Category Archives: History of Physics

A Clock is a Thing that Ticks

As I have mentioned a few times in the past, I came late to the computer and the Internet. No Sinclairs, Ataris, or Commadores in my life, my first computer was a Bondi Blue iMac G3. All of which is kind of ironic, because by the time I acquired that G3, I was something of an expert on the history of computing and computing devices. Having acquired my G3, I then took baby steps into the deep waters of the Internet. My initial interest was in music websites starting with the Grateful Dead. Did I mention that I’m a Dead Head? One day I stumbled across Mark Chu-Carroll’s Good Math, Bad Math blog, which in turn introduced me to the Science Blogs collective of which it was a part. Here I discovered, amongst other, the Evolving Thoughts blog of John Wilkins. Who, more than any other, was responsible for me starting my own blog. Another blog that I started reading regularly was Uncertain Principles by the American physicist Chad Orzel, who wrote amusing dialogues explain modern physics to his dog Emmy. A publisher obviously thought they were good, they were, and they soon appeared as a book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog (Scribner, 2010), launching his career as a writer of popular science books. This was followed by How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog (Basic Books, 2012) with the original book now retitled as How to Teach [Quantum] Physics to Your Dog. Leaving the canine world, he then published Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist (Basic Books, 2014) followed by Breakfast With EinsteinThe Exotic Physics of Everyday Objects (BenBella Books, 2018). 

All of the above is a longwinded introduction to the fact that this is a review of Chad Orzel’s latest A Brief History of TimekeepingThe Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks[1].

Astute, regular readers might have noticed that I reviewed Davis Rooney’s excellent volume on the history of timekeeping About TimeA History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks (Viking, 2021) back in September last year and they might ask themselves if and how the two books differ and whether having read the one it is worth reading the other? I follow both authors, and they follow each other, on Twitter and there were several exchanges during last year as to whether they were covering the same territory with their books. However, I can honestly report that if one is interested in the history of time keeping then one can read both books profitably, as they complement rather than copy each other. Whereas Rooney concentrates on the social, cultural, and political aspects of measuring time, Orzel concentrates on the physics of how time was measured.

The title of this blog post is the title of the introductory chapter of Orzel’s book. This definition I viewed with maximum scepsis until I read his explication of it:

At the most basic level a clock is a thing that ticks.

The “tick” here can be the audible physical tick we associate with a mechanical clock like the one in Union’s Memorial Chapel, caused by collision between gear teeth as a heavy pendulum swings back and forth. It can also be a more subtle physical effect, like the alternating voltage that provides the time signal for the electronic wall clock in our classrooms. It can be exceedingly fast, like the nine-billion-times-a-second oscillations of the microwaves used in the atomic clock that provides the time signals transmitted to smartphones via the internet, or ponderously slow like the changing position of the rising sun on the horizon.

In every one of these clocks, though, there is a tick: a regular repeated action that can be counted to mark the passage of time. 

I said above that what distinguishes Orzel’s book is a strong emphasis on the physics of timekeeping. To this end, the book had not one, but two interrelated but separate narratives. There is the main historical narrative in language accessible to every non-expert reader describing forms of timekeeping, their origins, and developments. The second separate narrative, presented on pages with a grey stripe on the edge, takes the willing reader through the physics and technical aspects behind the timekeeping devices described in the historical narrative. Orzel is a good teacher with an easy pedagogical style, so those prepared to invest a little effort can learn much from his explanations. This means that the reader has multiple possibilities to approach the book. They can read it straight through taking in historical narrative and physics explication as they come, which is what I did. They can also skip the physics and just read the historical narrative and still win much from Orzel’s book. It would be possible to do the reverse and just read the physics, skipping the historical narrative, but I, at least, find it difficult to imagine someone doing this. Other possibilities suggest themselves, such as reading first the historical narrative, then going back and dipping into selected explanations of some of the physics. I find the division of the contents in this way a very positive aspect of the book. 

Orzel starts his journey through time and its measurement with the tick of the sun’s annual journey. He takes us back to the Neolithic and such monuments as the Newgrange chamber tomb and Stonehenge which display obvious solar orientations. The technical section of this first chapter is a very handy guide to all things to do with the solar orbit. The second chapter stays with astronomy and the creation of early lunar, lunar-solar and solar calendars. Here and in the following chapter which deals with the Gregorian calendar reform there are no technical sections. 

In Chapter 4, The Apocalypse That Wasn’t, Orzel reminds us of all the rubbish that was generated in the months leading up to the apocalypse supposedly predicted by the Mayan calendar in 2012. In fact, all it was the end of one of the various Mayan cycles of counting days. Orzel gives a very good description of the Mayan number system and their various day counting cycles. An excellent short introduction to the topic for any teacher. 

Leaving Middle America behind, in the next chapter we return to the Middle East and the invention of the water clock or clepsydra. He takes us from ancient Egypt and the simplest form of water clock to the giant tower clock of medieval China. The technical section deals with the physics of the various systems that were developed to produce a constant flow in a water clock. In the simplest form of water clock, a hole in the bottom of a cylinder of water, the rate of flow slows down as the mass of water in the cylinder decreases. 

Chapter 6 takes us to the real tick tock of the mechanical clock from its beginnings up to the pendulum clock. Interestingly there is a lot of, well explained, physics in the narrative section, but the technical section is historical. Orzel gives us a careful analysis of what exactly Galileo did or did not do, did or did not achieve with his pendulum experiments. The chapter closes with the story how the pendulum was used to help determine the shape of the earth.

The next three chapters take as deep into the world of astronomy. For obvious reasons astronomy and timekeeping have always been interwoven strands. We start with what is basically a comparison of Mayan astronomy, with the Dresden Codex observations of Venus, and European astronomy. In the European section, after a brief, but good, section on Ptolemy and his epicycle- deferent model, we get introduced to the work of Tycho Brahe.

The rules of the history of astronomy says that Kepler must follow Tycho and that is also the case here. After Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, we arrive at the invention of the telescope, the discovery of the moons of Jupiter and the determination of the speed of light. If you want a good, accurate, short guide to the history of European astronomy then this book is for you. 

Chapter nine starts with a very brief introduction to the world of Newtonian astronomy before taking the reader into the problem of determining longitude, a time difference problem, and the solution offered by the lunar distance method as perfected by Tobias Mayer. Here, the technical section explains why the determination of longitude is a time difference problem, how the lunar distance method works, and why it was so difficult to make it work.

