Category Archives: Newton

Calendrical confusion or just when did Newton die?

Today there is general agreement throughout the world that for commercial and international political purposes everybody uses the Gregorian calendar, first introduced into the Catholic countries of Europe in 1582. However Europeans should never forget that for other purposes other cultures have their own calendars often wildly at odds with the Gregorian one. Tomorrow is for example the Persian New Year’s a festival, which marks the first day of spring. The Persian calendar is not only used in Iran but in many other countries that were historically under Persian influence. Tomorrow also marks the first day of the year 1394 for Persians. Earlier all cultures used their own calendars a bewildering array of lunar calendars, lunar-solar calendars and pure solar calendars making life very difficult for both astronomers and historians. Trying to find out what a given date in an original document is, or better would have been, on our ‘universal’ Gregorian calendar is often a complex and tortuous problem. Astronomers whose observations of the heavens need to span long periods of time solved the problem for themselves by introducing a standard calendrical scale into which they then converted all historical astronomical data from diverse cultures. Throughout late antiquity, the Islamic Empire and well into the European Early Modern Period astronomers used the Egyptian solar calendar for this purpose. You can still find astronomical dates given according to this system in Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. In modern times they introduced the Julian day count for this purpose.

Within Europe the most famous calendrical confusion occurred in the early centuries following the introduction in Catholic countries of the Gregorian calendar. Exactly because it was Catholic most Protestant states refused, at first, to introduce it, meaning that Europe was running on two different time scales making life difficult for anybody having to do outside of their own national borders, in particular for traders. This problem was particularly acute in The Holy Roman Empire of German States that patchwork of small, medium and large states, principalities and independent cities that occupied most of middle Europe. Neighbouring states were often of conflicting religious affiliation meaning that people living in the border regions only needed to go a couple of kilometres down the road to go ten days backwards or forwards in time. The only people who were happy with this system were the calendar makers who could sell two sets of calendars Gregorian, so-called new style or ‘ns’ and Julian, so-called old-style or ‘os’. Some enterprising printer publishers even printed both calendars in one pamphlet, for a higher price of course.

Within Germany the problem was finally solved at the end of the seventeenth century, largely due to the efforts of Erhard Weigel who campaigned tirelessly to get the Protestant states to adopt the Gregorian calendar, which they finally did on 1 January 1700. England as usual had to go its own way.

Although John Dee, the court advisor on all things mathematical, recommended the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century the Anglican Bishops blocked its adoption because it came from the Pope and the Anglican Church couldn’t be seen cowing down to the Vatican. Even when the Protestant German states finally accepted that adopting the Gregorian calendar was more rational than any religious prejudices the English still remained obdurate, not prepared to have anything to do with Catholicism. England final came into line in 1752. So what about Isaac Newton?

Many Internet sources are saying that Isaac Newton died on 20 March almost none of them say whether this is new-style or old-style. Most of the sources give 1727 as the year of death a few 1726. Most sources give Newton’s life span as 1642–1727, others 1642–1726 and yet others 1643–1727, what is going on here?

Isaac Newton was born 25 December 1642 according to the Julian calendar that is old-style. If converted to the Georgian calendar, we have to add ten days, and so his date of birth was 4 January 1643 new-style. Things become slightly more complicated with his date of death. Newton died 20 March 1726 according to the Julian calendar that is old-style. Converting to the Georgian calendar we now have to add eleven days because the Julian calendar has slipped another day behind the Gregorian one so his date of death is 31 March 1727 new-style. Wait a minute we just jumped a year what happened here? When Julius Caesar introduced the solar calendar in Rome he moved the New Year from the traditional Roman spring equinox, 25 March, to the first of January. During the Middle Ages the Church moved the New Year back to 25 March. With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar New Year’s Day moved back to 1 January. However England still retaining the medieval version of the Julian calendar kept 25 March as New Year’s Day. Thus at the time of Newton’s death 1727 started on 25 March in England meaning that Newton died 20 March 1726 (os).

Just to summarise if you wish to correctly quote Newton’s dates of birth and death then they are 25 December 1642 – 20 March 1726 (os) or 4 January 1643 – 31 March 1727 (ns).

 

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The continuing saga of io9’s history of science inanities.

I made a sort of deal with myself to, if possible, avoid io9 and above all the inane utterances of Esther Inglis-Arkell. Unfortunately I fell for a bit of history of science click bait on Twitter and stumbled into her attempt to retell the story of the degenerating relations between Isaac Newton and John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal. I say attempt but that is actual a misuse of the word because it somehow implies making an effort, something that Ms Inglis-Arkell is not willed to do. Her post resembles something half read, half understood and then half forgotten spewed out onto the page in a semblance of English sentences. It in no way approaches being something that one could honestly label history of science story telling even if one were to stretch this concept to its outer most limits.

I have blogged on the relations between Newton and Flamsteed on a number of occasion but let us look at Ms Inglis-Arkell miserable attempt at telling the story and in so doing bring the correct story out into the open. Our storyteller opens her tale thus:

Isaac Newton reached the level of genius in two different disciplines: physics and making people miserable. This is a tale of his accomplishments in the latter discipline. The object of his scorn, this time, is a poor astronomer named John Flamsteed, who made the mistake of not being agreeable enough.

I tend to dislike the term genius but if one is going to apply it to Newton’s various activities then one should acknowledge that as an academic he also reached the level of genius as a mathematician, as a theoretical astronomer and as an instrument maker and not just as a physicist. Credit where credit is due. On the subject of his making people miserable, John Flamsteed was anything but a saint and as I pointed out in an earlier post, Grumpy old astronomers behaving badly or don’t just blame Isaac!, in the dispute in question both of them gave as good as he got.

