Category Archives: History of Physics


DO IT! is the title of a book written by 1960s Yippie activist Jerry Rubin. In the 1970s when I worked in experimental theatre groups if somebody suggested doing something in a different way then the response was almost always, “Don’t talk about it, do it!” I get increasingly pissed off by people on Twitter or Facebook moaning and complaining about fairly trivial inaccuracies on Wikipedia. My inner response when I read such comments is, “Don’t talk about it, change it!” Recently Maria Popova of brainpickings posted the following on her tumblr, Explore:

The Wikipedia bio-panels for Marie Curie and Albert Einstein reveal the subtle ways in which our culture still perpetuates gender hierarchies in science. In addition to the considerably lengthier and more detailed panel for Einstein, note that Curie’s children are listed above her accolades, whereas the opposite order appears in the Einstein entry – all the more lamentable given that Curie is the recipient of two Nobel Prizes and Einstein of one.

How ironic given Einstein’s wonderful letter of assurance to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared that her gender would hold her back. 

When I read this, announced in a tweet, my response was a slightly ruder version of “Don’t talk about it, change it!” Within minutes Kele Cable (@KeleCable) had, in response to my tweet, edited the Marie Curie bio-panel so that Curie’s children were now listed in the same place as Einstein’s. A couple of days I decided to take a closer look at the two bio-panels and assess Popova’s accusations.

Marie Curie c. 1920 Source Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie c. 1920
Source Wikimedia Commons

The first difference that I discovered was that the title of Curie’s doctoral thesis was not listed as opposed to Einstein’s, which was. Five minutes on Google and two on Wikipedia and I had corrected this omission. Now I went into a detailed examination, as to why Einstein’s bio-panel was substantially longer than Curie’s. Was it implicit sexism as Popova was implying? The simple answer is no! Both bio-panels contain the same information but in various areas of their life that information was more extensive in Einstein’s life than in Curie’s. I will elucidate.

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under ‘Residences’ we have two for Curie and seven for Einstein. Albert moved around a bit more than Marie. Marie only had two ‘Citizenships’, Polish and French whereas Albert notched up six. Under ‘Fields’ both have two entries. Turning to ‘Institutions’ Marie managed five whereas Albert managed a grand total of twelve. Both had two alma maters. The doctoral details for both are equal although Marie has four doctoral students listed, whilst Albert has none. Under ‘Known’ for we again have a major difference, Marie is credited with radioactivity, Polonium and Radium, whereas the list for Albert has eleven different entries. Under ‘Influenced’ for Albert there are three names but none for Marie, which I feel is something that should be corrected by somebody who knows their way around nuclear chemistry, not my field. Both of them rack up seven entries under notable awards. Finally Marie had one spouse and two children, whereas Albert had two spouses and three children. In all of this I can’t for the life of me see any sexist bias.

Frankly I find Popova’s, all the more lamentable given that Curie is the recipient of two Nobel Prizes and Einstein of one, comment bizarre. Is the number of Nobel Prizes a scientist receives truly a measure of their significance? I personally think that Lise Meitner is at least as significant as Marie Curie, as a scientist, but, as is well known, she never won a Nobel Prize. Curie did indeed win two, one in physics and one in chemistry but they were both for two different aspects of the same research programme. Einstein only won one, for establishing one of the two great pillars of twentieth-century physics, the quantum theory. He also established the other great pillar, relativity theory, but famously didn’t win a Nobel for having done so. We really shouldn’t measure the significance of scientists’ roles in the evolution of their disciplines by the vagaries of the Nobel awards.



Filed under History of Chemistry, History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science

The Huygens Enigma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Well no, actually he didn’t.

Ethan Siegel has written a reply to my AEON Galileo opinion piece on his Forbes blog. Ethan makes his opinion very clear in the title of his post, Galileo Didn’t Invent Astronomy, But He DID Invent Mechanical Physics! My response is also contained in my title above and no, Galileo did not invent mechanical physics. For a change we’ll start with something positive about Galileo, his inclined plane experiments to determine the laws of fall, the description of which form the bulk of Ethan’s post, are in fact one of the truly great pieces of experimental physics and are what makes Galileo justifiably famous. However the rest of Ethan’s post leaves much to be desired.

Ethan starts off by describing the legendary Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, in which Galileo supposedly dropped two ball of unequal weight of the tower and measured how long they took to fall. The major problem with this is that Galileo almost certainly never did carry out this experiment, however both John Philoponus in the sixth century CE and Simon Stevin in 1586 did so, well before Galileo considered the subject. The laws of fall were also investigated theoretically by the so-called Oxford Calculatores, who developed the mean speed theory, the foundation of the laws of fall, and the Paris Physicists, who represented the results graphically, both in the fourteenth century CE. Galileo knew of the work of John Philoponus, the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists, even using the same graph to represent the laws of fall in his Two New Sciences, as Oresme had used four hundred years earlier. In the sixteenth centuries the Italian mathematician Tartaglia investigated the path of projectiles, publishing the results in his Nova Scientia, his work was partially validated, partially refuted by Galileo. His landsman Benedetti anticipated most of Galileo’s results on the laws of fall. With the exception of Stevin’s work Galileo knew of all this work and built his own researches on it thus rather challenging Ethan’s claim that Galileo invented mechanical physics.

