Category Archives: History of science

A spirited defence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under History of Mathematics, History of science, Newton

Not a theology student

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

Johannes Kepler Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Kepler
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Until the 17th Century, no one had

the faintest idea what a rainbow

was, how it got there or what it was

made of…

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

De Dominis' explanation of the rainbow Source: Wikimedia Commons

De Dominis’ explanation of the rainbow
Source: Wikimedia Commons


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

How do we kill off myths of science zombies?

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

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

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

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

Tycho Brahe Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho Brahe
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

How Chemistry came to its first journal – and a small-town professor to lasting prominence

Being fundamentally a lazy sod I am always very pleased to welcome a guest blogger to the Renaissance Mathematicus, because it means I don’t have to write anything to entertain the mob. Another reason why I am pleased to welcome my guest bloggers is because they are all better educated, better read and much more knowledgeable than I, as well as writing much better than I ever could, meaning I get princely entertained and educated by them. Todays new guest blogger, Anna Gielas, maintains the high standards of the Renaissance Mathematicus guests. Anna, who’s a German studying in Scotland whereas I’m an English man living in Germany, helps me to put together Whewell’s Gazette the #histSTM weekly links list. I’ll let her tell you somewhat more about herself.

 I’m a doctoral candidate at the University of St Andrews (Dr Aileen Fyfe and Prof Frank James from the Royal Institution of Great Britain are my supervisors) and I study the editorship and the establishment of early scientific journals in Britain and the German lands. I focus on the decades between 1760 and 1840 because this was the time when commercial (as opposed to society-based) science periodicals took off and became a central means of scientific communication and knowledge production

 As you can see Anna is an expert for the history of scientific journals and her post honours the 200th anniversary of the death Lorenz Crell, 7 June 1816, who edited and published the world’s first commercial journal devoted exclusively to chemistry. Read and enjoy.




In early February 1777, the famous Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller received a letter from an obscure small-town professor named Lorenz Crell. Crell had studied medicine, travelled Europe and returned to his hometown, where he succeeded his former professor of medicine at the local university.

The young professor asked Haller for feedback on a few essays he had submitted anonymously. Haller’s favourable comments encouraged Crell not only to reveal his name but also his risky plan: “I have a chemical journal in the works”, Crell announced to Haller in February 1777.

Lorenz Crell Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lorenz Crell
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The thirty-three year old professor had hardly any experiences with publishing, let alone with editing a learned journal. Yet his periodical would go on to become the first scientific journal devoted solely to chemical research—and would influence the course of chemical research throughout the German speaking lands.

In February of 1777—roughly one year before the inaugural issue of his Chemisches Journal appeared—things looked rather dire for Crell. At this time, there were essentially two professional groups in the German speaking lands devoted to chemical endeavours: university professors and apothecaries. The core of professorial work—and the task they were paid for—was teaching. And chemistry was taught as part of the medical curriculum. Apothecaries, in turn, focused mainly on producing remedies. Neither profession was based on chemical research. Experimentation would remain secondary until the nineteenth century.

So whom did Crell expect to pick up his periodical? He hoped to garner the attention of the eminent Andreas Sigismund Marggraf and his peers. Marggraf was the first salaried chemist at the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Like most of the leading chemical researchers, Marggraf was an apprenticed apothecary. He had audited lectures and seminars at the University of Halle, an epicentre of the Enlightenment, but he never graduated. Before taking on his post at the Academy, Marggraf earned his living through the apothecary shop that he had inherited from his father, the “Apotheke zum Bären” (Bear’s Pharmacy) on Spandauer Straße in Berlin.

