Category Archives: History of science

When and how geology became a science.

The next statement in this post could well loose me several of my British readers I’m not a big fan of The Infinite Monkey Cage, BBC Radio 4’s comedy science programme. I don’t particularly like the puerile schoolboy humour favoured by the hosts. I was not partial to it when I was a puerile schoolboy and have grown less fond of it over the years. However on Monday I had some time to kill before going out for the evening and didn’t feel like reading, so I thought I would listen to the latest episode, which promised, amongst other things, a discussion of when and how geology became a science.

After several minutes of banter geologist Hermione Cockburn was asked exactly that.  The first problem that occurred to me was that there was no discussion or explanation either of what science is or more importantly what it means for a discipline to become a science. Now I know that both of these questions are much too complex to be handled in a thirty minutes comedy programme, which of course raises the question of the legitimacy of trying to discuss geology becoming a science in the same context. This problematic did not seem to phase Ms Cockburn who blithely answered that the transition occurred through the work of James Hutton or, she went on, maybe through that of Charles Lyell. This prompted the question from the hosts, why it had taken so long after Newton and the emergence of modern science for this to occur. Now Newton died in 1727 and Hutton was born in 1726 so the separation in time wasn’t that great.

The answer provided to the supposed time gap was of course religious prejudice. After a surprisingly positive account of Ussher’s chronology the other expert guest in the programme, paleobiologist David Martill, went on to explain that although the Greeks had realised that fossils were the remains of animals this knowledge had got lost in the Dark Ages (he actually used this term!) and it wasn’t until the seventeen hundreds that anybody looked at fossils correctly. Now at this point I began to ask myself, not for the first time, if the BBC is going to discuss history of science, in this case history of geology, why don’t they get a historian of science, in this case historian of geology, who knows what they are talking about to do the job?

Now I’m neither a geologist nor a historian of geology but even I know that the answer provided here by the experts are, at very best, highly dubious and at the worst totally wrong. I did ask myself, if Ms Cockburn was indulging in a bit of local patriotism, as James Hutton was a graduate of Edinburg University, the institution where she is employed. Just staying in the eighteenth century, if Hutton is doing scientific geology then so were his biggest intellectual opponent the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner, who was his contemporary and the French polymath Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon who preceded them both. Less well known is the fact that Leibniz, who died in 1716, wrote and published definitely scientific papers on geology in his capacity as inspector of mines for his employer, the Elector of Hanover, George I of England.

Of course scientific geology didn’t begin in the eighteenth century. Assuming that scientific means theories based on empirical evidence then the sixteenth century German physician Georg Pawer (modern German spelling Bauer i.e. farmer), better known as Agricola, produced scientific geology in his books on mining. The most famous of which is his De re metallica, published posthumously in 1556.  Another sixteenth century polymath who produced scientific writings on geology based on excellent empirical observations was Leonardo da Vinci but who, as usual, did not publish his findings and so can’t really be counted amongst the scientific geologists.

However the person I most missed in this misconstrued mini-history of geology is one of my favourite seventeenth century polymaths Niels Stensen (1638–1686), better known by the short form of his Latinised nom de plume simply as Steno.

Born in Copenhagen of Lutheran Protestant parents, why this is relevant will become clear later, Steno entered the University of Copenhagen to study medicine at the age of nineteen. He studied under Thomas Bartholin, discoverer of the lymphatic system, whose younger brother Rasmus Bartholin first discovered double refraction the phenomenon that led Huygens to formulate his wave theory of light. Bartholin urged Steno, on completion of his medical degree, to travel to Amsterdam to study under Gerard Blasius, where after six months he moved on to Leiden to become part of one of the most extraordinary constellations of medical talent assembled in one place in the seventeenth century. Under the direction of the professors Franciscus Sylvius and Johannes van Horne Jan Swammerdam, Reinier de Graaf, Frederick Ruysch and Steno were busy revolutionising the study of human anatomy. All of them made major contributions and discoveries.

During this period the strangest story involving Steno concerned the discovery of the function of the ovaries. De Graaf claimed this discovery for himself but Swammerdam was convinced that the laurels should go to van Horne and himself. After the two, now ex-friends, had argued bitterly on who should be awarded the priority Swammerdam appealed to the Royal Society in London to arbitrate in the matter and pass judgement. After due consideration of the various claims the Royal Society announced Steno as the winner although he had never claimed the priority.

After further medical work in Paris Steno went to Northern Italy where he was first professor of anatomy in Pisa and then private physician to Ferdinando II de’Medici thus becoming de facto a member of, Ferdinand’s brother, Leopoldo de’Medici’s Accademia del Cimento.  During his time in Tuscany Steno turned to his second scientific career, geology.

Steno was given a shark’s head by Ferdinando, which being an anatomist he proceeded to dissect. He realised that the shark’s teeth resembled glossopetrae or “tongue stones” and hypothesised that these were in fact fossilised shark’s teeth. This led him to more general conclusions about the organic origins of fossils, which he published in his De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus, or Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid in 1669. This was not Steno only contribution to the history of geology. During his walks along the coast he observed the layers visible in the rock formations around him and developed the three fundamental laws of stratification – the law of superposition, the principle of original horizontality and the principle of lateral continuity – which he published in his Dissertationis prodromus of 1669.

Around this time Steno’s career took another major turn. In 1667 our Danish Lutheran converted to Catholicism. In 1675, having abandoned science completely, he was ordained a priest and in 1677 he was consecrated titular bishop of Titiopolis. Steno left Italy for Northern Germany where he worked as a missionary trying to convert the Lutherans back to Catholicism. He rejected all his worldly goods living as a pauper, a live style that led to his death in 1686. Steno was nominated for sainthood by his parishioners and although he was beatified he was never canonised.

To return to the history of geology Steno was not alone in the latter part of the seventeenth century in suggesting an organic theory of fossils with both Robert Hooke and John Ray propagating similar ideas.

If you want to know more about the history of geology then I can strongly recommend the blog of David Bressan at Scientific American and suggest you start with this post that explains more about the contributions of Agricola, Leonardo and Steno.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

What Isaac actually asked the apple.

Yesterday on my twitter stream people were retweeting the following quote:

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” —Bernard Baruch

For those who don’t know, Bernard Baruch was an American financier and presidential advisor. I can only assume that those who retweeted it did so because they believe that it is in some way significant. As a historian of science I find it is significant because it is fundamentally wrong in two different ways and because it perpetuates a false understanding of Newton’s apple story. For the purposes of this post I shall ignore the historical debate about the truth or falsity of the apple story, an interesting discussion of which you can read here in the comments, and just assume that it is true. I should however point out that in the story, as told by Newton to at least two different people, he was not hit on the head by the apple and he did not in a blinding flash of inspiration discover the inverse square law of gravity. Both of these commonly held beliefs are myths created in the centuries after Newton’s death.

