Category Archives: Myths of Science

Stylish writing is not necessarily good science

I have become somewhat infamous for writing #histSTM blog posts that are a predominately negative take on the scientific achievements of Galileo Galilei. In fact I think I probably made my breakthrough as a #histsci blogger with my notorious Extracting the Stopper post, deflating Galileo’s popular reputation. I actually got commissioned to write a toned down version of that post for AEON several years later. In my opinion Galileo was an important figure in the evolution of science during the early seventeenth century but his reputation has been blown up out of all proportion, well beyond his actual contributions. To make a simple comparison, in the same period of time the contributions of Johannes Kepler were immensely greater and more significant than those made by Galileo but whereas Galileo is regarded as one of the giants of modern science and is probably one of the three most well known historical practitioners of the mathematical sciences, alongside Newton and Einstein, Kepler is at best an also ran, whose popular image is not even a fraction of that of Galileo’s. This of course raises the question, why? What does/did Galileo have that Kepler didn’t? I think the answer lies in Galileo’s undeniable talents as a writer.

Galileo was a master stylist, a brilliant polemicist and science communicator, whose major works are still a stimulating pleasure to read. If you ask people about Galileo they will more often than not quote one of his well-known turns of phrase rather than his scientific achievements. The two books trope with its ‘mathematics is the language of nature’, which in the original actually reads: Philosophy is written in this grand book, which stands continually open before our eyes (I say the ‘Universe’), but can not be understood without first learning to comprehend the language and know the characters as it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures, without which it is impossible to humanly understand a word; without these one is wandering in a dark labyrinth. Or the much-loved, the Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go, which again in the original reads: The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes. It is a trivial truth that Galileo had a way with words.

This cannot be said of Johannes Kepler. I shall probably bring the wrath of a horde of Kepler scholars on my head for saying this but even in translation, Johannes Kepler is anything but an easy read. Galileo even commented on this. When confronted with Kepler’s Dioptrice (1611), one of the most important books on optics ever written, Galileo complained that it was turgid and unreadable. Having ploughed my way through it in German translation, I sympathise with Galileo’s negative judgement. However, in his rejection Galileo failed to realise just how scientifically important the Dioptrice actually was. Nobody in their right mind would describe Kepler as a master stylist or a brilliant polemicist.

I think this contrast in literary abilities goes a long way to explaining the very different popular conceptions of the two men. People read Galileo’s major works or selections from them and are stimulated and impressed by his literary mastery, whereas Kepler’s major works are not even presented, as something to be read by anyone, who is not a historian of science. One just gets his three laws of planetary motion served up in modern guise, as a horribly mathematical side product of heliocentricity.

Of course, a serious factor in their respective notorieties is Galileo’s infamous trial by the Roman Inquisition. This was used to style him as a martyr for science, a process that only really began at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Kepler’s life, which in many ways was far more spectacular and far more tragic than Galileo’s doesn’t have such a singular defining moment in it.

Returning to the literary theme I think that what has happened is that non-scientists and non-historians of science have read Galileo and impressed by his literary abilities, his skill at turning a phrase, his adroit, and oft deceitful, presentation of pro and contra arguments often fail to notice that they are being sold a pup. As I tried to make clear in the last episode of my continuing ‘the emergence of modern astronomy’ series although Galileo’s Dialogo has an awesome reputation in Early Modern history, its scientific value is, to put it mildly, negligible. To say this appears to most people as some form of sacrilege, “but the Dialogo is an important defence of science against the forces of religious ignorance” or some such they would splutter. But in reality it isn’t, as I hope I made clear the work contributed nothing new to the on going debate and all that Galileo succeeded in doing was getting up the Pope’s nose.

The same can be said of Il Saggiatore, another highly praised work of literature. As I commented in another post the, oft quoted line on mathematics, which had led to Galileo being praised as the man, who, apparently single handed, mathematized the physical science was actually, when he wrote it, old hat and others had been writing the book of nature in the language of mathematics for at least one hundred years before Galileo put pen to paper but none of them had taken the time to express what they were doing poetically. In fact it took historians of science a long time to correct this mistaken perception, as they also tended to suffer from a serious dose of Galileo adoration. The core of Il Saggiatore is as I have explained elsewhere is total rubbish, as Galileo is arguing against the scientific knowledge of his time with very spurious assertions merely so that he doesn’t have to acknowledge that Grassi is right and he is wrong. An admission that very few Galileo scholars are prepared to make in public, it might tarnish his reputation.

Interestingly one work that deserves its historical reputation Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, also suffers from serious scientific deficits that tend to get overlooked. Written and published in haste to avoid getting beaten to the punch by a potential, unknown rival the book actually reads more like an extended press release that a work of science. It might well be that Galileo intended to write a more scientific evaluation of his telescopic observations and discoveries once he had established his priority but somehow, having become something of a scientific superstar overnight, he never quite got round to it. This is once again a failing that most readers tend to overlook, over awed by the very impressive literary presentation.

