Category Archives: History of science

Political correctness and the history of science

Anyone who regularly reads this blog will be already aware that the historian David Wootton has written a new book entitled The Invention of Science: A New History of The Scientific Revolution; in The Times (unfortunately behind a pay wall) Gerard DeGroot doesn’t so much review the book as perform a very nasty, vindictive hatchet job on it. DeGroot doesn’t just raise the spectre of eurocentrism in his critic he formally slaps Wootton in the face with it from the very opening paragraph of his review. This raises the question as to whether he is right to do so and whether Wootton is guilty as charged. Before I address these points I would like to briefly review what exactly eurocentrism with respect to the history of science is.

There used to be a brief standard sketch of the history of science, that probably arose some time in the Enlightenment but which owes much of its ethos to Renaissance historiography. This outline usually goes something like this. Science[1] was invented by the ancient Greeks. After the collapse of civilisation in the Dark Ages (a deliberate use of a discredited term here) science was rescued and conserved (but not changed or added to) by the Islamic Empire before being retrieved in the Renaissance by the Europeans, who then went on to create modern science in the Scientific Revolution. This piece of mythology reflected the triumphalist historiography of a colonialist Europe in the throws of dominating and exploiting large parts of the rest of the world.

During the twentieth century historians, many of them Europeans, dismantled this piece of fiction and began to explore and elucidate the histories of science of other cultures such as Egypt, Babylon, China, India and the Islamic Empire, creating in the process a much wider and infinitely more complex picture of the history of science, consisting of transfers of knowledge across space and time throughout the last approximately four thousand years. This newly acquired knowledge exposed anybody who still insisted on propagating part or all of the earlier fairy story to the charge of eurocentrism, a charge that when considering the whole of the history of science is more than justified.

Unfortunately, as I have commented in the past, this also led to an over zealous backlash on behalf of the previously wronged cultures particularly on the Internet. One only needs to state that X (a European) discovered/invented Y (some piece of science, technology, medicine, mathematics…) for some over assiduous commentator (almost always not a historian of science) to pop up saying, that’s not true Z (an Indian, Islamic, Chinese, or whatever scholar) discovered/invented Y long before X was even born. Occasionally these claims are correct but much more often they are inaccurate, exaggerated or just plain false. Any attempt to correct the informant leads inevitably to an accusation of eurocentrism. Eurocentrism has become a sort of universal weapon used indiscriminately whether it is applicable or not.

Wootton’s book deals not with a general universal history of science but as it very clearly states in its subtitle with the Scientific Revolution a historical episode that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period. Whether one is, as a historian, a ‘revolutionary’ or a ‘gradualist’ there is no doubt that following its reintroduction into Europe during the High Middle Ages that which we call science, irrespective of its original sources, underwent a radical change that led to the emergence by, at the latest, the nineteenth century, science as we know it today. The major difference between Wootton and myself is that he thinks this process took place almost entirely within the seventeenth century whereas I see a timeframe stretching from the fourteenth century to at least the middle of the eighteenth.

Wootton is writing about a historical phenomenon that took place exclusively within Europe to accuse him of eurocentrism is to say the least perverse. If this were not a European phenomenon then the so-called Needham question would simply be nonsensical. Joseph Needham (1900-195) was the twentieth century’s greatest historian of Chinese science and instigator of the monumental, on going seven volume Science and Civilisation in China. The question that Needham posed runs as follows “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo [but] had not developed in Chinese civilisation or Indian civilisation?” He could have equally well have posed the same question for the Islamic Empire. Many historians have tacked this question respective the three cultures and their answers are as diverse, as they are inconclusive. Some approach the question by trying to address the reasons for the decline of science and technology in China, India or the Islamic Empire whereas others try to isolate the factors that led to the Scientific Revolution in Europe. Although he doesn’t directly address the Needham question Wootton’s can be seen as an example of the latter.

If I were to be charitable to DeGroot it would appear that his main error lies in his interpretation of the word science as used by Wootton in his main title. It is clear that what Wootton intends is ‘modern science’ as used by Needham in the quote of his famous question above. DeGroot, I think disingenuously choses it to mean any form of scientific activity from anywhere and anytime in human history. We can see this conflict of interpretations in the following quotes from DeGroot:

…to assert that science was invented between certain dates in western European history automatically imposes a proprietary right – by defining science in a certain way it becomes, in essence, European.


A different intellectual climate existed in India, China and the Middle East, [in the Middle Ages] however. Outside Europe, minds were more open to progress and curiosity fired scientific enquiry. For instance great strides were made in pure and applied mathematics, optics, astronomy and medicine in the Middle East long before Columbus set sail [Wootton sees 1492 and Columbus’ first voyage as the starting point of the Scientific Revolution]. As early as the 10th century, brilliant scientists (not exclusively Muslim) were drawn to centres of learning in Baghdad, Balkh and Bukhara. These scholars considered Europe an intellectual backwater, yet hardly get a mention in this book. In other words, the so-called Scientific Revolution seems like a revolution only if we ignore what was happening outside Europe.

The first quote is a clear accusation of eurocentrism and the second is DeGroot’s attempt to justify his accusation. Nothing he writes in the second quote is wrong but also none of it has any real relevance to the book that David Wootton has written. Interesting is his attempt to deny that the Scientific Revolution ever took place. Whether you think that the very real change in the nature of science that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period did so in the form of a revolution or more gradually over a longer timeframe to deny its very existence is to fly in the face of the historical facts. Whatever happened in the Islamic Empire between the eighth and twelfth centuries, the Golden Age of Islamic science, other than provided some of the foundations on which Kepler, Galileo, Newton et al built their new science, none of it had very much relevance to what took place in Europe in the seventeenth century.

