Category Archives: Myths of Science

Really! – Did the artist have a Tardis?

Those who read the occasional bursts of autobiographical information that appear here on the blog might be aware that I went to university at the tender age of eighteen as an archaeology student. I actually dropped out after one year but continued to work as a professional field archaeologist (that’s a digger to you mate) for several years. Given that I was already interested in the history of astronomy in those days and would eventually abandon archaeology for it, it would seem logical that I would be interested in archaeoastronomy, in particular because I studied under Richard Atkinson who together with Stuart Piggott carried out the first extensive, modern excavation of Stonehenge, the world’s most famous archaeoastronomical monument, in the 1950s. In fact my father also worked on that excavation. This assumption would be correct with reservations. There has been some excellent work in archaeoastronomy but unfortunately there has also been a large amount of highly dubious speculation on the topic.

In my opinion an example of the latter appeared in articles in The Guardian and on the Hyperallergic website a couple of days ago. The Guardian article was entitled, Two suns? No, it’s a supernova drawn 6,000 years ago, say scientists. This article tells us:

For decades, stone carvings unearthed in the Himalayan territory of Kashmir were thought to depict a hunting scene. But the presence of two celestial objects in the drawings has piqued the interest of a group of Indian astronomers.


Source: The Guardian

They have proposed another theory. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of History of Science, the Kashmir rock drawings may be the oldest depiction of a supernova, the final explosion of a dying star, ever discovered.

 “Our first argument was, there cannot be two suns,” Vahia said. “We thought it must have been an object that appeared and attracted the attention of the artists.”

 They settled on Supernova HB9, a star that exploded around 4,600BC.

Rewinding the map of the sky back that far revealed more clues.

Viewed from Kashmir, the supernova would have occurred somewhere near the Orion constellation. “Which is known as the scene of a hunter,” said Vahia.

“The supernova also went off just above the constellation of Taurus, the bull, which is also seen in the drawing,” Vahia added.


Source: The Guardian

So to summarise a group of astrophysicists decide that the rock drawing depicts a supernova from around 4,600 BCE that was visible in the sky in the area of the constellations Orion the hunter and Taurus the bull, which according to the researchers are also depicted in the drawing. It is by the latter claim that my bullshit detectors went off at full volume. I will explain.

The chosen supernova occurred in 4600 BCE, now I’m not an expert on prehistoric Indian asterisms, I don’t even know anybody who is, but I do know something about the Babylonian and ancient Greek ones. Taurus is indeed one of the oldest known asterisms but the earliest known mention of a bull asterism is in the Sumerian record, the Heaven’s Bull, in the third millennium BCE, that’s a couple of thousand years after the chosen supernova. Even worse it is not known whether the Sumerian asterism is the same one as the later Babylonian/Greek asterism Taurus. With Orion we have even more problems. The Sumerian asterism involving the stars of Orion was a sheep. For the ancient Egyptians the stars depicted their god Osiris. It was first the Greeks who created the asterism Orion although some mythologists see Orion as a representation of the Sumerian King Gilgamesh, who also fought a bull. This is of course highly speculative.

So we have astrophysicists identifying a rock drawing in India that is dated to the fifth millennium BCE with the constellations of Orion fighting Taurus, asterisms which don’t appear to have been identified till several thousand years later. Excuse me if I am somewhat sceptical about this identification. Just as a minor point I don’t think that the animal in the drawing actually looks like a bull, more like a stag in my opinion.







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

Christmas Trilogy 2017: Bonus!

