Category Archives: History of science

History (of Science) Books by Women

Last weekend saw several major newspapers publishing their books of the year list. Unfortunately these displayed, in several aspects, a serious lack of balance. Science and history of science books came up more than somewhat short and in some categories the male dominance was glaring. The latter problem provoked the following tweet by historian and history book author Lucy Worsley:

8 of 9 of the ‘history books of the year’ in today’s Times, and 19 out of 21 of ditto in today’s Telegraph, are by men. I’m not impressed. Lucy Worsley

In reaction to this tweet a hash tag sprang into life, #HistoryBooksbyWomen, under which some just listed the names of female history book authors and others tweeted names and book titles. My discipline the history of science is blessed with many excellent female historians, authors of many first class books. This being the case I thought that I might cruise along my bookshelves and present here a lightly annotated list of some of those books by women that have enriched and informed my career as a historian of science.

I start with my #histsci soul sisterTM, Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt, whose volume in the way the nineteenth century saw Isaac Newton, Recreating Isaac, I reviewed here.

Becky is also co-author of the beautiful Finding Longitude, which I reviewed here. (Her co-author Richard Dunn is a man but we won’t hold it against him).

Staying with Newton we have Sarah Dry telling us what happened to his manuscripts in The Newton Papers and Lesley Murdin Under Newton’s Shadow: Astronomical Practices in the Seventeenth Century.


In the world of navigation, cartography and geodesy we have Christine Garwood Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Joyce E. Chaplin Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, Silvia Sumira Globes: 400 Years of Exploration Navigation and Power and Rachel Hewitt Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.


Representing the Middle Ages we have two biographies Nancy Marie Brown The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages and Louise Cochrane Adelard of Bath: The First English Scientist. For fans of automata there is E. R. Truitt’s delightful Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art.


In the early modern period and the emergence of modern science we have Pamela O. Long Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Science, Pamela H. Smith The Body of the Artisan, Paula Findlen Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, Deborah E. Harkness The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Eileen Reeves Galileo’s Glassworks, Lisa Jardine Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution, her Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, her On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren, and her The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London, Ulinka Rublack The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother, Sachiko Kusukawa Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany and Susan Dackerman ed. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early Modern Period Featuring essays by Susan Dackerman, Lorraine Daston, Katherine Park, Susanne Karr Schmidt and Claudia Swann.


Turning to the eighteenth century we have Patricia Fara A Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment, Susannah Gibson Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How eighteenth-century science disrupted the natural order and Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future.


No Renaissance Mathematicus book list would be complete without some esoteric history. We start with Monica Azzolini The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan that I reviewed here, Louise Hill Cuth English almanacs, astrology & popular medicine: 1550–1700, Tamsyn Barton Ancient Astrology, Pamela H. Smith The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, Frances A. Yates The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as well as Ingrid D. Rowland Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Somewhere between the stools Lorraine Daston & Katherine Park Wonders and the Order of Nature.


Mathematics are represented by Kim Plofker Mathematics in India and Serafina Cuomo Ancient mathematics. Astronomy and cosmology by M. R. Wright Cosmology in Antiquity, Kitty Ferguson Measuring the Universe and Jessica Ratcliff The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain.


We close with a potpourri of titles that don’t quite fit into any of the categories above. We start with two excellent books by Laura J. Snyder, her four-way biography of nineteenth-century Cambridge polymaths The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World and her double seventeenth-century art and science biography Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. Two further biographies are Brenda Maddox Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA and Dorothy Stein Ada: A Life and a Legacy. Patricia Fara gives us a general survey of science history in Science A Four Thousand Year History and a look at the role some women played in that history in Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science & Power in the Enlightenment. Deborah Jaffé also looks at the role of women in science and technology in Ingenious Women: From Tincture of Saffron to Flying Machines. Last but by no means least we have Ingrid D. Rowland’s translation of Vitruvius: Ten Books of Architecture.


This list is of course fairly random and somewhat arbitrary and is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive. All of the books that I have included are in my opinion good and quite a lot of them are excellent. They demonstrate that there is width, depth and variety in the writings produced by women in the history of science taken in its widest sense. Should any misogynistic male of the species turn up in the comments and claim that the above list is only so impressive, and I find it very impressive, because I, in some way, privilege or favour female historians then I must point out that I have many more history of science books by male authors than by female ones on my bookshelves.

If you wish to add your own favourite history of science books authored by women in the comments you are more than welcome.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Ladies of Science

A Herschel comes seldom alone.

