Category Archives: History of science

Measure for measure

The Brexit vote in the UK has produced a bizarre collection of desires of those Leavers eager to escape the poisonous grasp of the Brussels’ bureaucrats. At the top of their list is a return of the death penalty, a piece of errant stupidity that I shall leave largely uncommented here. Not far behind is the wish to abandon the metric system and to return to selling fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces. This is particularly strange for a number of reasons. Firstly the UK went metric in 1965, six years before it joined the EU. Secondly EU regulations actually allows countries to use other systems of weights and measures parallel to the metric system, so there is nothing in EU law stopping greengrocers selling you a pound of carrots or bananas. Thirdly the country having gone metric in 1965, anybody in the UK under the age of about fifty is going to have a very hard time knowing what exactly pounds and ounces are.

Most readers of this blog will have now gathered that I have spent more than half my life living in Germany. Germany is of course one of the founding states of the EU and as such has been part of it from the very beginning in 1957. The various states that now constitute Germany also went metric at various points in the nineteenth century, the earliest in 1806-15, and the latest in 1868. However the Germans are a very pragmatic folk and I can and do buy my vegetables on the market place in Erlangen in pounds and half pounds. The Germans like most Europeans used variation of the predecessors to the so-called Imperial system of weights and measures and simple re-designated the pound (Pfund in German) to be half a kilo. The Imperial pound is actually approximately 454 grams and for practical purposes when buying potatoes or apples the 46-gram difference if negligible. Apparently the British are either too stupid or too inflexible to adopt such a pragmatic solution.

At the beginning of the month Tory dingbat and wanna be journalist Simon Heffer wrote an article in The Telegraph with the glorious title, Now that we are to be a sovereign nation again, we must bring back imperial units. I haven’t actually read it because one has to register in order to do so and I would rather drink bleach than register with the Torygraph. I shall also not link to the offending article, as it will only encourage them. Heffer charges into the fray thus:

But I know from my postbag that there is another infliction from the decades of our EU membership that many would like to be shot of, and that was the imposition of the metric system on large parts of our life. 

Consumer resistance ensured that our beer is still served in pints (though not in half-pint and pint bottles when bought in supermarkets: brewers please note), and that our signposts are still marked in miles.

As pointed out above it was not the EU who imposed the metric system on British lives but the British government before the UK joined the EU. According to EU regulations you can serve drinks in any quantities you like just as long as the glasses are calibrated, so keeping the traditional pint glasses and mugs in British pubs was never a problem. Alcohol is sold in Germany in a bewildering range of different size glasses depending on the local traditions. My beer drinking German friends (the Germans invented the stuff, you know) particularly like pints of beer because they say that they contain a mouthful more beer that a half litre glass. Sadly many bars in Franconia have gone over to selling beer in 0.4litre glasses to increase their profits, but I digress.

UK signposts are still marked in miles because the government could not afford the cost of replacing all of them when the UK went metric. Expediency not national pride was the motivation here.

Just before Heffer’s diatribe disappears behind the registration wall he spouts the following:

But we have been forced on to the Celsius temperature scale, which is less precise than Fahrenheit

When I read this statement I went back to check if the article had been published on 1 April, it hadn’t! Is the international scientific community aware of the fact that they have been conned into using an inaccurate temperature scale? (I know that scientist actually use the Kelvin temperature scale but it’s the same as the Celsius scale with a different zero point, so I assume by Heffer’s logic(!) it suffers from the same inaccuracy). Will all of those zillions of experiments and research programmes carried out using the Celsius/Kelvin scale have to be repeated with the accurate Fahrenheit scale? Does Simon Heffer actually get paid for writing this crap?


Anders Celcius Portrait by Olof Arenius Source: Wikimedia Commons


Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit

Like myself on being confronted with the bring back imperial weights and measures madness lots of commentators pointed out that the UK went metric in 1965 but is this true? No, it isn’t! The UK actually went metric, by act of parliament over one hundred years earlier in 1864! The nineteenth century contains some pretty stirring history concerning the struggles between the metric and imperial systems and we will now take a brief look at them.