Much of Galileo’s written work is actually more appearance than substance, or as the Germans say Mehr Schein als Sein, but ironically, there is one major work of Galileo’s that is both literarily brilliant and scientifically solid but which tends to get mostly overlooked, his Discorsi. The experiments on which part of it is based get described by the book itself remains for most people largely unknown. I shall be taking a closer look at it in a later post.







Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of Physics, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXVII

Without a doubt the most well-known, in fact notorious, episode in the transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric cosmology/astronomy in the seventeenth century was the publication of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) in 1632 and his subsequent trial and conviction by the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition or simply Roman Inquisition; an episode that has been blown up out of all proportions over the centuries. It would require a whole book of its own to really do this subject justice but I shall deal with it here in two sketches. The first to outline how and why the publication of this book led to Galileo’s trial and the second to assess the impact of the book on the seventeenth century astronomical/cosmological debate, which was much less than is often claimed.


Frontispiece and title page of the Dialogo, 1632 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first salient point is Galileo’s social status in the early seventeenth century. Nowadays we place ‘great scientists’ on a pedestal and accord them a very high social status but this was not always the case. In the Renaissance, within society in general, natural philosophers and mathematicians had a comparatively low status and within the ruling political and religious hierarchies Galileo was effectively a nobody. Yes, he was famous for his telescopic discoveries but this did not change the fact that he was a mere mathematicus. As court mathematicus and philosophicus to the Medici in Florence he was little more than a high-level court jester, he should reflect positively on his masters. His role was to entertain the grand duke and his guests at banquets and other social occasions with his sparkling wit, either in the form of a discourse or if a suitable opponent was at hand, in a staged dispute. Points were awarded not for truth content but for verbal brilliance. Galileo was a master at such games. However, his real status as a courtier was very low and should he bring negative attention to the court, they would drop him without a thought, as they did when the Inquisition moved against him.


Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a cardinal, Maffeo Barberini (1568–1644) had befriended Galileo when his first came to prominence in 1611 and he was also an admirer of the Accademia dei Lincei. When he was elected Pope in 1623 the Accademia celebrated his election and amongst other things presented him with a copy of Galileo’s Il Saggiatore, which he read and apparently very much enjoyed. As a result he granted Galileo several private audiences, a great honour. Through his actions Barberini had raised Galileo to the status of papal favourite, a situation not without its dangers.


C. 1598 painting of Maffeo Barberini at age 30 by Caravaggio Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mario Biagioli presents the, I think correct, hypothesis that having raised Galileo up as a court favourite Barberini then destroyed him. Such behaviour was quite common under absolutist rulers, as a power demonstration to intimidate potential rebels. Galileo was a perfect victim for such a demonstration highly prominent and popular but with no real political or religious significance. Would Barberini have staged such a demonstration at the time? There is evidence that he was growing more and more paranoid during this period. Barberini, who believed deeply in astrology, heard rumours that an astrologer had foreseen his death in the stars. His death was to coincide with a solar eclipse in 1630. Barberini with the help of his court astrologer, Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) took extreme evasive action and survived the cosmic threat but he had Orazio Morandi (c. 1570–1630), a close friend and supporter of Galileo’s, arrested and thrown in the papal dungeons, where he died, for having cast the offending horoscope.

Turning to the Dialogo, the official bone of contention, Galileo succeeded in his egotism in alienating Barberini with its publication. Apparently during the phase when he was very much in Barberini’s good books, Galileo had told the Pope that the Protestants were laughing at the Catholics because they didn’t understand the heliocentric hypothesis. Of course, during the Thirty Years War any such mockery was totally unacceptable. Barberini gave Galileo permission to write a book presenting and contrasting the heliocentric and geocentric systems but with certain conditions. Both systems were to be presented as equals with no attempts to prove the superiority or truth of either and Galileo was to include the philosophical and theological opinion of the Pope that whatever the empirical evidence might suggest, God in his infinite wisdom could create the cosmos in what ever way he chose.

The book that Galileo wrote in no way fulfilled the condition stated by Barberini. Presented as a discussion over four days between on the one side a Copernican, Salviati named after Filippo Salviati (1682–1614) a close friend of Galileo’s and Sagredo, supposedly neutral but leaning strongly to heliocentricity, named after Giovanni Francesco Sagredo (1571–1620) another close friend of Galileo’s. Opposing these learned gentlemen is Simplicio, an Aristotelian, named after Simplicius of Cilicia a sixth-century commentator on Aristotle. This name is with relative certainty a play on the Italian word “semplice”, which means simple as in simple minded. Galileo stacked the deck from the beginning.

