Category Archives: Myths of Science

Why The Imitation Game is a disaster for historians.

I made the mistake, as a former professional historian of logic and meta-mathematics and, as a consequence, an amateur historian of the computer, of going to the cinema to watch the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. I knew that it wouldn’t be historically accurate but that it would be a total historical disaster and, as I said on leaving the cinema, an insult to the memory of both Alan Turing and the others who worked in Bletchley Park surprised even me, a dyed in the wool, life-long cynic.

As I ventilated my disgust over the next few days on Twitter some, quite correctly, took me to task, informing me that it is a film and not a history book and therefore one shouldn’t criticise it for any inaccuracies that it contains. This attitude is of course perfectly correct and I would accept it,m if only the people who watch the film, who unlike myself are not knowledgeable historians, would view the film in this way; unfortunately they don’t.

The pre-release publicity for the film emphasised very intensely that the film tells a “true” story. This is screwed back somewhat in the film itself which opens with the claim that it is “based on a true story”. Unfortunately people simply ignore the “based on” and as I left a full cinema, at the end of the film, people all around me were saying to each other, “Wow, I didn’t know that. It’s a true story, you know?” and other similar expressions. This was compounded by both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, as the film won the awards of the respective organisations for best-adapted script! The film is supposedly based on Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing biography, The Enigma. This book, which I read when it was first published, is one of the best biographies of a scientist that I’ve ever read, superbly researched, meticulously detailed and a real pleasure to read. Hodges is apparently prohibited by a gag clause in his contract for the film rights to his book from commenting on the film. “Take this large sum of money son and shut your mouth whilst we destroy your book!” It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the adaption consists of dumping the factual content of the book, plus several of the central characters, and writing a piece of third rate fiction using the names of some of the figures in Hodges’ biography. If that’s the film industries definition of ‘best adapted’ I don’t won’t to know what they consider to be the ‘worst adapted’.

I’m not going to go into great detail about everything that is wrong with the film because to a certain extent others have already done the work for me. The film almost completely ignores the contributions of the Poles in breaking the Enigma Codes (note the plural, there was more than one, another thing that doesn’t get mentioned in the film). They only get mentioned in a passing half sentence, which I strongly suspect almost all viewers failed to notice. You can read about the Polish contribution here, here and here. A short, general but largely accurate account of Turing’s involvement can be read here. There is a biting general criticism of the film on Ursula Writes, and another slightly less acerbic by L. V. Anderson on the Slate website. Another demolition job both of the Imitation Game and the Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything is on the Nature website by Colin Macilwain.

In case anybody doubts that the lay public think that the film is a ‘true’ story I have extracted part of a fairly typical critique of the film from the website of G. B. Hatch

I wanted to see this film the minute I heard about it. The plot sounded very intriguing. I had never learned about Alan Turing, and I now believe every History teacher should be showing this film while teaching WWII. Alan Turing and his team are some of the heroes of WWII that didn’t need to fire a single shot. This film, like “Argo”, is a great historical thriller based on a story that had remained confidential for several decades. This film is “The Imitation Game”.

“The Imitation Game” tells the true story of Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant yet socially awkward British mathematician who is hired as a German code-breaker during WWII. He sets out to create a machine that will crack the Enigma Code, a German code that many claim as unbreakable. With the help of fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley), Turing invents this machine, which he calls ‘Christopher’, while also trying to hide his homosexuality which was illegal at the time. The film perfectly blends intensity and humor, while also transitioning between the past, present, and future.

As can be clearly seen Mr (or is that Ms?) Hatch is convinced that the film tells a true story and even goes so far as to suggest that the film should be used in school history lessons!

The historian is clearly presented by a dilemma when the film industry decides to make a film about a well-researched and well-documented historical episode. Almost without exception the scriptwriters decide that history is too complex, too boring, not sexy enough or whatever. They throw out ninety per cent of the historical facts and write there own ‘better than reality’ version usually retaining not much more that the names of the historical characters. They then add a bucket full of false historical touches, such as horns on Viking helmets, that everybody knows are “true”. The whole thing is then packaged up by the advertising department as the “amazing unknown true story of”! If the historian complains he gets firmly put in his place by people telling him “it’s only a film”. If he doesn’t complain he can listen to all those film goers sitting around in bars and cafés saying, “Did you know Alan Turing won the Second World War almost single handed!”

What ever else you have no hope of winning if you are a historian.


Filed under Myths of Science, Uncategorized

Do you believe in magic?

I’m in a bit of a quandary about this post for two different reasons. Firstly I didn’t really want to write yet another negative post at the moment and was considering various positive options when somebody drew my attention to the article that is going to be the subject of this one. However having once read through it I just couldn’t let it go. On the other hand having always been a powerful advocate of seriously investigating the so-called occult science activities of the scholars in the Early Modern period I find it slightly bizarre to now be giving the Hist-Sci Hulk treatment to an article that appears to do just that. The article in question is posted on the Vox website and is entitled, These 5 men were scientific geniuses. They also thought magic is real.

Before dealing with the ‘5 men’ there are a couple of general points of criticism that have to be levelled at this article. To begin with the whole thing is written in a supercilious tone of superiority. Despite the authors disclaimer, “We have the benefit of hindsight today, which gives us an unfair advantage over these geniuses” he creates the impression the whole time of ‘I’m just a simple Joe’ but I’m way more enlightened than these ‘geniuses’. Not a good way to approach any historical topic. The other major failure that weaves its way through the whole article is the equating of astrology, alchemy and magic, as one and the same thing. This is of course historically a serious mistake and disqualifies the entire article from the start. The grounds for justification, academic status and the levels of acceptance of the three disciplines differ from each other, as well as over time and place. Each one of them has to be dealt with separately within the given context and they cannot and should not be lumped together. This of course relates to the authors supercilious tone of superiority and is typical of the woolly thinking of all too many gnu atheists and adherents of scientism. Anything that doesn’t conform with their, often badly articulated, concept of science is dismissed as ‘magical thinking’ and as worthless. Let us now turn to the ‘5 men’.

First up we have Tuscany’s favourite son, Galileo Galilei who apparently believed “astrology changed everything”:

Today, Galileo (1564-1642) is held up as a paragon of rationality. He advocated heliocentrism — the idea that the sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the solar system — fought an anti-heliocentric church at great risk, and greatly advanced astronomy throughout Europe.

He also was something like a fortune teller.

Galileo didn’t just believe in astrology: he practiced it, conducted it for wealthy clients, and taught it to medical school students. If students at the University of Padua had taken MCATs, Galileo would have included a question about whether a Leo should date a Gemini.

Galileo wasn’t alone in keeping up on his signs. His contemporary, Johannes Kepler conducted his own astrological studies, though more reluctantly (he called people who believed in astrology “fatheads”).

Ignoring the opening paragraph and cutting to the chase a Renaissance astrologer, particularly an academic one, would object intensely to being referred to as ‘a fortune teller’. In the Renaissance astrology was generally accepted as a reputable academic disciple, a science i.e. a system of knowledge, whereas most other forms of divination i.e. fortune telling were frowned on as charlatanry. Here we have historical context, blithely ignored by our author, poking its nose in. Medical astrology, or iatro-mathematics, was a mainstream academic discipline taught at all Renaissance universities in the medical faculty, usually by the professor of mathematics. So if Galileo did indeed teach iatro-mathematics he would have been merely fulfilling the terms of his contract. I say if because it is to be assumed that Galileo did indeed teach such courses, however the proof that he did so doesn’t exists. The comment about ‘whether a Leo should date a Gemini’ is just plain stupid, as iatro-mathematics has nothing to do with judicial astrology, that is the everyday horoscope astrology, a completely different branch of the discipline.

Of course Galileo, who really did accept the truth of astrology, did practice judicial astrology famously casting and interpreting his own horoscope and those of his daughters. He also cast and interpreted the horoscopes not of ‘rich clients’ but wealthy patrons; there is a substantial difference. Rich clients would imply that Galileo’s services as an astrologer were for hire like any other street vendor, this was not the case. Rich patrons sought out Galileo’s company to share in his intellectual talents. Here his abilities to cast and interpret horoscopes became instruments of credit. Galileo entertained his patrons by supplying witty and stimulating after dinner discourses or debates or by providing the required horoscope. In exchange Galileo received favours from his patrons, a case of good wine, help with the cost of publishing his books or introductions to important and influential people such as the Pope.