As soon as it became in someway necessary for humans to measure things in their environment it was fairly obvious that they would use parts of their body to do so. If we want a quick approximate measure of something we still pace it out or measure it with the length of an arm or the span of our fingers. So it was natural that parts of the body became the units of measurement, the foot, the forearm, the arm span and so on and so forth. This system of course suffers from the fact that we are not all the same size. My foot is shorter than yours; my forearm is longer than my partners. This led cultures with a strong central bureaucracy to develop standard feet and forearms. The various Fertile Crescent cultures developed sophisticated weights and measures systems, as did the Roman Empire and it is the latter that is the forefather of the imperial system. The Roman foot was between 29.5 and 30 cm, the pace was 2.5 feet and the Roman mile was 5000 feet. The word mile comes from the Latin for thousand, mille. The Roman military, which was very standardised, carried the Roman system of weights and measures to large parts of Europe thus establishing their standards overall.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire their standardised system of weights and measures slowly degenerated and whilst the names were retained their dimensions varied from district to district and from town to town. In the eighth and ninth centuries Karl der Große (that’s Charlemagne for the Brits) succeeded in uniting a substantial part of Europe under his rule. Although he was uneducated and illiterate he was a strong supporter of education and what passed at the time for science and amongst his reforms he introduced a unified system of weights and measures for his entire empire, another forefather of the imperial system. Things are looking quite grim for the anti-European supporters of the imperial system; it was born in Rome the birthplace of the EU and was reborn at the hands of a German, nothing very British here.

Karl’s attempt to impose a unified system of weights and measures on his empire was not a great success and soon after his death each district and town went back to their own local standards, if they ever left them. Throughout the Middle Ages and deep into the Early Modern Period traders had to live with the fact that a foot in Liège was not the same as a foot in Venice and a pound in Copenhagen was not a pound in Vienna.

This chaos provided work for the reckoning masters producing tables of conversions or actually doing the conversions for the traders, as well as running reckoning schools for the apprentice traders where they taught the arithmetic and algebra necessary to do the conversions, writing the textbooks for the tuition as well. The lack of unity in currency and mensuration in medieval Europe was a major driving force in the development algebra – the rule of three ruled supreme.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century Simon Stevin and Christoph Clavius introduced decimal fractions and the decimal point into European mathematics, necessary requirements for a decimal based metric system of mensuration. Already in the middle of the seventeenth century just such a system emerged and not from the dastardly French but from a true blue English man, who was an Anglican bishop to boot, polymath, science supporter, communicator, founding member of the Royal Society and one of its first secretaries, John Wilkins (1614–1672).

Greenhill, John, c.1649-1676; John Wilkins (1614-1672), Warden (1648-1659)

Greenhill, John; John Wilkins (1614-1672), Warden (1648-1659); Wadham College, University of Oxford;

Asked by the society to devise a universal standard of measure he devoted four pages of his monumental An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668) to the subject.


Title Page Source: Wikimedia Commons

He proposed a decimal system of measure based on a universal measure derived from nature for use between ‘learned men’ of various nations. He considered atmospheric pressure, the earth’s meridian and the pendulum as his universal measure, rejecting the first as susceptible to variation, the second as immeasurable and settled on the length of the second pendulum as his measure of length. Volume should be the cubic of length and weight a cubic standard of water. To all extents and purposes he proposed the metric system. His proposal fell, however, on deaf ears.


European units of length in the first third of the 19th century Part 1


European units of length in the first third of the 19th century Part 2

As science developed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century it became obvious that some sort of universal system of measurement was a necessity and various people in various countries addressed to subject. In 1790 the revolutionary Assemblée in France commissioned the Académie to investigate the topic. A committee consisting of Jean-Charles de Borda, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Gaspard Monge and Nicolas de Condorcet, all leading scientific figures, recommended the adoption of a decimal metric system based on one ten-millionth of one quarter of the Earth’s circumference. The proposal was accepted by the Assemblée on 30 March 1791. Actually determining the length of one quarter of the Earth circumference turned into a major project fraught with difficulties, which I can’t do justice to here in an already overlong blog post, but if you are interested then read Ken Adler’s excellent The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey That Transformed The World.