Our quote above implies that of all the millions of people who saw apples, or any other objects for that matter, fall, Newton was the first or even perhaps the only one to ask why. This is of course complete and utter rubbish people have been asking why objects fall probably ever since the hominoid brain became capable of some sort of primitive thought. In the western world the answer to this question that was most widely accepted in the centuries before Newton was born was the one supplied by Aristotle. Aristotle thought that objects fall because it was in their nature to do so. They had a longing, desire, instinct or whatever you choose to call it to return to their natural resting place the earth. This is of course an animistic theory of matter attributing as it does some sort of spirit to matter to fulfil a desire.

Aristotle’s answer stems from his theory of the elements of matter that he inherited from Empedocles. According to this theory all matter on the earth consisted of varying mixtures of four elements: earth, water, fire and air. In an ideal world they would be totally separated, a sphere of earth enclosed in a sphere of water, enclosed in a sphere of air, which in turn was enclosed in a sphere of fire. Outside of the sphere of fire the heavens consisted of a fifth pure element, aether or as it became known in Latin the quintessence. In our world objects consist of mixtures of the four elements, which given the chance strive to return to their natural position in the scheme of things. Heavy objects, consisting as they do largely of earth and water, strive downwards towards the earth light objects such as smoke or fire strive upwards.

To understand what Isaac did ask the apple we have to take a brief look at the two thousand years between Aristotle and Newton.

Ignoring for a moment the Stoics, nobody really challenged the Aristotelian elemental theory, which is metaphysical in nature but over the centuries they did challenge his physical theory of movement. Before moving on we should point out that Aristotle said that vertical, upwards or downwards, movement on the earth was natural and all other movement was unnatural or violent, whereas in the heavens circular movement was natural.

Already in the sixth century CE John Philoponus began to question and criticise Aristotle’s physical laws of motion. An attitude that was taken up and extended by the Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages. Following the lead of their Islamic colleagues the so-called Paris physicists of the fourteenth century developed the impulse theory, which said that when an object was thrown the thrower imparted an impulse to the object which carried it through the air gradually being exhausted, until when spent the object fell to the ground. Slightly earlier their Oxford colleagues, the Calculatores of Merton College had in fact discovered Galileo’s mathematical law of fall: The two theories together providing a quasi-mathematical explanation of movement, at least here on the earth.

You might be wondering what all of this has to do with Isaac and his apple but you should have a little patience we will arrive in Grantham in due course.

In the sixteenth century various mathematicians such as Tartaglia and Benedetti extended the mathematical investigation of movement, the latter anticipating Galileo in almost all of his famous discoveries. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Simon Stevin and Galileo deepened these studies once more the latter developing very elegant experiments to demonstrate and confirm the laws of fall, which were later in the century confirmed by Riccioli. Meanwhile their contemporary Kepler was the first to replace the Aristotelian animistic concept of movement with one driven by a non-living force, even if it was not very clear what force is. During the seventeenth century others such as Beeckman, Descartes, Borelli and Huygens further developed Kepler’s concept of force, meanwhile banning Aristotle’s moving spirits out of their mechanistical philosophy. Galileo, Beeckman and Descartes replaced the medieval impulse theory with the theory of inertia, which says that objects in a vacuum will either remain at rest or continue to travel in a straight line unless acted upon by a force. Galileo, who still hung on the Greek concept of perfect circular motion, had problems with the straight-line bit but Beeckman and Descartes straightened him out. The theory of inertia was to become Newton’s first law of motion.

We have now finally arrived at that idyllic summer afternoon in Grantham in 1666, as the young Isaac Newton, home from university to avoid the plague, whilst lying in his mother’s garden contemplating the universe, as one does, chanced to see an apple falling from a tree. Newton didn’t ask why it fell, but set off on a much more interesting, complicated and fruitful line of speculation. Newton’s line of thought went something like this. If Descartes is right with his theory of inertia, in those days young Isaac was still a fan of the Gallic philosopher, then there must be some force pulling the moon down towards the earth and preventing it shooting off in a straight line at a tangent to its orbit. What if, he thought, the force that holds the moon in its orbit and the force that cause the apple to fall to the ground were one and the same? This frighteningly simple thought is the germ out of which Newton’s theory of universal gravity and his masterpiece the Principia grew. That growth taking several years and a lot of very hard work. No instant discoveries here.

Being somewhat of a mathematical genius, young Isaac did a quick back of an envelope calculation and see here his theory didn’t fit! They weren’t the same force at all! What had gone wrong? In fact there was nothing wrong with Newton’s theory at all but the figure that he had for the size of the earth was inaccurate enough to throw his calculations. As a side note, although the expression back of an envelope calculation is just a turn of phrase in Newton’s case it was often very near the truth. In Newton’s papers there are mathematical calculations scribbled on shopping lists, in the margins of letters, in fact on any and every available scrap of paper that happened to be in the moment at hand.

Newton didn’t forget his idea and later when he repeated those calculations with the brand new accurate figures for the size of the earth supplied by Picard he could indeed show that the chain of thought inspired by that tumbling apple had indeed been correct.



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

Counting the hours

My #histsci-soul-sisterTM, Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt, wrote a charming post on her H-Word Blog to mark the end of European summer time describing the mad scheme of a certain William Willett to introduce the time change in twenty minute increments over several weeks. This reminded me of a local time phenomenon that I’ve not yet blogged about, Der Große Nürnberger Uhr

The time taken for the earth to rotate once upon its axis or for the sun to appear to circle the earth (its irrelevant how you view it) is a given but how one then chooses to divide up this period into smaller, easier to handle units is purely arbitrary. We owe our twenty-four hour day to the ancient Egyptians. They marked the passing of time in the night by the raising of stars; twelve stars being allotted for any given night, thus dividing the night into twelve units. They being normally decimal in their thinking divided the day into ten units. Allotting one unit for twilight at each junction between day and night brought the total to twenty-four.

The ancient Greek astronomers took over the Egyptian solar calendar and their twenty-four hour day dividing the diurnal revolution into twenty-four equally long, or equinoctial, hours as we do now. However most cultures who adopted the twenty-four system before the early modern period divided the night and day each into twelve units producing hours that varied in length depending on the time of year. This variation got larger the further away from the equator the culture was. In the middle of summer daytime hours were very long and night-time ones very short and vice versa in the middle of winter.

Beginning in the fourteenth century the city state of Nürnberg introduced a system of dividing up the day that is a sort of halfway station between the unequal hours of the middle ages and equinoctial hours, the so called ‘Große Uhr’, in English ‘Large Clock’. In this system the number of hours allotted to the day and night changed approximately every three weeks, the number of daytime hours increasing from midwinter (8) to midsummer (16) and then decreasing from midsummer to midwinter. The number of night-time hours doing the opposite.

Date of change 1st half of year Daylight hours Night-time hours Date of change 2nd half of year



7 January



16 November

28 January



26 October

14 February



8 October

3 March



22 September

19 March



5 September

5 April



20 August

23 April



2 August

15 May



11 June

In 1506 the Nürnberger humanists created one of the most complicated sundials in the whole of Europe on the wall of the St Lorenz church in the city.

