Category Archives: Myths of Science

For those who haven’t been paying attention

Galileo Galilei was found guilty and sentenced by the Inquisition on 22 June 1633; as usual this anniversary has produced a flurry of activity on the Internet much of it unfortunately ill informed. This is just a very brief note for all those who haven’t being paying attention.

The crime of which Galileo was found guilty was “vehement suspicion of heresy” and not heresy. This might appear to some to be splitting hairs but within the theological jurisdiction of the Catholic Church the difference is a highly significant one. Had the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy then a death sentence would have followed almost automatically. As they only found him guilty of the lesser charge “vehement suspicion of heresy” it was possible for him to be sentenced to life in prison commuted the next day to house arrest.

And please Richard Coles, and anybody else stupid enough to quote it, the claim that he said Eppur si muove (and yet it moves) upon being sentenced is almost certainty a myth.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

Three strikes and you’re out!

Recently on Twitter I stumbled across the cartoon entitled An Age-Old Argument, reproduced below. It’s not the first time I’ve come across it, as it’s one of those things that does the rounds of the social media sites at regular intervals. This time it was tweeted by Calestous Juma (@calestous) who describes himself as a Harvard Kennedy School Professor working on science & innovation for development. In his tweet he asked for, ‪”Any‪ more examples of such arguments? scientific evidence”. It had been retweeted by @AnneGlover_EU , that is Anne Glover Former Chief Scientific Adviser to Jose Manuel Barroso 2012-2014. These are obviously both people who, when it comes to science, could be expected to know what they are talking about. However it becomes clear that when one analyses the cartoon, which they are boosting that this is not the case.

An age-old argument

As you can see the cartoon has four panels of which the first three supposedly depict episodes from the history of science where ignorant people ignored scientific evidence in the same way as denialists do now in the climate debate. Juma and Glover, like many others, obviously think that the cartoonist has scored three home runs in his historical depictions. However as anyone knowledgeable of the history of science can see what we have here are three hoary old myths of science leading to three strikes and an out. Put differently, people like Juma and Glover should not be spreading ignorant and misleading rubbish as this.

Our first panel has the people in the Middle Ages believing that the earth was flat and refusing to believe that it’s a sphere. This is probably the most widespread and stupid myth in the whole history of science. Since antiquity nobody in Europe qualified to express an opinion on the subject believed that the earth was anything but a sphere. The claim that Europeans in the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat is a baseless myth created in the nineteenth century. So no homerun, strike one!

To be quite honest the second panel baffles me as it depicts something that never ever took place anywhere at anytime. Gravity is a term used since antiquity to describe the fact that if you let something drop it falls to the ground. Nobody ever challenged this purely descriptive term. In the late seventeenth century Isaac Newton demonstrated that the same force that causes things on earth to fall to the ground also prevents orbiting planets from shooting off at a tangent to their orbits, as the law of inertia would require, thus creating the idea of universal gravity. On the whole those capable of understanding Newton’s mathematical theories accepted them but the Cartesians and the Leibnizians objected to Newton’s inability to explain just what exactly the force of gravity was or should be. Their mechanical philosophical understanding of nature making them suspicious of Newton’s action at a distance. This scientific debate took place in the eighteenth century not the seventeenth and never included any denial of the phenomenon of gravity. So no homerun, strike two!

We now turn to the one panel that some people might consider depicts historical reality. We have a man in the nineteenth century rejecting the theory of evolution on the basis of religion. Images of the infamous Oxford debate, between Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, and Samuel, ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, spring instantly to mind. Unfortunately we have to do with another modern myth. There was no significant religious objection to the theory of evolution during the nineteenth century. I realise here that I’m stepping outside of my historical comfort zone (nineteenth century, life sciences!) and some might challenge my competence to make such a claim. However I offer as substantiation a couple of blog posts by historian and philosopher of biology, and Renaissance Mathematicus friend, John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts, herehere and here that explain the subject. So no homerun, strike three and out!

I do wish scientist and science communicators who wish to promote scientific thinking against the denialists and their ilk would desist from spreading and propagating rubbishy myths of science, as history of science.

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Creating a holy cow.

Whenever I think that the deification of Ada Lovelace can’t get anymore ridiculous somebody comes along and ups the ante. The latest idiocy was posted on Twitter by the comedian Stephen Fry (of whom I’m a big fan!). Mr Fry tweeted:

Ada Lovelace & Alan Turing for the next £20 note! Nominate here [link removed] Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. [my emphasis]

My comments will only concern Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, although the comment I have highlighted also has issues when applied to Alan Turing.

Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. Let us briefly examine the prejudice that the Countess of Lovelace, née Byron, suffered. Born into the English aristocracy she unfortunately lost her “mad, bad and dangerous to know” father at the tender age of one month. However her mother’s family were extremely wealthy, the main reason Byron who was destitute had married her, and so Ada lacked for nothing throughout her childhood. It should be also pointed out that her mother enjoyed a very high social status, despite her disastrous marriage.

She was, as a young women, tutored and mentored by the elite of the scientific community in Victorian London, including Charles Babbage, Augustus De Morgan, Sir Charles Wheatstone and Mary Somerville, all of whom helped and encouraged her in her scientific studies. She married the wealthy Baron William King who was soon elevated to Earl of Lovelace and who also supported her scientific endeavours without any restrictions. Somehow I fail to see to what the term prejudice could possibly be referring. Rich, pampered and supported by the very elite of London’s scientific community doesn’t sound like prejudice to me.

It was Wheatstone who suggested that she translate the Menabrea memoire on the Analytical Engine in emulation of her mentor Mary Somerville’s translation of Laplace, a far greater and much more complex work. So there is no suggestion of the pioneer here. Somerville herself was just one of several women, albeit the greatest, who wrote works popularizing the mathematical sciences in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. So Ada was in no way a pioneer but rather following the crowd.

It might be argued that her notations to the memoire qualify her as a pioneer, however I remain firmly convinced that the notes were very much a Babbage-Lovelace co-production with Babbage providing the content and Lovelace the turns of phrase. At best she was a scientific journalist or communicator. The pioneer was Babbage. There is strong evidence to support this interpretation, which gets swept under the carpet by the acolytes of the Cult of the Holy Saint Ada.

I shall be writing a longer post on one central aspect of the cult’s mythologizing later in the summer so stayed tuned.

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Filed under History of Computing, Myths of Science

A twelve-year flash of genius

Last week the Observer had an article celebrating the 250th anniversary of James Watt’s invention of the separate condenser steam engine, James Watt and the sabbath stroll that created the industrial revolution, that manages to perpetuate a whole series of myths about the history of science and technology despite being based on genuine historical facts. The title alone made not only myself, but also numerous others, cringe for two different reasons the second of which, concerning the Industrial Revolution, I will elucidate later. First of all I shall analyse a very crass form of the flash of genius myth that forms the central theme of the article.

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819) by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819)
by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what is the flash of genius that Robin McKie, Science Editor of The Observe, presents to us here? Let him tell us in his own words:

In 1765, Watt – then an instrument-maker based at Glasgow University – was working on a Newcomen pump, a state-of-the-art device in which steam pushed a piston through a cylinder. Water was then sprayed into the cylinder, cooling it and causing the steam to condense, creating a vacuum behind the piston that sucked it back into its original position. More steam was pumped in and the piston was pushed forward again. It was a very powerful process but also a very inefficient one. Constantly heating and then cooling the engine’s huge cylinder required huge amounts of heat and coal. Steam engines like these had only limited usefulness. Then Watt set off on his walk. When he was halfway across the green, the idea of a separate condenser came into his mind. Such a device would, he realised, create a vacuum that would help suck in the engine’s piston but still allow its main cylinder to operate at a constant temperature.

What is the source for this astounding story? In fact it is to be found in Watt’s own reminiscences. Let us examine the original:

I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon. I had entered the Green by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street – had passed the old washing-house. I was thinking about the engine at the time and had gone as far as the Herd’s house when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might there condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the Golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.[1]

So there we have it, a genuine example of the decried and much derided by grumpy old historians of science and technology, such as myself, flash of genius. It exists or does it? What McKie neglects to mention but which Uglow supplies in great detail is the long, complex and convoluted back-story that led up to this insight and the struggles that followed it.