Standard meter on the left of the entrance of the french Ministère de la Justice, Paris, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons

However Britain needed a unified system of mensuration, as they still had the problem that every town had different local standards for foot, pound etc. John Herschel the rising leading scientific figure wanted a new decimal imperial system based on the second pendulum but in the end parliament decide to stick with the old imperial system taking a physical yard housed in the Houses of Parliament as the standard for the whole of the UK. Unfortunately disaster struck. The Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834 and with it the official standard yard. It took the scientists several years to re-establish the length of the official yard and meanwhile a large number were still advocating for the adoption of the metric system.


The informal public imperial measurement standards erected at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London, in the 19th century: 1 British yard, 2 feet, 1 foot, 6 inches, and 3 inches. The inexact monument was designed to permit rods of the correct measure to fit snugly into its pins at an ambient temperature of 62 °F (16.66 °C) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The debate now took a scurrile turn with the introduction of pyramidology! An English writer, John Taylor, developed the thesis that the Great Pyramid was constructed using the imperial system and that the imperial system was somehow divine. Strangely his ideas were adopted and championed by Charles Piazzi Smyth the Astronomer Royal of Scotland and even received tacit and indirect support from John Herschel, who rejected the pyramidology aspect but saw Taylor’s pyramid inch as the natural standard of length.

However wiser heads prevailed and the leaders of the British Victorian scientific community made major contributions to the expansion of the metric system towards the SI system, used internationally by scientists today. They applied political pressure and in 1864 the politicians capitulated and parliament passed the Metric (Weights and Measures) Act. This permitted the use of weights and measures in Britain. Further acts followed in 1867, 1868, 1871 and 1873 extending the permitted use of the metre. However the metric system could be used for scientific purposes but not for business. For that, Britain would have to wait another one hundred and one years!

Interestingly, parallel to the discussion about systems of mensuration in the nineteenth century, a discussing took place about the adoption of a single prime meridian for cartographical, navigational, and time purposes. In the end the two main contenders were the observatories in Paris and Greenwich. Naturally neither Britain nor France was prepared to concede to the other. To try and solve the stalemate it was suggested that in exchange for Paris accepting Greenwich as the prime meridian London should adopt the metric system of measurement. By the end of the nineteenth century both countries had nominally agreed to the deal without a formal commitment. Although France fulfilled their half of this deal sometime early in the twentieth century, Britain took until 1965 before they fulfilled their half.

Should the Leavers get their wish and the UK returns to the imperial system of measurement then they will be joining an elite group consisting of the USA, Myanmar and Liberia, the only countries in the world that don’t have the metric system as their national system of measurement for all purposes.


Filed under History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of science, Uncategorized

A birthday amongst the stars

Readers will probably be aware that as well as writing this blog I also hold, on a more or less regular basis, semi-popular, public lectures on the history of science. These lectures are as diverse as this blog and have been held in a wide variety of places. However I have, over the years, held more lectures in the Nürnberg Planetarium than anywhere else and last Thursday I was once again under the dome, this time not to hold a lecture but to help celebrate the ninetieth birthday of this august institution.

Before the twentieth century the term planetarium was a synonym for orrery, a mechanical model, which demonstrates the movements of the planets in the solar system. The beginnings of the planetarium in the modern sense was as Walther Bauersfeld, an engineer of the German optics company Zeiss, produced the plans for the construction of a planetarium projector based on earlier concepts. In 1923 the world’s first planetarium projector, the Zeiss Mark I, was demonstrated in the Zeiss factory in Jena and two months later on 21 October in the Deutschen Museum in Munich. Following further developments the first planetarium was opened in the Deutschen Museum on 7 May 1925.