On the good Johannes Kepler our author walks right into one of the most persistent myths of all in the history of science based on a classic case of quote mining, the claim that he was reluctant about astrology. Kepler was much more concerned about astrology, which he definitely believed in, than Galileo and wrote several books about it. However he totally rejected conventional horoscope astrology believing that the stars signs were artificial constructs with no significance whatsoever. He developed his own system based on planetary alignments, astrological aspects, and directio (directions, which I’m not going to explain!). Not unsurprisingly he didn’t find any takers for his reformed astrology. However his vitriolic diatribes against the conventional horoscope astrology and its practitioners, when quote mined, leads many people to the mistaken belief that he was in some way anti-astrology.

Our author next reveals, oh my god, that Newton was an alchemist. This is probably the most often ‘revealed secret’ about Grantham’s most famous son. This is titled “Isaac Newton thought alchemy was the future”, as we will see Newton was actually much more interested in alchemy’s past.

John Maynard Keynes called Isaac Newton (1642-1726) “the last of the magicians” with good reason. Newton spent half his life obsessed with alchemy, the transformative magic most frequently associated with turning different metals into gold. To make things even more complicated, in 1696, Newton became Warden of the Mint, and he became master of the Mint in 1700. The Royal Mint, of course, makes the coins for the entire United Kingdom. To be clear: an alchemist was the person in charge of making all the money.

Newton wasn’t the only respected mind who had visions of diving into gold coins. Robert Boyle is considered the father of chemistry, but he dabbled in alchemy as well. In fact, he was so committed to the alchemical cause that he fought to make alchemy legal, since Henry IV had banned it (because alchemy wasn’t good for the monetary supply). Needless to say, the repeal wasn’t necessary.

The philosopher’s stone Newton chased after wasn’t only able to “cure” metals that weren’t gold. It also had medical powers that fascinated Newton and his peers. Unfortunately, today you can only find the philosopher’s stone in the British subtitle of the first Harry Potter book.

Alchemy is not magic and any medieval or renaissance alchemist would have been deeply insulted if anybody had accused him of practicing magic. Alchemy as practiced by Newton or Boyle considered itself to be a well-founded knowledge system and it was this that attracted Newton. Newton certainly never had vision of diving into gold coins and neither did Boyle. Newton’s beliefs were in fact even weirder than our author thinks. Newton was an adherent of a widespread Renaissance philosophy known as prisca sapientia.

This theory thought that humanity had been in possession of perfect knowledge of the world shortly after the creation. This knowledge had become lost over time and Newton believed that his scientific discoveries were not discoveries but rediscoveries. He also believed that alchemy was the oldest form of knowledge and that if he could discover the secrets of alchemy he could tap into that ancient source of all knowledge. Pretty bizarre, I know, but it all formed a coherent whole in Newton’s worldview. On a scientific level the Newton experts are now convinced that his belief in alchemy enabled him to develop his theory of universal gravity, which, with its action at a distance, heavily contradicted the prevailing mechanical philosophy. The Cartesian and Leibnizian mechanical philosophers criticised his theory of gravity for exactly this reason.

Our author seems to think that there is something wrong with an alchemist becoming Warden or Master of the Mint. In fact Newton’s extensive chemical knowledge, won through his alchemical experimentation over many years, enabled him to develop and to put into practice new much improved methods of assaying metals to test the purity of coins. A major win for the Royal Mint.

The closing comment about alchemy and Harry Potter is a perfect example of the author’s childish attitude, supercilious superiority. This attitude is displayed to the full in his paragraphs about Tycho Brahe, entitled “Tycho Brahe made everyone believe he was a sorcerer”.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) created his own model of the universe and, though he didn’t get things quite right, helped advance astronomy and catalogued more than 1,000 stars. He also convinced everyone he was a sorcerer.

He did so from the unique perch of his private sorcerer’s island, Hveen (today known in English as Ven). Fantastically wealthy, Brahe built multiple observatories there, had a squad of astronomical assistants, and he used tiny automata (robots) to convince the locals he had magic powers. It didn’t hurt that he partied hard, had his nose partly sliced off in a duel and got his pet moose drunk at parties.

But Tycho didn’t just hoodwink the public into believing he was magical — he believed it too. He publically lectured against anyone who believed astrology was fake, and he also believed alchemy was the future for mystical discoveries. Brahe even became so synonymous with magic that an entire calendar of magical days was made in his honor (and his name was slapped on to give it magical credibility).

This is a bizarre mixture of half true facts and fairy stories. Tycho only catalogued 700 stars but added 300 more from the Ptolemaic star catalogue to bring his own up to 1000. He did nothing at all to convince anyone that he was a sorcerer. The island of Hven was his fief, awarded to him by the Danish King as his birth right as a highborn aristocrat and to call it a sorcerer’s island is not only wrong but also childish. He only built two observatories, one in his mansion house Uraniborg and the other a sunken observatory in the grounds called Stjerneborg. The story about the automata is a myth created by Pierre Gassendi in his biography of Tycho. The nose and moose stories are actually irrelevancies to the subject under discussion along the lines of, if I show that Tycho was weird then people are more likely to believe the rest of the shit that I’m dishing up.

Once again we have a very fundamental category error. Tycho was a practicing astrologer and a Paracelsian pharmacist neither of which activities is magic. Tycho held an oration at the beginning of a guest lecture course on astronomy that he held at the University of Copenhagen defending the validity of astrology, a not unusual presentation in that age. Rheticus’ public oration on being appointed professor for mathematics in Wittenberg was on the same subject. Tycho an adherent of the Renaissance microcosmos/macrocosmos philosophy, as above so below, also believed that alchemy served the same function on earth as astrology in the heavens but both were in his opinion ‘scientific’ and not mystical. Tycho’s interest in alchemy centred on his belief in and practice of Paracelsian medicine, a leading medical theory in some circles in Europe at the time and consisted mainly of research into and production of medicines.

The Magical Calendar is an engraving not a book and the author, Adam McLean, of the modern book on this object that our author links to writes the following:

“Although his name appears at the bottom right hand corner of the plate, the Magical Calendar probably has no direct connection with Tycho Brahe […] It seems most likely that the well known name of Tycho Brahe was associated with the Magical Calendar in order to gain a degree of publicity and supposed authority for the work. Certainly there is nothing in Brahe’s accepted corpus of writings of a similar nature.” [my emphasis]

Doesn’t quite say what our author wants it to say, does it?

Our author’s next selection is a truly bad example of low fruit. He presents us with Carl Linnaeus with the title “Carl Linnaeus classified magical animals like the hydra and believed in mermaids”.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) imposed taxonomical order on animal and plant life. In his era, scientists were discovering all sorts of new species at a rapid clip (Linnaeus himself thought that pelicans might be a myth). That rapid pace of discovery led Linnaeus to believe, perhaps reasonably enough, that humans would soon find a host of mythological animals.

Linnaeus devoted a whole section of his landmark Systema Naturae to these strange beasts. It was called Animalia Paradoxa and included:

  • the hydra
  • the satyrus (a monkey-like man, similar to Pan in Greek mythology)
  • the phoenix (the bird that rose from the ashes)

Did Linnaeus believe in these animals? It’s hard to know, and some of Linnaeus’s defenders say he only included the animals to point out how absurd they were. In the 1730s, he became famous for debunking a hydra in Hamburg. However, we can reasonably claim that Linnaeus believed he’d found a troglodyte, was pretty confident he’d seen a unicorn horn, and was very excited at the chance to find a mermaid.

Whatever the motivation, Linnaeus wasn’t alone in believing in bizarre, vaguely magical animals. Gottfried Leibniz managed to help found calculus, yet he still wanted to fill a museum with weird (and imaginary) animals like the myrmecoleon (some sort of ant-lion).

The tone of this whole section is concerned with how superior our author is in comparison with the poor benighted Linnaeus; the heavy sent of mockery cannot be overlooked. He gives no consideration to the time in which Linnaeus was working and writing. He also appears to have left his own theme, as there is nothing ‘magical’ about the things he lists Linnaeus as having done.

Linnaeus lived and worked in the eighteenth century there was no Internet, no telephones, no telegraph, not even a reliable let alone universal postal system; a letter to South America, for example, would probably take months to arrive at its destination and quite possibly might not arrive at all. Linnaeus lived all of his life in Northern Europe and was dependent on the reports of others for descriptions of non-European species of plants and animals. If he got no chance to view one personally then a tiger was just as much a mythical animal as a manticore and he had no chance of proving the real existence of the one or the other. What we have here is an eighteenth century natural historian carefully classifying all the plants and animals that are known to him through multiple written sources. It’s worth noting that Linnaeus places those mythical creatures that he classifies into a separate category that he names Paradoxa the Greek pardoxon meaning contrary to accepted opinion, i.e. dodgy. Systema Naturae went through many editions and in the later ones this category was left out. Only one real animal was included in Paradoxa, the pelican, which given the fact that travellers tales described the pelican as cutting its own breast to feed its children was not an irrational decision. None of the mythical animals was included in a category with real animals. What we have here is careful rational scientific behaviour not magical thinking.

