Category Archives: History of Physics

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


By the middle of the nineteenth century there was no doubt that the Earth rotated on its own axis, but there was still no direct empirical evidence that it did so. There was the indirect evidence provided by the Newton-Huygens theory of the shape of the Earth that had been measured in the middle of the eighteenth century. There was also the astronomical evidence that the axial rotation of the other known solar system planets had been observed and their periods of rotation measured; why should the Earth be an exception? There was also the fact that it was now known that the stars were by no means equidistant from the Earth on some sort of fixed sphere but distributed throughout deep space at varying distances. This completely destroyed the concept that it was the stars that rotated around the Earth once every twenty-four rather than the Earth rotating on its axis. All of this left no doubt in the minds of astronomers that the Earth the Earth had diurnal rotation i.e., rotated on its axis but directly measurable empirical evidence of this had still not been demonstrated.

From the beginning of his own endeavours, Galileo had been desperate to find such empirical evidence and produced his ill-fated theory of the tides in a surprisingly blind attempt to deliver such proof. This being the case it’s more than somewhat ironic that when that empirical evidence was finally demonstrated it was something that would have been well within Galileo’s grasp, as it was the humble pendulum that delivered the goods and Galileo had been one of the first to investigate the pendulum.

From the very beginning, as the heliocentric system became a serious candidate as a model for the solar system, astronomers began to discuss the problems surrounding projectiles in flight or objects falling to the Earth. If the Earth had diurnal rotation would the projectile fly in a straight line or veer slightly to the side relative to the rotating Earth. Would a falling object hit the Earth exactly perpendicular to its starting point or slightly to one side, the rotating Earth having moved on? The answer to both questions is in fact slightly to the side and not straight, a phenomenon now known as the Coriolis effect produced by the Coriolis force, named after the French mathematician and engineer Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis (1792–1843), who as is often the case, didn’t hypothesise or discover it first. A good example of Stigler’s law of eponymy, which states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.


Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we saw in an earlier episode of this series, Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1594–1671) actually hypothesised, in his Almagustum Novum, that if the Earth had diurnal rotation then the Coriolis effect must exist and be detectable. Having failed to detect it he then concluded logically, but falsely that the Earth does not have diurnal rotation.


Illustration from Riccioli’s 1651 New Almagest showing the effect a rotating Earth should have on projectiles.[36] When the cannon is fired at eastern target B, cannon and target both travel east at the same speed while the ball is in flight. The ball strikes the target just as it would if the Earth were immobile. When the cannon is fired at northern target E, the target moves more slowly to the east than the cannon and the airborne ball, because the ground moves more slowly at more northern latitudes (the ground hardly moves at all near the pole). Thus the ball follows a curved path over the ground, not a diagonal, and strikes to the east, or right, of the target at G. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, the French, Jesuit mathematician, Claude François Millet Deschales (1621–1678) drew the same conclusion in his 1674 Cursus seu Mondus Matematicus. The problem is that the Coriolis effect for balls dropped from towers or fired from cannons is extremely small and very difficult to detect.


The question remained, however, a hotly discussed subject under astronomers and natural philosophers. In 1679, in the correspondence between Newton and Hooke that would eventually lead to Hooke’s priority claim for the law of gravity, Newton proffered a new solution to the problem as to where a ball dropped from a tower would land under the influence of diurnal rotation. In his accompanying diagram Newton made an error, which Hooke surprisingly politely corrected in his reply. This exchange did nothing to improve relations between the two men.

Leonard Euler (1707–1783) worked out the mathematics of the Coriolis effect in 1747 and Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827) introduced the Coriolis effect into his tidal equations in 1778. Finally, Coriolis, himself, published his analysis of the effect that’s named after him in a work on machines with rotating parts, such as waterwheels in 1835, G-G Coriolis (1835), “Sur les équations du mouvement relatif des systèmes de corps”. 

What Riccioli and Deschales didn’t consider was the pendulum. The simple pendulum is a controlled falling object and thus also affected by the Coriolis force. If you release a pendulum and let it swing it doesn’t actually trace out the straight line that you visualise but veers off slightly to the side. Because of the controlled nature of the pendulum this deflection from the straight path is detectable.

For the last three years of Galileo’s life, that is from 1639 to 1642, the then young Vincenzo Viviani (1622–1703) was his companion, carer and student, so it is somewhat ironic that Viviani was the first to observe the diurnal rotation deflection of a pendulum. Viviani carried out experiments with pendulums in part, because his endeavours together with Galileo’s son, Vincenzo (1606-1649), to realise Galileo’s ambition to build a pendulum clock. The project was never realised but in an unpublished manuscript Viviani recorded observing the deflection of the pendulum due to diurnal rotation but didn’t realise what it was and thought it was due to experimental error.


Vincenzo Viviani (1622- 1703) portrait by Domenico Tempesti Source: Wikimedia Commons

It would be another two hundred years, despite work on the Coriolis effect by Giovanni Borelli (1608–1679), Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827) and Siméon Denis Poisson (1781–1840), who all concentrated on the falling ball thought experiment, before the French physicist Jean Bernard Léon Foucault (1819–1868) finally produced direct empirical evidence of diurnal rotation with his, in the meantime legendary, pendulum.

If a pendulum were to be suspended directly over the Geographical North Pole, then in one sidereal day (sidereal time is measured against the stars and a sidereal day is 3 minutes and 56 seconds shorter than the 24-hour solar day) the pendulum describes a complete clockwise rotation. At the Geographical South Pole the rotation is anti-clockwise. A pendulum suspended directly over the equator and directed along the equator experiences no apparent deflection. Anywhere between these extremes the effect is more complex but clearly visible if the pendulum is large enough and stable enough.

Foucault’s first demonstration took place in the Paris Observatory in February 1851. A few weeks later he made the demonstration that made him famous in the Paris Panthéon with a 28-kilogram brass coated lead bob suspended on a 67-metre-long wire from the Panthéon dome.


Paris Panthéon Source: Wikimedia Commons

His pendulum had a period of 16.5 seconds and the pendulum completed a full clockwise rotation in 31 hours 50 minutes. Setting up and starting a Foucault pendulum is a delicate business as it is easy to induce imprecision that can distort the observed effects but at long last the problem of a direct demonstration of diurnal rotation had been produced and with it the final demonstration of the truth of the heliocentric hypothesis three hundred years after the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus.


Léon Foucault, Pendulum Experiment, 1851 Source


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Physics, History of Technology

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

Whilst the European community mathematicians and physicist, i.e. those who could comprehend and understand it, were more than prepared to acknowledge Newton’s Principia as a mathematical masterpiece, many of them could not accept some of the very basic premises on which it was built. Following its publication the Baconians, the Cartesians and Leibniz were not slow in expressing their fundamental rejection of various philosophical aspects of Newton’s magnum opus.  

Francis Bacon had proposed a new scientific methodology earlier in the seventeenth century to replace the Aristotelian methodology.

Sir Francis Bacon, c. 1618

You will come across claims that Newton’s work was applied Baconianism but nothing could be further from the truth. Bacon rejected the concept of generating theories to explain a group of phenomena. In his opinion the natural philosopher should collect facts or empirical data and when they had acquired a large enough collections then the explanatory theories would crystallise out of the data. Bacon was also not a fan of the use of mathematics in natural philosophy. Because of this he actually rejected both the theories of Copernicus and Gilbert.

Newton, of course did the opposite he set up a hypothesis to explain a given set of seemingly related phenomena, deduced logical consequences of the hypothesis, tested the deduced conclusions against empirical facts and if the conclusions survive the testing the hypothesis becomes a theory. This difference in methodologies was bound to lead to a clash and it did. The initial clash took place between Newton and Flamsteed, who was a convinced Baconian. Flamsteed regarded Newton’s demands for his lunar data to test his lunar theory as a misuse of his data collecting. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The conflict took place on a wider level within the Royal Society, which was set up as a Baconian institution and rejected Newton’s type of mathematical theorising. When Newton became President of the Royal Society in 1704 there was a conflict between himself and his supporters on the one side and the Baconians on the other, under the leadership of Hans Sloane the Society’s secretary. At that time the real power in Royal Society lay with the secretary and not the president. It was first in 1712 when Sloane resigned as secretary that the Royal Society became truly Newtonian. This situation did not last long, when Newton died, Sloane became president and the Royal Society became fundamentally Baconian till well into the nineteenth century. 

Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter Source: Wikimedia Commons

This situation certainly contributed to the circumstances that whereas on the continent the mathematicians and physicists developed the theories of Newton, Leibnitz and Huygens in the eighteenth century creating out of them the physics that we now know as Newtonian, in England these developments were neglected and very little advance was made on the work that Newton had created. By the nineteenth century the UK lagged well behind the continent in both mathematics and physics.

The problem between Newton and the Cartesians was of a completely different nature. Most people don’t notice that Newton never actually defines what force is. If you ask somebody, what is force, they will probably answer mass time acceleration but this just tells you how to determine the strength of a given force not what it is. Newton tells the readers how force works and how to determine the strength of a force but not what a force actually is; this is OK because nobody else does either. The problems start with the force of gravity. 

Frans Hals – Portrait of René Descartes Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Cartesians like Aristotle assume that for a force to act or work there must be actual physical contact. They of course solve Aristotle’s problem of projectile motion, if I remove the throwing hand or bowstring, why does the rock or arrow keep moving the physical contact having ceased? The solution is the principle of inertia, Newton’s first law of motion. This basically says that it is the motion that is natural and it requires a force to stop it air resistance, friction or crashing into a stationary object. In order to explain planetary motion Descartes rejected the existence of a vacuum and hypothesised a dense, fine particle medium, which fills space and his planets are carried around their orbits on vortices in this medium, so physical contact. Newton demolished this theory in Book II of his Principia and replaces it with his force of gravity, which unfortunately operates on the principle of action at a distance; this was anathema for both the Cartesians and for Leibniz. 