The first three days of discussion are a rehash of the previous decades of discoveries and developments in astronomy and cosmology with the arguments for heliocentricity, or rather against geocentricity in its Ptolemaic/Aristotelian form, presented in their best light and the counter arguments presented decidedly less well. Galileo was leaving nothing to chance, he knew who was going to win this discussion. The whole thing is crowned with Galileo’s theory of the tides on day four, which he falsely believed, despite its very obvious flaws, to be a solid empirical proof of the Earth’s movements in a heliocentric model. This was in no way an unbiased presentation of two equal systems but an obvious propaganda text for heliocentricity. Worse than this, he placed the Pope’s words on the subject in the mouth of Simplicio, the simpleton, not a smart move. When it was published the shit hit the fan.

However, before considering the events leading up to the trial and the trial itself there are a couple of other factors that prejudiced the case against Galileo. In order to get published at all, the book, as with every other book, had to be given publication permission by the censor. To repeat something that people tend to forget, censorship was practiced by all secular and all religious authorities throughout the whole of Europe and was not peculiar to the Catholic Church. Freedom of speech and freedom of thought were alien concepts in the world of seventeenth century religion and politics. Galileo wanted initially to title the book, Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Seas, referring of course to his theory of the tides, and include a preface to this effect. He was told to remove both by the censor, as they, of course, implied a proof of heliocentricity. Because of an outbreak of the plague, Galileo retired to Florence to write his book and preceded to play the censor in Florence and the censor in Rome off against each other, which meant that the book was published without being properly controlled by a censor. This, of course, all came out after publication and did not help Galileo’s case at all; he had been far too clever for his own good.

Another major problem had specifically nothing to do with Galileo in the first instance but rebounded on him at the worst time.  On 8 March 1632 Cardinal Borgia castigated the Pope for not supporting King Philipp IV of Spain against the German Protestants. The situation almost degenerated into a punch up with the Swiss Guard being called in to separate the adversaries. As a result Barberini decided to purge the Vatican of pro-Spanish elements. One of the most prominent men to be banished was Giovanni Ciampoli (1589–1643) Barberini’s chamberlain. Ciampoli was an old friend and supporter of Galileo and a member of the Accademia dei Lincei. He was highly active in helping Galileo trick the censors and had read the manuscript of the Dialogo, telling Barberini that it fulfilled his conditions. His banishment was a major disaster for Galileo.


Giovanni Ciampoli Source: Wikimedia Commons

One should of course also not forget that Galileo had effectively destroyed any hope of support from the Jesuits, the leading astronomers and mathematicians of the age, who had very actively supported him in 1611, with his unwarranted and libellous attacks on Grazi and Scheiner in his Il Saggiatore. He repeated the attacks on Scheiner in the Dialogo, whilst at the same time plagiarising him, claiming some of Scheiner’s sunspot discoveries as his own. There is even some evidence that the Jesuits worked behind the scenes urging the Pope to put Galileo on trial.

When the Dialogo was published it immediately caused a major stir. Barberini appointed officials to read and assess it. Their judgement was conclusive, the Dialogo obviously breached the judgement of 1616 forbidding the teaching of heliocentricity as a factual theory. Anybody reading the Dialogo today would confirm that judgement. The consequence was that Galileo was summoned to Rome to answer to the Inquisition. Galileo stalled claiming bad health but was informed either he comes or he would be fetched. The Medici’s refused to support him; they did no consider him worth going into confrontation with the Pope for.


Ferdinando II de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany in Coronation Robes (school of Justus Sustermans). Source: Wikimedia Commons

We don’t need to go into details of the trial. Like all authoritarian courts the Inquisition didn’t wish to try their accused but preferred them to confess, this was the case with Galileo. During his interviews with the Inquisition Galileo was treated with care and consideration because of his age and bad health. He was provided with an apartment in the Inquisition building with servants to care for him. At first he denied the charges but when he realised that this wouldn’t work he said that he had got carried away whilst writing and he offered to rewrite the book. This also didn’t work, the book was already on the market and was a comparative best seller, there was no going back. Galileo thought he possessed a get out of jail free card. In 1616, after he had been interviewed by Bellarmino, rumours circulated that he had been formally censured by the Inquisition. Galileo wrote to Bellarmino complaining and the Cardinal provided him with a letter stating categorically that this was not the case. Galileo now produced this letter thinking it would absolve him of the charges. The Inquisition now produced the written version of the statement that had been read to Galileo by an official of the Inquisition immediately following his interview with Bellarmino expressly forbidding the teaching of the heliocentric theory as fact. This document still exists and there have been discussions as to its genuineness but the general consensus is that it is genuine and not a forgery. Galileo was finished, guilty as charged. Some opponents of the Church make a lot of noise about Galileo being shown the instruments of torture but this was a mere formality in a heresy trial and at no point was Galileo threatened with torture.

