Category Archives: Myths of Science

Science contra Copernicus

One of the most persistent and pernicious myths in the history of astronomy is that Galileo, with his telescopic observations, proved the validity of the Copernican heliocentric hypothesis and thus all opposition to it from that point on was purely based on ignorance and blind religious prejudice. Strangely, this version of the story is particularly popular amongst gnu atheists. I say strangely because these are just the people who pride themselves on only believing the facts and basing all their judgements on the evidence. Even Galileo knew that the evidence produced by his telescopic observations only disproved some aspects of Aristotelian cosmology and full scale Ptolemaic astronomy but other Tychonic and semi-Tychonic geocentric models still fit the available facts. A well as this the evidence was still a long way from proving the existence of a heliocentric model and many physical aspects spoke strongly against a moving earth. Put another way, the scientific debate on geocentrism versus heliocentrism was still wide open with geocentrism still in the most favourable position.

Apart from the inconclusiveness of the telescopic observations and the problems of the physics of a moving earth there were other astronomical arguments against heliocentricity at the time that remain largely unknown today. Christopher M. Graney[1] has done the history of astronomy community a big service in uncovering those arguments and presenting them in his new book Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo[2].


We’ll start with the general summary, as I’ve already stated in an earlier post this is an excellent five star plus book and if you have any interest in this critical period of transition in the history of astronomy then it is quite simply an obligatory text that you must read. So if you follow my advice, what are you getting for your money?

In 1651 the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli published his Almagestum Novum or New Almagest , which contains a list of 126 arguments concerning the motion of the earth, i.e. the heliocentric hypothesis, 49 for and 77 against and it is this list that provides the intellectual scaffolding for Graney’s book. Interestingly in discussion on seventeenth-century astronomy Riccioli’s book, and its list, has largely been dismissed or ignored in the past. The prevailing attitudes in the past seem to have been either it’s a book by a Jesuit so it must be religious and thus uninteresting or, as was taught to me, it’s a historical account of pre-Galilean astronomy and thus uninteresting. In fact before Graney and his wife undertook the work this list had never even been translated into English. As to the first objections only a few of Riccioli’s arguments are based on religion and as Graney points out Riccioli does not consider them to be very important compared with the scientific arguments. As to the second argument Riccioli’s account is anything but historical but reflects the real debate over heliocentrism that was taking place in the middle of the seventeenth century.

The strongest scientific argument contra Copernicus, which occupies pride of place in Graney’s book, is the so-called star size argument, which in fact predates both Galileo and the telescope and was first posited by Tycho Brahe. Based on his determination of the visible diameter of a star, Tycho calculated that for the stars to be far enough away so as to display no visible parallax, as required by a Copernican model with a moving earth, then they must be in reality unimaginably gigantic. A single star would have the same diameter as Saturn’s orbit around the sun. These dimensions for the stars didn’t just appear to Tycho to be completely irrational and so unacceptable. In a Tychonic cosmos, however, with its much smaller dimensions the stars would have a much more rational size. Should anyone think that this argument was not taken seriously, much later in the seventeenth century Christiaan Huygens considered the star size problem to be Tycho’s principle argument against Copernicus.

Many, more modern, historians dismissed the star size problem through the mistaken belief that the telescope had solved the problem by showing that stars are mere points of light and Tycho’s determined star diameters were merely an illusion caused by atmospheric refractions. In fact the opposite was true, early telescopes as used by Galileo and Simon Marius, amongst others, showed the stars to have solid disc shaped bodies like the planets and thus confirming Tycho’s calculations. Marius used this fact to argue scientifically for a Tychonic cosmos whilst Galileo tried to dodge the issue. We now know that what those early telescopic astronomers saw was not the bodies of stars but Airy discs an optical artefact caused by diffraction and the narrow aperture of the telescope and so the whole star size argument is in fact bogus. However it was first Edmond Halley at the beginning of the eighteenth century who surmised that these observed discs were in fact not real.

Graney details the whole history of the star size argument from Tycho down to Huygens revealing some interesting aspect along the way. For example the early Copernicans answered Tycho’s objections not with scientific arguments but with religious ones, along the lines of that’s the way God planned it!

Although the star size argument was the strongest scientific argument contra Copernicus it was by no means the only one and Graney gives detailed coverage of the whole range offering arguments and counter arguments, as presented by the participants in the seventeenth-century debate. Of interest particular here is Riccioli’s anticipation of the so-called Coriolis effect, which he failed to detect experimental thus rejecting a moving earth. Far from being a decided issue since 1610 when Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius heliocentricity remained a scientifically disputed hypothesis for most of the seventeenth century.

Graney’s book is excellently written and clear and easy to understand even for the non-physicists and astronomers. He explains clearly and simply the, sometimes complex, physical and mathematical arguments and it is clear from his writing style that he must be a very good college teacher. The book is well illustrated, has an extensive bibliography and a useful index.