On the excellent website Lady Science Anna Reser and Leila McNeill recently posted an article entitled Well, Actually Mythbusting History Doesn’t Work, which I shall not be addressing. However it contained the interesting statement, When the likes of Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace are brought up, a common response is a historical version of “what about the men?!” The men in this case being William Herschel and Charles Babbage. Ignoring Lovelace and Babbage I would like to address the case of the siblings Caroline and William Herschel.

Of course Caroline Herschel is a very important figure in the history of astronomy and deserves to be recognised on her own extensive merits but is it possible to discuss her life and work without mentioning her elder brother? The answer to this question is a clear yes and no. If one were to present a brief bullet point outline of her life then yes, as follows.

Caroline Herschel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel German/ British Astronomer

  • Born Hanover 16 March 1750
  • Lived in England 1772–1822
  • Died Hanover 9 January 1848
  • Discoverer of eight comets
  • Recipient of a pension from George III 1787
  • Recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society 1828
  • One of the first Woman members of the Royal Astronomical Society, elected 1835
  • Awarded Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia 1846

However if one goes beyond the highly impressive outline and starts to examine her biography in depth then it is impossible not to mention her brother William who played a decisive role at almost every stage of her live.

Stunted and disfigured by a bout of typhus in her childhood, Caroline was not considered a suitable candidate for marriage. Her illiterate mother did not hold much of education for women so it seemed that Caroline was destined for a life of domestic drudgery. However William her elder brother, having established himself as a professional musician in the city of Bath, fetched her from Hanover to come and live with him as his housekeeper in 1772. In Bath she shared the attic flat with their younger brother Alexander, of whom more later, whilst William lived on the first floor, which was also his music studio where amongst other things he delivered music lessons. The ground floor was occupied by a married couple, who worked as William servants, also paying rent for their accommodation. Caroline took over the running of this household.

William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott Source: Wikimedia Commons

William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott
Source: Wikimedia Commons

William took over Caroline’s education teaching her to sing as well as instructing her in arithmetic and English. Soon she began to appear as a soloist in William public recitals and made such a positive impression that am impresario offered her the opportunity of going on tour as a singer, an offer that she declined preferring to stay in Bath with her brother.

When William developed his passion for astronomy Caroline became his assistant, rather grudgingly at first but later with enthusiasm, recording and tabulating her brother telescopic observations. When William began to manufacture his own telescopes Caroline was once again at hand, as assistant. When I visited the Herschel Museum in Bath I learnt that one of Caroline’s tasks was to sieve the horse manure that they used to embed the cast telescope mirrors to grind and polish them. I highly recommend visiting this museum, where you can view the Herschel’s telescope workshop in the cellar. Caroline also took over the task of calculating and compiling the catalogue of William’s observation. It should be very clear that the siblings worked as a team, each playing an important role in their astronomical endeavours.

Later after the discovery of Uranus, when William became the King’s astronomer and they moved to Datchet near Windsor, he encouraged Caroline to become an astronomer in her own right teaching her how to sweep the skies looking for comets and constructing a small reflecting telescope for this purpose. Caroline would go on to have a very successful career as a comet hunter, as already noted above.

I hope that in this very brief sketch that I have made it clear that William played a key role at each juncture in Caroline’s life and that without him she never would have become an astronomer, so any full description of her undoubted achievements must include her bother and his influence. However there is a reverse side to this story, as should be very clear from my brief account, any description of William Herschel’s achievements, as an astronomer, must include an explanation of Caroline’s very central role in those discoveries.

Any account of William’s and Caroline’s dependency on each other in their astronomical careers should also include the role played by their younger brother Alexander. Like William and their father, Alexander was a highly proficient professional musician, who had moved into William’s house in Bath, as Caroline was still living in Hanover. Alexander apparently played a role in the decision to bring Caroline to Bath. As well as being a talented musician Alexander was a highly skilled craftsman and when William decided to start building his own Newtonian telescopes, it was Alexander who provided the necessary metal components including the telescope tubes for the small objective scopes used to view the image in a Newtonian. The Herschel telescope production was very much a family business. The Herschel telescopes enjoyed a very good reputation and manufacturing and selling them became a profitable sideline for the siblings. The two sides of the Herschel’s astronomical activities fertilised each other. The quality of the telescopes underlined the accuracy of the observations and the accuracy of the observations was positive advertising for the telescopes.