Galileo’s central achievement was to provide empirical proof of the laws of fall with his ingenious ramp experiments but even here there are problems. Galileo’s results are simply too good, not displaying the expected experimental deviations, leading Alexander Koyré, the first great historian of Galileo’s work, to conclude that Galileo never did the experiments at all. The modern consensus is that he did indeed do the experiments but probably massaged his results, a common practice. The second problem is that any set of empirical results requires confirmation by other independent researchers. Mersenne, a great supporter and propagator of Galileo’s physics, complains of the difficulties of reproducing Galileo’s experimental results and it was first Riccioli, who finally succeeded in doing so, publishing the results in 1651.

A small complaint is Ethan’s claim that Galileo’s work on the laws of fall “was the culmination of a lifetime of work”. In fact although Galileo first published his Two New Sciences in 1638 his work on mechanics was carried out early in his life and completed well before he made his telescopic discoveries.

The real problem with Ethan’s post is what follows the quote above, he writes:

…and the equations of motion derived from Newton’s laws are essentially a reformulation of the results of Galileo. Newton indeed stood on the shoulders of giants when he developed the laws of gravitation and mechanics, but the biggest titan of all in the field before him was Galileo, completely independent of what he contributed to astronomy.

This is quite simply wrong. After stating his first two laws of motion in the Principia Newton writes:

The principles I have set forth are accepted by mathematicians and confirmed by experiments of many kinds. By means of the first two laws and the first two corollaries Galileo found that the decent of heavy bodies is the squared ratio of the time that the motion of projectiles occurs in a parabola, as experiment confirms, except insofar as these motion are somewhat retarded by the resistance of the air.

As Bernard Cohen points out, in the introduction to his translation of the Principia from which I have taken the quote, this is wrong because, Galileo certainly did not know Newton’s first law. As to the second law, Galileo would not have known the part about change in momentum in the Newtonian sense, since this concept depends on the concept of mass which was invented by Newton and first made public in the Principia.

I hear Galileo’s fans protesting that Newton’s first law is the law of inertia, which was discovered by Galileo, so he did know it. However Galileo’s version of the law of inertia is flawed, as he believes natural unforced motion to be circular and not linear. In fact Newton takes his first law from Descartes who in turn took it from Isaac Beeckman. Newton’s Principia, or at least his investigation leading up to it, are in fact heavily indebted to the work of Descartes rather than that of Galileo and Descartes in turn owes his greatest debts in physics to the works of Beeckman and Stevin and not Galileo.

An interesting consequence of Newton’s false attribution to Galileo in the quote above is that it shows that Newton had almost certainly never read Galileo’s masterpiece and only knew of it through hearsay. Galileo’s laws of fall are only minimally present in the Principia and then only mentioned in passing as asides, whereas the parabola law occurs quite frequently whenever Newton is resolving forces in orbits but then only as Galileo has shown.

One small irony remains in Ethan’s post. He loves to plaster his efforts with lots of pictures and diagrams and videos. This post does the same and includes a standard physics textbook diagram showing the force vectors of a heavy body sliding down an inclined plane. You can search Galileo’s work in vain for a similar diagram but you will find an almost identical one in the work of Simon Stevin, who worked on physical mechanics independently of and earlier than Galileo. Galileo made some very important contributions to the development of mechanical physics but he certainly didn’t invent the discipline.


Filed under History of Mathematics, History of Physics, Myths of Science, Newton

Ohm Sweet Ohm

This is the story of two brothers born into the working class in a small town in Germany in the late eighteenth century. Both of them were recognised as mathematically gifted whilst still teenagers and went on to study mathematics at university. The younger brother was diligent and studious and completed his doctorate in mathematics with a good grade. There followed a series of good teaching jobs before he obtained a lectureship at the then leading university of Berlin, ten years after graduating. In due course, there followed positions as associate and the full professor. As professor he contributed some small but important proofs to the maths cannon, graduated an impressive list of doctoral students and developed an interesting approach to maths textbooks. He became a respected and acknowledged member of the German mathematical community.

The elder brother’s life ran somewhat differently. He started at the local university but unlike his younger brother he was anything but studious preferring a life of dancing, ice -skating and playing billiards to learning mathematics. His father a hard working craftsman was disgusted by this behaviour and forced him to leave the university and take up a teaching post in Switzerland. On the advice of his mathematics professor he taught himself mathematics by reading the greats. He returned to his home university and obtained his doctorate in the same year as his brother. There then followed a series of dead end jobs first as a badly paid university lecturer with little prospect of promotion and then a series of deadbeat jobs as a schoolteacher. In the last of these he had access to a good physics laboratory and began a series of investigations in a relatively new area of physics. At the age of thirty-eight, something of a failure, he published the results of his investigations in a book, which initially failed to make any impact. At the age of forty-four he obtained an appointment as professor at a polytechnic near to his home town and things began to finally improve in his life. At the age of fifty-two his work received acknowledgement at the highest international levels and finally at the age of sixty-three he was appointed professor for physics at a leading university.