As a bonus the book contains two appendixes. The first is a translation (together with the original Latin text) and technical discussion of Francesco Ingoli’s 1616 Essay to Galileo, a never published but highly important document in the on going discussion on heliocentricity; Ingoli a Catholic cleric argued in favour of the Tychonic system. The second appendix is a translation (together with the original Latin text) and technical discussion of Riccioli’s Reports Regarding His Experiments with Falling Bodies. These experiments are of historical interest as they demonstrate Riccioli’s abilities, as a physicist, as he delivered the first empirical confirmation of Galileo’s laws of fall.

Graney’s book is a first class addition to the literature on the history of astronomy in the seventeenth century and an absolute must read for anyone claiming serious interest in the topic. If you don’t believe me read what Peter Barker, Dennis Danielson and Owen Gingerich, all first class historians of Early Modern astronomy, have to say on the back cover of the book.


[1] Disclosure; Chris Graney is not only a colleague, but he and his wife, Christina, are also personal friends of mine. Beyond that, Chris has written, at my request, several guest blogs here at the Renaissance Mathematicus, all of which were based on his research for the book. Even more relevant I was, purely by accident I hasten to add, one of those responsible for sending Chris off on the historical trail that led to him writing this book; a fact that is acknowledged on page xiv of the introduction. All of this, of course, disqualifies me as an impartial reviewer of this book but I’m going to review it anyway. Anybody who knows me, knows that I don’t pull punches and when the subject is history of science I don’t do favours for friends. If I thought Chris’ book was not up to par I might refrain from reviewing it and explain to him privately why. If I thought the book was truly bad I would warn him privately and still write a negative review to keep people from wasting their time with it. However, thankfully, none of this is the case, so I could with a clear conscience write the positive review you are reading. If you don’t trust my impartiality, fair enough, read somebody else’s review.

[2] Christopher M. Graney, Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo, University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame Indiana, 2015


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

Political correctness and the history of science

Anyone who regularly reads this blog will be already aware that the historian David Wootton has written a new book entitled The Invention of Science: A New History of The Scientific Revolution; in The Times (unfortunately behind a pay wall) Gerard DeGroot doesn’t so much review the book as perform a very nasty, vindictive hatchet job on it. DeGroot doesn’t just raise the spectre of eurocentrism in his critic he formally slaps Wootton in the face with it from the very opening paragraph of his review. This raises the question as to whether he is right to do so and whether Wootton is guilty as charged. Before I address these points I would like to briefly review what exactly eurocentrism with respect to the history of science is.

There used to be a brief standard sketch of the history of science, that probably arose some time in the Enlightenment but which owes much of its ethos to Renaissance historiography. This outline usually goes something like this. Science[1] was invented by the ancient Greeks. After the collapse of civilisation in the Dark Ages (a deliberate use of a discredited term here) science was rescued and conserved (but not changed or added to) by the Islamic Empire before being retrieved in the Renaissance by the Europeans, who then went on to create modern science in the Scientific Revolution. This piece of mythology reflected the triumphalist historiography of a colonialist Europe in the throws of dominating and exploiting large parts of the rest of the world.

During the twentieth century historians, many of them Europeans, dismantled this piece of fiction and began to explore and elucidate the histories of science of other cultures such as Egypt, Babylon, China, India and the Islamic Empire, creating in the process a much wider and infinitely more complex picture of the history of science, consisting of transfers of knowledge across space and time throughout the last approximately four thousand years. This newly acquired knowledge exposed anybody who still insisted on propagating part or all of the earlier fairy story to the charge of eurocentrism, a charge that when considering the whole of the history of science is more than justified.

Unfortunately, as I have commented in the past, this also led to an over zealous backlash on behalf of the previously wronged cultures particularly on the Internet. One only needs to state that X (a European) discovered/invented Y (some piece of science, technology, medicine, mathematics…) for some over assiduous commentator (almost always not a historian of science) to pop up saying, that’s not true Z (an Indian, Islamic, Chinese, or whatever scholar) discovered/invented Y long before X was even born. Occasionally these claims are correct but much more often they are inaccurate, exaggerated or just plain false. Any attempt to correct the informant leads inevitably to an accusation of eurocentrism. Eurocentrism has become a sort of universal weapon used indiscriminately whether it is applicable or not.

Wootton’s book deals not with a general universal history of science but as it very clearly states in its subtitle with the Scientific Revolution a historical episode that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period. Whether one is, as a historian, a ‘revolutionary’ or a ‘gradualist’ there is no doubt that following its reintroduction into Europe during the High Middle Ages that which we call science, irrespective of its original sources, underwent a radical change that led to the emergence by, at the latest, the nineteenth century, science as we know it today. The major difference between Wootton and myself is that he thinks this process took place almost entirely within the seventeenth century whereas I see a timeframe stretching from the fourteenth century to at least the middle of the eighteenth.