Hoping that renowned chemical experimenters like Marggraf would pick up Crell’s journal was one thing—catching their attention and actually persuading them to contribute to the periodical a very different one. But Crell, it appears, had a plan. Later in 1777 he contacted Friedrich Nicolai, a famous publisher and bookseller of the German Enlightenment, and asked for the honour of reviewing a few chemical books for Nicolai’s Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (ADB). Crell picked a good moment to do so: in 1777, the ADB experienced record sales. But the editor-to-be approached Nicolai without any letter of introduction, which according to the mores of his times, the Prussian Aufklärer could have easily interpreted as impudence. Nicolai apparently saw moxie where others might have seen brazenness: the publisher commissioned reviews from Crell within days of receiving his letter. Within roughly two months, from November 1777 until mid-January 1778, Crell submitted no less than eleven pieces for Nicolai’s famous periodical. “I still owe you five reviews which shall follow quickly”, he wrote to the Prussian publisher in January. Nicolai received them by February.

Title page from the Chemisches Journal for 1778 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Title page from the Chemisches Journal for 1778
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Crell was aware that Nicolai had close ties to leading chemical investigators. The publisher was about to become an extraordinary member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and chemical researchers such as Johann Christian Wiegleb and Johann Friedrich Gmelin contributed to the ADB. Wiegleb was a pharmacist who expanded his laboratory in Langensalza to teach chemistry. Wiegleb’s students lived, learned, and—most importantly—researched at his Privat-Institut. Johann Friedrich Göttling was one of Wiegleb’s pupils—as was the English industrialist Matthew Boulton.

Crell tried to tap into this network when he first contacted Nicolai. Maybe he even hoped to recruit the renowned chemical researchers for the inaugural issue of his Chemisches Journal. But the editor had to pace himself: the first issue of his periodical was almost entirely authored by himself and Johann Christian Dehne, a close friend and physician from a neighbouring village.

Ultimately, Crell’s concerted efforts as a regular contributor to the ADB and the editor of the Chemisches Journal paid off: all three—Wiegleb, Gmelin and Göttling—submitted articles for the second issue of Crell’s novel journal. Throughout the years many other joined them, including the Irish chemist Richard Kirwan, the Scottish researcher Joseph Black and the German Martin Heinrich Klaproth, the first professor of chemistry at the University of Berlin. Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, however, never published in Crell’s journal, maybe due to health issues following a stroke.

Crell devoted decades of his life to his journals. Within nearly 27 years he published nine periodicals, the longest-running and most famous of which is the Chemische Annalen (1784-1804). It was here that the German chemists debated (and death-bedded) phlogiston. During a busier year, such as 1785, Crell published over 2,000 pages of chemical facts, findings and flapdoodle.

Today, some scientists and historians belittle his role in chemistry, arguing that Crell did not contribute anything crucial to science. To judge Crell by what he did not achieve in his laboratory is to present science as a solitary undertaking, tucked away in labs. But if we acknowledge that science is a joint endeavour, based on communication, on-going exchange and discussions, Crell’s contribution appears vital.

According to the Berkeley-historian Karl Hufbauer, Crell’s Chemische Annalen was crucial in the formation of the German chemical community. Even more, Crell provided German and European researchers with an instrument for the production of chemical knowledge.

Today is the 200th anniversary of his death. Let’s use the date to commemorate all the editors throughout the centuries who spent countless hours at their desks—and contributed to the giant’s shoulders on which we stand today.




Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Chemistry, History of science

Galileo Super Star – Galileo Galilei to get Hollywood biopic

My attention was drawn recently to a Hollywood gossip website that announced that a movie is to be made of a play by Richard Goodwin about Galileo, The Hinge of the World. I must admit that my curiosity was piqued, not least because I had never heard of either Mr Goodwin or his play and I naturally wondered what his line on the Tuscan mathematicus would be. It turns out that Richard Goodwin is a former high power Washington political advisor and speechwriter who served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as well as JFK’s brother Robert, not exactly the best qualifications for the author of a play about the history of science. My doubts about this particular production were only heightened upon reading the full original title of the play, The Hinge of the World: In Which Professor Galileo Galilei, Chief Mathematician and Philosopher to His Serene Highness the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and His Holiness Urban VIII, Bishop of Rome, Battle for the Soul of the World. This title does not bode well for a historically accurate account of Galileo’s clash with the Catholic Church. However I will reserve judgement, because as I say, I do not know the play. I have however ordered a second hand copy that is at this very moment wending its way from some distant land to my humble abode and when it arrives and I have perused it with due diligence, I will report back with a critical assessment.