The rest is history. Galileo confessed and formally adjured to the charge of grave suspicion of heresy, compared to heresy a comparatively minor charge. He was sentenced to prison, which was immediately commuted to house arrest. He spent the first months of his house arrest as the guest of Ascanio II Piccolomini (1590–1671), Archbishop of Siena,


Ascanio II Piccolomini Source: Wikimedia Commons

until Barberini intervened and sent him home to his villa in Arcetri. Here he lived out his last decade in comparative comfort, cared for by loyal servants, receiving visitor and writing his most important book, Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences).

Galileo’s real crime was hubris, trying to play an absolutist ruler, the Pope, for a fool. Others were executed for less in the seventeenth century and not just by the Catholic Church. Galileo got off comparatively lightly.

What role did the Dialogo actually play in the ongoing cosmological/astronomical debate in the seventeenth century? The real answer is, given its reputation, surprisingly little. In reality Galileo was totally out of step with the actual debate that was taking place around 1630. Driven by his egotistical desire to be the man, who proved the truth of heliocentricity, he deliberately turned a blind eye to the most important developments and so side lined himself.

We saw earlier that around 1613 there were more that a half a dozen systems vying for a place in the debate, however by 1630 nearly all of the systems had been eliminated leaving just two in serious consideration. Galileo called his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, but the two systems that he chose to discuss, the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian geocentric system and the Copernican heliocentric system, were ones that had already been rejected by almost all participants in the debate by 1630 . The choice of the pure geocentric system of Ptolemaeus was particularly disingenuous, as Galileo had helped to show that it was no longer viable twenty years earlier. The first system actually under discussion when Galileo published his book was a Tychonic geo-heliocentric system with diurnal rotation, Christen Longomontanus (1562–1647), Tycho’s chief assistant, had published an updated version based on Tycho’s data in his Astronomia Danica in 1622. This was the system that had been formally adopted by the Jesuits.


The second was the elliptical heliocentric system of Johannes Kepler, of which I dealt with the relevant publications in the last post.

Galileo completely ignores Tycho, whose system could explain all of the available evidence for heliocentricity, because he didn’t want to admit that this was the case, arguing instead that the evidence must imply a heliocentric system. He also, against all the available empirical evidence, maintained his belief that comets were sublunar meteorological phenomena, because the supporters of a Tychonic system used their perceived solar orbit as an argument for their system.  He is even intensely disrespectful to Tycho in the Dialogo, for which Kepler severely castigated him. He also completely ignores Kepler, which is even more crass, as the best available arguments for heliocentricity were to be found clearly in Kepler published works. Galileo could not adopt Kepler’s system because it would mean that Kepler and not he would be the man, who proved the truth of the heliocentric system.

Although the first three days of the Dialogo provide a good polemic presentation for all of the evidence up till that point for a refutation of the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian system, with the very notable exception of the comets, Galileo’s book was out dated when it was written and had very little impact on the subsequent astronomical/cosmological debate in the seventeenth century. I will indulge in a little bit of hypothetical historical speculation here. If Galileo had actually written a balanced and neutral account of the positive and negative points of the Tychonic geo-heliocentric system with diurnal rotation and Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric system, it might have had the following consequences. Firstly, given his preeminent skills as a science communicator, his book would have been a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate and secondly he probably wouldn’t have been persecuted by the Catholic Church. However, one can’t turn back the clock and undo what has already been done.

I will close this overlong post with a few brief comments on the impact of the Church’s ban on the heliocentric theory, the heliocentric hypothesis was still permitted, and the trial and sentencing of Galileo, after all he was the most famous astronomer in Europe. Basically the impact was much more minimal than is usually implied in all the popular presentations of the subject. Outside of Italy these actions of the Church had almost no impact whatsoever, even in other Catholic countries. In fact a Latin edition of the Dialogo was published openly in Lyon in 1641, by the bookseller Jean-Antoine Huguetan (1567–1650), and dedicated to the French diplomat Balthasar de Monconys (1611–1665), who was educated by the Jesuits.


Within Italy well-behaved Catholics censored their copies of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus according to the Church’s instructions but continued to read and use them. Censored copies of the book are virtually unknown outside of Italy. Also within Italy, astronomers would begin their discussions of heliocentricity by stating in the preface that the Holy Mother Church in its wisdom had declared this system to be false, but it is an interesting mathematical hypothesis and then go on in their books to discuss it fully. On the whole the Inquisition left them in peace.


***A brief footnote to the above: this is a historical sketch of what took place around 1630 in Northern Italy written from the viewpoint of the politics, laws and customs that ruled there at that time. It is not a moral judgement on the behaviour of either the Catholic Church or Galileo Galilei and I would be grateful if any commentators on this post would confine themselves to the contextual historical facts and not go off on wild moral polemics based on hindsight. Comments on and criticism of the historical context and/or content are, as always, welcome.











