Category Archives: History of Physics

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

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

One of the central problems in the transition from the traditional geocentric astronomy/cosmology to a heliocentric one was that the system that the Early Modern astronomers inherited from their medieval predecessors was not just an uneasy amalgam of Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy but it also included Aristotle’s (384–322 BCE) theories of terrestrial and celestial motion all tied together in a complete package. Aristotle’s theory of motion was part of his more general theory of change and differentiated between natural motion and unnatural or violent motion.

The celestial realm in Aristotle’s cosmology was immutable, unchanging, and the only form of motion was natural motion that consisted of uniform, circular motion; a theory that he inherited from Plato (c. 425 – c.347 BCE), who in turn had adopted it from Empedocles (c. 494–c. 434 BCE).

His theory of terrestrial motion had both natural and unnatural motion. Natural motion was perpendicular to the Earth’s surface, i.e. when something falls to the ground. Aristotle explained this as a form of attraction, the falling object returning to its natural place. Aristotle also claimed that the elapsed time of a falling body was inversely proportional to its weight. That is, the heavier an object the faster it falls. All other forms of motion were unnatural. Aristotle believed that things only moved when something moved them, people pushing things, draught animals pulling things. As soon as the pushing or pulling ceased so did the motion.  This produced a major problem in Aristotle’s theory when it came to projectiles. According to his theory when a stone left the throwers hand or the arrow the bowstring they should automatically fall to the ground but of course they don’t. Aristotle explained this apparent contradiction away by saying that the projectile parted the air through which it travelled, which moved round behind the projectile and pushed it further. It didn’t need a philosopher to note the weakness of this more than somewhat ad hoc theory.

If one took away Aristotle’s cosmology and Ptolemaeus’ astronomy from the complete package then one also had to supply new theories of celestial and terrestrial motion to replace those of Aristotle. This constituted a large part of the development of the new physics that took place during the so-called scientific revolution. In what follows we will trace the development of a new theory, or better-said theories, of terrestrial motion that actually began in late antiquity and proceeded all the way up to Isaac Newton’s (1642–1726) masterpiece Principia Mathematica in 1687.

The first person to challenge Aristotle’s theories of terrestrial motion was John Philoponus (c. 490–c. 570 CE). He rejected Aristotle’s theory of projectile motion and introduced the theory of impetus to replace it. In the impetus theory the projector imparts impetus to the projected object, which is used up during its flight and when the impetus is exhausted the projectile falls to the ground. As we will see this theory was passed on down to the seventeenth century. Philoponus also rejected Aristotle’s quantitative theory of falling bodies by apparently carrying out the simple experiment usually attributed erroneously to Galileo, dropping two objects of different weights simultaneously from the same height:

but this [view of Aristotle] is completely erroneous, and our view may be completely corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal argument. For if you let fall from the same height two weights, one many times heavier than the other you will see that the ratio of the times required for the motion does not depend [solely] on the weights, but that the difference in time is very small. …

Philoponus also removed Aristotle’s distinction between celestial and terrestrial motion in that he attributed impetus to the motion of the planets. However, it was mainly his terrestrial theory of impetus that was picked up by his successors.

In the Islamic Empire, Ibn Sina (c. 980–1037), known in Latin as Avicenne, and Abu’l-Barakāt Hibat Allah ibn Malkā al-Baghdādī (c. 1080–1164) modified the theory of impetus in the eleventh century.


Avicenne Portrait (1271) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nur ad-Din al-Bitruji (died c. 1204) elaborated it at the end of the twelfth century. Like Philoponus, al-Bitruji thought that impetus played a role in the motion of the planets.