Of course, in a book on the history of timekeeping, having introduced the longitude problem we now have John Harrison and the invention of the marine chronometer. I almost cheered when Orzel pointed out that although Harrison provided a solution, it wasn’t “the” solution because his chronometer was too complex and too expensive to be practical. The technical section is a brief survey of the evolution of portable clocks. The chapter closes with a couple of paragraphs in which Orzel muses over the difference between “geniuses” and master craftsmen, a category into which he places both Mayer and Harrison. I found these few lines very perceptive and definitely worth expanding upon. 

Up till now we were still in the era of local time determined by the daily journey of the sun. Orzel’s next chapter takes us into the age of railways, and telegraphs and the need for standardised time for train timetables and the introduction of our international time zone system. The technical section is a fascinating essay on the problems of synchronising clocks using the telegraph and having to account for the delays caused by the time the signal needs to travel from A to B. It’s a hell of a lot more complex than you might think.

We are now firmly in the modern age and the advent of the special theory of relativity. Refreshingly, Orzel does most of the introductory work here by following the thoughts of Henri Poincaré, the largely forgotten man of relativity. Of course, we get Albert too.  The technical section is about clocks on moving trains and will give the readers brains a good workout. 

Having moved into the world of modern physics Orzel introduces his readers to the quantum clock and timekeeping on a mindboggling level of accuracy. We get a user-friendly introduction to the workings of the atomic clock. This was the first part of the book that was completely new to me, and I found it totally fascinating. The technical section explains how the advent of the atomic clock has been used to provide a universal time for the world. The chapter closes with a brief introduction to GPS, which is dependent on atomic clocks.

Einstein returns with his general theory of relativity and a technical section on why and how exactly gravity bends light. A phenomenon that famously provided the first confirmation of the general theory.

Approaching the end, our narrative takes a sharp turn away from the world of twentieth century physics to the advent and evolution of cheap wrist and pocket watches. In an age where it is taken for granted that almost everyone can afford to carry an accurate timekeeper around with them, it is easy to forget just how recent this phenomenon is. The main part of this chapter deals with the quartz watch. A development that made a highly accurate timepiece available cheaply to everyone who desired it. Naturally, the technical section deals with the physics of the quartz clock. 

The book closes with a look at The Future of Time. One might be forgiven for thinking that modern atomic clocks were the non plus ultra in timekeeping, but physicists don’t share this opinion. In this chapter Orzel describes various project to produce even more accurate timepieces.

Throughout the book are scattered footnote, which are comments on or addition to the text. The book is illustrated with grey scale drawing and diagrams that help to explicate points being explained. There is a short list of just seven recommended books for further reading. I personally own six of the seven and have read the seventh and can confirm that they are all excellent. There is also a comprehensive index.

Chad Orzel is a master storyteller and despite the, at times, highly complex nature of the narrative he is spinning, he makes it light and accessible for readers at all levels. He is also an excellent teacher and this book, which was originally a course that he teaches, would make a first-class course book for anybody wishing to teach a course on the history of timekeeping from any level from say around middle teens upwards. Perhaps combined with Davis Rooney’s About TimeA History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks, as I find that the two books complement each other perfectly. Orzel’s A Brief History of TimekeepingThe Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks is a first-rate addition to the literature on the topic and highly recommendable. 

[1] Chad Orzel, A Brief History of TimekeepingThe Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks, BenBella Books, Dallas, TX, 2022


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

The Epicurean mathematician

Continuing our look at the group of mathematician astronomers associated with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) in Provence and Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) in Paris, we turn today to Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), celebrated in the world of Early Modern philosophy, as the man who succeeded in making Epicurean atomism acceptable to the Catholic Church. 

Pierre Gassendi Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pierre Gassendi was born the son of the peasant farmer Antoine Gassend and his wife Fançoise Fabry in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence village of Champtercier on 22 January 1592. Recognised early as something of a child prodigy in mathematics and languages, he was initially educated by his uncle Thomas Fabry, a parish priest. In 1599 he was sent to the school in Digne, a town about ten kilometres from Champtercier, where he remained until 1607, with the exception of a year spent at school in another nearby village, Riez. 

In 1607 he returned to live in Champtercier and in 1609 he entered the university of Aix-en-Provence, where his studies were concentrated on philosophy and theology, also learning Hebrew and Greek. His father Antoine died in 1611. From 1612 to 1614 his served as principle at the College in Digne. In 1615 he was awarded a doctorate in theology by the University of Avignon and was ordained a priest in 1615. From 1614 he held a minor sinecure at the Cathedral in Digne until 1635, when he was elevated to a higher sinecure. From April to November in 1615 he visited Paris for the first time on Church business. 

Cathédrale Saint-Jérome de Digne Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1617 both the chair of philosophy and the chair of theology became vacant at the University of Aix; Gassendi applied for both chairs and was offered both, one should note that he was still only twenty-four years old. He chose the chair for philosophy leaving the chair of theology for his former teacher. He remained in Aix for the next six years. 

When Gassendi first moved to Aix he lived in the house of the Provencal astronomer Joseph Gaultier de la Valette (1564–1647), vicar general of Aix and Peiresc’s observing partner. Whilst living in Gaultier’s house he got to know Jean-Baptiste Morin (1583–1556), who was also living there as Gaultier’s astronomical assistant. Although, in later years, in Paris, Gassendi and Morin would have a major public dispute, in Aix the two still young aspiring astronomers became good friends. It was also through Gaultier that Gassendi came to the attention of Peiresc, who would go on to become his patron and mentor. 

Jean-Baptiste Morin Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the next six years Gassendi taught philosophy at the University of Aix and took part in the astronomical activities of Peiresc and Gaultier, then in 1623 the Jesuits took over the university and Gassendi and the other non-Jesuit professors were replaced by Jesuits. Gassendi entered more than twenty years of wanderings without regular employment, although he still had his sinecure at the Cathedral of Digne.

In 1623, Gassendi left Aix for Paris, where he was introduced to Marin Mersenne by Peiresc. The two would become very good friends, and as was his wont, Mersenne took on a steering function in Gassendi’s work, encouraging him to engage with and publish on various tropics. In Paris, Gassendi also became part of the circle around Pierre Dupuy (1582–1651) and his brother Jacques (1591–1656), who were keepers of the Bibliothèque du Roi, today the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and who were Ismael Boulliau’s employers for his first quarter century in Paris.