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

Both sides of history: Some thoughts on a history of science cliché

Earlier in the yeary, University of Edinburgh historian of mathematics, Michael Barany, used the expression “the wrong side of history” whilst live tweeting the university’s conference on Charles Piazzi Smyth the nineteenth century English astronomer and pyramidologist. This oft repeated cliché somehow struck a chord and I asked on Twitter what people actually thought it meant. I received quite a lot of answers spread over a fairly wide spectrum. Some though of it as a moral judgement, others on a similar wavelength viewed it as purely political, listing the well-known villain of history, Hitler, Stalin et al. But the view that really interested me, and the reason Michael Barany had used it, was its use in the history of science to designate people, who had strongly defended a theory or hypothesis that was later proved to be false. I think its use in this way is largely inappropriate, as it paints a much too black and white picture, whereas the history of science is, in my opinion, mostly various shades of grey. I would like to illustrate what I mean with some historical examples; this is not a systematic study but some musings provoked by my initial reaction to the phrase.

Copernicus is something of an icon in the history of astronomy, as the first Early Modern European astronomer to suggest that the cosmos was heliocentric and not, as had generally been believed, geocentric, so that puts him very much on the right side of history. However, although we actually know very little about his motivation, we do know that his main concern was to remove Ptolemeaus’ equant point in order to make astronomy conform with the so-called Platonic axioms i.e. all celestial motion takes place in uniform circular motion around a common centre. This desire of his to maintain the Platonic axioms places him firmly on the wrong side of history.

Tycho Brahe rejected heliocentricity both on astronomical and on religious grounds landing him on the wrong side of history but revolutionised observational astronomy delivering vast quantities of new astronomical data of an unheard of accuracy; you guessed it, right side of history.

Johannes Kepler, however, not only strongly propagated heliocentricity but using Tycho’s new data abandoned the Platonic axioms completely, replacing them with his three laws of planetary motion, still valid today, right side of history with a vengeance. Unfortunately the extremely devote Christian believed in a closed, finite cosmos with God as the sun, Jesus as the fixed stars and the Holy Ghost as the space in between; you can’t really get further on the wrong side of history than that.

In the popular imagination Galileo Galilei is considered to be one-hundred pre cent on the right side of history but was he really? The book, that most people know is his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which is a polemic for heliocentricity and because we actually live in a heliocentric system it is assumed that what Galileo has to say is correct; unfortunately this assumption is far from the truth. Firstly the two systems he discusses Copernican heliocentricity and Ptolemaic geocentricity were both out dated when he wrote the book, Copernicus displaced by Kepler’s elliptical system and Ptolemy refuted by the discovery of the phases of Venus. Galileo simply ignores the true contemporary contenders, Kepler and some form of geo-heliocentric system. So he is very much on the wrong side of history. Even worse his supposedly crowning argument, his theory of the tides, presented on the fourth and final day of his dialogue, was already contradicted by the available empirical evidence. He even goes so far as to rubbish Kepler’s correct assumption that tides are somehow caused by the moon. Galileo did many things that were in fact on the right side of history but his sally into the astronomical/cosmological debate of the period was anything but.

For modern scientists astronomy is an honourable and ancient science, whereas astrology is merely occult mumbo jumbo. However, all three of our early modern astronomers, Tycho, Kepler and Galileo, were practicing astrologers, who genuinely believed in it. Distinctly wrong side of history there.

Moving to the other end of the seventeenth century we meet Isaac Newton. Like Galileo, Newton is venerated as a scholar firmly on the right side of history. However, beyond his achievements in mathematics, astronomy and physics, as every Newton aficionado well knows, he held views on religion and alchemy that make life very difficult for his rational fans. They like to argue that his science has nothing to do with his non-scientific activities but any analysis of his work shows that the various fields of his thought scientific and non-scientific were thoroughly integrated with one another. So which side of history do we place him on?

I briefly mentioned astrology above, which today is without doubt regarded, as being on the wrong side of history but astrology was one of the major driving forces behind the evolution of European astronomy from its beginnings in the Fertile Crescent sometime in the third millennium BCE all the way down to the end of the seventeenth century. Although, he was not a believer even Newton learnt his astronomy from books written by astrologers.

An eighteenth century theory that gets mocked by believers in right and wrong sides of history, as truly beyond the pale is the phlogiston theory in chemistry. It is of course viewed with hindsight stupendously and wonderfully wrong. However, what those, who mock it ignore is that scholars such as Joseph Black, Daniel Rutherford, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Joseph Priestley and Henry Cavendish working within the framework of the phlogiston theory discovered, isolated and identified the properties of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and the structure of water amongst other things; these researchers laid the foundations of modern chemistry. All on the wrong side of history, really? Some go so far as to attribute the discovery of oxygen to Lavoisier and not to Scheele and Priestley because unlike Priestley he didn’t believe it to be dephlogisticated air and was thus on the right side of history. But was he? Lavoisier named the gas oxygen from the Greek for sharp or acid believing it to be the element that makes all acids acidic, a belief that was just as false as Priestley’s dephlogisticated air.