What is this thing called gravity that can exercise force on objects without physical contact? Newton, in fact, disliked the concept of action at a distance just as much as his opponents, so he dodged the question. His tactic is already enshrined in the title of his masterpiece, the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In the draft preface to the Principia Newton stated that natural philosophy must “begin from phenomena and admit no principles of things, no causes, no explanations, except those which are established through phenomena.” The aim of the Principia is “to deal only with those things which relate to natural philosophy”, which should not “be founded…on metaphysical opinions.” What Newton is telling his readers here is that he will present a mathematical description of the phenomena but he won’t make any metaphysical speculations as to their causes. His work is an operative or instrumentalist account of the phenomena and not a philosophical one like Descartes’.  

The Cartesians simply couldn’t accept Newton’s action at a distance gravity. Christiaan Huygens, the most significant living Cartesian natural philosopher, who was an enthusiastic fan of the Principia said quite openly that he simply could not accept a force that operated without physical contact and he was by no means alone in his rejection of this aspect of Newton’s theory. The general accusation was that he had introduced occult forces into natural philosophy, where occult means hidden.

Christiaan Huygens. Cut from the engraving following the painting of Caspar Netscher by G. Edelinck between 1684 and 1687. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Answering his critics in the General Scholium added to the second edition of the Principia in 1713 and modified in the third edition of 1726, Newton wrote:

Thus far I have explained the phenomena of the heavens and of our sea by the force of gravity, but I have not assigned a cause to gravity.


I have not been able to deduce from phenomena the reasons for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this experimental philosophy, propositions are deduced from the phenomena and are made general by induction. The impenetrability, mobility, and impetus of bodies, and the laws of motion and the law of gravity have been found by this method. And it is enough that gravity really exists and acts according to the laws that we have set forth and is sufficient to explain all the motions of the heavenly bodies and of our sea.

Newton never did explain the cause of gravity but having introduced the concept of a pervasive aethereal medium in the Queries in Book III of his Opticks he asks if the attraction of the aether particles could be the cause of gravity. The Queries are presented as speculation for future research.

Both the Baconian objections to Newton’s methodology and the Cartesian objections to action at a distance were never disposed of by Newton but with time and the successes of Newton’s theory, for example the return of Comet Halley, the objections faded into the background and the Principia became the accepted dominant theory of the cosmos.

Leibniz shared the Cartesian objection to action at a distance but also had objections of his own.

Engraving of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1715 Leibniz wrote a letter to Caroline of Ansbach the wife of George Prince of Wales, the future George III, in which he criticised Newtonian physics as detrimental to natural theology. The letter was answered on Newton’s behalf by Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) a leading Anglican cleric and a Newtonian, who had translated the Opticks into Latin. There developed a correspondence between the two men about Newton’s work, which ended with Leibniz’s death in 1716. The content of the correspondence was predominantly theological but Leibniz raised and challenged one very serious point in the Principia, Newton’s concept of absolute time and space.

In the Scholium to the definitions at the beginning of Book I of Principia Newton wrote: 

1. Absolute, true, and mathematical time, in and of itself and of its own nature, without reference to anything external, flows uniformly and by another name is called duration. 

Relative, apparent, and common time […] is commonly used instead of true time.

2. Absolute space, of its own nature without reference to anything external, always remains homogeneous and immovable. Relative space is any moveable or dimension of the absolute space…

Newton is saying that space and time have a separate existence and all objects exists within them.

In his correspondence with Clarke, Leibniz rejected Newton’s use of absolute time and space, proposing instead a relational time and space; that is space and time are a system of relations that exists between objects. 

 In his third letter to Clarke he wrote:

As for my own opinion, I have said more than once, that I hold space to be something merely relative, as time is, that I hold it to be an order of coexistences, as time is an order of successions.

Leibniz died before any real conclusion was reached in this debate and it was generally thought at the time that Newton had the better arguments in his side but as we now know it was actually Leibniz who was closer to how we view time and space than Newton. 

Newton effectively saw off his philosophical critics and the Principia became the accepted, at least mathematical, model of the then known cosmos. However, there was still the not insubstantial empirical problem that no proof of any form of terrestrial motion had been found up to the beginning of the seventeenth century.


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

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

The Moon is the Earth’s nearest celestial neighbour and the most prominent object in the night sky. People have been tracking, observing and recording the movements of the Moon for thousands of years, so one could assume that calculating its orbit around the Earth should be a reasonable simple matter, however in reality it is anything but.

The problem can be found in the law of gravity itself, which states that any two bodies mutually attract each other. However, that attraction is not restricted to just those two bodies but all bodies attract each other simultaneously. Given the relative masses of somebody standing next to you and the Earth, when calculating the pull of gravity on you, we can, in our calculation, neglect the pull exercised by the mass of your neighbour. With planets, however, it is more difficult to ignore multiple sources of gravitational force. We briefly touched on the gravitational effect of Jupiter and Saturn, both comparatively large masses, on the flight paths of comets, so called perturbation. In fact when calculating the Earth orbit around the Sun then the effects of those giant planets, whilst relatively small, are in fact detectable.

With the Moon the problem is greatly exacerbated. The gravitation attraction between the Earth and the Moon is the primary force that has to be considered but the not inconsiderable gravitational attraction between the Sun and the Moon also plays an anything but insignificant role. The result is that the Moon’s orbit around the Sun Earth is not the smooth ellipse of Kepler’s planetary laws that it would be if the two bodies existed in isolation but a weird, apparently highly irregular, dance through the heavens as the Moon is pulled hither and thither between the Earth and the Sun.

Kepler in fact did not try to apply his laws of planetary motion to the Moon simply leaving it out of his considerations. The first person to apply the Keplerian elliptical astronomy to the Moon was Jeremiah Horrocks (1618–1641), an early-convinced Keplerian, who was also the first person to observe a transit of Venus having recalculated Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables in order to predict to correct date of the occurrence. Horrocks produced a theory of the Moon based on Kepler’s work, which was far and away the best approximation to the Moon’s orbit that had been produced up till that time but was still highly deficient. This was the model that Newton began his work with as he tried to make the Moon’s orbit fit into his grand gravitational theory, as defined by his three laws of motion, Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion and the inverse square law of gravity; this would turn into something of a nightmare for Newton and cause a massive rift between Newton and John Flamsteed the Astronomer Royal.


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

What Newton was faced with was attempting to solve the three-body problem, that is a general solution for the mutual gravitational attraction of three bodies in space. What Newton did not and could not know was that the general analytical solution simple doesn’t exist, the proof of this lay in the distant future. The best one can hope for are partial local solutions based on approximations and this was the approach that Newton set out to use. The deviations of the Moon, perturbations, from the smooth elliptical orbit that it would have if only it and the Earth were involved are not as irregular as they at first appear but follow a complex pattern; Newton set out to pick them off one by one. In order to do so he need the most accurate data available, which meant new measurement made during new observations by John Flamsteed the Astronomer Royal.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

For Newton solving the lunar orbit was the most pressing problem in his life and he imperiously demanded that Flamsteed supply him with the data that he required to make his calculations. For Flamsteed the important task in his life, as an observational astronomer, was to complete a new star catalogue on a level of observational accuracy hitherto unknown. The principle interests of the two men were thus largely incompatible. Newton demanded that Flamsteed use his time to supply him with his lunar data and Flamsteed desired to use his time to work on his star catalogue, although to be fair he did supply Newton, if somewhat grudgingly with the desired data. As Newton became more and more frustrated by the problems he was trying to solve the tone of his missives to Flamsteed in Greenwich became more and more imperious and Flamsteed got more and more frustrated at being treated like a lackey by the Lucasian Professor. The relations between the two degenerated rapidly.

The situation was exacerbated by the presence of Edmond Halley in the mix, as Newton’s chief supporter. Halley had started his illustrious career as a protégée of Flamsteed’s when he, still an undergraduate, sailed to the island of Saint Helena to make a rapid survey of the southern night skies for English navigators. The men enjoyed good relations often observing together and with Halley even deputising for Flamsteed at Greenwich when he was indisposed. However something happened around 1686 and Flamsteed began to reject Halley. It reached a point where Flamsteed, who was deeply religious with a puritan streak, disparaged Halley as a drunkard and a heathen. He stopped referring him by name calling him instead Reymers, a reference to the astronomer Nicolaus Reimers Ursus (1551–1600). Flamsteed was a glowing fan of Tycho Brahe and he believed Tycho’s accusation that Ursus plagiarised Tycho’s system. So Reymers was in his opinion a highly insulting label.


Portrait of Edmond Halley painted around 1687 by Thomas Murray (Royal Society, London) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Newton only succeeded in resolving about half of the irregularities in the Moon’s orbit and blamed his failure on Flamsteed. This led to one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of astronomy. In 1704 Newton was elected President of the Royal Society and one of his first acts was to call Flamsteed to account. He demanded to know what Flamsteed had achieved in the twenty-nine years that he had been Astronomer Royal and when he intended to make the results of his researches public. Flamsteed was also aware of the fact that he had nothing to show for nearly thirty years of labours and was negotiating with Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s consort, to get him to sponsor the publication of his star catalogue. Independently of Flamsteed, Newton was also negotiating with Prince George for the same reason and as he was now Europe’s most famous scientist he won this round. George agreed to finance the publication, and was, as a reward, elected a member of the Royal Society.


Prince George of Denmark and Norway, Duke of Cumberland Portrait by Michael Dahl c. 1705 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Newton set up a committee, at the Royal Society, to supervise the work with himself as chairman and the Savilian Professors of Mathematics and Astronomy, David Gregory and Edmond Halley, both of whom Flamsteed regarded as his enemies, Francis Robartes an MP and teller at the Exchequer and Dr John Arbuthnotmathematician, satirist and physician extraordinary to Queen Anne. Although Arbuthnot, a Tory, was of opposing political views to Newton, a Whig, he was a close friend and confidant. Flamsteed was not offered a place on this committee, which was decidedly stacked against him.


