Category Archives: Myths of Science

If you can’t tell your Cassini from your Huygens then you shouldn’t be writing about the history of astronomy.

There I was, mild mannered historian of early modern science, enjoying my first cup of tea on a lazy Sunday morning, whilst cruising the highway and byways of cyberspace, when I espied a statement that caused an explosion of indignation, transforming me into the much feared, fire spitting HISTSCI_HULKTM. What piece of histSTM crap had unleashed the pedantic monster this time and sent him off on a stamping rage?

The object of HSH’s rage was contained in an essay by Vahe Peroomian (Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences) A brief astronomical history of Saturn’s amazing rings, published simultaneously on both The Conversation and PHYS.ORG 15 August 2019. Peroomian writes:

I am a space scientist with a passion for teaching physics andastronomy, and Saturn’s rings have always fascinated me as they tell the story of how the eyes of humanity were opened to the wonders of our solar system and the cosmos.

He continues:

When Galileo first observed Saturn through his telescope in 1610, he was still basking in the fame of discovering the four moons of Jupiter. But Saturn perplexed him. Peering at the planet through his telescope, it first looked to him as a planet with two very large moons, then as a lone planet, and then again through his newer telescope, in 1616, as a planet with arms or handles.


Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo actually observed Saturn three times. The first time in 1610 he thought that the rings were handles or large moons on either side of the planet, “I have observed the highest planet [Saturn] to be triple bodied. This is to say to my very great amazement Saturn was seen to me to be not a single star, but three together, which almost touch each other.”


Galileo’s 1610 sketch of Saturn and its rings

The second time was in 1612 and whatever it was that he observed in 1610 had simply disappeared, “I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked for and so novel.” The Earth’s position relative to Saturn had changed and the rings were no longer visible but Galileo did not know this. In 1616 the rings were back but with a totally altered appearance, “The two companions are no longer two small perfectly round globes … but are present much larger and no longer round … that is, two half eclipses with two little dark triangles in the middle of the figure and contiguous to the middle globe of Saturn, which is seen, as always, perfectly round.” [1]


Galileo’s 1616 sketch of Saturn and its rings

There is no mention of a new telescope and it is fairly certain that all three periods of observation were either carried out with the same or very similar telescopes. The differences that Galileo observed were due to the changing visibility of Saturn’s rings caused by its changing relative position to Earth and not to any change of instrument on Galileo’s part.

Although sloppy and annoying, the minor errors in Peroomian’s account of Galileo’s observations of Saturn are in themselves not capable of triggering the HSH’s wrath but what he wrote next is:

Four decades later, Giovanni Cassini first suggested that Saturn was a ringed planet, and what Galileo had seen were different views of Saturn’s rings. Because of the 27 degrees in the tilt of Saturn’s rotation axis relative to the plane of its orbit, the rings appear to tilt toward and away from Earth with the 29-year cycle of Saturn’s revolution about the Sun, giving humanity an ever-changing view of the rings.


Giovanni Cassini (artist unknown) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now, Giovanni Cassini did record some important observations of Saturn; he discovered four of Saturn’s largest moons and also the gap in the rings that is named after him. Although, Giuseppe Campani, Cassini’s telescope maker, observed the gap before he did without realising that it was a gap. However, it was not Cassini who first suggested that what people had been observing were rings but Christiaan Huygens.

Christiaan Huygens first proposed that Saturn was surrounded by a solid ring in 1655, “a thin, flat ring, nowhere touching, and inclined to the ecliptic.” In 1659 he published his book, Systema Saturnium : sive, De causis mirandorum Saturni phaenomenôn, et comite ejus Planeta Novo detailing how the appearance of the rings varied as the Earth and Saturn orbited the sun.


Plate from Huygens’ Systema Saturnium showing the various recorded observations of Saturn made by astronomers before his own times


Plate from Huygens’ Systema Saturnium explaining why the appearance of Saturn and its rings changes over time and that all those different appearances can be explained by assuming the existence of the rings

Confusing Cassini and Huygens, two of the greatest observational astronomers of the seventeenth century, who were scientific rivals, is not a trivial error and shouldn’t be made anywhere by anyone. However, to make this error in an essay that is published  on two major Internet websites borders on the criminal. I have no idea what the reach of PHYS.ORG is but The Conversation claims to have a readership of ten million plus. This means that a lot of people are being fed false history of astronomy facts by a supposed expert.

If the good doctor Peroomian had bothered to check his facts, a thing that I thought all scientists were taught to do when receiving their mother milk, he could have easily discovered his crass error and corrected it, even the much maligned Wikipedia gets it right, but apparently he didn’t consider it necessary to do so, after all it’s just history and not real science.

[1]The Galileo and Huygens quotes are taken from Ron Baalke’s excellent time line, Historical Background of Saturn’s Rings.



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

Kepler was wot, you don’t say?


The Guardian is making a serious bid for the year’s worst piece of #histsci reporting or as Adam Shapiro (@tryingbiology) once put it so expressively, #histsigh! The article in question has the shock, horror, sensation headline: Groundbreaking astronomer Kepler ‘may have practised alchemy’. Ignoring the fact for the moment that he probably didn’t, given the period and the milieu in which Kepler lived and worked saying that he may have been an alchemist is about as sensational as saying he may have been a human being.