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath Source: Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be now clear that when considering the Herschel’s astronomical activities we really have to view all three siblings as a unit, as well as viewing them as individuals but our collection of Herschels does not end here. As should be well known William’s son John would go on to be a highly significant and influential polymath in the nineteenth century, amongst other things setting forth the family’s astronomical tradition. John was very close to his aunt Caroline and it was she and not his father who first introduced the young Herschel sprog to the joys and fascinations of astronomical observation.

ohn Frederick William Herschel by Alfred Edward Chalon 1829 Source: Wikimedia Commons

ohn Frederick William Herschel by Alfred Edward Chalon 1829
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the Herschels form a relatively closed family unit in their astronomical activities, they also employed a joiner to make the tubes and stands for their reflectors, they also provide a very good example of they fact that observational astronomy, and in fact much scientific activity, is team work and not the product of individuals.




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

Why there weren’t any scientists before the late nineteenth century.

It has become common practice for historians of science to admonish people who use the term scientist when applied to people who lived before the nineteenth century. They point out, correctly, that the word was first coined by Cambridge polymath William Whewell in 1833 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Cambridge and first used in print by him a year later in his review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connection of the physical sciences. As Melinda Baldwin has shown in her guest post, The history of “scientist”, the term didn’t really become established until late in the nineteenth century or even early in the twentieth. On being thus admonished many people react negatively and ask pointedly whether historians of science mean that there was no science before 1833. On being told that this is not the case they argue that if people were doing science then it is perfectly acceptable to call them scientists. If they are doing science then they are scientists, end of story!

Unfortunately it is not as easy as that, because terms have connotations, which extend well beyond their simple denotations. For those readers who are not up on the jargon of linguistics or the philosophy of language I will try to explain the terms denotation and connotation with a simple example. Expert linguists and philosophers of language should look the other way for a minute or two. The name Sascha denotes the dog whose picture you can see in the top right hand corner of this blog. The name Sascha connotes, for me, all of the things that I experienced with him throughout the ten years that we shared our lives, a wild mixture of a thousand different emotions. Returning to the term scientists, it denotes quite simply someone who does science (whatever that may be, a can of worms I don’t intend to open today). To the distress of real life scientists, cartoonists, playwrights, film directors and others often present a sort of cardboard cut out generic figure as a scientist: white, male, bearded, wearing glasses and a white lab coat. Even the sexy female scientist presented in more up to date TV series is usually given the glasses and the white lab coat to establish their professional identity. This clichéd list of characteristics is the superficial connotation that is generated in their minds and often in that of their readers and viewers by the term scientist.

On a less superficial level the word scientists, as used since the beginning of the twentieth century, has a very strong set of characteristics, its connotation, that spring to the reader’s or listener’s mind when confronted with the term. This list of characteristic’s are usually centred round the scientist’s education, training and professional experience; the clue here lies in the word professional. The scientist is an expert who has undergone a lengthy and extensive specialist education and training to qualify them for their profession and who has enough experience in that profession to justify their being called a scientist. This set of characteristics for the scientist is something that only came into being, rather gradually, over the course of the nineteenth century. If we go back before that time the set of characteristics that we find associated with people doing what we would recognise as science is very different and in fact changed over the centuries, since science began to emerge in Europe in the High Middle Ages. In what follows I shall restrict my remarks to Europe and the period between about twelve hundred CE and eighteen hundred CE. The problems of using the term scientist for earlier periods and other cultures are even greater than those I will outline here.

In the high Middle Ages most of the sciences, as we now know them, simply didn’t exist. Alchemy/chemistry, including much that we would now call applied or industrial chemistry, was regarded as an art practiced by artisans. Where art here means technique or technology or even handcraft. Whilst its practitioners might regard themselves as seekers after or even possessors of knowledge their image was not even remotely like that of our image invoked by the word scientist. Mathematicus, astrologus, astronomus were all synonyms for the same profession, again the practitioner of an art, artisans. Mostly employed outside of the universities, often in the courts of rulers, these ‘mathematicians’ were usually principally employed as astrologers but their full job description included many other functions. Astronomer, horologist (that is designer and maker of sundials), hydraulic engineer in charge of designing water features in ornamental gardens and a whole host of other activities we would normally associate with a technician or engineer. Their social status was that of a craftsman, albeit an upper grade one, rather than that of an academic, also far from out image of the scientist.

Physics belonged in the universities, practiced by philosophers, but this was the physics of Aristotle, the study of nature and contained much that is foreign to our concept of physics. Also this was mostly a qualitative descriptive study and not a quantitative empirical one. Although some of its practitioners, such as for example Robert Grosseteste of Roger Bacon, espoused ideas similar to our concept of the scientific method in their writings their actually their actually practice bears little resemblance to that of modern scientists. Although bearing the same name, their institutions, the medieval universities, have very little in common with our modern institutes of higher educations.