This point is spelled out very clearly by A. Mark Smith in his recently published book, From Sight to Light, an essential volume for anybody interested in the history of optics. Smith’s book is a counter argument to David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision: From Al-Kindi to Kepler. Lindberg had argued that Kepler was, so to speak, the crowning glory of the European perspectivist tradition of optics that begins with the introduction of the work of Ibn al-Haytham into Europe in the thirteenth century. Following the same path, starting with ancient Greek optics, Smith, an expert on al-Haytham and Arabic optics, wants to show that Kepler is in fact a break with the perspectivist tradition and a new beginning in the theory of optics, a revolution if you will. Well aware that he might face charges of eurocentrism Smith devotes several pages of his introductions to explaining why such a charge would not be justified. He closes his explanation with the following paragraph:

The same holds for the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It may well be that certain key ideas, laws and concepts that contributed to that evolution were anticipated by Arabic or, for that matter, Indian, Chinese or Mesoamerican thinkers. And it is certainly the case that there was a lively cross-cultural marketplace of commodities and ideas between the Latin “West” and Arabic “East” throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The fact remains, though, that it was in Europe that those ideas, laws, concepts were eventually assimilated, refined, channelled, and combined in such a way as to form the basis of what most of us today would characterize as modern optics. Any claim to the contrary strikes me as historically perverse. Furthermore, to contend that the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries happened in Europe is not to give Europe proprietary rights to that science or to accord Europe cultural exceptionalism or superiority for having developed it. I therefore strongly resist any charge of being trapped, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in some grand, master narrative or of engaging in hegemonic discourse.

If we substitute modern science for modern optics in Smith’s eloquent speech for the defence I think we can safely reject as baseless the accusations of eurocentrism that DeGroot makes against Wootton.


[1] Throughout this post I shall be using the word science as a collective noun for science, technology, medicine and mathematics to save time and effort whilst writing.


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

The Penny Universities

The Hungarian mathematician Alfréd Rényi famously quipped about his colleague Paul Erdös that, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”. However this theorem producing process didn’t start with Erdös in the twentieth century but became an established routine as soon the coffee house made its appearance in Restoration England in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The first coffee house in England, The Angel, opened in Oxford in 1650 closely followed by The Queen’s Lane Coffee House in 1654, which is still in existence. London’s first coffee house, owned by Pasqua Rosée opened in 1652. The Temple Bar, London’s second coffee house opened in 1656.

From the very beginning English coffee houses became the favourite haunts of the virtuosi, the new generation of natural philosophers pushing the evolution of science forward in England in the second half of the seventeenth century; the circle around Christopher Wren in Oxford and the members of the Royal Society in London quickly becoming the habitués. The famous discussion between Wren, Hooke and Halley about an inverse square law of gravity and the shape of the planetary orbits took place in a London coffee house. Later, after he moved to London in 1696, Isaac Newton would hold court in the evenings in a coffee house distributing unpublished mathematical manuscripts to favoured acolytes privileged to sit at the feet of the maestro.

However these intellectual exchanges went beyond the informal meetings of the virtuosi in their free time. The coffee house became know as the penny universities, one penny being the going price of a cup of coffee. The proprietors offered courses of study as well as lecture courses in a wide range of subjects to those willing to pay a penny. As well as foreign languages these courses covered the new sciences. William Whiston, Newton’s successor as Lucasian Professor in Cambridge, offered courses in the new natural philosophy in the coffee houses, following his fall from grace and expulsion from Cambridge because of his religious views. Francis Hauksbee, demonstrator of experiments at the Royal Society under Newton’s presidentship, also improved his income with similar courses. Abraham de Moivre, impoverished Huguenot refugee, mathematician and fervent Newtonian eked out a pittance in the coffee houses, teaching chess and mathematics and instructing punters how to calculate gambling odds.

Later in the eighteenth century the group of religious dissenters, radical liberal politicians and scientists, christened by Benjamin Franklin “The Club of Honest Whigs”, which included as well as Franklin, the chemist Joseph Priestly, the mathematician Richard Price, the natural philosopher John Canton, the military physician John Pringle and the physician Benjamin Vaughan held their regular Monday meetings in the London Coffee House in St Paul’s Churchyard.

Many were the scientific and mathematical debates and disputes that were carried out in the eighteenth century coffee houses of England.

I drink my daily cup of coffee at Amir Der KaffeeMann in Erlangen, excellent beverages personally roasted by Amir, the Persian proprietor, and for the price of a cappuccino I will entertain you with a history of science lecture of your choice.


Filed under History of science, Newton

The Internet and the history of science community

Yesterday evening I had a very pleasant evening meal in Nürnberg with Karl Galle. Now somebody reading this statement, who doesn’t know Karl, might wonder what this has to do with the title of this post. Things might become a little bit clearer if I explain that Karl is, like myself, a historian of science. Now this post is not actually about Karl but rather more how I came to be eating with him yesterday evening on the Market Square of the picturesque Renaissance city of Nürnberg. Before I give a direct answer to this implied question I first want to go back in time to those dim and distant days when the Internet didn’t exist.

When I first became seriously interested in the history of science in the 1970s, I was living in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, with no real contact to other historians of science other than through the books on the subject that I was eagerly consuming at the time and I never truly imagined that I could get to meet and converse with a real historian of science in the flesh. Occasionally I would meet up with somebody who shared my interest on some level and would then enthusiastically engage them on the subject, often whilst getting stoned or drunk or both.