The younger brother whose career path had been so smooth, fairly rapidly disappeared from the history of mathematics after his death in 1872, remembered by only a handful of specialists, whereas the much plagued elder brother went on to lend the family name to one of the most frequently used unit of measure in the physical sciences; a name that can be found on multiple appliances in probably every household in the western world.

The two bothers of my story are Georg Simon Ohm (1789–1854), the discover of Ohm’s Law, and his younger brother, the mathematician, Martin Ohm, who was born on 6 May 1792 and the small German town where they were born is Erlangen where I (almost) live.

The Ohm House, Fahrstraße 11, Erlangen Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Ohm House, Fahrstraße 11, Erlangen
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Georg Simon and Martin were the sons of the locksmith Johann Wolfgang Ohm and his wife Maria Elizabeth Beck, who died when Georg Simon was only ten. Not only did the father bring up his three surviving, of seven, children alone after the death of their mother but he also educated his two sons himself. The son of a locksmith he had enjoyed little formal education but had taught himself philosophy and mathematics, which he now imparted to his sons with great success. As Georg Simon was fifteen he and Martin were examined by the local professor of mathematics, Karl Christian von Langsdorf, who, as already described above, found both boys to be highly gifted and spoke of an Erlanger Bernoulli family.

Plaque on the Ohm House

Plaque on the Ohm House

The plaque reads: The locksmith Johann Wolfgang Ohm (1753–1823) brought up and taught in this house as a true master his later famous sons

Georg Simon Ohm (1789–1854) the great physicist and Martin Ohm (1792–1872) the mathematician

I’ve already outlined the lives of the two Ohm brothers so I’m not going to repeat myself but I will fill in some detail.

Martin Ohm Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Ohm
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As above I’ll start with Martin, the mathematician. He made no great discoveries as such and in the world of mathematics his main claim to fame is probably his list of doctoral students several of whom became much more famous than their professor. It was as a teacher that Martin Ohm made his mark, writing a nine volume work that attempted a systematic introduction to the whole of elementary mathematics his, Versuch eines vollkommenen, consequenten Systems der Mathematik (1822–1852) (Attempt at a complete consequent system of mathematics); a book that predates the very similar, but far better known, attempt by Bourbaki by one hundred years and which deserves far more attention than it gets. Martin Ohm also wrote several other elementary textbooks for his students. In his time in Berlin Martin Ohm also taught mathematics for many years at both the School for Architecture and the Artillery Academy.

I first stumbled across Martin Ohm whilst researching nineteenth-century algebraic logics. When it was first published George Boole’s Laws of Thought (1864) received very little attention from the mathematical community. With the exception of a small handful of relatively unknown mathematicians who wrote brief papers on it, it went largely unnoticed. One of that handful was Martin Ohm who wrote two papers in German (the first works in German on Boole’s logic). Thus introducing Boole’s ground-breaking work to the German mathematical public. Boole had written and published other mathematical work in German so he was already known in Germany. Later Ernst Schröder would go on to become the biggest proponent of Boolean logic with his three volume Vorlesungen über die Algebra der Logik (1890-1905). It is perhaps worth noting that Boole like the Ohm brothers was the son of a self-educated tradesman who gave his son his first education.

Martin Ohm has one further claim to notoriety; he is thought to have been the first to use the term “golden section” (goldener Schnitt in German) thus opening the door for hundreds of aesthetic loonies who claim to find evidence of this wonderful ration all over the place.  

Georg Simon Ohm

Georg Simon Ohm

We now move on to the man in whose shadow Martin Ohm will always stand, his elder brother Georg Simon.

House in Erlangen just around the corner from their birth house, where both Georg Simon and Martin worked as poorly paid lecturers for physics Photo: Thony Christie

House in Erlangen just around the corner from their birth house, where both Georg Simon and Martin worked as poorly paid lecturers for physics
Photo: Thony Christie

Plaque on house Photo: Thony Christie

Plaque on house
Photo: Thony Christie

The Plaque reads: In this house the physicist Georg Simon Ohm (1789–1854) taught physics in the years 1811 to 1812 and the mathematician Martin Ohm (1792–1872) in the years 1812 to 1817

The school where Georg Simon began the research work into the physics of electricity was the Jesuit Gymnasium in Cologne, which even granted him a sabbatical in 1826 to intensify his researches. He published those researches as Die galvanische Kette, mathematisch bearbeitet (The Galvanic Circuit Investigated Mathematically) in 1827. It was the Royal Society who started his climb out of obscurity awarding him the Copley Medal, its highest award, in 1842 and appointing him a foreign member in the same year. Membership of other international scientific societies, such as Turin followed. Georg Simon’s first professorial post was at the Königlich Polytechnische Schule (Royal Polytechnic) in Nürnberg in 1833. He became the director of the Polytechnic in 1839 and today the school is a technical university, which bears the name Georg Simon Ohm. Georg Simon ended his career as professor of physics at the University of Munich.

The town of Erlangen is proud of Georg Simon and we have an Ohm Place, with an unfortunately rather derelict fountain, the subject of a long political debate concerning the cost of renovation and one of the town’s high schools is named the Ohm Gymnasium. The city of Munich also has a collection of plaques and statues honouring him. Ohm Straße in Berlin, however, is named after his brother Martin.