There is very little change in this state of affairs up to the sixteenth century, as the demand for the use of mathematics in astronomy for cartography and navigation as well as astrology in medicine began to change the status of its practitioners. It is first in the seventeenth century when the work of people such as Kepler, a court mathematicus, and Galileo, a university teacher of astrology for medical students, began to intrude into the traditional domain of the philosophers and redefine the nature and subject matter of physics that quantitative empirical research began to make inroads into the universities. In this context it is highly relevant that when Galileo left the university for the Medici court in Florence he insisted on the title philosophicus as well as mathematicus because of the lowly status of the latter in comparison to the former, These practitioners became known not as scientists but as natural philosophers and their career profiles and public image were still substantially different to that of modern scientists. The seventeenth century also saw the gradual emergence of geology, zoology, biology and botany as separate disciplines with expert practitioners from the philosophers’ earlier domain of natural history. Chemistry didn’t make its way into the universities until the eighteenth century and then only as a handmaiden to medicine, only gaining recognition as a discipline in its own right in the nineteenth century.

Let us pause for a while and look at the career profiles of the most well known figures, who contributed to the evolution of the mathematical sciences in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Copernicus was a canon of the cathedral chapter of Frombork and basically an administrator or civil servant of the prince-bishopric of Ermland (Warmia). Astronomy was so to speak his hobby. His life has nothing in common with our concept of a scientist. Tycho Brahe was a Danish aristocrat, who set up a research institute for astronomy and Paracelsian medicine on a Scandinavian island in something resembling a castle and which included a court jester and a pet elk, which got drunk and broke its neck falling down some stairs. Tycho’s life was about as far removed from the twenty first century idea of a scientist as you can get. As already mentioned Johannes Kepler was a schoolteacher and district mathematicus, meaning amongst other things astrologer, who went on to become a court mathematicus, meaning principally astrologer; once again almost nothing in common with a modern scientist. Galileo was actually a university professor for mathematics but his principle activity would have been teaching astrology to medical students. He later became a court philosopher, basically an intellectual court jester. Descartes was a mercenary or soldier of fortune, who then retired to the live of a gentleman of leisure, alternating with periods of being a court philosopher with the same function as Galileo. None of these people had any real formal education or training as a ‘scientist’. There were no white coats and with the exception of Tycho nothing even remotely resembling a laboratory. Neither Copernicus nor Kepler even had an observatory. Today, we would tend to regard Newton as a physicist but he was actually a professor of mathematics in Cambridge. However a professor, who had almost no students and whose lectures appear to have been very scantily attended. He abandoned academia to become Warden and then Master of the Mint a post with little to do with his scientific activities. None of these figures who are leading lights in the pantheon of scientific heroes even remotely fulfils our connotations of a scientist.

The term physics was first used in the way we use it at the beginning of the second decade of the eighteenth century and didn’t become common usage in this sense until the nineteenth century. The term physicist was first coined even later than the term scientist. It really was first in the nineteenth century that the people doing science first began to fulfil the connotations that we have when we hear or read the word scientist, so it really is for the best if we refrain from using the term for researchers who lived in earlier periods.






Filed under History of science

A spirited defence

After I had, in my last blog post, mauled his Scientific American essay in my usual uncouth Rambo style, Michael Barany responded with great elegance and courtesy in a spirited defence of his historical claims to which I now intend to add some comments, thus extending this exchange by a fourth part.

On early practical mathematicians Michael Barany acknowledges that their work is for the public good but argues correctly that that doesn’t then a “public good”. I acknowledge that there is a difference and accept his point however I have a sneaky feeling that something is only referred to as a “public good” when somebody in power is trying to put one over on the great unwashed.

Barany thinks that the Liber Abbaci and per definition all the other abbacus books, only exist for a closed circle of insider and not for the general public. In fact abbacus books were used as textbooks in so-called abbacus schools, which were small private schools that taught the basics of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and bookkeeping open to all who could pay the fees demanded by the schoolteacher, who was very often the author of the abbacus book that he used for his teaching. It is true that the pupils were mostly the apprentices of tradesmen, builders and artists but they were at least in theory open to all and were not quite the closed shop that Michael Barany seems to be implying. In this context Michael Barany says that Recorde’s Pathway to Knowledge, a book on elementary Euclidean geometry, is eminently impractical. However elementary Euclidean geometry was part of the syllabus of all abbacus schools considered part of the necessary knowledge required by artist and builder/architect apprentices. In fact the first Italian vernacular translation of Euclid was made by Tartaglia, an abbacus schoolteacher.