Zeiss Mark I Planetarium Projector

Various German town and cities followed suit and the city council of Nürnberg signed a contract with Zeiss for a planetarium projector on 12 February 1925. The contract called for the city council to pay Zeiss 150, 000 Reichsmark ( a small fortune) in three instalments and 10% of the takings from the public shows. In a building on Rathenauplatz designed by Otto Ernst Schweizer the Nürnberg planetarium opened ninety years ago on 10 April 1927.

Original Nürnberg Planetarium

Fitted out with a new Zeiss Mark II projector the first of the so-called dumbbell design projectors with a sphere at each end for the north and south hemispheres. It was the world’s ninth planetarium.

Zeiss Mark II Planetarium Projector

From the very beginning the planetarium was born under a bad sign as the NSDAP (Nazi) city councillor, Julius Streicher, (notorious as the editor of the anti-Semitic weekly newspaper Der Stürmer) vehemently opposed the plans of the SPD council to build the planetarium. On 30 January 1933 the NSDAP seized power in Germany and the days of the planetarium were numbered. In November the planetarium director was ‘persuaded’ to recommend closing the planetarium and at the beginning of December it was closed. There were discussions about using the building for another purpose but Streicher, now Gauleiter (district commissioner) of Franconia was out for revenge. In March 1934 the planetarium was demolished on Streicher’s orders, with the argument that it looked too much like a synagogue! However the projector, and all the technical equipment, was rescued and put into storage.

Historischer Kunstbunker Entrance: There are guided tours

During the Second World War the projector was stored together with the art treasures of the city in the Historischer Kunstbunker (historical art bunker), a tunnel under the Castle of Nürnberg.

Following the war, in the 1950s, as Nürnberg was being rebuilt the city council decided to rebuild the planetarium and on 11 December 1961 it was reopened on the new site on the Plärrer, with an updated Zeiss Mark III. During the celebrations for the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Nicolaus Copernicus in 1973, whose De revolutionibus was printed and published in Nürnberg, the planetarium became the Nicolaus-Copernicus-Planetarium. In 1977 the Mark III projector was replaced with a Mark V, which is still in service and in 2010 the planetarium entered the twenty-first century with a digital Full-Dome projector.

Nicolaus-Copernicus-Planetarium am Plärrer in Nürnberg (2013)

The Zeiss Mark V Planetarium Projector in Nürnberg

Since the 1990’s the planetarium has been part of the City of Nürnberg’s adult education complex and alongside the planetarium programme it is used extensively for STEM lectures. I shall be holding my next lecture there on 28 November this year about Vannevar Bush, Claude Shannon, Robert H Goddard and William Shockley- Four Americans Who Shaped the Future (in German!) and if you’re in the area you’re welcome to come and throw peanuts.





Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, Uncategorized

Has The Renaissance Mathematicus gone over to the dark side?

As the ultimate anti-establishment, indie rock band, The Grateful Dead, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, commented something along the lines of, it’s like the neighbourhood whore, if she stands on the corner long enough then eventually she becomes part of the establishment. And so it has came to pass than your friendly neighbourhood indie, anti-establishment, arse kicking, history of science blogger, The Renaissance Mathematicus, got asked, no, not asked, invited to submit an article to the latest edition[1] of the British Society for the History of Science online journal Viewpoints! He, being the publicity whore that he is, putting aside all thoughts of tarnishing his brand or weakening his reputation accepted with alacrity. And so it is that you, dear readers, can peruse his words of wisdom in the latest edition of that honourable establishment publication. For those that brave of vicissitudes of this dubious blog at regular intervals there is nothing in the latest outpourings of the #histsci hooligan that will be new to you but there are, with certainty, many other good and worthy things to read in this excellent journal, so why don’t you just stroll on over and indulge in some first class history of science story telling.

[1] When I originally wrote this post it was the latest edition of Viewpoint but I couldn’t find a link so I never posted this. Now that I have found a link it’s still the latest issue but no longer dew fresh.


Filed under Autobiographical, History of science, Myths of Science

Sorry Caroline but you were not the first, Maria was

Today is the birthday of Caroline Herschel, important member of the Herschel astronomical clan and significant astronomer in her own right, who was born 16 March 1750.