David Gregory Source: Wikimedia Commons

Flamsteed’s view on what he wanted published and how it was to be organised and Newton’s views on the topic were at odds from the very beginning. Flamsteed saw his star catalogue as the centrepiece of a multi-volume publication, whereas all that really interested Newton was his data on the planetary and Moon orbits, with which he hoped to rectify his deficient lunar theory. What ensued was a guerrilla war of attrition with Flamsteed sniping at the referees and Newton and the referees squashing nearly all of Flamsteed wishes and proposals. At one point Newton even had Flamsteed ejected from the Royal Society for non-payment of his membership fees, although he was by no means the only member in arrears. Progress was painfully slow and at times virtually non-existent till it finally ground completely to a halt with the death of Prince George in 1708.

George’s death led to a two-year ceasefire in which Newton and Flamsteed did not communicate but Flamsteed took the time to work on the version of his star catalogue that he wanted to see published. Then in 1710 John Arbuthnot appeared at the council of the Royal society with a royal warrant from Queen Anne appointing the president of the society and anybody the council chose to deputise ‘constant Visitors’ to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. ‘Visitor’ here means supervisor in the legal sense. Flamsteed’s goose was well and truly cooked. He was now officially answerable to Newton. Instead of waiting for Flamsteed to finish his star catalogue the Royal Society produced and published one in the form that Newton wanted and edited by Edmond Halley, the man Flamsteed regarded as his greatest enemy. It appeared in 1712. In 1713 Newton published the second edition of his Principia with its still defective lunar theory but with Flamsteed name eliminated as far as possible.


John Arbuthnot Portrait by Godfrey Kneller Source: Wikimedia Commons

The farce did not end here. In 1714 Queen Anne died and the Visitor warrant thus lost its validity. The Tory government fell and the Whigs regained power. Newton’s political sponsor, Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, died in 1715 leaving him without a voice in the new government. Flamsteed, however, was friends with the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Boulton. On 30 November 1715 Boulton signed a warrant ordering Newton and co to hand over the remaining 300 copies of their ‘pirate’ catalogue to Flamsteed.  After some procrastination and some more insults aimed at Flamsteed they finally complied on 28 March 1716. Flamsteed “made a Sacrifice of them to Heavenly truth”, that is he burnt them. Flamsteed had in the mean time published his star catalogue at his own expense and devoted the rest of his life to preparing the rest of his life’s work for publication. He died in 1719 but his widow, Margaret, and two of his former assistants, Joseph Crosthwait and Abraham Sharp, edited and published his Historia coelestis britannia in three volumes in 1725; it is rightly regarded as a classic in the history of celestial observation. Margaret also took her revenge on Halley, who succeeded Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal. Flamsteed had paid for the instruments in the observatory at Greenwich out of his own pocket, so she stripped the building bare leaving Halley with an empty observatory without instruments. For once in his life Newton lost a confrontation with a scientific colleague, of which there were quite a few, game, set and match

The bitter and in the end unseemly dispute between Newton and Flamsteed did nothing to help Newton with his lunar theory problem and to bring his description of the Moon’s orbit into line with the law of gravity. In the end this discrepancy in the Principia remained beyond Newton’s death. Mathematicians and astronomers in the eighteen century were well aware of this unsightly defect in Newton’s work and in the 1740s Leonhard Euler (1707­–1783), Alexis Clairaut (1713–1765) and Jean d’Alembert (1717–1783) all took up the problem and tried to solve it, in competition with each other.  For a time all three of them thought that they would have to replace the inverse square law of gravity, thinking that the problem lay there. Clairaut even went so far as to announce to the Paris Academy on 15 November 1747 that the law of gravity was false, to the joy of the Cartesian astronomers. Having then found a way of calculating the lunar irregularities using approximations and confirming the inverse square law, Clairaut had to retract his own announcement. Although they had not found a solution to the three-body problem the three mathematicians had succeeded in bringing the orbit of the Moon into line with the law of gravity. The first complete, consistent presentation of a Newtonian theory of the cosmos was presented by Pierre-Simon Laplace in his Traité de mécanique céleste, 5 Vol., Paris 1798–1825.

Mathematicians and astronomers were still not happy with the lack of a general solution to the three-body problem, so in 1887 Oscar II, the King of Sweden, advised by Gösta Mittag-Leffler offered a prize for the solution of the more general n-body problem.

Given a system of arbitrarily many mass points that attract each according to Newton’s law, under the assumption that no two points ever collide, try to find a representation of the coordinates of each point as a series in a variable that is some known function of time and for all of whose values the series converge uniformly.

Nobody succeeded in solving the challenge but Henri Poincaré’s attempt to find a solution although not successful, contained enough promising leads that he was awarded the prize. As stated a solution to the problem was found for three bodies by Karl F Sundman in 1912 and generalised for more than three bodies by Quidong Wang in the 1990s.

The whole episode of Newton’s failed attempt to find a lunar theory consonant with his theory of gravitation demonstrates that even the greatest of mathematicians can’t solve everything. It also demonstrates that the greatest of mathematicians can behave like small children having a temper tantrum if they don’t get their own way.




Filed under History of Astrology, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, Newton

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

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


Newton’s Principia is one of the most original and epoch making works in the history of science. There is absolutely nothing original in Newton’s Principia. These two seemingly contradictory judgements of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica are slightly exaggerated versions of real judgements that have been made at various points in the past. The first was the general hagiographical view that was prevalent for much of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The second began to appear in the later part of the twentieth century as some historian of science thought that Newton, or better his reputation, needed to be cut down a bit in size. So, which, if either of them, is correct? The surprising answer is, in a way, both of them.


Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica manuscript volume from which the first edition was printed. Written in the hand of Humphrey Newton, Isaac Newton’s assistant. Source: Royal Society Library via Wikimedia Commons

The Principia is a work of synthesis; it synthesises all of the developments in astronomy and physics that had taken place since the beginning of the fifteenth century. All of the elements that make up Newton’s work were, so to speak, laid out for him to integrate into the book. This is what is meant when we say that there is nothing original in the Principia, however the way that Newton integrated them and what he succeeded in creating was at the time unique and totally original. The Principia was truly a case of the whole being greater than the parts. Before we take a brief look at the contents of the Principia there are a couple of anomalies in its construction that need to be addressed.

The first concerns the general methodological structure of the book. Medieval science was dominated, not exclusively, by the theories of Aristotle and Aristotelian methodology. The developments in astronomy, physics and mathematics that we have covered up to now in this series have seen a gradual but steady deconstruction of the Aristotelian structures and theories. In this situation it comes as a bit of surprise that the methodology of the Principia is classically Aristotelian. Aristotle stated that true episteme (Greek) or scientia (Latin), what we would term scientific knowledge, is achieved by setting out a set of first principles or axioms that are perceived as being true and not in need proof and then logically deducing new knowledge from them. Ironically the most famous example of this methodology is the Elements of Euclid, ironically because Aristotle regarded mathematics as not being real knowledge because it doesn’t deal with objects in the real world. This is the methodology that Newton uses in the Principia, setting out his three laws of motion as his basic principles, which we will come back to later, and not the modern methodologies of Francis Bacon or René Descartes, which were developed in the seventeenth century to replace Aristotle.

The second anomaly concerns the mathematics that Newton uses throughout the Principia. Ancient Greek mathematics in astronomy consisted of Euclidian geometry and trigonometry and this was also the mathematics used in the discipline in both the Islamic and European Middle Ages. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe saw the development of analytical mathematics, first algebra and then infinitesimal calculus. In fact, Newton made major contributions to this development, in particular he, together with but independently of Gottfried William Leibniz, pulled together the developments in the infinitesimal calculus extended and codified them into a coherent system, although Newton unlike Leibniz had at this point not published his version of the calculus. The infinitesimal calculus was the perfect tool for doing the type of mathematics required in the Principia, which makes it all the more strange that Newton didn’t use it, using the much less suitable Euclidian geometry instead. This raises a very big question, why?

In the past numerous people have suggested, or even claimed as fact, that Newton first worked through the entire content of the Principia using the calculus and then to make it more acceptable to a traditional readership translated all of his results into the more conventional Euclidian geometry. There is only one problem with this theory. With have a vast convolute of Newton’s papers and whilst we have numerous drafts of various section of the Principia there is absolutely no evidence that he ever wrote it in any other mathematical form than the one it was published in. In reality, since developing his own work on the calculus Newton had lost faith in the philosophical underpinnings of the new analytical methods and turned back to what he saw as the preferable synthetic approach of the Greek Euclidian geometry. Interestingly, however, the mark of the great mathematician can be found in this retrograde step in that he translated some of the new analytical methods into a geometrical form for use in the Principia. Newton’s use of the seemingly archaic Euclidian geometry throughout the Principia makes it difficult to read for the modern reader educated in modern physics based on analysis.

When referencing Newton’s infamous, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants”, originally written to Robert Hooke in a letter in 1676, with respect to the Principia people today tend to automatically think of Copernicus and Galileo but this is a misconception. You can often read that Newton completed the Copernican Revolution by describing the mechanism of Copernicus’ heliocentric system, however, neither Copernicus nor his system are mentioned anywhere in the Principia. Newton was a Keplerian, but that as we will see with reservations, and we should remember that in the first third of the seventeenth century the Copernican system and the Keplerian system were viewed as different, competing heliocentric models. Galileo gets just five very brief, all identical, references to the fact that he proved the parabola law of motion, otherwise he and his work doesn’t feature at all in the book. The real giants on whose shoulders the Principia was built are Kepler, obviously, Descartes, whose role we will discuss below, Huygens, who gets far to little credit in most accounts, John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal, who supplied much of the empirical data for Book III, and possibly/probably Robert Hooke (see episode XXXIX).