Yesterday was Johannes Kepler’s nominal birthday (as he was born before the calendar reform in a Protestant state his birthday on the Gregorian calendar would be 6 January!) and as in my wont, I posted a birthday post for the good Johannes. Of course I was far from being the only person to acknowledge his birthday and amongst many others somebody linked to the 2016 article on the website of the popular science magazine, Physics Today. Upon reading this brief tribute to my favourite seventeenth century polymath I cringed inwardly and didn’t know whether to let out a prolonged #histsigh or to turn loose the HistSci_Hulk; I have decided on the latter. Below the complete text of the offending document:

Born on 27 December 1571 in Weil der Stadt in the Holy Roman Empire, Johannes Kepler was an astronomer whose careful measurements led him to develop his three laws of planetary motion. He received a Lutheran education at the University of Tübingen and originally planned to be a theologian. Then one of his teachers gave him a copy of a book by Nicolaus Copernicus, sparking Kepler’s interest in astronomy. In 1600 Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe invited Kepler to Prague to help amass a precise set of astronomical measurements. Brahe died the following year, and Kepler inherited his mentor’s data and position as imperial mathematician to the Holy Roman emperor. In 1609 Kepler published Astronomia Nova, which included his first two laws of planetary motion; his third law was published in 1619. Kepler observed a supernova (though he called it a “new star”) and completed the detailed astronomical tables Brahe had been so determined to produce. Kepler also contributed research in optics and vision. Later in the century Isaac Newton would prove his law of universal gravitation by showing that it could produce Kepler’s orbits.

Born … in Weil der Stadt in the Holy Roman Empire… This contains something about which I have had bitter disputes on Wikipedia. There is a famous quip that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire, it was also neither a country nor a state. The Holy Roman Empire was a loose feudal conglomeration of autonomous and semi-autonomous states. Weil der Stadt, Kepler’s birthplace was at the time of his birth in the autonomous Duchy of Württemberg.


Map of the Duchy of Württemberg 1619 by Pieter van den Keere. You can see Weyl (Weil der Stadt) roughly in the middle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

…Johannes Kepler was an astronomer whose careful measurements led him to develop his three laws of planetary motion. Kepler was a theorist, who didn’t on the whole take measurements careful or otherwise. The measurements that he used to derive his three laws were, of course, made very carefully by Tycho Brahe.

Kepler did not originally plan to be a theologian. He was on an educational tack designed to produce Lutheran Protestant pastors and schoolteachers. He would have become a pastor but was appointed to a position as a maths teacher instead.


Then one of his teachers gave him a copy of a book by Nicolaus Copernicus, sparking Kepler’s interest in astronomy. One of Kepler’s professors in Tübingen was Michael Maestlin, who in his courses taught Copernican heliocentric astronomy alongside the then dominant geocentric astronomy. Kepler took this course and developed an interest in heliocentrism. It was Maestlin who recognised Kepler’s aptitude for mathematics and recommended that he be appointed to a teaching post rather than a village church.

In 1600 Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe invited Kepler to Prague to help amass a precise set of astronomical measurements. Tycho Brahe invited Kepler to Prague not to help amass a precise set of astronomical measurements but to use his mathematical skills to turn the already amassed measurements into calculated orbits, ephemerides etc.

Brahe died the following year, and Kepler inherited his mentor’s data and position as imperial mathematician to the Holy Roman emperor. Kepler didn’t inherit his mentor’s data, Tycho’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frans Gansned Genaamd Tengnagel van de Camp did. This caused Kepler no end of problems, as he needed that data to realise his vision of a heliocentric astronomy. After tough negotiations, Tengnagel allowed Kepler to use the data but only if his name was included as co-author on any books that Kepler published based on it; a condition that Kepler duly fulfilled. Given my own inabilities to spell or write grammatically I’m not usually a grammar fetishist but, as I’m putting the boot in, Imperial Mathematician is a title and should be written with capital letters as in the emperor in Holy Roman Emperor.

Kepler observed a supernova (though he called it a “new star”). Well yes, as the term supernova was only coined in 1931 Kepler could hardly have used it. However, the nova part of the name, which simple means new, comes from Kepler’s term Stellar Nova, his being the most recent supernova observed with the naked eye.