Wootton is writing about a historical phenomenon that took place exclusively within Europe to accuse him of eurocentrism is to say the least perverse. If this were not a European phenomenon then the so-called Needham question would simply be nonsensical. Joseph Needham (1900-195) was the twentieth century’s greatest historian of Chinese science and instigator of the monumental, on going seven volume Science and Civilisation in China. The question that Needham posed runs as follows “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo [but] had not developed in Chinese civilisation or Indian civilisation?” He could have equally well have posed the same question for the Islamic Empire. Many historians have tacked this question respective the three cultures and their answers are as diverse, as they are inconclusive. Some approach the question by trying to address the reasons for the decline of science and technology in China, India or the Islamic Empire whereas others try to isolate the factors that led to the Scientific Revolution in Europe. Although he doesn’t directly address the Needham question Wootton’s can be seen as an example of the latter.

If I were to be charitable to DeGroot it would appear that his main error lies in his interpretation of the word science as used by Wootton in his main title. It is clear that what Wootton intends is ‘modern science’ as used by Needham in the quote of his famous question above. DeGroot, I think disingenuously choses it to mean any form of scientific activity from anywhere and anytime in human history. We can see this conflict of interpretations in the following quotes from DeGroot:

…to assert that science was invented between certain dates in western European history automatically imposes a proprietary right – by defining science in a certain way it becomes, in essence, European.


A different intellectual climate existed in India, China and the Middle East, [in the Middle Ages] however. Outside Europe, minds were more open to progress and curiosity fired scientific enquiry. For instance great strides were made in pure and applied mathematics, optics, astronomy and medicine in the Middle East long before Columbus set sail [Wootton sees 1492 and Columbus’ first voyage as the starting point of the Scientific Revolution]. As early as the 10th century, brilliant scientists (not exclusively Muslim) were drawn to centres of learning in Baghdad, Balkh and Bukhara. These scholars considered Europe an intellectual backwater, yet hardly get a mention in this book. In other words, the so-called Scientific Revolution seems like a revolution only if we ignore what was happening outside Europe.

The first quote is a clear accusation of eurocentrism and the second is DeGroot’s attempt to justify his accusation. Nothing he writes in the second quote is wrong but also none of it has any real relevance to the book that David Wootton has written. Interesting is his attempt to deny that the Scientific Revolution ever took place. Whether you think that the very real change in the nature of science that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period did so in the form of a revolution or more gradually over a longer timeframe to deny its very existence is to fly in the face of the historical facts. Whatever happened in the Islamic Empire between the eighth and twelfth centuries, the Golden Age of Islamic science, other than provided some of the foundations on which Kepler, Galileo, Newton et al built their new science, none of it had very much relevance to what took place in Europe in the seventeenth century.

This point is spelled out very clearly by A. Mark Smith in his recently published book, From Sight to Light, an essential volume for anybody interested in the history of optics. Smith’s book is a counter argument to David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision: From Al-Kindi to Kepler. Lindberg had argued that Kepler was, so to speak, the crowning glory of the European perspectivist tradition of optics that begins with the introduction of the work of Ibn al-Haytham into Europe in the thirteenth century. Following the same path, starting with ancient Greek optics, Smith, an expert on al-Haytham and Arabic optics, wants to show that Kepler is in fact a break with the perspectivist tradition and a new beginning in the theory of optics, a revolution if you will. Well aware that he might face charges of eurocentrism Smith devotes several pages of his introductions to explaining why such a charge would not be justified. He closes his explanation with the following paragraph:

The same holds for the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It may well be that certain key ideas, laws and concepts that contributed to that evolution were anticipated by Arabic or, for that matter, Indian, Chinese or Mesoamerican thinkers. And it is certainly the case that there was a lively cross-cultural marketplace of commodities and ideas between the Latin “West” and Arabic “East” throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The fact remains, though, that it was in Europe that those ideas, laws, concepts were eventually assimilated, refined, channelled, and combined in such a way as to form the basis of what most of us today would characterize as modern optics. Any claim to the contrary strikes me as historically perverse. Furthermore, to contend that the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries happened in Europe is not to give Europe proprietary rights to that science or to accord Europe cultural exceptionalism or superiority for having developed it. I therefore strongly resist any charge of being trapped, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in some grand, master narrative or of engaging in hegemonic discourse.

If we substitute modern science for modern optics in Smith’s eloquent speech for the defence I think we can safely reject as baseless the accusations of eurocentrism that DeGroot makes against Wootton.


[1] Throughout this post I shall be using the word science as a collective noun for science, technology, medicine and mathematics to save time and effort whilst writing.


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

Aristocrats and paupers, farmers and tradesmen – Where do the scientists come from?

A few days ago on Twitter I stumbled across the following exchange, a certain Alex Wild (@Myrmecos) tweeted:

What does it say about modern science that most of the #scienceamoviequote tweets are about grants, publishing, tenure, and careers?

To which Claus Wilke (@ClausWilke) responded:

200 years ago no scientist worried about grants, tenure, careers.

All were wealthy lords with free time on their hands.

Or monks.

To which Gomijacogeo (@gomijacogeo) added:

Or had patrons…

Yours truly, as ever, eager to play Whac-A-Mole with any myth in the history of science, as soon as it pops its head above the parapet, it not being the first time that I’ve seen the same or similar expressed, reciprocated:

Sorry, but that is simple not true.

Referring to Claus Wilke’s comment rather than Gomijacogeo’s, which does have a certain amount of historical validity.