We now turn to the contents of the book; I am, however, not going to give a detailed account of the contents. I Bernard Cohen’s A Guide to Newton’s Principia, which I recommend runs to 370-large-format-pages in the paperback edition and they is a whole library of literature covering aspects that Cohen doesn’t. What follows is merely an outline sketch with some comments.

As already stated the book consists of three books or volumes. In Book I Newton creates the mathematical science of dynamics that he requires for the rest of the book. Although elements of a science of dynamics existed before Newton a complete systematic treatment didn’t. This is the first of Newton’s achievement, effectively the creation of a new branch of physics. Having created his toolbox he then goes on to apply it in Book II to the motion of objects in fluids, at first glance a strange diversion in a book about astronomy, and in Book III to the cosmos. Book III is what people who have never actually read Principia assume it is about, Newton’s heliocentric model of the then known cosmos.

Mirroring The Elements of Euclid, following Edmond Halley’s dedicatory ode and Newton’s preface, Book I opens with a list of definitions of terms used. In his scholium to the definitions Newton states that he only defines those terms that are less familiar to the reader. He gives quantity of matter and quantity of motion as his first two definitions. His third and fourth definitions are rather puzzling as they are a slightly different formulation of his first law the principle of inertia. This is puzzling because his laws are dependent on the definitions. His fifth definition introduces the concept of centripetal force, a term coined by Newton in analogy to Huygens’ centrifugal force. In circular motion centrifugal is the tendency to fly outwards and centripetal in the force drawing to the centre. As examples of centripetal force Newton names magnetism and gravity. The last three definitions are the three different quantities of centripetal force: absolute, accelerative and motive. These are followed by a long scholium explicating in greater detail his definitions.

We now arrive at the Axioms, or The Laws of Motions:

1) Every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by forces impressed.

This is the principle of inertia that Newton had taken from Descartes, who in turn had taken it from Isaac Beeckman.

2) A change of motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which that force is impressed.

Somewhat different from the modern formulation of F=ma, this principle has its origin in the work of Huygens although there is not a one to one correspondence.

3) To any action there is always an opposite and equal reaction, in other words, the actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal and always opposite in direction.

This law originates with Newton and its source is not absolutely clear. It seems to have been inspired by Newton’s examination of Descartes laws of inelastic collision but it might also have been inspired by a similar principle in alchemy of which Newton was an ardent disciple.

Most people are aware of the three laws of motion, the bedrock of Newton’s system, in their modern formulations and having learnt them, think that they are so simple and obvious that Newton just pulled them out of his hat, so to speak. This is far from being the case. Newton actually struggled for months to find the axioms that eventually found their way into the Principia. He tried numerous different combinations of different laws before finally distilling the three that he settled on.

Having set up his definitions and laws Newton now goes on to produce a systematic analysis of forces on and motion of objects in Book I. It is this tour de force that established Newton’s reputation as one of the greatest physicist of all time. However, what interests us is of course the law of gravity and its relationship to Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. The following is ‘plagiarised’ from my blog post on the 400th anniversary of Kepler’s third law.

In Book I of Principia, the mathematics and physics section, Newton first shows, in Proposition 11[1], that for a body revolving on an ellipse the law of the centripetal force tending towards a focus of the ellipse is inversely as the square of the distance: i.e. the law of gravity but Newton is not calling it that at this point. In Proposition 14[2] he then shows that, If several bodies revolve about a commo[3]n center and the centripetal force is inversely as the square of the distance of places from the center, I say that the principal latera recta of the orbits are as the squares of the areas which bodies describe in the same time by radii drawn to the center. And Proposition 15: Under the same supposition as in prop. 14, I say the square of the periodic times in ellipses are as the cubes of the major axes. Thus Newton shows that his law of gravity and Kepler’s third law are equivalent, although in this whole section where he deals mathematically with Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion he never once mentions Kepler by name. Newton would go one to claim the rights to laws one and two as he had, in his opinion, provided their first real proof. He acknowledges, however, Kepler’s claim to the third law.

Book II as already mentioned appears to go off a tangent in that it deals with motion in a fluid medium, as a result it tends to get ignored, although it is as much a tour de force as Book I. Why this detour? The answer can be found in the theories of René Descartes and Newton’s personal relationship to Descartes and his works in general. As a young man Newton undertook an extensive programme of self-study in mathematics and physics and there is no doubt that amongst the numerous sources that he consulted Descartes stand out as his initial primary influence. At the time Descartes was highly fashionable and Cambridge University was a centre for interest in Descartes philosophy. At some point in the future he then turned totally against Descartes in what could almost be describe as a sort of religious conversion and it is here that we can find the explanation for Book II.

Descartes was a strong supporter of the mechanical philosophy that he had learnt from Isaac Beeckman, something that he would later deny. Strangely, rather like Aristotle, objects could only be moved by some form of direct contact. Descartes also rejected the existence of a vacuum despite Torricelli’s and Pascal’s proof of its existence. In his Le Monde, written between 1629 and 1633 but only published posthumously in 1664 and later in his Principia philosophiae, published in 1644, Descartes suggested that the cosmos was filled with very, very fine particles or corpuscles and that the planets were swept around their orbits on vortexes in the corpuscles. Like any ‘religious’ convert, Newton set about demolishing Descartes theories. Firstly, the title of his volume is a play upon Descartes title, whereas Descartes work is purely philosophical speculation, Newton’s work is proved mathematically. The whole of Book II exists to show that Descartes’ vortex model, his cosmos full of corpuscles is a fluid, can’t and doesn’t work.

Book III, entitled The System of the World, is as already said that which people who haven’t actually read it think that the Principia is actually about, a description of the cosmos. In this book Newton applies the mathematical physics that he has developed in Book I to the available empirical data of the planets and satellites much of it supplied by the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, who probably suffered doing this phase of the writing as Newton tended to be more than somewhat irascible when he needed something from somebody else for his work. We now get the astronomical crowning glory of Newton’ endeavours, an empirical proof of the law of gravity.

Having, in Book I, established the equivalence of the law of gravity and Kepler’s third law, in Book III of The PrincipiaThe System of the World Newton now uses the empirical proof of Kepler’s third law to establish the empirical truth of the law of gravity[4] Phenomena 1: The circumjovial planets, by radii drawn to the center of Jupiter, describe areas proportional to the times, and their periodic times—the fixed stars being et rest—are as 3/2 powers of their distances from that center. Phenomena 2: The circumsaturnian planets, by radii drawn to the center of Saturn, describe areas proportional to the times, and their periodic times—the fixed stars being et rest—are as 3/2 powers of their distances from that center. Phenomena 3: The orbits of the five primary planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—encircle the sun. Phenomena 4: The periodic times of the five primary planets and of either the sun about the earth or the earth about the sun—the fixed stars being at rest—are as the 3/2 powers of their mean distances from the sun. “This proportion, which was found by Kepler, is accepted by everyone.”

Proposition 1: The forces by which the circumjovial planets are continually drawn away from rectilinear motions and are maintained in their respective orbits are directed to the center of Jupiter and are inversely as the squares of the distances of their places from that center. “The same is to be understood for the planets that are Saturn’s companions.” As proof he references the respective phenomena from Book I. Proposition 2: The forces by which the primary planets are continually drawn away from rectilinear motions and are maintained in their respective orbits are directed to the sun and are inversely as the squares of the distances of their places from its center. As proof he references the respective phenomenon from Book I.

In the 1st edition of Principia Newton referenced the solar system itself and the moons of Jupiter as system that could be shown empirically to Kepler’s third law and added the moons of Saturn in the 3rd edition.

Book III in the first edition closes with Newton’s study of the comet of 1680/81 and his proof that its flight path was also determined by the inverse square law of gravity showing that this law was truly a law of universal gravity.

I have gone into far more detain describing Newton’s Principia than any other work I have looked out in this series because all the various streams run together. Here we have Copernicus’s initial concept of a heliocentric cosmos, Kepler’s improved elliptical version of a heliocentric cosmos with it three laws of planetary motion and all of the physics that was developed over a period of more than one hundred and fifty years woven together in one complete synthesis. Newton had produced the driving force of the heliocentric cosmos and shown that it resulted in Kepler’s elliptical system. One might consider that the story we have been telling was now complete and that we have reached an endpoint. In fact, in many popular version of the emergence of modern astronomy, usually termed the astronomical revolution, they do just that. It starts with Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and end with Newton’s Principia but as we shall see this was not the case. There still remained many problems to solve and we will begin to look at them in the next segment of our story.

[1]  Isaac Newton, The PrincipiaMathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, A New Translation by I: Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman assisted by Julia Budenz, Preceded by A Guide to Newton’s Principia, by I. Bernard Cohen, University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles, London, 1999 p. 462

[2] Newton, Principia, 1999 p. 467

[3] Newton, Principia, 1999 p. 468

[4] Newton, Principia, 1999 pp. 797–802



Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, Newton

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

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



The seventeenth century is commonly called the scientific revolution principally for the emergence of two branches of science, although much more was actually going on. Firstly, the subject of this series, astronomy, and secondly the branch of science we now know as physics. The name physics had a significantly different meaning in the medieval Aristotelian philosophy. As we know astronomy and physics are intimately connected, in fact, intertwined with each other and this connection came into being during the seventeenth century. We have already seen in an earlier episode how the modern concepts of motion began to emerge from Aristotelian philosophy in the sixth century reaching a temporary high point in the early seventeenth century in the works of Galileo and Beeckman.