Brought into European thought during the scientific Renaissance of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by the translators it was developed by Jean Buridan  (c. 1301–c. 1360), who gave it the name impetus in the fourteenth century:

When a mover sets a body in motion he implants into it a certain impetus, that is, a certain force enabling a body to move in the direction in which the mover starts it, be it upwards, downwards, sidewards, or in a circle. The implanted impetus increases in the same ratio as the velocity. It is because of this impetus that a stone moves on after the thrower has ceased moving it. But because of the resistance of the air (and also because of the gravity of the stone) which strives to move it in the opposite direction to the motion caused by the impetus, the latter will weaken all the time. Therefore the motion of the stone will be gradually slower, and finally the impetus is so diminished or destroyed that the gravity of the stone prevails and moves the stone towards its natural place. In my opinion one can accept this explanation because the other explanations prove to be false whereas all phenomena agree with this one.


Jean Buridan Source

The impetus theory was now a part of medieval Aristotelian natural philosophy, which as Edward Grant pointed out was not Aristotle’s natural philosophy.

In the sixteenth century the self taught Italian mathematician Niccolò Fontana (c. 1500–1557), better known by his nickname, Tartaglia, who is best known for his dispute with Cardanoover the general solution of the cubic equation.


Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia Source: Wikimedia Commons

published the first mathematical analysis of ballistics his, Nova scientia (1537).


His theory of projectile trajectories was wrong because he was still using the impetus theory.


However, he was the first to demonstrate that an angle of 45° for a canon gives the widest range.


His book was massively influential in the sixteenth century and it also influenced Galileo, who owned a heavily annotated copy of the book.

We have traced the path of the impetus theory from its inception by John Philoponus up to the second half of the sixteenth century. Unlike the impetus theory Philoponus’ criticism of Aristotle’s theory of falling bodies was not taken up directly by his successors. However, in the High Middle Ages Aristotelian scholars in Europe did begin to challenge and question exactly those theories and we shall be looking at that development in the next section.







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Filed under History of Islamic Science, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, Mediaeval Science, Renaissance Science

Stylish writing is not necessarily good science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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

The Renaissance Mathematicus Christmas Trilogies explained for newcomers


Being new to the Renaissance Mathematicus one might be excused if one assumed that the blogging activities were wound down over the Christmas period. However, exactly the opposite is true with the Renaissance Mathematicus going into hyper-drive posting its annual Christmas Trilogy, three blog posts in three days. Three of my favourite scientific figures have their birthday over Christmas–Isaac Newton 25thDecember, Charles Babbage 26thDecember and Johannes Kepler 27thDecember–and I write a blog post for each of them on their respective birthdays. Before somebody quibbles I am aware that the birthdays of Newton and Kepler are both old style, i.e. on the Julian Calendar, and Babbage new style, i.e. on the Gregorian Calendar but to be honest, in this case I don’t give a shit. So if you are looking for some #histSTM entertainment or possibly enlightenment over the holiday period the Renaissance Mathematicus is your number one address. In case the new trilogy is not enough for you:

The Trilogies of Christmas Past

Christmas Trilogy 2009 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2009 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2009 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2010 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2010 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2010 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2011 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2011 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2011 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2012 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2012 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2012 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2013 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2013 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2013 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2014 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2014 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2014 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2015 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2015 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2015 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2016 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2016 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2016 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2017 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2017 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2017 Post 3

Christmas Trilogy 2018 Post 1

Christmas Trilogy 2018 Post 2

Christmas Trilogy 2018 Post 3






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Mathematics or Physics–Mathematics vs. Physics–Mathematics and Physics

Graham Farmelo is a British physicist and science writer. He is the author of an excellent and highly praised biography of the British physicist P A M Dirac, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius(Faber and Faber, 2009), which won a couple of book awards. He is also the author of a book Winston Churchill role in British war time nuclear research, Churchill’s Bomb:A hidden history of Britain’s first nuclear weapon programme (Faber and Faber, 2014), which was also well received and highly praised. Now he has published a new book on the relationship between mathematics and modern physics, The Universe Speaks in Numbers: How Modern Maths Reveals Nature’s Deepest Secrets (Faber and Faber, 2019).