In 1980 I moved to Germany more by accident than design. It was never planned, thought through or aimed for; it just happened. In 1982 I returned to university in Erlangen having dropped out of university in Cardiff in 1971. This time round I studied mathematics and philosophy with an emphasis on the history and philosophy of science. In the middle of the 1980s because the maths department were not interested in history I changed over to philosophy, English philology and history. For most of the 80s and into the 90s I also worked as an, albeit badly paid, researcher into the history of mathematical or formal logic. I was for a decade an integrated part of a history of science community. Professors, lecturers, students, doctoral students and postdocs lots of local possibility for informative exchanges. However to go beyond the local was not so simple.

In this age of cheap instant communications, I think we forget how new this all is. In the 1980s there was no Internet. Telephone calls were expensive even a long distant call within your own country would cost you an arm or a leg, so to speak, so they were outside of the possibilities of a poverty stricken student and not encouraged by employers etc. If you wanted to communicate with another historian of science in Canada for example you sat down and wrote a letter; the sending of which and any eventual reply could and often did take several weeks. Truly snail mail. If you wanted to meet non-local historians of science you either went to conferences, although travel was in those days also prohibitively expensive compared to now, or you hoped that they would come round on the lecture circuit. If your university department had the necessary funds they could invite the luminaries of the discipline to guest lectures when they were on tour. We had money and through this system I got to know and converse with such luminaries of the history of maths and logic as Martin, Davis, Joe Dauben and Ivor Grattan-Guinness amongst others.

In the early 1990s I dropped out of university because of serious mental illness, having completed about 95% of my masters degree but never passing the finishing post. Most of the next decade I had little or no contact with the history of science community although I kept up my reading on the discipline. In 2002 I returned to the fold about the same time as I acquired my first computer. The last is somewhat ironic, as compared to many of my contemporaries I came late to the computer although one of the things that I had studied intensely was the history of computing. In fact at the drop of a mega-byte I will launch into a whole lecture series on the history of computing starting with the Babylonian sexagesimal number system and going up to Alan Turing, Johnny von Neumann and beyond. On my return to being a historian of science my first public lecture was on George Boole and the contribution of Boolean algebra to the history of computing. During my absence the emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web and completely changed the rules of the game. Being a member of the history of science community had taken on a wholly new meaning, although it took me some time to recognise and to experience this.

Initially my interest in the Internet was connected to my love of music, the first website I ever visited was The first maths or science web site was Mark Chu-Carroll’s Good Math Bad Math, which often has a history of maths content. In those days Mark was on Science Blogs and through visits to his blog I stumbled across John Wilkins, an Australian historian and philosopher of biology. John is actually responsible for the existence of this blog set up in 2009, as is here in various places well documented. Through my own blogging and my comments on other related blogs I slowly began to get to know other historians of the sciences scattered all over the world. Direct contact and instant communication that was unthinkable in the 1980s.

In 2010 John together with John Lynch, a lecturer for the history of science at Arizona State University set up the Whewell’s Ghost blog as a collective history of science blog, providing a one stop distribution point for people wishing to read posts by a diverse collection of history of science bloggers. Yours truly was invited to participate, an invitation, which I accepted with alacrity. Amongst those participants whom I didn’t already know was Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt, then a curator at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and now a lecturer at Kent University. Unlike myself and other participants Becky didn’t originally have her own blog but used Whewell’s Ghost as her blog. Later she would leave the nest to first found her own blog Teleskopos and then moving on to found with Vanessa Heggie the H-Word blog at the Guardian, a rare history of science blog embedded in a major science blog collective. Very early I realised that Becky and I shared similar attitudes and approaches to the history of science and I christened her, my “#histsci soul sister”. On visits to London I would come to know her personally along with her Greenwich colleague Richard Dunn.

Even before I met her in the flesh, Becky and I became good Internet friends and when I blogged something about Albrecht Dürer and Nürnberg she said that I would probably be interested in the doctoral thesis of her earlier doctoral studies colleague Karl Galle. I said I was and could she supply me with his email address. Having checked that he agreeable, she did so and I wrote an email to Karl asking if he could supply me with a pdf of his thesis. He could and did, and I read it with great interest and we continued to exchange emails. All of this took place over a couple of days. In the 1980s Becky, who I might never have got to know, would have supplied me with a postal address. I would have written a letter and posted it off hoping to maybe get a reply some weeks or even months later. If Karl had then agreed to my request he would have had to photocopy his rather substantial thesis, parcel it up and send it to me at not inconsiderable cost. It then hopefully arriving after a longer period than the letter took in the other direction. Times change!

Sometime later Karl, who lives in Cairo (the one in Egypt) came to Nürnberg to do some research connected to turning his thesis into a book and we met up for the first time, spending a happy summer’s day together rapping about things scientifically historical. This week Karl was back doing some more research, this time with his charming wife, and, as I said at the beginning of this post, we continued that conversation over things scientifically historical during a very pleasant meal sitting on a balcony overlooking the Market Place in Nürnberg.

The Frauenkirche Nürnberg our view during supper yesterday evening Source Wikimedia Commons

The Frauenkirche Nürnberg our view during supper yesterday evening
Source Wikimedia Commons

To recap, through the Internet I got to know a historian of biology living in Sydney, Australia who introduced me to a lady historian living and working in London, England, who in turn introduced me to a historian of Dürer the Nürnberger mathematician, who lives in Cairo, Egypt. I have also had the pleasure of meeting all three of these generous historians in the flesh.