This brief exchange led me to think about the origins of the various figures from the history of science that I write about on a fairly regular basis and what follows is a totally informal survey of the backgrounds of those scholars. Mr Wilke’s remark only extends back to 1815 but my survey goes back to the fifteenth century on the principle that the further back one goes the more likely it is that a scholar needs to be independently wealthy or a monk.

Johannes Müller, aka Regiomontanus, was most probably the son of miller, miller by name miller by trade, who was obviously wealthy enough to send his son to university, where he became a lecturer on having completed his studies. Later he enjoyed the support of a series of patrons over a period of about fifteen years until his death. As is all too often the case, we no nothing about the background of Regiomontanus’ teacher Georg von Peuerbach before he became a lecturer at the University of Vienna. We do however know that he enjoyed the patronage of various kings and emperors in his role as an astrologer.

Moving into the sixteenth century we little about the backgrounds of the three Nürnberger mathematicians, Johannes Werner, Georg Hartmann and Johannes Schöner but all three were university graduates and all three held secure but relatively lowly and poorly paid jobs in the church, which however gave them the freedom to pursue their diverse mathematical activities. Georg Rheticus who knew all three of the Nürnberger came from a wealthy bourgeois background, although his father a town physician was executed for theft and fraud when he was a child. His mother was, however, independently wealthy and Achilles Grasser, another town physician, took over guiding his education until he became a university lecturer. Rheticus of course brought Copernicus’ magnum opus, De revolutionibus, to the world and it is to the good Nicolaus that we now turn. His father was a rich businessman, who also passed away whilst Copernicus was still a child. In his case his career was directed and supported by his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, who was Prince Bishop of Ermland and thus a very powerful patron who also secured a church sinecure for his nephew, who thus needed never to work in his whole life, although he did take on important administrative posts in the Bishopric of Frauenburg.

Up until now with had quite a lot of wealthy and important patrons but not one wealthy lord, as a scholar in his own right. This changes with Tycho Brahe who was a genuine, bone fide, wealthy aristocrat, whose scientific career was footed on a very generous appanage from the Danish Crown, although as I have pointed out in an earlier post his appanage would almost certainly have been much larger had he decided to become a courtier instead of an astronomer.

The opposite end of the scale can be found in Tycho’s most famous assistant Johannes Kepler. His parents were poor, mostly working as innkeepers, although his father was a mercenary who regularly disappeared of to war and at some point never came back. Kepler, very obviously a gifted child, only got an education because of the very generous scholarship scheme that existed at the time in Baden-Württemberg to educate the large number of Protestant priest and school teachers needed following the conversion from Catholicism. Kepler then worked as a schoolteacher and district mathematician, a lowly paid job, in Austria before moving to Prague and becoming Tycho’s assistant and shortly afterwards his successor as Imperial Mathematicus. This was in theory a well-paid position but, as was all too often the case with royal and aristocratic patrons, actually getting paid was a major problem. Kepler would later enjoy the patronage of the Catholic General Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Waldstein, better known as Wallenstein, although I’m not sure that enjoy is the right word for their relationship.

With Kepler’s great rival in the heliocentricity stakes, Galileo Galilei, we have another aristocrat albeit a minor impoverished one, with an emphasis on impoverished. This is probably the reason that his father wanted him to study medicine, a profession that would guarantee a good income. Unfortunately he chose instead to become a mathematician a profession that was notoriously badly paid in the early seventeenth century. Galileo became a university professor for mathematics and despite subsidiary income from his thriving instrument workshop and providing boarding for students, a common practice amongst Renaissance professors, he was always infamously hard up. This was partially because he enjoyed la dolce vita and lived beyond his means and partially because of the financial demands of his brother and sisters for whom he took over responsibility after the death of his father. This is probably the main reason that Galileo used his scientific discoveries as capital to acquire the patronage of the Medici and became a courtier, leaving academia behind him.

Simon Marius, astronomical colleague, of both Kepler and Galileo, although his relations with both of them were fraught, was the son of a barrel maker and relied on the patronage of the local lord of the manor to obtain his education. The same lord then employed him as court astrologer thus ensuring that he could devote his live to his scientific activities.

Christoph Clavius, about whose background we know absolutely nothing, was like all the other Jesuit mathematicians and astronomers, who I’ve written about over the years, a monk. Although it should be remembered that the Jesuits were/are essentially a teaching order so the scientific Jesuits can almost be considered as proto-professional scientist (excusing here the anachronistic use of the term scientist and it further uses in this post).

Mathematician and physicist, Marin Mersenne, was a genuine monk who conducted his voluminous scientific correspondence from his humble monk’s cell. His colleague, contemporary and fellow Jesuit academy graduate, René Descartes was the son of a wealthy lawyer and politician, who after graduating from university as a lawyer became a mercenary. After he retired from soldiering he lived from his inherited wealth although he also had patrons at different stages of his life. Pierre Gassendi, a priest who lived and worked as a university professor, came from a similar bourgeois background. Holland’s most famous Cartesian, Christiaan Huygens was the son of a wealthy Dutch aristocrat, who however on his appointment to the French Académie des sciences became a, highly paid, professional scientist.