Michael Barany makes some plausible but rather stretched argument to justify his couterpositioning of Recorde and Dee, which I don’t find totally convincing but slips into his argument the following gem. If you don’t like Dee as your English standard bearer for keeping mathematics close to one’s chest, try Thomas Harriot. Now I assume that this flippant comment was written tongue in cheek but just in case.

Michael Barany’s whole essay contrasts what he sees as two approaches to mathematics, those who see mathematics as a topic for everyone and those who view mathematics as a topic for an elitist clique. In the passage that I criticised in his original essay he presented Robert Recorde as an example of the former and John Dee as a representative of the latter. A contrast that he tries to defend in his reply, where this statement about Harriot turns up. Now his elitist argument is very much dependent on a clique or closed circle of trained experts or adepts who exchanged their arcane knowledge amongst themselves but not with outsiders. A good example of such behaviour in the history of science is alchemy and the alchemists. Harriot as an example of such behaviour is a complete flop. Thomas Harriot made significant discoveries in various fields of scientific endeavour, mathematics, dynamics, chemistry, optics, cartography and astronomy, however he never published any of his work and although he corresponded with other leading Renaissance scholars he also didn’t share his discoveries with these people. A good example of this is his correspondence with Kepler, where he discussed over several letters the problem of refraction but never once mentioned that he had already discovered what we now know as Snell’s Law. Harriot remained throughout his life a closed circle with exactly one member, not a very good example to illustrate Michael Barany’s thesis.

I claimed that there was no advance mathematics in Europe from late antiquity till the fifteenth century. Michael Barany counters this by saying: This cuts, for instance, the rich history of Islamic court mathematics out of the European history in which it emphatically belongs; it doesn’t cut it. Ignoring Islamic Andalusia, Islamic mathematics was developed outside of Europe and although it started to reappear in Europe during the twelfth and thirteen centuries during the translator period nobody within Europe was really capable of doing much with those advanced aspects of it before the fifteenth century, so I stand by my claim.

We now turn to Michael Barany’s defence of his original: In the seventeenth century’s Scientific Revolution, the new promoters of an experimental science that was (at least in principle) open to any observer were suspicious of mathematical arguments as inaccessible, tending to shut down diverse perspectives with a false sense of certainty. This he contrast with a, in his opinion, eighteenth century where mathematicians help sway over the scientific community. I basically implied that this claim was rubbish and I still stand by that to that, so what does Michael Barany produce in his defence.

In my original post I listed seven leading scholars of the seventeenth century who were mathematicians and whose very substantive contributions to the so-called scientific revolution was mathematical, on this Barany writes:

Thony pretends that naming some figures remembered today both for mathematics and for their contributions to the scientific revolution contradicts this well-established historical claim.

The, without any doubt, principle figures of the so-called scientific revolution are just some figures! Interesting? So what is Michael Barany’s well-established historical claim? We get offered the following:

Following Steven Shapin and many who have written since his classic 1988 article on Boyle’s relationship to mathematics, I chose to emphasize the conflicts between the experimental program associated with the scientific revolution and competing views on the role of mathematics in natural philosophy.

What we have here is an argument by authority, that of Steven Shapin, whose work and the conclusions that he draws are by no means undisputed, and one name Robert Boyle! Curiously a few days before I read this, science writer, John Gribbin, commentated on Facebook that Robert Hooke had to work out Boyle’s Law because Boyle was lousy at mathematics, might this explain his aversion to it? However Michael Barany does offer us a second argument:

But to take just his most famous example, Newton’s prestige in the Royal Society is generally seen today to have had at least as much to do with his Opticks and his other non-mathematical pursuits as with his calculus, which contemporaries almost uniformly found impenetrable.

Really? I seem to remember that twenty years before he published his Opticks, Old Isaac wrote another somewhat significant tome entitled Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica [my emphasis], which was published by the Royal Society. It was this volume of mathematical physics that established Newton’s reputation, not only with the fellows of the Royal Society, but with the entire scientific community of Europe, even with those who rejected Newton’s central concept of gravity as action at a distance. This book led to Newton being elected President of the Royal Society, in 1704, the same year as the Opticks was published. The Opticks certainly enhanced Newton’s reputation but he was already considered almost universally by then to be the greatest living natural philosopher.