Galileo is often regarded as the initiator, founder of these developments and lauded with titles such as the father of physics, which is just so much irrelevant verbiage. In fact as we saw in the case of the laws of fall he was just following developments that had long preceded him. On a more general level the situation is no different. Kepler was apparently the first to use the concept of a physical force rather than a vitalist anima. Simon Stevin (1548–1620) resolved the forces acting on an object on an inclined plane, effectively using the parallelogram of forces to do so. In hydrostatics he also discovered the so-called hydrostatic paradox i.e. that the pressure in a liquid is independent of the shape of the vessel and the area of the base, but depends solely on its depth. Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621) actually developed a more advanced mechanics than Galileo but as usually didn’t publish, so his work had no impact. However, it clearly shows that Galileo was by no means the only person considering the problems. All of these early discoveries, including Galileo’s, suffered from a problem of vagueness. Nobody really knew what force was and the definitions of almost all the basic concepts–speed, velocity, acceleration etc.–were defective or simply wrong. The century saw the gradual development of a vocabulary of correctly defined terms for the emerging new physics and a series of important discoveries in different areas, mechanics, statics, hydrostatics, optics etc.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow history of physics in the seventeenth century, I would need a whole book for that, but I would like to sketch an aspect that in popular accounts often gets overlooked. The popular accounts tend to go Galileo–Descartes–Newton, as if they were a three-man relay team passing the baton of knowledge down the century. In reality there were a much larger community of European mathematicians and proto-physicists, who were involved, exchanging ideas, challenging discovery claims, refining definitions and contributing bits and pieces to big pictures. Each of them building on the work of others and educating the next generation. What emerged was a pan European multidimensional cooperative effort that laid the foundations of what has become known as classical or Newtonian physics, although we won’t be dealing with Newton yet. Once again I won’t be able to give all the nodes in the network but I hope I can at least evoke something of the nature of the cooperative effort involved.

I will start of with Simon Stevin, a man, who few people think of when doing a quick survey of seventeenth century physics but who had a massive influence on developments in the Netherlands and thus, through connections, in France and further afield. Basically an engineer, who also produced mathematics and physics, Stevin motivated Maurits of Nassau, Stadholder of the young Dutch Republic to establish engineering and the mathematical sciences on the new Dutch universities. Stevin’s work influenced both the Snels, Rudolph (1546–1613) and his son Willebrord (1580–1626), the latter translated Stevin’s work into French and Latin from the Dutch, making it available to a much wider audience.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Stevin set up a school for engineering at the University of Leiden with Ludolph van Ceulen as the first professor of mathematics teaching from textbooks written by Stevin. Van Ceulen (1540–1610), who was Willebrord Snel’s teacher, was succeeded by his pupil Frans van Schooten the elder (1581–1646), whose pupils included his own son, Frans van Schooten the younger (1615–1660), Jan de Witt (1625–1672), Johann Hudde (1628–1704), Hendrick van Heuraet (1633–1660?), René-François de Sluse ((1622–1685) and Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), all of whom would continue their mathematical development under van Schooten junior and go on to make important contributions to the mathematical sciences. An outlier in the Netherlands was Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637), a largely self taught natural philosopher, who made a point of seeking out and studying Stevin’s work. This group would actively interact with the French mathematicians in the middle of the century.


Portrait of Frans van Schooten the younger by Rembrandt Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the French side with have a much more mixed bunch coming from varying backgrounds although Descartes and Mersenne were both educated by the Jesuits at the College of La Flèche. Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637), the already mentioned René Descartes (1596–1650) and Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), Pierre de Fermat (1607–1665), Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), Ismaël Boulliau (1605–1694) and Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) are just some of the more prominent members of the seventeenth century French mathematical community.


Pierre de Fermat artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

René Descartes made several journeys to the Netherlands, the first as a soldier in 1618 when he studied the military engineering of Simon Stevin. He also got to know Isaac Beeckman, with whom he studied a wide range of areas in physics and from who he got both the all important law of inertia and the mechanical philosophy, borrowings that he would later deny, claiming that he had discovered them independently. Descarte and Beeckman believed firmly on the necessity to combine mathematics and physics. Beeckman also met and corresponded with both Gassendi and Mersenne stimulating their own thoughts on both mathematics and physics.


René Descartes at work Source: Wikimedia Commons

On a later journey to the Netherlands Descartes met with Frans van Schooten the younger, who read the then still unpublished La Géometrié. This led van Schooten to travel to Paris where he studied the new mathematics of both living, Pierre Fermat, and dead, François Viète (1540–1603), French mathematicians before returning to the Netherlands to take over his father’s professorship and his group of star pupils. Descartes was also a close friend of Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), Christiaan’s father.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Peiresc and Mersenne were both scholars now referred to as post offices. They both corresponded extensively with mathematicians, astronomers and physicists all over Europe passing on the information they got from one scholar to the others in their networks; basically they fulfilled the function now serviced by academic journals. Both had contacts to Galileo in Italy and Mersenne in particular expended a lot of effort trying to persuade people to read Galileo’s works on mechanics, even translating them into Latin from Galileo’s Tuscan to make them available to others. Mersenne’s endeavours would suggest that Galileo’s work was not as widely known or appreciated as is often claimed.


Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc by Louis Finson Source: Wikimedia Commons


Marin Mersenne Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo was, of course, by no means the only mathematician/physicist active in seventeenth century Italy. The main activist can be roughly divided in two groups the disciples of Galileo and the Jesuits, whereby the Jesuits, as we will see, by no means rejected Galileo’s physics. The disciples of Galileo include Bonaventura Francesco Cavalieri (1598–1647) a pupil of Benedetto Castelli (1578­–1643) a direct pupil of Galileo, Evangelista Torricelli (1608–­1647) another direct pupil of Galileo and Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1608-1679) like Cavalieri a pupil of Castelli.


Benedetto Castelli artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the Jesuit side we have Giuseppe Biancani (1565–1624) his pupil Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671) and his one time pupil and later partner Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618–1663) and their star pupil Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625–1712), who as we have already seen was one of the most important telescopic astronomers in the seventeenth century. Also of interest is Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), professor at the Jesuit University, the Collegio Romano, who like Peiresc and Mersenne was an intellectual post office, collecting scientific communications from Jesuit researchers all over the world and redistributing them to scholars throughout Europe.


Athanasius Kircher Source: Wikimedia Commons

Looking first at the Jesuits, Riccioli carried out extensive empirical research into falling bodies and pendulums. He confirmed Galileo’s laws of fall, actually using falling balls rather than inclined planes, and determined an accurate figure for the acceleration due to gravity; Galileo’s figure had been way off. He was also the first to develop a second pendulum, a device that would later prove essential in determining variation in the Earth’s gravity and thus the globes shape.


Riccioli as portrayed in the 1742 Atlas Coelestis (plate 3) of Johann Gabriel Doppelmayer. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Grimaldi was the first to investigate diffraction in optics even giving the phenomenon its name. Many of the people I have listed also did significant work in optics beginning with Kepler and the discovery of more and more mathematical laws in optics helped to convince the researchers that the search for mathematical laws of nature was the right route to take.


Francesco Maria Grimaldi Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we saw earlier Borelli followed Kepler’s lead in trying to determine the forces governing the planetary orbits but he also created the field of biomechanics, applying the newly developed approaches to studies of muscles and bones.


Giovanni Alfonso Borelli Source: Wikimedia Commons

Torricelli is, of course, famous for having invented the barometer, a device for measuring air pressure, of which more in a moment, he was trying to answer the question why a simple air pump cannot pump water to more than a height of approximately ten metres. However, most importantly his experiments suggested that in the space above the mercury column in his barometer there existed a vacuum. This was a major contradiction to traditional Aristotelian physics, which claimed that a vacuum could not exist.


Evangelista Torricelli by Lorenzo Lippi (c. 1647) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Torricelli’s invention of the barometer was put to good use in France by Blaise Pascal, who sent his brother in law, Périer, up the Puy de Dôme, a volcano in the Massif Central, carrying a primitive barometer. This experiment demonstrated that the level of the barometer’s column of mercury varied according to the altitude thus ‘proving’ that the atmosphere had weight that lessened the higher one climbed above the earth’s surface. This was the first empirical proof that air is a material substance that has weight. One person, who was upset by Torricelli’s and Pascal’s claims that the barometer demonstrates the existence of a vacuum, was René Descartes to whom we now turn.


Painting of Blaise Pascal made by François II Quesnel for Gérard Edelinck in 1691 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Descartes, who is usually credited with being one of, if not the, founders of modern science and philosophy, was surprisingly Aristotelian in his approach to physics. Adopting Beeckman’s mechanical philosophy he thought that things could only move if acted upon by another object by direct contact; action at a distance was definitely not acceptable. Aristotle’s problem of projectile motion, what keeps the projectile moving when the contact with the projector breaks was solved by the principle of inertia, which reverses the problem. It is not longer the question of what keeps the projectile moving but rather what stops it moving. He also, like Aristotle, adamantly rejected the possibility of a vacuum. His solution here was to assume that all space was filled by very fine particles of matter. Where this theory of all invasive particles, usually called corpusculariansim, comes from would takes us too far afield but it became widely accepted in the second half of the seventeenth century, although not all of its adherents rejected the possibility of a vacuum.

Descartes set up laws of motion that are actually laws of collision or more formally impact. He starts with three laws of nature; the first two are basically the principle of inertia and the third is a general principle of collision. From these three laws of nature Descartes deduces seven rules of impact of perfectly elastic (i.e. solid) bodies. Imagine the rules for what happens when you play snooker or billiards.  The details of Descartes rules of impact needn’t bother us here; in fact his rules were all wrong; more important is that he set up a formal physical system of motion and impact. Studying and correcting Descartes rules of impact was Newton’s introduction to mechanics.

Turning to another Frenchman, we have Ismaël Boulliau, who was a convinced Keplerian. Kepler had hypothesised that there was a force emanating from the Sun that swept the planets around their orbits, which diminished inversely with increasing distance from the Sun. Boulliau didn’t think that such a force existed but if it did then it would be an inversed square force in analogy to Kepler’s law for the propagation of light; a candidate for the first modern mathematical law of physics. The foundations of the new physics were slowly coming together.