Crossing the channel to the British Isles we meet another aristocrat in the form of Robert Boyle, who was wealthy enough to live the life of an independent scholar. Boyle’s closest colleague and one time assistant, Robert Hooke, was the exact opposite. Born the son of an Anglican curate he was left almost penniless when his father died. Hooke had to strive for everything he got in life and his inherent feelings of social inferiority might go a long way to explaining his less than pleasant character. Hooke strove well, dying a wealthy man, money earned by his own honest labour. No patronage here.

Hooke’s nemesis Isaac Newton was the son of a yeoman farmer, albeit a wealthy one. Later in life when he inherited them, the Newton acres generated an annual income of six hundred pounds per annum, not bad compared to the one hundred pounds per annum paid to the Astronomer Royal, for example. Newton’s mother, however, put him through university as a sizar, a student who earns his tuition fees by working as a servant to other students. After graduating MA for which he had received a fellowship, Newton became Lucasian Professor and later, famously, warden of the mint thus earning his own living without patronage. Newton’s sidekick Edmond Halley was the son of a wealthy soapboiler, a not especially romantic profession but obviously a profitable one, as Halley inherited a substantial fortune after his father was murdered. Halley would go on to hold various positions including Savilian Professor and most notably Astronomer Royal.

At the moment I’m (supposed to be) preparing a lecture on the eighteenth-century pneumatic chemists, so let us now turn our attention to them. Stephen Hales was the son of a Baronet, a purchasable title, who went on to become an Anglican clergyman. Although this survey does not include many of them, clergymen made considerable contributions to the sciences, as amateurs, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Joseph Black was the son of a wine trader who after a very successful studentship went on to become professor of medicine and chemistry and thus a professional scientist. Black’s student Daniel Rutherford was the son of a professor of medicine and went on himself to become a professor of botany. William Brownrigg the son of landed gentry became a medical practitioner. Henry Cavendish was a scion of one of the oldest and most powerful aristocratic families in Britain, who was thus, like Robert Boyle, able to lead the life of a gentleman scientist, making him the third scientist to fulfil the cliché expressed in the tweet that prompted this post. The most famous of the pneumatic chemists, Joseph Priestley, was the son of a cloth finisher, supported by wealthy relatives he studied to become a dissenting preacher and teacher both of which professions he practiced for many years before relatively late in life moving to Birmingham, where he effectively became house chemist to the Lunar Society. For a number of years he had been private tutor to the children of Lord Shelburne, who might thus be considered a patron.

The astronomer William Herschel was the son of a military musician who followed his father into the Hanoverian army as an oboist. After a military defeat he fled to Britain (as a deserter!) where he successfully established himself as an organist, composer, conductor and music teacher, astronomer was his hobby. Following the discovery of Uranus he was appointed The King’s Astronomer, enjoying the patronage of George III and able to devote himself full time to the study of the stars.

Closing out in the nineteenth century with three rather random scientists, all of who achieved notoriety and fame, Joseph Fraunhofer, Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday all started life in poor families but went on, largely through their own efforts to become professional scientists who help shape modern science.

The above is, of course, all anecdotal and as is well known the plural of anecdote is not data. However I think that it demonstrates that at least since the fifteenth century, in Europe, men who went on to become important contributors to the evolution of science could and did come from a wide variety of backgrounds and managed to conduct their investigation through an equally wide variety of channels. They were by no means all “wealthy lords with time on their hands or monks”.

On the subject of patronage, which helped many of those I have sketched to follow their chosen paths in the sciences. I personally don’t see a great deal of difference between a wealthy ruler in the Renaissance supporting the work of an outstanding researcher and some modern international business conglomeration paying for a new research facility at some modern elite university. Both are institutions with substantial resources, which see the utility of supporting scientific research for whatever reasons they might have.




Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

Misusing Galileo to criticise the Galileo gambit

Yesterday The Guardian website had an article on climate change denialists entitled, Here’s what happens when you try to replicate climate contrarian papers[1].

The article is headed with this portrait of Galileo

Galileo demonstrating his astronomical theories. Climate contrarians have virtually nothing in common with Galileo. Photograph: Tarker/Tarker/Corbis

Galileo demonstrating his astronomical theories. Climate contrarians have virtually nothing in common with Galileo. Photograph: Tarker/Tarker/Corbis

And it opens with the following paragraph:

Those who reject the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming often evoke Galileo as an example of when the scientific minority overturned the majority view. In reality, climate contrarians have almost nothing in common with Galileo, whose conclusions were based on empirical scientific evidence, supported by many scientific contemporaries, and persecuted by the religious-political establishment. Nevertheless, there’s a slim chance that the 2–3% minority is correct and the 97% climate consensus is wrong.

Now it is true that climate change denialists, like denialists in many other areas of scientific consensus, commonly use what is now known as the Galileo Gambit. This involves claiming in some way that Galileo was persecuted for his theories, although he was proved right in the long run. Implying that the denialist will also be proved right in the long run and hailed as another Galileo. Bob Dylan provided the perfect answer to the Galileo Gambit in his song Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream way back in 1965.