Sundial on the St Lorenz Church Nürnberg

Sundial on the St Lorenz Church Nürnberg

This sundial shows the time of day in various different variations of hours including of course the Large Nürnberg Clock

The definition on this picture is not good enough to say which lines are which.

The good citizens of Nürnberg continued to use their own unique way of counting the hours right down to the year 1811.


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

Was Madge really Mad or simply a woman?

As my contribution this year to Ada Lovelace day I am writing about a woman who wasn’t just a scientist but who also wrote extensively about natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, Margaret Cavendish née Lucas.

Margaret Lucas was born in Colchester in about 1623. (Regular readers of my ramblings will immediately recognise that I’m biased, as I was born down the road from Colchester myself and went to school there). Her family were rich landed gentry but not titled. She received the usual non-education of a gentlewoman of the period. In 1642 as the civil war was cranking into gear, her brother Charles would later be executed following the siege of Colchester, she went to live with her sister in Oxford and succeeded in becoming a maid of honour at the court of Queen Henrietta then resident in Oxford. In 1644 when the Queen withdrew to Paris Margaret accompanied her.

William Cavendish (1592 – 1676) a member of the very wealthy and influential Cavendish family was an aristocrat and courtier who worked his way up the greasy pole of privilege acquiring various titles and lands until he was finally appointed Duke of Newcastle. A gentleman of leisure he was a polymath, an excellent swordsman, equestrian and soldier given to the usual pursuits of the landed gentry but he was also poet, playwright and architect who was both a disciple and a patron of Ben Jonson as well as being patron to a whole host of poets, playwright, artists and musicians.  Both William and his younger brother Charles were devotees of natural philosophy and the mathematical sciences maintaining close contact, before the civil war, with most of the leading English mathematicians and mathematical practitioners of the period, including John Pell, William Oughtred and John Wallis.

Both William and Charles served with distinction in the royalist army during the civil war but were on the losing side at the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Forced to flee England the Cavendish brothers joined the Queen’s court in Paris where William, who had lost his first wife, met Margaret fell in love with the much younger woman and married her in 1645 against the wishes of the Queen.

In Paris William and Charles maintained a philosophical salon whose participants included René Descartes, Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi and the English philosophers Kenelm Digby and Thomas Hobbes, who had been private tutor to another branch of the Cavendish family. An unusual aspect of this august discussion circle was that Margaret was not only permitted to attend but also to participate as an equal, an almost unheard of thing for a gentlewoman in this period. In 1648 the Cavendish circus decamped to Holland setting up home in Reuben’s house in Antwerp where their circle of intellectual friends included Pell, now teaching in Holland, Descartes and Constantijn Huygens. In 1660 with the Restoration they could return to England and the life of the landed gentry.

William himself wrote plays and poetry but was outstripped by his young vivacious wife who poured out a series of volumes of poetry and plays in her own right and in her own name, a more than somewhat unusual activity for a female aristocrat. However Margaret pushed the boundaries even further. Having received an education in philosophy from some of the greatest minds in Europe she began to write and publish extensively on the philosophy of science. At first tending to support Hobbes’ materialism, in her more mature writings she rejected both the traditional Aristotelian philosophy as well as the mechanical philosophies of the moderns and developed her own version of vitalism. I’m not going to bore you with an analysis of her somewhat arcane ideas but her writings on the philosophy of science are not to be rejected out of hand. In 1667 she caused a major sensation by becoming the first, and before the 19th century, only women to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. A visit made possible more by her husband’s status and wealth than her own scientific merits. This visit is mentioned together with some rather intriguing details of her correspondence on chemistry with Constantijn Huygens in a recent BBC Radio 4 Point of View by Lisa Jardine.

Having briefly sketched the life of Margaret Cavendish I can now explain the title of this post. Although the habit seems to be dying out Margaret Cavendish was for a long time almost universally referred to, as Mad Madge and it was certainly not meant as a compliment. I know of at least two different explanations for this less than flattering sobriquet. One source has the following to say on the subject:

Margaret was viewed by her contemporaries as being rather eccentric. She was extravagent and flirtatious, accused of using speech full of ‘oaths and obscenity’, and was noted for her unusual sense of fashion. This reputation for eccentricity survives today, when Margaret is widely referred to as ‘Mad Madge’.

Now both of the Cavendish brother, Descartes and Digby were all professional soldiers and it would not surprise me if the language of their discussion, when the nights were long and the bottles almost empty, sometimes resembled that of the barrack room rather than the schools and that Margaret learnt to hold her own in this heady atmosphere. Now the above description could, with a little modification, equally be applied to Margaret’s near contemporary Edmond Halley but nobody refers to him as Loony Eddy!

The other explanation is that Margaret is so referred to because of her unladylike passion for science and its philosophy. Kenelm Digby her Paris companion, who also like Margaret ran a chemistry laboratory and at the same time as she was writing and publishing her tracts on vitalism Digby was publishing his on his strange amalgam of Aristotelian and Cartesian philosophies that enjoyed a certain vogue in the early years of the Royal society. Both philosophies are now out of style and appear to us rather strange but nobody refers to Digby as Krazy Kenelm!

I think Margaret Cavendish gets called Mad Madge for daring to compete in a man’s world. She gets denigrated not because of her outlandish behaviour or her passion for science but simply because she was a woman who had these attributes. I think we should no longer call her Mad Madge but respect and honour Margaret Cavendish as an intelligent and able woman who was a pioneering female philosopher of science at a time when this was an exclusively male occupation.


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

Rule Britannia: Britannia rules the sciences.

He who shall not be named, The Poster Boy of Pop ScienceTM, has a new television series on the history of science called Science Britannica, which I haven’t seen and unless somebody sends me a DVD (hint, hint) probably never will see. However he has graced us with an essay on the BBC’s website, The wonder of British Science, distilling his history of science wisdom and the history and philosophy of science community are wishing he hadn’t. Why?

To start with the opening paragraphs in faux Churchillian rhetoric read like a piece of late nineteenth century jingoism that would be more at home on a UKIP election pamphlet than in a history of science essay. Let us confront the horror:

The British Isles are home to just one percent of the world’s population and yet our small collection of rocks poking out of the north Atlantic has thrown up world beaters in virtually every field of human endeavour.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in science and engineering. Edward Jenner came up with vaccines, Sir Frank Whittle ushered in the jet age and Sir Tim Berners-Lee laid the foundations of the world wide web. Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, George Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel… the list is gloriously long.

What is it about Britain that allowed so many great minds to emerge and flourish?

The opening paragraph plays the Little Britain card, this itzy bitzy island have produced so many brilliant thinkers and doers! Does it hold up to scrutiny? Because it’s an island people tend to think of Britain as being small but is it really when compared to its European neighbours? When I moved to West Germany more than thirty years ago (it was before reunification) I actually took the trouble to look up the facts. At that time Britain and West Germany had roughly equal areas and population, since reunification Germany is of course in both aspects about a quarter larger. France is naturally much bigger than Britain but has a smaller population. Italy is somewhat larger but also has less population and so on and so forth. Britain is in fact a major European country and in history of science terms really doesn’t punch above its weight in comparison to other European countries.