This is just one set of connections that I have made through cyberspace since I decided to become a history of science blogger. I sit in a small flat, in a small village in Middle Franconia physically cut off from the rest of the world but through the medium of the Internet I am an integral part of a flourishing history of science community that is still growing and the members of which can communicate with each other instantly on a daily basis exchanging ideas or sending papers, theses or illustrations equally instantly as data files. Only physical books still have to be sent with the traditional post, although I will admit to having quite a few scans of books on my computer and iPad.

This is a situation that I would not have dreamt of when I started on my personal journey into the thickets of the history of science almost fifty years ago and one that I am very grateful to have experienced and hope to continue to enjoy for some time to come. If you know any historians of the sciences, who still haven’t discovered the Internet history of science community tell them to dive in, the waters lovely.




Filed under Autobiographical, History of science

Aristocrats and paupers, farmers and tradesmen – Where do the scientists come from?

A few days ago on Twitter I stumbled across the following exchange, a certain Alex Wild (@Myrmecos) tweeted:

What does it say about modern science that most of the #scienceamoviequote tweets are about grants, publishing, tenure, and careers?

To which Claus Wilke (@ClausWilke) responded:

200 years ago no scientist worried about grants, tenure, careers.

All were wealthy lords with free time on their hands.

Or monks.

To which Gomijacogeo (@gomijacogeo) added:

Or had patrons…

Yours truly, as ever, eager to play Whac-A-Mole with any myth in the history of science, as soon as it pops its head above the parapet, it not being the first time that I’ve seen the same or similar expressed, reciprocated:

Sorry, but that is simple not true.

Referring to Claus Wilke’s comment rather than Gomijacogeo’s, which does have a certain amount of historical validity.

This brief exchange led me to think about the origins of the various figures from the history of science that I write about on a fairly regular basis and what follows is a totally informal survey of the backgrounds of those scholars. Mr Wilke’s remark only extends back to 1815 but my survey goes back to the fifteenth century on the principle that the further back one goes the more likely it is that a scholar needs to be independently wealthy or a monk.

Johannes Müller, aka Regiomontanus, was most probably the son of miller, miller by name miller by trade, who was obviously wealthy enough to send his son to university, where he became a lecturer on having completed his studies. Later he enjoyed the support of a series of patrons over a period of about fifteen years until his death. As is all too often the case, we no nothing about the background of Regiomontanus’ teacher Georg von Peuerbach before he became a lecturer at the University of Vienna. We do however know that he enjoyed the patronage of various kings and emperors in his role as an astrologer.

Moving into the sixteenth century we little about the backgrounds of the three Nürnberger mathematicians, Johannes Werner, Georg Hartmann and Johannes Schöner but all three were university graduates and all three held secure but relatively lowly and poorly paid jobs in the church, which however gave them the freedom to pursue their diverse mathematical activities. Georg Rheticus who knew all three of the Nürnberger came from a wealthy bourgeois background, although his father a town physician was executed for theft and fraud when he was a child. His mother was, however, independently wealthy and Achilles Grasser, another town physician, took over guiding his education until he became a university lecturer. Rheticus of course brought Copernicus’ magnum opus, De revolutionibus, to the world and it is to the good Nicolaus that we now turn. His father was a rich businessman, who also passed away whilst Copernicus was still a child. In his case his career was directed and supported by his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, who was Prince Bishop of Ermland and thus a very powerful patron who also secured a church sinecure for his nephew, who thus needed never to work in his whole life, although he did take on important administrative posts in the Bishopric of Frauenburg.

Up until now with had quite a lot of wealthy and important patrons but not one wealthy lord, as a scholar in his own right. This changes with Tycho Brahe who was a genuine, bone fide, wealthy aristocrat, whose scientific career was footed on a very generous appanage from the Danish Crown, although as I have pointed out in an earlier post his appanage would almost certainly have been much larger had he decided to become a courtier instead of an astronomer.

The opposite end of the scale can be found in Tycho’s most famous assistant Johannes Kepler. His parents were poor, mostly working as innkeepers, although his father was a mercenary who regularly disappeared of to war and at some point never came back. Kepler, very obviously a gifted child, only got an education because of the very generous scholarship scheme that existed at the time in Baden-Württemberg to educate the large number of Protestant priest and school teachers needed following the conversion from Catholicism. Kepler then worked as a schoolteacher and district mathematician, a lowly paid job, in Austria before moving to Prague and becoming Tycho’s assistant and shortly afterwards his successor as Imperial Mathematicus. This was in theory a well-paid position but, as was all too often the case with royal and aristocratic patrons, actually getting paid was a major problem. Kepler would later enjoy the patronage of the Catholic General Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Waldstein, better known as Wallenstein, although I’m not sure that enjoy is the right word for their relationship.

With Kepler’s great rival in the heliocentricity stakes, Galileo Galilei, we have another aristocrat albeit a minor impoverished one, with an emphasis on impoverished. This is probably the reason that his father wanted him to study medicine, a profession that would guarantee a good income. Unfortunately he chose instead to become a mathematician a profession that was notoriously badly paid in the early seventeenth century. Galileo became a university professor for mathematics and despite subsidiary income from his thriving instrument workshop and providing boarding for students, a common practice amongst Renaissance professors, he was always infamously hard up. This was partially because he enjoyed la dolce vita and lived beyond his means and partially because of the financial demands of his brother and sisters for whom he took over responsibility after the death of his father. This is probably the main reason that Galileo used his scientific discoveries as capital to acquire the patronage of the Medici and became a courtier, leaving academia behind him.