…and completed the detailed astronomical tables Brahe had been so determined to produce. Kepler didn’t just complete them he produced them single-handedly, calculating, writing, typesetting, printing, publishing and selling them. This was the task assigned to him by Tycho and to which he was official appointed by the Emperor Rudolph II.

Physics Today is a fairly major popular science magazine but it would appear that they don’t really care enough about the history of science to indulge in a modicum of fact checking.





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

Not a student god dammit!

14th December was the anniversary of Tycho Brahe’s birthday and as is now usual on such occasions various people, including me, posted their Tycho scribblings on Twitter, Facebook et. al.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As is also, unfortunately, usual several of them referred to Johannes Kepler either as Tycho’s pupil or student.

Kepler Memorial at his birthplace Weil der Stadt
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now, both on Hven and later in Prague, Tycho ran what has been called a large scale research centre employing, over the almost thirty years he collected astronomical data in a systematic programme, a fairly large number of observational assistants. Some of these came to work with the noble Dane as experienced astronomical observers; others came to learn from him. Some of those who came to learn only stayed for a short period and having learnt returned home, some having learnt stayed and worked for a time as assistants. These can justifiably called pupils or students. For example,  Simon Marius, whom I have blogged about on several occasions came to Prague as a student for a few months in 1601, shortly before Tycho’s death, and returned home relatively quickly.

Simon Marius
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The great Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu visited Tycho on Hven for six months in 1595-6 both learning and contributing. He took Tycho’s star catalogue, in the form from a simple celestial globe with him when he left to start his own celestial globe production.

Willem Janszoon Blaeu
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler’s presence in Prague was of a completely different nature. A graduate of the University of Tübingen, he had already worked as a maths teacher and district mathematicus in Graz for six years before he moved to Prague to work with Tycho. He had in 1596 already published his first volume of astronomical speculations, Mysterium Cosmographicum, and it was this that attracted Tycho’s attention in the job seeking German scholar. Kepler’s bizarre cosmological speculations were of less interest to Tycho than Kepler’s very obvious mathematical abilities.

Tycho didn’t take on Kepler as a pupil or student to learn the trade of astronomical observer, for which he would have been fairly useless having suffered from a visual defect since a childhood illness, but as a mathematician to reduce Tycho’s observational data to ephemerides, the practical tables of planetary positions used by cartographers, navigators and astrologers. The production of ephemerides was the principle function of astronomy from antiquity down to the seventeenth century. Tycho didn’t even employ Kepler himself but secured him a position at the court of Rudolph II, employed specifically to produce those ephemerides. Kepler was not Tycho’s pupil or student but his astronomical colleague at court, which is the principle reason why he succeeded him as Imperial Mathematicus. By the way, it took him tweet-six to produce those ephemerides, The Rudolphine Tables, complaining often over the years how tedious the task was. They were, because of their level of accuracies, however the principle reason why people began to accept the heliocentric system over the geocentric and helio-geocentric ones, so it was a well spent twenty-six years.

Monument of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler in Prague
Source: Wikimedia Commons






Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

History of the little things

This is going to be one of those blog posts where I indulge in thinking out loud. I will ramble and meander over and through some aspects of something that has been occupying my thoughts for quite sometime without necessarily reaching any very definite conclusions.

As I said the topic I’m about to discuss has occupied my thoughts for quite sometime but this post was triggered by an interesting blog post by Rachel Laudan, one time historian of science, currently food historian and most recently the author of the excellent Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. In her blog post Rachel discusses the uses to which gourds have been put in the history of cooking. Depending on how you cut it the same gourd can become a spoon or a bowl or a flask (and much, much more. Read the article!). Although this is an article about the history of food and cooking it is at the same time an article about the history of technology. All of the things that Rachel describes are tools and the history of technology is the history of human beings as toolmakers and the tools that they have made.

Here, from Senegal on the west bulge of Africa, is a gourd cut in half to make a spoon, holding millet porridge with raisins. The tablespoon gives the scale.