We now get to the factual part of the story where our storyteller displays her grasp of the facts or rather her lack of one:

Flamsteed and Newton started their acquaintance on good terms. They spent the 1680s happily corresponding about two lights in the sky, seen in 1680, which were either two comets or one comet that made two trips by Earth. This got Flamsteed interested in cataloguing [sic] the heavens. If enough information was compiled about the lay of the night sky, astronomers would be able to understand all kinds of things about the shape of the universe and how its various pieces worked. By the mid-1690s, Flamsteed was the Astronomer Royal and was making a star catalogue which he would publish when it was completed.

Remember that bit about half read and half forgotten? John Flamsteed had been installed by Charles II as Astronomer Royal for the newly commissioned Royal Observatory at Greenwich on 22 June 1675 “forthwith to apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so-much desired longitude of places, for the perfecting the art of navigation.” Not by the mid-1690s as Ms Inglis-Arkell would have us believe. I love the bit about how, astronomers would be able to understand all kinds of things about the shape of the universe and how its various pieces worked”, Which basically just says that she doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about so she’ll just waffle for a bit and hope nobody notices. The Observatory itself wasn’t finished till 1685 but by the beginning of the 1680 Flamsteed was already busily fulfilling his obligations as official state astronomical observer.

The early 1680s saw a series of spectacular comets observable from Europe, and Flamsteed along with all the other European astronomers devoted himself to observing their trajectories and it was a conjecture based on his observations that led to his correspondence with Newton. He observed two comets in 1680, one in November and the second in mid December. Flamsteed became convinced that they were one and the same comet, which had orbited the sun. He communicated his thoughts by letter to Isaac Newton (1642–1727) in Cambridge, the two hadn’t fallen out with each other yet, and Newton initially rejected Flamsteed’s findings. However on consideration he came to the conclusion that Flamsteed was probably right and drawing also on the observations of Edmund Halley began to calculate possible orbits for the comet. He and Halley began to pay particular attention to observing comets, in particular the comet of 1682. By the time Newton published his Principia, his study of cometary orbits took up one third of the third volume, the volume that actually deals with the cosmos and the laws of motion and the law of gravity. By showing that not only the planets and their satellite systems obeyed the law of gravity but that also comets did so, Newton was able to demonstrate that his laws were truly universal. Note that Flamsteed two-in-one comet was orbiting the sun and not “one comet that made two trips by Earth”; this will come up again in the next paragraph:

Newton, meanwhile, believed that returning comets might be drawn to the Earth by some mysterious force. They might circle the Earth, in fact, the way the Moon circled the Earth. Perhaps, the force that drew the Moon and the comets might be the same. Newton wanted to study his “Moon’s Theory,” and to do so he needed the information in Flamsteed’s catalogue, incomplete though it was. Newton had risen to the rank President of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; the titles might leave one in doubt as to who had the power, but Newton’s fame and connections far outstripped Flamsteed’s. When Isaac Newton wanted information from the catalogue, he wanted it immediately, whether it was published or not.

The opening sentences of this paragraph are a confession of complete incompetence for somebody, who, if I remember correctly, has a degree in physics. We are of course talking about the force of gravity, so why not call it that? Anyone who has studied physics at school knows that according to the law of gravity any two bodies “attract each other” something that Newton had spelled out very clearly in his Principia, which was published in 1687 before the dispute that Inglis-Arkell is attempting to describe took place. So the comets are not being “drawn to the Earth by some mysterious force”. In fact they are not being drawn to the Earth at all and there are certainly not circling it. Flamsteed’s careful observations and astute deduction had correctly led Newton to the conclusion that the force of gravity causes some comets to orbit the sun. As we shall see shortly when Newton and Flamsteed got in each others hair about Newton’s need for fresh observational date on the moon he was still Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge and still ten years away from becoming President of the Royal Society. However before I go into detail let us look at Inglis-Arkell’s account of the affair.

You can get a lot done when you’re friends with the Queen, but it still took a lot of time for Isaac Newton to get what he wanted from John Flamsteed. First Flamsteed sent assistants’ work instead of his own. Newton was exasperated with the mistakes they had made. Newton wrote nasty letters. Flamsteed wrote nasty diary entries. Newton turned to the royal Prince George, asking him to order Flamsteed to write a book that would include all his current data. Flamsteed just couldn’t get it together to produce the book, much as he must have wished to comply with his Prince’s order.

Newton inspected the Royal Observatory. Flamsteed guarded the equipment so jealously that the two physically fought over it. Flamsteed ended that day with a very smug diary entry declaring that the “instruments… were my own.”

Now the Astronomer Royal was not only disobeying Isaac Newton but the actual Royals, and so it’s impressive that Flamsteed managed to keep his prestigious appointment. He didn’t lose his position or his data for over a decade. It wasn’t until 1712 that Newton was able to influence Queen Anne and Prince George enough to force Flamsteed to publish his data in a small volume. Still, Flamsteed was bitter at the defeat.

Our intrepid wanna-be historian of science has conflated and confused three separate struggles between the two protagonists into one, getting her facts wrong along the way and even making thinks up, not a very good advertisement for a website that wishes to inform its readers or maybe this is one of their sci-fi contributions.

Let us take a look at what really happened. In an incredible tour de force Newton wrote and published his Principia in the three years between 1684 and 1687 and as I noted above Flamsteed’s recognition that some comets orbit the sun went on to play a central role in this ground-breaking work. In his magnum opus Newton was able to demonstrate that the whole of the then known cosmos lay under the rule of the law of gravity. It determined the elliptical orbits of the planets around the sun as well as the orbits of the then known satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. It converted the comets from irregular prophets of doom into celestial objects with regular but extremely long orbits. Everything seemed to fit neatly into place in a clockwork cosmos. Well almost everything! The earth’s closest neighbour appeared not to want to obey the dictates of gravity. Although Newton managed to get a fairly good approximation of a gravity-determined orbit for the moon it wasn’t anywhere near as good as he would have liked.