In 1757, a full eight years before that Sabbath stroll, James Watt was established in Glasgow as a maker and repairer of scientific and musical instruments, a trade that he had travelled to London to learn. He had been approached by John Robinson, who had the visionary idea of carriages driven by steam-power and who wanted Watt to build him a model of one. At this point in his life Watt admits he was totally ignorant on the subject but intrigued by Robinson’s idea he plunged into a study of all he could find concerning the work of those early steam pioneers Papin, Savery, and Newcomen after his first attempt to construct a steam-engine had failed dismally. At this point in his life Watt had never actually seen a working steam engine but fate intervened. In the summer of 1757 Watt was appointed Mathematical Instrument Maker at the University of Glasgow. Over the years Watt continued his researches into steam power, which I won’t go into detail here, and in 1760 Watt’s friend Professor Anderson commissioned Watt to bring the University’s defective demonstration model Newcomen steam-engine into working order. It was the chronic inefficiency of this machine that spurred Watt into trying to develop a better more efficient steam-engine. Efforts that would finally lead to his ‘spontaneous’ revelation on that Sabbath afternoon in 1765!

What we have here is in no way a flash of genius but the end result of eight full years of hard work, a case of the solution to a problem finally appearing in “the prepared mind,” to quote Louis Pasteur.

Watt’s insight was however not really the solution to his problem but the outline of a path that would lead him to that solution. McKie hints at this with the half sentence, “Four years later, he patented the condenser…” McKie had previous informed us the Watt had very quickly made a model of his idea…

Watt's first model condenser. Science Museum London Source Wikimedia Commons

Watt’s first model condenser. Science Museum London
Source Wikimedia Commons

…but what he doesn’t tell us is that turning that model into a real functioning steam-engine turned out to be fraught with problem that would occupy all of Watt’s ingenuity for the next four years and therefor the gap between insight and patent. What seemed at first to be a moment in time that revolutionised the steam engine has now turned into twelve years of research, experimentation and very hard work. Not quite the picture that McKie presents us with in his article. In fact it would 1776 before Watt’s endeavours would finally flower in the installation of the first Boulton-Watt steam-engine almost twenty years after he first began his investigations in steam power. Not quite the instant revolution McKie seems to want to propagate.

McKie’s article contains an equally problematic myth in the second half of the sentence quoted in the previous paragraph, “…and triggered the industrial revolution”. We have now arrived at the second myth contained in the article’s title.

There is a cosy little myth much loved in Britain that the Industrial Revolution equals steam power and steam power equals James Watt therefore James Watt equals the Industrial Revolutions. In a slightly more sophisticated form this is what McKie is serving up here. In whatever form it gets served up, it is of course, viewed historically, total rubbish. I’m not going to produce a complete historical analysis of the contributory factors that formed the Industrial Revolution in a blog post but it suffices to state that they were many and varied forming a complex matrix of forces driving this revolution onwards. Watt’s improvements to the steam-engine constitute only one of those factors. In fact the Industrial Revolution was in full swing well before Boulton & Watt brought their first steam-engine onto the market. If it hadn’t been then Watt might never have found the financial and technical help that he needed to realise his ‘flash of genius’.

One central aspect of the Industrial Revolution was a radical new approach to production. Home piecework and small-scale artisanal workshops were replaced by large-scale central manufactories organised on mass production schemes. Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory constructed in 1761 was one of the leaders of this movement.

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773 Source: Wikimedia Commons

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was Boulton, who required more power to drive his manufactory, who provided the finance and the engineering expertise Watt needed to finally produce his improved steam-engine. At best it can be confidently claimed that the Boulton & Watt steam-engine accelerated the progress of the Industrial Revolution; it didn’t create it as McKie claims.

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commos

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commos

Even worse, as has been pointed out by various people on the Internet and in letters replying to McKie’s article, Boulton & Watt both through their market dominance and through their skilful legal manipulation of deliberately vaguely worded patents prevented or delayed several important developments in the Industrial Revolution, functioning as a brake to progress rather than a promoter. The most famous example was Watt’s opposition to the high-pressure steam-engine, ironically necessary in order to power the steam carriages that triggered Watt’s initial interest in steam power, which almost certainly set back the introduction of the railways by several decades.

What we have here is a classical example of a journalist reducing complex historical context to over simplified journalese, thereby creating or perpetuating myths rather than transmitting useful historical information.

[1] Recounted by JW in 1817 to the Glasgow engineer Robert Hunt: Reminiscences of James Watt, Transactions of Glasgow Archaeological Society, 1859 in Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men, faber and faber, 2002, PB, p. 101

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Unsung? I hardly think so

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

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

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

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

Lise Meitner in 1906 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner in 1906
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The potted biography starts reasonably OK:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lise Meitner 1946 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner 1946
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Added 5 May 2015:

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

Source: Ptak Science Books

Source: Ptak Science Books

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

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

Asterisms and Constellations and how not to confuse them with Tropical Signs.