We get presented with a royal flush of British science and technology genius, “Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, George Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel…” but is it really so exceptional in comparison? Let me see how my adopted country compares “Nicolas Copernicus (OK we share him with the Poles!), Johannes Kepler, Justus von Liebig, Joseph von Frauenhofer, Karl Benz…”. I could of course go on to produce similar lists for France, Italy, Holland (a really small country) etc. but are we playing some sort of chauvinist science poker? I’ll see your Isaac Newton with my Albert Einstein and raise you a Max Planck and an Erwin Schrödinger. Even a country like Croatia can dish up a pretty spectacular list of great thinkers, in that sense Britain is nothing special.

We now turn to the three specific examples of British world-beaters listed above. “Frank Whittle ushered in the jet age” Well yes Whittle did invent a jet engine but so did Hans von Ohain independently of Whittle and it was his Heinkel He 178, which had its maiden flight on 27 August 1939, that was the first jet aircraft. Another German plane the Messerschmitt Me 262 was the world’s first jet-fighter aircraft, which even entered service at the end of WW II. Let us not forget Wernher von Braun who gave the world both the doodlebug and the American space programme. Whittle was one amongst many, most of them not even British.

“Edward Jenner came up with vaccines”.  The story of vaccines has become a beginners’ history of medicine general knowledge test question. The first person to introduce vaccination (although it wasn’t called that then) into Europe was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1715, who was at least British if only a mere woman. She had it from the Turks in Istanbul where her husband was the British ambassador. “I say Carruthers beaten to the punch by Johnny Turk and a woman! Let’s just erase them from history and pretend it was an Englishman”.

“Tim Berners-Lee laid the foundations of the world wide web”: This is at least correct and I for one am very grateful to him for having done so. However he didn’t invent ARPANET or the Internet, which preceded it and made it possible. He was also working at CERN when he developed the WWW a large international scientific cooperation in Switzerland and as James Sumner (@JamesBSumner) put it so nicely today on twitter:

Tim Berners-Lee’s inborn British ingenuity must be potent if he could invent stuff even at CERN, with all those Europeans distracting him.

Before somebody says, as they did today on twitter, that TBPoPS TPBoPS did announce in the title that he was writing about British science, (somebody else noted that all his examples are English!). I have nothing against somebody writing about British science, I’ve even been known to do so myself on occasions, I just intensely dislike the undertone of nasty nationalism the pervades the whole essay. When I read through the paragraphs quoted above I hear a shrill voice in the back of my head chanting:

 The British, the British, the British are best

I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.

So how does TBPoPS TPBoPS answer his own jingoist question?

What is it about Britain that allowed so many great minds to emerge and flourish?

The first part of his answer seems rather trivial:

The roots of our success can be traced back many centuries. Oxford and Cambridge Universities were formed over 800 years ago.

For me these two seemingly harmless short sentences are in fact as answer to the question rather dubious. Remember we are supposed to be investigating what makes Britain so special in the history of science. Other countries in Europe also founded universities in the High Middle Ages, some of them are even older than Oxbridge so how does this answer our question? Another much more important point is that the medieval universities were not particularly supportive of science, in fact they came pretty close to ignoring it. The first course of study was nominally based on the seven liberal arts that is the trivium and the quadrivium. Now the quadrivium consisted of what passed as science subjects in the Middle Ages, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, however the actual course of study concentrated almost entirely on the trivium, grammar, rhetoric and logic, treating the quadrivium with disdain. Normally geometry did not go much further than the first book of Euclid’s Elements, arithmetic and music were taught on the basis of the respective texts from Boethius and astronomy following Sacrobosco’s pamphlet On The Spheres. The Sacrobosco is a non-technical outline of the basics of the geocentric worldview and a medieval student who learnt his arithmetic from Boethius knew less than an average fifth grader today. Not really the stuff of a scientific education even by the standards of the time. It is true that most of the natural philosophers (read anachronistically scientists) of the period were university educated but their scientific activities were extra curricular. Even for the Early Modern Period there is a major historical discussion as to whether the universities supported or hindered the development of the sciences. Given all of this basing Britain supposed superiority in the sciences on its medieval universities appears to me to be somewhat dodgy.

Next up we have the Royal Society:

They paved the way for the world’s oldest scientific institution, The Royal Society, formed in 1660 by a group including Sir Christopher Wren, professor of astronomy and architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

A very short paragraph with so much that is wrong.

We’ve been here before but for those who weren’t paying attention the Royal Society is not the world’s oldest scientific institution, the Leopoldina, founded in 1652, is! Also the Leopoldina and the Royal Society were by no means the only scientific societies founded in this period. There was the French Academy, the Berlin Academy and so on. Again attributing some sort of British exceptionalism to the Royal Society just doesn’t wash.

The Royal Society wasn’t formed from a group that came from Oxbridge but one from Gresham College, an institution that TBPoPS TPBoPS completely ignores, which is rather strange as Christopher Wren, he wasn’t a sir then, was professor of astronomy at Gresham and not at Oxford or Cambridge. Some but not all of the Gresham group had studied at Oxford and one at Cambridge. The group at Gresham was interwoven with other scientific discussion groups of the period such as the Hartlib Circle whose principle figure Samuel Hartlib wasn’t even British but German. This group also followed the teachings of Jan Comenius who was Czech. One of the principal early figures in the Gresham group was Theodor Haak another German with close connections to the Hartlib Circle. Finally, another German, Henry Oldenburg, was the Society’s first secretary. The whole thing starts looking rather un-British if one looks too closely.

The introduction of the Royal Society is followed by another series of historical claims that are at best dubious and in some aspects simply wrong.

The aim was to pursue a radical idea – that the workings of nature can be best understood by observation and experiment.

Any theory or idea about the world should be tested and if it disagrees with observations, then it is wrong.

Even today, that’s radical, because it means that the opinions of important and powerful people are worthless if they conflict with reality. So central is this idea to science that it is enshrined in The Royal Society’s motto: “Take nobody’s word for it”.

Shortly after The Royal Society was formed, Sir Isaac Newton deployed this approach in his great work The Principia, which contains his law of gravity and the foundations of what we now call classical mechanics – the tools you need to work out the forces on bridges and buildings, calculate paths of artillery shells and the stresses on aircraft wings. This was arguably the first work of modern physics.

Here we have a very standard mistake in the history of seventeenth century science the conflation of Baconian methodology with Newtonian about which I have blogged on more than one occasion (keyword “stamp collectors”!). This is the result of believing that there is only one scientific method so they must have all used the same one.

This has become known as the scientific method, and its power can be seen in some unexpected places.