Simon Marius, astronomical colleague, of both Kepler and Galileo, although his relations with both of them were fraught, was the son of a barrel maker and relied on the patronage of the local lord of the manor to obtain his education. The same lord then employed him as court astrologer thus ensuring that he could devote his live to his scientific activities.

Christoph Clavius, about whose background we know absolutely nothing, was like all the other Jesuit mathematicians and astronomers, who I’ve written about over the years, a monk. Although it should be remembered that the Jesuits were/are essentially a teaching order so the scientific Jesuits can almost be considered as proto-professional scientist (excusing here the anachronistic use of the term scientist and it further uses in this post).

Mathematician and physicist, Marin Mersenne, was a genuine monk who conducted his voluminous scientific correspondence from his humble monk’s cell. His colleague, contemporary and fellow Jesuit academy graduate, René Descartes was the son of a wealthy lawyer and politician, who after graduating from university as a lawyer became a mercenary. After he retired from soldiering he lived from his inherited wealth although he also had patrons at different stages of his life. Pierre Gassendi, a priest who lived and worked as a university professor, came from a similar bourgeois background. Holland’s most famous Cartesian, Christiaan Huygens was the son of a wealthy Dutch aristocrat, who however on his appointment to the French Académie des sciences became a, highly paid, professional scientist.

Crossing the channel to the British Isles we meet another aristocrat in the form of Robert Boyle, who was wealthy enough to live the life of an independent scholar. Boyle’s closest colleague and one time assistant, Robert Hooke, was the exact opposite. Born the son of an Anglican curate he was left almost penniless when his father died. Hooke had to strive for everything he got in life and his inherent feelings of social inferiority might go a long way to explaining his less than pleasant character. Hooke strove well, dying a wealthy man, money earned by his own honest labour. No patronage here.

Hooke’s nemesis Isaac Newton was the son of a yeoman farmer, albeit a wealthy one. Later in life when he inherited them, the Newton acres generated an annual income of six hundred pounds per annum, not bad compared to the one hundred pounds per annum paid to the Astronomer Royal, for example. Newton’s mother, however, put him through university as a sizar, a student who earns his tuition fees by working as a servant to other students. After graduating MA for which he had received a fellowship, Newton became Lucasian Professor and later, famously, warden of the mint thus earning his own living without patronage. Newton’s sidekick Edmond Halley was the son of a wealthy soapboiler, a not especially romantic profession but obviously a profitable one, as Halley inherited a substantial fortune after his father was murdered. Halley would go on to hold various positions including Savilian Professor and most notably Astronomer Royal.

At the moment I’m (supposed to be) preparing a lecture on the eighteenth-century pneumatic chemists, so let us now turn our attention to them. Stephen Hales was the son of a Baronet, a purchasable title, who went on to become an Anglican clergyman. Although this survey does not include many of them, clergymen made considerable contributions to the sciences, as amateurs, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Joseph Black was the son of a wine trader who after a very successful studentship went on to become professor of medicine and chemistry and thus a professional scientist. Black’s student Daniel Rutherford was the son of a professor of medicine and went on himself to become a professor of botany. William Brownrigg the son of landed gentry became a medical practitioner. Henry Cavendish was a scion of one of the oldest and most powerful aristocratic families in Britain, who was thus, like Robert Boyle, able to lead the life of a gentleman scientist, making him the third scientist to fulfil the cliché expressed in the tweet that prompted this post. The most famous of the pneumatic chemists, Joseph Priestley, was the son of a cloth finisher, supported by wealthy relatives he studied to become a dissenting preacher and teacher both of which professions he practiced for many years before relatively late in life moving to Birmingham, where he effectively became house chemist to the Lunar Society. For a number of years he had been private tutor to the children of Lord Shelburne, who might thus be considered a patron.

The astronomer William Herschel was the son of a military musician who followed his father into the Hanoverian army as an oboist. After a military defeat he fled to Britain (as a deserter!) where he successfully established himself as an organist, composer, conductor and music teacher, astronomer was his hobby. Following the discovery of Uranus he was appointed The King’s Astronomer, enjoying the patronage of George III and able to devote himself full time to the study of the stars.

Closing out in the nineteenth century with three rather random scientists, all of who achieved notoriety and fame, Joseph Fraunhofer, Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday all started life in poor families but went on, largely through their own efforts to become professional scientists who help shape modern science.

The above is, of course, all anecdotal and as is well known the plural of anecdote is not data. However I think that it demonstrates that at least since the fifteenth century, in Europe, men who went on to become important contributors to the evolution of science could and did come from a wide variety of backgrounds and managed to conduct their investigation through an equally wide variety of channels. They were by no means all “wealthy lords with time on their hands or monks”.

On the subject of patronage, which helped many of those I have sketched to follow their chosen paths in the sciences. I personally don’t see a great deal of difference between a wealthy ruler in the Renaissance supporting the work of an outstanding researcher and some modern international business conglomeration paying for a new research facility at some modern elite university. Both are institutions with substantial resources, which see the utility of supporting scientific research for whatever reasons they might have.




Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

Der Erdapfel

Erdapfel is the word for potato in my local Franconia dialect, in fact in most of Southern Germany and Austria. In High Germany a potato is ein Kartoffel. Don’t worry this is not a post about root vegetables or variations in German regional dialects. Der Erdapfel is also the name given to the so-called Behaim Globe, the oldest known surviving terrestrial globe, Nürnberg’s most famous historical artefact. The name, which literally translates as Earth Apple, is thought to be derived from the medieval term Reichsapfel (Empire Apple), which was the name of the Globus Cruciger, or orb, as in orb and sceptre, the symbols of power of the Holy Roman Emperor; the orb symbolising the earth. The Behaim globe, which was conceived but not constructed by Martin Behaim, is together with Behaim, the subject of many historical myths.


Martin Behaim was born in Nürnberg in 1459 and lived with his parent on the market place next door to the businessman Bernhard Walther (1430–1504) who was the partner to Regiomontanus in his printing and astronomical activities during the last five years of his life living in Nürnberg. Martin’s father was one of the rich traders, who dominated Nürnberg culture. In 1576 he was sent away to Flanders to apprentice as a cloth trader. In 1484 he journeyed to Portugal, which is where to mythological part of his life begins. According to the traditional version of his life story he took part in two sea voyages down the west coast of Africa with Diogo Cão. He was knighted by the Portuguese king and appointed to the Portuguese Board of Navigation. All of this took place because he was supposedly a student of Regiomontanus, whose ephemerides, the first ever printed ones and highly accurate, were well known and respected on the Iberian Peninsula. All of this information comes from Behaim himself and some of it can be read in the texts on the Behaim Globe.


Artist's impression of Martin Behaim with his globe. Artist unknown

Artist’s impression of Martin Behaim with his globe. Artist unknown

Between 1490 and 1493 Behaim returned to Nürnberg to sort out his mother’s testament and it was during this period that he persuaded to city council to commission him to produce a globe and a large-scale wall map of the world. It is not certain if the wall map was ever produced and if it was it has not survived but the globe certainly was and it is now, as already said, the oldest known surviving terrestrial globe. It is not however, as is often falsely claimed the oldest or first terrestrial globe. The earliest recorded terrestrial globe was constructed by Crates of Mallus in the second century BCE. Also Ptolemaeus in his Geographia, in his discussion of different methods of cartographical projection, acknowledges that a globe in the only way to accurately represent to earth. The Behaim Globe is not even the earliest European medieval globe as the Pope in known to have commissioned earlier terrestrial globes, which have not survived. Given their method of construction and the materials out of which they are made the survival rate of globes is relatively low.

The globe remained the property of the city council of Nürnberg until the middle of the sixteenth century when it was returned to the Behaim family who basically threw it into the corner of an attic and forgot about it. In the nineteenth century it was rediscovered and studied by various historians of cartography and a copy was made for a museum in Paris. Unfortunately it was also ‘restored’ several times through processes that did far more damage than good. In the early twentieth century it was lent to the Germanische Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg. In the 1930s the Behaim family considered selling the globe, most probably in America, and to prevent this Adolf Hitler bought the globe with his own private money and presented it to the German nations. It still resides in the Germanische Nationalmuseum.

I said that the globe is veiled in myths and we will start to sort them out. Firstly Behaim only conceived the globe he didn’t construct it as many people believe. The globe was made by pasting strips of linen onto a fired clay ball. The ball produced by Hans Glockengiesser (a family name that translates as bell founder) and the globe constructed by Ruprecht Kolberger. After the paste had set the globe was cut free from the clay form by a single cut around its equator and the two halves we then pasted together on a wooded frame. The actually map was painted onto the linen ball by the painter and woodblock cutter Georg Glockendon and the lettering was carried out by Petrus Gegenhart. Behaim only seems to have directed and coordinated these activities.


Another popular myth is that because of Behaim’s activities in Portugal the cartography of the globe is cutting edge up to the minute modern; nothing could be further from the truth. The basis of the cartography is Ptolemaeus with obvious additions from other ancient Greek sources as well as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and The Travels of Marco Polo. Much of the cartographical work is inaccurate even by the standards of the time, including surprisingly the west coast of Africa that Behaim supposedly had explored himself, which brings us to Behaim’s personal claims.


His claim to have sailed with Diogo Cão is almost certainly a lie. At the time of Cão’s first voyage along the African coast Behaim is known to have been in Antwerp. On his second voyage Cão erected pillars at all of his landing places naming all of the important members of the crew, who were on the voyage, Martin Behaim is not amongst them. They is no confirmatory evidence that Behaim was actually a member of Portuguese Board of Navigation and if he was his membership almost certainly owed nothing to Regiomontanus, as there is absolutely no evidence that he ever studied under him. The historian of navigation, David Waters, suggests that if Behaim was actually a member of this august body then it was because the Portuguese hoped to persuade the rich Nürnberger traders to invest money in their expeditionary endeavours, Behaim thus functioning as a sort of informal ambassador for the Republic of Nürnberg.

The picture that emerges is that Martin Behaim was con artist probably deceiving both the Portuguese court and the Nürnberg city council. The Behaim Globe is an interesting artefact but its historical or scientific significance is minimal. If you are in Nürnberg, I can recommend going to the Germanische Nationalmuseum to see it but when you are there also take a look at the Schöner 1520 terrestrial manuscript globe in the neighbouring room. It’s cartographically much more interesting and Schöner, as opposed to Behaim, plays a very important role in the history of globe making.


Johannes Söner's 1520 terrestrial Globe. Germanische Nationalmuseum

Johannes Söner’s 1520 terrestrial Globe.
Germanische Nationalmuseum




Filed under History of Cartography, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

Made in Nürnberg

In the period from roughly 1550 and 1650 Nürnberg was the leading centre in Europe, and thus probably the world, for the manufacture of scientific instruments. It is historically interesting to look at how this town in the middle of Europe came to acquire this status and also to take a brief look at some of the more famous of the Nürnberger instrument makers from this ‘golden’ period.