The problem lies on the size of the moon. Having an unusually large mass for a satellite the moon is involved in a gravitational system with both the earth and the sun, the classical three-body problem. As a result its orbit is not a smooth ellipse but being pulled hither and thither by both the earth and the sun its orbit contains many substantial irregularities making it very difficult to calculate. There is in fact no general analytical solution to the three-body problem, as was finally proved in the nineteenth century by Henri Poincaré. The physicist or astronomer is forced to calculate each irregularity step by step, the situation that Newton found himself in whilst writing the Principia.

In 1693 Newton was contemplating a second edition of the Principia and decided to tackle the moon’s orbit anew. This required new observational data and the person who was in procession of that data was Flamsteed. Newton never the most diplomatic of men at the best of times was even more grumpy than usual in the early 1690s. He was recovering from what appears to have been some sort of major mental breakdown, he was tackling one of the few mathematical problem that would always defeat him (the moon’s orbit, which was finally solved by Laplace in his Exposition du système du monde at the end of the eighteenth century), and he was frustrated by his situation in Cambridge and was looking for a suitable position in recognition of his, in the meantime, considerable status in London. The latter would be solved by Charles Montagu appointing him Warden of the Mint in 1696. His approach to Flamsteed to obtain the data that he required was high handed to say the least. Flamsteed, also an irritable man, who was overworked, underpaid and underfinanced in his efforts to map the entire heavens, was less than pleased by Newton’s imperious demands but delivered the requested data none the less. Newton failed to solve his problem and blaming Flamsteed and his data demanded more. Flamsteed feeling put upon grumbled but delivered; and so the pair of grumpy old men continued, each developing an intense dislike of the other. In the end Newton’s demands became so impossible that Flamsteed started sending Newton raw observational data letting him calculate the lunar positions for himself. It is difficult to say where this vicious circle would have led if Newton had not lost interest in the problem and shelved it, and the plans for a second edition of Principia, in 1695. By now the two men were totally at loggerheads but would have nothing more to do with each other for the next nine years.

In 1704 Newton, by now Master of the Mint and resident in London, was elected President of the Royal Society. On 12 April 1704 Newton took a boat down the river from the Tower of London, home of the Mint, to Greenwich, home of the Royal Observatory, to visit Flamsteed. Surprisingly amicable Newton suggested to Flamsteed that he should speak to Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s consort, on Flamsteed’s behalf about obtaining funds to have Flamsteed’s life work published. Flamsteed was agreeable to having his work published especially as his critics, most notably Edmond Halley and David Gregory, were pointing out that he had nothing to show for almost thirty years of endeavour. However he would have preferred to deal with the matter himself rather than have Newton as his broker. Newton spoke to Prince George and obtained the promise of the necessary funds. Meanwhile Flamsteed drew up a publication plan for his work. He wanted three volumes with his star catalogue the high point of his work in the third and final volume. Newton had other plans. He set up an editorial board at the Royal Society consisting of himself, David Gregory, Christopher Wren, Francis Robartes and John Arbuthnot to oversee the publication. Flamsteed, the author and also a member of the Royal Society, was not included. Newton ignored Flamsteed’s wishes and declared that the star catalogue would be printed in volume one. Newton commissioned a printer to print sample sheets, however Flamsteed found them to be of poor quality and wished to find a new printer. Newton ignored him and gave the printer the commission to print the work ordering Flamsteed to supply the introductory material for the first volume.

One major problem was that the star catalogue was at this time not complete. Flamsteed kept stalling declining to supply with Newton with the catalogue until he could complete it. He needed to calculate the stellar positions from the raw observational data. Newton promised him the money to pay the computers and actually obtained the money from Prince George. Flamsteed employed the computers to do the work and paid them out of his own pocket requesting restitution from Newton. Newton refused to pay up. So the whole sorry affair dragged on until Prince George died in 1708 with which the project ground to an end. If Flamsteed had grown to dislike Newton in the 1690s he truly hated him now.

Things remained quiet for two years then at the end of 1710 John Arbuthnot, who was physician to Queen Anne, suddenly announced that Anne had issued a warrant that appointed the president and others as the council of the Royal Society saw fit to be ‘constant Visitors’ of the Royal Society. As used here visitor means supervisor and it effectively meant that Newton was now Flamsteed’s boss. With their newly won authority Newton and his cronies did everything in their power to make life uncomfortable for Flamsteed over the next few years. On 26 October 1711 Newton summoned Flamsteed to a meeting in Crane Court, the home of the Royal Society, to inform him of the state of the observatory instruments. Here we meet a classic of institutional funding. The Crown had paid to have the Royal Observatory built and having appointed Flamsteed to run it the Crown paid his wages, on a very miserly level, however no money was ever supplied for instruments and so Flamsteed had bought his instruments with his own money. When Newton demanded account of the state of the instruments Flamsteed could prove that they were all his own private property and thus no concern of Newton’s. Newton was far from pleased by this defeat. He now ordered the Royal Ordnance to service, repair and upgrade the instruments and thus to win official control over them. Unfortunately the Ordnance, which, like the Mint, occupied the Tower of London didn’t like Newton so taking sides with Flamsteed informed Newton that there were no funds available for this work. A minor victory for Flamsteed but he had already suffered a major defeat. Before discussing this I should point out that contrary to Ms Inglis-Arkell’s claims, at no time did the elderly combatants resort to any form of physical contact.

