Category Archives: Monday Blast from the Past

Monday blast from the past #15: Happy Birthday Francesco Maria

The Jesuit mathematician, astronomer and physicist Francesco Maria Grimaldi was born 2nd April 1618. To celebrate his 394th birthday I thought I would draw attention to a post I wrote on the history of the discovery of diffraction. “Refraction, refrangibility, diffraction or inflexion“.

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Monday blast from the past #14 (on a Sunday): A biological birthday

Although I understand their motives for doing so, as a historian of science, I am very sceptical of peoples’ attempts to make an institution out of the so-called Darwin Day. In my opinion this only serves to strengthen, propagate and support the big names and big events view of the history of science, which is for me an anathema. What I see is people saying that Darwin is the be all and end all of biology.

Biology as a discipline has a long and complex history stretching back way before Aristotle who is often presented as a sort of father figure of the life sciences and involving the efforts of literally hundreds of named researchers and just as many if not more whose names have unfortunately become lost in the mist of time.

Even in the comparatively narrow history of biological evolution Darwin’s name is only one amongst many. Some who paved the path he would tread, including the much-maligned Lamarck and his own grandfather Erasmus. Some who were his contemporaries and contributed important aspects of the theory, most notably Alfred Wallace and Thomas Huxley and the many who followed in his footsteps filling in the gaps, correcting the errors and extending the theory in directions and areas that Darwin never dreamed of. Yes Charles Darwin made an important contribution to the history of biology. However his is only one stone, a particularly bright and fascinating one, in the vast mosaic of evolutionary theory and the much vaster mosaic of biology. Many hands cut and shaped stones for that mosaic and in over emphasising Darwin and his role by creating a Darwin Day people unwittingly diminish the contribution of those other.

In that sense my Monday blast from the past (on a Sunday) this week is a post I wrote two years ago on a man who made significant contributions to scientific method, human physiology and zoology the seventeenth century Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam who was born on 12th February 1637.


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Monday blast from the past #13: Newton’s Early Optics

Before The Renaissance Mathematicus even existed I started my career as a history of science blogger with guest posts on other people’s blogs. Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda was kind enough and generous enough to allow me a relative stranger and a naïve beginner, as a blogger that is, to post on his excellent blog.

That post on Newton’s second scientific publication (he had earlier published a short description of his telescope) his famous paper on his optical experiment with a prism and his theory of colour is today’s ‘Monday blast from the past’.  Newton’s Prism Experiments and Theory of Colour


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Monday blast from the past #12 Astronomers getting down to basics

Today’s post out of the past is a piece of lighthearted entertainment. Two seventeenth century astronomers of note discuss the merits of shovelling manure. 

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Monday blast from the past #11 (On a Tuesday): Who’s John Ray?

In my opinion the English naturalist John Ray, who died on 17th January 1705, should be much better known than he is. I explained why I think this in a post from November 2009, which you can read here.

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Monday blast from the past #10: Leonardo rides again!

On the suitably labeled ‘science fiction’ blog io9 Annalee Newitz and Sophie Bushwick posted an article on 29 December with the ambitious title 10 Images That Changed the Course of Science (And One That Is About To). Unfortunately their very first choice is an absolutely classical example of the mythology of science. They wrote:

 Human anatomy, by Leonardo Da Vinci (1509-1510)
At a time in history when few people had methodically attempted to document human anatomy both inside and outside the body, Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci did both. He produced over 200 drawings, based on dissections he observed, of human musculature and skeletal structure. Not only were these images beautiful, but they were among the most accurate medical diagrams created in Europe up to that point. By combining scientific observation with his art, Da Vinci helped to invent modern anatomy studies.

 Of itself the paragraph quoted above is, at least up to the last sentence, almost correct. The only thing that I would criticise is the implication that Leonardo was somehow unique in his anatomical studies. In fact he was doing nothing that almost all of his contemporary artistic colleagues were also doing. Anatomical studies of this type were part and parcel of the apprenticeship of a Renaissance artist. In fact Leonardo was introduced to the practice by his master Andrea del Verrocchio. The only thing one can say is that Leonardo did it better than his colleagues with the possible exception of Michelangelo. My problem is with the final sentence:

By combining scientific observation with his art, Da Vinci helped to invent modern anatomy studies.

Leonardo did not help to invent modern anatomical studies because his anatomical sketches remained largely unpublished and unknown. A very small amount of the material saw the light of day in his Treatise on painting, which was edited by his heir Francesco Melzi but first published in 1632. Of course by this time the study of anatomy had been truly revolutionised by the medically far superior illustration in Vesalius’ De fabrica, which was published in 1543. If anybody should be credited with producing anatomical images that changed the course of science then it is Vesalius’ artist who was probably Jan Steven van Calcar.

Image as usual stolen borrowed from Wikipedia


You might ask why I have included this, albeit short, new post under the rubric ‘Monday blast from the past’. One could regard the above as a footnote to my post from last year criticising people who include Leonardo in the history of Renaissance science, Pissing on a Holy Cow.

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Monday blast from the past #9: The posts of Christmas past.

As I was writing my last post it occurred to me that the new readers that I have acquired through twitter are probably not aware that the Renaissance Mathematicus has a tradition of Christmas posts for Isaac Newton born on the 25th, Charles Babbage born on the 26th and Johannes Kepler born on the 27th. This in the third year of my trinity of Christmas posts and so I thought I would take the opportunity to draw your attention to the previous years.

In 2010 I wrote about Isaac’s activities as a Bible chronologist, Charles’ aversion to noise pollution and Johannes’ theories of musical harmony.

In 2009 I wrote about Isaac’s theories of the shape of the earth, Charles’ contribution to the history of the computer and Johannes’ work on optical physics.

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