Linnaeus included humans as primates, which of course caused a controversy in the eighteenth century. He also included two other species in the genus homo, Homo troglodytes based on the accounts of Jacob Bontius and Homo lar based on other reports. He asked the Swedish East India Company to look for confirming evidence of the existence of Homo troglodytes, which they couldn’t deliver and Homo lar was later categorised as a gibbon, again a good natural historian doing his work. Belief in unicorns, some form of single horned horse, based on the existence of narwhal tusks was still very widespread in the eighteenth century, so to try and ridicule Linnaeus or this is pathetic. The same applies to mermaids.

The author’s attempt to besmirch Leibniz is really clutching at straws. What the hell is ‘managed to help invent calculus’ supposed to mean? That’s not exactly the usual way of talking about one of the greatest mathematical achievements of the seventeenth century. Curiosity cabinets and natural history collections played a central role in scientific activities throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one of the largest, that of Hans Sloane, forming the basis of the British museum after Sloane’s death. Leibniz’ Drôle de Pensée, amusing thought, was to extend the curiosity cabinet into a much larger public exhibition space with active displays and machines alongside the passive objects displaying the full spectrum of science, technology and medicine, Science Museum anyone? That his long list of potential exhibits contains one mythical animal hardly makes this something to deride.

Our author’s fifth genius is, as would be expected, Paracelsus who apparently “loved natural magic and himself”.

Paracelsus (1493-1541) did a lot when he was alive, including basically inventing toxicology and naming zinc. But when he wasn’t revolutionizing scientific methods and naming metals, he was a big fan of magical things.

Born as Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, he renamed himself Paracelsus, both because it was shorter and it literally meant he was “better than Celsus,” a first century Roman medical researcher (in Paracelsus’s defense, he may have been renamed by his biggest fans). Paracelsus wrote that from an early age the “transmutation of metals” was his obsession, and he pursued it with vigor as an adult.

When he wasn’t traveling the world performing surgeries, he tried to utilize “natural magic” to help patients. He was quoted as saying “magic is a great secret wisdom,” and while his understanding of natural magic occasionally lent itself to scientific inquiry, he also believed that “the soul strongly desires sulphur.” As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult.

In his defense, that belief in magic was grounded in a commitment to inquiry: Paracelsus thought magic was just science that wasn’t understood yet. In a way, that unites all the scientists on this list, who pursued new knowledge even when it meant looking in some very unusual places.

The claim that Paracelsus basically invented toxicology, although not original to our author (who I doubt has any original thoughts), is historically highly dubious as poisons have been studied extensively since antiquity and it is rather strangely based on the legendary Paracelsus quote Dosis sola venenum facit, the dose makes the poison. Paracelsus was not born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, I refer the reader to my earlier post on the subject of his name.

The rest of the paragraphs on Paracelsus are a confused mess of unrelated claims picked at random from other peoples writings and doesn’t earn the right to be analysed so I won’t. I would ask the author why, having suddenly introduced the term, he doesn’t actually explain what natural magic is or was. Possibly the worst single sentence in the whole sorry mess that is this article is, As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult. Anybody who actually knew anything about either Paracelsus or Aristotle could not conceive of writing this sentence, even as a parody.

Returning to my initial criticism of this apology for a historical article, astrology and alchemy are not magic if dealing academically and historically with these disciplines and because he introduces it at the end ‘natural magic’ is not magic as it is generally understood either. As often the case I find it fascinating that people who quite literally don’t know what they’re talking about think that it’s OK to write an article about the history of science on a widely read popular website. If they were to write about something popular, such as football or cars, on the same level no editor in the world would allow them to publish it, so why do they treat the history of science with such disrespect?





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

The specialist in causing pain.

I suppose I ought to rebrand Galileo Galilei as ‘The Gift that keeps on Giving”! The comment is of course directed at all the idiots who think they need to present their image of Galileo to the world, rather than at the 16th- and 17th-century Tuscan artist-engineer himself. As long as there is a GG Super Star I will never be short of material for this blog, although it might become a little bit monotone with time. The most recent offender is Michael Vagg on The Conversation in an article entitled Four things we should teach every kid about Galileo. Before looking at Mr Vagg’s contribution to the Galileo debate I want to waste a few words on The Conversation, which describes itself as follows:

The Conversation is a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary that’s free to read and republish.

Its banner head also has the subtitle “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”. Apparently, at least judging by Mr Vagg’s article, this proud boast doesn’t apply when it comes to the history of science.

Mr Vagg, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine & Pain Specialist at Barwon Health, apparently recently attended a conference in Florence and took time out to visit the Museo Galileo, a laudable way to spend his free time. He tells us he bought three books from the gift shop one of which was Galileo: Antichrist, which he describes, a serious scholarly attempt to look behind the obvious motives for his trial and punishment by the Church to some of the contemporary nuances, going on to say that he highly recommend[s] it, if you’re a Galileo freak and historical conspiracy theory enthusiast like me. Unfortunately Mr Vagg is mistaken in his assessment of this book. Of all the more recent publication about Galileo, provoked by the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, Galileo: Antichrist is one of the worst. A popular biography written by Michael White it turns back the clock by about two hundred years and presents a vision of Galileo’s life and work that would be comfortably at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century, full of myths and distortion and not to be recommended to anybody who serious wants to know the historical truth about Galileo Galilei. Mr Vagg seems to have largely based his “four truths” on Whites totally distorted view of Galileo and his achievements.

His first “truth is entitled “He got rid of Aristotle from science” and I reproduce the whole of his section to this theme, which is to put it mildly horrendous. His first paragraph reads as follows:

Before Galileo, science (known then as natural philosophy) was based almost entirely on the writings of Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas enshrined a huge amount of Aristotle’s teachings about the natural world as Church-approved dogma without any empirical basis. Until the Renaissance, virtually nobody in Europe or anywhere else apart from Arabic geniuses like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd advanced science by paying attention to the real world. They just looked up what Aristotle had to say and left it at that, even if what they observed was at odds with what they read.

One of my favourite historians of medieval science, David C Lindberg, died a couple of weeks ago and he would be spinning in his grave if he knew of this travesty of his disciple, which reads like something from the beginning of the nineteenth century or even from the Renaissance. It was Renaissance scholars who were initially responsible for this wholly false picture of medieval science. They created the myth that the golden age of antiquity created a cornucopia of knowledge that got lost with the collapse of the Roman Empire and that they were responsible for the rebirth (renaissance) of this knowledge, freeing Europe from the dark ignorance of the intervening period, which they termed the Middle Ages. This myth was perpetuated right up into the nineteenth century, when the French physicist and historian of science, Pierre Duhem, became the first person to challenge it. Throughout the twentieth century a series of brilliant historians of science, including such people as Marshall Clagett, Alistair Crombie, John Murdoch, Edward Grant, the afore mentioned David Lindberg and others, completely dismantled this myth showing that European medieval scholars made significant contribution to the evolution of science; contribution on which people such as Galileo built their own contributions.

To give one example that is very relevant to Galileo and his theories of motion called revolutionary by Vagg. Even Aristotle was aware of the fact that his laws of motion were anything but satisfactory and the first person to subject them to serious scrutiny was John Philoponus in the sixth century CE, who developed the impetus theory, which was developed further by Arabic scholars in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and by Buridan in Europe in the fourteenth century. Galileo well aware of this work adopted the impetus theory early in his own work on kinetics before moving on to an incorrect form of the theory of inertia. (Galileo still considered natural motion to be circular, not linear, an Aristotelian concept!) In the fourteenth century the so-called Oxford Calculatores of Merton College developed the mathematical mean speed theory, which is to all intents and purposes Galileo’s law of fall. One of the so-called Paris physicists Nicolas Oresme produced a geometrical proof of this theory, in the form of a graph, which is identical to the proof given by Galileo for his law of fall in his Discorsi more than three hundred and fifty years later. It was also the invention of spectacles in the late thirteenth century that would eventually lead to the invention of the telescope, the instrument that would make Galileo famous. Far from being scientifically sterile the Middle Ages was the very fertile seed bed in which Galileo’s own scientific ideas grew to maturity.

In his second paragraph in this section Vagg dished up the following:

Galileo did more than anyone else to rid natural philosophy of its reliance on the authority of Aristotle, replacing it with an empirical and mathematical method. Deciding scientific knowledge by scholarly argument rather than doing experiments seems bizarre to us now. Galileo showed again and again that mathematical models could yield results that were reproducible by anyone else and disproved Aristotle’s observations. Eventually, the successes of the new way of doing natural philosophy were too overwhelming to ignore. The Aristotelians slunk off to find other occupations. Galileo showed irrefutably that you couldn’t do science by magisterial authority alone. Your results had to stand up to scrutiny in the real world.