Johannes Kepler Source: Wikimedia Commons

The period in which Kepler lived was one in which the interest in alchemy was very widespread, very strong and very open. For eleven years he was Imperial Mathematicus at the court in Prague of the German Emperor Rudolph II, which was a major centre for all of the so-called occult sciences and in particular alchemy. In Prague Kepler’s original employer Tycho Brahe had been for years a practitioner of Paracelsian alchemical medicine (a very widespread form of medicine at the time), which to be fair the article sort of says. What they say is that Tycho was an alchemist, without pointing out that his alchemy was restricted to medical alchemy.


Tycho Brahe Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of his colleagues was the Swiss clockmaker Jost Bürgi, who had come to Prague from Hesse-Kassel,


Jost Bürge Source: Wikimedia Commons

where the Landgrave Moritz was a major supporter of alchemy, who appointed Johannes Hartmann (1568–1631) to the first ever chair for chemistry, actually Paracelsian medicine, at the university of Marburg. The real surprise is not that Kepler was an alchemist or practiced alchemy but rather that given the time and milieu in which he lived and worked that he wasn’t and didn’t.


Johannes Hartmann Source: Wikimedia Commons

How can I be so sure that Kepler didn’t dabble in alchemy? Simply because if he had, he would have written about it. Kepler is a delight, or a nightmare, for the historian, there is almost no figure that I know of in #histSTM, who was as communicative as Kepler. He wrote and published eighty three books and pamphlets in his lifetime covering a very wide range of topics and in all his written work he was always keen to explain in great detail to his readers just what he was doing and his thoughts on what he was doing. He wrote extensively and very openly on his mathematics, his astronomy, his astrology, his family, his private affairs, his financial problems and all of his hopes and fears. If Kepler had in anyway been engaged with alchemy, he would have written about it. If anybody should chime in now with, yes but alchemists kept they activities secret, I would point out in Kepler’s time the people practicing alchemy, particularly the Paracelsians, were anything but secretive. And it was with the Paracelsians that Kepler had the closest contact.

There are a few letters exchanged between Kepler and his Paracelsian physician friends, which show quite clearly that although Kepler displayed the natural curiosity of a scientific researcher in their alchemistic activities he did not accept the basic principles of alchemy. In his notorious exchange with Robert Fludd, he is very dismissive of Fludd’s alchemical activities. Kepler was not an alchemist.

From a historical point of view particularly bad is the contrast deliberately set up in the article between good science, astronomy and mathematics, and ‘dirty’ pseudo- science’, alchemy. This starts with the title:

Groundbreaking astronomer Kepler ‘may have practised alchemy’

Continues with the whole of the first paragraph:

The pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler may have had his eyes on the heavens, but chemical analysis of his manuscripts suggests he was “willing to get his hands dirty” and may have dabbled in alchemy.

“Kepler, who died in 1630, drew on Copernicus’s work to find laws of planetary motion that paved the way for Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity” is contrasted with “The authors speculate that Kepler could have learned the “pseudo-chemical science.” 

A ‘pioneering astronomer’ with ‘his eyes on the heavens’, serious scientific activity, but ‘dabbled in alchemy’. Whoever wrote these lines obviously knows nothing about Kepler’s astronomical writing nor about early 17thcentury alchemy.

The article through its choice of descriptive terms tries to set up a black/white dichotomy between the man who paved the way for modern astronomy, good, and the practitioners of alchemy in the early seventeenth century, bad. However if we actually look at the real history everything dissolves into shades of grey.

Kepler was not just an astronomer and mathematician but also a practicing astrologer. People might rush in here with lots of Kepler quotes condemning and ridiculing the nativity horoscope astrology of his age, all of them true. However, he famously said one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water defending the basic idea of astrology and presenting his own unique system of astrology based entirely on aspects, that is the angular position of the planets relative to each other. The author of the piece has obviously never turned the pages of either Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum or his Harmonice Mundi. As I commented on Twitter, during a discussion of this article, Kepler’s cosmological heuristic with which he generated all of his successful astronomy was, viewed from a modern rational standpoint, quite simply bat shit insane. Things are not looking good for our pioneering astronomer.


Kepler’s Platonic solid model of the solar system, from Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596) Kepler’s explanation as to why there are only five planets and their order around the sun! Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the other side, as I have noted on several occasions, alchemy included much that we now label applied and industrial chemistry.  For example, alchemists were responsible for the production of pigments for painters and gunpowder for fireworks and cannons, and were often glassmakers. Alchemists were historically responsible for developing the laboratory equipment and methodology for chemical analysis. In the period under discussion many alchemists, including Tycho, were Paracelsian physicians, who are credited with the founding of the modern pharmacological industry. Historians of alchemy tend to refer to the alchemy of the seventeenth century as chymistry because it represents the historical transition from alchemy to chemistry. Not so much a pseudo-science as a proto-science.