Is the Opticks truly non-mathematical? Well, actually no! When it was published it was the culmination of two thousand years of geometrical optics, a mathematical discipline that begins with Euclid, Hero and Ptolemaeus in antiquity and was developed by various Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages, most notably Ibn al-Haytham. One of the first mathematical sciences to re-enter Europe in the High Middle Ages it was propagated by Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham and Witelo. In the seventeenth-century it was one of the mainstream disciplines contributing to the so-called scientific revolution developed by Thomas Harriot, Johannes Kepler, Willebrord van Roijen Snell, Christoph Scheiner, René Descartes, Pierre Fermat, Christiaan Huygens, Robert Hooke, James Gregory and others. Newton built on and developed the work of all these people and published his results in his Opticks in 1706. Yes, some of his results are based on experiments but that does not make the results non-mathematical and if you bother to read the book you will find more than a smidgen of geometry there in.

In my opinion trying to recruit Newton as an example of non-mathematical experimental science is an act of desperation.

To be fair to Michael Barany the division between those who favoured non-mathematical experimental science and the mathematician really did exist in the seventeenth century, however it was largely confined to England and most prominently in the Royal Society. This is the conflict between the Baconians and the Newtonians that I have blogged about on several occasions in the past. Boyle, Hooke and Flamsteed, for example, were all Baconians who, following Francis Bacon, were not particularly fond of mathematical proofs. This conflict has an interesting history within the Royal Society, which led to disadvantages for the development of the mathematical sciences in England in the eighteenth century.

When the Royal Society was initially founded some mathematician did not become members because of the dominance of the Baconians and that despite the fact that the first President, William Brouncker, was a mathematician. Later under Newton’s presidency the mathematicians gained the ascendency, but first in 1712 after an eight-year guerrilla conflict between Newton and Hans Sloane, a Baconian and the society’s secretary. Following Newton’s death in 1727 (ns) the Baconians regained power and the result was that, whereas on the continent the mathematical sciences flourished and evolved throughout the eighteenth century, in England they withered and died, leading to a new power struggle in the nineteenth century featuring such figures as Charles Babbage and John Herschel.

To claim as Michael Barany does that this conflict within the English scientific community meant that mathematics played an inferior role in the seventeenth century is a bridge too far and contradicts the available historical facts. Yes, the mathematization of nature was not the only game in town and interestingly non-mathematical experimental science was not the only alternative. In fact the seventeenth century was a wonderful cuddle-muddle of conflicting meta-physical views on the sciences. However whatever Steven Shapin might or might not claim the seventeenth century was a very mathematical century and mathematics was the principle driving force behind the so-called scientific revolution. As a footnote I would point out that many of the leading experimental natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, such as Galileo, Pascal, Stevin and Newton, were mathematicians who interpreted and presented their results mathematically.


Filed under History of Mathematics, History of science, Newton

Not a theology student

On the 10 August 1591 (os) (according to Max Caspar, 11 August according to Owen Gingerich!) Johannes Kepler graduated MA at the University of Tübingen. This is a verified undisputed historical fact, however nearly all secondary sources go on to state that he then went on to study theology, his studies being interrupted, shortly before completion, when he was appointed school teacher and district mathematicus in Graz. A post he took up on 11 April 1594. The part about the theology studies is however not true. This myth was created by historians and it would be interesting to trace who first put it out in the world and it is also interesting that nobody bothered to check this claim against the sources until Charlotte Methuen published her Kepler’s Tübingen: Stimulus to a Theological Mathematics in 1998.

Johannes Kepler Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Kepler
Source: Wikimedia Commons

One reason for the lack of control is because the version with the theology studies seems so plausible. At medieval universities all student started their studies with the seven liberal arts graduating BA, in Kepler’s case in 1588 having matriculated two years earlier. Those, who stayed on at the university now intensified those studies graduating MA, essentially a teaching qualification. Those, who now wished to continue in academia had, in the normal run of events, the choice between taken a doctorate in law, medicine or theology. We know that Kepler was initially very disappointed with his appointment as a school teacher for mathematics because he would have preferred to become a Protestant pastor, so it would seem logical that because he stayed on at the university after graduating MA he must have studied theology. However appearances can be, and in this case are, deceptive. The problem is that Tübingen, or at least the Tübinger Stift in which Kepler studied was not a conventional medieval university.

A major problem that the Lutheran Protestant Church faced following the Reformation was finding enough pastors to run their churches and enough schoolteachers for their schools. In areas that converted to Protestantism the churches naturally had Catholic priest many of whom were not prepared or willing to convert and the education system, including both schools and universities, was firmly in the hands of the Catholic Church. This meant that the Lutheran Church had to build its own education system from scratch. This was the task taken on by Phillip Melanchthon, whom Luther called his Preceptor Germania – Germany’s schoolteacher – a task that he mastered brilliantly.