Like many European towns and cities, Nürnberg, as an entity, began to emerge at the beginning of the High Middle Ages, probably around the year 1000 CE. Like many such settlements it was initially not much more than a fortified hill top at a crossroads. The first record of the name is 1050 CE as nuorenberc, which later evolved into Nuremberg, the name by which it is still known in English. This name is the subject of a rare German bad pun; the Germans don’t really go in for puns. According to folk etymology the name was originally ‘Nur einem Berg’, which translates as ‘just a hill’. The geographical position of Nürnberg played an important role in its development. If you take an outline map of Europe and draw a straight line from Kiel, in Northern Germany, to Northern Italy and a second one from Paris to Prague, the point where they cross is Nürnberg. This led to Nürnberg becoming a major European trading hub in the medieval period; importing wares from the Northern Italian trading cities and then distributing them throughout Europe.

Germany didn’t exist as a country in the Middle Ages but was a loose conglomerate of large and small states interconnected through a network of feudal obligations and vaguely held together in the so-called Holy Roman Empire, which as somebody once quipped was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Within this patchwork of large and small Germanic states Nürnberg was one of the so-called Free Imperial Cities, small independent city-states, which only owed feudal allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor. From 1105 CE Nürnberg was ruled by a hereditary Burggraf, a title that translates as Lord of the castle. From 1192 till 1427 the Burggrafen of Nürnberg came from the Hohenzollern family, who would go on to play a significant role in German history. In 1427 the rich traders of Nürnberg, of whom more shortly, bought the Burggraf rights from the Hohenzollern and from then on until 1806, when Nürnberg became part of Bavaria, the city was ruled by the town council. Although dominated by the rich trader families the town council was surprisingly democratic with three groups of councillors being appointed/elected from the three tiers of citizenry at regular intervals. During the Renaissance Nürnberg, like one of its major trading partners Venice, called itself a republic.

The Holy Roman Emperor granted the city of Nürnberg special tax privileges, which combined with its favourable geographical position and the large Europe wide demand for the spices that came into Europe through the Northern Italian trading cities meant that the Nürnberg traders became very, very wealthy. This led to them looking for new opportunities to invest their surplus profits. The High Middle Ages saw a steeply rising demand for metals (gold, silver, copper, lead, iron) and with it an expansion of the metal ore mining industry. The major ore deposits, and thus the mines, were situated in the eastern part of Middle Europe, Eastern Germany, Hungary, Rumania, Austria etc. Realising that it was an expanding business with a future the Nürnberg traders began investing in the metal ore mines and soon controlled a large part of this industry. At first content just to sell the ore they soon realised that they could make more profit if they smelted the ore themselves and so built their own smelters and began selling refined metal. It did not take long before the artisans of Nürnberg began to work the metal themselves producing finished metal objects for sale. By the fifteenth century Nürnberg had become one of the major metal working centres of Europe producing quite literally everything that could be made from metal from pins and needles to suits of armour. A sign of this development is that the first mechanical wire drawing machine was developed in Nürnberg. The Nürnberg guilds were incredibly well organised with single families responsible for the production of one object or group of objects. When Karl V (Holly Roman Emperor 1519–1556) ordered 5000 suits of armour from Nürnberg, one group of families was responsible for the leg plates, another for the breast plates and so on. Highly organised piecework.

Nürnberg as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicles 1493

Nürnberg as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicles 1493

Of course many scientific instruments are made of metal, mostly brass, and so Nürnberg in its all inclusiveness became a major centre for the manufacture of all types of scientific instruments. In fact it became the leading European centre for this work and thus, most probably, the leading world centre in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. We have two important historical attestations of Nürnberg’s supremacy in this area. The philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus) (1401–1464) was very interested in astronomy and he purchased a celestial globe and other astronomical instruments from Nürnberg and this can still be viewed in the Cusanus Museum in his birthplace Kues. In 1470 when Johannes Regiomontanus set out to reform and modernise astronomy he moved from Budapest to Nürnberg because, as he tells us in a letter, Nürnberg had a good communications network through which he could communicate with other astronomers and because the best astronomical instruments were manufactured in Nürnberg. The communications network was an essential element of any Renaissance trading city and Nürnberg’s was second only to that of Venice.

By 1500 Nürnberg was the second biggest German city with a population of around 40 000, half of which lived inside the city walls and the other half in the surrounding villages, which belonged to the city. It was one of the richest cities in the whole of Europe and enjoyed a high level of culture, investing both in representative architecture and the arts, with many of the leading German Renaissance artists fulfilling commissions for the rich Nürnberg traders, known locally as the Patrizier; most famously Albrecht Dürer. Interesting in our context, Dürer’s maths book contained the first printed instructions in German of how to design and construct sundials. The first half of the sixteenth century was the golden age of scientific instrument production in Nürnberg with many of the leading instrument makers selling their wares throughout Europe, where they can still be found in museums in many different countries. In what follows I shall give brief sketches of a couple of the more well known of these craftsmen.