As I explained in an earlier post, that earned me my reputation as a Galileo deflator, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Harriot, Christoph Scheiner, William Gilbert, Christoph Clavius, Francoise Vieta, Isaac Beeckman and Simon Stevin, all roughly contemporaries of Galileo, all did at least as much, and some of them more than, Galileo in establishing the ‘new’ experimental mathematics based science in the early seventeenth century and the myth of Galileo as the great Aristotle slaying champion is one that needs to be firmly stamped on. Also modern history of science has shown that many aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy continued to exercise a strong influence on the development of science well into the seventeenth century long passed the death of Galileo.

Vagg’s second point is actually a very good one and would have been praise worthy if he hadn’t gone on to spoil it in the detail. His title is, “He was not the prototype of a misunderstood lone genius”. This is very correct and in fact the misunderstood lone genius is not only a myth but also a chimera, there has never been one. This is in fact an important point that should indeed be taught to every school kid as part of their science courses, however Vagg goes on to spoil it by presenting a totally mythical picture of Galileo.

Galileo was very much not a lone genius. He relied on Guidobaldo del Monte and Christopher Clavius to get both of his jobs as professor of mathematics and early in his career he relied on the transcript of the lectures from the Collegio Romano to deliver his own lectures. As a young researcher he spend long periods brainstorming with del Monte and Paolo Sarpi over a wide range of topics. Sometimes it is not possible to tell if the ideas he made public really were his own or ones borrowed from one or other of those intellectual partners. For his telescope and instrument making he employed and relied heavily on a technician, who usually doesn’t get the credit he deserves. For his excursions into applied science and technology in the arsenal in Venice he relied heavily on the guidance of master ship builders. Later in life following his overnight fame he relied on his fellow members of the Accademia dei Licei as sounding boards for his ideas and those lynx-eyed friends also prepared his works for publication and published them. Even after his fall, under house arrest, Galileo had students and his son helping with his scientific work. Galileo was for most of his life part of a network of like-minded friends and assistants, however this is not the story that Vagg presents.

When he published the Starry Messenger to announce his discovery of the moons of Jupiter with his new telescope, he not only sent out copies of his books to his colleagues, but also sent them better telescopes than the ones they had!

I suggest Vagg should read Mario Biagioli’s Galileo Courtier and Galileo’s Instruments of Credit. Galileo did not send copies of the Sidereus Nuncius or telescopes to his colleagues; he sent them to civil and religious potentates who could help him in his ambitions to climb the social greasy pole. Despite requests for a telescope Kepler had to wait till a passing aristocrat graciously let him borrow one for a couple of hours to see the new astronomical discoveries. Galileo ignored Kepler’s friendly collegial overtures until he, Kepler, became the only person to support without confirmation those discoveries, publishing Kepler’s letter without his knowledge or permission. Later he ridiculed Kepler’s groundbreaking book on the optics of the telescope as unreadable. He ignored Kepler’s work on heliocentricity when writing the Dialogo, despite the fact that it was the best available on the subject, whilst ridiculing Tycho’s work. When he and Scheiner both discovered the sunspots he accused Scheiner, unjustifiably, of plagiarism and then published some of Scheiner’s results in the Dialogo as his own. In the dispute over the nature of comets with Grassi he viciously attacked Grassi exposing him to public ridicule with malicious polemic, although scientifically Grassi was right and he, Galileo, was wrong. As he and Marius both independently discovered the moons of Jupiter he accused Marius of plagiarism, a charge that stuck ruining Marius’ reputation until it was restored at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This is the man who Vagg claims was “a practising believer in developing a scientific consensus”. Galileo did not believe in scientific consensus, he was a man with a monstrous ego who was right and anybody who disagreed with him got mauled viciously for his troubles. Vagg writes rather pathetically:

He was revered in his lifetime by every natural philosopher of note, although some of ones he personally insulted were somewhat grudging in their admiration.

He was justifiably intensely disliked and despised by quite a few natural philosophers of note. Vagg does however point out that Galileo was not perfect:

He could, of course, also be spectacularly wrong. Nobody remembers his views on comets and the causes of tides, which were two of the biggest contemporary scientific controversies he weighed into. It should also be pointed out that these were the two most prominent examples where Galileo was being particularly stubborn in holding out against the prevailing tide of opinion.

A lot of historians of science remember his views on comets and the causes of tides very well indeed.

The title of Vagg’s next section is also correct, “He was genuinely interdisciplinary” but then again so were all his contemporaries, our concept of the single disciple specialist or expert didn’t exist in the Renaissance. However in his description of Galileo’s multifarious activities Vagg makes several serious blunders. He tells us:

While his astronomical work may seem like it had no practical applications, it led him to develop a way of measuring longitude at sea that was not surpassed until more than 150 years later.

Galileo did conceive a method of using the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter by the planet, as they orbited it, as a clock with which to determine longitude. However, he never succeeded in determining the orbits accurately enough for this purpose, a task first completed by Cassini many decades later. Also more importantly, although this method could be and was used successfully on land, for cartographical purposes, it could never be used at sea, a ship being far too unstable to make the necessary highly accurate astronomical telescopic observations. It is of historical interest that the chronometer method and the lunar distance method of determining longitude, which were the methods that would eventually solve the problem, were both proposed long before Galileo was even born. Next up we get informed that:

He translated his knowledge of the abstract mathematical minutiae of optics into building much better telescopes than anyone else had. He extended this theory to conceive and design the microscope as well.

With the exception of Yaakov Zik, almost all historians of the telescope think that Galileo had very little knowledge of geometrical optics and in fact used his skills as an instrument maker to develop his telescopes by simple trial and error. Although no single inventor of the microscope is known to us, as I’ve already written in an earlier post, Galileo was almost certainly one of the inventors of the microscope an instrument that he, according to his own testimony, discovered by accident when he put one of his telescopes to his eye the wrong way round. He then improved on this accidental discovery, again not by using the theory of geometrical optics, but by trial and error.

The military compass described by Vagg was in fact invented by del Monte and only manufactured and sold along with instruction courses in its use by Galileo as an additional source of income. Vagg closes out this section with a final error:

In the final year of his life, having gone totally blind, Galileo conceived and dictated the design for a clock escapement which was very similar to the one used by Huygens to construct the first pendulum clock a couple of decades later.

The pendulum clock escapement conceived by Galileo but never really realised was substantially different to the one developed by Huygens decades later.

Vagg’s fourth point worthy of the attention of school kids is, “He stood up for the philosophy of science”. Whilst this statement does contain more than a grain of truth Vagg again succeeds in on presenting a largely false historical picture to illustrate it.

Despite using maths that is now taught in high school and equipment that would embarrass a 21st century toy shop owner, Galileo utterly changed the way his contemporaries saw themselves in the universe. Educated citizens of his time had a sophisticated explanation of the world and the heavens, but it was based on dogma and supposition to a degree that is very hard to comprehend today. By making arguments that were based on reasoning, mathematics and experimental verification, he was consistently and obviously successful with many of his predictions. This opened his contemporaries’ eyes to the extraordinary possibilities on offer with knowledge gained by the scientific method.

This paragraph contains a complete misrepresentation of the general state of science at the time of Galileo. Those things that Vagg praises Galileo for had been gaining ground strongly throughout European science for more than a century before Galileo made any contributions to the topic at all. Since the High Middle Ages people had been making contributions to science based on reasoning, mathematics and experimental verification. Galileo made an important contribution to this trend but he didn’t start it. It should also not be forgotten that Galileo used this methodology when it suited him but also resorted to polemic and brow beating when it suited him better. His dispute with Grassi on the nature of comets is a good example of this behaviour.

Observing that Venus had phases like the moon, and having plotted the orbits of the Galilean satellites meticulously, he could join the dots conceptually, and followed the chain of reasoning to the end. The results were not what he was originally looking to discover, but he just couldn’t turn his back on his data. Earth was demoted from the fixed centre of the medieval universe to just another planet orbiting the sun. He strenuously sought ways to avoid provoking the Church (he was a devout believer right to the end) but he could not stop progressing and disseminating his research, despite those who told him it was safer to pull his head in.

Maybe I’m misreading this but it appears to me that Vagg is implying that Galileo initiated the heliocentric model of the cosmos, has he never heard of Copernicus or Kepler? Also, as I’ve written in detail in other posts, the telescopic discoveries made by Galileo, Scheiner, Marius, Harriot and others, whilst refuting a pure Ptolemaic geocentric model, were a long way from confirming a heliocentric model and were also conform with various Tychonic and semi-Tychonic models. These facts alone constitute an important lesson in how science evolves.