Ismaël Boulliau portrait by Pieter van Schuppen Source: Wikimedia Commons

Our last link between the Dutch and French mathematicians is Christiaan Huygens. Huygens initially took up correspondence with Mersenne around 1648; a correspondence that covered a wide range of mathematics and physics. In 1655 he visited Paris and was introduced to Boulliau and a year later began correspondence with Pierre Fermat. Frans van Schooten the younger continued to act as his mathematical mentor.


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

Huygens absorbed the work of all the leading European mathematician and physicists and as an avowed Cartesian became acknowledged as Europe’s leading natural philosopher. He realised that Descartes rules of impacts were wrong and corrected them. Huygens was also the first to derive and state what is now know as Newton’s second law of motion and derived the law of centripetal force, important steps on the route to a clear understanding of forces and how they operate. Huygens also created the first functioning pendulum clock in the process of which he derived the correct formula for the period of an ideal mathematical pendulum. It is very easy to underestimate Huygens contributions to the development of modern physics; he tends to get squeezed out between Descartes and Newton.


Spring-driven pendulum clock, designed by Huygens, built by instrument maker Salomon Coster (1657), and a copy of the Horologium Oscillatorium. Museum Boerhaave, Leiden Source: Wikimedia Commons

All the way through I have talked about the men, who developed the new physics as mathematicians and this is highly relevant. The so-called scientific revolution has been referred to as the mathematization of science, an accurate description of what was taking place. The seventeenth century is also known as the golden age of mathematics because the men who created the new physics were also at the same time creating the new mathematical tools needed to create that physics. An algebra based analytical mathematics came to replace the geometric synthetic mathematics inherited from the Greeks.

Algebra first entered Europe in the twelfth century with Robert of Chester’s translation of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī’s ninth century Al-kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing), the word algebra coming from the Arabic al-ğabr, meaning completion or setting together (in Spanish an algebraist is a bone setter). This introduction had little impact. It was reintroduced in the thirteenth century by Leonardo of Pisa, this time as commercial arithmetic, where it, especially with the introduction of double entry bookkeeping, had a major impact but still remained outside of academia.


Leonardo of Pisa Liber Abaci

It was first in the sixteenth century that algebra found its way into academia through the work of Scipione del Ferro (1465–1526), Niccolò Fontana known as Tartaglia (c.1499–1557)and above all Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576), whose Artis Magnæ, Sive de Regulis Algebraicis Liber Unus (Book number one about The Great Art, or The Rules of Algebra) published by Johannes Petreius (c. 1496–1550) in Nürnberg in 1545 is regarded as the first modern algebra textbook or even the beginning of modern mathematics (which, as should be obvious to regular readers, is a view that I don’t share).


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Modern readers would find it extremely strange as all of the formulas and theorems are written in words or abbreviations of words and there are no symbols in sight. The status of algebra was further established by the work of the Italian mathematician Rafael Bombelli (1526–1572),


Source: Wikimedia Commons


Another school of algebra was the German Cos school represented by the work of the

German mathematician Michael Stifel (1487–1567), Arithmetica integra (1544),


Source: Wikimedia Commons


Michael Stifel’s Arithmetica Integra (1544)

Simon Stevin in the Netherlands L’arithmétique (1585)


and Robert Recorde (c. 1512–1558) in Britain with his The Whetstone of Witte (1557).


The passage in The Whetstone of Witte introducing the equals sign Source: Wikimedia Commons

Algebra took a new direction with the French mathematician François Viète (1540–1603),


François Viète Source: Wikimedia Commons

who wrote an algebra text based on the work of Cardano and the late classical work of Diophantus of Alexandria (2nd century CE) In artem analyticam isagoge (1591) replacing many of the words and abbreviations with symbols.


Algebra was very much on the advance. Of interest here is that Galileo, who is always presented as the innovator, rejected the analytical mathematics, whereas the leading Jesuit mathematician Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), the last of the staunch defenders of Ptolemaic astronomy, wrote a textbook on Viète’s algebra for the Jesuit schools and colleges.  Two further important publications on symbolic algebra in the seventeenth century were the English mathematician, William Oughtred’s Clavis Mathematicae (1631),


which went through several editions and was read all over Europe and Thomas Harriot’s unnamed (1631), the only one of his scientific works ever published and that only posthumously.

The development of the then new analytical mathematics reach a high point with the independent invention by Pierre Fermat and René Descartes of analytical geometry, which enabled the geometrical presentation of algebraic functions or the algebraic presentation of geometrical forms; a very powerful tool in the armoury of the mathematical physicists in the seventeenth century. Fermat’s pioneering work in analytical geometry (Methodus ad disquirendam maximam et minimam et de tangentibus linearum curvarum) was circulated in manuscript form in 1636 (based on results achieved in 1629) This manuscript was published posthumously in 1679 in Varia opera mathematica, as Ad Locos Planos et Solidos Isagoge (Introduction to Plane and Solid Loci).


Descartes more famous work was published as La Géometrié, originally as an appendix to his Discours de la méthode (1637). However, much more important for the dissemination of Descartes version of the analytical geometry was the expanded Latin translation produced by Frans van Schooten the younger with much additional material from van Schooten himself, published in 1649 and the second edition, with extra material from his group of special students mentioned above, in two volumes 1659 and 1661. Van Schooten was the first to introduce the nowadays, ubiquitous orthogonal Cartesian coordinates and to extend the system to three dimensions in his Exercises (1657).



The other branch of analytical mathematics that was developed in the seventeenth century was what we now know as infinitesimal calculus, the mathematics that is necessary to deal with rates of change, for example for analysing motion. There is a prehistory, particularly of integral calculus but it doesn’t need to interest us here. Kepler used a form of proto-integration to prove his second law of planetary motion and a more sophisticated version to calculate the volume of barrels in a fascinating but often neglected pamphlet. The Galilean mathematician Cavalieri developed a better system of integration, his indivisibles, which he published in his Geometria indivisibilibus continuorum nova quadam ratione promota, (Geometry, developed by a new method through the indivisibles of the continua) (1635) but actually written in 1627, demonstrated on the area of a parabola. This work was developed further by Torricelli, who extended it to other functions.


The other branch of calculus the calculating of tangents and thus derivatives was worked on by a wide range of mathematicians. Significant contributions were made by Blaise Pascal, Pierre de Fermat, René Descarte, Gregoire de Saint-Vincent, John Wallis and Isaac Barrow. Fermat’s work was the most advanced and included contributions to both integral and deferential calculus, including a general method for determining tangents that is still taught in schools. The Scottish mathematician, James Gregory (1638–1675), inspired by Fermat’s work developed the second fundamental theory of calculus, which states that the integral of a function f over some interval can be computed by using any one, say F, of its infinitely many anti-derivatives. Isaac Barrow (1630–1677) was the first to provide a full proof of the fundamental theorem of calculus, which is a theorem that links the concept of differentiating a function with the concept of integrating a function. Fermat’s work and John Wallis’ Arithmetica Infinitorum (1656) would be an important jumping off point for both Leibniz and Newton in the future.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

By about 1670, the mathematicians of Europe, who knew of and built on each other’s work had made major advances in the development of both modern mathematics and physics laying the foundations for the next major development in the emergence of modern astronomy. However, before we reach that development there will be a couple of other factors that we have to consider first.






















May 6, 2020 · 8:33 am

The Electric Showman

The are some figures in #histSTM, who, through some sort of metamorphosis, acquire the status of cult gurus, who were somehow super human and if only they had been properly acknowledged in their own times would have advanced the entire human race by year, decades or even centuries. The most obvious example is Leonardo da Vinci, who apparently invented, discovered, created everything that was worth inventing, discovering, creating, as well as being the greatest artist of all time. Going back a few centuries we have Roger Bacon, who invented everything that Leonardo did but wasn’t in the same class as a painter. Readers of this blog will know that one of my particular bugbears is Ada Lovelace, whose acolytes claim singlehandedly created the computer age. Another nineteenth century figure, who has been granted god like status is the Serbian physicist and inventor, Nikola Tesla (1856–1943).

The apostles of Tesla like to present him in contrast to, indeed in battle with, Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931). According to their liturgy Tesla was a brilliant, original genius, who invented everything electrical and in so doing created the future, whereas Edison was poseur, who had no original ideas, stole everything he is credited with having invented and exploited the genius of other to create his reputation and his fortune. You don’t have to be very perceptive to realise that these are weak caricatures that almost certainly bear little relation to the truth. That this is indeed the case is shown by a new, levelheaded biography of Tesla by Iwan Rhys Morus, Tesla and the Electric Future.[1]


If anyone is up to the job of presenting a historically accurate, balanced biography of Tesla, then it is Morus, who is professor of history at Aberystwyth University and who has established himself as an expert for the history of electricity in the nineteenth century with a series of excellent monographs on the topic, and yes he delivers.

Anybody who picks up Morus’ compact biography looking for a blow by blow description of the epic war between Tesla and Edison is going to be very disappointed, because as Morus points out it basically never really took place; it is a myth. What we get instead is a superb piece of contextual history. Morus presents a widespread but deep survey of the status of electricity in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginnings of the twentieth century into which he embeds the life story of Tesla.

We have the technological and scientific histories of electricity but also the socio-political history of the role that electricity during the century and above all the futurology. Electricity was seen as the key to the future in all areas of life in the approaching twentieth century. Electricity was hyped as the energy source of the future, as the key to local and long distant communication, and as a medical solution to both physical and psychological illness. In fact it appears that electricity was being touted as some sort of universal panacea for all of societies problems and ills. It was truly the hype of the century. Electricity featured big in the widely popular world exhibitions beginning with the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851.


In these world fairs electricity literally outshone all of the other marvels and wonders on display.