Let us now consider the so-called evidence for the articles principle claim. Throughout the article it is stated that the evidence was found on Kepler’s manuscripts, plural. But when the evidence is actually discussed it turns out to be a single manuscript about the moon. On this manuscript the researchers found:

“…very significant amounts of metals associated with the practice including gold, silver, mercury and lead on the pages of Kepler’s manuscript about the moon, catalogued as “Hipparchus” after the classical astronomer.”

Is alchemy the only possible/plausible explanation for the traces of metals found on this manuscript? Could one suggest another possibility? All of these metals could have been and would have been used by a clock and instrument maker such as Jost Bürgi, who was Kepler’s close colleague and friend throughout his eleven years in Prague. Bürgi also had a strong interest in astronomy and might well have borrowed an astronomical manuscript. Of course such a solution doesn’t make for a sensational article, although all the available evidence very strongly suggests that Kepler was not an alchemist.

One final point that very much worries me is the provenance of this document. It is four hundred years old, who has owned it in the meantime? Where has it been stored? Who has had access to it? Until all of these questions can be accurately answered attributing its contamination to Kepler is just unfounded speculation.










Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

The House of Wisdom is a Myth

When I first got really interested in the history of science, the history of science of the Islamic empires was not something dealt with in any detail in general works on the topic. If you wanted to get to know anything much about what happened in the various areas of the world dominated by Islamic culture in the period between the seventh and sixteenth centuries then you had to find and read specialist literature produced by experts such as Edward Kennedy. Although our knowledge of that history still needs to be improved, the basic history has now reached the popular market and people can inform themselves about major figures writing in Arabic on various areas of science between the demise of classical antiquity and the European Renaissance such as the mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, the alchemist Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān, the optician, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham or the physician Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī. These and a handful of other ‘greats’ are not as well known as their later European counterparts but knowledge of them, usually under their popular names, so al-Khwarizmi, Jabir, al-Haytham and al-Razi, is these days quite widespread amongst well educated and well read people. There is even a flourishing popular book market for titles about Islamic science.

Amongst those non-professionals, who interest themselves for the topic, particularly well known is the so-called House of Wisdom, a reputed major centre for scientific translation and research in Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphs. This reputed academic institution even provided the title for two of the biggest selling popular books on Islamic science Jim al-Khalili’s The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance and Jonathan Lyons’ The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation. Neither Jim al-Khalili nor Jonathan Lyons is a historian of science, let alone Islamic science; al-Khalili is a physicist and broadcaster and Lyons is a journalist and herein lies the rub. Real historians of Islamic science say that the House of Wisdom never existed, at least not in any form remotely resembling the institution presented by al-Khalili, Lyons and other popular sources including, unfortunately Wikipedia, where the article is largely based on Lyons’ pop book.

The picture painted by al-Khalili and Lyons, and to be fair they didn’t create it but copied it from other fantasts, is of a special academic research institution set up by the early Abbasid Caliphs, staffed with leading scientific scholars, who carried out a sponsored programme of translating Greek scientific texts, which they them analysed, commented and developed further. Here academic exchanges, discussions, conferences took place amongst the leading scientific scholars in the Abbasid Empire.

The reality looks very different.[1]To quote Gutas (page 54):

It is in this light that the very scanty reliable reports about the bayt al-hikmashould be evaluated. Much ink has been used unnecessarily on description of the bayt al-hikma, mostly in fanciful and sometimes wishful projections of modern institutions and research projects back into the eighth century. The fact is that we have exceedingly little historical [emphasis in original] information about the bayt al-hikma. This in tself would indicate that it was not something grandiose or significant, and hence a minimalist interpretation would fit the historical record better.

The bayt al-hikma, to give it its correct name, which doesn’t really translate as house of wisdom, was the palace archive and library or repository, a practice taken over by the Abbasid Caliphs from the earlier Sassanian rulers along with much other royal court procedure to make their reign more acceptable to their Persian subjects. The wisdom referred to in the translation refers to poetic accounts of Iranian history, warfare, and romance. The Abbasid Caliphs appear to have maintained this practice now translating Persian historical texts from Persian into Arabic. There is absolutely no evidence of Greek texts, scientific or otherwise, being translated in the bayt al-hikma.

Much is made of supposed leading Islamic scientific scholars working in the bayt al-hikmaby the al-Khalili’s, Lyons et al. In fact the first librarian under the Abbasids was a well-known Persian astrologer, again a Sassanian practice taken over by the Abbasids. Later al-Khwarizmi and Yahya ibn Abi Mansur both noted astronomers but equally noted astrologers served in the bayt al-hikmaunder the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun.

We will give Gutas the final word on the subject (page 59):

The bayt al-hikmawas certainly also not an “academy” for teaching the “ancient” sciences as they were being translated; such a preposterous idea did not even occur to the authors of the spurious reports about the transmission of the teaching of these sciences that we do have. Finally it is not a “conference centre for the meeting of scholars even under al-Ma’mun’s sponsorship. Al-Ma’mun, of course (and all the early Abbasid caliphs), did host scholarly conferences or rather gatherings, but not in the library; such gauche social behaviour on the part of the caliph would have been inconceivable. Sessions (magalis) were held in the residences of the caliphs, when the caliphs were present, or in private residences otherwise, as the numerous descriptions of them that we have indicate.