The thought that Rachel’s post triggered is my answer to the oft stated question, what is the greatest, most important, most significant or whatever human invention? Most people answer the wheel, or the light bulb or the steam engine or the motorcar or the airplane or something else along those lines. Some sort of, for its time, high tech development that they think changed the course of history. My, I’ll admit deliberately provocative answer, is the sewing needle; a, for most people, insignificant everyday object produced in factories by the millions. An object that most people normally don’t really give any thought to, unless they are desperately searching for one to sew on that button that fell off their best jacket an hour before that all important interview.

So, how would I justify my chose of the sewing needle as the most important human invention? The sewing needle made it possible for humanity to make clothes way back in the depths of prehistory. The oldest known needles go back at least 50,000 years but they are arguably much older. Making clothes was a necessary prerequisite of early humans moving out of tropical Africa into less clement climes. Naturally before the invention of the needle humans could simply wrap themselves in animal skins or furs joined together by primitive buttons or toggles. However a tailored and sewn set of clothes allows the wearer to move easily, to hunt or to run when threatened, things that are difficult when simply wrapped in a heap of skins or furs.

Sewing is just one of the technologies that people don’t automatically thing of when the term history of technology is mentioned. Others from the same domestic area are weaving, crochet and knitting and yes crochet and knitting are technologies. I have a suspicion that such domestic technologies get ignored in the popular conception of the history of technology is because they are women’s activities. In the popular imagination technology is masculine; man is the toolmaker, woman is the carer. The strange thing about this essentially sexist view of the history of technology is that the domestic technologies, clothes making, cooking etc. play a very central role in human survival and human progress. Humans can survive without cars but a naked human being without cooked food in a hostile environment is on a fast track to the grave. These small, everyday aspects of human existence need to receive a much greater prominence in the popular history of technology.

It is not just in the history of technology that the small and everyday gets ignored in #histSTM accounts. A recent discussion on an Internet mailing list complained about the fact that the discussion of the 100th anniversary of the Mount Wilson Observatory Hooker telescope spent a lot of time discussing Edwin Hubble’s discoveries made with it but wasted not a single word on the technicians who built and installed it or those who operated it. Without the work of these people Hubble wouldn’t have discovered anything. In general in the popular accounts of #histSTM the instrument makers and technicians rarely if ever get mentioned, just the big name scientists. Most of those big name scientists would never have become big name without the services of the instrument makers and technicians but throughout history most of them don’t just remain in the background they remain nameless. We need to do more to emphasise the fact that developments in science and technology are not just made by big names but by whole teams of people many of whom remain, in our fame obsessed society, anonymous.

Another area where popular #histSTM falls down is in the dissemination and teaching of science and technology. People tend not to consider the teachers and the textbook authors when discussing the history of science. These people, however, play an important and very central role in the propagation of new developments and discoveries. Students of a scientific discipline tend on the whole to gain their knowledge of the latest developments in their discipline from their teachers and the textbooks and not from reading the original books and papers of the discoverers. Science is propagated down the generation by these background workers far more than by the “great” men or women who hog the headlines in #histSTM. A good example for such an important teacher and textbook author is Christoph Clavius, about whom I wrote my first actual #histSTM post here on the Renaissance Mathematicus. Another good example is Philipp Melanchthon, who as a teacher and textbook author introduced the mathematical sciences into the newly founded Lutheran Protestant education system; Clavius did the same for the Catholic education system.

Christopher Clavius (1538–1612)
Source: Wikimedia Common



Portrait of Philip Melanchthon, 1537, by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon, a major fan and supporter of the sciences, recognised the importance of good textbooks in the propagation of science. When he established new universities in Paris he insisted that the leading French scientists and mathematicians, whose very active patron he was, write the new textbooks for his new institutions. A model we could well copy.