Like Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century, Albert Einstein is an icon of twentieth century science. Einstein is criticised and said to be on the wrong side of history because although he, together with Max Planck, founded the quantum theory, for which they both won Nobel Prizes, he refused to accept the indeterminate model of quantum mechanics created by Niels Bohr, based on the theories of Schrödinger, Heisenberg et al. Einstein was a determinist and was in this case shown to be wrong in the long run but Bohr himself said that Einstein contribute as much as anybody else to the development of quantum mechanics through his astute criticism.

I hope I have brought enough clear examples to show that categorising scientist or developments in science, as either on the right or wrong side of history is actually complete rubbish. Every scientific scholar, who has ever lived, has got some things right, some wrong and quite a lot, sort of half right. Science advances by others correcting the wrong and the half right bits. Also theories that in the end proved to be totally wrong, such as astrology, the phlogiston theory or alchemy, can, and in fact did, generate important results that furthered the evolution of science. The evolution of science is not categorised by clear black and white situations but as I said above consists of multifarious shades of grey. The right/wrong side of history concept is actually nothing more than a veiled version of presentism i.e. only acknowledging those aspects of the history of science that we consider to be right from our current standpoint.

I firmly believe that the concept of right or wrong side of history together with presentism and the expressions ‘father of’, ‘greatest’, and ‘first’ belongs in the rubbish bin and should never ever be applied in anything that purports to be serious history of science.








Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

There is no year zero!

I realise that in writing this post I am wasting my time, pissing against the wind, banging my head against a brick wall and all the other colourful expressions in the English language that describe embarking on a hopeless endeavour but I am renowned for being a pedantic curmudgeon and so I soldier on into the jaws of disappointment and defeat. I shall attempt to explain carefully and I hope clearly why the 31st of December of the year 2019 does not mark the end of the second decade of the 21st century. I know, I know but I must.

The core of the problem lies in the fact that we possess two basic sets of counting numbers, cardinals and ordinals. Now cardinals have nothing to do with the Holy Roman Catholic Church, a family of birds or a baseball team from St. Louis but are the numbers we use to say how many items there are in a group, a collection, a heap or as the mathematician prefer to call it a set. Let us look at a well-known example:

I’ll sing you twelve, O

Green grow the rushes, O

What are your twelve, O?

Twelve for the twelve Apostles

Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,

Ten for the ten commandments,

Nine for the nine bright shiners,

Eight for the April Rainers.

Seven for the seven stars in the sky,

Six for the six proud walkers,

Five for the symbols at your door,

Four for the Gospel makers,

Three, three, the rivals,

Two, two, the lily-white boys,

Clothed all in green, O

One is one and all alone

And evermore shall be so.

This is the final round of an old English counting song the meaning of several lines of which remain intriguingly obscure. Starting with the fourth line from the top we have a set of 12 Apostles i.e. the original twelve follower of Jesus. One line further in, we have a set of 11, who went to heaven, presumably the Apostles minus Judas Iscariot. And so we proceed, each line refers to a group or set giving to number contained in it.

In everyday life we use cardinal numbers all the time. I bought 6 eggs today. There are 28 children in Johnny’s class. My car has 4 wheels and so on and so forth. The cardinal numbers also contain the number zero (0), which indicates that a particular group or set under discussion contain no items at all. There are currently zero kings of France. We can carry out all the usually simple arithmetical operations–addition, subtraction, multiplication and division–on the cardinal numbers including zero, with the exception that we can’t divide by zero; mathematicians say division by zero is not defined. So if Johnny’s class with its 28 members are joined by Jenny’s class with 27 members for the school trip there will be 55 children on the bus. I’m sure you can think up lots of other examples yourselves.

Ordinal numbers have a different function, there signify the position of items in a list, row, series etc. We also use different names for ordinal numbers to cardinal numbers, so instead of one, two three four…, we say first, second, third, fourth…etc. an example would be, Johnny was the fifth person in his class to get the flu this winter. Now, in the ordinal numbers there is no zero, it would be a contradiction in terms, as it can’t exist. Occasionally when there is an existing ordered list of principles or laws people will talk about the ‘zeroeth’ law, meaning one that wasn’t originally included but that they think should precede the existing ones.

When we talk about years we tend to use the words for cardinal numbers but in fact we are actually talking about ordinal numbers. What we call 2019 CE or AD i.e. two thousand and nineteen is in fact the two thousand and nineteenth year of the Common Era or the two thousand and nineteenth year of Our Lord. Whichever system of counting years one uses, Gregorian, Jewish, Muslim, Persian, Chinese, Hindu or whatever there is and never can be a year zero, it is, as stated abve, a contradiction in terms and cannot exist. Therefore the first decade, that is a group of ten year, in your calendrical system consists of the years one to ten or the first year to the tenth year, the second decade the years eleven to twenty or the eleventh year to the twentieth year and so on. The first century, that is a group of one hundred years, consists of the years one to one hundred or the first year to the one-hundredth year. First millennium, that is one thousand years, consists of the years one to one thousand or the first year to the one-thousandth year.