The Baconian, principally inductive, fact gathering methodology leads to the so-called historical sciences such as geology, the various branches of biology and palaeontology. The Newtonian hypothetical deductive methodology forms the backbone of the so-called empirical sciences, physics etc. Conflicts between the representatives of the two schools of thought led to several serious schisms in the early decades of the Royal Society, so to conflate them is a serious historical error.

There are those that would argue that the foundations of classical mechanics are to be found in the works of some Italian geezer called Galileo Galilei whom they also credit him with having written the first work of modern physics. The Dutch might argue for either Simon Stevin or Christiaan Huygens, whilst the French would certainly champion Descartes and the Germans Leibniz. All of which goes to show that such statements in the history of science are out of place. I personally would argue that all of these works contributed to a synthesis created in the eighteenth century by people such as Varignon, various Bernoullis and Euler that is really the first appearance of modern physics.

The rest of the essay degenerates into a series of anecdote that supposedly illustrate the one true scientific method, which I won’t go into now.

Now some will certainly argue that I’m nit picking and being unfair to TBPoPS TPBoPS who is only simplifying a complex story. However this type of simplification leads to falsification and that is what I cannot accept. In fact as several people have already pointed out TBPoPS TPBoPS is not actually doing history of science at all but is abusing history to make a political point in the here and now as can be seen from such passages as this:

This is a very important question to ask, because science and engineering are not only part of our past – the future of our economy depends to an ever-increasing extent on our continued excellence in scientific discovery and high-tech manufacturing and engineering.

If TBPoPS TPBoPS wants to take up the baton for public science and technology funding in Britain in the twentieth century he is welcome to do so and he would have my full support but I cannot stand by and watch as he perverts the history of science to achieve his aim. As my acronym for him makes clear he has become a pop star amongst television presenters and people who have little idea of the history of science are going to take what he says as the gospel truth. The result will be that when historians of science try to explain to these viewers that what they think is the truth in reality isn’t, they are simply going to reply, “it must be true because TBPoPS TPBoPS said so on television!” In an age when people like TBPoPS  TPBoPS worry about science communication and the problem of converting climate change deniers and creationists I find it sad that he deliberately abuses the history of science.


Filed under History of science

The speed of light, a spin off from longitude research.

When I was growing up in the dim and distant twentieth century spin-off was one of the most frequently used buzz words in the public discussion of science and technology; a spin-off being an unintended and unexpected positive product of scientific or technological research. Politicians would use the term to justify high levels of expenditure on political prestige projects claiming that the voters/taxpayers would benefit through the spin-offs from the research. The example that was almost always quoted by the media was that the non-stick coating for frying pans was a spin-off from the space programme. This is, like many popular stories in the history of science and technology, actually a myth but that is not the subject of this post.

Now spin-offs are not a modern phenomenon but have been turning up ever since humans first began hammering bits of stone to make tools and as the title of this post suggests, the first successful scientific determination of the speed of light was actually a spin-off from a project to find a more accurate way to determine longitude.

The speed of light had been a problem since at least the beginning of the ancient Greek study of optics. The Greeks themselves were split into two camps on the subject. Some like Empedocles, on whose shoulders the beginnings of much of Greek science rests, thought that the speed of light was finite arguing that light was something in motion and therefore required time to travel. Heron of Alexandria, a representative of the geometrical school of optics, thought that the transmission of light was spontaneous, the speed thus infinite, because extremely distant objects such as stars appear instantly when we open our eyes. Down through the ages those writing on optics took one side or the other in the argument. In the seventeenth century two of the most important optical experts Kepler and Descartes both argued for an infinite speed of light . Galileo and Isaac Beeckman, who both thought the speed of light was finite, proposed, and may have carried out, experiments to try and determine the speed of light but were of course defeated by its actually extremely high velocity and their very, very primitive timing devices. The actual solution came from the astronomers and it was Galileo who unwittingly set the ball rolling. [Modified 26.09.2013 I done screwed up again! See comments]

In 1610 Galileo and Simon Marius both discovered the four largest, or Galilean, Moons of Jupiter, Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. The orbits of the four are all relatively short and they disappear and reappear from behind Jupiter in a complex but regular dance. Galileo realised that if one could determine the orbits accurately enough then one could use these disappearances and reappearances (eclipses of the moons) as an astronomical clock in order to determine longitude. One would need to create an accurate table of the time of the eclipses for a given prime meridian then in order to determine the longitude of a given point the cartographer-astronomer only needs to determine the local time of the occurrence of one of the eclipses look in his tables to calculate the time difference and thus the longitude difference to his prime meridian. Having thought up this, actually quite brilliant, idea Galileo, never one to pass up a chance to shine and at the same time earn a fast buck, tried to sell it first to Spain and then to Holland; an interesting combination as the two countries were at war with each other at the time. Both sales pitches failed and Galileo never actually produced the necessary tables. Fast-forward about fifty years to Paris.

Ensconced in the new observatory in Paris and equipped with far superior telescopes to those of Galileo, Europe’s star astronomer, Giovanni Domenico (Jean-Dominique) Cassini took up the task abandoned by Galileo and produced the necessary tables to a high enough degree of accuracy to enable the French astronomer-cartographers to accurately determine longitude. (I should point out that this method is impractical at sea as the accurate telescopic observation of the moons of Jupiter on a rolling ship is well-nigh impossible). This is a pan European story. We started in Germany and Northern Italy then moving on to Paris we now take a short diversion to Denmark to meet Ole Rømer.

Ole Rømer by Jacob Coning c.1700

Ole Rømer
by Jacob Coning c.1700

Ole Rømer was born in Århus on the 25th September 1644. In 1662 he started studying at the University of Copenhagen under the mathematician and physician Rasmus Bartholin. In 1671 the French astronomer-cartographer Jean Picard went to Demark to accurately re-measure the latitude and longitude of Tycho Brahe’s observatory on the island of Hven, using the moons of Jupiter, in order to better integrate Tycho’s observation into those made by the observatory in Paris. Picard took Rømer with him to Hven as an assistant. Much impressed by the young Dane Picard offered to take him back with him to Paris. Given the chance of working at the world’s leading centre for astronomical research at that time, Rømer didn’t hesitate, packed his bags and was soon installed as an assistant to Cassini at the Paris Observatory.

A problem had turned up in the eclipse tables for the moons of Jupiter and Rømer took part in the observation programme to try and determine where the error lay. His observations showed that the period between the eclipse of Io got shorter as Earth got closer to Jupiter and longer as Earth moved away. Over a period of eight years Rømer observed and accurately calculated the delay in the eclipse time, which were in fact due to the finite speed of light and the differences in the distance that the light from Io must travel depending on the relative positions of Earth and Jupiter. On the assumption that this was indeed the cause and that the speed of light was finite Christiaan Huygens calculated it from Rømer’s figures producing the first ever scientific calculation of the speed of light. The figure at about 200 000 km per sec is too low and was not universally accepted as many still believed that the speed of light was infinite. The matter was finally settled as James Bradley discovered stellar aberration in the 1720’s and used it to calculate a more accurate figure.