If we are to progress beyond the big names, big event, hagiographic presentations of #histSTM, and we seriously need to do so, then we should not just look towards the minor, less well-known or completely unknown, scientists in the second row, as I have endeavoured to do over the years here, but even further down the fame tree to the instrument makers, technicians, teachers, textbook writers and others who assists the scientists and propagate and disseminate their discoveries, the facilitators. There are already scholars who have and do research and publish about these facilitators and the reviewers and science communicators need to do more to bring this work to the fore and into the public gaze and not just promote the umpteenth Newton biography.




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

Men of Mathematics

This is something that I wrote this morning as a response on the History of Astronomy mailing list; having written it I have decided to cross post it here.

John Briggs is the second person in two days, who has recommended Eric Temple Bell’s “Men of Mathematics”. I can’t remember who the first one was, as I only registered it in passing, and it might not even have been on this particular mailing list. Immediately after John Briggs recommended it Rudi Lindner endorsed that recommendation. This series of recommendations has led me to say something about the role that book played in my own life and my view of it now.

“Men of Mathematics” was the first book on the history of science and/or mathematics that I ever read. I was deeply passionate fan of maths at school and my father gave me Bell’s book to read when I was sixteen years old. My other great passion was history and I had been reading history books since I taught myself to read at the age of three. Here was a book that magically combined my two great passions. I devoured it. Bell has a fluid narrative style and the book is easy to read and very stimulating.

Bell showed me that the calculus, that I had recently fallen in love with, had been invented/discovered (choose the verb that best fits your philosophy of maths), something I had never even considered before. Not only that but it was done independently by two of the greatest names in the history of science, Newton and Leibniz, and that this led to one of the most embittered priority and plagiarism disputes in intellectual history. He introduced me to George Boole, whom I had never heard of before and whose work and its reception in the 19th century I would seriously study many years later in a long-year research project into the history of formal or mathematical logic, my apprenticeship as a historian of science.

Bell’s tome ignited a burning passion for the history of mathematics in my soul, which rapidly developed into a passion for the whole of the history of science; a passion that is still burning brightly fifty years later. So would I join the chorus of those warmly recommending “Men of Mathematics”? No, actually I wouldn’t.

Why, if as I say Bell’s book played such a decisive role in my own development as a historian of mathematics/science, do I reject it now? Bell’s florid narrative writing style is very seductive but it is unfortunately also very misleading. Bell is always more than prepared to sacrifice truth and historical accuracy for a good story. The result is that his potted biographies are hagiographic, mythologizing and historically inaccurate, often to a painful degree. I spent a lot of time and effort unlearning a lot of what I had learnt from Bell. His is exactly the type of sloppy historiography against which I have taken up my crusade on my blog and in my public lectures in my later life. Sorry but, although it inspired me in my youth, I think Bell’s book should be laid to rest and not recommended to new generations.



Filed under Book Reviews, History of Logic, History of Mathematics, History of science, Myths of Science

Did Isaac leap or was he pushed?

In 2016 2017 it would not be too much to expect a professor of philosophy at an American university to have a working knowledge of the evolution of science in the seventeenth century, particularly given that said evolution had a massive impact on the historical evolution of philosophy. One might excuse a freshly baked adjunct professor at a small liberal arts college, in his first year, if they were not au fait with the minutiae of the history of seventeenth-century astronomy but one would expect better from an established and acknowledged expert. Andrew Janiak is just that, an established and acknowledged expert. Creed C. Black Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Department at Duke University; according to Wikipedia, “Duke is consistently included among the best universities in the world by numerous university rankings”. Janiak is also an acknowledge expert on Isaac Newton and author of Isaac Newton in the Blackwell Great Minds series, so one is all the more dumbfounded to read the following in his article entitled Newton’s Leap on the Institute of Arts and Ideas: Philosophy for our times website:


Isaac Newton 1677 after Peter Lely Source: Wikimedia Commons Comment from CJ Schilt (a Newton expert) on Facebook: On another note, that picture is probably not Newton, despite what Finegold thinks.