“He strenuously sought ways to avoid provoking the Church” is another mythical statement from Vagg. One of Galileo’s major problems was that his mega ego prevented him from seeing when he was provoking those that he attacked, mocked, contradicted. Convinced of his own innate superiority he just blundered from one provocation to the next. A seemingly trivial point, but actually not so trivial, is the claim “he was a devout believer right to the end” this, or something similar is a standard part, of the Galileo mythology trotted out by almost everyone who has put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to write about the man. However, David Wootton in his biography, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, a genuinely ‘serious scholarly’ book, argues very convincingly that far from being the devout Catholic of popular science literature, Galileo was in fact a very lax Catholic. This of course rather spoils the common plaint, ‘he was a true believer and still they punished him’ of the ‘Galileo was a martyr for science’ fan club.

He insisted that dependable, reproducible scientific results should trump religious dogma or non-empirical philosophical ideas any day of the week. He paid a price for his abrasiveness, but he should not be remembered just for the events that blighted his later years. His persecution and house arrest by the Vatican were not inevitable, but threw into sharp focus the clash of his era between a recognisably modern science-based worldview and the medieval superstition of authoritarian belief systems. Somebody had to be the first to point out the Emperor’s new clothes.

The last couple of lines of the previous paragraph and this one refer, of course, to the publication of Galileo’s Dialogo and his subsequent trial by the Inquisition of Rome. Unfortunately Galileo’s masterpiece didn’t rely on ‘dependable, reproducible scientific results’ because they didn’t exist for the heliocentric theory, instead he used polemic and sleight of hand to confuse, bamboozle and confound his opponents hoping that nobody would notice how thin his scientific arguments actually were. The whole book was of course structured around the fourth and final section, Galileo’s theory of the tides, (which Vagg so casually swept aside above) that he, in a strange fit of blind arrogance, believed to be the missing empirical proof that the earth moved, the lack of such proof being the strongest scientific argument against the heliocentric hypothesis. Originally Galileo wanted to give the whole book the title Theory of the Tides but the Church censor wouldn’t permit it, so he chose the title that has gone down in history instead. Galileo thought that this theory was his all-winning trump, whereas it was in reality a busted flush, as any half thinking person could have told him. Galileo did not write the book in opposition to the Church but with the Pope’s explicit permission. However Urban, not unreasonably, commissioned him to write a book presenting the various cosmological/astronomical models of the cosmos factually and without favour or prejudice. If Galileo had written a book presenting the arguments for and against geocentricity, heliocentricity and helio-geocentricty (he completely ignored the latter, although at the time he wrote it was the model that best fit the known scientific facts) fairly and honestly, we probably wouldn’t waste so much time discussing the conflict between him and the Church because there wouldn’t have been one. Instead he wrote a book, which was an undisguised polemic in favour of heliocentricity hoping nobody would notice the lack of real empirical evidence and finished it off by gratuitously insulting the Pope. Wow really clever GG! The clash between worldviews that Vagg so pathetically evokes at the end of this paragraph exists only in his fantasy and not in the historical reality. The clash between Galileo and Urban was on a very personal level and in no way reflects a general clash between the then theological worldview and, to quote Vagg, a recognisably modern science-based worldview. This supposed clash is a myth created in the nineteenth century that has long been demolished by historians of science but people like Vagg prefer to keep peddling the myths rather than taking the trouble to learn the truth. Possible the worst piece of claptrap in Vagg’s ahistorical article is his closing sentence.

I am however eternally grateful for the effect his life’s work had on the philosophy of science. Development of the Enlightenment values that underpin our society would not have been possible without the seismic burst of rationalism that Galileo unleashed from his villa in Northern Italy 500 years ago.

Wow Mr Vagg, you have set a new high water mark in ahistorical mythical hagiography. At least it will provide employment for lots of historians rewriting all those history books that missed out on GG’s vital role in the Enlightenment. Mr Vagg, pain specialist, your pathetic attempts to write history of science, a subject you very obviously know nothing about, has certainly caused this historian of science a great deal of pain indeed.



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

If you’re going to blog about history of science then at least do the legwork.

In 2012 I found it necessary on two occasions to pour scorn onto the attempts of Esther Inglis-Arkell to blog about the history of science on the io9 website. In the end I gave up having come to the conclusion, not only because of her contributions, that io9 was, despite according to Wikipedia being “named one of the top 30 science blogs by Michael Moran of The Times’ Eureka Zone blog“, definitely not a place to go for anything resembling sensible history of science. However I recently had recourse to visit this quagmire of questionable information to trace the source of a dubious history of science claim. Entering the name Tycho Brahe into the sites search engine the first thing offered was a post about Denmark’s most notorious astronomer written by Esther Inglis-Arkell at the beginning of December. Against my better judgement I decided to read this pre-Christmas offering and very much wished that I hadn’t succumbed to temptation. This post with the title The Bitterest Scientific Duel in History Was Over “Geoheliocentrism” is to put it mildly pretty awful.

Before we examine the post let us consider the title. I have on numerous occasions argued that one should not use superlatives in the history of science, or in history in general come to that, terms such as ‘first’, ‘greatest’, etc., are to be avoided at all cost and the situation here is no different. ‘Bitterest scientific duel”? Really? What about Galileo contra Scheiner on sunspots or Galileo contra Grassi on the nature of comets? Hooke contra Huygens on the watch spring? Hooke contra Newton on everything under the sun or Newton contra Leibniz on the invention of the calculus? That’s just picking some of the cherries off the cake. In the Early Modern period disputes over priority, plagiarism, scientific interpretation and numerous other things were part of the daily bread of scholars. If should think that it was only the mathematical sciences which went in for verbal warfare try the dispute between Leonhart Fuchs and Janus Cornarius, which used language that would make a drunken sailor blush.

EIA’s introduction is also somewhat less than fortunate, she writes, “His bitterest fight involved three famous astronomers of the 16th century, and their battle over the best theory about how Earth was at the center of the universe“. This less than perfect sentence seems to imply that the dispute was about competing cosmological systems, it wasn’t. The dispute was about whether Nicolaus Reimers Bär, generally known as Ursus, had plagiarised the Tychonic system from its Danish creator. Tycho said he had, Ursus denied the charge. EIA’s confusion is not restricted to the introduction as in the following paragraph she writes:

[Tycho] published a geoheliocentric version of the universe, with both the Earth and Sun at the center of the solar system. The “system of the world” was well-received, and an improvement on the existing geocentric model. It was not unique. Nicolaus Reimarus also published a book, titled “Fundamentals of Astronomy,” that replaced the geocentric model.

First off in Tycho’s system “both the Earth and Sun are not at the center of the solar system”! The earth is at the centre and is orbited by the sun, which in turn is orbited by the five planets. Here it is also very clear that EIA is not aware that with slight differences they both published the same system. Tycho claiming that Ursus had plagiarised him and Ursus claiming that he had developed/discovered the system independently. In the interest of fairness it should be pointed out that Paul Wittich, Duncan Liddel, Helisaeus Röslin and Simon Marius all claimed to have independently developed/ discovered a Tychonic system: In fact Gingerich and Westman argue a very good case that Tycho and Ursus both plagiarised Wittich!

I’m not going to discuss the whole story here although I might write a post about it in the future but anybody who wants to read up on it for themselves should, to get a full and balanced picture, read Edward Rosen’s Three Imperial Mathematicians: Kepler Trapped between Tycho Brahe and Ursus, Nicholas Jardine’s The Birth of the History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler’s ‘A Defence of Tycho against Ursus’ with Essays on its Provenance and Significance and Owen Gingerich’s and Robert S. Westman’s The Wittich Connection: Conflict and Priority in Late Sixteenth Century Cosmology, as well as Victor Thoren’s The Lord of Uraniborg: A biography of Tycho Brahe and Dieter Launert’s Nicolaus Reimers (Raimarus Ursus) (this is in German). If that is not enough volume 36 (2005) of the Journal for the History of Astronomy (which is open access) has nine papers by Jardine et al on the subject and volume 44 (2013, not open access) has an interesting paper Trying Ursus: A Reappraisal of the Tycho-Ursus Priority Dispute by Juan D. Serrano. All of this literature means that there really is no excuse for EIA not to get her story right!

We now get introduced to Tycho:

The dual publication was bound to cause bad feelings. Tycho Brahe was a great drinking buddy, but he did not have an even temper when it came to academic debate. He’d lost part of his nose in a duel with his third cousin over a difference in their appraisal of mathematical formula. He was also a dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat who avoided marrying a woman because she was a commoner, despite the fact that they lived together for 30 years and had eight children.