Rømer returned to Copenhagen in 1681 as professor of astronomy at the university, where he made further minor contribution to the sciences. However he’ll always be chiefly remembered as the man who first determined that the speed of light is finite and produced a measure of that speed.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of science

The corresponding accountant, the man who invented π and the Earls of Macclesfield.

I recently stumbled over an exciting piece of news for all historians of the mathematics of the seventeenth century, Jackie Stedall and Philip Beeley have received a grant from the AHRC to edit and publish the correspondence of the English mathematician John Collins (1625 – 1683). Now anybody who is not up on the obscure aspects of seventeenth century mathematics is probably thinking who is John Collins and why should the publication of his correspondence be a reason to celebrate?

In the Early Modern Period before the advent of academic journals European scholars did not live in splendid isolation but spread, discussed and criticised each others newest thoughts by post. There existed a vast interlocking web of correspondence networks linking up the scholars in much the same way as the Internet does today but at a somewhat more leisurely pace.

The letters that scholars exchanged were often long detailed texts on their current research, resembling more a scientific paper than a conventional letter. These were also not private letters but were often conceived to be copied by the recipient and sent on by him to other interested parties in his own network. An early modern form of re-blogging or re-tweeting. Some scholar’s networks were so extensive that they are now referred to as ‘post offices’.  The most well known example of an early modern ‘post office’ is the French Minim Friar Marin Mersenne who appeared to be the hub around which the European scientific community revolved. He is particularly renowned for having championed Galileo’s physics. When he died letters from 79 different scientific correspondents were found in his monk’s cell in Paris. Even Mersenne’s prolific letter writing activities were over shadowed by another acolyte of Galileo, Mersenne’s countryman, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc. We still have 10 000 of Peiresc’s letters.

Another European ‘post office’ was the German Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, Athanasius Kircher. Kircher collected astronomical observations and other scientific information from all over the world and redistributed it to all of the leading astronomers of Europe, both Jesuit and non-Jesuit.

In England the first secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, also maintained a continent wide network of correspondents. In fact the contents of the early editions of the Philosophical Transactions, which Oldenburg started as a private enterprise to supplement his salary, consisted largely of letters of , often dubious, scientific merit from Oldenburg’s correspondents. His extensive foreign correspondence led to him, a German, being arrested and incarcerated on suspicion of being a spy for a time during the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667. As we shall see John Collins came to serve as an assistant to Oldenburg dealing with the mathematical correspondence.

Collins, the son of an impoverished nonconformist minister, was born in Wood Eaton near Oxford in 1626. Unable to afford an advanced education he was apprenticed to the bookseller Thomas Allam. After Allam went bankrupt he became junior clerk under John Marr, clerk to the kitchens of the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II. Marr was an excellent mathematician and sundial maker and it was from him that Collin’s almost certainly received his mathematical education. During the civil war (1642 – 1649) he went to sea serving on an English merchantman engaged as a man-of-war in Venetian service. During this time he learnt navigation and taught himself accounting, mathematics and Latin.

Upon his return to England he earned his living in various positions as an accountant and began to develop a network of correspondents to acquire books and mathematical news. In 1667 Collins was elected to the Royal Society and for the next ten years he served the society as an unofficial secretary for matters mathematical. In this role he corresponded with most of the eminent mathematicians of Europe including Isaac Barrow (who christened him Mersennus Anglus), James Gregory, Christiaan Huygens, Gottfried Leibniz, John Pell, René de Sluze, Ehrenfried Tschirnhaus and possibly most important of all Isaac Newton. In fact it was Collins who outted, the then unknown, young Newton and dragged him out of his Cambridge seclusion into the seventeenth century mathematical community.

In 1669 Collins sent a new publication on analysis by Mercator (that’s Nicolaus the seventeenth century German mathematician and engineer not to be confused with Gerard the sixteenth century Dutch cartographer) to Isaac Barrow, then still the Lucasian professor of mathematics in Cambridge. Barrow responded by saying that he had a young colleague whose own work on the subject was far superior to Mercator’s. Collins thus obtained from Barrow a manuscript of Newton’s De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas (On Analysis by Infinite Series), which he proceeded to copy and distribute to a large number of European mathematicians including Leibniz. Thus making the world aware of the fact that there was a world-class mathematician in Cambridge and inadvertently igniting a slow fuse to the most notorious priority and plagiarism dispute in the history of mathematics.

Collins was also involved in the publishing business seeing several important mathematical and scientific works through the press: Thomas Salusbury’s Mathematical Collection (1661 – 1665), (including his translations of Galileo into English, which were also used by Newton), Isaac Barrow’s Lectiones opticae (1669) (prepared for publication by Newton), Lectiones geometricae (1670) and Archimedes (1675); John Wallis’ Mechanica (1669 –1671) and Algebra (1685); Jeremiah Horrocks’ Opera posthuma (1672 – 8); and others.

Collins was not a particularly skilled mathematician being more of a mathematical practitioner than a mathematician in the modern sense. He wrote and published works on accounting, surveying, navigating and dialling (the design and construction of sundials). He also wrote on the subject of trade.

Collins, who can best be described as a maths groupie, collected an extensive library of mathematical books and papers alongside his widespread correspondence. In the seventeenth century there was not the interest in papers and libraries of the deceased that exists today and there was a risk that Collins’ collection might have been dispersed after his death in 1683, enter William Jones.

William Jones, who was born on Anglesey in about 1675; was like Collins the son of an impoverished family with no prospects of an advanced education. However a local landowner recognised his mathematical talents and arranged a position for him at a London merchant’s counting house. He was sent by his employers to the West Indies and thus acquired a liking for the sea. From 1695 to 1702 he served as mathematics master on a man-of-war. Settling in London he became a private mathematics tutor publishing a book on navigation in 1702. In 1706 he published a textbook on the new calculus Synopsis palmarioum matheseos, or, A New Introduction to the Mathematics, which was the first book to include π as the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle; an honour often falsely attributed to Euler. William Oughtred had earlier used π to designate just the circumference. This publication probably first brought Jones into Newton’s inner circle.

In 1708 Jones bought up Collins’ collection of mathematical books, papers and letters. In 1711 he was elected to the Royal Society and appointed to the committee set up at the request of Leibniz to investigate the charges of plagiarism that had been made against him with respect to the invention of the calculus by Newton’s acolyte John Keill. Together with Newton, who should not have been involved at all being one of the disputing parties, Jones put together the Commercium  epistolicum (1712), which largely consisted of letters and papers from Collins’ collection and which, not unsurprisingly, found for Newton and against Leibniz. It did in fact contain a genuine smoking gun, the proof that Leibniz had received a copy of De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas from Collins, whereas Leibniz had always claimed to have had no knowledge of Newton’s early work.

Jones continued to work closely with Newton, acting as go between when relations became strained between Newton and Roger Cotes, when they were working on the second edition of Principia, and editing and publishing various of Newton’s other works.