I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too”

He said, “You’re not Him

I would not object to the author’s comments on the contrarians misuse of the name of Galileo if her his comment had stopped at, climate contrarians have almost nothing in common with Galileo, however she he goes on to spoil it with what follows.

Although Galileo’s views on heliocentrism, and that is what stands to discussion here, had their origins in empirical observations made with the telescope he unfortunately did not stop there and they were not supported by a consensus of his contemporaries by any means. In fact at the time of Galileo’s trial by the Catholic Church the majority of astronomers qualified to pass judgement on the subject almost certainly rejected heliocentricity, most of them on good scientific grounds.

In his Dialogo, the book that caused his downfall, Galileo knew very well that he did not have the necessary empirical facts to back up the heliocentric hypothesis and so he resorted to polemic and rhetoric and brought as his pièce de résistance, his theory of the tides, which was fatally flawed and contradicted by the empirical evidence even before it hit the printed page.

Although it became largely accepted by the experts by around 1670, the necessary empirical evidence to substantiate heliocentricity didn’t emerge until the eighteenth and in the case of stellar parallax the nineteenth centuries.

I have written about this historical misrepresentation of Galileo’s position on various occasions and I don’t intend to repeat myself in this post. However anybody who is interested can read some of my thoughts in the post collected under the heading, The Transition to Heliocentricity: The Rough Guides. I also strongly recommend Christopher M. Graney’s recently published Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo, my review of which should, hopefully, appear here in the not to distant future.

Addendum: Seb Falk has pointed out that Dana Nuccitelli is a he not a she and I have made the necessary corrections to the text. I apologise unreservedly to Mr Nuccitelli for this error.

[1] h/t to Seb Falk (@Seb_Falk) for drawing my attention to this latest misstatement of Galileo’s scientific situation.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

Der Erdapfel

Erdapfel is the word for potato in my local Franconia dialect, in fact in most of Southern Germany and Austria. In High Germany a potato is ein Kartoffel. Don’t worry this is not a post about root vegetables or variations in German regional dialects. Der Erdapfel is also the name given to the so-called Behaim Globe, the oldest known surviving terrestrial globe, Nürnberg’s most famous historical artefact. The name, which literally translates as Earth Apple, is thought to be derived from the medieval term Reichsapfel (Empire Apple), which was the name of the Globus Cruciger, or orb, as in orb and sceptre, the symbols of power of the Holy Roman Emperor; the orb symbolising the earth. The Behaim globe, which was conceived but not constructed by Martin Behaim, is together with Behaim, the subject of many historical myths.


Martin Behaim was born in Nürnberg in 1459 and lived with his parent on the market place next door to the businessman Bernhard Walther (1430–1504) who was the partner to Regiomontanus in his printing and astronomical activities during the last five years of his life living in Nürnberg. Martin’s father was one of the rich traders, who dominated Nürnberg culture. In 1576 he was sent away to Flanders to apprentice as a cloth trader. In 1484 he journeyed to Portugal, which is where to mythological part of his life begins. According to the traditional version of his life story he took part in two sea voyages down the west coast of Africa with Diogo Cão. He was knighted by the Portuguese king and appointed to the Portuguese Board of Navigation. All of this took place because he was supposedly a student of Regiomontanus, whose ephemerides, the first ever printed ones and highly accurate, were well known and respected on the Iberian Peninsula. All of this information comes from Behaim himself and some of it can be read in the texts on the Behaim Globe.


Artist's impression of Martin Behaim with his globe. Artist unknown

Artist’s impression of Martin Behaim with his globe. Artist unknown

Between 1490 and 1493 Behaim returned to Nürnberg to sort out his mother’s testament and it was during this period that he persuaded to city council to commission him to produce a globe and a large-scale wall map of the world. It is not certain if the wall map was ever produced and if it was it has not survived but the globe certainly was and it is now, as already said, the oldest known surviving terrestrial globe. It is not however, as is often falsely claimed the oldest or first terrestrial globe. The earliest recorded terrestrial globe was constructed by Crates of Mallus in the second century BCE. Also Ptolemaeus in his Geographia, in his discussion of different methods of cartographical projection, acknowledges that a globe in the only way to accurately represent to earth. The Behaim Globe is not even the earliest European medieval globe as the Pope in known to have commissioned earlier terrestrial globes, which have not survived. Given their method of construction and the materials out of which they are made the survival rate of globes is relatively low.

The globe remained the property of the city council of Nürnberg until the middle of the sixteenth century when it was returned to the Behaim family who basically threw it into the corner of an attic and forgot about it. In the nineteenth century it was rediscovered and studied by various historians of cartography and a copy was made for a museum in Paris. Unfortunately it was also ‘restored’ several times through processes that did far more damage than good. In the early twentieth century it was lent to the Germanische Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg. In the 1930s the Behaim family considered selling the globe, most probably in America, and to prevent this Adolf Hitler bought the globe with his own private money and presented it to the German nations. It still resides in the Germanische Nationalmuseum.