Pierre Dupuy Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Paris-Provence group Peiresc (1580–1637), Mersenne (1588–1648), Morin (1583–1656), Boulliau (1605–1694), and Gassendi (1592–1655) are all members of the transitional generation, who not only lived through the transformation of the scientific view of the cosmos from an Aristotelian-Ptolemaic geocentric one to a non-Aristotelian-Keplerian heliocentric one but were actively engaged in the discussions surrounding that transformation. When they were born in the late sixteenth century, or in Boulliau’s case the early seventeenth century, despite the fact that Copernicus’ De revolutionibus had been published several decades earlier and although a very small number had begun to accept a heliocentric model and another small number the Tychonic geo-heliocentric one, the geocentric model still ruled supreme. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and the telescopic discoveries most associated with Galileo still lay in the future. By 1660, not long after their deaths, with once again the exception of Boulliau, who lived to witness it, the Keplerian heliocentric model had been largely accepted by the scientific community, despite there still being no empirical proof of the Earth’s movement. 

Given the Church’s official support of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic geocentric model and after about 1620 the Tychonic geo-heliocentric model, combined with its reluctance to accept this transformation without solid empirical proof, the fact that all five of them were devout Catholics made their participation in the ongoing discussion something of a highwire act. Gassendi’s personal philosophical and scientific developments over his lifetime are a perfect illustration of this. 

During his six years as professor of philosophy at the University of Aix, Gassendi taught an Aristotelian philosophy conform with Church doctrine. However, he was already developing doubts and in 1624 he published the first of seven planned volumes criticising Aristotelian philosophy, his Exercitationes paradoxicae adversus aristoteleos, in quibus praecipua totius peripateticae doctrinae fundamenta excutiuntur, opiniones vero aut novae, aut ex vetustioribus obsoletae stabiliuntur, auctore Petro Gassendo. Grenoble: Pierre Verdier. In 1658, Laurent Anisson and Jean Baptiste Devenet published part of the second volume posthumously in Den Hague in 1658. Gassendi seems to have abandoned his plans for the other five volumes. 

To replace Aristotle, Gassendi began his promotion of the life and work of Greek atomist Epicurus (341–270 BCE). Atomism in general and Epicureanism in particular were frowned upon by the Christian Churches in general. The Epicurean belief that pleasure was the chief good in life led to its condemnation as encouraging debauchery in all its variations. Atomists, like Aristotle, believed in an eternal cosmos contradicting the Church’s teaching on the Creation. Atomist matter theory destroyed the Church’s philosophical explanation of transubstantiation, which was based on Aristotelian matter theory. Last but no means least Epicurus was viewed as being an atheist. 

In his biography of Epicurus De vita et moribus Epicuri libri octo published by Guillaume Barbier in Lyon in 1647

and revival and reinterpretation of Epicurus and Epicureanism in his Animadversiones in decimum librum Diogenis Laertii: qui est De vita, moribus, placitisque Epicuri. Continent autem Placita, quas ille treis statuit Philosophiae parteis 3 I. Canonicam, …; – II. Physicam, …; – III. Ethicam, … and his Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri cum refutationibus dogmatum quae contra fidem christianam ab eo asserta sunt published together by Guillaume Barbier in Lyon in 1649,

Gassendi presented a version of Epicurus and his work that was acceptable to Christians, leading to both a recognition of the importance of Epicurean philosophy and of atomism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. 

Gassendi did not confine himself to work on ancient Greek philosophers. In 1629,  pushed by Mersenne, the scientific agent provocateur, he wrote an attack on the hermetic philosophy of Robert Fludd (1574–1637), who famously argued against mathematics-based science in his debate with Kepler. Also goaded by Mersenne, he read Descartes’ Meditationes de prima philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy) (1641) and published a refutation of Descartes’ methodology. As a strong scientific empiricist, Gassendi had no time for Descartes’ rationalism. Interestingly, it was Gassendi in his Objections (1641), who first outlined the mind-body problem, reacting to Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Descartes was very dismissive of Gassendi’s criticisms in his Responses, to which Gassendi responded in his Instantiae (1642). 

Earlier, Gassendi had been a thorn in Descartes side in another philosophical debate. In 1628, Gassendi took part in his only journey outside of France, travelling through Flanders and Holland for several months, although he did travel widely throughout France during his lifetime. Whilst in Holland, he visited Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637) with whom he continued to correspond until the latter’s death. Earlier, Beeckman had had a massive influence on the young Descartes, introducing him to the mechanical philosophy. In 1630, Descartes wrote an abusive letter denying any influence on his work by Beeckman. Gassendi, also a supporter of the mechanical philosophy based on atomism, defended Beeckman.

Like the others in the Mersenne-Peiresc group, Gassendi was a student and supporter of the works of both Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and it is here that he made most of his contributions to the evolution of the sciences in the seventeenth century. 

Having been introduced to astronomy very early in his development by Peiresc and Gaultier de la Valette, Gassendi remained an active observational astronomer all of his life. Like many others, he was a fan of Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphinae (Rudolphine Tables) (1627) the most accurate planetary tables ever produced up till that time. Producing planetary tables and ephemerides for use in astrology, cartography, navigation, etc was regarded as the principal function of astronomy, and the superior quality of Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphinae was a major driving force behind the acceptance of a heliocentric model of the cosmos. Consulting the Tabulae Rudolphinae Gassendi determined that there would be a transit of Mercury on 7 November 1631. Four European astronomers observed the transit, a clear proof that Mercury orbited the Sun and not the Earth, and Gassendi, who is credited with being the first to observe a transit of Mercury, published his observations Mercvrivs in sole visvs, et Venvs invisa Parisiis, anno 1631: pro voto, & admonitione Keppleri in Paris in 1632.

He also tried to observe the transit of Venus, predicted by Kepler for 6 December 1631, not realising that it was not visible from Europe, taking place there during the night. This was not yet a proof of heliocentricity, as it was explainable in both the Capellan model in which Mercury and Venus both orbit the Sun, which in turn orbits the Earth and the Tychonic model in which the five planets all orbit the Sun, which together with the Moon orbits the Earth. But it was a very positive step in the right direction. 

In his De motu impresso a motore translato. Epistolæ duæ. In quibus aliquot præcipuæ tum de motu vniuersè, tum speciatim de motu terræattributo difficulatates explicantur published in Paris in 1642, he dealt with objections to Galileo’s laws of fall.