As a final comment we have the quite extraordinary statement made by Jim al-Khalili on the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time discussion on Maths in the Early Islamic World:

In answer to Melvyn Braggs question, “What did they mean by the House of Wisdom and what sort of house was it? It is supposed to have lasted for 400 years, it is contested”

Jim al-Khalili: “It is contested and I’ll probably get into hot water with historians but let’s say what I think of it. There was certainly potentially something called the house of wisdom a bit like the Library of Alexandria many centuries earlier, which was a place where books were stored it may have also been a translation house. It was in Baghdad this was in the time of al-Ma’mun, it may have existed in some form or other in his father’s palace…”

Bragg: “Was it a research centre, was it a place where people went to be paid by the caliphs to get on with the work that you do in mathematics?”

Al-Khalili: “I believe it very well could have been…” He goes on spinning a fable, drawing parallels with the Library of Alexandria

History is not about what you choose to believe but is a fact-based discipline. Immediately after al-Khalili’s fairy story Peter Pormann, Professor of Classics & Graeco-Arabic Studies at the University of Manchester chimes in and pricks the bubble.

Pormann: “There’s the myth of the House of Wisdom as this research school, academy and so on and so forth, basically there is very little evidence…”

Listen for yourselves!

I find Bragg’s choice of words, repeated by al-Khalili, “it is contested” highly provocative and extremely contentious. It is not contested; there is absolutely no evidence to support the House of Wisdom myth as presented by Lyons, al-Khalili et al. What we have here is another glaring example of unqualified pop historians propagating a myth and blatantly ignoring the historical facts, which they find boring.

[1]The facts in the following are taken from Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10th centuries), Routledge, Oxford, ppb. 1998 pp. 53-60 and Lutz Richter-Bernburg, Potemkin in Baghdad: The Abbasid “House of Wisdom” as Constructed by 1001 inventions In Sonja Brentjes–Taner Edis­–Lutz Richter-Bernburg eds., 1001 Distortions: How (Not) to Narrate History of Science, Medicine, and Technology in Non-Western Science, Biblioteca Academica Orientalistik, Band 25, Ergon Verlag, Würzburg, 2016 pp. 121-129


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

Unsound History of the Sound of Space

Those readers, who have been around for a number of years, will know that from time to time the Renaissance Mathematicus has hosted guest posts. One thing that we are very proud of is the very high standard of the authors, who have delivered up, at our invitation, those literary #histSTM highpoints. We only host the best! Todays guest post continues this tradition with a real star of the world of science, science writing and #histSTM, Tom McLeish FRS. Tom was Professor of Physics at Durham University, where he was one of the initiators and chief investigators of the on going Ordered Universe international research project: Interdisciplinary Readings of Medieval Science: Robert Grosseteste (c.1170–1253).


!4th Century portrait of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tom is now Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York (I think he’s doing a slow tour of the beautiful cathedral cities of England). His most recent, in fact very recent, publication is a book that you all should read The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity in Science and Art (OUP, 2019).

Recently he tweeted some truly horrendous #histSTM errors in a BBC publication, I’ll let him explain further, and I immediately thought that would be something for the HIST_SCI HULKTMbut then thought it would be nice if Tom wrote a guest post about it himself. I asked, he said yes and so I give you the HIST_SCI HULK’s mild mannered, but very erudite cousin Tom McLeish.

For some years now I have been treating myself to the weekly delight and lifelong education in the history of science that is Thony Christie’s ‘Renaissance Mathematicus’ blog. To be invited to write a guest instalment is therefore a great surprise and joy. But I’ll rapidly wrap up my imposter syndrome in a few tight twists of context before getting on with the main task of joining the host author in calling out bad and sloppy history of science – and calling for getting it right – for both writers and readers of this blog know that getting history right matters.

As much as I look forward to the weekly arrival of the R-mathematicus email alert, I also anticipate the annual publication of the BBC Proms guide. Science and music are equal passions for me, and as far as I am concerned, music doesn’t get more exciting than the best classical music festival in the world – the London Promenade series of summer concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Although the science I do professionally turns around the physics of soft materials and biophysics, astronomy was my childhood gateway to the study of nature, and is still my own amateur scientific passion. So when I discovered that a chosen theme of this year’s Prom concerts was space, responding to the 50thanniversary of the first human moon landing, I became understandably excited. Sure enough, the usually well-researched and written Proms Guide contained a promising article by Neil Brand, The Sound of Space.

The first page takes the reader on a musical pathway through the scores for science fiction films – an area of expertise for Brand, and a good read. But his thesis that the cosmos and music have been linked for centuries requires some history of science. This is where, as is sadly so often the case, the source-checking (frankly even encyclopaedia checking) runs out. A first indication that trouble is afoot appears in the categorisation of Cicero’s Dream of Scipioas a ‘philosophical treatise’. This marvellous dream-discourse is just the closing portion of the 6thbook of Cicero’s De res publica– the whole work really a political treatise, though highly expansive. It is very significant for the imaginative tradition of viewing the Earth from Space, as I have noted elsewhere , but does indeed mention the ‘music of the spheres’, the author’s point. So we read on for now.