On 14 March 1711 Arbuthnot had informed Flamsteed that the Queen had commanded the complete publication of his work; the brief reprieve brought about by the death of Prince George was over. Although the star catalogue, which was all that Newton was interested in publishing, was now finished Flamsteed at first prevaricated again. Arbuthnot wrote to Flamsteed requesting him to deliver up the catalogue, Flamsteed declined with further excuses. Newton exploded and shot off a letter ripping a strip of Flamsteed for defying a Royal command and the fight was now effectively over. Flamsteed met with Arbuthnot and handed over the manuscript requesting conditions concerning the printing and editing to which Arbuthnot acquiesced and promptly ignored. Flamsteed went ballistic, as he discovered that printing was going ahead without his knowledge and even worse his manuscript was being edited by Edmond Halley! Flamsteed by now hated Newton but he reserved his greatest loathing for Halley. It has been much speculated why Flamsteed had such an extreme aversion to Halley but it went so far that he refused to use his name and only referred to him as Reimers after Nicolaus Reimers Bär, whom Flamsteed believed had plagiarised his hero Tycho and was thus the most despicable person in the history of astronomy. Flamsteed had lost all down the line and in 1712 his star catalogue appeared in a large folio volume (not the small volume claimed by Inglis-Arkell). Deeply bitter Flamsteed now swore to publish his life’s work in three volumes, as he had originally planned in 1704, at his own expense and began with the preparation. It should be noted that far from ‘Newton being able to influence Queen Anne and Prince George enough to force Flamsteed to publish his data’, Prince George had by now been dead for four years!

However Newton might have won a victory but he hadn’t yet won the war and the tide began finally to turn in Flamsteed’s favour. In 1714 Queen Anne died and was succeeded on the throne by George I, Elector of Hanover. The succession also brought with it a change of government. Now Inglius-Arkell claims that George didn’t like Newton but this is not true. He greatly respected Newton who had long been regarded as the greatest natural philosopher in Europe; he even forced his librarian, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who would have loved to have moved to London to escape his Hanoverian backwater (no offense intended to Hannover or the Hanoverians), to stay at home so as not to offend Newton, who was at war with Leibniz when he wasn’t battling Flamsteed. However the succession and the change of government did mean a loss of influence for Newton. In early 1715 Charles Montagu, Lord Halifax, one of the most powerful politicians in England during the previous twenty years and Newton’s political patron, died. Charles Paulet, 2nd Duke of Boulton, the Lord Chamberlin, was a friend of Flamsteed’s and on 30 November 1715 he signed a warrant ordering Newton to return the three hundred remaining copies of the printed star catalogue to Flamsteed. He “made a Sacrifice of them to Heavenly Truth”; i.e. he burnt them.

Flamsteed continued with his project to publish his life’s work at his own expense but died in 1719 before he could finish the project. His widow with the willing help of his two assistants Joseph Crosthwait and Abraham Sharp finished the job and his three-volume Historia coelestis britannica was finally published in 1725, followed by his charts of the constellations the Atlas coelestis, edited by his widow and James Hodgson in 1727. Together they form a fitting monument to one of history’s greatest observational astronomers. Flamsteed had written a long preface for the Historia describing, from his standpoint, in great detail his twenty year long war with Newton but this did not make it into the final printed edition, probably because Newton, by now a living legend, was still very much alive. It only resurfaced a hundred years later. Flamsteed got his revenge, from beyond the grave, on Halley, who followed him as Astronomer Royal. As already explained above, Flamsteed’s observational instruments were his own personal property so when he died his widow stripped the observatory bare leaving Halley an empty building in which to pursue his new office.

The whole, more than twenty year long, farce is one of the more unsavoury episodes in the history of science and certainly not how one would expect two senior officers of state to behave. It is clear that Newton caries most of the blame although Flamsteed was not exactly a model of virtue deliberately fanning the flames through renitent and provocative behaviour. In particular his behaviour towards Halley, who was more than qualified and very capable of editing the star catalogue, was extremely childish and inexcusable.

You might think that I am being very unfair to Ms Inglis-Arkell having turned her very brief account into an overlong post but that is actually the point and her central failure, ignoring all of the factual errors in her version of the story. What I have laid out here are only the bare bones of the whole story, if I were to go into real detail this post would be ten times longer than it already is. Ms Inglis-Arkell attempt to reduce a highly complex series of episodes out of the history of science to a couple of hundred words in a throwaway post could only end in a level of distortion that makes the whole exercise a complete waste of time, effort (not that she seems to expended much of that) and cyberspace.

 

 

 

 

 

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Just saying…

Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to have a real talent for very sloppy history of science. He pontificates on history of science topics without taking the trouble to check his facts. On Christmas day to acknowledge the birthday of Isaac Newton he tweeted the following:

On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642

Now, you would think that an astrophysicist would be able to cope with simple arithmetic but it seems to be beyond NdGT’s mental grasp. Newton, as he points out, was born in 1642. The contribution to science that he made that “would transform the world” can only refer to his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and, as any historian of science could have told NdGT, this was published in 1687. Applying the subtraction algorithm, which most of us learnt in primary school, 1687 – 1642 = 45 and not thirty. Even being generous, as this is a fifty per cent error in the stated age at which Newton “would transform the world” we cannot really award NdGT anything but an F for this incredibly sloppy piece of work. Do try to do better next time Neil!

