Category Archives: Myths of Science

Some good Copernican mythbusting

For those who haven’t already seen it Tim O’Neill, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and guest blogger, has posted a superb essay on his excellent blog, History for Atheists, on the myths surrounding the dissemination, publication and reception of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, The Great Myths 6: Copernicus’ Deathbed Publication. Regular readers of the Renaissance Mathematicus won’t learn anything new but it is an excellent summary of the known historical facts and well worth a read. As with this blog the comments are also well worth reading.

The earliest mention of Copernicus’ theory – Matthew of Miechów’s 1514 catalogue

Go on over and give Tim a boost!



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

Galileo & Roberto

One of the books that I am currently reading is Rob Iliffe’s Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (a full review will follow when I finish it but I can already say it will be very positive). I stumbled more than somewhat when I read the following:

…and Lucas Trelcatius’s list of some of the most significant places in Scripture, which was composed as a response to the Catholic interpretations of various texts offered by the great scholar (and scourge of Galileo [my emphasis]) Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.

Four words that caused me to draw in my breath, why? Let as first take a look at the meaning of the word scourge:

A scourge was originally a particularly nasty and extremely cruel multi-thong whip. Transferred to describe a person it means: a person that causes great trouble of suffering. Can Robert Bellarmine really be described as “scourge of Galileo”?

Robert Bellarmine (actually Roberto Bellarmino) (1542-1621) was a Jesuit scholar who was specialist for post Tridentine theology, that is the theological teachings of the Catholic Church as laid down as official church doctrine at the Council of Trent (1545-1563. He rose through the ranks to arch-bishop and then cardinal, was professor for theology at the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit University in Rome, and later the universities rector. In the early seventeenth century he was regarded as the leading Catholic authority on theology and as such he was a powerful and highly influential figure in Rome.


Robert Bellarmine artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

How did Bellarmine’s life interact with that of Galileo? The first contact was very indirect and occurred after Galileo had published his Sidereus Nuncius, making public his telescopic discoveries. Bellarmine inquired of the mathematician astronomers under Clavius’ leadership at the Collegio Romano, whether the discoveries claimed by Galileo were real. Being the first astronomers to confirm those discoveries, Clavius was able to report in the positive.

In 1615 Galileo wrote his Letter to Castelli in which he argued that those Bible passages that contradicted Copernican heliocentricity should be re-interpreted to solve the contradiction. He was stepping into dangerous territory, a mere mathematicus—the lowest of the low in the academic hierarchy—telling the theologians how to interpret the Bible. This was particularly risky, as it was in the middle of the Counter-Reformation given that the Reformation was about who is allowed to interpret the Bible. The Protestants said that everyman should be able to interpret it for themselves and the Catholic Church said that only the Church should be allowed to do so. Remember we are only three years away from the Thirty Years War the high point, or should that be the low point, of the conflict between the two religions, which led to the destruction of most of central Europe and the death of between one and two thirds of its population.


Justus Sustermans – Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1636 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo’s suggestion in his letter came to the attention of his opponents in the Church and led the Pope, Paul V, to set up a commission of eleven theologians, known as the Qualifiers, to investigate the propositions of heliocentricity.

In the meantime Paolo Antonio Foscarini (c. 1565–June 1616), a Carmelite father, attempted to publish his Epistle concerning the Pythagorean and Copernican opinion of the Mobility of the Earth and stability of the sun and the new system or constitution of the WORLD, which basically contained the same arguments for reinterpreting the Bible as Galileo’s Letter to Castelli. The censor of Foscarini’s order rejected his tract, as too contentious. I should point out at this point something that most people ignore that is all powers both civil and religious in Europe exercised censorship; there was no such thing as free thought or freedom of speech in seventeenth century Europe. Foscarini wrote a defence of his Epistle and sent the two pieces to Bellarmine, as the leading theologian, for his considered opinion. Bellarmine’s answers the so-called Foscarini Letter is legendary and I reproduce it in full below.

My Reverend Father,

I have read with interest the letter in Italian and the essay in Latin which your Paternity sent to me; I thank you for one and for the other and confess that they are all full of intelligence and erudition. You ask for my opinion, and so I shall give it to you, but very briefly, since now you have little time for reading and I for writing.

First I say that it seems to me that your Paternity and Mr. Galileo are proceeding prudently by limiting yourselves to speaking suppositionally and not absolutely, as I have always believed that Copernicus spoke. For there is no danger in saying that, by assuming the Earth moves and the sun stands still, one saves all of the appearances better than by postulating eccentrics and epicycles; and that is sufficient for the mathematician. However, it is different to want to affirm that in reality the sun is at the center of the world and only turns on itself, without moving from east to west, and the earth is in the third heaven and revolves with great speed around the sun; this is a very dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture false. For Your Paternity has well shown many ways of interpreting Holy Scripture, but has not applied them to particular cases; without a doubt you would have encountered very great difficulties if you had wanted to interpret all those passages you yourself cited.