Nürnberg was famous for it’s portable sundials with family dynasties producing high quality products over three, four or even five generations. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the most significant sundial maker was Erhard Etzlaub (ca. 1460–1532) who like many other Nürnberger instrument makers was as much as a scholar as an artisan. As a cartographer he produced the first map of the Nürnberg region. He followed this with the so-called Rome pilgrimage map displaying the routes to Rome for the Holy Year of 1500, which famously Copernicus also attended. This map plays an important role in the history of modern cartography because it’s the first map with a scale, enabling the pilgrim to plan his daily journeys.

Etzlaub's Rome Pilgrim Map Source: Wikimedia Commons

Etzlaub’s Rome Pilgrim Map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Etzlaub also constructed a map on the cover of one of his compasses in 1511 that is drawn in a projection that comes close to the Mercator projection. Etzlaub was a member of the so-called Pirckheimer Circle. A group of like minded proponents of the mathematical sciences centred around Willbald Pirckheimer, soldier, politician humanist scholar and translator from Greek into Latin of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia; a translation that became a standard work.

Willibald Pirckheimer, porträtiert von Albrecht Dürer (1503) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Willibald Pirckheimer, porträtiert von Albrecht Dürer (1503)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This group of mathematical scholars demonstrated their interest in the mathematical sciences and in the construction of complex instruments in the highly complex sundial that they painted on the side of the Lorenzkirche in 1502, which also displays the time according to the Great Nürnberger Clock:

Lorenzkirche Sundial Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Lorenzkirche Sundial
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

And the clock on the Frauenkirche constructed in 1506:

Frauenkirche Clock

Frauenkirche Clock

The gold and blue ball above the clock dial displays the phases of the moon and is still accurate today.

Another member of the Pirckheimer Circle was Johannes Schöner(1477–1547), addressee of Rheticus’ Naratio Prima, the first published account of Copernicus’ heliocentrism.

Johannes Schöner Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Schöner
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schöner was the first producer of serial production printed globes both terrestrial and celestial. He also wrote, printed and published pamphlets on the design and manufacture of various scientific instruments. Schöner was Europe’s leading globe maker whose globes set standards for globe making, which influenced the manufacture of globes down to the nineteenth century.

Schöner Celestial Globe 1535 Source: Science Museum London

Schöner Celestial Globe 1535
Source: Science Museum London

Also a member of the Pirckheimer Circle and a close friend of Schöner’s was Georg Hartman (1489–1564).

Georg Hartmann Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Georg Hartmann
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Hartmann like Schöner was a globe maker although none of his globes have survived. He was also one of the leading sundial makers of his generation and his complex and beautiful dials can still be found in many museums.

Hartmann Bowl Sundial Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hartmann Bowl Sundial
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the early sixteenth century Nürnberg was the main European centre for the production of astrolabes and here Hartmann played a leading role. As far as can be ascertained Hartmann was the first person to produce astrolabes in series.

Hartmann Astrolabe Yale Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hartmann Astrolabe Yale
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Previously all astrolabes were produced as single pieces, Hartmann, however, produced series of identical astrolabes, probably employing other craftsmen to produce the individual parts according to a pre-described plan and them assembling them in his workshop. As a young man Hartmann had spent several years living in Italy where he was friends with Copernicus’ brother Andreas. As a scholar Hartmann was the first to investigate magnetic inclination or dip. However his studies were never published and so the credit for this discovery went to the English mariner Robert Norman.

Handmade metal instruments were, of course, very expensive and could in reality only be purchased by the wealthy, who often bought them as ornaments of status symbols rather than to be used. To make scientific instruments available to those with less money both Schöner and Hartmann produced paper instruments. These consisted of the scales and tables, normally found engraved on the metal instruments, printed accurately on paper, which the user could then paste onto a wooden background and so construct a cheap but functioning instrument.

Paper and Wood Astrolabe Hartmann Source: MHS Oxford

Paper and Wood Astrolabe Hartmann
Source: MHS Oxford

A later instrument maker was Christian Heiden (1526–1576) who like Schöner was professor for mathematics on the Egidiengymnasium in Nürnberg, Germany’s first gymnasium (similar to a grammar school). He made a wide range of instruments but was especially well known for his elaborate and elegant sundials, as much works of art as scientific instruments these were much prized amongst the rich and powerful and could be found on many a German court.

Column Sundial by Christian Heyden Source: Museumslandschaft Hessen-Kassel

Column Sundial by Christian Heyden
Source: Museumslandschaft Hessen-Kassel

This is of course only a very, very small sample of the Nürnberger instrument makers, the history pages of the Astronomie in Nürnberg website, created and maintained by Dr Hans Gaab, lists 44 globe makers, 38 astronomical instrument makers and more than 100 sundial makers between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries; with the greatest concentration in the sixteenth century. Nürnberg was known throughout Europe for the quality and the accuracy of its scientific instruments and examples of the Nürnberger handwork can be found in museums in many countries, even outside of Europe.


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

Unsung? I hardly think so

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

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

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

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

Lise Meitner in 1906 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner in 1906
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The potted biography starts reasonably OK:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lise Meitner 1946 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner 1946
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Can it be that people put too much emphasis on Nobel prizes, for which Meitner was nominated numerous times but never won? The disproportionality of this way of thinking is shown by Meitner last and greatest honour. Element 109 is named Meiterium in her honour. There are 118 know elements of which 98 are considered to occur naturally and the other twenty are products of the laboratory. Only ten of the elements are named after people so this honour is in every way greater than a mere Nobel Prize. Strangely the New Scientist article mentions this honour in a very off hand way in its final sentence, as if it was of little significance. Otto Hahn does not have an element named after him.

Added 5 May 2015:

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

Source: Ptak Science Books

Source: Ptak Science Books

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


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