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Comets and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide

In the standard mythologised history of astronomy of the Early Modern Period comets are only mentioned once. We get told, in classical hagiographical manner, how Tycho Brahe observed the great comet of 1577 and thus smashed the crystalline spheres of Aristotelian cosmology freeing the way for the modern astronomy. That’s it for comets, their bit part in the drama that is the unfolding of the astronomical revolution is over and done with, don’t call us we’ll call you. The problem with this mythological account is that it vastly over emphasises the role of both Tycho and the 1577 comet in changing the view of the heavens and vastly under rates the role played by comets and their observations in the evolution of the new astronomy in the Early Modern Period. I shall deal with the crystalline spheres and their dissolution in a separate post and for now will follow the trail of the comets as they weave their way through the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries changing our perceptions of the heavens and driving the evolution of the new astronomy. I have dealt with various aspects of this story in earlier posts but rather than simple linking I will outline the whole story here.

In antiquity comets were a phenomenon to be marvelled at and to be feared. Strange apparitions lighting up the skies unpredictably and unexplainably, bringing with them, in the view of the astrology priests of earlier cultures, doom and disaster. As with almost all things Aristotle had categorised comets, fitting them into his grand scheme of things. Aristotle’s cosmology was a cosmology of spheres. In the centre resided the spherical earth, on the outer reaches it was enclosed in the sphere of the fixed stars. Between theses two were the spheres of the planets centred on and spreading outwards from the earth, Moon, Mercury, Venus,  Sun, Mars, Jupiter Saturn. This onion of celestial spheres was split into two parts by the sphere of the moon. Everything above this, superlunar, was perfect, unchanging and eternal, everything below, sublunar, imperfect, constantly changing and subject to decay. For Aristotle comets were a sublunar phenomenon and were not part of astronomy, being dealt with in his Meteorology, his book on atmospheric phenomena, amongst other things.

However Aristotle’s was not the only theory of comets in ancient Greek philosophy, the Stoics, whose philosophy was far more important and influential than Aristotle’s in late antiquity had a very different theory. For the Stoics the cosmos was not divided into two by the sphere of the moon but was a single unity permeated throughout by pneuma (whatever that maybe!). For them comets were not an atmospheric phenomenon, as for Aristotle, but were astronomical objects of some sort or other.

In the High Middle Ages as higher learning began to flourish one more in Europe it was Aristotle’s scientific theories, made compatible with Christian theology by Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas, that was taught in the newly founded universities and so comets were again treated as atmospheric phenomena up to the beginning of the fifteenth century.

The first person to view comets differently was the Florentine physician and mathematicus Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397–1482), best known for his letter and map supplied to the Portuguese Crown confirming the viability of Columbus’ plan to sail westwards to reach the spice islands. In the 1430s Toscanelli observed comets as if they were astronomical object tracing their paths onto star-charts thereby initiating a new approach to cometary observation. Toscanelli didn’t publish his observations but he was part of a circle humanist astronomers and mathematicians in Northern Italy who communicated with each other over their work both in personal conversation and by letter. In the early 1440s Toscanelli was visited by a young Austrian mathematician called Georg Aunpekh (1423–1461), better known today by his humanist toponym, Peuerbach. We don’t know as a fact that Toscanelli taught his approach to comet observation to the young Peuerbach but we do know that Peuerbach taught the same approach to his most famous pupil, Johannes Müller aka Regiomontanus (1436–1476), at the University of Vienna in the 1450’s. Peuerbach and Regiomontanus observed several comets together, including Halley’s Comet in 1456. Regiomontanus wrote up their work in a book, which included his thoughts on how to calculate correctly the parallax of a comparatively fast moving object, such as a comet, in order to determine its distance from earth. The books of Peuerbach and Regiomontanus, Peuerbach’s cosmology, New Theory of the Planets, published by Regiomontanus in Nürnberg in 1473, and their jointly authored epitome of Ptolemaeus’ Almagest, first published in Venice in 1496, became the standard astronomy textbooks for the next generation of astronomers, including Copernicus. Regiomontanus’ work on the comets remained unpublished at the time of his death.

Whereas in the middle of the fifteenth century, as Peuerbach and Regiomontanus were active there were very few competent astronomers in Europe the situation had improved markedly by the 1530s when comets again played a central role in the history of the slowly developing new astronomy. The 1530s saw a series of spectacular comets that were observed with great interest by astronomers throughout Europe. These observations led to a series of important developments in the history of cometary observation. Johannes Schöner (1477–1547) the Nürnberger astrologer-astronomer published Regiomontanus’ book on comets including his thoughts on the mathematics of measuring parallax, which introduced the topic into the European astronomical discourse. Later in the century Tycho Brahe and John Dee would correspond on exactly this topic. A discussion developed between various leading astronomers, including Peter Apian (1495–1552) in Ingolstadt, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) in Frauenburg, Gemma Frisius (1508–1555) in Leuven and Jean Péna (1528 or 1530–1558 or 1568) in Paris, on the nature of comets. Frisius and Pena in Northern Europe as well as Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576) and Girolamo Fracastoro (circa 1476–1553) in Italy propagated a theory that comets were superlunar bodies focusing sunlight like a lens to produce the tail. This theory developed in a period that saw a major revival in Stoic philosophy. Apian also published his observations of the comets including what would become known, incorrectly, as Apian’s Law that the tails of comets always point away from the sun. I say incorrectly because this fact had already been known to Chinese astronomers for several centuries.