Jones continued to earn his living as a private tutor and served for a time as mathematics teacher to Philip Yorke who would go on to become Lord Chancellor and the Earl of Hardwick. Through Yorke he was introduced to Lord Chief Justice Parker, who would become the first Earl of Macclesfield, and become tutor to his son George.

Involved in a political scandal Thomas Parker, who incidentally was one of Newton’s pallbearers, withdrew from public life and retired to his countryseat Shirburn Castle where Jones effectively became a member of the household. Parker was a great collector of books and built up a very impressive library. Meanwhile Jones continued to increase the Collins collection of mathematical books and papers.

Jones’ pupil George Parker, the second Earl of Macclesfield, was an avid amateur natural philosopher and astronomer, who added an observatory and a chemical laboratory to Shirburn Castle. In his role as a member of parliament he was instrumental in dragging Britain out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world by introducing the Gregorian calendar in 1752, two centuries after its adoption by Catholic Europe.

When he died Jones bequeathed the Collins-Jones mathematical collection to George Parker and it resided in the Shirburn Castle library for more than two hundred years largely inaccessible to historians. The astronomer and historian of mathematics Stephen Rigaud was granted access to Collins’ collection of letters and published some of them in his Correspondence of scientific men of the seventeenth century: including letters of Barrow, Flamsteed, Wallis, and Newton, printed from the originals in the collection of the Right Honourable the Earl of Macclesfield in 1841. The Macclesfield’s dissolved their priceless library at the beginning of the last decade, selling the scientific papers and letters to Cambridge University and the books by public auction. The three substantial volumes of the sales catalogue dealing with the mathematics books are themselves an invaluable history of mathematics resource (I know because a friend of mine owns them and I’m allowed to use them). That Collins’ letters collection is now going to receive the scholarly treatment it deserves is good news indeed for all historians of the seventeenth century and not just those of science or mathematics.



Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Mathematics, History of science, Newton

Here we go again…

I know that I shouldn’t but I just couldn’t resist. A website called Telly Chat has a preview of the latest TV vehicle for the Poster Boy of Pop ScienceTM, Science Britannica. In the few brief lines of description we get told, amongst other thing, the following:

Over the three episodes, Professor Brian will teach us what science really is and about the British pioneers like Sir Isaac Newton who have helped shape it over the centuries.


Episode one of Science Britannica takes a look at the scientists themselves and how they were able to put personal desires and beliefs aside in their quests to discover the scientific truths.

[my emphasis]

Now anyone who has been regularly reading my blog over the years or who is up to date on the historical research on good old Isaac can stop reading and go away and drink a nice cup of tea or read a good book or maybe both at the same time if they’re feeling adventurous. For those few who bother to stick around I shall one again explain why the two statements quoted above are from the standpoint of the historian of science more than somewhat unfortunate.

For about the last sixty years an awful lot of excellent historians of science and Newton experts have very clearly and definitively shown that Isaac Newton’s scientific work was totally dependent on and driven by his very deep personal beliefs in religion, prisca theologia and alchemy and that he believed that he and he alone had been personally selected by (his) God to reveal the secrets of God’s universe that had been know to the ancients but had become lost through the degeneration of humanity. I don’t know but somehow I don’t think that quite equates with putting aside ones personal desires and beliefs.




Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

History of science is history and not science.

Recent days has seen a bit of a cyberspace ding-dong about the function of the history of science. Martin Rundquist set the whole thing in motion with a blog post in which he requested historians of science to specify in a given historical context, who was right, viewed from the standpoint of actual modern science. Darin Hayton was, correctly in my opinion, more than somewhat upset by this suggestion and posted a virulent anti-polemic on his own blog. As Darin’s blog does not allow comments he allowed Martin to post a rejoinder there instead. This was followed in fairly short order by another rebuttal from Darin. The sequence closed, at least for the time being, with a final post by Martin on his own blog. While this was all going on a spirited debate on the subject developed on Twitter involving at least seven participants, which I will make no attempt to recapitulate here. I withdrew from the Twitter debate because I felt that I could not do justice to my own opinions on the debate in a sequence of 140 character bites and so I’m going to attempt to express some of the thoughts that I have had on the subject in this post.

For me it is obvious that Martin’s standpoint is based on a decidedly Whiggish attitude to the history of science and that his concept of the history of science is essentially an internalist one. That is he is basically only interested in the results of science and not in the contexts in which those results were created. For me his attitude leads to all sorts of problems. Let us consider for a moment the theory of gravity. In modern terms this means Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Go back to the beginning of the eighteenth century and we have a famous dispute between Newton and Leibniz about the former’s theory of gravity.  Martin wants us to tell him who was right in this dispute with respect to the general theory of relativity. The answer varies according to which aspect of the dispute one views. From one viewpoint Leibniz was right from another Newton, from yet another both of them were wrong. So what does one do? In order to explain what’s going on, one ends up analysing the whole Leibniz-Newton debate in terms of the general theory of relativity and not in its own right. What we now have is not history of science but presentism. We only extract from the past that which is still relevant in the present and end up ignoring the rest.

This is not the only problem with Martin’s approach to the history of science. He draws attention to another problem himself without, I think, being aware what he’s doing. At the end of his last post on the subject he writes the following:

Finally, I don’t know what Dr. Hayton means when he calls astrology a system of knowledge rather than a belief system. I just hope he takes his flu shot in the autumn, not acupuncture, and uses a skilled non-alternative mechanic to keep his car in good shape. Because if you can’t tell knowledge from belief, the real world that Dr. Hayton and I study comes up from behind and kicks your ass.

Here again Martin is operating from a presentist position; his definition of knowledge is the one that he uses in his normal activities here and now but it is not one that can be used when doing historical analysis. As I have already commented in earlier post on this blog for most people, including most of those that Martin would anachronistically call scientists, in the early modern period, that both Darin and I study, astrology was an epistemic discipline, that is a system of knowledge not a belief. One of the interesting questions for historians of this period is when and why did astrology cease to be regarded as knowledge and become downgraded, so to speak, to the status of a mere belief? Now Martin might answer that for the purposes of modern science the answer to this question is irrelevant. In one sense he would be right in another he wouldn’t. The demise of astrology as a science indicated a major change in the forces driving astronomical research and a change in the questions being put by that research.

The sense in which Martin would be right returns us to the central problem of his standpoint for the history of science. A very large amount of that which constituted science in the past has no direct connection to or relevance for the science of the twenty-first century so if I study it I can’t possibly tell Martin who was right in the sense that he wishes. This raises a very obvious question, why bother to study it then? If, as Martin wishes, history of science were the property of scientists then it would appear that such research is indeed superfluous. But, for me at least, the real question is, does history of science really belong to science and the scientist? To be honest I don’t think it does.

The histories of science, technology, engineering and medicine (and the boundaries between these disciplines were much more fluid in the past than the are now making it oft difficult to decide what belongs where) are actually a very integral part of a much wider cultural history and history of science does not belong to the scientists but to the historians.