Principally, he had someone drop stones from the mast of a moving ship to demonstrate that they conserve horizontal momentum, thus defusing the argument of those, who claimed that stones falling vertically to the Earth proved that it was not moving. In 1646 he published a second text on Galileo’s theory, De proportione qua gravia decidentia accelerantur, which corrected errors he had made in his earlier publication.

Like Mersenne before him, Gassendi tried, using a cannon, to determine the speed of sound in 1635, recording a speed of 1,473 Parian feet per second. The actual speed at 20° C is 1,055 Parian feet per second, making Gassendi’s determination almost forty percent too high. 

In 1648, Pascal, motivated by Mersenne, sent his brother-in-law up the Puy de Dôme with a primitive barometer to measure the decreasing atmospheric pressure. Gassendi provided a correct interpretation of this experiment, including the presence of a vacuum at the top of the tube. This was another indirect attack on Descartes, who maintained the assumption of the impossibility of a vacuum. 

Following his expulsion from the University of Aix, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc’s house became Gassendi’s home base for his wanderings throughout France, with Peiresc helping to finance his scientific research and his publications. The two of them became close friends and when Peiresc died in 1637, Gassendi was distraught. He preceded to mourn his friend by writing his biography, Viri illvstris Nicolai Clavdii Fabricii de Peiresc, senatoris aqvisextiensis vita, which was published by Sebastian Cramoisy in Paris in 1641. It is considered to be the first ever complete biography of a scholar. It went through several edition and was translated into English.

In 1645, Gassendi was appointed professor of mathematics at the Collège Royal in Paris, where he lectured on astronomy and mathematics, ably assisted by the young Jean Picard (1620–1682), who later became famous for accurately determining the size of the Earth by measuring a meridian arc north of Paris.

Jean Picard

Gassendi only held the post for three years, forced to retire because of ill health in 1648. Around this time, he and Descartes became reconciled through the offices of the diplomat and cardinal César d’Estrées (1628–1714). 

Gassendi travelled to the south for his health and lived for two years in Toulon, returning to Paris in 1653 when his health improved. However, his health declined again, and he died of a lung complaint in 1655.

Although, like the others in the group, Gassendi was sympathetic to a heliocentric world view, during his time as professor he taught the now conventional geo-heliocentric astronomy approved by the Catholic Church, but also discussed the heliocentric systems. His lectures were written up and published as Institutio astronomica juxta hypotheseis tam veterum, quam Copernici et Tychonis in 1647. Although he toed the party line his treatment of the heliocentric was so sympathetic that he was reported to the Inquisition, who investigated him but raised no charges against him. Gassendi’s Institutio astronomica was very popular and proved to be a very good source for people to learn about the heliocentric system. 

As part of his campaign to promote the heliocentric world view, Gassendi also wrote biographies of Georg Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe. It was the only biography of Tycho based on information from someone, who actually knew him. The text, Tychonis Brahei, eqvitis Dani, astronomorvm coryphaei vita, itemqve Nicolai Copernici, Georgii Peverbachii & Ioannis Regiomontani, celebrium Astronomorum was published in Paris in 1654, with a second edition appearing in Den Hague in the year of Gassendi’s death, 1655. In terms of historical accuracy, the biographies are to be treated with caution.

Gassendi also became engaged in a fierce dispute about astronomical models with his one-time friend from his student days, Jean-Baptiste Morin, who remained a strict geocentrist. I shall deal with this when I write a biographical sketch of Morin, who became the black sheep of the Paris-Provencal group.

Like the other members of the Paris-Provencal group, Gassendi communicated extensively with other astronomers and mathematician not only in France but throughout Europe, so his work was well known and influential both during his lifetime and also after his death. As with all the members of that group Gassendi’s life and work is a good example of the fact that science is a collective endeavour and often progresses through cooperation rather than rivalry. 

Leave a comment

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

Renaissance Science – XXV

It is generally acknowledged that the mathematisation of science was a central factor in the so-called scientific revolution. When I first came to the history of science there was widespread agreement that this mathematisation took place because of a change in the underlaying philosophy of science from Aristotelian to Platonic philosophy. However, as we saw in the last episode of this series, the renaissance in Platonic philosophy was largely of the Neoplatonic mystical philosophy rather than the Pythagorean, mathematical Platonic philosophy, the Plato of “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here” inscribed over the entrance to The Academy. This is not to say that Plato’s favouring of mathematics did not have an influence during the Renaissance, but that influence was rather minor and not crucial or pivotal, as earlier propagated.

It shouldn’t need emphasising, as I’ve said it many times in the past, but Galileo’s infamous, 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, is not the origin of the mathematisation, as is falsely claimed by far too many, who should know better. One can already find the same sentiment in the Middle Ages, for example in Islam, in the work of Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965–c. 1040) or in Europe in the writings of both Robert Grosseteste (c. 1168–1253) and Roger Bacon, (c. 1219–c. 1292) although in the Middle Ages, outside of optics and astronomy, it remained more hypothetical than actually practiced. We find the same mathematical gospel preached in the sixteenth century by several scholars, most notably Christoph Clavius (1538–1612).

As almost always in history, it is simply wrong to look for a simple mono-casual explanation for any development. There were multiple driving forces behind the mathematisation. As we have already seen in various earlier episodes, the growing use and dominance of mathematics was driving by various of the practical mathematical disciplines during the Renaissance. 

The developments in cartography, surveying, and navigation (which I haven’t dealt with yet) all drove an increased role for both geometry and trigonometry. The renaissance of astrology also served the same function. The commercial revolution, the introduction of banking, and the introduction of double entry bookkeeping all drove the introduction and development of the Hindu-Arabic number system and algebra, which in turn would lead to the development of analytical mathematics in the seventeenth century. The development of astro-medicine or iatromathematics led to a change in the status of mathematic on the universities and the demand for commercial arithmetic led to the establishment of the abbacus or reckoning schools. The Renaissance artist-engineers with their development of linear perspective and their cult of machine design, together with the new developments in architecture were all driving forces in the development of geometry. All of these developments both separately and together led to a major increase in the status of the mathematical sciences and their dissemination throughout Europe. 

This didn’t all happen overnight but was a gradual process spread over a couple of centuries. However, by the early seventeenth century and what is generally regarded as the start of the scientific revolution the status and spread of mathematics was considerably different, in a positive sense, to what it had been at the end of the fourteenth century. Mathematics was now very much an established part of the scholarly spectrum. 