The Universe, the Earth in the centre, surrounded by the seven planets within the zodiacal signs Images from a 12th-century manuscript of Macrobius’ Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis Source: Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, ms. NKS 218 4° via Wikimedia Commons

Enter Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), one of my personal Renaissance/Early-Modern astronomical heroes. I ceaselessly find it impressive that Kepler was able to deduce the three propositions concerning planetary motion that we now refer to as ‘Kepler’s Laws’, including the discovery of the elliptical orbit of Mars (and the other planets) from naked eye observations. He could not have done this, however, without the equally heroic contribution of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who improved the accuracy of stellar positional measurements over his predecessors by two orders of magnitude – and this without a telescope. It was Tycho’s observations that enabled Kepler to deduce the elliptical planetary motion, work begun around 1601 but first published in his Astronomia Nova of 1609. Given that the first telescopic astronomical observations were not made until Thomas Harriot and then Galileo Galilei turned their primitive telescopes skyward in 1609, it is strange that Brand is able to assure us that Kepler used ‘observation through early telescope lenses’ to establish his laws of motion.

A decade’s error may perhaps be forgivable (though not the silence on Tycho Brahe), but errors of, several centuries and more stretches all generosity on my part. For Brand then attempts to link Kepler casually to the adoption of music within the ‘quadrivium’ of mathematical subjects taught in medieval universities.

It is elementary educational history that the structure of the ‘Liberal Arts’, for which the quadrivium formed the second year of study, was conceived by the time the late Roman commentator Macrobius wrote about them (interestingly in a lengthy commentary on the Dream of Scipio, see above!) around 430 AD. There is strong corroboration for this early adoption two centuries later from Isidore of Seville in his compendious Etymologies. Music remained a mathematical art from late antiquity, through the cathedral schools and early universities of the high middle ages to Kepler’s own time.

Brand’s final science-history sin is an even stranger one. For in the next section he introduces us to William Herschel, a Hanoverian, who emigrated to England in 1757. Herschel is a fascinating figure, most famous for his discovery of the first new planet since antiquity – Uranus, in 1781.


William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott Source: Wikimedia Commons

But in an astonishingly dense sweep of double confusion, Brand tells us that Herschel managed this feat ‘through careful calculation with superb new and enormously large optical telescopes.’ The discovery was actually made by observing the tiny greenish disk of Uranus move over several nights against the background of stars, and through a relatively small reflecting telescope[1]. Herschel’s massive 40’ reflector was not operational before 1789, and no more than a twinkle in its designer’s eye in 1781. Brand’s other confusion is, of course, with the discovery of Neptune. This was indeed effected by calculation (simultaneously by Le Verrier in France and Adams in England), following perturbations noticed in the orbit of Uranus. Le Verrier’s theoretical predictions of the whereabouts of the planet that accounted for Uranus’ wanderings lead to the 1846 observational discovery of Neptune in Berlin by Johan Galle.

The reason that the mangling of Herschel’s history is strange, especially in a BBC Proms Guide, is that he was first a musician, not an astronomer. Composer, singer and oboist, his first position in England was as director of the military band in Durham. His later moves to Birmingham and then Bath were also to musical posts, and only in the last did his astronomical interests begin to dominate. His famous sister Carolyn accompanied him, also as a singer, and in parallel career development became an astronomer in her own right, discovering several comets, and recording their observations meticulously. But in the musical phase of his career, William himself composed 24 symphonies and three remarkable oboe concertos among other pieces. It is perhaps the greatest pity of all that, in a year dedicated to music and astronomy, none has found a place at any of the 2019 Prom performances, where they might have embodied a beautiful and historical sound of space.

[1]If you are ever in the area, the Herschel Museum of Astronomy  in Bath, situated in Herschel’s old place of residence, is a delight and you can go out into the back garden where he made his discovery of Uranus.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

Hagiography without context – how not to celebrate a historical figure

This is not so much a blog post as a brief comment. Today marks the five hundredth anniversary of the death of the Renaissance artist-engineer Leonardo da Vinci. This of course has led to a massive bun fight in the form celebrations not just today but throughout the entire year–exhibitions, articles, blog posts, etc., etc. The one thing that has been missing in almost all of the articles, posts, broadcasts and so on that I have come across up till now has been context. We get told that Leonardo was unique, a genius, one of a kind, a visionary, an amazing polymath, a man of the future and all of the verbal hyperbole that you can think of but in almost all cases there is absolutely no context presented for his life and work.