If you are going to write about something, especially if you intend to lay bare somebody else’s ignorance, it pays to actually know what you are talking about otherwise you could well end up looking like a total idiot, as does Anna Culaba in her article on the RYOT website, The Stars and Your Astrological Signs Have Been Lying to You This Whole Time. I should point out that Ms Culaba is by no means the first person to publically embarrass themselves pontificating on this subject, in fact it’s a reoccurring theme much loved by scientists and science fans who want to take a cheap shot at astrology. Indeed, as we will see later Ms Culaba, in her article, is in fact just regurgitating the content of a BBC website. So what exactly does our intrepid science fan say in her blog post?

My horoscope for today (I’m a Virgo) according to Astrology.com reads, “Today, explore an aspect of an unfamiliar religion or culture. Today is a day to make plans and aim high.” There are only two things that are keeping me from leaving work right now: one, I don’t really believe that the stars can determine what will happen in my life and two, I wasn’t really born under the star sign that the world told me I was born into. According to the BBC, about 86 percent of people are actually born under a different sign than the one they think. This is because 2,000 years ago, when the Ancient Greeks first created the zodiacs, the star signs corresponded to the position of the sun relative to the constellations that appeared in the sky the day people were born. Unfortunately, during that time people didn’t know of the phenomenon known as the precession. Live Sciences reports that the precession is when the Earth continually wobbles around its axis in an almost 26,000-year cycle thanks to the gravitational attraction of the moon. Thanks to this phenomenon, the constellations some people live and die by have actually drifted away from us. This means that constellations are now actually off by a month. So if you were born between August 11 to September 16 you’re not the picky and critical Virgo that you thought you were — you’re really an ambitious Leo whose strength of purpose allows you to accomplish many, many things. And if you’re astrological world hasn’t been rocked enough, if you thought you had your star sign wrong, wait until some of you realize that there’s actually a 13th zodiac sign known as the Ophiuchus. According to the BBC, the Ancient Greeks deliberately left out the original zodiac so that ancient astrologers would be able to divide the sun’s 360 degree path into 12 equal parts. Where does Ophiuchus fit into the zodiac calendar? It goes between Scorpio and Sagittarius, so if you were born between November 30 and December 18 consider yourself an Ophiuchus. You’re probably very secretive and good at hide and seek.

I have reproduced the whole of Ms Culaba’s screed here to save me having to quote it in little bits, merely removing the links from the original. If you read it through you what will discover is the central claim that astrologers were too stupid to realise the astronomical phenomenon of precession and so you were not actually born under the star sign that they claim you were. There are two general points to be made here, firstly astrologers were well aware of precession and secondly Ms Culaba and the source she is quoting don’t know the fundamental difference between constellations and tropical signs. So for the benefit of Ms Culaba and all others who are confused by the topic we will have a Renaissance Mathematicus guide to asterisms, constellations, the zodiac and tropical signs.

If you go out on a dark night with a clear sky in an area with little or no light pollution (and if you have never done so you should, it’s awesome) and look up in the heavens you will see a myriad of stars looking down on you in a vast blue black vault. If you are not a trained astronomer you will probably find no means of orienting your gaze in this confusion of twinkling lights. This problem was confronted by all human cultures since the dawn of human existence. The human brain seems to be programmed for pattern recognition and so, like children with a join up the dots picture book, all cultures started to create pictures by imagining lines joining up or outlining eye-catching groups of stars and giving these pictures names. These pictures, and they exist in all human cultures, are known technically as asterisms. These asterisms help the observing eye gain orientation when traversing the vast dome of the night sky and early astronomers started compiling lists of the most prominent such join-up-the-dots-pictures or asterisms in order to use them as a scaffolding for mapping the heavens. Those asterisms contained in such formal lists are called constellations. Our modern, western list of constellations has its origins in ancient Babylonian astrology/astronomy and comes down to us via the ancient Greeks and the medieval Islamic astronomers. In his Syntaxis Mathematiké, Ptolemaeus lists 48 constellations by name. Currently, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recognises 88 named constellations. We now need to turn our attention to the origins of the zodiac.