I said that the globe is veiled in myths and we will start to sort them out. Firstly Behaim only conceived the globe he didn’t construct it as many people believe. The globe was made by pasting strips of linen onto a fired clay ball. The ball produced by Hans Glockengiesser (a family name that translates as bell founder) and the globe constructed by Ruprecht Kolberger. After the paste had set the globe was cut free from the clay form by a single cut around its equator and the two halves we then pasted together on a wooded frame. The actually map was painted onto the linen ball by the painter and woodblock cutter Georg Glockendon and the lettering was carried out by Petrus Gegenhart. Behaim only seems to have directed and coordinated these activities.


Another popular myth is that because of Behaim’s activities in Portugal the cartography of the globe is cutting edge up to the minute modern; nothing could be further from the truth. The basis of the cartography is Ptolemaeus with obvious additions from other ancient Greek sources as well as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and The Travels of Marco Polo. Much of the cartographical work is inaccurate even by the standards of the time, including surprisingly the west coast of Africa that Behaim supposedly had explored himself, which brings us to Behaim’s personal claims.


His claim to have sailed with Diogo Cão is almost certainly a lie. At the time of Cão’s first voyage along the African coast Behaim is known to have been in Antwerp. On his second voyage Cão erected pillars at all of his landing places naming all of the important members of the crew, who were on the voyage, Martin Behaim is not amongst them. They is no confirmatory evidence that Behaim was actually a member of Portuguese Board of Navigation and if he was his membership almost certainly owed nothing to Regiomontanus, as there is absolutely no evidence that he ever studied under him. The historian of navigation, David Waters, suggests that if Behaim was actually a member of this august body then it was because the Portuguese hoped to persuade the rich Nürnberger traders to invest money in their expeditionary endeavours, Behaim thus functioning as a sort of informal ambassador for the Republic of Nürnberg.

The picture that emerges is that Martin Behaim was con artist probably deceiving both the Portuguese court and the Nürnberg city council. The Behaim Globe is an interesting artefact but its historical or scientific significance is minimal. If you are in Nürnberg, I can recommend going to the Germanische Nationalmuseum to see it but when you are there also take a look at the Schöner 1520 terrestrial manuscript globe in the neighbouring room. It’s cartographically much more interesting and Schöner, as opposed to Behaim, plays a very important role in the history of globe making.


Johannes Söner's 1520 terrestrial Globe. Germanische Nationalmuseum

Johannes Söner’s 1520 terrestrial Globe.
Germanische Nationalmuseum




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

Sorry Caroline but Maria got there first!

Astronomer Caroline Herschel observed her first comet on 1 August 1786 an anniversary that was celebrated by various people on Twitter yesterday. Unfortunately many of them, including for example NASA History Office (@NASAhistory), claimed that on this date she became the 1st woman to discover a comet. This is quite simply not true.

Maria Margarethe Kirch (née Winkelmann), the wife of Gottfried Kirch the Astronomer Royal of Berlin, discovered the comet of 1702 (C/1702 H1) on 21 March 1702 that is forty-eight years before Caroline Herschel was born. Unfortunately the discovery was published by her husband and it was he who was incorrectly acknowledged as the discoverer. In 1710 Gottfried admitted the error and publically acknowledged Maria as the discoverer but she was never official credited with the discovery.

Both Maria Kirch and Caroline Herschel were excellent astronomers with much important work to their credit. However credit where credit is due, Caroline was not the first woman to discover a comet, Maria was.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

A double bicentennial – George contra Ada – Reality contra Perception

The end of this year sees a double English bicentennial in the history of computing. On 2 November we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of mathematician and logician Georg Boole then on 10 December the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of ‘science writer’ Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. It is an interesting exercise to take a brief look at how these two bicentennials are being perceived in the public sphere.

As I have pointed out in several earlier posts Ada was a member of the minor aristocracy, who, although she never knew her father, had a wealthy well connected mother. She had access to the highest social and intellectual circles of early Victorian London. Despite being mentored and tutored by the best that London had to offer she failed totally in mastering more than elementary mathematics. So, as I have also pointed out more than once, to call her a mathematician is a very poor quality joke. Her only ‘scientific’ contribution was to translate a memoire on Babbage’s Analytical Engine from French into English to which are appended a series of new notes. There is very substantial internal and external evidence that these notes in fact stem from Babbage and not Ada and that she only gave them linguistic form. What we have here is basically a journalistic interview and not a piece of original work. It is a historical fact that she did not write the first computer programme, as is still repeated ad nauseam every time her name is mentioned.

However the acolytes of the Cult of the Holy Saint Ada are banging the advertising drum for her bicentennial on a level comparable to that accorded to Einstein for the centenary of the General Theory of Relativity. On social media ‘Finding Ada’ are obviously planning massive celebrations, which they have already indicated although the exact nature of them has yet to be revealed. More worrying is the publication of the graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (note who gets first billing!) by animator and cartoonist Sydney Padua. The Analytical Engine as of course not the first computer that honour goes to Babbage’s Difference Engine. More important Padua’s novel is not even remotely ‘mostly’ true but largely fictional. This wouldn’t matter that much if said book had not received major media attention. Attention that compounded the error by conveniently forgetting the mostly. The biggest lie in the work of fiction is the claim that Ada was somehow directly involved in the conception and construction of the Analytical engine. In reality she had absolutely nothing to do with either its conception or its construction.