Francesco Melzi – Portrait of Leonardo Source: Wikimedia Commons

As I said above, and also in an earlier blog post, Leonardo was a Renaissance artist-engineer and his whole life and the wide spread of activities are actually characteristic for the carrier profile of a typical artist-engineer. He was not as unique in that sense as these hagiographic portraits without context present him. He is one of a crowd, a man of his times not some sort of freak or anomaly beamed back from the future into the fifteenth century. There are plenty of other polymath Renaissance artist-engineers, who were his predecessors and role models, as well as his contemporaries. To quote Leonardo da Vinci: The Man Behind the Myth on Google Arts & Culture, one of the better articles:

The way that Renaissance knowledge brought together many different disciplines and studies cannot be applied to modern times. In the Renaissance, Leonardo was one of many polymaths – perhaps the best, together with humanists like Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti and Francesco di Giorgio Martini. 

Saying this does not diminish his stature. Whilst one of many Leonardo was primus inter pars, a man whose undeniably immense talents let him delve deeper, develop further and express better than any other of the Renaissance artist-engineers. However, if you really wish to understand and appreciate Leonard you can only really do so if you view him embedded in the historical context in which he lived and worked.

A good example of this is the notorious Vitruvian Man drawing by Leonardo, which at least two sources that I have read in the last few days claimed originated with Leonardo.


In fact, as I demonstrated in an earlier post, Vitruvian Man was an iconic image of the Renaissance artist-engineer milieu well before Leonardo produced his version of it. However, his version is superior to all the others.

An exception to the hagiographic posturing being presented on Leonardo is today’s essay on Thinking 3D about Leonardo’s anatomical drawings by Monica Azzolini, Leonardo Inside Out, which embeds his efforts in the medical history of the time. Do yourself a favour and read how to do it properly. Also readable is the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science essay Leonardo da Vinci’s Intellectual Cosmos: Exhibitions with Museo Galileo and Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, which features a reconstruction of Leonardo’s library and so his rich and diverse sources.


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Filed under Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

You shouldn’t believe everything you read

One of the things that I have been reading recently is a very interesting paper by John N. Crossley, the Anglo-Australian logician and historian of mathematics, about the reception and adoption of the Hindu-Arabic numbers in medieval Europe.[1]Here I came across this wonderful footnote:[2]


It is interesting to note that Richard Lemay in his entry “Arabic Numerals,” in Joseph Reese Strayer, ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages(New York, 1982–89) 1:382–98, at 398 reports that in the University of Padua in the mid-fifteenth century, prices of books should be marked “non per cifras sed per literas claras.” He gives a reference to George Gibson Neill Wright, The Writing of Arabic Numerals(London, 1952), 126. Neill Wright in turn gives a reference to a footnote of Susan Cunnigton, The Story of Arithmetic: A Short History of Its Origin and Development(London, 1904), 42, n. 2. She refers to Rouse Ball’s Short History of Mathematics, in fact this work is: Walter William Rouse Ball, A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, 3rded. (London, 1901), and there one finds on p. 192: “…in 1348 the authorities of the university of Padua directed that a list should be kept of books for sale with the prices marked ‘non per cifras sed per literas claras’ [not by cyphers but by clear letters].” I am yet to find an exact reference for this prohibition. (There is none in Rouse Ball.) Chrisomalis Numerical Notations, p. 124, cites J. Lennart Berggren, “Medieval Arithmetic: Arabic Texts and European Motivations,” in Word, Image, Number: Communication in the Middle Ages, ed. John J. Contreni and Santa Casciani (Florence, 2002), 351–65, at 361, who does not give a reference.

Here we have Crossley the historian following a trail of quotes, references and footnotes; his hunt doesn’t so much terminate in a dead-end as fizzle out in the void, leaving the reader unsure whether the university of Padua really did insist on its book prices being written in Roman numerals rather than Hindu-Arabic ones or not. What we have here is a succession of authors writing up something from a secondary, tertiary, quaternary source with out bothering to check if the claim it makes is actually true or correct by looking for and going back to the original source, which in this case would have been difficult as the trail peters out by Rouse Ball, who doesn’t give a source at all.

This habit of writing up without checking original sources is unfortunately not confined to this wonderful example investigated by John Crossley but is seemingly a widespread bad habit under historians and others who write historical texts.

I have often commented that I served my apprenticeship as a historian of science in a DFG[3]financed research project on Case Studies into a Social History of Formal Logic under the direction of Professor Christian Thiel. Christian Thiel was inspired to launch this research project by a similar story to the one described by Crossley above.

Christian Thiel’s doctoral thesis was Sinn und Bedeutung in der Logik Gottlob Freges(Sense and Reference in Gottlob Frege’s Logic); a work that lifted him into the elite circle of Frege experts and led him to devote his academic life largely to the study of logic and its history. One of those who corresponded with Frege, and thus attracted Thiel interest, was the German meta-logician Leopold Löwenheim, known to students of logic and meta-logic through the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem or paradox. (Don’t ask!) Being a thorough German scholar, one might even say being pedantic, Thiel wished to know Löwenheim’s dates of birth and death. His date of birth was no problem but his date of death turned out to be less simple. In an encyclopaedia article Thiel came across a reference to c.1940; the assumption being that Löwenheim, being a quarter Jewish and as a result having been dismissed from his position as a school teacher in 1933, had somehow perished during the holocaust. In another encyclopaedia article obviously copied from the first the ‘circa 1940’ had become a ‘died 1940’.