The state of Baden-Württemberg, one of the largest and most important early Protestant states gasped here the initiative, setting up a state sponsored school and university system to educate future Protestant schoolteachers and pastors. The Tübinger Stift was established in 1536 for exactly this purpose. The Dukes of Württemberg also provided stipends for gifted children of less wealthy families to enable them to attend the Stift. Kepler was the recipient of such a stipend.

Tübinger Still (left and University (right) Source: Kepler-Gesellschaft e.V.

Tübinger Still (left) and University (right)
Source: Kepler-Gesellschaft e.V.

All the students did a general course of studies, which upon completion with an MA qualified them to become either a schoolteacher or a pastor depending on the positions required to be filled, when they graduated. Allocation was also to some extent conditioned by the abilities of the individual student. Upon completion of their MAs student remained at the university receiving instruction in the various practical aspects of their future careers, teaching practice, basic theology for sermons and so forth until a suitable vacancy became available. Only a very, very small percentage of these students formally matriculated for a doctorate in theology, an unnecessary qualification for a simple pastor. Most Catholic priest of the period also did not possess a doctorate in theology. Kepler was not one of those who chose to do a doctorate in theology but was simply a participant in the general career preparation course for schoolteachers and pastor; a course for which there were no formal final exams or qualifications.

Kepler had been in this career holding pattern, so to speak, for not quite three years when the Evangelical Church authorities in Graz asked the University in Tübingen to recommend a new mathematics teacher for their school. After due consideration the university chose Kepler, who had displayed a high aptitude for mathematics, for the position. After some hesitation Kepler accepted the posting. He could have refused but it would not have placed him as a stipendiary in a very good position with the authorities. He was also free to leave the system and return to civil life but this would have meant having to reimburse his stipend.

It was clear from the beginning of his studies that he could, or would, be appointed either a schoolteacher or a pastor but the young Johannes had set his heart on serving his God as a pastor and was thus initially deeply disappointed by his appointment. The turning point came in Graz when he realised, in a moment of revelation, that he could best serve his God, a geometrical creator, by revealing the mathematical wonders of that creation. And so he dedicated his life to being God’s geometer, a task that he fulfilled with some distinction.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science

If you are going to blazon out history of science ‘facts’ at least get them right

Today’s Torygraph has a short video entitled 10 Remarkable Facts about rainbows, at 57 seconds it displays the following text:

Until the 17th Century, no one had

the faintest idea what a rainbow

was, how it got there or what it was

made of…

This is, of course, simply not true. In the 14th century the Persian scholar Kamal al-Din Hasan ibn Ali ibn Hasan al-Farisi (1267–1319) gave the correct scientific explanation of the rainbow in his Tanqih al-Manazir (The Revision of the Optics). Almost contemporaneously the German scholar Theodoric of Freiberg (c. 1250–c. 1310) gave the same correct explanation in his De iride et radialibus impressionibus (On the Rainbow and the impressions created by irradiance). The two scholars arrived at their conclusion independently of each other but both of them did experiments involving the study of light rays passing through glass spheres full of water and both scholars were influenced by the optical theories of Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham. Unfortunately both explanations disappeared and it was in fact first in the 17th Century that the Croatian scholar Marco de Antonio Dominis (1560–1624) once again gave an almost correct explanation of the rainbow in his Tractatus de radiis visus et lucis in vitris, perspectivis et iride.

De Dominis' explanation of the rainbow Source: Wikimedia Commons

De Dominis’ explanation of the rainbow
Source: Wikimedia Commons


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

How do we kill off myths of science zombies?

The Internet is a sort of cyberspace limbo where myths in the history of science, which have been debunked a long time ago, keep popping up on social media as #histsci zombies, the history of science undead. One such that has popped up to haunt me several times in recent weeks is the claim that Johannes Kepler murdered Tycho Brahe. This claim was at best ludicrous and, having been thoroughly debunked, is now just pathetic but continues to ghost through cyberspace as a #histsci zombie. Where does it come from, who put it into the world and did it ever have any validity?