This deliberate misconception has been compounded by a, in social media widely disseminated, attempt to get support for a Lovelace, Babbage Analytical Engine Lego Set. The promoter of this enterprise has written in his blurb:

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is widely credited as the first computer scientist and Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Together they collaborated on Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.

Widely credited by whom? If anybody is the first computer scientist in this set up then it’s Babbage. Others such as Leibniz speculated on what we now call computer science long before Ada was born so I think that is another piece of hype that we can commit to the trashcan. Much more important is the fact that they did not collaborate on the Analytical Engine that was solely Babbage’s baby. This factually false hype is compounded in the following tweet from 21 July, which linked to the Lego promotion:

Historical lego [sic] of Ada Lovelace’s conception of the first programmable computer

To give some perspective to the whole issue it is instructive to ask about what in German is called the ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’, best translated as historical impact, of Babbage’s efforts to promote and build his computers, including the, in the mean time, notorious Menabrea memoire, irrespective as to who actually formulated the added notes. The impact of all of Babbage’s computer endeavours on the history of the computer is almost nothing. I say almost because, due to Turing, the notes did play a minor role in the early phases of the post World War II artificial intelligence debate. However one could get the impression from the efforts of the Ada Lovelace fan club, strongly supported by the media that this was a highly significant contribution to the history of computing that deserves to be massively celebrated on the Lovelace bicentennial.

Let us now turn our attention to subject of our other bicentennial celebration, George Boole. Born into a working class family in Lincoln, Boole had little formal education. However his father was a self-educated man with a thirst for knowledge, who instilled the same characteristics in his son. With some assistance he taught himself Latin and Greek and later French, German and Italian in order to be able to read the advanced continental mathematics. His father went bankrupt when he was 16 and he became breadwinner for the family, taking a post as schoolmaster in a small private school. When he was 19 he set up his own small school. Using the library of the local Mechanics Institute he taught himself mathematics. In the 1840s he began to publish original mathematical research in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal with the support of Duncan Gregory, a great great grandson of Newton’s contemporary James Gregory. Boole went on to become one of the leading British mathematicians of the nineteenth century and despite his total lack of formal qualifications he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the newly founded Queen’s College of Cork in 1849.

Although a fascinating figure in the history of mathematics it is Boole the logician, who interests us here. In 1847 Boole published the first version of his logical algebra in the form of a largish pamphlet, Mathematical Analysis of Logic. This was followed in 1854 by an expanded version of his ideas in his An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probability. These publications contain the core of Boolean algebra, the final Boolean algebra was actually produced by Stanley Jevons, only the second non-standard algebra ever to be developed. The first non-standard algebra was Hamilton’s quaternions. For non-mathematical readers standard algebra is the stuff we all learned (and loved!) at school. Boolean algebra was Boole’s greatest contribution to the histories of mathematics, logic and science.

When it first appeared Boole’s logic was large ignored as an irrelevance but as the nineteenth century progressed it was taken up and developed by others, most notably by the German mathematician Ernst Schröder, and provided the tool for much early work in mathematical logic. Around 1930 it was superseded in this area by the mathematical logic of Whitehead’s and Russell’s Principia Mathematica. Boole’s algebraic logic seemed destined for the novelty scrap heap of history until a brilliant young American mathematician wrote his master’s thesis.

Claude Shannon (1916–2001) was a postgrad student of electrical engineering of Vannevar Bush at MIT working on Bush’s electro-mechanical computer the differential analyzer. Having learnt Boolean algebra as an undergraduate Shannon realised that it could be used for the systematic and logical design of electrical switching circuits. In 1937 he published a paper drawn from his master’s thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. Shannon switching algebra, applied Boolean algebra, would go on to supply the basis of the hardware design of all modern computers. When people began to write programs for the computers designed with Shannon’s switching algebra it was only natural that they would use Boole’s two-valued (1/0, true/false, on/off) algebra to write those programs. Almost all modern computers are both in their hardware and there software applied Boolean algebra. One can argue, as I have actually done somewhat tongue in cheek in a lecture, that George Boole is the ‘father’ of the modern computer. (Somewhat tongue in cheek, as I don’t actually like the term ‘father of’). The modern computer has of course many fathers and mothers.

In George Boole, as opposed to Babbage and Lovelace, we have a man whose work made a massive real contribution to history of the computer and although both the Universities of Cork and Lincoln are planning major celebration for his bicentennial they have been, up till now largely ignored by the media with the exception of the Irish newspapers who are happy to claim Boole, an Englishman, as one of their own.

The press seems to have decided that a ‘disadvantaged’ (she never was, as opposed to Boole) female ‘scientist’, who just happens to be Byron’s daughter is more newsworthy in the history of the computer than a male mathematician, even if she contributed almost nothing and he contributed very much.


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