Going back to our starting point the first decade of the 21st century started on the 1st January 2001 and finished on the 31st December 2010. The second decade started on the 1st January 2011 and will end on the 31st December 2020 and not on 31st December 2019 as various innumerate people would have you believe.



Filed under Calendrics, History of Mathematics, Myths of Science

The Royal Society really needs to work on its history of the telescope

One would think that the Royal Society being one of the eldest, but not the eldest as they like to claim, scientific societies in Europe when presenting themselves as purveyors of the history of science, would take the trouble to get their facts right. If, however, one thought this, one would be wrong. Last week on the Internet the Royal Society was pushing a slide show, under their own name, on Google Arts and Culture on the history of the telescope in astronomy that in terms of historical accuracy is less than one, as a historian of science, nay of the telescope, might hope or indeed wish for.

The slide show in question is titled, Silent Harmony: astronomy at the Royal Society: Discover how innovation in telescopes and other optical instruments changed the way we see the universe. Following the title slide we have another general blurb slide but things then get serious on the history level, we get told under the heading, The new astronomy:


Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was the first to explore the solar system using a telescope. His work directly built on famous predecessors such as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who set out to model a heliocentric universe – one in which the sun is at the centre of the universe – and theorise the motion of planets. 

Sometimes I tire slightly of repeating myself but once more into the breach dear friends, once more. Galileo was not the first to explore the solar system using a telescope. That honour goes to a man in London, you know London home of the Royal Society, Thomas Harriot (1560–1621).


Portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Oriel College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also at the same time as Galileo was aiming his telescope at the heavens in Padua, Simon Marius (1573–1625) was doing the same in Ansbach in Franconia


Simon Marius Source: Wikimedia Commons

and Giovanni Paolo Lembo (1570–1618) and Odo van Maelcote (1572–1615) in Rome. Whilst Galileo was more than prepared to call himself a Copernican, he very strongly rejected or ignored the work of Johannes Kepler, so saying that his work directly built on that of Kepler is more than a simple distortion of history. To say that these three theorised the motion of planets is to say the least bizarre, all astronomical models whether heliocentric, geocentric or geo-heliocentric theorise the motion of planets that is a large part of what astronomy is. We are not finished with Signor Galileo:

Galileo’s Starry Messenger was the first published work to incorporate scientific observations made using a telescope.

The treatise contains descriptions of lunar landscapes, new stars in well-known constellations and the major satellites of Jupiter.

This is all correct, however because he was the first to publish people make the mistake of thinking he was the first or even the only one to make telescopic observations in 1609. Moving on, the next slide caption isn’t correct:

Galileo designed and built the most powerful telescope of his generation.

His own instrument, a thirty-power magnifier preserved at the Museo Galileo in Florence, served as model to other instrument-makers for many years.

I’m beginning to think that the Royal Society has got something against Thomas Harriot. Whilst Galileo did indeed build a thirty-power telescope it was not the most powerful telescope of his generation, Harriot built a fifty-power one. However, as in a Dutch telescope (convex objective/concave eyepiece) the field of vision diminishes with magnification the fifty-power telescope proved next to useless. Galileo’s own instrument did not serve as a model to other instrument-makers for many years that, is to put it mildly, total bullshit. Lots of people knew how to construct a simple Dutch telescope and did so without any reference to Galileo.

We skip a few slides and arrive at the most famous President of the Royal Society, Isaac Newton;


Portrait of Newton by Godfrey Kneller, 1689 Source: Wikimedia Commons

we get a picture of Newton’s reflecting telescope with the following caption:


Replica of Newton’s second reflecting telescope, which he presented to the Royal Society in 1672 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Society also owns a reflecting telescope made by Newton as a direct application of his theories on light and colour.

This statement is a best misleading and at worst simply wrong depending on how you interpret it. Newton’s theories on light and colour led him to the awareness that the coloured fringes visible on the images of the then normal refracting telescope were the result of chromatic aberration, i.e. the visible light being split up into the colour spectrum when passing through a spherical lenses. This discovery led him to developing a reflecting telescope because he believed falsely that creating an achromatic lens was impossible. It would be more than half a century before Chester Moore Hall invented the first achromatic lens. The principle of the reflecting telescope, which with a suitable mirror, does not suffer from chromatic aberration, had been known since antiquity and Newton was by no means the first to try and construct one. He was, however, the first to succeed in producing a functioning reflecting telescope. You can read an outline of the full history of the reflecting telescope here. Interestingly nobody succeeded in copying Newton’s achievements for the best part of fifty years, when John Hadley (1682–1784), another fellow of the Royal Society, who gets no mention in this slide show, finally succeeded in producing large scale functioning reflecting telescopes; Newton’s instrument was little more than a toy.