Statue of Georg Simon Ohm at the Technical University in Munich Source: Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Georg Simon Ohm at the Technical University in Munich
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Any fans of the history of science with a sweet tooth should note that if they come to Erlangen one half of the Ohm House is now a sweet shop specialising in Gummibärs.


Filed under History of Mathematics, History of Physics, Local Heroes, University History

Unsung? I hardly think so

Recently, New Scientist had an article about Emmy Noether because 2015 is the one hundredth anniversary of Noether’s Theorem. I’m not going to link to it because it’s behind a pay wall. A couple of days later they had an open access follow up article entitled, Unsung heroines: Six women denied scientific glory. This is the latest is a fairly long line of such articles in the Internet, as part of the widespread campaign to increase the profile of women in the history of science. Now in general I approve of these attempts and from time to time make a contribution myself here at the Renaissance Mathematicus, however I think the whole concept is based on a misconception and also the quality of the potted biographies that these post contain are often highly inaccurate or even downright false. I will deal with the particular biography that inspired the title of this post later but first I want to address a more general issue.

Such posts as the New Scientist one are based on the premise that the women they feature have slipped through the net of public awareness because they are women, although this might be a contributory factor, I think the main reason is a very different one that not only affects female scientists but the vast majority of scientists in general. I call this the Einstein-Curie syndrome. The popular history of science is presented as a very short list of exulted geniuses who, usually single-handedly, change the course of (scientific) history. If you ask an averagely intelligent, averagely educated person, who is not a scientist or historian of science, to name a scientist chances are near to certain they will say either Galileo, Newton, Einstein or Stephen Hawking or maybe Darwin and I seriously think even Darwin is a maybe. Alternatively they might name one of the high profile television science presenters, depending on age, Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox. Almost nobody else gets a look in. If you were to specify that they should name a female scientist almost all will respond Marie Curie. In fact the last result has led various women writers to protest that we have much too much Marie Curie as role model for women in STEM. It is not that women in the history of science get ignored, it’s that almost all scientist in the history of science get ignored in favour of the litany of great names.

If we take a brief closer look at this phenomenon with respect to the revolution in physics in the first half of the twentieth century then good old Albert cast a vast shadow over all his contemporaries. He is not just the most well know scientist, he is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century. Most non-scientists will probably not know where to place the name Max Planck, although here in Germany they might have heard of it because the official German State research institutes are named after him. Schrödinger might fare a little better because of his cat but beyond awareness of the term ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ you would probably draw a blank. The same is true of Heisenberg and his ‘uncertainty principle’, of which the questioned Mr or Mrs Normal will almost certainly have a false conception. Throw in Louis de Broglie, who after all was a Nobel laureate, and you will just provoke a blank stare. People are not ignorant of women in the history of science; people are ignorant of the history of science.

I now want to turn to that which provoked this post and its title, the article in question starts with a potted biography of the great Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, to call Lise Meitner unsung is a straight up abuse of language, which I will come back to later. I first want to deal with some serious inaccuracies in the article and in particular the all too oft repeated Nobel Prize story and why the version that usually gets peddled is highly misleading.

Lise Meitner in 1906 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner in 1906
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The potted biography starts reasonably OK:

As with Noether, Meitner’s career was blighted by discrimination, and not just because of her sex. Meitner studied physics at the University of Vienna, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before moving to Berlin, Germany, to further her education. She attended a series of lectures by Max Planck – the first woman to be allowed to do so – and became his assistant.

It neglects to mention that Meitner got a PhD in physics in Vienna in 1906 as only the second woman to do so. She went to Berlin in 1907, after one year post-doc in Vienna. In Berlin she was only allowed to study as a guest as women were first allowed into the Prussian universities in 1909. She served as Planck’s assistant from 1912 till 1915. In the next paragraph the biography goes for pathos rather than fact: She later began to work with chemist Otto Hahn, but was refused access to his laboratory and was forced to work in a broom cupboard. When Hahn’s research group moved to a different institute, Meitner was offered an unpaid job as his “guest”. The situation for young academics at German universities in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century was not very rosy no matter what their sex. On the whole you either had rich parents, a rich sponsor or you were the proverbial destitute student. Meitner had wealthy parent, who were prepared to pay for her efforts to become a physicist. Both Meitner and Hahn worked as unpaid guest in the former carpentry shop (not a broom cupboard) of the Chemistry Institute of the Berlin University. In 1912 they got their own research section at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry although initially Meitner remained an unpaid guest.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1913 she became a paid member of staff. From 1914 to 1916 she served as a nurse in the First World War. In 1916 she and Hahn returned to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and resumed their research work. In 1918 Meitner was appointed head of her own department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. As you can see a slightly different story to the one offered in New Scientist and it doesn’t end here. In 1922 Meitner habilitated on the University of Berlin thus qualifying to be appointed professor and in 1926 she was appointed the first ever female professor of physics at a German university. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Meitner, a Jew, lost her position at the university but retained her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute until 1938 when she was finally forced to flee the country, greatly assisted by Hahn. She made her way to Sweden where she obtained a position at the Nobel Institute. Meitner was an established physicist who had held important academic teaching and research posts in the thirty years before she fled Germany. She and Hahn had made many important discoveries and had produced a significant list of publications. She was a leading nuclear physicist with an international reputation, not quite the picture that the New Scientist biographer imparts. After she had left Germany she and Hahn continued to work together by post. We have now reached that ominous Nobel Prize story:

In 1938, because of her Jewish heritage, Meitner was forced to leave Nazi Germany. She eventually fled to Sweden, with Hahn’s help. Hahn remained in Germany, but he and Meitner continued to correspond and in 1939 they discovered a process they called nuclear fission. In possibly the most egregious example of a scientist being overlooked for an award, it was Hahn who received the 1944 Nobel prize for the discovery. She was mentioned three times in the presentation speech, however, and Hahn named her nine times in his Nobel lecture.

A clear-cut case of prejudice against women in science, or? Actually if you look at the full facts it isn’t anyway near as clear-cut as it seems, in fact the whole situation was completely different. In 1938 Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann carried out a series of experiments in Berlin that led to nuclear fission, at that time completely unknown, Hahn realised that fission must have occurred but could not clearly explain the results of his experiment.

Nuclear Fission Experimental Apparatus 1938: Reconstruction Deutsches Museum München Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear Fission Experimental Apparatus 1938: Reconstruction Deutsches Museum München
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hahn corresponded with Meitner who together with her nephew Otto Frisch worked out the theory that explained nuclear fission. Hahn published the results of his experiments in a joint paper with Strassmann in 1938. Meitner and Frisch published the theory of nuclear fission in 1939. In 1944 Otto Hahn alone was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his experiment, which demonstrated the existence of nuclear fission. Meitner had no part in these experiments and so should not have been included in the prize as awarded. Strassmann, however, contributed both to the experiments and the subsequent publication so it is more than justified to ask why he was not included in the award of the prize. It is not unusual in the history of the Nobel Prize for the prize to be jointly awarded to the theory behind a discovery and the discovery itself, so it would also be justified to ask why the Nobel committee did not chose to do so on this occasion. However if they had done so then not only Meitner but also Frisch should have been considered for the prize. If on this assumption we add together all of those who had a right to the prize we come to a total of four, Hahn & Strassmann, and Meitner & Frisch, which of course breaks the Nobel Prize rule of maximal three laureates pro prize. Who gets left out? It would of course also be legitimate to ask why Meitner and Frisch were not awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for the theory of nuclear fission; they had certainly earned it. This is a question that neither I nor anybody else can answer and the Nobel Prize committee does not comment on those who do not receive an award, no matter how justified such an award might be. Whatever, although Meitner can be considered to have been done an injustice in not being awarded a Nobel, she didn’t have a claim on the prize awarded to Hahn in 1944 as is so often claimed by her feminist supporters. We now come to the title of this post.

The New Scientist article claims that Lise Meitner is an unsung heroine who was denied scientific glory. This statement is pure and absolute rubbish. Lise Meitner received five honorary doctorates, was elected to twelve major academic societies, she was elected Woman of the Year in America in 1946.

Lise Meitner 1946 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner 1946
Source: Wikimedia Commons

She received the Max Planck medal of the German Physical Society, the Otto Hahn Prize of the German Chemical Society, the peace class of the Pour le mérite (the highest German State award for scientists), the Enrico Fermi Award of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, awarded personally by President Lyndon B. Johnson and there is a statue of her in the garden of the Humboldt University in Berlin. On top of this she received numerous awards and honours in her native Austria. Somehow that doesn’t quite fit the description unsung. Just to make the point even more obvious an institute at the University of Berlin, a crater on the moon, and another crater on venus, as well as an asteroid all bear the name Meitner in her honour.

Can it be that people put too much emphasis on Nobel prizes, for which Meitner was nominated numerous times but never won? The disproportionality of this way of thinking is shown by Meitner last and greatest honour. Element 109 is named Meitnerium in her honour. There are 118 know elements of which 91 are considered to occur naturally and the other twenty-seven are products of the laboratory. Only ten thirteen of the elements are named after people so this honour is in every way greater than a mere Nobel Prize. Strangely the New Scientist article mentions this honour in a very off hand way in its final sentence, as if it was of little significance. Otto Hahn does not have an element named after him.

Added 5 May 2015:

Over on his blog John Ptak has a post about a wonderful American comic book that mentions Lise Meitner and her role in the history of the atomic bomb. With John’s permission I have added the the comic panel in question below.

Source: Ptak Science Books

Source: Ptak Science Books

If you don’t already visit Mr Ptak’s delightful Internet book emporium you should, it’s a cornucopia of scientific and technological delight.


Filed under History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science, Myths of Science

Preach truth – serve up myths.

Over Christmas I poked a bit of fun at Neil deGrasse Tyson for tweeting that Newton would transform the world by the age of 30, pointing out he was going on forty-five when he published his world transforming work the Principia. The following day NdGT posted a short piece on Face Book praising his own tweet and its success. Here he justified his by the age of thirty claim but in doing so rode himself deeper into the mire of sloppy #histsci. You might ask why this matters, to which the answer is very simple. NdGT is immensely popular especially amongst those with little idea of science and less of the history of science and who hang on his every utterance. Numerous historians of science labour very hard to dismantle the myths of science and to replace them with a reasonable picture of how science evolved throughout its long and convoluted history. NdGT disdains those efforts and perpetuates the myths leading his hordes of admirers up the garden path of delusion. Let us take a brief look at his latest propagation of #histmyth.