Caroline Herschel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Internet this anniversary is being acknowledged and celebrated, and quite rightly so, but all of those doing so that I have stumbled across, including such august organisations as the BBC, the Royal Society, NASA and ESA amongst other, have all being perpetuating a history of astronomy myth, namely that Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discover a comet. She wasn’t Maria Kirch was!

Caroline Herschel made her first cometary discovery, having been trained to sweep for comets by her brother William and being provided by him with her own comet sweeping telescope, on 1 August 1786, almost sixty-six years after the death of her fellow German female astronomer and the real first woman to discover a comet, Maria Kirch.

Maria Kirch, who I’ve written about briefly in the past, was the wife and working partner of Gottfried Kirch, who was a pupil of Erhard Weigel and who became the first Prussian state astronomer in Berlin in 1700. Maria and Gottfried had married in 1692. On 21 April 1702 Maria discovered the so-called comet of 1702 (C/1702 H1). You will note this is eighty-four years before Caroline Herschel discovered her first comet. Unfortunately for Maria, the sexist eighteenth century attributed the discovery to her husband Gottfried and not to her. Although Gottfried publically attributed the discovery to Maria in 1710 the official attribution has not been changed to this day.

Not only was Maria Kirch robbed of recognition of her discovery in the sexist eighteenth century but people too lazy to check their facts deny her achievement every time they falsely claim that Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discovery a comet.




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

An orb by any other name would circle as smoothly

Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons Mission to Pluto is calling for a new definition for planets in order to return Pluto to, what he and other see as its former glory, the status of a planet. The so called demotion of Pluto caused the release of strong emotions amongst the distant planet’s fans and the stunning success of the New Horizons mission added fuel to the flames in the on going debate. Many of those participating seem to be somewhat unaware of the fact that the definition of what is a planet has changed down the centuries and I thought I would write a brief guide to the changing fortunes of the term planet since its inception in antiquity.

It should be made clear that I shall only be talking about European astronomy and not any other traditions such as Chinese, Indian, Mayan astronomies etc. European astronomy/astrology has its roots in ancient Babylon. The Babylonian tradition was most concerned with the Moon and the Sun but the Babylonians were aware of the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which they like other ancient cultures regarded as divinities. They tracked their orbits over very long periods of time and developed algorithms to determine their appearances and disappearances for omen astrological purposes. They don’t appear to have been interested in the mechanism of the planetary orbits. I’m anything but an expert on Babylonian astronomy/astrology and I don’t know if they had a collective name for them.

The direct inheritors of the Babylonian celestial interests were the ancient Greeks and they were very much interested in orbital mechanics and they also coined the term planet. For the Greeks all illuminated objects in the heavens were stars (aster, astron), as I explained in an earlier post. The stars as we know them were the fixed stars because they appeared to remain in place relative to each other whilst the sphere of the fixed stars rotated about the celestial axis once every twenty-four hours. It was of course the Earth that rotated about its axis and not the stars but the Greeks were not aware of that. The illusion that the stars, visible to the naked-eye, are all equidistant to the Earth is easy to experience. Just go out into the countryside were there is no light pollution and look up at the night sky on a clear night. You will see the ‘sphere of the fixed stars’, as experienced by the ancient Greeks. Comets, much rarer and apparently random, were hairy stars, the word comet derives from the Greek aster kometes, literally long-haired star. The five planets known to the Babylonians and the Moon and the Sun were all present on a regular basis but unlike the fixed stars they appeared to wander around the heavens and so they became asteres planetai that is wandering stars, from planasthai to wander. The Greeks had seven wanderers Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The Earth was of course stationary at the middle of the whole system and so was not a planet.

16th-century representation of Ptolemy’s geocentric model in Peter Apian’s Cosmographia, 1524
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Subsequent European cultures and the Islamic Empire inherited the Greek model of the heavens with its seven wanderers and nothing of significance changed down the centuries until the Renaissance and the advent of Copernican heliocentrism in 1543. Copernicus’s new model was of course a major upheaval. The Sun became stationary and the Earth became a planet wandering through the heavens. The Moon acquired a strange new status, no longer orbiting the centre, now the Sun, but orbiting the Earth. Heliocentricity took more than one hundred years to become establish and Copernicus’ upheaval brought no immediate change of terminology.

