apple, and the force that prevents the Moon from shooting off at a tangent, as the principle of inertia says it should, were one and the same. This attempt sort of failed because the data available to Newton at the time was not accurate enough. Newton abandoned this line of thinking and only returned to it almost twenty years later.

Once again, the progress that the young Newton made in this area were quite impressive but his efforts were very distant from his proof of the law of gravity and its consequences that he would deliver in the Principia, twenty year later. For the record Newton didn’t discover the law of gravity he proved it, there is an important difference between the two. Of note in this early work on mechanics is that Newton’s concepts of mass and motions were both defective. Also of note is that to carry out his gravity comparison Newton used Kepler’s third law of planetary motion to determine the force holding the Moon in its orbit and not the law of gravity. The key result presented in Principia is Newton’s brilliant proof that Kepler’s third law and the law of gravity are in fact mathematically equivalent.

The third area to which Newton invested significant time and effort in the 1660s was optics. I must confess that I have absolutely no idea what Neil deGrasse Tyson means when he writes that Newton discovered the laws of optics. By the time Newton entered the field, the science of optics was already two thousand years old and various researchers including Euclid, Ptolemaeus, Ibn al-Haytham, Kepler, Snel, and Descartes had all contributed substantially to its laws. In the 1660s Newton entered a highly developed field of scientific investigation. He stated quite correctly that he investigated the phenomenon of colour. Once again his starting point was the work of others, who were the leaders in the field, most notably Descartes and Hooke. It should be clear by now that in his early development Newton’s debt to the works of Descartes was immense, something he tried to deny in later life. What we have here is the programme of experiments into light that Newton carried out and which formed the basis of his very first scientific paper published in 1672. This paper famously established that white light is made up of coloured light. Also of significance Newton was the first to discover chromatic aberration, the fact that spherical lenses don’t sharply focus light to a single point but break it up into a spectrum, which means the images have coloured fringes. This discovery led Newton to develop his reflecting telescope, which avoids the problem of chromatic aberration.


Newton’s sketch of his crucial experiment. Source: Royal Society

Here trying to establish a time line of when and where he carried out these experiments is very difficult, not alone because Newton’s own statements on the subject are contradictory and some of them are provably false. For example he talks about acquiring a second prism from Sturbridge Fair in a year when one didn’t take place. Also Newton’s source of light was sunlight let into a darkened room through small hole in the shutters. This was only possible at certain times of year and certain times of day when the sun is in the right position respective the window. Newton claims experiments made at times where these conditions weren’t met. That not all the experiments were made in Woolsthorpe Manor is clear, as many of them required two operators, which means that they were made when Newton was back in his chambers in Trinity College. The best guestimate is that this programme of experiments took place over the period 1660 to 1670, so once again not in Newton’s year of quarantine.

Another thing that keeps getting mentioned in connection with this story is that during his experiments on light Newton, shock-horror, stuck a pin in his eye! He didn’t. What he did was to insert a bodkin, a flat, blunt, threading needle, into his eye-socket between his skull and his eyeball in order to apply pressure to the back of his eyeball. Nasty enough, but somewhat different to sticking a pin in his eye.

All in all the developments that the young Newton achieved in mathematics and physics in the 1660s were actually spread out over a period of six years. They were also not as extensive or revolutionary as implied in Neil deGrasse Tyson brief tweeted claim. In fact a period of six intensive years of study would be quite normal for a talented student to acquire the basics of mathematics and physics. And I think we can all agree that Newton was very talented. His achievements were remarkable but not sensational.

It is justified to ask where then does the myth of the Annus Mirabilis actually come from? The answer is Newton himself. In later life he claimed that he had done all these things in that one-year, the fictional ones rather than the real achievements. So why did he claim this? One reason, a charitable interpretation, is that of an old man just telescoping the memories of his youth. However, there is a less charitable but probably more truthful explanation. Newton became in his life embroiled in several priority disputes with other natural philosophers over his discoveries, with Leibniz over the calculus, with Hooke over gravity and with Hook and Huygens over optics. By pushing back into the distant past some of his major discoveries he can, at least to his own satisfaction, firmly establish his priority.