NdGT’s post starts off with the news that his Newton birthday tweet is the most RTed tweet he has every posted citing numbers that lesser mortals would not even dare to dream about. This of course just emphasises the danger of NdGT as disseminator of false history of science, his reach is wide and his influence is strong. Apparently some Christians had objected to NdGT celebrating Newton’s birthday on Christ’s birthday and NdGT denies that his tweet was intended to be anti-Christian but then goes on to quote the tweet that he sent out in answer to those accusations:

“Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them.”

Now on the whole I agree with the sentiment expressed in this tweet, although I do have vague vision of Orwellian dystopia when people from the scientism/gnu atheist camp start preaching about ‘objective truth’. Doesn’t Pravda mean truth? However I digress.

I find it increasing strange that NdGT’s craving for objective truth doesn’t stretch to the history of science where he seems to much prefer juicy myths to any form of objectivity. And so also in this case. In his post he expands on the tweet I had previously poked fun at. He writes:

Everybody knows that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.  I think fewer people know that Isaac Newton shares the same birthday.  Christmas day in England – 1642.  And perhaps even fewer people know that before he turned 30, Newton had discovered the laws of motion, the universal law of gravitation, and invented integral and differential calculus.  All of which served as the mechanistic foundation for the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries that would forever transform the world.

What we are being served up here is a slightly milder version of the ‘annus mirabilis’ myth. This very widespread myth claims that Newton did all of the things NdGT lists above in one miraculous year, 1666, whilst abiding his time at home in Woolsthorpe, because the University of Cambridge had been closed down due to an outbreak of the plague. NdGT allows Newton a little more time, he turned 30 in 1672, but the principle is the same, look oh yee of little brain and tremble in awe at the mighty immaculate God of science Sir Isaac Newton! What NdGT the purported lover of objective truth chooses to ignore, or perhaps he really is ignorant of the facts, is that a generation of some of the best historians of science who have ever lived, Richard S. Westfall, D. T. Whiteside, Frank Manuel, I. Bernard Cohen, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and others, have very carefully researched and studied the vast convolute of Newton’s papers and have clearly shown that the whole story is a myth. To be a little bit fair to NdGT the myth was first put in the world by Newton himself in order to shoot down all his opponents in the numerous plagiarism disputes that he conducted. If he had done it all that early then he definitely had priority and the others were all dastardly scoundrels out to steal his glory. We now know that this was all a fabrication on Newton’s part.

Newton was awarded his BA in 1665 and in the following years he was no different to any highly gifted postgraduate trying to find his feet in the world of academic research. He spread his interests wide reading and absorbing as much of the modern science of the time as he could and making copious notes on what he read as well as setting up ambitious research programmes on a wide range of topics that were to occupy his time for the next thirty years. In the eighteen months before being sent down from Cambridge because of the plague he concentrated his efforts on the new analytical mathematics that had developed over the previous century. Whilst reading widely and bringing himself up to date on material that was not taught at Cambridge he simultaneously extended and developed what he was reading laying the foundations for his version of the calculus. It was no means a completed edifice as NdGT, and unfortunately many others, would have us believe but it was still a very notable mathematical achievement. Over the decades he would return from time to time to his mathematical researches building on and extending that initial foundation. He also didn’t ‘invent’ integral and differential calculus but brought together, codified and extended the work of many others, in particular, Descartes, Fermat, Pascal, Barrow and Wallace, who in turn looked back upon two thousand years of history on the topic.

In the period beginning in 1666 he left off with mathematical endeavours and turned his attention to mechanics mostly addressing the work of Descartes. He made some progress and even wondered, maybe inspired by observing a falling apple in his garden in Woolsthorpe, if the force which causes things to fall the Earth is the same as the force which prevents the Moon from shooting off at a tangent to its orbit. He did some back of an envelope calculations, which showed that they weren’t, due to faulty data and he dropped the matter. He didn’t discover the laws of motion and as he derived the law of gravity from Huygens’ law of centripetal force that was first published in 1673 he certainly didn’t do it before he was thirty. In fact most of the work that went into Newton’s magnum opus the Principia was done in an amazing burst of concentrated effort in the years between 1684 and 1687 when Newton was already over forty.

What Newton did do between 1666 and 1672 was to conduct an extensive experimental programme into physical optics, in particular what he termed the phenomenon of colour. This programme resulted in the construction of the first reflecting telescope and in 1672 Newton’s legendary first paper A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colors published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Apparently optics doesn’t interest NdGT. Around 1666 Newton also embarked on perhaps his most intensive and longest research programme to discover the secrets of alchemy, whilst starting his life long obsession with the Bible and religion. The last two don’t exactly fit NdGT’s vision of enlightened objective truth.

