Category Archives: Humour

Howler of the Week.

When reading an academic text I sometimes stumble across an error that makes me instantly doubt the intellectual abilities of the author. I’m not talking about a simple typo or glaring grammatical error here but of a serious factual error of the type that should have been instantly obvious to anybody reading it. This is assuming that anybody reading the text would, per definition, bring the necessary background knowledge to their study of the material. This week I came across just such an error that I thought I would share with my readers.

The book in question is Matthias Dorn’s Das Problem der Autonomie der Naturwissenschaften bei Galilei (this translates as The Question of the Autonomy of Science in the Writings of Galileo). This is a doctoral thesis that was published as Sudhoffs Archiv Beihefte 43 in 2000. Sudhoffs Archiv is a renowned German journal for the history of science, in particular the history of medicine established by Karl Sudhoff, legendary historian of medicine and Paracelsus expert, in 1907. The Beihefte (Supplements) is a series of history of science monographs started in 1961.

The work in question discusses the philosophical question, as to what extent Galileo actually advocated autonomy for science in his writings, a not insignificant historical question when considering Galileo’s problems with the Catholic Church and one that is not as open and shut as many modern commentators appear to think.

Now this work is a published doctoral dissertation, which, in theory at least, has been scrupulously read by Dr Dorn, himself, his supervisor (a highly prominent German philosopher now retired), a couple of examiners and an editor from the publishers so one could assume that it should be free of the sort of errors that would get an undergraduate an instant F in a term paper. This is however definitely not the case.

The sentence in question that so piqued my historical interest and raised my pedantic ire is the opening sentence of the second chapter of the book. If it had been buried at the bottom of the page somewhere in the middle of an interminably long chapter, two thirds of the way through the book then one might be inclined to halfway forgive one or other of those listed above for having overseen it but given its prominent position on page 17 of the work there is really no excuse for its continued presence in the finished product. Let us examine the beast.

Fürst Cesi, der Begründer der Accademia dei Licei, berief in Jahre 1610 Galileo Galilei zum „ Ersten Mathematiker und Philosophen des Großherzogtums der Toskana“.

For those of my readers who are not fluent in “The Awful German Language”, as Mark Twain so charmingly expressed it, I shall translate:

Prince Cesi, the founder of the Accademia dei Lincei, appointed Galileo Galilei “First Mathematician and Philosopher of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany” in the year 1610.

Those readers who are moderately knowledgeable on the subject of the biography of Galileo are probably already banging their heads on their desks but for those who are not I shall elucidate.

Federico Cesi (1585 – 1630) was indeed the founder of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1603, an important early scientific society, of which Galileo became a member in 1611, that gave both the telescope and the microscope their names and amongst other things published two of Galileo’s most important works, his Letters on Sunspots in 1613 and The Assayer in 1623. However Cesi, born in Rome, was the scion of an important Umbrian aristocratic family and had absolutely nothing to do with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which would have been very surprised indeed if he had appointed anyone to anything within its sovereignty.

Federico Cesi Pietro Fachetti

Federico Cesi
Pietro Fachetti

The man who appointed Galileo “First Mathematician and Philosopher of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany” in 1610 was, of course, Cosimo II de Medici (1590 – 1621), an ex private pupil of Galileo’s, who acceded to the title of Grand Duke upon the death of his father Ferdinando I de Medici in 1609 and to whom Galileo dedicated his Sidereus Nuncius and after whom he named the four largest moons of Jupiter, The Medicean Stars, with exactly the hope of obtaining this appointment.

Cosimo II de Medici  Justus Sustermans

Cosimo II de Medici
Justus Sustermans

One can take it on good authority that Federico Cesi and Cosimo II de Medici are not one and the same person although they were, without doubt, two of Galileo’s most important patrons.

I really can’t fathom how anyone writing an academic work on Galileo could confuse two such prominent figures in his career and it is even more of a mystery to me how all of the supposed experts who read and examined this doctoral thesis could have overseen such a massive howler and allowed it to go into print.


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

My ICHS nightmare.

If you are attending this year’s history of science and all the rest monster bean feast in Manchester in July and are holding a lecture there for the first time in your life at a major conference then I recommend that you stop reading this post.

In 1980 I moved from Britain to German and made my home there. It was a move that was determined by a random chain of events rather than any sort of positive decision. Once settled in Germany I needed to do a series of things such as, for example, find work or learn the language. After some time I found out that the best German as a foreign language course available locally was at the University in Erlangen not far from where I was living at the time. Upon investigation I discovered that to enrol in the course I first had to enrol in the university in a regular course of study. Now I was a classic nineteen seventies drop out who had originally studied archaeology in Cardiff but who had always intended to return to university when I had discovered what I really wanted to study. Now the time seemed to have come for me to resume my academic career and I enrolled in the university to study mathematics with philosophy as my subsidiary subject and after a year of learning German I became a mature maths student studying for the equivalent of a master’s degree, in those days the first degree in Germany.