I must admit that when I first took Farmelo’s new book into my hands it was with somewhat trepidation. Although, I studied mathematics to about BSc level that was quite a few years ago and these days my active knowledge of maths doesn’t extend much beyond A-Level and I never studied physics beyond A-Level and don’t ask what my grade was. However, I did study a lot of the history of early twentieth century physics before I moved back to the Renaissance. Would I be able to cope with Farmelo’s book? I needn’t have worried there are no complex mathematical or physical expressions or formulas. Although I would point out that this is not a book for the beginner with no knowledge; if your mind baulks at terms like gauge theory, string theory or super symmetry then you should approach this text with caution.

The book is Farmelo’s contribution to the debate about the use of higher mathematics to create advanced theories in physics that are not based on experimental evidence or even worse confirmable through experiment. It might well be regarded as a counterpoint to Sabine Hossenfelder’s much discussed Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray(Basic Books, 2018), which Farmelo actually mentions on the flyleaf to his book; although he obviously started researching and writing his volume long before the Hossenfelder tome appeared on the market. The almost concurrent appearance of the two contradictory works on the same topic shows that the debate that has been simmering just below the surface for a number of years has now boiled over into the public sphere.

Farmelo’s book is a historical survey of the relationship between advanced mathematics and theoretical physics since the seventeenth century, with an emphasis on the developments in the twentieth century. He is basically asking the questions, is it better when mathematics and physics develop separately or together and If together should mathematics or physics take the lead in that development. He investigated this questions using the words of the physicists and mathematicians from their published papers, from public lectures and from interviews, many of which for the most recent developments he conducted himself. He starts in the early seventeenth century with Kepler and Galileo, who, although they used mathematics to express their theories, he doesn’t think really understand or appreciate the close relationship between mathematics and physics. I actually disagree with him to some extent on this, as he knows. Disclosure: I actually read and discussed the opening section of the book with him, at his request, when he was writing it but I don’t think my minuscule contribution disqualifies me from reviewing it.

For Farmelo the true interrelationship between higher mathematics and advanced theories in physics begins with Isaac Newton. A fairly conventional viewpoint, after all Newton did title his magnum opus The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. I’m not going to give a decade by decade account of the contents, for that you will have to read the book but he, quite correctly, devotes a lot of space to James Clerk Maxwell in the nineteenth century, who can, with justification, be described as having taken the relationship between mathematics and physics to a whole new level.

Maxwell naturally leads to Albert Einstein, a man, who with his search for a purely mathematical grand unification theory provoked the accusation of having left the realm of experiment based and experimentally verifiable physics; an accusation that led many to accuse him of having lost the plot. As the author of a biography of Paul Dirac, Farmelo naturally devote quite a lot of space to the man, who might be regarded as the mathematical theoretical physicist par excellence and who, as Farmelo emphasises, preached a gospel of the necessity of mathematically beautiful theories, as to some extent Einstein had also done.

Farmelo takes us through the creation of quantum mechanics and the attempts to combine it with the theories of relativity, which takes the reader up to the early decades following the Second World War, roughly the middle of the book. Here the book takes a sharp turn away from the historical retelling of the emergence of modern theoretical physics to the attempts to create a fundamental theory of existence using purely mathematical methods, read string theory, M theory, supersymmetry and everything associated with them. This is exactly the development in modern physics that Hossenfelder rejects in her book.

Farmelo is very sympathetic to the mathematicians and physicists, who have taken this path but he is in his account very even handed, letting the critics have their say and not just the supporters. His account is very thorough and documents both the advances and the disappointments in the field over the most recent decades. He gives much emphasis to the fruitful co-operations and exchanges that have taken place between mathematicians and theoretical physicists. I must say that as somebody who has followed the debate at a distance, having read Farmelo’s detailed account I came out of it more sympathetic to Hossenfelder’s standpoint than his.

As always with his books Farmelo’s account is excellently researched, much of the more recent material is based on interviews he conducted with the participants, and very elegantly written. Despite the density of the material he is dealing with, his prose is light and often witty, which makes it easier to grapple with the complex themes he is discussing. I would certainly recommend this book to anybody interested in the developments in modern theoretical physics; maybe to be read together with Hossenfelder’s volume. I would also make an excellent present for any young school leaver contemplating studying physics or one that had already started on down that path.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Mathematics, History of Physics