Let us return to the example of astrology. Astrology was a major driving force in the study of astronomy in the early modern period and almost all of the leading astronomers living and working in Europe between 1400 and 1650 CE were practicing astrologers. [The first person in the comments to claim “they only did it for the money” will get fifty cubic metres of ready mix concrete pumped through their letterbox at three o’clock in the morning. You have been warned!] There can be no doubt that the study of the history of astrology is a legitimate part of the history of science. On the other hand astrology has absolutely no relevance for modern astronomy so why bother? The answer to this question lies is the role that astrology played in early modern society. Astrology was a central part of the social, cultural and medical life of early modern European society. It permeated all aspect of this society. Court astrologers were important political advisors to the rulers of states both large and small. There was hardly a potentate in the whole of Europe who didn’t employ or at least consult an astrologer. Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Rheticus, Tycho and Kepler, amongst others, all fulfilled this function in their lives. The dominant direction in school medicine was astro-medicine, or iatro-mathematics as it was called, meaning that medical practitioners were required to be skilled astrologers or at least to work in close conjunction with one. The central role of astrology in the social structure of the period in reflected in its art and literature, from Chaucer to Shakespeare and beyond the literature overflows with astrological references. The pictures of all the leading artists likewise are full of astrological symbols. To try and understand and interpret the history of the early modern period if one were to exclude the history of astrology would be like trying to play darts wearing a blindfold. In this period the history of astrology is part of the mainstream general history and therefore belongs to the historians.

Now Martin could respond and say astrology is not scientific so the historians are welcome to it. I chose astrology as an example because Martin was so dismissive of it in the paragraph I quoted above however I could have and can make the same or similar argument for all aspects of the histories of science, technology, engineering and medicine for all periods of human existence since human being began to develop these activities. The sciences do not exist outside of society or outside of culture but are an integral part of all human activity. If we study their history it should because they are an important part of the social and cultural histories of humanity and are thus a legitimate part of the activity of historians and belong to their realm and not to that of the modern scientist.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

Behind the Scenes: The Seven Ages of Science an Interview with Lisa Jardine.

I was pleasantly surprised when Adam Rutherford turned up in the comments on my post on history of science broadcasting last week, however his comments on and criticism of what I had written raised some questions in my mind concerning the production of The Seven Ages of Science, questions that could only really be answered by Lisa Jardine. Being a fearless history of science blogger I thought why not just ask the lady if she would be prepared to answer those questions, so I did and she said yes. What follows is the verbatim email interview that we conducted on Saturday evening, in my case between walking the dog and cooking my evening meal. I think many of my readers will find this brief look behind the scenes as fascinating as I did, as the answers to my questions beamed in over the course of the evening.


Renaissance Mathematicus: Who first had the basic idea for the Seven Ages of Science and assuming the initial idea was little more than a simple thought who then developed the concept?

Lisa Jardine: Producer Anna Buckley had the original idea. When she sent me her sketch breakdown of each of her 7 ages, I was captivated, because it was an idea I immediately connected with intellectually. Of course the title, with its accompanying 7 half hour episodes, was clever. But it was Anna’s fantastically well-informed and thoughtful choice for the 7 Ages (originally Age of Experiment, Exploration, Opportunity, Inspiration, Laboratory, War and Now — I proposed Age of Ingenuity later) that I really warmed to. We developed the concept episode by episode together, but in the end the voice and narrative are mine. One of my conditions for agreeing to present the series was that the series had to be ‘mine’, in the sense that I had intellectual ownership of the argument from beginning to end. I have a recognised radio presence and persona, and listeners would immediately spot if the script wasn’t mine. As the blurb says, it is ‘a personal view’. Having said that, I consider Anna and I have an absolutely equal share in the final programmes. Anna is a brilliant programme-maker, and is herself a scientist by training. I, of course, am an academic historian, and an intellectual story-teller. So we have had some stupendous fights in the course of brainstorming each programme (to my shame, I once shouted at her in Albermarle Street), and also some absolutely thrilling moments of agreement and breakthrough accompanied by hurrahs of delight (usually over lattes in a cafe to the amusement of other patrons), when a story has come together. So these programmes are — as I believe all the best intellectual products are — the outcome of really strenuous thinking, researching and debating between two of us. Finally — but absolutely as importantly — my contributors all brought something really original and insightful to my understanding of the Age we were discussing. I have joked with Anna that each draft programme’s direction has been dramatically altered by something one of my expert contributors has explained to me. That has turned out to be true. We chose the best, and they all, without exception, delivered! The Seven Ages of Science is a team effort.

RM: You say that the Seven Ages is a team effort and having listened to the three episodes up to now it is obvious that the experts involved have made a significant contribution. My knowledge of the subjects discussed tells me that those experts are really ‘the’ experts on the topics that they contribute to. How did the two of you go about selecting those experts?

LJ: Once again there were hours of discussion, and sometimes quite a lot of arguing. I wanted the very best expert, regardless of whether they were tried and tested interviewees. Sometimes Anna might have preferred old hands. Several of our experienced contributors (Patricia Fara in particular) gave us a lot of their time to talk through ideas and structure too. On several occasions Anna or I would have encountered a fabulous article or a terrific book, while researching, and we did seek out those people, and ask them for interviews (as far as I am aware, everyone who could said yes). Then curators at locations we visited were endlessly helpful, and made their own expert contributions.

And as you may have noticed, we had it in our heads that women and men should feature as far as possible equally as voices, and — as the ages went on — as figures in the narrative. I should stress that that proved extraordinarily straightforward. I don’t know where the idea comes from that there are either a) no women experts out there or b) they tend to decline invitation for interview. Neither turned out to be true.

RM: Your answers are great but you keep answering my next question before I can put it. Did you and Anna develop the actually episodes just with the guest experts or were any professional BBC scriptwriters involved?

LJ: Absolutely no ‘professional BBC scriptwriters involved’! Perish the thought!

RM: Who exercises editorial control on the content and to what extent do they exercise it?

LJ: There is inevitably editorial control over content, but that mostly came at the beginning. We were told the programmes were only to be about British science. We were asked not to include medicine. Each programme is vetted by a senior editor who may make suggestions about content or structure. Usually Anna doesn’t tell me about these (present tense because we’re still working on programmes 6 and 7), because it makes me cross! We have always found a way of accommodating the ‘suggestions’ without compromising our ideas (Anna tells me about them after we’ve recorded, usually, though there may well have been some adjustments she’s persuaded me to make because she was instructed/persuaded to do so).

RM: Thank you for your very full and informative answers. Last question, the critical reaction to Seven Ages has been very positive following the first three episodes can we hope for some more excellent history of science broadcasting from you and Anna in the future?

LJ: I’d absolutely love to do more. It’s so challenging! And so rewarding too. But it does take an enormous amount of time and effort, not to mention blood, sweat and occasional tears. Anna Buckley and I are completely exhausted by it right now, so ask me again in a month or so when we’ve recovered.

Don’t forget to listen to the next episode on BBC Radio 4 Tueday 9:00 pm or Wednesday 3:30 pm!








Filed under History of science