Viewed from the earth, and before the beginning of the so-called space age that was the only way possible to view the heavens, the sun appears to orbit the earth once every year. In fact the year is defined as the time it takes for the sun to orbit the earth. The path the sun follows on its way around the earth is called the ecliptic and is tilted at approximately 23 degrees to the earth’s equator. This tilt, known as the obliquity of the ecliptic, is the reason why we have seasons on the earth. The six planets visible to the naked eye and know in antiquity – Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – all appear to orbit the earth in the plane of the ecliptic making this imaginary belt around the heavens very important for the study of astronomy. The earliest known mapping of the ecliptic is contained in a set of Babylonian clay tablets known as the MUL.APIN, which date from around 1000 BCE. Here the path of the moon’s orbit is described or mapped with 17 or 18 (the text is somewhat ambiguous) constellations and stars. The moon’s orbit is tilted at about five degrees to the ecliptic. This mapping was still in use around 700 BCE. By around 500 BCE the 17/18 constellations/stars had be replaced by twelve constellations of varying sizes. Circa 420 BCE the Babylonians had replaced those twelve constellations with twelve equal divisions of the ecliptic comprising 30° segments. These segments were named after the constellations they replaced and form the zodiac that was taken over by the Greeks and made its way down to us. Those segments are known technically as tropical or sun signs, form the basis of zodiacal astrology and are abstract geometrical segment of the ecliptic and not constellations. The constellations slowly circle the heavens due to precession, the tropical signs do not! If an astrologer says you were born under the sign Virgo it means that the sun was in the 30° segment of the ecliptic that bears the name Virgo at the moment of your birth. This has nothing apart from the name in common with the constellation Virgo.

It is not the astrologers who display ignorance of the precession of the equinox, to give the phenomenon its full name, but Ms Culaba who displays total ignorance of both astronomy and astrology. This is not a very good situation to be in if you are going to write about the history of science and yes we are talking about the history of science here, the zodiac with its tropical signs was originally conceived for astronomical purposes. Ms Culaba might be excused because she did not originate this particular piece of history of science rubbish but is merely regurgitating false information from what she obviously thought was a reliable source, the BBC.

Here we have the presenter of Stargazing Live, a high prestige BBC science programme, Dara O Brian presenting the world with high-grade bullshit under the BBC’s banner. O Brian and his co-presenter Brian Cox should know better and I find it a total disgrace that the fee payers money is being wasted on such rubbish under the guise of educational television, both the presenters and the Beeb should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

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

The worst history of technology headline of the year?

The Guardian website produced a couple of articles to announce the publication of Sydney Padua’s graphic novel, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer. I strongly suspect that despite Padua’s qualifying ‘mostly’ in her subtitle what we will be presented with here bears very little relation to the historical facts. However, not actually having read the book, it is not the subject of this brief post but rather the Guardian article. This article is crowned with the following headline:

Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage designed a computer in the 1840s.

A cartoonist finishes the project.

 Can you spot the major howler in the very brief first sentence? Who designed a computer? Charles Babbage designed a computer. Ada Lovelace wrote a puff piece about that computer, which was in all probability largely ghost-written by Babbage. Just in case you should think that this was an inadvertent slip of a subeditor’s thumb on his computer keyboard the claim is repeated even more emphatically in the title of an illustration to the article.

200 years after Ada Lovelace’s birth, the Analytical Engine she designed with Charles Babbage is finally built, thanks to the imagination of Sydney Padua. Illustration: The Observer

In case you should still think that the writer of the piece could or should be excused of all blame, embarrassed by the hyperbolic flights of fancy of that technology history ignorant subeditor, we find the following in the main body of the article.

Brought up to shun the lure of poetry and revel instead in numbers, Lovelace teamed up with mathematician Charles Babbage who had grand plans for an adding machine, named the Difference Engine, and a computer called the Analytical Engine, for which Lovelace wrote the programs.

Where to begin? First off both the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine are computers. The former a special purpose computer and the latter a general purpose one. Babbage would have been deeply offended having his mighty Difference Engine denigrated to a mere adding machine, although all computers are by name adding machines; computer coming, as it does, from the Latin computare which means to reckon/compute/calculate, sum/count (up). As a brief aside, when the word computer was coined in the 17th century it referred to a person employed to do calculations. Second, and in this context most important, Lovelace did not write the programs for the Analytical Engine. The afore mentioned puff piece from her pen contained one, note the singular, specimen program for the Analytical Engine, which she might possibly have written, although it seems more probable that Babbage wrote it. All the other programs for the Analytical Engine, and there were others were written by, you’ve guessed it, Charles Babbage.

The deification of Ada Lovelace marches on a pace with the honest historian of the computer barely able to keep pace with the waves of mythology that pour out of the unsavvy media almost every day it seems.

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Filed under History of Computing, Myths of Science