But wait a minute: what could be more amazing than a young man discovering a fundamental force of nature while sitting under a tree? For starters, we have to recognize how foreign Newton’s ultimate idea about gravity was to philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians in the era of the Scientific Revolution. Newton provided an answer to a question that hadn’t even been asked yet. The problem with understanding the distant past is that we take our twenty-first century ideas and attitudes for granted. We think, for example, that the following is obvious: if the planets, like the Earth and Jupiter, regularly orbit the Sun, there must be something that causes them to follow their orbits. After all, if nothing caused them to orbit the Sun, they would fly off into deep space. [my emphasis]That seems so obvious to us, it’s hard to imagine that for centuries, the world’s leading thinkers, from Aristotle to Ptolemy and onwards, did not have that idea at all. Instead, for many generations, leading philosophers and mathematicians thought this: the circle is a perfect mathematical form, and the planetary orbits are circular, so they are ever-lasting aspects of the natural world. To them, the orbits were so perfect that nothing caused them to occur. They simply were. [my emphasis] The question of what caused the planetary orbits was not even on the table for astronomers in those days. [my emphasis] Down on earth, apples fell from trees throughout history just as they do now. But philosophers and mathematicians didn’t have any reason to think that whatever causes apples to fall to the ground might somehow be connected to anything going on in the heavens. After all, the heavens were thought to be the home of everlasting motions, of perfect circles, and were therefore nothing like the constantly changing, messy world down below, where worms eat through apples as they rot on the ground.

So what is wrong with this piece of #histSTM prose? Let us start with the second of my bold emphasised segments:

Instead, for many generations, leading philosophers and mathematicians thought this: the circle is a perfect mathematical form, and the planetary orbits are circular, so they are ever-lasting aspects of the natural world. To them, the orbits were so perfect that nothing caused them to occur. They simply were.

Whilst it is true that, following Empedocles, Western culture adopted the so-called Platonic axioms, which stated that celestial motion was uniform and circular, it is not true that they claimed this motion to be without cause. Aristotle, whose system became dominant for a time in the Middle Ages, hypothesised a system of nested crystalline spheres, which working from the outside to the centre drove each other through direct contact; a system that probably would not have worked due to friction. His outer-most sphere was moved by the unmoved mover, who remained unnamed, making the theory very attractive for Christian theologians in the High Middle Ages, who simple called the unmoved mover God. Interestingly the expression love makes the world go round originates in the Aristotelian belief that that driving force was love. In the Middle Ages we also find the beliefs that each of the heavenly bodies has a soul, which propels it through space or alternatively an angel pushing it around its orbit.

All of this is all well and good but of course doesn’t have any real relevance for Newton because by the time he came on the scene the Platonic axioms were well and truly dead, killed off by one Johannes Kepler. You might have heard of him? Kepler published the first two of his planetary laws, number one: that the planetary orbits are ellipses and that the sun is at one focus of the ellipse and number two: that a line connecting the sun to the planet sweeps out equal areas in equal time periods in 1609, that’s thirty-three years before Newton was born. Somewhat later Cassini proved with the support of his teachers, Riccioli and Grimaldi, using a heliometer they had constructed in the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna, that the earth’s orbit around the sun or the sun’s around the earth, (the method couldn’t decide which) was definitely elliptical.

Part of the San Petronio Basilica heliometer.
The meridian line sundial inscribed on the floor at the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna, Emilia Romagna, northern Italy. An image of the Sun produced by a pinhole gnomon in the churches vaults 66.8 meters (219 ft) away fills this 168×64 cm oval at noon on the winter solstice.
Source Wikimedia Commons

By the time Newton became interested in astronomy it was accepted by all that the planetary orbits were Keplerian ellipses and not circles. Kepler’s first and third laws were accepted almost immediately being based on observation and solid mathematics but law two remained contentious until about 1670, when it was newly derived by Nicholas Mercator. The dispute over alternatives to Kepler’s second law between Ismaël Boulliau and Seth Ward was almost certainly Newton’s introduction to Kepler’s theories.