The heliocentric order of the heavens from Copernicus’ De revolutionibus 1543

The first change came in 1610 with the telescopic discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter by Galileo and Simon Marius. Here we have four new celestial bodies orbiting a planet, as with the Moon, and not the centre of the cosmos. At first Galileo referred to them as stars or planets, leading Kepler, who was at first not clear what the four new objects were, to panic and fear that Giordano Bruno was right and that all stars had planets. This conflicted with Kepler’s own finite universe cosmology. He was greatly relieved to discover that the new planets were in reality moons and coined the term satellite from the Latin satillitem meaning attendant, companion, courtier, accomplice or assistant. Kepler was very fond of creating new scientific terminology. The term was not adopted immediately but by the end of the seventeenth century astronomers differentiated between planets and satellites, around the same time as heliocentricity became firmly established and the Sun finally ceased to be a planet and the Earth finally became one. Around the same time astronomers became convinced that the Sun was actually one of the ‘fixed’ stars.

We entered the eighteenth century with six planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and so it remained until the musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel shocked the world with the discovery of a seventh one, Uranus on 13 March 1781. The first new planet discovered in about four thousand years of planetary astronomy.

William Herschel. Portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott 1785, National Portrait Gallery, London
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of the eighteenth century Johann Elert Bode published what is now know as the Titus-Bode law in which the distance of the planets from the sun seemed to fit an arithmetical series with a gap in the series between Mars and Jupiter. Herschel’s discovery of Uranus beyond Saturn fit the Titus-Bode series, which led the German astronomer Baron Franz Xaver von Zach to organise a systematic search for that ‘missing planet’ between Mars and Jupiter. In fact the discovery was made by the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, who was not part of Zach’s search team but discovered Ceres on 1 January 1801, exactly, where it should be according to the Titus-Bode law and then there were eight. Interestingly Piazzi lost Ceres and Carl Friedrich Gauss developed a new method of determining planetary orbits, which allowed astronomers to find it again. Very soon other astronomers discovered Pallas, Juno and Vesta and there were now eleven planets. It was not long before it became clear that the four new celestial bodies were somehow different to the other planets and Herschel coined the term ἀστεροειδής, or asteroeidēs, meaning ‘star-like, star-shaped’, in English asteroid. These smaller wanderers were also known as minor planets or planetoids although it was first in the later nineteenth century, by which time several more asteroids had been discovered that these terms became established and the number of planets was once again reduced, not to seven but to eight!

Piazzi’s book “Della scoperta del nuovo pianeta Cerere Ferdinandea” outlining the discovery of Ceres, dedicated the new “planet” to Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was eight because in the mean time both the English astronomer John Crouch Adams and the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier had predicted the existence of an eighth planet based on gravitational anomalies in the orbit of Uranus and on 23 September 1846 the German observational astronomer discovered Neptune, the eighth planet, based on the predictions of Le Verrier.

Urbain Le Verrier
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the late nineteenth century similar anomalies in the orbit of Neptune led Percival Lowell to predict the existence of a ninth planet and he set up his own observatory to search for it. In 1916 Lowell died without having found his predicted planet. However in 1929/30 the young Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, the ninth planet.

From: O’Hara, Elva R. (2006). Clyde W. Tombaugh: Farm Boy Reached for the Stars. Borderlands 25.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with Ceres and the asteroids Pluto’s planetary status was challenged by the discovery of other orbiting objects in the Kuiper belt outside of the orbit of Neptune from the 1990s onward. The discovery of Eris in 2005 led to a serious reconsideration of Pluto’s planetary status and famously in 2006 the International Astronomical Union introduced a new formal definition of the term planet, which removed Pluto’s planetary status and according to Pluto’s fans demoted it to the status of a dwarf planet. At the moment there are five recognised dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres (the largest asteroid), Haumea, Makemake and Eris.