The men, who led the promotion of this new technology, became stars, prophets of an electrical future, most notably Thomas Alva Edison, who became known as the Wizard of Menlo Park.


Far from the popular image of Edison being Tesla’s sworn enemy, he was the man, who brought Tesla to America and in doing so effectively launched Tesla’s career. Edison also served as a role model for Tesla; from Edison, Tesla learnt how to promote and sell himself as a master of the electric future.

Morus takes us skilfully through the battle of the systems, AC vs. DC in which Tesla, as opposed to popular myth, played very little active part having left Westinghouse well before the active phase. His technology, patented and licenced to Westinghouse, did, however, play a leading role in Westinghouse’s eventually victory in this skirmish over Edison, establishing Tesla as one of the giants in the electricity chess game. Tesla proceeded to establish his reputation as a man of the future through a series of public lectures and interviews, with the media boosting his efforts.

From here on in Tesla expounded ever more extraordinary, visionary schemes for the electric future but systematically failed to deliver.


His decline was long drawn out and gradual rather than spectacular and the myths began to replace the reality. The electric future forecast throughout the second half of the nineteenth century was slowly realised in the first half of the twentieth but Tesla played almost no role in its realisation.

Morus is himself a master of nineteenth century electricity and its history, as well as a first class storyteller, and in this volume he presents a clear and concise history of the socio-political, public and commercial story of electricity as it came to dominate the world, woven around a sympathetic but realistic biography of Nikola Tesla. His book is excellently researched and beautifully written, making it a real pleasure to read.  It has an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. The endnotes are almost exclusively references to the bibliography and the whole is rounded off with an excellent index. The book is well illustrated with a good selection of, in the meantime ubiquitous for #histSTM books, grey in grey prints.

Morus’ book has a prominent subtext concerning how we view our scientific and technological future and it fact this is probably the main message, as he makes clear in his final paragraph:

It is a measure of just what a good storyteller about future worlds Tesla was that we still find the story so compelling. It is also the way we still tend to tell stories about imagined futures now. We still tend to frame the way we think about scientific and technological innovation – the things on which our futures will depend – in terms of the interventions of heroic individuals battling against the odds. A hundred years after Tesla, it might be time to start thinking about other ways of talking about the shape of things to come and who is responsible who is responsible for shaping them.

If you want to learn about the history of electricity in the nineteenth century, the life of Nikola Tesla or how society projects its technological futures then I really can’t recommend Iwan Rhys Morus excellent little volume enough. Whether hardback or paperback it’s really good value for money and affordable for even the smallest of book budgets.

[1] Iwan Rhys Morus, Tesla and the Electric Future, Icon books, London, 2019



Filed under Book Reviews, History of Physics, History of science, History of Technology

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

As stated earlier the predominant medieval view of the cosmos was an uneasy bundle of Aristotle’s cosmology, Ptolemaic astronomy, Aristotelian terrestrial mechanics, which was not Aristotle’s but had evolved out of it, and Aristotle’s celestial mechanics, which we will look at in a moment. As also pointed out earlier this was not a static view but one that was constantly being challenged from various other models. In the early seventeenth century the central problem was, having demolished nearly all of Aristotle’s cosmology and shown Ptolemaic astronomy to be defective, without however yet having found a totally convincing successor, to now find replacements for the terrestrial and celestial mechanics. We have looked at the development of the foundations for a new terrestrial mechanics and it is now time to turn to the problem of a new celestial mechanics. The first question we need to answer is what did Aristotle’s celestial mechanics look like and why was it no longer viable?

The homocentric astronomy in which everything in the heavens revolve around a single central point, the earth, in spheres was created by the mathematician and astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 390–c. 337 BCE), a contemporary and student of Plato (c. 428/27–348/47 BCE), who assigned a total of twenty-seven spheres to his system. Callippus (c. 370–c. 300 BCE) a student of Eudoxus added another seven spheres. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) took this model and added another twenty-two spheres. Whereas Eudoxus and Callippus both probably viewed this model as a purely mathematical construction to help determine planetary position, Aristotle seems to have viewed it as reality. To explain the movement of the planets Aristotle thought of his system being driven by friction. The outermost sphere, that of the fixed stars drove the outer most sphere of Saturn, which in turn drove the next sphere down in the system and so on all the way down to the Moon. According to Aristotle the outermost sphere was set in motion by the unmoved mover. This last aspect was what most appealed to the churchmen of the medieval universities, who identified the unmoved mover with the Christian God.


During the Middle Ages an aspect of vitalism was added to this model, with some believing that the planets had souls, which animated them. Another theory claimed that each planet had its own angel, who pushed it round its orbit. Not exactly my idea of heaven, pushing a planet around its orbit for all of eternity. Aristotelian cosmology said that the spheres were real and made of crystal. When, in the sixteenth century astronomers came to accept that comets were supralunar celestial phenomena, and not as Aristotle had thought sublunar meteorological ones, it effectively killed off Aristotle’s crystalline spheres, as a supralunar comet would crash right through them. If fact, the existence or non-existence of the crystalline spheres was a major cosmological debate in the sixteenth century. By the early seventeenth century almost nobody still believed in them.

An alternative theory that had its origins in the Middle Ages but, which was revived in the sixteenth century was that the heavens were fluid and the planets swam through them like a fish or flew threw them like a bird. This theory, of course, has again a strong element of vitalism. However, with the definitive collapse of the crystalline spheres it became quite popular and was subscribed to be some important and influential thinkers at the end of the sixteenth beginning of the seventeenth centuries, for example Roberto Bellarmino (1542–1621) the most important Jesuit theologian, who had lectured on astronomy at the University of Leuven in his younger days.


Robert Bellarmine artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should come as no surprise that the first astronomer to suggest a halfway scientific explanation for the motion of the planets was Johannes Kepler. In fact he devoted quite a lot of space to his theories in his Astronomia nova (1609).


Astronomia Nova title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

That the periods between the equinoxes and the solstices were of unequal length had been known to astronomers since at least the time of Hipparchus in the second century BCE. This seemed to imply that the speed of either the Sun orbiting the Earth, in a geocentric model, or the Earth orbiting the Sun, in a heliocentric model, varied through out the year. Kepler calculated a table for his elliptical, heliocentric model of the distances of the Sun from the Earth and deduced from this that the Earth moved fastest when it was closest to the Sun and slowest when it was furthest away. From this he deduced or rather speculated that the Sun controlled the motion of the Earth and by analogy of all the planets. The thirty-third chapter of Astronomia nova is headed, The power that moves the planets resides in the body of the sun.

His next question is, of course, what is this power and how does it operate? He found his answer in William Gilbert’s (1544–1603) De Magnete, which had been published in 1600.


William Gilbert Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler speculated that the Sun was in fact a magnet, as Gilbert had demonstrated the Earth to be, and that it rotated on its axis in the same way that Gilbert believed, falsely, that a freely suspended terrella (a globe shaped magnet) did. Gilbert had used this false belief to explain the Earth’s diurnal rotation.


It should be pointed out that Kepler was hypothesising a diurnal rotation for the Sun in 1609 that is a couple of years before Galileo had demonstrated the Sun’s rotation in his dispute over the nature of sunspots with Christoph Scheiner (c. 1574–1650). He then argues that there is power that goes out from the rotating Sun that drives the planets around there orbits. This power diminishes with its distance from the Sun, which explains why the speed of the planetary orbits also diminishes the further the respective planets are from the Sun. In different sections of the Astronomia nova Kepler argues both for and against this power being magnetic in nature. It should also be noted that although Kepler is moving in the right direction with his convoluted and at times opaque ideas on planetary motion there is still an element of vitalism present in his thoughts.

Kepler conceived the relationship between his planetary motive force and distance as a simple inverse ratio but it inspired the idea of an inverse squared force. The French mathematician and astronomer Ismaël Boulliau (1605–1694) was a convinced Keplerian and played a central roll in spreading Kepler’s ideas throughout Europe.


Ismaël Boulliau portrait by Pieter van Schuppen Source: Wikimedia Commons

His most important and influential work was his Astronomia philolaica (1645). In this work Boulliau hypothesised by analogy to Kepler’s own law on the propagation of light that if a force existed going out from the Sun driving the planets then it would decrease in inverse squared ratio and not a simple one as hypothesised by Kepler. Interestingly Boulliau himself did not believe that such a motive force for the planet existed.


Another mathematician and astronomer, who looked for a scientific explanation of planetary motion was the Italian, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1608–1697) a student of Benedetto Castelli (1578–1643) and thus a second-generation student of Galileo.


Giovanni Alfonso Borelli Source: Wikimedia Commons

Borelli developed a force-based theory of planetary motion in his Theoricae Mediceorum Planatarum ex Causius Physicis Deductae (Theory [of the motion] of the Medicean planets [i.e. moons of Jupiter] deduced from physical causes) published in 1666. He hypothesised three forces that acted on a planet. Firstly a natural attraction of the planet towards the sun, secondly a force emanating from the rotating Sun that swept the planet sideway and kept it in its orbit and thirdly the same force emanating from the sun pushed the planet outwards balancing the inwards attraction.

The ideas of both Kepler and Borelli laid the foundations for a celestial mechanics that would eventually in the work of Isaac Newton, who knew of both theories, produced a purely force-based mathematical explanation of planetary motion.







Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, Mediaeval Science

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

One of the most well known popular stories told about Galileo is how he dropped balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to disprove the Aristotelian hypothesis that balls of different weights would fall at different speeds; the heavier ball falling faster. This event probably never happened but it is related as a prelude to his brilliant experiments with balls and inclined planes, which he carried out to determine empirically the correct laws of fall and which really did take place and for which he is justifiably renowned as an experimentalist. What is very rarely admitted is that the investigation of the laws of fall had had a several-hundred-year history before Galileo even considered the problem, a history of which Galileo was well aware.