There was, however, another force driving the development and spread of mathematics and that was surprisingly the, on literature focused, original Renaissance humanists in Northern Italy. In and of itself, the original Renaissance humanists did not measure mathematics an especially important role in their intellectual cosmos. So how did the humanists become a driving force for the development of mathematics? The answer lies in their obsession with all and any Greek or Latin manuscripts from antiquity and also with the attitude to mathematics of their ancient role models. 

Cicero admired Archimedes, so Petrarch admired Archimedes and other humanists followed his example. In his Institutio Oratoria Quintilian was quite enthusiastic about mathematics in the training of the orator. However, both Cicero and Quintilian had reservations about how too intense an involvement with mathematics distracts one from the active life. This meant that the Renaissance humanists were, on the whole, rather ambivalent towards mathematics. They considered it was part of the education of a scholar, so that they could converse reasonably intelligently about mathematics in general, but anything approaching a deep knowledge of the subject was by and large frowned upon. After all, socially, mathematici were viewed as craftsmen and not scholars.

This attitude stood in contradiction to their manuscript collecting habits. On their journeys to the cloister libraries and to Byzantium, the humanists swept up everything they could find in Latin and/or Greek that was from antiquity. This meant that the manuscript collections in the newly founded humanist libraries also contained manuscripts from the mathematical disciplines. A good example is the manuscript of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia found in Constantinople and translated into Latin by Jacobus Angelus for the first time in 1406. The manuscripts were now there, and scholars began to engage with them leading to a true mathematical renaissance of the leading Greek mathematicians. 

We have already seen, in earlier episodes, the impact that the works of Ptolemaeus, Hero of Alexander, and Vitruvius had in the Renaissance, now I’m going to concentrate on three mathematicians Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius of Perga, starting with Archimedes. 

The works of Archimedes had already been translated from Greek into Latin by the Flemish translator Willem van Moerbeke (1215–1286) in the thirteenth century.

Archimedes Greek manuscript

He also translated texts by Hero. Although, he was an excellent translator, he was not a mathematician, so his translations were somewhat difficult to comprehend. Archimedes was to a large extent ignored by the universities in the Middle Ages. In 1530, Jacobus Cremonensis (c. 1400–c. 1454) (birth name Jacopo da San Cassiano), a humanist and mathematician, translated, probably at request of the Pope, Nicholas V (1397–1455), a Greek manuscript of the works of Archimedes into Latin. He was also commissioned to correct George of Trebizond’s defective translation of Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis. It is thought that the original Greek manuscript was lent or given to Basilios Bessarion (1403–1472) and has subsequently disappeared.

Bessarion had not only the largest humanist library but also the library with the highest number of mathematical manuscripts. Many of Bessarion’s manuscripts were collected by Regiomontanus (1436–1476) during the four to five years (1461–c. 1465) that he was part of Bessarion’s household.

Basilios Bessarion Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Regiomontanus moved to Nürnberg in 1471 he brought a large collection of mathematical, astronomical, and astrological manuscripts with him, including the Cremonenius Latin Archimedes and several manuscripts of Euclid’s Elements, that he intended to print and publish in the printing office that he set up there. Unfortunately, he died before he really got going and had only published nine texts including his catalogue of future intended publications that also listed the Cremonenius Latin Archimedes. 

The invention of moving type book printing was, of course, a major game changer. In 1482, Erhard Ratdolt (1447–1522) published the first printed edition of The Elements of Euclid from one of Regiomontanus’ manuscripts of the Latin translation from Arabic by Campanus of Novara (c. 1220–1296).

A page with marginalia from the first printed edition of Euclid’s Elements, printed by Erhard Ratdolt in 1482
Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1505, a Latin translation from the Greek by Bartolomeo Zamberti (c. 1473–after 1543) was published in Venice in 1505, because Zamberti regarded the Campanus translation as defective. The first Greek edition, edited by Simon Grynaeus (1493–1541) was published by Jacob Herwegens in Basel in 1533.

Simon Grynaeus Source: Wikimedia Commons
Editio princeps of the Greek text of Euclid. Source

Numerous editions followed in Greek and/or Latin. The first modern language edition, in Italian, translated by the mathematician Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia (1499/1500–1557) was published in 1543.

Tartaglia Euclid Source

Other editions in German, French and Dutch appeared over the years and the first English edition, translated by Henry Billingsley (died 1606) with a preface by John Dee (1527–c. 1608) was published in 1570.

Title page of Sir Henry Billingsley’s first English version of Euclid’s Elements Source Wikimedia Commons

In 1574, Christoph Clavius (1538–1612) published the first of many editions of his revised and modernised Elements, to be used in his newly inaugurated mathematics programme in Catholic schools, colleges, and universities. It became the standard version of Euclid throughout Europe in the seventeenth century. In 1607, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) and Xu Guanqui (1562–1633) published their Chinese translation of the first six books of Clavius’ Elements.

Xu Guangqi with Matteo Ricci (left) From Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata, 1667 Source: Wikimedia Commons

From being a medieval university textbook of which only the first six of the thirteen books were studied if at all, The Elements was now a major mathematical text. 

Unlike his Euclid manuscript, Regiomontanus’ Latin Archimedes manuscript had to wait until the middle of the sixteenth century to find an editor and publisher. In 1544, Ioannes Heruagius (Johannes Herwagen) (1497–1558) published a bilingual, Latin and Greek, edition of the works of Archimedes, edited by the Nürnberger scholar Thomas Venatorius (Geschauf) (1488–1551).

Thomas Venatorius Source

The Latin was the Cremonenius manuscript that Regiomontanus had brought to Nürnberg, and the Greek was a manuscript that Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530) had acquired in Rome.

Venatori Archimedes Source

Around the same time Tartaglia published partial editions of the works of Archimedes both in Italian and Latin translation. We will follow the publication history of Archimedes shortly, but first we need to go back to see what happened to The Conics of Apollonius, which became a highly influential text in the seventeenth century.

Although, The Conics was known to the Arabs, no translation of it appears to have been made into Latin during the twelfth-century scientific Renaissance. Giovanni-Battista Memmo (c. 1466–1536) produced a Latin translation of the first four of the six books of The Conics, which was published posthumously in Venice in 1537. Although regarded as defective this remained the only edition until the latter part of the century.

Memmo Apollonius Conics Source: Wikimedia Commons

We now enter the high point of the Renaissance reception of both Archimedes and Apollonius in the work of the mathematician and astronomer Francesco Maurolico (1494–1575) and the physician Federico Commandino (1509-1575). Maurolico spent a large part of his life improving the editions of a wide range of Greek mathematical works.