A scene from the stage production of The Hinge of the World

A scene from the stage production of The Hinge of the World

The website report does however offer a précis of the contents of the soon to be film and this is possibly the most confused and inaccurate presentation of the affair and the events leading up to it that I have read in a very long time:

The film will stay true to the spirit of the play in that it will revolve around the one-time friends whose vehement disagreements led to the Church calling Galileo out for heresy when science started to challenge long-held beliefs.

Science had been challenging long held beliefs long before Galileo came along. Apart from anything else Galileo was tried for defending the truth of Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis and Copernicus had died twenty-one years before Galileo was born. Just for the record Copernicus was also by no means the first person to present science that challenged the Church’s long-held beliefs.

Just to be a little bit pedantic, the one-time friends, Galileo and Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) only had one vehement disagreement.

During that time, around 1610, the Church was never questioned,…

Somebody really ought to have consulted a historian of the Catholic Church. People both inside and outside of the Church questioned it continuous, some with impunity, for example Galileo’s friend Paolo Sarpi, and some with dire consequences, such as Giordano Bruno.

…yet Galileo who had a passion, curiosity and a telescope started to question everything after logging what he was learning through his scientific research. He published much of his findings in a book that were disavowed by Pope Urban VIII and the Catholic Church. Despite delving into dangerous territory, Galileo continued his research into comets, tide movements until he was ultimately ordered by the Church to stop teaching his ideas.

 The above is just a historical train wreck. The book of Galileo’s disavowed by Urban VII and the Church was the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, which led directly to his trail and imprisonment in 1633. However, he was told to stop teaching the truth of the heliocentric hypothesis and only that, the rest of his ideas were not the subject of Church condemnation, in 1616 following the semi-public distribution of the so-called Letter to Castelli, much later published in expanded form, as the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. Also in 1616 Paul V was Pope and Maffeo Barberini was a mere Cardinal and still a good friend of Galileo’s.

 The brilliant scientist, engineer, physicist and mathematician who helped discover the law of the pendulum (which became the basis for modern-day clocks), who pushed scientists to conduct experiments to prove theorems, who continued the work of Nicolaus Copernicus to help understand our own universe and laid the groundwork for modern astronomy eventually lost his battle with the powerful Roman Catholic Church.

Again being somewhat pedantic, Galileo got the law of the pendulum wrong and modern day clocks stopped being pendulum driven some time ago. Also, and this is not so pedantic, it was Kepler, and not Galileo, who laid the groundwork for modern astronomy.

 He was tried for heresy and sentenced to imprisonment at the age of 68 where he would remain until his death nine years later at age 77.

A final point, that people love to forget because it rather spoils the image of Galileo the martyr, his sentence of imprisonment imposed for vehement suspicion of heresy, not heresy, was instantly commuted to house arrest, which whilst somewhat restrictive was by no means harsh.


All of this ties in rather nicely with an exchange that I took part in yesterday evening on twitter. Tim Skellet (@Gurdur) asked me and others, “what’s the very best, most comprehensive bio of Galileo, please?” My answer was, “I don’t think it exists. Read several: Wootton, Heilbron, Biagioli, Shea/Artigas.” I was not trying to be clever or awkward. I genuinely believe that if you wish to study any major figure out of the history of science then you should consult multiple sources, as all sources have their advantages and disadvantages. History is, to a large extent, a game of interpretation. There are facts but they only give a partial picture and it is the role or responsibility of the historian to complete that picture to the best of their ability. All historians have agendas and biases and to obtain a rounded picture it is always advisable to view the facts through the eyes of more than one historian.