The whole thing is best summarised by Westfall in his Newton biography Never at Rest at the end of his chapter on the topic, interestingly entitled Anni mirabiles, amazing years, not Annus mirabilis the amazing year, on which the brief summary above is largely based. It is worth quoting Westfall’s summary in full:

On close examination, the anni mirabiles turn out to be less miraculous than the annus mirabilis of Newtonian myth. When 1660 closed, Newton was not in command of the results that have made his reputation deathless, not in mathematics, not in mechanics, not in optics. What he had done in all three was to lay foundations, some more extensive than others, on which he could build with assurance, but nothing was complete at the end of 1666, and most were not even close to complete. Far from diminishing Newton’s stature, such a judgement enhances it by treating his achievements as a human drama of toil and struggle rather than a tale of divine revelation. “I keep the subject constantly before me, “ he said, “and wait ‘till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into full and clear light.” In 1666 by dint of keeping subjects constantly before him, he saw the first dawnings open slowly. Years of thinking on them continuously had yet to pass before he gazed on a full and clear light.[1]

Neil deGrasse Tyson has form when it comes to making grand false statements about #histSTM, this is by no means the first time that he has spread the myth of Newton’s Annus mirabilis. What is perhaps even worse is that when historians point out, with evidence, that he is spouting crap he doesn’t accept that he is wrong but invents new crap to justify his original crap. Once he tweeted the classic piece of fake history that people in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat. As a whole series of historians pointed out to him that European culture had known since antiquity that that the world was a sphere, he invented a completely new piece of fake history and said, yes the people in antiquity had known it but it had been forgotten in the Middle Ages. He is simply never prepared to admit that he is wrong. I could bring other examples such as my exchange with him on the superstition of wishing on a star that you can read here but this post is long enough already.

Bizarrely Neil deGrasse Tyson has the correct answer to his behaviour when it comes to #histSTM, of which he is so ignorant. He offers an online course on the scientific method, always ready and willing to turn his notoriety into a chance to make a quick buck, and has an advertising video on Youtube for it that begins thus:

One of the great challenges in this world is knowing enough about a subject to think you’re right but not enough about the subject to know you’re wrong.

This perfectly encapsulates Neil deGrasse Tyson position on #histSTM!

If you want a shorter, better written, more succinct version of the same story then Tom Levenson has one for you in The New Yorker 

[1] Ricard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, CUP; Cambridge, ppb. 1983, p. 174.



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

Stylish writing is not necessarily good science

I have become somewhat infamous for writing #histSTM blog posts that are a predominately negative take on the scientific achievements of Galileo Galilei. In fact I think I probably made my breakthrough as a #histsci blogger with my notorious Extracting the Stopper post, deflating Galileo’s popular reputation. I actually got commissioned to write a toned down version of that post for AEON several years later. In my opinion Galileo was an important figure in the evolution of science during the early seventeenth century but his reputation has been blown up out of all proportion, well beyond his actual contributions. To make a simple comparison, in the same period of time the contributions of Johannes Kepler were immensely greater and more significant than those made by Galileo but whereas Galileo is regarded as one of the giants of modern science and is probably one of the three most well known historical practitioners of the mathematical sciences, alongside Newton and Einstein, Kepler is at best an also ran, whose popular image is not even a fraction of that of Galileo’s. This of course raises the question, why? What does/did Galileo have that Kepler didn’t? I think the answer lies in Galileo’s undeniable talents as a writer.

Galileo was a master stylist, a brilliant polemicist and science communicator, whose major works are still a stimulating pleasure to read. If you ask people about Galileo they will more often than not quote one of his well-known turns of phrase rather than his scientific achievements. The two books trope with its ‘mathematics is the language of nature’, which in the original actually reads: Philosophy is written in this grand book, which stands continually open before our eyes (I say the ‘Universe’), but can not be understood without first learning to comprehend the language and know the characters as it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures, without which it is impossible to humanly understand a word; without these one is wandering in a dark labyrinth. Or the much-loved, the Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go, which again in the original reads: The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes. It is a trivial truth that Galileo had a way with words.