That the duel in which Tycho lost part of his nose was over some sort of mathematical dispute (version differ) is apocryphal or put less politely, a myth with no basis in fact, put into the world by Pierre Gassendi. Tycho did not avoid marrying Kirstin Jørgensdatter, because he was a noble and she was a commoner, they couldn’t marry formally, it being illegal at that time in Denmark. However under a Jutish law (accepted at the time), “the woman who for three winters lived openly as wife in a house, eating and drinking and sleeping with the man of the house and possessing the keys to the household, should be his true wife”[1]. Tycho’s and Kirstin’s marriage was thus under Danish law a legitimate one and their children were also legitimate and not bastards but having a commoner as mother they were themselves commoners and could not inherit Tycho’s titles or properties. They could however and did inherit his astronomical observational data, a fact that caused Johannes Kepler much stress.

We then get introduced to Ursus:

Reimarus started his life lower, and arguably rose higher. As a child he was a pig herder. (Confusingly, this seemed to earn him the nickname of “Bear” or “Ursus.”) His academic performance helped him rise quickly, and his book on the true shape of the universe earned him a position as the Imperial Astronomer to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II.

Nicolaus Reimers’ nickname Bär (English bear, Latin Ursus) naturally, had nothing to do with his activities as a swineherd, which took place when he was eighteen years old not when he was a child, but was a name he adopted in 1588 because of his relationship to the Baren clan, a notable family in Dithmarschen. He was born in Hennstedt in Dithmarschen, an area in North Germany.

EIA goes on to say that Brahe circulated his accusations against Ursus in a letter “amongst the other imperial scientists”. Whilst it’s true that Brahe originally spread his accusations against Ursus in his correspondence with other scholars, not just one letter, I have no idea who ‘the other imperial scientists’ are supposed to be? However, the dispute first really blew up when he published a volume of his scientific correspondence in 1596 in which he included his correspondence on the topic of Ursus and his intellectual theft with Christian Rothmann, astronomer on the court of Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel. Rothmann, who knew Ursus personally from a period he had spent in Kassel, and didn’t like him, fanned the flames from his side with some choice gratuitous insults. Ursus was not amused.

EIA tells us, “Reimarus replied to the allegations in an astronomy journal“. This is a clear proof that EIA has no idea what she is talking about. Ursus’ reply was actually in the form of a book, De astronomicis hypothesibus, published in 1597. He could not have replied in an astronomical journal because there weren’t any in the sixteenth century. I don’t actually know when or where the first astronomical journal was published but certainly not before the eighteenth century. The first ever academic journal was the Journal des sçavans of which the first edition appeared on Monday 5 January 1665 two months ahead of the first edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which celebrates its 350th birthday this year. Ursus’ book set new levels for invective in an academic dispute.

The non-existent astronomical journal might seem to be a rather trivial error to non-historians of science but in reality it is anything but trivial. The media with which scholars communicate, disseminating and discussing their results is a very important and very central theme in the history of science. The error that EIA makes is a very high level error. It is as if a military or political historian describing the Battle of Culloden would claim that Bonnie Prince Charlie was driven away from the battlefield in a Rolls Royce.

Not content with all her errors up to now EIA now drops a major clanger:

Then he did something he lived to regret – if only briefly. He mentioned that Johannes Kepler, another famous astronomer, had sided with him in this little dispute. He even included a letter from Kepler, full of extravagant praise, in which Kepler declared that good old Ursus had taught him everything he knew about brilliant mathematics. When one of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians of the age was on his side, how could he be wrong?

Yes, Ursus did include a very obsequious letter from Johannes Kepler in his book, which did acknowledge Ursus as his teacher (not quite as extremely as EIA would have as believe) but Kepler was not “one of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians of the age”. This is common mistake that people make, if XY became famous he must have always been famous. This is of course not true, famous people must of course go through a process of becoming famous, which can often take many years. When Kepler wrote the embarrassing letter to Ursus he was a completely unknown schoolteacher from the Austrian provinces and in fact this was the motivation for his obsequious letter.

Kepler had just written his first book, the Mysterium Cosmographicum, and in order to try to interest people for his book and start to build a scholarly reputation he sent off gratis copies of the book accompanied with obsequious letters to well-known and influential astronomers and mathematicians, including sending copies to both Tycho and Ursus, who was after all Imperial Mathematicus in Prague.

EIA now adds fuel to the flames of her own historical funeral pyre she informs us:

Even in his own time he was revered, and so the person who actually did teach him had bragging rights. Those rights belonged to Michael Maestlin, Kepler’s math teacher at his university. When Maestlin heard that Kepler was making the Reimarus claim, he was understandably peeved, and fired off a letter to Kepler.

First off at the time of the publication of Ursus’ book Kepler was, as already said, a nobody and by no means revered. In fact the letter from Maestlin was completely different. Before we look briefly at that, calling another scholar your teacher was a fairly standard Renaissance flowery phrase meaning I have learnt so much from reading your work and didn’t faze Maestlin at all. What did faze Maestlin was the letter he received from Tycho complaining about the appearance of Kepler’s letter in Ursus’ book praising the man who had stolen Tycho’s ideas. Maestlin wrote to Kepler to tell him to apologise to Tycho, which Kepler did very quickly. This would prove to be a highly embarrassing situation for Kepler, who a couple of years later, expelled from Austria by the Counter-Reformation, desperately wanted Tycho to give him a job. In fact the noble Dane did give him employment but as his first assignment ordered him to write a book on the dispute exonerating himself and condemning Ursus. Kepler complied, although the book was originally not published, Tycho having died before it was finished, and it is this document that is the subject of Nicholas Jardine’s book mentioned above.

You may ask why I bother to tear this apology for history of science apart, a question I ask myself. What really angers me is that a website with the reach and influence that io9 has allows somebody like Esther Inglis-Arkell to write articles on the history of science, a discipline about which she very obviously knows next to nothing. There are a lot of good historians of science out in the world couldn’t io9 find somebody who knows what they are talking about to write their history of science articles or at least somebody who is prepared to do the leg work and read up on the topic they are writing about before putting fingers to keyboard?

[1] Thoren, p. 46


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Preach truth – serve up myths.

Over Christmas I poked a bit of fun at Neil deGrasse Tyson for tweeting that Newton would transform the world by the age of 30, pointing out he was going on forty-five when he published his world transforming work the Principia. The following day NdGT posted a short piece on Face Book praising his own tweet and its success. Here he justified his by the age of thirty claim but in doing so rode himself deeper into the mire of sloppy #histsci. You might ask why this matters, to which the answer is very simple. NdGT is immensely popular especially amongst those with little idea of science and less of the history of science and who hang on his every utterance. Numerous historians of science labour very hard to dismantle the myths of science and to replace them with a reasonable picture of how science evolved throughout its long and convoluted history. NdGT disdains those efforts and perpetuates the myths leading his hordes of admirers up the garden path of delusion. Let us take a brief look at his latest propagation of #histmyth.

NdGT’s post starts off with the news that his Newton birthday tweet is the most RTed tweet he has every posted citing numbers that lesser mortals would not even dare to dream about. This of course just emphasises the danger of NdGT as disseminator of false history of science, his reach is wide and his influence is strong. Apparently some Christians had objected to NdGT celebrating Newton’s birthday on Christ’s birthday and NdGT denies that his tweet was intended to be anti-Christian but then goes on to quote the tweet that he sent out in answer to those accusations:

“Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them.”

Now on the whole I agree with the sentiment expressed in this tweet, although I do have vague vision of Orwellian dystopia when people from the scientism/gnu atheist camp start preaching about ‘objective truth’. Doesn’t Pravda mean truth? However I digress.

I find it increasing strange that NdGT’s craving for objective truth doesn’t stretch to the history of science where he seems to much prefer juicy myths to any form of objectivity. And so also in this case. In his post he expands on the tweet I had previously poked fun at. He writes:

Everybody knows that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.  I think fewer people know that Isaac Newton shares the same birthday.  Christmas day in England – 1642.  And perhaps even fewer people know that before he turned 30, Newton had discovered the laws of motion, the universal law of gravitation, and invented integral and differential calculus.  All of which served as the mechanistic foundation for the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries that would forever transform the world.