Second, I say that, as you know, the Council [of Trent] prohibits interpreting Scripture against the common consensus of the Holy Fathers; and if Your Paternity wants to read not only the Holy Fathers, but also the modern commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you will find all agreeing in the literal interpretation that the sun is in heaven and turns around the earth with great speed, and that the earth is very far from heaven and sits motionless at the center of the world. Consider now, with your sense of prudence, whether the church can tolerate giving Scripture a meaning contrary to the Holy Fathers and to all the Greek and Latin commentators. Nor can one answer that this is not a matter of faith, since it is not a matter of faith “as regards the topic”, it is a matter of faith “as regards the speaker”; and so it would be heretical to say that Abraham did not have two children and Jacob twelve, as well as to say that Christ was not born of a virgin, because both are said by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of the prophets and the apostles.


Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. Nor is it the same to demonstrate that by supposing the sun to be at the center and the earth in heaven one can save the appearances, and to demonstrate that in truth the sun is at the center and the earth in the heaven; for I believe the first demonstration may be available, but I have very great doubts about the second, and in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers. I add that the one who wrote, “The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose,” was Solomon, who not only spoke inspired by God, but was a man above all others wise and learned in the human sciences and in the knowledge of created things; he received all this wisdom from God; therefore it is not likely that he was affirming something that was contrary to truth already demonstrated or capable of being demonstrated. Now, suppose you say that Solomon speaks in accordance with appearances, since it seems to us that the sun moves (while the earth does so), just as to someone who moves away from the seashore on a ship it looks like the shore is moving, I shall answer that when someone moves away from the shore, although it appears to him that the shore is moving away from him, nevertheless he knows that it is an error and corrects it, seeing clearly that the ship moves and not the shore; but in regard to the sun and the earth, no wise man has any need to correct the error, since he clearly experiences that the earth stands still and that the eye is not in error when it judges that the it also is not in error when it judges that the stars move. And this is enough for now.

With this I greet dearly Your Paternity, and I pray to God to grant you all your wishes.

At home, 12 April 1615.

To Your Very Reverend Paternity.

As a Brother,

Cardinal Bellarmine


(Source for the English transl.: M. Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair. A Documentary History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 67-69.Original Italian text, G. Galilei, Opere, edited by A. Favaro (Firenze: Giunti Barbera, 1968), vol. XII, pp. 171-172.)

A, in my opinion, brilliant piece of measured, diplomatic writing. Bellarmine tactfully suggests that one should only talk of heliocentricity hypothetically, its correct scientific status in 1615, the first empirical proof for the movement of the Earth was found in 1725, when Bradley discovered stellar aberration. He, as the great Tridentine theologian, then reiterates the Church’s position on the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Finally he brings, what is without doubt, the most interesting statement in the letter.

Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false.

What he says is bring proof and we’ll reinterpret the Bible but until then…

On 24 February the Qualifiers delivered the results of their deliberations on the heliocentricity hypothesis:

( i ) The sun is the centre of the universe (“mundi”) and absolutely

immobile in local motion.

( ii ) The earth is not the centre of the universe (“mundi”); it is not

immobile but turns on itself with a diurnal movement.

All unanimously censure the first proposition as “foolish, absurd in philosophy { i.e. scientifically untenable] and formally heretical on the grounds of expressly contradicting the statements of Holy Scripture in many places according to the proper meaning of the words, the common exposition and the understanding of the Holy Fathers and learned theologians”; the second proposition they unanimously censured as likewise “absurd in philosophy” and theologically “at least erroneous in faith”.

It should be pointed out that although the Qualifiers called the first statement heretical, only the Pope could formally declare something heretical and no pope ever did, so heliocentricity was never officially heretical.

Pope Paul V now ordered Bellarmine to covey the judgement of the Qualifiers to Galileo and to inform him that he may not hold or teach the heliocentric theory. This he did on 26 February 1616. Bellarmine was not one of the Qualifiers and here functioned only as the messenger. By all accounts the meetings between Bellarmine and Galileo were cordial and friendly.

When Galileo returned to Florence rumours started spreading that he had been forced to recant and do penance, which was of course not true. Galileo wrote to Bellarmine requesting a letter explaining that this was not true. Bellarmine gladly supplied said letter, defending Galileo’s honour. However Galileo made the mistake in 1633 of thinking that Bellarmine’s letter was a get out of jail free card.

Bellarmine died in 1621 and between 1616 and his death there was no further contact between the Cardinal and the mathematicus. Personally I can see nothing in the three interactions, indirect and direct, between Bellarmine and Galileo that would in anyway justify labelling Bellarmine as the “scourge of Galileo”. This accusation is historically highly inaccurate and paints a wholly false picture of the relationship between the two men. I expect better of Rob Iliffe, who is without doubt one on Britain’s best historians of seventeenth century science.

NB Before somebody pops up in the comments claiming that Robert Bellarmine was one of the three Inquisition judges, who confirmed the death sentence on Giordano Bruno. He was but that has no relevance to his interactions with Galileo, so save yourself time and energy and don’t bother.