L0006455 Portrait of F. Maurolico by Bovis after Caravaggio Credit: Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, he had problems finding sponsors and/or publishers for his work. His heavily edited and corrected volume of the works of Archimedes first appeared posthumously in Palermo in 1585. His definitive Latin edition of The Conics, with reconstructions of the fifth and sixth books, completed in 1547, was first published in 1654.

Maurolico corresponded with Christoph Clavius, who had visited him in Sicily in 1574, when the observed an annular solar eclipse together, and with Federico Commandino, although the two never met.

Federico Commandino produced and published a whole series of Greek mathematical works, which became something like standard editions.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

His edition of the works of Archimedes appeared in 1565 and his Apollonius translation in 1566.

Two of Commandino’s disciples were Guidobaldo del Monte (1545–1607) and Bernardino Baldi (1553–1617). 

Baldi wrote a history of mathematics the Cronica dei Matematici, which was published in Urbino in 1707. This was a brief summary of his much bigger Vite de’ mathematici, a two-thousand-page manuscript that was never published.

Bernadino Baldi Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guidobaldo del Monte, an aristocrat, mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer

Guidobaldo del Monte Source: Wikimedia Commons

became a strong promoter of Commandino’s work and in particular the works of Archimedes, which informed his own work in mechanics. 

In the midst of that darkness Federico Commandino shone like the sun, for his learning he not only restored the lost heritage of mathematics but actually increased and enhanced it … In him seem to have lived again Archytas, Diophantus, Theodosius, Ptolemy, Apollonius, Serenus, Pappus and even Archimedes himself.

Guidobaldo. Liber Mechanicorum, Pesaro 1577, Preface
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When the young Galileo wrote his first essay on the hydrostatic balance, his theory how Archimedes actually detected the substitution of silver for gold in the crown made for King Hiero of Syracuse, he sent it to Guidobaldo to try and win his support and patronage. Guidobaldo was very impressed and got his brother Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549–1627), the de’ Medici family cardinal, to recommend Galileo to Ferinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, (1549–1609) for the position of professor of mathematics at Pisa University. Galileo worked together with Guidobaldo on various projects and for Galileo, who rejected Aristotle, Archimedes became his philosophical role model, who he often praised in his works. 

Galileo was by no means the only seventeenth century scientist to take Archimedes as his role model in pursuing a mathematical physics, for example Kepler used a modified form of Archimedes’ method of exhaustion to determine the volume of barrels, a first step to the development of integral calculus. The all pervasiveness of Archimedes in the seventeenth century is wonderfully illustrated at the end of the century by Sir William Temple, Jonathan Swift’s employer, during the so-called battle of the Ancients and Moderns. In one of his essays, Temple an ardent supporter of the superiority of the ancients over the moderns, asked if John Wilkins was the seventeenth century Archimedes, a rhetorical question with a definitively negative answer. 

During the Middle Ages Euclid was the only major Greek mathematician taught at the European universities and that only at a very low level. By the seventeenth century Euclid had been fully restored as a serious mathematical text and the works of both Archimedes and Apollonius had entered the intellectual mainstream and all three texts along with other restored Greek texts such as the Mathematical Collection of Pappus, also published by Commandino and the Arithmetica of Diophantus, another manuscript brought to Nürnberg by Regiomontanus and worked on by numerous mathematicians, became influential in development of the new sciences.  


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

The man who printed the world of plants

Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) is justifiably famous for having produced the world’s first modern atlas, that is a bound, printed, uniform collection of maps, his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Ortelius was a wealthy businessman and paid for the publication of his Theatrum out of his own pocket, but he was not a printer and had to employ others to print it for him.


Abraham Ortelius by Peter Paul Rubens , Museum Plantin-Moretus via Wikimedia Commons

A man who printed, not the first 1570 editions, but the important expanded 1579 Latin edition, with its bibliography (Catalogus Auctorum), index (Index Tabularum), the maps with text on the back, followed by a register of place names in ancient times (Nomenclator), and who also played a major role in marketing the book, was Ortelius’ friend and colleague the Antwerp publisher, printer and bookseller Christophe Plantin (c. 1520–1589).


Plantin also published Ortelius’ Synonymia geographica (1578), his critical treatment of ancient geography, later republished in expanded form as Thesaurus geographicus (1587) and expanded once again in 1596, in which Ortelius first present his theory of continental drift.


Plantin’s was the leading publishing house in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century, which over a period of 34 years issued 2,450 titles. Although much of Plantin’s work was of religious nature, as indeed most European publishers of the period, he also published many important academic works.

Before we look in more detail at Plantin’s life and work, we need to look at an aspect of his relationship with Ortelius, something which played an important role in both his private and business life. Both Christophe Plantin and Abraham Ortelius were members of a relatively small religious cult or sect the Famillia Caritatis (English: Family of Love), Dutch Huis der Leifde (English: House of Love), whose members were also known as Familists.

This secret sect was similar in many aspects to the Anabaptists and was founded and led by the prosperous merchant from Münster, Hendrik Niclaes (c. 1501–c. 1580). Niclaes was charged with heresy and imprisoned at the age of twenty-seven. About 1530 he moved to Amsterdam where his was once again imprisoned, this time on a charge of complicity in the Münster Rebellion of 1534–35. Around 1539 he felt himself called to found his Famillia Caritatis and in 1540 he moved to Emden, where he lived for the next twenty years and prospered as a businessman. He travelled much throughout the Netherlands, England and other countries combining his commercial and missionary activities. He is thought to have died around 1580 in Cologne where he was living at the time.