Now my principle interest in mathematics was in its history for which the Erlangen maths institute had little interest but by a strange twist of fate my philosophy professor was a practicing historian of mathematics. After three years, at about bachelor’s level, I dropped mathematics and took up philosophy, concentrating on history and philosophy of science, as my major with English philology and history as my subsidiaries. By now my philosophy professor had asked me if I wished to work in a research project into the external history of mathematical logic, a chance I jumped at and which became my apprenticeship as a historian of science. I worked in this project in total for around ten years.

In 1989 the International Congress for the History of Science XVIII (ICHS), as it was then, came to Germany and because they couldn’t decide which city should have the privilege of putting it on, the first half took place in Hamburg and the second in Munich, the two of them a mere 790 kilometres apart. Not only did we attend but our research project was a section in its own right with legendary Dutch-American Marxist historian of mathematics Dirk Struik, then 95 years old, as our keynote speaker.

I was due to hold a talk on nineteenth century Scottish logician Hugh MacColl, the intended subject of my master’s thesis. Although I was already approaching forty and had quite a lot of experience lecturing at my home university this was to be my first lecture at a big conference and this with around twelve hundred delegates, if my memory serves me correctly, was the biggest conference that the history of science had to offer. I was to say the least somewhat nervous.

Finally the big day dawned and taking my place at the lectern I was introduced by my professor, who was chairing the session, to the seventy or eighty assembled listeners waiting to hear my talk.

Munich 1989

 The author apprehensively preparing to present his lecture Munich 7.8.1989

(Photo: Volker Peckhaus)

Suffering from a good portion of stage fright I stumbled out the first sentences of my talk and I was just beginning to come into swing when the door crashed open stopping me in mid sentence and riveting the attention of everybody in the room. One of the organisers stomped through the doorway and marched with determined strides across the room to the desk on the podium where my professor was sitting, his footfalls booming out into the stunned silence like the steps of a jackbooted military officer on his way to an execution in a Hollywood B movie. Reaching the desk he ripped off the conference timetable that was taped to its surface replacing it with a new one, which he taped into place, tearing long strips of adhesive tape from a roll with a noise that seemed to rent the very air in the room. He then turned and with the same purposeful stride marched out of the room banging the door shut with a final clap of doom as he exited. During the whole process he uttered not a word.

I was sunk. Whatever faint shreds of confidence I might have had before his appearance were blown away leaving me a gibbering wreck staring at the listeners who of course were no longer paying any attention to me. Somehow I managed to stumbled through my presentation feeling like I was battling through a thick mental fog and mumble some sort of answers to the few polite questions proffered at the end but what should have been the glorious highpoint to my career as a historian of logic at that point of my life had turned into a nightmare.


Filed under Autobiographical, History of science, Humour

Unsound history

On Friday The Guardian had a short post on the recently posted Israeli Newton archives. The author concentrated on the interrelatedness of science, religion and occult in Newton’s work. As can be imagined the rapidly expanding comments column is a cesspit of ill informed opinion, prejudice, ignorance and just plain steaming crap. I briefly contemplated letting the HISTSCI HULK loose on it but then decided that the resulting post would be so long that I’d still be writing at Easter so I dropped the idea. However I just couldn’t resist this one.

A pro-religious commentator bigredeye posted with approval a longish quote from Francis Bacon’s On Atheism essay. This was responded to by SoundMoney, who apparently is not very sound on Early Modern Period English political history.

Not surprising. Like Francis Bacon, the father of modern science. Bacon’s essay on atheism is still so pertinent

There was a certain obligation on Queen Elizabeth I’s ministers to openly profess the state religion, with somewhat career-shortening consequences if you did not.

 Firstly, for those not up to speed on the life and times of  “the father of modern science” Bacon was never a minister under Elizabeth first achieving this honour under James. Secondly, for those not clued in on his publishing activities On Atheism was first published in 1612, nine years after Elizabeth’s death!


Filed under History of science, Humour, Myths of Science

How to look silly without really trying

In the television debate of potential Republican Party candidates for next year’s American presidential election Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, made the fatal mistake of comparing himself to Galileo Galilei when questioned on his climate change skepticism. This piece of stupidity was instantly jumped upon by commentators, bloggers and journalists all over the western hemisphere. However not all of them in their haste to pillory Governor Perry bothered to check their facts before putting finger to keyboard. One example of a blogger/journalist jumping in with both feet is M. J. Robbins of The Guardian. Mr Robbins wrote a short semi-satirical piece comparing the presidential hopeful and the Tuscan mathematicus. I won’t reproduce the whole piece but the following paragraph caught my eye as a historian of Renaissance science.