Turning to the other two bold emphasised claims we have:

 Newton provided an answer to a question that hadn’t even been asked yet. The problem with understanding the distant past is that we take our twenty-first century ideas and attitudes for granted. We think, for example, that the following is obvious: if the planets, like the Earth and Jupiter, regularly orbit the Sun, there must be something that causes them to follow their orbits. After all, if nothing caused them to orbit the Sun, they would fly off into deep space.


The question of what caused the planetary orbits was not even on the table for astronomers in those days.

I’m afraid that Herr Kepler would disagree rather strongly with these claims. Not only had he asked this question he had also supplied a fairly ingenious and complex answer to it. Also quite famously his teacher Michael Maestlin rebuked him quite strongly for having done so. Kepler is usually credited with being the first to reject vitalist explanations of planetary motion by souls, spirits or angels (anima) and suggest instead a non-vitalist force (vir). His theory, based on the magnetic theories of Gilbert, was some sort of magnetic attraction emanating from the sun that weakened the further out it got. Kepler’s work started a debate that wound its way through the seventeenth century.

Ismaël Boulliau, a Keplerian, in his Astronomia philolaica from 1645 discussed Kepler’s theory of planetary force, which he rejected but added that if it did exist it would be an inverse-square law in analogy to Kepler’s law of the propagation of light. Newton was well aware of Boulliau’s suggestion of an inverse-square law. In 1666 Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, a disciple of Galileo, published his Theoricae Mediceorum planetarum ex causis physicis deductae in which he suggested that planetary motion was the result of three forces.

Famously in 1684 in a London coffee house Christopher Wren posed the question to Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley, if the force driving the planets was an inverse-square force would the orbits be Keplerian ellipses, offering a book token as prize to the first one to solve the problem. This, as is well known, led to Halley asking Newton who answered in the positive and wrote his Principia to prove it; in the Principia Newton shows that he is fully aware of both Kepler’s and Borelli’s work on the subject. What Newton deliberately left out of the Principia is that in an earlier exchange it had in fact been Hooke who first posited a universal force of gravity.

As this all too brief survey of the history shows, far from Newton providing an answer to a question that hadn’t been asked yet, he was, so to speak, a Johnny-come-lately to a debate that when he added his contribution was already eighty years old.

The Institute of Arts and Ideas advertises itself as follows:

So the IAI seeks to challenge the notion that our present accepted wisdom is the truth. It aims to uncover the flaws and limitations in our current thinking in search of alternative and better ways to hold the world.

Personally I don’t see how having a leading philosopher of science propagating the lone genius myth by spouting crap about the history of science fulfils that aim.







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

Galileo, The Church and that ban

Quite Interesting @qikipedia is the Twitter account of the highly successful British television comedy panel game QI (Quite Interesting). For those who are not aficionados of this piece of modern television culture it is described on Wikipedia thus:

The format of the show focuses on Davies and three other guest panelists answering questions that are extremely obscure, making it unlikely that the correct answer will be given. To compensate, the panelists are awarded points not only for the right answer, but also for interesting ones, regardless of whether they are right or even relate to the original question, while points are deducted for “answers which are not only wrong, but pathetically obvious”– typically answers that are generally believed to be true but in fact are misconceptions. These answers, referred to as “forfeits”, are usually indicated by a loud klaxon and alarm bell, flashing lights, and the incorrect answer being flashed on the video screens behind the panelists. [my emphasis]

Given the section that I have highlighted above the Twitter account should have points deducted to the sounds of a loud klaxon and an alarm bell accompanied by flashing lights for having tweeted the following on 12 September

It wasn’t until 1992 that the Catholic Church finally admitted that Galileo’s views on the solar system were correct – @qikipedia

Portrait of Galileo that accompanied the @qikipedia tweet


This is of course complete rubbish. In what follows I will give a brief summary of the Catholic Church’s ban on heliocentrism, as propagated by Galileo amongst others.