Thiel, being the man he is, was not satisfied with this uncertainty and invested a lot of effort in trying to get more precise details of the cause and date of Löwenheim’s death. The Red Cross information service set up after the Second World War in Germany to help trace people who had died or gone missing during the war proved to be a dead end with no information on Löwenheim. Thiel, however, kept on digging and was very surprised when he finally discovered that Löwenheim had not perished in the holocaust after all but had survived the war and had even gone back to teaching in Berlin in the 1950s, where he died 5. May 1957 almost eighty years old. Thiel then did the same as Crossley, tracing back who had written up from whom and was able to show that Löwenheim’s death had already been assumed to have fallen during WWII, as he was still alive and kicking in Berlin in the early 1950s!

This episode convinced Thiel to set up his research project Case Studies into a Social History of Formal Logic in order, in the first instance to provide solid, verified biographical information on all of the logicians listed in Church’s bibliography of logic volume of the Journal of Symbolic Logic, which we then proceeded to do; a lot of very hard work in the pre-Internet age. Our project, however, was not confined to this biographical work, we also undertook other research into the history of formal logic.

As I said above this habit of writing ‘facts’ up from non-primary sources is unfortunately very widespread in #histSTM, particularly in popular books, which of course sell much better and are much more widely read than academic volumes, although academics are themselves not immune to this bad habit. This is, of course, the primary reason for the continued propagation of the myths of science that notoriously bring out the HISTSCI_HULK in yours truly. For example I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read that Galileo’s telescopic discoveries proved the truth of Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis. People are basically to lazy to do the legwork and check their claims and facts and are much too prepared to follow the maxim: if X said it and it’s in print, then it must be true!

[1]John N. Crossley, Old-fashioned versus newfangled: Reading and writing numbers, 1200–1500, Studies in medieval and Renaissance History, Vol. 10, 2013, pp.79–109

[2]Crossley p. 92 n. 42

[3]DFG = Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft = German Research Foundation



Filed under History of Logic, History of Mathematics, Myths of Science

Hypatia – What do we really know?

The fourth century Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia has become a feminist icon. She is probably the second most well known woman in #histSTM after Marie Curie. Unfortunately, down the centuries she has been presented more as a legend or a myth intended to fulfil the teller’s purposes rather than a real human being. As Alan Cameron puts it in his excellent essay, Hypatia: Life, Death, and Works:[1]

A pagan in the Christian city of Alexandria, she is one of those figures whose tragic death inspired a legend which could take almost any form because so few facts are known. As a pagan martyr, she has always been a stick to beat Christians with, a symbol in the continuing struggle between science and revealed religion. The memorable account in Gibbon begins wickedly “On a fatal day in the holy season of lent.” As a woman she can be seen as a feminist as well as a pagan martyr. Her name has been a feminist symbol down the centuries more recently a potent name in lesbian and gay circles. As an Egyptian, she has also been claimed as a black woman martyr. There is an asteroid named after her, a crater on the moon, and a journal of feminist studies. As early as 1886, the women of Wichita Kansas, familiar from the movies of our youth as a lawless western cattle town, formed a literary society called the Hypatia Club. Lake Hypatia in Alabama is a retreat for freethinkers and atheists. Rather less in tune with her scholarly activity, there is Hypatia Capital, a merchant bank whose strategy focuses on the top female executives in the Fortune 1000.

A few minutes’ googling will produce countless eulogies of Hypatia as a uniquely gifted philosopher, mathematician and scientist, the second female scientist after Marie Curie, the only woman in antiquity appointed to a university chair, a theorist who anticipated Copernicus with the heliocentric hypothesis. The 2009 movie Agora goes even further in this direction. A millennium before Kepler, Hypatia discovered that earth and its sister planets not only go round the sun but do so in ellipses, not circles. She remained unmarried, and could therefore be seen as a model of pagan virginity. Alternatively, since the monks are said to have killed her because of her influence on the prefect of Egypt, she could be seen as a slut. It is fascinating to observe how down the centuries she served as a lay figure for the prejudices of successive generations.

So what do we know about the real Hypatia? The answer is almost nothing. We know that she was the daughter of Theon (c.335–c.405) an Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher, most well known for his edition of The Elements of Euclid. We don’t know her birth date with estimates ranging from 350 to 370 CE. Absolutely nothing is known about her mother to whom no references whatsoever exist. It is assumed that she was educated by her father but once again, whilst highly plausible, no real evidence exists for this assumption. If we take a brief looked at the available sources for her biography the reason for all of this uncertainty becomes very clear.

The only source we have from somebody who actually knew Hypatia is Synesius of Cyrene (c.373–probably 413), who was one of her Christian students around 393 CE. In 410 CE he was appointed Bishop of Ptolemais. There was an edition of his letters, which contains seven letters to Hypatia and some to others that mention her. Unfortunately his letters tell us nothing about her death as he predeceased her. His last letter to her was written from his deathbed in 413 CE. Two of his letters, however, request her assistance for acquaintances in civil matters, which indicates that she exercised influence with the civil authorities.