Turning to the special case of Galileo, the two most recent complete biographies are J. L. Heilbron’s Galileo (OUP, 2010) and David Wootton’s Galileo: Watcher of the Skies (Yale University Press, 2010). Both are very good but differ in their interpretations and emphases. I wouldn’t recommend one over the other, so if you only want to read one then toss a coin or something. If you really want to get to grips with Galileo then read both. One important aspect of Wootton’s book is that he systematically dismantles the myth that Galileo was a good devout Catholic. This myth is trotted out regularly to make the Church look even worse for having persecuted him. Wootton demonstrates, I think convincingly, that Galileo was at best an indifferent Catholic and in no way the devout son of the Church that historical myth has made him out to be.

Although not a complete biography in the traditional sense I would also strongly recommend Mario Biagioli’s Galileo Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism (University of Chicago Press, 1993) Biagioli examines Galileo the social climber who uses his scientific discoveries to further his social status rather than for any idealistic belief in truth. Biagioli’s work is a useful complement to the more conventional scientific style of biography; what did Galileo discover and when. In what is effectively a second volume to his first book, Galileo’s Instruments of Credit: Telescopes, Images, Secrecy (University of Chicago Press, 2006), Biagioli explains how Galileo used the telescopes that he manufactured and the images that he produced to broker social advantages.

William R. Shea’s and Mariano Artigas’ Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius (OUP; 2003) just deals with the six extended visits that Galileo made to Rome, the home-base of the Church and the centre of political and social power in the period, during his lifetime. These include, his triumphal visit in 1611, as the author of his sensational Sidereus Nuncius, his visit in 1615-1616 and his failed attempt to prevent the Church condemning heliocentricity and finally his summons to his trial in 1633. By concentrating only on Galileo’s interactions with the Roman culture of the period the authors succeed in shedding light from a different angle on Galileo’s fateful path to his condemnation and fall.

At some point David Wootton joined the Twitter discussion and he recommended Pietro Redondi’s Galileo Heretic (Princeton University Press, 1992), a recommendation that I would one hundred pro cent endorse. Although Redondi’s central thesis, that Galileo was actually attacked by the Church for his atomism has, in the meantime, been largely refuted this is a superb book and still very much worth reading by anyone who wishes to learn about Galileo and the culture in which he lived and worked.

If you read all of the books that I have recommended above you should, by the time you have finished, have a fairly good all round picture of the life and work of Galileo Galilei and the footnotes and bibliographies will have given you lots of information for further reading. I will however close with a warning, do not read Michael White’s Galileo Antichrist: a Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007). I can deliver a comprehensive and profound review of White’s book in three words, “It is crap!”



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

Isaac and the apple – the story and the myth

The tale of Isaac Newton and the apple is, along with Archimedes’ bath time Eureka-ejaculation and Galileo defiantly mumbling ‘but it moves’ whilst capitulating before the Inquisition, is one of the most widely spread and well known stories in the history of science. Visitors to his place of birth in Woolsthorpe get to see a tree from which the infamous apple is said to have fallen, inspiring the youthful Isaac to discover the law of gravity.

The Woolsthorpe Manor apple tree Source:Wikimedia Commons

The Woolsthorpe Manor apple tree
Source:Wikimedia Commons

Reputed descendants of the tree exist in various places, including Trinity College Cambridge, and apple pips from the Woolsthorpe tree was taken up to the International Space Station for an experiment by the ‘first’ British ISS crew member, Tim Peake. Peake’s overalls also feature a Principia patch displaying the apple in fall.

Tim Peake's Mission Logo

Tim Peake’s Mission Logo

All of this is well and good but it leads automatically to the question, is the tale of Isaac and the apple a real story or is it just a myth? The answer is that it is both.