These developments in the theory of comets meant that when the Great Comet of 1577 appeared over Europe Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) was by no means the only astronomer, who followed it’s course with interest and tried to measure its parallax in order to determine whether it was sub- or superlunar. Tycho was not doing anything revolutionary, as it is normally presented in the standard story of the evolution of modern astronomy, but was just taking part in in a debate on the nature of comets that had been rumbling on throughout the sixteenth century. The results of these mass observations were very mixed. Some observers failed to make a determination, some ‘proved’ that the comet was sublunar and some, including Tycho on Hven, Michael Maestlin (1550–1631), Kepler’s teacher, in Tübingen and Thaddaeus Hagecius (1525–1600) in Prague, all determined it to be superlunar. There were many accounts published throughout Europe on the comet the majority of which still favoured a traditional Aristotelian astrological viewpoint of which my favourite was by the painter Georg Busch of Nürnberg. Busch stated that comets were fumes that rose up from the earth into the atmosphere where they collected and ignited raining back down on the earth causing all sorts of evils and disasters including Frenchmen.

On a more serious note the parallax determinations of Tycho et al led to a gradual acceptance amongst astronomers that comets are indeed astronomical and not meteorological phenomena, whereby at the time Maestlin’s opinion probably carried more weight than Tycho’s. This conclusion was given more substance when it was accepted by Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), who although a promoter of Ptolemaic astronomy, was the most influential astronomer in Europe at the end of the sixteenth century.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century comets had advanced to being an important aspect of astronomical research; one of the central questions being the shape of the comets course through the heavens. In 1607 the English astronomer, Thomas Harriot (circa 1560–1621), and his friend and pupil, the MP, Sir William Lower (1570–1615), observed Halley’s Comet and determined that its course was curved. In 1609/10 Harriot and Lower became two of the first people to read and accept Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, and Lower suggested in a letter to Harriot that comets also follow elliptical orbits making him the first to recognise this fact, although his view did not become public at the time.

The comet of 1618 was the source of one of the most famous disputes in the history of science between Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and the Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grassi (1583–1654). Grassi had observed the comet, measured its parallax and determined that it was superlunar. Galileo had, due to an infirmity, been unable to observe the comet but when urged by his sycophantic fan club to offer an opinion on the comet couldn’t resist. Strangely he attacked Grassi adopting an Aristotelian position and claiming that comets arose from the earth and were thus not superlunar. This bizarre dispute rumbled on, with Grassi remaining reasonable and polite in his contributions and Galileo becoming increasingly abusive, climaxing in Galileo’s famous Il Saggiatore. The 1618 comet also had a positive aspect in that Kepler (1571–1630) collected and collated all of the available historical observational reports on comets and published them in a book in 1619/20 in Augsburg. Unlike Lower, who thought that comets followed Keplerian ellipses, Kepler thought that the flight paths of comets were straight lines.

The 1660s again saw a series of comets and by now the discussion amongst astronomers was focused on the superlunar flight paths of these celestial objects with Kepler’s text central to their discussions. This played a significant role in the final acceptance of Keplerian elliptical heliocentric astronomy as the correct model for the cosmos, finally eliminating its Tychonic and semi-Tychonic competitors, although some Catholic astronomers formally continued paying lip service to a Tychonic model for religious reasons, whilst devoting their attentions to discussing a heliocentric cosmos hypothetically.

The 1680s was a fateful decade for comets and heliocentricity. John Flamsteed (1646–1719), who had been appointed as the first Astronomer Royal in Greenwich in 1675, observed two comets in 1680, one in November and the second in mid December. Flamsteed became convinced that they were one and the same comet, which had orbited the sun. He communicated his thoughts by letter to Isaac Newton (1642–1727) in Cambridge, the two hadn’t fallen out with each other yet, who initially rejected Flamsteed’s findings. However on consideration Newton came to the conclusion that Flamsteed was probably right and drawing also on the observations of Edmund Halley began to calculate possible orbits for the comet. He and Halley began to pay particular attention to observing comets, in particular the comet of 1682. By the time Newton published his Principia, his study of cometary orbits took up one third of the third volume, the volume that actually deals with the cosmos and the laws of motion and the law of gravity. By showing that not only the planets and their satellite systems obeyed the law of gravity but that also comets did so, Newton was able to demonstrate that his laws were truly universal.

After the publication of the Principia, which he not only edited and published but also paid for out of his own pocket, Halley devoted himself to an intense study of the historical observations of comets. He came to the conclusion that the comet he had observed in 1682, the one observed by Peuerbach and Regiomontanus in Vienna in 1456 and the one observed by Harriot and Lower in London in 1607 were in fact one and the same comet with an orbital period of approximately 76 years. Halley published the results of his investigations both in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and as a separate pamphlet under the title Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets in 1705. Halley determined the orbit of the comet that history would come to name after him and announced that it would return in 1758. Although long lived Halley had no hope of witness this return and would never know if his was right or not. Somewhat later the French Newtonian astronomer and mathematician Alexis Clairaut (1713–1765) recalculated the return date, introducing factors not considered by Halley, to within a one-month error of the correct date. The comet was first observed on Newton’s birthday, 25 December 1758 and reached perihelion, its nearest approach to the sun, on 13 March 1759, Clairault had predicted 13 April. This was a spectacular empirical confirmation of Newton’s theory of universal gravity and with it of heliocentric astronomy. Comets had featured in the beginnings of the development of modern astronomy in the work of Toscanelli, Peuerbach and Regiomontanus and then in the final confirmation of that astronomy with the return of Halley’s Comet having weaved their way through they whole story over the preceding 350 years.

 

 

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Published on…

Today I have been mildly irritated by numerous tweets announcing the 5th July 1687, as the day on which Isaac Newton’s Principia was published, why? Partially because the claim is not strictly true and partially because it evokes a false set of images generated by the expression, published on, in the current age.

In the last couple of decades we have become used to images of hoards of teens dressed in fantasy costumes as witches queuing up in front of large bookstores before midnight to participate in the launch of the latest volume of a series of children’s books on a juvenile wizard and his adventures. These dates were the days on which the respective volumes were published and although the works of other authors do not enjoy quite the same level of turbulence, they do also have an official publication date, usually celebrated in some suitable way by author and publisher. Historically this has not always been the case.