How else are they similar? Both have a keen interest in science. Galileo’s many contributions include discovering the moons of Jupiter with a telescope he invented, establishing the heliocentric model of the solar system, developing a theory of tides and improving the compass, pump, cannon and numerous other devices. Perry has a degree in farm animals (or “animal science” as it’s known). A “firm believer in intelligent design”, he believes climate change is a great con conceived by scientists with support from the media, and says that while he is “no expert on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate”, gay people “should simply choose abstinence anyway”.

Not being a political commentator I shan’t comment on the remarks about Perry but I will examine the claims made by the crowing M.J. about Galileo, he writes, Galileo’s many contributions include:

discovering the moons of Jupiter with a telescope he invented

Now it is indisputable that Galileo was one of the discoverers of the first four moons of Jupiter, Simon Marius discovered them independently  one day later, but Galileo did not invent a telescope. He modified the so-called Dutch telescope invented by the spectacle maker Hans Lippershey in 1608.

Score 1 Right : 1 Wrong

establishing the heliocentric model of the solar system

Galileo did not establish the heliocentric model of the solar system Johannes Kepler did. In fact with the dispute that he provoked with the Catholic Church Galileo probably did much to hinder the establishing of the heliocentric model. He also in refusing to acknowledge Kepler’s work presented a redundant incorrect model of the heliocentric system which was also not particularly productive.

Score 1 Right : 2 Wrong

developing a theory of tides

This is correct but one should add that his theory of the tides was embarrassingly wrong and in fact contradicted the known empirical facts on the ebb and flow of tides. If contributions means positive scientific achievements, and I assume it does, this should definitely not be in the list.

Score 1 right : 3 wrong

improving the compass, pump, cannon and numerous other devices

Now Galileo was a skilled instrument maker who before he became a courtier earned a substantial part of his income designing, making and selling scientific and technological instruments. Now whilst he did patent a horse driven pump in his youth, but whether is was an improvement is questionable, I know of no improvements to either the compass or the cannon and numerous other devices is to put it mildly somewhat of an exaggeration. I’ll be generous and award a point for the pump making minus two for this section.

Score 2 Right : 5 Wrong

Now for somebody writing under the banner of one of Britain’s best journalistic organizations  Mr Robbins’ accuracy on the subject, the life and work of Galileo Galilei, is pretty miserable. In fact as his history of science examiner I can only award him a big fat F.


Filed under Humour

Is there life on Mars?

A century ago, on August 27, 1911, headlines of the New York Times announced that Martians had completed stunning feats of engineering and construction: two 1000-mile-long canals built on Mars in a two-year period.  These canals had not only been seen and sketched by astronomers, but also had been captured photographically, appearing in the photos as “the most marked features on that part of the planet”.

At the time, it was widely believed that aliens existed – four years earlier the Wall Street Journal had reported that the biggest news of 1907 had been the discovery of intelligent life on Mars.

See, and read, the original article directly from the New York Times.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, Humour

Isaac Newton perverts the course of science.

An investigation of the private correspondence of Isaac Newton and other members of the Royal Society has revealed that they were less than candid in their public utterances concerning science! All the truth that is fit to print here!


HT to John Lynch.

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Filed under Humour



Some days I just can’t seem to find the energy to write a new post


Filed under Autobiographical, Humour

Those that don’t know history…

Yesterday John S. Wilkins and his commentators poured scorn and derision on the head of the Irish deputy Prime Minister Ms. Coughlan for her apparent ignorance in a political speech when she said; “like Einstein explaining his theory of evolution”. Now in this case the ignorance is theirs as Ms. Coughlan was clearly referring to the legendary German-Irish horse breeder Eamus O’Einstein (1769 – 1819), whose great-great-great-grandfather Hartmut Einstein a Catholic German horse breeder fled to Cork from Westphalia in the Thirty Years War.

This year the Irish are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of O’Einstein’s magnum opus On the Environmental Influences by the Improvement of Equine Breeding Stock. A New Method of Improving the Qualities of Steeple Chasers and Other Race Horses Based on the Biological Principles of Adaptive Evolution as Expounded by the Famous English Natural Philosopher Erasmus Darwin of Litchfield published Cork, 1809. The young O’Einstein met the English polymath at the Epsom Derby in 1790 as he was tending the horses of his then patron, the Earl of Ross. The good doctor explained his theory of evolution to the young horse breeder as they shared a glass or two of good Irish whiskey in the hospitality tent. After O’Einstein returned to Ireland the two of them conducted a scientific correspondence by carrier pigeon that continued up till Darwin’s death in 1802.

O’Einstein’s book caused a minor stir in academic circles when published but was soon forgotten outside of Ireland after Darwin’s Lamarckian theory was succeeded by the theory of natural selection of his grandson Charles. In Ireland however O’Einstein’s is still held in great honour as several notable winners of the Irish Derby were bred according to the methods set out in his book.

Biograpical details from O’Einstein’s obituary in the Irish Times for 19th October 1819.


Filed under Humour, Myths of Science