Niclaes wrote vast numbers of pamphlets and books outlining his religious views and I will only give a very brief outline of the main points here. Familists were basically quietists like the Quakers, who reject force and the carrying of weapons. Their ideal was a quite life of study, spiritualist piety, contemplation, withdrawn from the turmoil of the world around them. The sect was apocalyptic and believed in a rapidly approaching end of the world. Hendrik Niclaes saw his mission in instructing mankind in the principal dogma of love and charity. He believed he had been sent by God and signed all his published writings H. N. a Hillige Nature (Holy Creature). The apocalyptic element of their belief meant that adherents could live the life of honest, law abiding citizens even as members of religious communities because all religions and authorities would be irrelevant come the end of times. Niclaes managed to convert a surprisingly large group of successful and wealthy merchants and seems to have appealed to an intellectual cliental as well. Apart from Ortelius and Plantin, the great Dutch philologist, humanist and philosopher Justus Lipsius (1574–1606) was a member, as was Charles de l’Escluse (1526–1609), better known as Carolus Clusius, physician and the leading botanist in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century. The humanist Andreas Masius (1514–1573) an early syriacist (one who studies Syriac, an Aramaic language) was a member, as was Benito Arias Monato (1527–1598) a Spanish orientalist. Emanuel van Meteren (1535–1612) a Flemish historian and nephew of Ortelius was probably also Familist. The noted Flemish miniature painter and illustrator, Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1601), was a member as was his father a successful diamond dealer. Last but by no means least Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525– 1569) was also a Familist. As we shall see the Family of Love and its members played a significant role in Plantin’s life and work.


Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens Museum Platin-Moretus  via Wikimedia Commons Antwerp in the time of Plantin was a major centre for artists and engravers and Peter Paul Rubins was the Plantin house portrait painter.

Christophe Plantin was born in Saint-Avertin near Tours in France around 1520. He was apprenticed to Robert II Macé in Caen, Normandy from whom he learnt bookbinding and printing. In Caen he met and married Jeanne Rivière (c. 1521–1596) in around 1545.


Jeanne Rivière School of Rubens Museum Plantin-Moretus via Wikimedia Commons

They had five daughters, who survived Plantin and a son who died in infancy. Initially, they set up business in Paris but shortly before 1550 they moved to the city of Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands, then one of Europe’s most important commercial centres. Plantin became a burgher of the city and a member of the Guild of St Luke, the guild of painter, sculptors, engravers and printers. He initially set up as a bookbinder and leather worker but in 1555 he set up his printing office, which was most probably initially financed by the Family of Love. There is some disagreement amongst the historians of the Family as to how much of Niclaes output of illegal religious writings Plantin printed. But there is agreement that he probably printed Niclaes’ major work, De Spiegel der Gerechtigheid (Mirror of Justice, around 1556). If not the house printer for the Family of Love, Plantin was certainly one of their printers.

The earliest book known to have been printed by Plantin was La Institutione di una fanciulla nata nobilmente, by Giovanni Michele Bruto, with a French translation in 1555, By 1570 the publishing house had grown to become the largest in Europe, printing and publishing a wide range of books, noted for their quality and in particular the high quality of their engravings. Ironically, in 1562 his presses and goods were impounded because his workmen had printed a heretical, not Familist, pamphlet. At the time Plantin was away on a business trip in Paris and he remained there for eighteen months until his name was cleared. When he returned to Antwerp local rich, Calvinist merchants helped him to re-establish his printing office. In 1567, he moved his business into a house in Hoogstraat, which he named De Gulden Passer (The Golden Compasses). He adopted a printer’s mark, which appeared on the title page of all his future publications, a pair of compasses encircled by his moto, Labore et Constantia (By Labour and Constancy).


Christophe Plantin’s printers mark, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Engraving of Plantin with his printing mark after Goltzius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Encouraged by King Philip II of Spain, Plantin produced his most famous publication the Biblia Polyglotta (The Polyglot Bible), for which Benito Arias Monato (1527–1598) came to Antwerp from Spain, as one of the editors. With parallel texts in Latin, Greek, Syriac, Aramaic and Hebrew the production took four years (1568–1572). The French type designer Claude Garamond (c. 1510–1561) cut the punches for the different type faces required for each of the languages. The project was incredibly expensive and Plantin had to mortgage his business to cover the production costs. The Bible was not a financial success, but it brought it desired reward when Philip appointed Plantin Architypographus Regii, with the exclusive privilege to print all Roman Catholic liturgical books for Philip’s empire.



In 1576, the Spanish troops burned and plundered Antwerp and Plantin was forced to pay a large bribe to protect his business. In the same year he established a branch of his printing office in Paris, which was managed by his daughter Magdalena (1557–1599) and her husband Gilles Beys (1540–1595). In 1578, Plantin was appointed official printer to the States General of the Netherlands. 1583, Antwerp now in decline, Plantin went to Leiden to establish a new branch of his business, leaving the house of The Golden Compasses under the management of his son-in-law, Jan Moretus (1543–1610), who had married his daughter Martine (1550–16126). Plantin was house publisher to Justus Lipsius, the most important Dutch humanist after Erasmus nearly all of whose books he printed and published. Lipsius even had his own office in the printing works, where he could work and also correct the proofs of his books. In Leiden when the university was looking for a printer Lipsius recommended Plantin, who was duly appointed official university printer. In 1585, he returned to Antwerp, leaving his business in Leiden in the hands of another son-in-law, Franciscus Raphelengius (1539–1597), who had married Margaretha Plantin (1547–1594). Plantin continued to work in Antwerp until his death in 1589.


Source: Museum Plantin-Moretus

After this very long introduction to the life and work of Christophe Plantin, we want to take a look at his activities as a printer/publisher of science. As we saw in the introduction he was closely associated with Abraham Ortelius, in fact their relationship began before Ortelius wrote his Theatrum. One of Ortelius’ business activities was that he worked as a map colourer, printed maps were still coloured by hand, and Plantin was one of the printers that he worked for. In cartography Plantin also published Lodovico Guicciardini’s (1521–1589) Descrittione di Lodovico Guicciardini patritio fiorentino di tutti i Paesi Bassi altrimenti detti Germania inferiore (Description of the Low Countries) (1567),


Source: Wikimedia Commons

which included maps of the various Netherlands’ cities.


Engraved and colored map of the city of Antwerp Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plantin contributed, however, to the printing and publication of books in other branches of the sciences.

Plantin’s biggest contribution to the history of science was in botany.  A combination of the invention of printing with movable type, the development of both printing with woodcut and engraving, as well as the invention of linear perspective and the development of naturalism in art led to production spectacular plant books and herbals in the Early Modern Period. By the second half of the sixteenth century the Netherlands had become a major centre for such publications. The big three botanical authors in the Netherlands were Carolus Clusius (1526–1609), Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585) and Matthaeus Loblius (1538–1616), who were all at one time clients of Plantin.

Matthaeus Loblius was a physician and botanist, who worked extensively in both England and the Netherlands.