Eris (center) and Dysnomia (left of center), taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
Image NASA
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As I said at the beginning the Pluto fan club has not given up the fight and are now proposing a new definition of the term planet, which would not only return Pluto to its planetary status but also apparently the Moon. I hope I have shown that the term planet has gone through quite a lot of changes over the last two and a half thousand years or so since the ancient Greeks first coined it and we can, I think, assume that it will go through quite a few more in the future in particular with respect to the thousands of exoplanets that astronomers are busy discovering.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science

Conrad Gesner Day 2017

Anyone who pokes around long enough here at the Renaissance Mathematicus will realise that I have a fondness for polymaths. It is in fact interesting how many of the leading researcher in history were in fact polymaths. One of my favourites is the Swiss Renaissance physician, classicist, Hebraist, natural historian, bibliographer and mountaineer, Conrad Gesner.

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Last year on the five hundredth anniversary of his birth I duly recycled my old Conrad Gesner post and discovered to my delight that I had a small but distinguished Gesner fan club on my Twitter stream. We spent a happy 24 plus hours tweeting and retweeting each other’s tributes to and admirations of the Swiss polymath. At some point in a flippant mood I suggested that we should celebrate an annual Conrad Gesner Day on, 26 March his birthday. The suggestion was taken up with enthusiasm by the others and so we parted.

A couple of months ago Gesner’s name came up again and I said I was serious about celebrating Conrad Gesner Day and all the others immediately responded that they were very much still up for it so it’s on. At the moment Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL @BioDivLIbrary), Michelle Marshall (Historical SciArt (@HistSciArt), New York Academy of Medicine Center for History (@NYAMHistory), the rare book librarian at Smithsonian Libraries and I are committed to celebrating Conrad Gesner Day. What about you?

What is going to happen? That’s up to all those involved. You can post blog posts, post illustrations from Gesner’s works on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever, where ever. Post links to sites about Gesner. If you want to write something on Gesner but don’t have your own blog, contact me and I’ll post it here at the Renaissance Mathematicus. I will collect all the contributions and post a Whewell’s Gazette style links list here at RM on the Monday.

The aim is not to glorify Conrad Gesner but to raise peoples’ awareness of a fascinating and important figure in the history of Renaissance science. Join us! Make a contribution! We already have a hash tag .




Filed under History of science, Renaissance Science

Not German but also not Polish

I recently wrote a post concerning the problems historians can and do face assigning a nationality to figures from the past that they are studying. In the history of science one of the most contentious figures in this sense was and apparently still is the Renaissance astronomer Nicolas Copernicus. The question of his nationality produced a massive war of words between Poland and Germany, both of whom claim him as their own, which started in the late eighteenth century and unfortunately still rumbles on today.

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń - 1580 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń – 1580
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today is Copernicus’ birthday (19 February 1473) and all over the Internet British and American posters are being, what they see as, scrupulously, politically correct and announcing today as the birthday of the Polish astronomer… All very well but it isn’t factually right.

Nicolas Copernicus was born in the city of Toruń, which is today in Poland but wasn’t at the time of his birth. The whole area in which Copernicus was born and in which he lived for all of his life, except when he was away studying at university, was highly dispute territory over which several wars were fought. Between 1454 and 1466 the Thirteen Years’ War was fought between the Prussian Confederation allied with the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the State of the Teutonic Knights. This war ended with the Second Peace of Toruń under which Toruń remained a free city now under the patronage of the Polish King.

As I pointed out in an earlier post Copernicus spent all of his adult life, after graduating from university, as a citizen of Ermland (Warmia), which was then an autonomous Prince Bishopric ruled by the Bishop of Frombork and the canons of the cathedral chapter, of which Copernicus was one.

All of this means that Copernicus was neither German nor Polish but was born a citizen of Toruń and died a citizen of Ermland. I realise that this doesn’t fit our neat modern concept of national states but that is the historical reality that people should learn to live with and to accept.




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