In earlier times books, particularly ones of a scientific nature, tended to dribble out into public awareness over a vague period of time rather than to be published on a specific date. There were no organised launches, no publisher’s parties populated by the glitterati of the age and no official publication date. Such books were indeed published in the sense of being made available to the reading public but the process was much more of a slapdash affair than that which the term evokes today.

One reason for this drawn out process of release was the fact that in the early centuries of the printed book they were often not bound for sale by the publisher. Expensive works of science were sold as an unbound pile of printed sheets, allowing the purchaser to have his copy bound to match the other volumes in his library. This meant that there were not palettes of finished bound copies that could be shipped off to the booksellers. Rather a potential purchaser would order the book and its bindings and wait for it to be finished for delivery.

Naturally historians of science love to be able to nail the appearance of some game changing historical masterpiece to a specific date, however this is not always possible. In the case of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, for example, we are fairly certain of the month in 1543 that Petreius started shipping finished copies of the work but there is no specific date of publication. With other equally famous works, such as Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, the historian uses the date of signing of the dedication as a substitute date of publication.

So what is with Newton’s Principia does it have an official date of publication and if not why are so many people announcing today to be the anniversary of its publication. Principia was originally printed written in manuscript in three separate volumes and Edmond Halley, who acted both as editor and publisher, had to struggle with the cantankerous author to get those volumes out of his rooms in Cambridge and into the printing shop. In fact due to the interference of Robert Hooke, demanding credit for the discovery of the law of gravity, Newton contemplated not delivering the third volume at all. Due to Halley’s skilful diplomacy this crisis was mastered and the final volume was delivered up by the author and put into print. July 5th 1687 is not the date of publication as it is understood today, but the date of a letter that Halley sent to Newton announcing that the task of putting his immortal masterpiece onto the printed page had finally been completed and that he was sending him twenty copies for his own disposition. I reproduce the text of Halley’s letter below.

Honoured Sr

I have at length brought your Book to an end, and hope it will please you. the last errata came just in time to be inserted. I will present from you the books you desire to the R. Society, Mr Boyle, Mr Pagit, Mr Flamsteed and if there be any elce in town that you design to gratifie that way; and I have sent you to bestow on your friends in the University 20 Copies, which I entreat you to accept.[1]

[1] Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge etc., 1980, p. 468.

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Why Newton’s Apple is not a good story.

Over on the Scientific American Guest Blog we have another non-historian trying his hand at the history of science under the title Newton’s Apple: Science and the Value of a Good Story. Our author, Ned Potter a Senior Vice President of an international communications firm and former science correspondent, tells us that Isaac Newton almost invariably tops any list of history’s greatest scientists and then poses the question, why? His answer is that Newton had a great story to tell:

It’s the one about the apple. You remember it – how the young Newton, sent home from school at Cambridge to avoid the plague of 1665, was sitting under a tree one day, saw an apple fall to the ground, and, in a flash of insight, came to understand the workings of gravity.

Right there in his retelling, Potter, reveals why Newton’s Apple is anything but a great story but before I explain why, I have other fish to fry. In a lackadaisical paragraph our intrepid author summarises Newton’s scientific career:

He published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. In his spare time he designed the first reflecting telescope, laid the foundations for calculus, brought us the understanding of light and color, and in his later years – it would be disingenuous to leave this out – tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.

He did not design the first reflecting telescope in his spare time. Investigating the nature of light and colour was at the centre of his scientific endeavours twenty years before he composed the Principia Mathematicae and his design of the reflecting telescope was his answer to the problem of chromatic aberration in lenses that his new theories on colour had discovered and explained. It also wasn’t the first reflecting telescope but the first functioning one, as I’ve already explained elsewhere. Laying the foundations of calculus was also not a spare time activity. We now turn to something that I’m slowly getting tired of correcting. Newton did not try his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible in his later years but started both activities in his youth continuing them for many years. They also played a very central role in the heuristics of his scientific research, as I’ve said on more than one occasion.

My readers may ask themselves why the dating of Newton’s, by modern standards, non-scientific activities is such an important subject for me. It’s rather the other way around. By pretending that Newton only did these things in his dotage people like Potter came claim that Newton was a rational modern scientist in his youth who went off the rail in his old age, poor man. This is the creation of a myth in the history of science. Newton’s alchemy, theology and chronology are a central part of what made him the scientist that he was, to deny this is to deny the man himself and to put a mythological figure, who never existed, in his place. That is not doing history of science and should also have no place in the popular presentation of science.  But back to Newton’s Apple!

The offending phrase is of course saw an apple fall to the ground, and, in a flash of insight, came to understand the workings of gravity. This is not what happened and it also creates a completely false impression of the scientific process of discovery.  Nobody, not even Newton, understands a complex scientific theory such as the theory of universal gravity in a flash of inspiration and claims that they do misinform non-scientists about how science works.