What we are being served up here is a slightly milder version of the ‘annus mirabilis’ myth. This very widespread myth claims that Newton did all of the things NdGT lists above in one miraculous year, 1666, whilst abiding his time at home in Woolsthorpe, because the University of Cambridge had been closed down due to an outbreak of the plague. NdGT allows Newton a little more time, he turned 30 in 1672, but the principle is the same, look oh yee of little brain and tremble in awe at the mighty immaculate God of science Sir Isaac Newton! What NdGT the purported lover of objective truth chooses to ignore, or perhaps he really is ignorant of the facts, is that a generation of some of the best historians of science who have ever lived, Richard S. Westfall, D. T. Whiteside, Frank Manuel, I. Bernard Cohen, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and others, have very carefully researched and studied the vast convolute of Newton’s papers and have clearly shown that the whole story is a myth. To be a little bit fair to NdGT the myth was first put in the world by Newton himself in order to shoot down all his opponents in the numerous plagiarism disputes that he conducted. If he had done it all that early then he definitely had priority and the others were all dastardly scoundrels out to steal his glory. We now know that this was all a fabrication on Newton’s part.

Newton was awarded his BA in 1665 and in the following years he was no different to any highly gifted postgraduate trying to find his feet in the world of academic research. He spread his interests wide reading and absorbing as much of the modern science of the time as he could and making copious notes on what he read as well as setting up ambitious research programmes on a wide range of topics that were to occupy his time for the next thirty years. In the eighteen months before being sent down from Cambridge because of the plague he concentrated his efforts on the new analytical mathematics that had developed over the previous century. Whilst reading widely and bringing himself up to date on material that was not taught at Cambridge he simultaneously extended and developed what he was reading laying the foundations for his version of the calculus. It was no means a completed edifice as NdGT, and unfortunately many others, would have us believe but it was still a very notable mathematical achievement. Over the decades he would return from time to time to his mathematical researches building on and extending that initial foundation. He also didn’t ‘invent’ integral and differential calculus but brought together, codified and extended the work of many others, in particular, Descartes, Fermat, Pascal, Barrow and Wallace, who in turn looked back upon two thousand years of history on the topic.

In the period beginning in 1666 he left off with mathematical endeavours and turned his attention to mechanics mostly addressing the work of Descartes. He made some progress and even wondered, maybe inspired by observing a falling apple in his garden in Woolsthorpe, if the force which causes things to fall the Earth is the same as the force which prevents the Moon from shooting off at a tangent to its orbit. He did some back of an envelope calculations, which showed that they weren’t, due to faulty data and he dropped the matter. He didn’t discover the laws of motion and as he derived the law of gravity from Huygens’ law of centripetal force that was first published in 1673 he certainly didn’t do it before he was thirty. In fact most of the work that went into Newton’s magnum opus the Principia was done in an amazing burst of concentrated effort in the years between 1684 and 1687 when Newton was already over forty.

What Newton did do between 1666 and 1672 was to conduct an extensive experimental programme into physical optics, in particular what he termed the phenomenon of colour. This programme resulted in the construction of the first reflecting telescope and in 1672 Newton’s legendary first paper A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colors published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Apparently optics doesn’t interest NdGT. Around 1666 Newton also embarked on perhaps his most intensive and longest research programme to discover the secrets of alchemy, whilst starting his life long obsession with the Bible and religion. The last two don’t exactly fit NdGT’s vision of enlightened objective truth.

Newton is without doubt an exceptional figure in the history of science, who has few equals, but like anybody else Newton’s achievements were based on long years of extensive and intensive work and study and are not the result of some sort of scientific miracle in his young years. Telling the truth about Newton’s life and work rather than propagating the myths, as NdGT does, gives students who are potential scientists a much better impression of what it means to be a scientist and is thus in my opinion to be preferred.

As a brief addendum NdGT points out that Newton’s birthday is not actually 25 December (neither is Christ’s by the way) because he was born before the calendar reform was introduced into Britain so we should, if we are logical, be celebrating his birthday on 4 January. NdGT includes the following remark in his explanation, “But the Gregorian Calendar (an awesomely accurate reckoning of Earth’s annual time), introduced in 1584 by Pope Gregory, was not yet adopted in Great Britain.” There is a certain irony in his praise, “an awesomely accurate reckoning of Earth’s annual time”, as this calendar was developed and introduced for purely religious reasons, again not exactly enlightened or objective.





Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Someone is Wrong on the Internet.

Many of the readers of this blog will probably recognise the title of this post, as the punch line to one of the best ever xkcd cartoons. Regular readers will also know that the Renaissance Mathematicus cannot resist stamping on people who post inanely inaccurate or downright wrong history of science claims, comments etc. on the Internet. This last pre-Christmas post brings two examples of such foolishness that crossed our path in recent times.

The first concerns a problem that turns up time and again, not only on the Internet but also in many books. It is the inability of lots of people to comprehend that there cannot be a year nil, year zero or whatever they choose to call it. (Have patience dear reader the reason will be explained soon). Even worse are the reasons that such people, in their ignorance, dream up to explain the absence of the, in their opinion, missing numberless year. I stumbled across a particularly juicy example on the BBC’s History Extra website last Thursday, in a post entitled, 10 of the most surprising numbers in history. Actually the whole post really deserves a good kicking but for now I will content myself with the authors surprising number, AD 0…  the date that never was. The entry is very short so I’ve included the whole of it below:

The AD years of the Christian calendar are counted from the year of Jesus Christ’s birth, and, as the number zero was then unknown to the west, Dionysius began his new Christian era as AD 1, not AD 0. [my emphasis]

While it is now the consensus that Jesus was probably born between 7 and 3 BC, Dionysius’s new calendar is now the most widely used in the world, while AD 0 is one of the most interesting numbers never to have seen the light of day.

The first time I read this sparking pearl of historical wisdom I experienced one of those extremely painful ‘head-desk’ moments; recovering from my shock and managing at least a semblance of a laugh at this stunning piece of inanity I decided to give it the Histsci Hulk treatment.

Before I explain why there cannot be a year zero, let us look briefly at why Dionysius Exiguus, or Dennis the Short, started his count of the years with AD 1. Dennis, he of little stature, was not trying to create the calendar we use today in everyday lives but was making his contribution to the history of computos, the art of calculating the date of Easter. Due to the fact that the date of Easter is based on the Jewish Pesach (that’s Passover) feast, which in turn is based on a lunar calendar and also the fact that the lunar month and the solar year are incommensurable (you cannot measure the one with the other), these calculations are anything but easy. In fact they caused the Catholic Church much heartbreak and despair over the centuries from its beginnings right down to the Gregorian calendar reform in 1582. In the early centuries of Christianity the various solution usually involved producing a table of the dates of the occurrence of Easter over a predetermined cycle of years that then theoretically repeats from the beginning without too much inaccuracy. Dennis the vertically challenged produced just such a table.

In the time of our little Dennis there wasn’t a calendar with a continuous count of years. It was common practice to number the years according to the reign of the current monarch, emperor, despot or whatever. So for example the year that we know as 47 BCE would have been the third year of the reign of Gaius Julius Caesar. For formal purposes this dating system actually survived for a very long time. I recently came across a reference to a court case at the English Kings Bench Court in the eighteenth century as taking place on 12 July ‘4Geo.III’, that is the fourth year of the reign of George III. In Dennis the Small’s time the old Easter table, he hoped to replace, was dated according to the years of the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (245-311, reigned 284-305). Diocletian had distinguished himself by being particularly nasty to the Christians so our dwarf like hero decided to base his cycle on the 525 532 years “since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ”; quite how he arrived at 525 532 years is not really known. AD short (being short, Dennis liked short things) for Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi (“In the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ”). It was only later, starting with the Venerable Bede’s History of the Church (Historia Ecclesiastica) that Dennis’ innovation began to be used for general dating or calendrical purposes. The idea of BC years or dates only came into use in Early Modern period.

We now turn to the apparently thorny problem as to why there cannot be a year zero in a calendrical dating system. People’s wish or desire to find the missing year zero is based on a confusion in their minds between cardinal and ordinal numbers. (In what follows the terms cardinal and ordinal are used in their common linguistic sense and not the more formal sense of mathematical set theory). Cardinal numbers, one, two, three … and so on are used to count the number of objects in a collection. If, for example, your collection is the cookie jar there can be zero or nil cookies if the jar is, sadly, empty. Ordinal numbers list the positions of objects in an ordered collection, first, second, third … and so on. It requires only a modicum of thought to realise that there cannot be a zeroeth object, if it doesn’t exist it doesn’t have a position in the collection.

This distinction between cardinal and ordinal numbers becomes confused when we talk about historical years. We refer to the year five hundred CE when in fact we should be saying the five hundredth year CE, as it is an ordinal and not a cardinal. Remember our little friend Dennis’ AD, Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi (“In the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ”)! We are enumerating the members of an ordered set not counting the number of objects in a collection. Because this is the case there cannot be a zeroeth year. End of discussion!