The initial ban on propagating heliocentrism as a proven theory, one could still present it as a hypothetical one, was issued by the Inquisition in 1616. Interestingly whilst the books of Kepler and Maestlin, for example, were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was not but merely banned temporarily until corrected, which took place surprisingly rapidly; correction meaning the removal of the very few passages where heliocentricity is presented as a fact. By 1621 De revolutionibus was back in circulation for Catholic astronomers. Galileo’s Dialogo was placed on the Index following his trial in 1632.

A title page of the Index of Forbidden Books 1758
Source: Linda Hall Library

Books openly espousing heliocentricity as a true fact, which was more that the science of the time could deliver, were placed on the Index by the Catholic Church, so all good Catholics immediately dropped the subject? Well no actually. The ban had surprising little effect outside of Italy. Within Italy, astronomers kept their heads below the parapet for a couple of decades but outside of Italy things were very different. Protestant countries, naturally, totally ignored the ban and even astronomers in Catholic countries on the whole took very little notice of it. The one notable exception was René Descartes who dropped plans to publish his book Le Monde, ou Traite de la lumiere in 1633, which contained his views supporting heliocentricity, the full text only appearing posthumously in 1677. Quite why he did so was not very clear but it is thought that he did it out of respect to his Jesuit teachers. However, Descartes remained the exception. Galileo’s offending Dialogo quickly appeared in a ‘pirate’ edition, translated into Latin in the Netherlands, where later his Discorsi, would also be published. I say pirate but Galileo was well aware of the publication, which had his blessing, but officially knew nothing about it.

Title page of the 1635 ‘pirate’ Latin edition of Dialogo
Source: The History of Science Collections of the University of Oklahoma Libraries

Within Italy once the dust had settled Catholic astronomers began to publish books on heliocentricity that opened with some sort of nod in the direction of the Church along the lines of, “The Holy Mother Church has in its wisdom condemned heliocentricity as contrary to Holy Scripture…” but then continued something like this “…however it is an interesting hypothetical mathematical model, which we will now discuss.” This face saving trick was accepted by the Church and everybody was happy. By the early eighteenth century almost all astronomers in Italy, with the exception of some Jesuits, were following this course.

In 1758 the ball game changed again as the then Pope basically dropped the ban on heliocentricity, although this was done informally and the formal prohibition stayed in place. The publication of a complete works of Galileo was even permitted with a suitable preface to the Dialogo pointing out its faults. From this time on Catholic astronomers were quite free to propagate a factual heliocentricity in their publications.

This was the situation up till 1820 when an over zealous Master of the Sacred Palace (the Church’s chief censor), Fillipo Anfossi, refused to licence a book containing a factual account of heliocentricity by Giuseppe Settele. Settele appealed directly to the Pope and after deliberations the ban on heliocentricity was formally lifted by the Church in 1821. The next edition of the Index, which didn’t appear until 1835, no longer contained books on heliocentricity. Anfossi and Settele only feature in the history of science because of this incidence.

So to summarise, the Church only banned factual claims for the heliocentric system but not hypothetical statements about it, so this is how Catholic astronomer got around the ban. In 1758 the Pope informally lifted the ban clearing the way for Catholic astronomers to write freely about it. In 1821 the ban was formally lifted and in 1835 books on heliocentricity were removed from the Index, so where did QI get their date of 1992 from?

In 1981 the Church constituted the Pontifical Interdisciplinary Study Commission to re-examine the Galileo trial, which came to rather wishy-washy conclusions. In 1992 the Pope held a speech formally closing the commission and saying that the whole affair had been rather unfortunate and that the Church had been probably wrong to prosecute Galileo.






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