Newton is without doubt an exceptional figure in the history of science, who has few equals, but like anybody else Newton’s achievements were based on long years of extensive and intensive work and study and are not the result of some sort of scientific miracle in his young years. Telling the truth about Newton’s life and work rather than propagating the myths, as NdGT does, gives students who are potential scientists a much better impression of what it means to be a scientist and is thus in my opinion to be preferred.

As a brief addendum NdGT points out that Newton’s birthday is not actually 25 December (neither is Christ’s by the way) because he was born before the calendar reform was introduced into Britain so we should, if we are logical, be celebrating his birthday on 4 January. NdGT includes the following remark in his explanation, “But the Gregorian Calendar (an awesomely accurate reckoning of Earth’s annual time), introduced in 1584 by Pope Gregory, was not yet adopted in Great Britain.” There is a certain irony in his praise, “an awesomely accurate reckoning of Earth’s annual time”, as this calendar was developed and introduced for purely religious reasons, again not exactly enlightened or objective.





Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

The Queen of Science – The woman who tamed Laplace.

In a footnote to my recent post on the mythologizing of Ibn al-Haytham I briefly noted the inadequacy of the terms Arabic science and Islamic science, pointing out that there were scholars included in these categories who were not Muslims and ones who were not Arabic. In the comments Renaissance Mathematicus friend, the blogger theofloinn, asked, Who were the non-muslim “muslim” scientists? And (aside from Persians) who were the non-Arab “arab” scientists? And then in a follow up comment wrote, I knew about Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the House of Wisdom, but I was not thinking of translation as “doing science.” From the standpoint of the historian of science this second comment is very interesting and reflects a common problem in the historiography of science. On the whole most people regard science as being that which scientists do and when describing its history they tend to concentrate on the big name scientists.

This attitude is a highly mistaken one that creates a falsified picture of scientific endeavour. Science is a collective enterprise in which the ‘scientists’ are only one part of a collective consisting of scientists, technicians, instrument designers and makers, and other supportive workers without whom the scientist could not carry out his or her work. This often includes such ignored people as the secretaries, or in earlier times amanuenses, who wrote up the scientific reports or life partners who, invisible in the background, often carried out much of the drudgery of scientific investigation. My favourite example being William Herschel’s sister and housekeeper, Caroline (a successful astronomer in her own right), who sieved the horse manure on which he bedded his self cast telescope mirrors to polish them.

Translators very definitely belong to the long list of so-called helpers without whom the scientific endeavour would grind to a halt. It was translators who made the Babylonian astronomy and astrology accessible to their Greek heirs thus making possible the work of Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Ptolemaeus and many others. It was translators who set the ball rolling for those Islamic, or if you prefer Arabic, scholars when they translated the treasures of Greek science into Arabic. It was again translators who kicked off the various scientific Renaissances in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries and again in the fifteenth-century, thereby making the so-called European scientific revolution possible. All of these translators were also more or less scientists in their own right as without a working knowledge of the subject matter that they were translating they would not have been able to render the texts from one language into another. In fact there are many instances in the history of the transmission of scientific knowledge where an inadequate knowledge of the subject at hand led to an inaccurate or even false translation causing major problems for the scholars who tried to understand the texts in the new language. Translators have always been and continue to be an important part of the scientific endeavour.

The two most important works on celestial mechanics produced in Europe in the long eighteenth-century were Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste. The former was originally published in Latin, with an English translation being published shortly after the author’s death, and the latter in French. This meant that these works were only accessible to those who mastered the respective language. It is a fascinating quirk of history that the former was rendered into French and that latter into English in each case by a women; Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet translated Newton’s masterpiece into French and Mary Somerville translated Laplace’s pièce de résistance into English. I have blogged about Émilie de Châtelet before but who was Mary Somerville? (1)


Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

She was born Mary Fairfax, the daughter of William Fairfax, a naval officer, and Mary Charters at Jedburgh in the Scottish boarders on 26 December 1780. Her parents very definitely didn’t believe in education for women and she spent her childhood wandering through the Scottish countryside developing a lifelong love of nature. At the age of ten, still semi-illiterate, she was sent to Miss Primrose’s boarding school at Musselburgh in Midlothian for one year; the only formal schooling she would ever receive. As a young lady she received lessons in dancing, music, painting and cookery. At the age of fifteen she came across a mathematical puzzle in a ladies magazine (mathematical recreation columns were quite common in ladies magazines in the 18th and 19th-centuries!) whilst visiting friends. Fascinated by the symbols that she didn’t understand, she was informed that it was algebra, a word that meant nothing to her. Later her painting teacher revealed that she could learn geometry from Euclid’s Elements whilst discussing the topic of perspective. With the assistance of her brother’s tutor, young ladies could not buy maths-books, she acquired a copy of the Euclid as well as one of Bonnycastle’s Algebra and began to teach herself mathematics in the secrecy of her bedroom. When her parents discovered this they were mortified her father saying to her mother, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There is X., who went raving mad about the longitude.” They forbid her studies, but she persisted rising before at dawn to study until breakfast time. Her mother eventually allowed her to take some lessons on the terrestrial and celestial globes with the village schoolmaster.