Our second major source is Socrates of Constantinople (c.380–died after 439) a Christian church historian, who was a contemporary but who did not know her personally. He mention her and her death in his Historia Ecclesiastica:

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

The third principle source is Damascius (c.458–after 538) a pagan philosopher, who studied in Alexandria but then moved to Athens where he succeeded his teacher Isidore of Alexandria (c.450–c.520) as head of the School of Athens. He mentions Hypatia in his Life of Isidore, which has in fact been lost but which survives as a fragment that has been reconstructed.

We also have the somewhat bizarre account of the Egyptian Coptic Bishop John of Nikiû (fl. 680–690):

And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom… And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house.

It is often claimed that she was head of The Neo-Platonic School of philosophy in Alexandria. This is simply false. There was no The Neo-Platonic School in Alexandria. She inherited the leadership of her father’s school, one of the prominent schools of mathematics and philosophy in Alexandria. She however taught a form of Neo-Platonic philosophy based mainly on Plotonius, whereas the predominant Neo-Platonic philosophy in Alexandria at the time was that of Iamblichus.

If we turn to her work we immediately have problems. There are no known texts that can be directly attributed to her. The Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopaedia of the ancient Mediterranean world list three mathematical works for her, which it states have all been lost. The Suda credits her with commentaries on the Conic Sections of the third-century BCE Apollonius of Perga, the “Astronomical Table” and the Arithemica of the second- and third-century CE Diophantus of Alexandria.

Alan Cameron, however, argues convincingly that she in fact edited the surviving text of Ptolemaeus’ Handy Tables, (the second item on the Suda list) normally attributed to her father Theon as well as a large part of the text of the Almagest her father used for his commentary.  Only six of the thirteen books of Apollonius’ Conic Sections exist in Greek; historians argue that the additional four books that exist in Arabic are from Hypatia, a plausible assumption.

All of this means that she produced no original mathematics but like her father only edited texts and wrote commentaries. In the history of mathematics Theon is general dismissed as a minor figure, who is only important for preserving texts by major figures. If one is honest one has to pass the same judgement on his daughter.

Although the sources acknowledge Hypatia as an important and respected teacher of moral philosophy there are no known philosophical texts that can be attributed to her and no sources that mention any texts from her that might have been lost.

Of course the most well known episode concerning Hypatia is her brutal murder during Lent in 414 CE. There are various accounts of this event and the further from her death they are the more exaggerated and gruesome they become. A rational analysis of the reports allows the following plausible reconstruction of what took place.

An aggressive mob descended on Hypatia’s residence probably with the intention of intimidating rather than harming her. Unfortunately, they met her on the open street and things got out of hand. She was hauled from her carriage and dragged through to the streets to the Caesareum church on the Alexandrian waterfront. Here she was stripped and her body torn apart using roof tiles. Her remains were then taken to a place called Cinaron and burnt.

Viewed from a modern standpoint this bizarre sequence requires some historical comments. Apparently raging mobs and pitched battles between opposing mobs were a common feature on the streets of fourth-century Alexandria. Her murder also followed an established script for the symbolic purification of the city, which dates back to the third-century. There was even a case of a pagan statue of Separis being subjected to the same fate. There is actually academic literature on the use of street tiles in street warfare[2]. What is more puzzling is the motive for the attack.

The exact composition of the mob is not known beyond the fact that it was Christian. There is of course the possibility that she was attacked simply because she was a woman. However, she was not the only woman philosopher in Alexandria and she enjoyed a good reputation as a virtuous woman. It is also possible that she was attacked because she was a pagan. Once again there are some contradictory facts to this thesis. All of her known students were Christians and she had enjoyed good relations with Theophilus the Patriarch of Alexandria (384–412), who was responsible for establishing the Christian dominance in Alexandria. Theophilus was a mentor of Synesius. Also the Neoplatonic philosophy that she taught was not in conflict with the current Christian doctrine, as opposed to the Iamblichan Neoplatonism. The most probably motive was Hypatia’s perceived influence on Orestes (fl. 415) the Roman Prefect of Egypt who was involved in a major conflict with Cyril of Alexandria (c.376–444), Theophilis’ nephew and successor as Patriarch of Alexandria. This would make Hypatia collateral damage in modern American military jargon. In the end it was probably a combination of all three factors that led to Hypatia’s gruesome demise.

Hypatia’s murder has been exploited over the centuries by those wishing to bash the Catholic Church but also by those wishing to defend Cyril, who characterise her as an evil woman. Hypatia was an interesting fourth-century philosopher and mathematician, who deserves to acknowledged and remembered for herself and not for the images projected on her and her fate down the centuries.

[1]Alan Cameron, Hypatia: Life, Death, and Works, in Wandering Poets and Other Essays on Late Greek Literature and Philosophy, OUP, 2016 pp. 185–203 Quote pp. 185–186

[2]You can read all of this in much more detail in Edward J. Watts’ biography of Hypatia, Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher, OUP, 2017, which I recommend with some reservations.


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