The instrument allowed him to make various observations conclusive with his theories on gravity.

This caption is just high-grade rubbish. Newton did not make any observations with this instrument that were in anyway connected with his theory of gravity, let alone conclusive with it.

There are, in the mean time, quite a few good books on the history of the telescope, I have most of them sitting on my book shelf and I’m sure some of them are in the Royal Society’s library, so why didn’t who ever put this slide show together consult them or simply ask an expert?









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

Why, FFS! why?

On Twitter this morning physicist and science writer Graham Farmelo inadvertently drew my attention to a reader’s letter in The Guardian from Sunday by a Collin Moffat. Upon reading this load of old cobblers, your friendly, mild mannered historian of Renaissance mathematics instantly turned into the howling-with-rage HISTSCI_HULK. What could possibly have provoked this outbreak? I present for your delectation the offending object.

I fear Thomas Eaton (Weekend Quiz, 12 October) is giving further credence to “fake news” from 1507, when a German cartographer was seeking the derivation of “America” and hit upon the name of Amerigo Vespucci, an obscure Florentine navigator. Derived from this single source, this made-up derivation has been copied ever after.

The fact is that Christopher Columbus visited Iceland in 1477-78, and learned of a western landmass named “Markland”. Seeking funds from King Ferdinand of Spain, he told the king that the western continent really did exist, it even had a name – and Columbus adapted “Markland” into the Spanish way of speaking, which requires an initial vowel “A-”, and dropped “-land” substituting “-ia”.

Thus “A-mark-ia”, ie “America”. In Icelandic, “Markland” may be translated as “the Outback” – perhaps a fair description.

See Graeme Davis, Vikings in America (Birlinn, 2009).

Astute readers will remember that we have been here before, with those that erroneously claim that America was named after a Welsh merchant by the name of Richard Ap Meric. The claim presented here is equally erroneous; let us examine it in detail.

…when a German cartographer was seeking the derivation of “America” and hit upon the name of Amerigo Vespucci, an obscure Florentine navigator.

It was actually two German cartographers Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann and they were not looking for a derivation of America, they coined the name. What is more, they give a clear explanation as to why and how the coined the name and why exactly they chose to name the newly discovered continent after Amerigo Vespucci, who, by the way, wasn’t that obscure. You can read the details in my earlier post. It is of interest that the supporters of the Ap Meric theory use exactly the same tactic of lying about Waldseemüller and Ringmann and their coinage.

The fact is that Christopher Columbus visited Iceland in 1477-78, and learned of a western landmass named “Markland”.

Let us examine what is known about Columbus’ supposed visit to Iceland. You will note that I use the term supposed, as facts about this voyage are more than rather thin. In his biography of Columbus, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, historian of Early Modern exploration, writes:

He claimed that February 1477–the date can be treated as unreliable in such a long –deferred recollection [from 1495]–he sailed ‘a hundred leagues beyond’ Iceland, on a trip from Bristol…

In “Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration: An Encyclopedia”[1] edited by the American historian, Silvio A. Bedini, we can read:

The possibility of Columbus having visited Iceland is based on a passage in his son Fernando Colón’s biography of his father. He cites a letter from Columbus stating that in February 1477 he sailed “a hundred leagues beyond the island of Til” (i.e. Thule, Iceland). But there is no evidence to his having stopped in Iceland or spoken with anyone, and in any case it is unlikely that anyone he spoke to would have known about the the Icelandic discovery of Vinland.

This makes rather a mockery of the letter’s final claim:

Seeking funds from King Ferdinand of Spain, he told the king that the western continent really did exist, it even had a name – and Columbus adapted “Markland” into the Spanish way of speaking, which requires an initial vowel “A-”, and dropped “-land” substituting “-ia”.

Given that it is a well established fact that Columbus was trying to sail westward to Asia and ran into America purely by accident, convinced by the way that he had actually reached Asia, the above is nothing more than a fairly tale with no historical substance whatsoever.

To close I want to address the question posed in the title to this brief post. Given that we have a clear and one hundred per cent reliable source for the name of America and the two men who coined it, why oh why do people keep coming up with totally unsubstantiated origins of the name based on ahistorical fantasies? And no I can’t be bothered to waste either my time or my money on Graeme Davis’ book, which is currently deleted and only available as a Kindle.

[1] On days like this it pays to have one book or another sitting around on your bookshelves.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus, Duckworth, London, ppb 1996, p. 18. Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration: An Encyclopedia, ed. Silvio A. Bedini, Da Capo Press, New York, ppb 1992, p. 314


Filed under History of Cartography, History of Navigation, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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


Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

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


Galileo’s 1610 sketch of Saturn and its rings

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


Galileo’s 1616 sketch of Saturn and its rings

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

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

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


Giovanni Cassini (artist unknown) Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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


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


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

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

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

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



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