This cannot be said of Johannes Kepler. I shall probably bring the wrath of a horde of Kepler scholars on my head for saying this but even in translation, Johannes Kepler is anything but an easy read. Galileo even commented on this. When confronted with Kepler’s Dioptrice (1611), one of the most important books on optics ever written, Galileo complained that it was turgid and unreadable. Having ploughed my way through it in German translation, I sympathise with Galileo’s negative judgement. However, in his rejection Galileo failed to realise just how scientifically important the Dioptrice actually was. Nobody in their right mind would describe Kepler as a master stylist or a brilliant polemicist.

I think this contrast in literary abilities goes a long way to explaining the very different popular conceptions of the two men. People read Galileo’s major works or selections from them and are stimulated and impressed by his literary mastery, whereas Kepler’s major works are not even presented, as something to be read by anyone, who is not a historian of science. One just gets his three laws of planetary motion served up in modern guise, as a horribly mathematical side product of heliocentricity.

Of course, a serious factor in their respective notorieties is Galileo’s infamous trial by the Roman Inquisition. This was used to style him as a martyr for science, a process that only really began at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Kepler’s life, which in many ways was far more spectacular and far more tragic than Galileo’s doesn’t have such a singular defining moment in it.

Returning to the literary theme I think that what has happened is that non-scientists and non-historians of science have read Galileo and impressed by his literary abilities, his skill at turning a phrase, his adroit, and oft deceitful, presentation of pro and contra arguments often fail to notice that they are being sold a pup. As I tried to make clear in the last episode of my continuing ‘the emergence of modern astronomy’ series although Galileo’s Dialogo has an awesome reputation in Early Modern history, its scientific value is, to put it mildly, negligible. To say this appears to most people as some form of sacrilege, “but the Dialogo is an important defence of science against the forces of religious ignorance” or some such they would splutter. But in reality it isn’t, as I hope I made clear the work contributed nothing new to the on going debate and all that Galileo succeeded in doing was getting up the Pope’s nose.

The same can be said of Il Saggiatore, another highly praised work of literature. As I commented in another post the, oft quoted line on mathematics, which had led to Galileo being praised as the man, who, apparently single handed, mathematized the physical science was actually, when he wrote it, old hat and others had been writing the book of nature in the language of mathematics for at least one hundred years before Galileo put pen to paper but none of them had taken the time to express what they were doing poetically. In fact it took historians of science a long time to correct this mistaken perception, as they also tended to suffer from a serious dose of Galileo adoration. The core of Il Saggiatore is as I have explained elsewhere is total rubbish, as Galileo is arguing against the scientific knowledge of his time with very spurious assertions merely so that he doesn’t have to acknowledge that Grassi is right and he is wrong. An admission that very few Galileo scholars are prepared to make in public, it might tarnish his reputation.

Interestingly one work that deserves its historical reputation Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, also suffers from serious scientific deficits that tend to get overlooked. Written and published in haste to avoid getting beaten to the punch by a potential, unknown rival the book actually reads more like an extended press release that a work of science. It might well be that Galileo intended to write a more scientific evaluation of his telescopic observations and discoveries once he had established his priority but somehow, having become something of a scientific superstar overnight, he never quite got round to it. This is once again a failing that most readers tend to overlook, over awed by the very impressive literary presentation.

Much of Galileo’s written work is actually more appearance than substance, or as the Germans say Mehr Schein als Sein, but ironically, there is one major work of Galileo’s that is both literarily brilliant and scientifically solid but which tends to get mostly overlooked, his Discorsi. The experiments on which part of it is based get described by the book itself remains for most people largely unknown. I shall be taking a closer look at it in a later post.







Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of Physics, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science