Assuming the apple story to be basically true, and there are many historian of science who think that it is a myth, what Newton thought is very different to coming to understand the workings of gravity in a flash of insight. The sight of the falling apple led him to pose a question to himself, something along the lines of, ”what causes the apple to fall to the ground?” This led to another question, and herein lies Newton’s brilliance, is that which causes the apple to fall downwards the same as that, which prevents the moon from shooting off in a tangent to its orbit as the law of inertia say it should? Here we have the beginning of an idea that can only have taken place in a mind prepared by the requisite study to be able to form this particular idea. The idea alone is in itself useless unless one possesses the necessary knowledge to test it. Newton did possess this knowledge of dynamics, astronomy and mathematics, which he had acquired through intensive personal study over the previous years rather than from his university lecturers. He then applied this knowledge to testing his newly won hypothesis, a fairly complex and demanding mathematical calculation that required both time and effort. And see here the result!  The two aren’t the same! Newton’s initial attack on the problem failed because of inadequate data. He put the problem aside and devoted himself instead to the study of optics (see above). However he did not forget that insight and many years later he returned to the problem with fresh data and showed that his initial insight had in fact been correct. The way was now open to the development of the universal theory of gravity. Note after all of the steps that we have already gone through we have not arrived at the workings of the theory of gravity, we have merely started down the road towards it. In fact Newton would have to invest two years of very intense work, to the exclusion of everything else in his life, between 1684 and 1687 in order to finally develop the theory in all of its glory, as published in his Principia. The process can hardly be described as “a flash of insight”.

I hope that I have made clear that, in the sense of Ned Potter, Newton’s Apple is anything but a good story, as it creates a complete misconception of the scientific process, a process that even in the case of a monster intellect such as Newton’s involves an incredible amount of study and sheer hard work.

The story as presented by Potter could however have its uses in teaching an introductory course in the history of science and in illustrating the scientific process. One presents the students with the myth of Newton’s Apple à la Potter and then have them research the real historical situation. To look for, read and analyse the original sources of the apple story, William Stukeley, as well as John Conduit and Voltaire, who both had the story from Catherine Barton, Newton’s niece and housekeeper as well as Conduit’s wife. Then have them study the real process by which Newton developed his theory of universal gravity, as I have sketched it, demonstrating how misleading such tales can be. As such I think that the Newton’s Apple story can be put to good pedagogical use, however as Potter wishes it to be considered:

Over the years, inevitably, the details have been embellished. Ask around today, and people may tell you that the apple bonked Newton on the head. But the point remains: if you have an important point to make, especially in science but also in other fields, there’s nothing like a good story to make it memorable.

I think it’s anything but a good story particularly if the important point being made is completely false.

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Alchemical confusion redux.

Yesterday, in my frustration with Mr Campbell’s drivel I missed another reference to Newton towards the end of his post to which Laura has drawn my attention in the comments.  Our Google expert delivers the following gem:

If I have limited time I want to read about Principia, not a failed effort later in Newton’s career. The fact that John Maynard Keynes believed in alchemy does not validate it, it instead shows us what was wrong with Keynes-ian economic beliefs. He believed in eugenics too, that didn’t make it valid.

In theses few lines Mr Campbell truly displays his total ignorance of subject he is pontificating about.  We start off with the classic, ‘Newton’s alchemy was a product of his dotage after he had produced his scientific work, the Principia’. Campbell doesn’t express it quite like that but it’s obvious what he believes. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I stated in the previous post Newton began his intensive study of alchemy in 1666 and continued it till 1696. He wrote the Principia in somewhat of a frenzy between 1684 and 1687, that is in two thirds of the way through his alchemy studies. Worse than this from Campbell’s standpoint Newton’s alchemical studies actually played a significant role in the conception of the Principia!

Newton conceived and wrote the Principia during a period in the history of science when the mechanical philosophy was totally dominant. This stated quite clearly that if object A moved as a result of object B then there must exist a mechanical contact between the two objects. Newton’s theory of gravity functioning through action at a distance was completely inacceptable. Newton was originally a supporter of the mechanical philosophy and as such would have been incapable of accepting his own later theory of gravity. What gave him the ability to go against the trend and embrace action at a distance? You guessed it, his study of alchemy. It has been clearly shown, mostly by Betty Jo Dobbs, that Newton’s acceptance of action at a distance and thus of a mental position from which he could formulate his theory of gravity was his study of the spirit forces in alchemy. Beyond this, Newton’s third law of motion is known to have been based on an alchemical principle.

In fact Newton’s introduction of the force of gravity acting at a distance led to the strongest criticism of and opposition to the Principia by the Cartesian and Leibnizian supporters of the mechanical philosophy. They accused him of reintroducing the occult (meaning hidden) forces into natural philosophy that they had banished. On these grounds whilst admiring the mathematical ingenuity of the Principia they rejected its central thesis.

Just as worrying as Mr Campbell’s total misrepresentation of Newton and his alchemy is his presentation of John Maynard Keynes. Now I’m not in anyway an expert on Keynes, in fact I know more about his father John Neville Keynes who was one of my nineteenth century logicians when I was serving my apprenticeship as a historian of mathematical logic. However I don’t really think that Keynes believed in alchemy. Worse than this, in the comments to his post, in response to just such doubt expressed by a reader, Campbell basically admits that he has no justification for this claim beyond his own personal animosity to Keynes’ economic theories and his support of eugenics as well as the fact that the fact that Keynes donated his personal collection of Newton’s alchemical writings to Cambridge University.

I shall ignore both the economics and the eugenics as non sequitur in a discussion on the history of alchemy. Viewing Keynes’ donation of the Newton papers as somehow damning is to say the least bizarre. This and other remarks scattered around Campbell’s incoherent piece lead me to the conclusion that Campbell is the worst sort of historical presentist.  He seems to be of the opinion that only those aspects of a historical researchers work that are still relevant by today’s standard are worth conserving or investigating, all the rest can be assigned to the dustbin of history. By totally misrepresenting alchemy and labelling it just pseudo-science Campbell thinks we dispense with it once and for all. The whole point of the fascinating and stimulating work of Principe et al is that they have clearly demonstrated that the real historical alchemy, as opposed to Campbell’s mythological version, made very significant contributions to the shaping of modern science.

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