Modern historians of Early Modern science tend to contemptuously dismiss the whole story as a myth. One who vehemently rejects it is Patricia Fara, who is an expert on Newtonian mythology and legend building having researched and written the excellent book, Newton: The Making of Genius[1]. In her Science: A Four Thousand Year History she has the following to say about the apple story[2]:

More than any other scientific myth, Newton’s falling apple promotes the romantic notion that great geniuses make momentous discoveries suddenly and in isolation […] According to simplistic accounts of its [Principia’s] impact, Newton founded modern physics by introducing gravity and simultaneously implementing two major transformations in methodology: unification and mathematization. By drawing a parallel between an apple and the Moon, he linked an everyday event on Earth with the motion of the planets through the heavens, thus eliminating the older, Aristotelian division between the terrestrial and celestial realms.


Although Newton was undoubtedly a brilliant man, eulogies of a lone genius fail to match events. Like all innovators, he depended on the earlier work of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and countless others […]


The apple story was virtually unknown before Byron’s time. [Fara opens the chapter with a Byron poem hailing Newton’s discovery of gravity by watching the apple fall].

Whilst I would agree with almost everything that Fara says, here I think she is, to quote Kepler, guilty of throwing out the baby with the bath water. But before I explain why I think this let us pass review of the myth that she is, in my opinion, quite rightly rejecting.

The standard simplistic version of the apple story has Newton sitting under the Woolsthorpe Manor apple tree on a balmy summer’s day meditation on mechanics when he observes an apple falling. Usually in this version the apple actually hits him on the head and in an instantaneous flash of genius he discovers the law of gravity.

This is of course, as Fara correctly points out, a complete load of rubbish. We know from Newton’s notebooks and from the draughts of Principia that the path from his first studies of mechanics, both terrestrial and celestial, to the finished published version of his masterpiece was a very long and winding one, with many cul-de-sacs, false turnings and diversions. It involved a long and very steep learning curve and an awful lot of very long, very tedious and very difficult mathematical calculations. To modify a famous cliché the genius of Principia and the theories that it contains was one pro cent inspiration and ninety-nine pro cent perspiration.

If all of this is true why do I accuse Fara of throwing out the baby with the bath water? I do so because although the simplistic story of the apple is a complete myth there really was a story of an apple told by Newton himself and in the real versions, which differ substantially from the myth, there is a core of truth about one step along that long and winding path.

Having quoted Fara I will now turn to, perhaps Newton’s greatest biographer, Richard Westfall. In his Never at Rest, Westfall of course addresses the apple story:

What then is one to make of the story of the apple? It is too well attested to be thrown out of court. In Conduitt’s version one of four independent ones, …

Westfall tells us that the story is in fact from Newton and he told to on at least four different occasions to four different people. The one Westfall quotes is from John Conduitt, who was Newton’s successor at the Royal Mint, married his niece and house keeper Catherine Barton and together with her provided Newton with care in his last years. The other versions are from the physician and antiquarian William Stukeley, who like Newton was from Lincolnshire and became his friend in the last decade of Newton’s life, the Huguenot mathematician Abraham DeMoivre, a convinced Newtonian and Robert Greene who had the story from Martin Folkes, vice-president of the Royal Society whilst Newton was president. There is also an account from Newton’s successor as Lucasian professor, William Whiston, that may or may not be independent. The account published by Newton’s first published biographer, Henry Pemberton, is definitely dependent on the accounts of DeMoivre and Whiston. The most well known account is that of Voltaire, which he published in his Letters Concerning the English Nation, London 1733 (Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais, Rouen, 1734), and which he says he heard from Catherine Conduitt née Barton. As you can see there are a substantial number of sources for the story although DeMoivre’s account, which is very similar to Conduitt’s doesn’t actually mention the apple, so as Westfall says to dismiss it out of hand is being somewhat cavalier, as a historian.

To be fair to Fara she does quote Stukeley’s version before the dismissal that I quoted above, so why does she still dismiss the story. She doesn’t, she dismisses the myth, which has little in common with the story as related by the witnesses listed above. Before repeating the Conduitt version as quoted by Westfall we need a bit of background.