We saw in the last episode that John Philoponus had actually criticised Aristotle’s concept of fall in the sixth century and had even carried out the ball drop experiment. However, unlike his impulse concept for projectile motion, which was taken up by Islamic scholars and passed on by them into the European Middle Ages, his correct criticism of Aristotle’s fall theory appears not to have been taken up by later thinkers.

As far as we know the first people, after Philoponus, to challenge Aristotle’s concept was the so-called Oxford Calculatores.


Merton College in 1865 Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was a group of fourteenth-century, Aristotelian scholars at Merton College Oxford, who set about quantifying various theory of nature. These men–Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1300–1349), William of Heytesbury (c. 1313–c. 1372), Richard Swineshead (fl. c. 1340–1354) and John Dumbleton (c. 1310–c. 1349)–studied mechanics distinguishing between kinematics and dynamics, emphasising the former and investigating instantaneous velocity. They were the first to formulate the mean speed theorem, an achievement usually accredited to Galileo. The mean speed theorem states that a uniformly accelerated body, starting from rest, travels the same distance as a body with uniform speed, whose speed in half the final velocity of the accelerated body. The theory lies at the heart of the laws of fall.

The work of the Oxford Calculatores was quickly diffused throughout Europe and Nicole Oresme (c. 1320–1382), one of the so-called Parisian physicists,


Portrait of Nicole Oresme: Miniature from Oresme’s Traité de l’espère, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France, fonds français 565, fol. 1r. Source: Wikimedia Commons

and Giovanni di Casali (c. 1320–after 1374) both produced graphical representation of the theory.


Oresme’s geometric verification of the Oxford Calculators’ Merton Rule of uniform acceleration, or mean speed theorem. Source: Wikimedia Commons

We saw in the last episode how Tartaglia applied mathematics to the problem of projectile motion and now we turn to a man, who for a time was a student of Tartaglia, Giambattista Benedetti (1530–1590). Like others before him Bendetti turned his attention to Aristotle’s concept of fall and wrote and published in total three works on the subject that went a long way towards the theory that Galileo would eventually publish. In his Resolutio omnium Euclidis problematum (1553) and his Demonstratio proportionum motuum localium (1554) he argued that speed is dependent not on weight but specific gravity and that two objects of the same material but different weights would fall at the same speed.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, in a vacuum, objects of different material would fall at different speed. Benedetti brought an early version of the thought experiment, usually attributed to Galileo, of viewing two bodies falling separately or conjoined, in his case by a cord.  Galileo considered a roof tile falling complete and then broken into two.

In a second edition of the Demonstratio (1554) he addressed surface area and resistance of the medium through which the objects are falling. He repeated his theories in his Demonstratio proportionum motuum localium (1554), where he explains his theories with respect to the theory of impetus. We know that Galileo had read his Benedetti and his own initial theories on the topic, in his unpublished De Motu, were very similar.

In the newly established United Provinces (The Netherlands) Simon Stevin (1548–1620) carried out a lot of work applying mathematics to various areas of physics. However in our contexts more interesting were his experiments in 1586, where he actually dropped lead balls of different weights from the thirty-foot-high church tower in Delft and determined empirically that they fell at the same speed, arriving at the ground at the same time.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some people think that because Stevin only wrote and published in Dutch that his mathematical physics remained largely unknown. However, his complete works published initially in Dutch were translated into both French and Latin, the latter translation being carried out by Willebrord Snell. As a result his work was well known in France, the major centre for mathematical physics in the seventeenth century.

In Italy the Dominican priest Domingo de Soto (1494–1560) correctly stated that a body falls with a constant, uniform acceleration. In his Opus novum, De Proportionibus numerorum, motuum, ponderum, sonorum, aliarumque rerum mensurandarum. Item de aliza regula (1570) Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576) demonstrates that two balls of different sizes will fall from a great height in the same time. The humanist poet and historian, Benedetto Varchi (c. 1502–1565) in 1544 and Giuseppe Moletti (1531–1588), Galileo’s predecessor as professor of mathematics in Padua, in 1576 both reported that bodies of different weights fall at the same speed in contradiction to Aristotle, as did Jacopo Mazzoni (1548–1598), a philosopher at Padua and friend of Galileo, in 1597. However none of them explained how they arrived at their conclusions.

Of particular relevance to Galileo is the De motu gravium et levium of Girolamo Borro (1512–1592) one of Galileo’s teachers in Pisa. In a dispute with his colleague Francesco Buonamici (1533–1603), another Pisan professor, Borro carried out experiments in which he threw objects of different material and the same weights out of a high window to test Aristotle’s theory, which he describes in his book. Borro’s work is known to have had a strong influence on Galileo’s early work in this area.

When Galileo started his own extensive investigations into the problem of fall in the late sixteenth century he was tapping into an extensive stream of previous work on the subject of which he was well aware and which to some extent had already done much of the heavy lifting. This raises the question as to what extent Galileo deserves his reputation as the man, who solved the problem of fall.


Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

We saw in the last episode that his much praised Dialogo, his magnum opus on the heliocentricity contra geocentricity debate, not only contributed nothing new of substance to that debate but because of his insistence on retaining the Platonic axioms, his total rejection of the work of both Tycho Brahe and Kepler and his rejection of the strong empirical evidence for the supralunar nature of comets he actually lagged far behind the current developments in that debate. The result was that the Dialogo could be regarded as superfluous to the astronomical system debate. Can the same be said of the contribution of the Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences) (1638) to the debate on motion? The categorical answer is no; the Discorsi is a very important contribution to that debate and Galileo deserves his reputation as a mathematical physicist that this book gave him.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

What did Galileo contribute to the debate that was new? It not so much that he contributed much new to the debate but that he gave the debate the solid empirical and mathematical foundation, which it had lacked up till this point. Dropping weights from heights to examine the laws of fall suffers from various problems. It is extremely difficult to ensure that the object are both released at the same time, it is equally difficult to determine if they actually hit the ground at the same time and the whole process is so fast, that given the possibilities available at the time, it was impossible to measure the time taken for the fall. All of the previous experiments of Stevin et al were at best approximations and not really empirical proofs in a strict scientific sense. Galileo supplied the necessary empirical certainty.

Galileo didn’t drop balls he rolled them down a smooth, wooden channel in an inclined plane that had been oiled to remove friction. He argued by analogy the results that he achieved by slowing down the acceleration by using an inclined plane were equivalent to those that would be obtained by dropping the balls vertically. Argument by analogy is of course not strict scientific proof but is an often used part of the scientific method that has often, as in this case, led to important new discoveries and results.  He released one ball at a time and timed them separately thus eliminating the synchronicity problem. Also, he was able with a water clock to time the balls with sufficient accuracy to make the necessary mathematical calculations. He put the laws of falls on a sound empirical and mathematical footing. One should also not neglect the fact that Galileo’s undoubtable talent as a polemicist made the content of the Discorsi available in a way that was far more accessible than anything that had preceded it.


Galileo’s demonstration of the law of the space traversed in case of uniformly varied motion. It is the same demonstration that Oresme had made centuries earlier. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For those, who like to believe that Catholics and especially the Jesuits were anti-science in the seventeenth century, and unfortunately they still exist, the experimental confirmation of Galileo’s law of fall, using direct drop rather than an inclined plane, was the Jesuit, Giovanni Battista Riccioli(1598–1671).


Giovanni Battista Riccioli Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Discorsi also contains Galileo’s work on projectile motion, which again was important and influential. The major thing is the parabola law that states that anything projected upwards and away follows a parabolic path. Galileo was not the only natural philosopher, who determined this. The Englishman Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621) also discovered the parabola law and in fact his work on projectile motion went well beyond that of Galileo. Unfortunately, he never published anything so his work remained unknown.  One of Galileo’s acolytes, Bonaventura Cavalieri (1598–1647),


Bonaventura Cavalieri Source: Wikimedia Commons

was actually the first to publish the parabola law in his Lo Specchio Ustorio, overo, Trattato delle settioni coniche (The Burning Mirror, or a Treatise on Conic Sections) 1632.

This brought an accusation of intellectual theft from Galileo and it is impossible to tell from the ensuing correspondence, whether Cavalieri discovered the law independently or borrowed it without acknowledgement from Galileo.

The only problem that remained was what exactly was impetus. What was imparted to bodies to keep them moving? The answer was nothing. The solution was to invert the question and to consider what makes moving bodies cease to move? The answer is if nothing does, they don’t. This is known as the principle of inertia, which states that a body remains at rest or continues to move in a straight line unless acted upon by a force. Of course, in the early seventeenth century nobody really knew what force was but they still managed to discover the basic principle of inertia. Galileo sort of got halfway there. Still under the influence of the Platonic axioms, with their uniform circular motion, he argued that a homogenous sphere turning around its centre of gravity at the earth’s surface forever were there no friction at its bearings or against the air. Because of this Galileo is often credited with provided the theory of inertia as later expounded by Newton but this is false.

The Dutch scholar Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637) developed the concept of rectilinear inertia, as later used by Newton but also believed, like Galileo, in the conservation of constant circular velocity. Beeckman is interesting because he never published anything and his writing only became known at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, Beeckman was in contact, both personally and by correspondence, with the leading French mathematicians of the period, Descartes, Gassendi and Mersenne. For a time he was Descartes teacher and much of Descartes physics goes back to Beeckman. Descartes learnt the principle of inertia from Beeckman and it was he who published and it was his writings that were Newton’s source. The transmission of Beeckman’s work is an excellent illustration that scientific information does not just flow over published works but also through personal, private channels, when scientists communicate with each other.

With the laws of fall, the parabola law and the principle of inertia the investigators in the early seventeenth century had a new foundation for terrestrial mechanics to replace those of Aristotle.









Filed under History of Physics, History of science, Mediaeval Science, Renaissance Science