In 1804 she was married off to a distant cousin, Samuel Grieg, like her father a naval officer but in the Russian Navy. He, like her parents, disapproved of her mathematical studies and she seemed condemned to the life of wife and mother. She bore two sons in her first marriage, David who died in infancy and Woronzow, who would later write a biography of Ada Lovelace. One could say fortunately, for the young Mary, her husband died after only three years of marriage in 1807 leaving her well enough off that she could now devote herself to her studies, which she duly did. Under the tutorship of John Wallace, later professor of mathematics in Edinburgh, she started on a course of mathematical study, of mostly French books but covering a wide range of mathematical topic, even tacking Newton’s Principia, which she found very difficult. She was by now already twenty-eight years old. During the next years she became a fixture in the highest intellectual circles of Edinburgh.

In 1812 she married for a second time, another cousin, William Somerville and thus acquired the name under which she would become famous throughout Europe. Unlike her parents and Samuel Grieg, William vigorously encouraged and supported her scientific interests. In 1816 the family moved to London. Due to her Scottish connections Mary soon became a member of the London intellectual scene and was on friendly terms with such luminaries as Thomas Young, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and many, many others; all of whom treated Mary as an equal in their wide ranging scientific discussions. In 1817 the Somervilles went to Paris where Mary became acquainted with the cream of the French scientists, including Biot, Arago, Cuvier, Guy-Lussac, Laplace, Poisson and many more.

In 1824 William was appointed Physician to Chelsea Hospital where Mary began a series of scientific experiments on light and magnetism, which resulted in a first scientific paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1826. In 1836, a second piece of Mary’s original research was presented to the Académie des Sciences by Arago. The third and last of her own researches appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1845. However it was not as a researcher that Mary Somerville made her mark but as a translator and populariser.

In 1827 Henry Lord Brougham and Vaux requested Mary to translate Laplace’s Mécanique céleste into English for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Initially hesitant she finally agreed but only on the condition that the project remained secret and it would only be published if judged fit for purpose, otherwise the manuscript should be burnt. She had met Laplace in 1817 and had maintained a scientific correspondence with him until his death in 1827. The translation took four years and was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens, with a dedication to Lord Brougham, in 1831. The manuscript had been refereed by John Herschel, Britain’s leading astronomer and a brilliant mathematician, who was thoroughly cognisant with the original, he found the translation much, much more than fit for the purpose. Laplace’s original text was written in a style that made it inaccessible for all but the best mathematicians, Mary Somerville did not just translate the text but made it accessible for all with a modicum of mathematics, simplifying and elucidating as she went. This wasn’t just a translation but a masterpiece. The text proved too vast for Brougham’s Library of Useful Knowledge but on the recommendation of Herschel, the publisher John Murray published the book at his own cost and risk promising the author two thirds of the profits. The book was a smash hit the first edition of 750 selling out almost instantly following glowing reviews by Herschel and others. In honour of the success the Royal Society commissioned a bust of Mrs Somerville to be placed in their Great Hall, she couldn’t of course become a member!

At the age of fifty-one Mary Somerville’s career as a science writer had started with a bang. Her Laplace translation was used as a textbook in English schools and universities for many years and went through many editions. Her elucidatory preface was extracted and published separately and also became a best seller. If she had never written another word she would still be hailed as a great translator and science writer but she didn’t stop here. Over the next forty years Mary Somerville wrote three major works of semi-popular science On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1st ed. 1834), Physical Geography (1st ed. 1848), (she was now sixty-eight years old!) and at the age of seventy-nine, On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1st ed. 1859). The first two were major successes, which went through many editions each one extended, brought up to date, and improved. The third, which she later regretted having published, wasn’t as successful as her other books. Famously, in the history of science, William Whewell in his anonymous 1834 review of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences first used the term scientist, which he had coined a year earlier, in print but not, as is oft erroneously claimed, in reference to Mary Somerville.

Following the publication of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences Mary Somerville was awarded a state pension of £200 per annum, which was later raised to £300. Together with Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville became the first female honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society just one of many memberships and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout Europe and America. Somerville College Oxford, founded seven years after her death, was also named in her honour. She died on 28 November 1872, at the age of ninety-one, the obituary which appeared in the Morning Post on 2 December said, “Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.” The Times of the same date, “spoke of the high regard in which her services to science were held both by men of science and by the nation”.

As this is my contribution to Ada Lovelace day celebrating the role of women in the history of science, medicine, engineering, mathematics and technology I will close by mentioning the role that Mary Somerville played in the life of Ada. A friend of Ada’s mother, the older women became a scientific mentor and occasional mathematics tutor to the young Miss Byron. As her various attempts to make something of herself in science or mathematics all came to nought Ada decided to take a leaf out of her mentor’s book and to turn to scientific translating. At the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone she chose to translate Luigi Menabrea’s essay on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, at Babbage’s suggestion elucidating the original text as her mentor had elucidated Laplace and the rest is, as they say, history. I personally would wish that the founders of Ada Lovelace Day had chosen Mary Somerville instead, as their galleon figure, as she contributed much, much more to the history of science than her feted protégée.

(1) What follows is largely a very condensed version of Elizabeth  C. Patterson’s excellent Somerville biography Mary Somerville, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 4, 1969, pp. 311-339



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