In 1666 Isaac, still an undergraduate, had, together with all his fellow students, been sent down from Cambridge because of an outbreak of the plague. He spent the time living in his mother’s house, the manor house in Woolsthorpe, teaching himself the basics of the modern terrestrial mechanics from the works of Descartes, Huygens and the Salisbury English translation of Galileo’s Dialogo. Although he came nowhere near the edifice that was the Principia, he did make quite remarkable progress for a self-taught twenty-four year old. It was at this point in his life that the incident with the apple took place. We can now consider Conduitt’s account:

In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge … to his mother in Lincolnshire & whilst he was musing in a garden it came to his thought that the power of gravity (wch brought an apple from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but that this power must extend much further than was normally thought. Why not as high as the moon said he to himself & if so that must influence her motion & and perhaps retain her in her orbit, where-upon he fell to calculating what would be the effect of this supposition but being absent from books & taking common estimate in use among Geographers & our seamen before Norwood had measured the earth, that 60 English miles were contained in one degree latitude on the surface of the Earth his computation did not agree with his theory & inclined him to entertain a notion that together with the force of gravity there might be a mixture of that force wch the moon would have if it was carried along in a vortex…[3]

As you can see the account presented here by Conduitt differs quite substantially from the myth. No tree, no apple on the head, no instantaneous discovery of the theory of gravity. What we have here is a young man who had been intensely studying the theory of forces, in particular forces acting on a body moving in a circle, applying what he had learnt to an everyday situation the falling apple and asking himself if those forces would also be applicable to the moon. What is of note here is the fact that his supposition didn’t work out. Based on the data he was using, which was inaccurate, his calculations showed that the forces acting on the apple and those acting on the moon where not the same! An interesting thought but it didn’t work out. Oh well, back to the drawing board. Also of note here is the reference to a vortex, revealing Newton to be a convinced Cartesian. By the time he finally wrote the Principia twenty years later he had turned against Descartes and in fact Book II of Principia is devoted to demolishing Descartes’ vortex theory.

In 1666 Newton dropped his study of mechanics for the meantime and moved onto optics, where his endeavours would prove more fruitful, leading to his discoveries on the nature of light and eventually to his first publication in 1672, as well as the construction of his reflecting telescope.

The Newtonian Reflector Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Newtonian Reflector
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Over the next two decades Newton developed and extended his knowledge of mechanics, whilst also developing his mathematical skills so that when Halley came calling in 1684 to ask what form a planetary orbit would take under an inverse squared law of gravity, Newton was now in a position to give the correct answer. At Halley’s instigation Newton now turned that knowledge into a book, his Principia, which only took him the best part of three years to write! As can be seen even with this briefest of outlines there was definitely nothing instantaneous or miraculous about the creation of Newton’ masterpiece.

So have we said all that needs to be said about Newton and his apple, both the story and the myth? Well no. There still remains another objection that has been raised by historians, who would definitely like to chuck the baby out with the bath water. Although there are, as noted above, multiple sources for the apple-story all of them date from the last decade of Newton’s life, fifty years after the event. There is a strong suspicion that Newton, who was know to be intensely jealous of his priorities in all of his inventions and discoveries, made up the apple story to establish beyond all doubt that he and he alone deserved the credit for the discovery of universal gravitation. This suspicion cannot be simply dismissed as Newton has form in such falsification of his own history. As I have blogged on an earlier occasion, he definitely lied about having created Principia using the, from himself newly invented, calculus translating it back into conventional Euclidian geometry for publication. We will probably never know the final truth about the apple-story but I for one find it totally plausible and am prepared to give Isaac the benefit of the doubt and to say he really did take a step along the road to his theory of universal gravitation one summer afternoon in Woolsthorpe in the Year of Our Lord 1666.

[1] Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius, Columbia University Press, 2002

[2] Patricia Fara, Science: A Four Thousand Year History, ppb. OUP, 2010, pp. 164-165

[3] Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, ppb. CUP, 1980 p. 154


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Myths of Science, Newton