That this error, and particularly the harebrained explanation for the supposedly missing year zero, should occur on any history website is bad enough but that it occurs on a BBC website, an organisation that used to be world renowned for its informational reliability is unforgivable. I say used to be because I don’t think it’s true any longer. I would be interested in who is responsible for the history content of the BBC’s web presence as it varies between sloppy as here and totally crap as witnessed here and discussed here and here.

My second example is just as bad in terms of its source coming as it does from the Windows to the Universe website Brought to you by the National Earth Science Teachers Association. You would think that such an educational body would take the trouble to make sure that the historical information that they provide and disseminate is accurate and correct. If you thought that, you would be wrong, as is amply demonstrated by their post on Hellenistic astronomer, Ptolemy.

Ptolemy was a Greek astronomer who lived between 85-165 A.D. He put together his own ideas with those of Aristotle and Hipparchus and formed the geocentric theory. This theory states that the Earth was at the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies circled it, a model which held for 1400 years until the time of Copernicus.

Ptolemy is also famous for his work in geography. He was the first person to use longitude and latitude lines to identify places on the face of the Earth.

We don’t actually know when Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) lived, the usual way used to present his life is ‘fl. 150 CE’, where fl. means flourished. If you give dates for birth and death they should given as circa or c. To write them as above, 85–165 A.D. implies we know his exact dates of birth and death, we don’t! This is a trivial, but for historians, important point.

More important is the factual error in the second sentence: He … formed the geocentric theory. The geocentric theory had existed in Greek astronomy and cosmology for at least seven hundred years before Ptolemaeus wrote his Syntaxis Mathematiké (the Almagest). Ptolemaeus produced the most sophisticated mathematical model of the geocentric theory in antiquity but he didn’t form it. Those seven hundred years are not inconsequential (go back seven hundred years from now and you’ll be in 1314!) but represent seven hundred years of developments in cosmology and mathematical astronomy.

The last sentence contains an even worse error for teachers of the earth sciences. Ptolemaeus did indeed write a very important and highly influential geography book, his Geographike Hyphegesis. However he was not “the first person to use longitude and latitude lines”. We cannot be one hundred per cent who did in fact first use longitude and latitude lines but this innovation in cartography is usually attributed to a much earlier Alexandrian geographer, Eratosthenes, who lived about three hundred and fifty years before Ptolemaeus.

This is an example of truly terrible history of science brought to you by an organisation that says this about itself, “The National Earth Science Teachers Association is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) educational organization, founded in 1985, whose mission is to facilitate and advance excellence in Earth and Space Science education” [my emphasis]. I don’t know about you but my definition of excellence is somewhat other.



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

Mega inanity

Since the lead up to the Turing centennial in 2012 celebrating the birth of one of the great meta-mathematicians of the twentieth century, Alan Mathison Turing, I have observed with increasing horror the escalating hagiographic accounts of Turing’s undoubted historical achievements and the resulting perversion of the histories of twentieth-century science, mathematics and technology and in particular the history of computing.

This abhorrence on my part is not based on a mere nodding acquaintance with Turing’s name but on a deep and long-time engagement with the man and his work. I served my apprenticeship as a historian of science over many years in a research project on the history of formal or mathematical logic. Formal logic is one of the so-called formal sciences the others being mathematics and informatics (or computer science). I have spent my whole life studying the history of mathematics with a special interest in the history of computing both in its abstract form and in its technological realisation in all sorts of calculating aids and machines. I also devoted a substantial part of my formal study of philosophy to the study of the philosophy of mathematics and the logical, meta-logical and meta-mathematical problems that this discipline, some would say unfortunately, generates. The history of all of these intellectual streams flow together in the first half of the twentieth century in the work of such people as Leopold Löwenheim, Thoralf Skolem, Emil Post, Alfred Tarski, Kurt Gödel, Alonso Church and Alan Turing amongst others. These people created a new discipline known as meta-mathematics whilst carrying out a programme delineated by David Hilbert.

Attempts to provide a solid foundation for mathematics using set theory and logic had run into serious problems with paradoxes. Hilbert thought the solution lay in developing each mathematical discipline as a strict axiomatic systems and then proving that each axiomatic system possessed a set of required characteristics thus ensuring the solidity and reliability of a given system. This concept of proving theories for complete axiomatic systems is the meta- of meta-mathematics. The properties that Hilbert required for his axiomatic systems were consistency, which means the systems should be shown to be free of contradictions, completeness, meaning that all of the theorems that belong to a particular discipline are deductible from its axiom system, and finally decidability, meaning that for any well-formed statement within the system it should be possible to produced an algorithmic process to decide if the statement is true within the axiomatic system or not. An algorithm is like a cookery recipe if you follow the steps correctly you will produce the right result.

The meta-mathematicians listed above showed by very ingenious methods that none of Hilbert’s aims could be fulfilled bringing the dream of a secure foundation for mathematics crashing to the ground. Turing’s solution to the problem of decidability is an ingenious thought experiment, for which he is justifiably regarded as one of the meta-mathematical gods of the twentieth century. It was this work that led to him being employed as a code breaker at Bletchley Park during WW II and eventually to the fame and disaster of the rest of his too short life.

Unfortunately the attempts to restore Turing’s reputation since the centenary of his birth in 2012 has led to some terrible misrepresentations of his work and its consequences. I thought we had reach a low point in the ebb and flow of the centenary celebrations but the release of “The Imitation Game”, the Alan Turing biopic, has produced a new series of false and inaccurate statements in the reviews. I was pleasantly pleased to see several reviews, which attempt to correct some of the worst historical errors in the film. You can read a collection of reviews of the film in the most recent edition of the weekly histories of science, technology and medicine links list Whewell’s Gazette. Not having seen the film yet I can’t comment but I was stunned when I read the following paragraph from the abc NEWS review of the film written by Alyssa Newcomb. It’s so bad you can only file it under; you can’t make this shit up.

The “Turing Machine” was the first modern computer to logically process information, running on interchangeable software and essentially laying the groundwork for every computing device we have today — from laptops to smartphones.

Before I analyse this train wreck of a historical statement I would just like to emphasise that this is not the Little Piddlington School Gazette, whose enthusiastic but slightly slapdash twelve-year-old film critic got his facts a little mixed up, but a review that appeared on the website of a major American media company and as such totally unacceptable however you view it.

The first compound statement contains a double whammy of mega-inane falsehood and I had real problems deciding where to begin and finally plumped for the “first modern computer to logically process information, running on interchangeable software”. Alan Turing had nothing to do with the first such machine, the honour going to Konrad Zuse’s Z3, which Zuse completed in 1941. The first such machine in whose design and construction Alan Turing was involved was the ACE produced at the National Physical Laboratory, in London, in 1949. In the intervening years Atanasoff and Berry, Tommy Flowers, Howard Aikin, as well as Eckert and Mauchly had all designed and constructed computers of various types and abilities. To credit Turing with the sole responsibility for our digital computer age is not only historically inaccurate but also highly insulting to all the others who made substantial and important contributions to the evolution of the computer. Many, many more than I’ve named here.

We now turn to the second error contained in this wonderfully inane opening statement and return to the subject of meta-mathematics. The “Turing Machine” is not a computer at all its Alan Turing’s truly genial thought experiment solution to Hilbert’s decidability problem. Turing imagined a very simple machine that consists of a scanning-reading head and an infinite tape that runs under the scanning head. The head can read instructions on the tape and execute them, moving the tape right or left or doing nothing. The question then reduces to the question, which set of instructions on the tape come eventually to a stop (decidable) and which lead to an infinite loop (undecidable). Turing developed this idea to a machine capable of computing any computable function (a universal Turing Machine) and thus created a theoretical model for all computers. This is of course a long way from a practical, real mechanical realisation i.e. a computer but it does provide a theoretical measure with which to describe the capabilities of a mechanical computing device. A computer that is the equivalent of a Universal Turing Machine is called Turing complete. For example, Zuse’s Z3 was Turing complete whereas Colossus, the computer designed and constructed by Tommy Flowers for decoding work at Bletchley Park, was not.

Turing’s work played and continues to play an important role in the theory of computation but historically had very little effect on the development of real computers. Attributing the digital computer age to Turing and his work is not just historically wrong but is as I already stated above highly insulting to all of those who really did bring about that age. Turing is a fascinating, brilliant, and because of what happened to him because of the persecution of homosexuals, tragic figure in the histories of mathematics, logic and computing in the twentieth century but attributing achievements to him that he didn’t make does not honour his memory, which certainly should be honoured, but ridicules it.

I should in fairness to the author of the film review, that I took as motivation from this post, say that she seems to be channelling misinformation from the film distributors as I’ve read very similar stupid claims in other previews and reviews of the film.


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