Portrait of Kepler by an unknown artist, 1610 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Kepler by an unknown artist, 1610
Source: Wikimedia Commons

After protracted negotiations and a return to Graz to fetch his family Johannes Kepler began to work with Tycho Brahe in Prague as his assistant in late 1600, not as his student as is often falsely stated. In September 1601, Tycho managed to negotiate an official position for Kepler at the Imperial Court of the German Emperor Rudolph II. Their partnership was however short lived, as Tycho died 24 October 1601. According to Kepler’s account Tycho had retained his urine during a banquet eleven days earlier, so as not to breach etiquette by leaving the table. Upon returning home he was unable to urinate, fell ill and falling into delirium died, apparently of some sort of urinary infection. This was the state of play in 1601 and remained unchanged until 1901.

Tycho Brahe Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho Brahe
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1901 Tycho’s body was exhumed and an autopsy carried out that failed to establish a cause of death. However when the corpse was reburied a sample of his beard hair was retained. In 1990 this hair sample was analysed and found to contain abnormally high levels of mercury, which led to the speculation that Tycho had died of mercury poisoning. At this point there was no real suspicion of murder but more speculation about an accidental mercury poisoning. Tycho was a Paracelsian pharmacist, who along with his observatory on Hven ran a pharmacy that produced various medical remedies. The speculation was that he had either poisoned himself whilst working with mercury, a not uncommon problem amongst pharmacists in the Early Modern period when mercury was used extensively in medicines, or that he had poisoned himself by taking one of his own mercury containing remedies.

The first real accusations that Tycho had been murdered, that is poisoned by another person, came with the publication in 2004 of Joshua & Anne-Lee Gilder’s book Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries. Put simply the Gilders claimed that Kepler had poisoned Tycho to gain access to his astronomical data. The first part of their book, in which they outline the lives of Tycho and Kepler is actually well researched and well written but it’s when they come to the cause of Tycho’s death the book goes of the rails.

The Gilder’s build a chain of speculative, unsubstantiated, circumstantial evidence leading to their conclusions that Tycho was murdered and Johannes Kepler did the evil deed. Any able defence lawyer or competent historian of science could dismantle the Gilder’s rickety and highly dubious chain of evidence without too much effort leading to a full acquittal of the accused. Unfortunately most book reviewers are neither lawyers nor historians of science and the popular press reviewers jumped on the book and swallowed the Gilder’s arguments hook, line and sinker. The result was that Kepler went from being a hero of the scientific revolution to being a perfidious murderer, almost overnight.

Fascinatingly, the furore created by the popular press led to an international team of experts being granted permission to exhume Tycho’s corpse and to carry out yet another autopsy. The noble Dane would not be allowed to rest in peace. This was duly done in 2010 and the corpse, or what was left of it, was subjected to a battery of scientific tests. All of this activity led to the popular science press publishing a cart load of articles, many of them on the Internet, asking if Kepler had indeed poisoned Tycho most of them skewing their articles strongly in the direction of a guilty verdict.

The international team of archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, pathologists and whoever took their time but in 2012 they finally published their results. There was not enough mercury present in the samples to have caused mercury poisoning and there were no other poison found in any quantities whatsoever. Tycho was not poisoned by Johannes Kepler or anybody else for that matter. A second independent team re-analysed the beard hairs taken from the corpse in 1901 and confirmed that there was not enough mercury present to have caused mercury poisoning.

The press outlets both popular and scientific that had trumpeted the Gilder’s highly dubious claims out into the world did not apply the same enthusiasm to reporting the negative results of the autopsy. Those lengthy articles in the Internet claiming, implying, insinuating or suggesting that Kepler had done for his employer were not updated, amended or corrected to reflect the truth and the Gilder’s book was not withdrawn from the market or consigned to the wastepaper basket, where it very definitely belongs. Below is part of the sales pitch for that book taken just a couple of hours ago from

But that is only half the story. Based on recent forensic evidence (analyzed here for the first time) and original research into medieval and Renaissance alchemy—all buttressed by in-depth interviews with leading historians, scientists, and medical specialists—the authors have put together shocking and compelling evidence that Tycho Brahe did not die of natural causes, as has been believed for four hundred years. He was systematically poisoned—most likely by his assistant, Johannes Kepler.

An epic tale of murder and scientific discovery, Heavenly Intrigue reveals the dark side of one of history’s most brilliant minds and tells the story of court politics, personal intrigue, and superstition that surrounded the protean invention of two great astronomers and their quest to find truth and beauty in the heavens above.

The result of all this is that historian of astronomy of the Early Modern period are forced to indulge in a game of historical Whac-A-Mole every time that somebody stumbles across one of those articles in the Internet and starts broadcasting on Twitter, Facebook or wherever that Johannes Kepler murdered Tycho Brahe.





Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science