1 Comment

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

Exposing Galileo’s strawmanning

There is a widespread, highly erroneous, popular perception in the world, much loved by gnu atheists and supporters of scientism, that as soon as Petreius published Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus in 1543 the question as to which was the correct astronomical/cosmological system for the cosmos was as good as settled and that when Galileo published his Dialogo[1] everything was finally done and dusted and anybody who still persisted in opposing the acceptance of the heliocentric world view, did so purely on grounds of ignorant, anti-science, religious prejudice. Readers of this blog will know that I have expended a certain amount of energy and several thousand words over the years countering this totally mistaken interpretation of the history of astronomy in the early modern period and today I’m going to add even more words to the struggle.

Galileo is held up by his numerous acolytes as a man of great scientific virtue, who preached a gospel of empirical scientific truth in the face of the superstitious, faith based errors of his numerous detractors; he was a true martyr for science. The fact that Galileo was capable of scientific skulduggery does not occur to them, but not only was he capable of such, his work is littered with examples of it. One of his favourite tactics was not to present his opponents true views when criticising them but to create a strawman, claiming that this represents the views of his opponent and then to burn it down with his always-red-hot rhetorical flamethrower.

Towards the end of The First Day in the Dialogo, Galileo has Simplicio, the fall guy for geocentricity, introduce a “booklet of theses, which is full of novelties.” Salviati, who is the champion of heliocentricity and at the same time Galileo’s mouthpiece, ridicules this booklet as producing arguments full of “falsehoods and fallacies and contradictions” and as “thinking up, one by one, things that would be required to serve his purposes, instead of adjusting his purposes step by step to things as they are.” Galileo goes on to do a polemical hatchet job on what he claims are the main arguments in said “booklet of theses.” Amongst others he accuses the author of “setting himself up to refute another’s doctrine while remaining ignorant of the basic foundations upon which the whole structure are supported.”

The “booklet of theses”, which Galileo doesn’t name, is in fact the splendidly titled:


English translation of the Latin title page Source: Notre Dame Press

Now most of the acolytes who fervently praise Galileo as the great defender of science against superstition probably have no idea who Johann Georg Locher was but they might well have heard of Christoph Scheiner, who was famously embroiled in a dispute with Galileo over the nature of sunspots and who first observed them with a telescope. In fact the authorship of the Mathematical Disquisitions has often falsely attributed to Scheiner and Galileo’s demolition of it seen as an extension of that dispute and it’s sequel in the pages of his Il Saggiatore.

Whereas Galileo’s Dialogo has been available to the general reader in a good English translation by Stillman Drake since 1953, anybody who wished to consult Locher’s Mathematical Disquisitions in order to check the veracity or lack thereof of Galileo’s account would have had to hunt down a 17th century Latin original in the rare books room of a specialist library. The playing field has now been levelled with the publication of an excellent modern English translation of Locher’s booklet by Renaissance Mathematicus friend, commentator and occasional guest contributor Chris Graney[2].


Graney’s translation (Christopher M. Graney, Mathematical Disquisitions: The Booklet of Theses Immortalised by Galileo, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2017)  presents a more than somewhat different picture of Locher’s views on astronomy to that served up by Galileo in the Dialogo and in fact gives us a very clear picture of the definitely rational arguments presented by the opponents to heliocentricity in the early part of the seventeenth century. The translation contains an excellent explanatory introduction by Graney, extensive endnotes explaining various technical aspects of Locher’s text and also some of the specific translation decisions of difficult terms. (I should point out that another Renaissance Mathematicus friend, Darin Hayton acted as translation consultant on this volume). There is an extensive bibliography of the works consulted for the explanatory notes and an excellent index.

The book is very nicely presented by Notre Dame Press, with fine reproductions of Locher’s wonderful original illustrations.


Locher’s illustration to his discussion of diurnal rotation p. 32

Graney’s translation provides a great addition to his previous Setting Aside All Authority, which I reviewed here. Graney is doing sterling work in adjusting the very distorted view of the astronomical system discussion in the first half of the seventeenth century and anybody, who is seriously interested in learning the true facts of that discussion, should definitely read his latest contribution.




[1] By a strange cosmic coincidence the first printed copy of the Dialogo was presented to the dedicatee Ferdinando II d’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany 386 years ago today on 22 February 1632.

[2] At the end of my review of Setting Aside All Authority I wrote the following, which applies equally to this review; in this case I provided one of the cover blurbs for Chris’ latest book.

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.

Addendum: The orthography of the neologism in the title was change—23,02,18— following a straw pole on Twitter


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

Really! – Did the artist have a Tardis?

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

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

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


Source: The Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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


Source: The Guardian

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

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

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






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

Christmas Trilogy 2017: Bonus!

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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





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

Not a student god dammit!

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

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Simon Marius
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Willem Janszoon Blaeu
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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






Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

History of the little things

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Clavius (1538–1612)
Source: Wikimedia Common



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

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

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




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