NPG D25673,Matthias de Lobel (Lobelius),by Francis Delaram

Matthias de Lobel (Lobelius),by Francis Delaramprint, 1615 Source: Wikimedia Commons

His Stirpium aduersaria noua… (A new notebook of plants) was originally published in London in 1571, but a much-extended edition, Plantarum seu stirpium historia…, with 1, 486 engravings in two volumes was printed and published by Plantin in 1576. In 1581 Plantin also published his Dutch herbal, Kruydtboek oft beschrÿuinghe van allerleye ghewassen….


Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is also an anonymous Stirpium seu Plantarum Icones (images of plants) published by Plantin in 1581, with a second edition in 1591, that has been attributed to Loblius but is now thought to have been together by Plantin himself from his extensive stock of plant engravings.

Carolus Clusius also a physician and botanist was the leading scientific horticulturist of the period, who stood in contact with other botanist literally all over the worlds, exchanging information, seeds, dried plants and even living ones.


Portrait of Carolus Clusius painted in 1585 Attributed to Jacob de Monte – Hoogleraren Universiteit Leiden via Wikimedia Commons

His first publication, not however by Plantin, was a translation into French of Dodoens’ herbal of which more in a minute. This was followed by a Latin translation from the Portuguese of Garcia de Orta’s Colóquios dos simples e Drogas da India, Aromatum et simplicium aliquot medicamentorum apud Indios nascentium historia (1567) and a Latin translation from Spanish of Nicolás Monardes’  Historia medicinal delas cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven al uso de la medicina, , De simplicibus medicamentis ex occidentali India delatis quorum in medicina usus est (1574), with a second edition (1579), both published by Plantin.His own  Rariorum alioquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia: libris duobus expressas (1576) and Rariorum aliquot stirpium, per Pannoniam, Austriam, & vicinas quasdam provincias observatarum historia, quatuor libris expressa … (1583) followed from Plantin’s presses. His Rariorum plantarum historia: quae accesserint, proxima pagina docebit (1601) was published by Plantin’s son-in-law Jan Moretus, who inherited the Antwerp printing house.


Our third physician-botanist, Rembert Dodoens, his first publication with Plantin was his Historia frumentorum, leguminum, palustrium et aquatilium herbarum acceorum, quae eo pertinent (1566) followed by the second Latin edition of his  Purgantium aliarumque eo facientium, tam et radicum, convolvulorum ac deletariarum herbarum historiae libri IIII…. Accessit appendix variarum et quidem rarissimarum nonnullarum stirpium, ac florum quorumdam peregrinorum elegantissimorumque icones omnino novas nec antea editas, singulorumque breves descriptiones continens… (1576) as well as other medical books.


Rembert Dodoens Theodor de Bry – University of Mannheim via Wikimedia Commons

His most well known and important work was his herbal originally published in Dutch, his Cruydeboeck, translated into French by Clusius as already stated above.


Title page of Cruydt-Boeck,1618 edition Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plantin published an extensively revised Latin edition Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXXs in 1593.


This was largely plagiarised together with work from Loblius and Clusius by John Gerrard (c. 1545–1612)


John Gerard Source: Wikimedia Commons

in his English herbal, Great Herball Or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), which despite being full of errors became a standard reference work in English.

The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes / by John Gerarde

Platin also published a successful edition of Juan Valverde de Amusco’s Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano (1568), which had been first published in Rome in 1556. This was to a large extent a plagiarism of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543).


Another area where Platin made a publishing impact was with the works of the highly influential Dutch engineer, mathematician and physicist Simon Stevin (1548-1620). The Plantin printing office published almost 90% of Stevin’s work, eleven books altogether, including his introduction into Europe of decimal fractions De Thiende (1585),


Source: Wikimedia Commons

his important physics book De Beghinselen der Weeghconst (The Principles of Statics, lit. The Principles of the Art of Weighing) (1586),


Source: Wikimedia Commons

his Beghinselen des Waterwichts (Principles of hydrodynamics) (1586) and his book on navigation De Havenvinding (1599).

Following his death, the families of his sons-in-law continued the work of his various printing offices, Christophe Beys (1575–1647), the son of Magdalena and Gilles, continued the Paris branch of the business until he lost his status as a sworn printer in 1601. The family of Franciscus Raphelengius continued printing in Leiden for another two generations, until 1619. When Lipsius retired from the University of Leiden in 1590, Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) was invited to follow him at the university. He initially declined the offer but, in the end, when offered a position without obligations he accepted and moved to Leiden in 1593. It appears that the quality of the publications of the Plantin publishing office in Leiden helped him to make his decision.  In 1685, a great-granddaughter of the last printer in the Raphelengius family married Jordaen Luchtmans (1652 –1708), who had founded the Brill publishing company in 1683.

The original publishing house in Antwerp survived the longest. Beginning with Jan it passed through the hands of twelve generations of the Moretus family down to Eduardus Josephus Hyacinthus Moretus (1804–1880), who printed the last book in 1866 before he sold the printing office to the City of Antwerp in 1876. Today the building with all of the companies records and equipment is the Museum Plantin-Moretus, the world’s most spectacular museum of printing.


2-021 Museum Plantin Moretus

There is one last fascinating fact thrown up by this monument to printing history. Lodewijk Elzevir (c. 1540–1617), who founded the House of Elzevir in Leiden in 1583, which published both Galileo’s Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze in 1638 and Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences in 1637, worked for Plantin as a bookbinder in the 1560s.


Nikolaes Heinsius the Elder, Poemata (Elzevier 1653), Druckermarke Source: Wikimedia Commons

The House of Elzevir ceased publishing in 1712 and is not connected to Elsevier the modern publishing company, which was founded in 1880 and merely borrowed the name of their famous predecessor.

The Platntin-Moretus publishing house played a significant role in the intellectual history of Europe over many decades.




Filed under Book History, History of Mathematics, History of medicine, History of Physics, History of science, Renaissance Science

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


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

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

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


Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Paris Panthéon Source: Wikimedia Commons

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


Léon Foucault, Pendulum Experiment, 1851 Source


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

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

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

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

Sir Francis Bacon, c. 1618

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

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

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Frans Hals – Portrait of René Descartes Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Engraving of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 In his third letter to Clarke he wrote:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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


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

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


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

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


David Gregory Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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


John Arbuthnot Portrait by Godfrey Kneller Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

A scientific Dutchman

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] I have after all a reputation to uphold


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Newton, Principia, 1999 p. 467

[3] Newton, Principia, 1999 p. 468

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Newton’s original letter. Source: Royal Society

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

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


which contains the following fascinating paragraph:

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

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

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

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




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