Category Archives: Uncategorized

A misleading book title that creates the wrong impression

A new biography of Johannes Kepler has just appeared and although I haven’t even seen it yet, let alone read it, it brings out the HistSci Hulk side of my personality. What really annoys me on David Love’s book, Kepler and the Universe[1], is the title or rather the subtitle, How One Man Revolutionised Astronomy. Now, I for one have for many years conducted a private campaign to persuade people not to claim that we live in a Copernican Cosmos, a standard cliché, but that we live in a Keplerian Cosmos, because it was the very different elliptical system of Kepler that helped heliocentricity to its breakthrough and not the system of Copernicus. However Love’s subtitle immediately evokes the spectre of the lone genius and for all his undoubted brilliance Kepler was not a lone genius and especially not in terms of his cosmology/astronomy.

A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unknown artist Source: Wikipedia Commons

A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unknown artist
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Even a cursory examination of Kepler’s road to his system will immediately reveal his intellectual debts and his co-conspirators, both willing and unwilling. First off is naturally Copernicus himself. Kepler did not conceive a heliocentric system from scratch but was, on his own admission a glowing admirer or even acolyte of the Ermländer scholar. This admiration is one of the principle reasons that we don’t truly acknowledge Kepler’s achievement but tend to dismiss it as having just dotted the ‘Is’ and crossed the ‘Ts’ in Copernicus’ system, a demonstrably false judgement. Kepler, of course, didn’t help the situation when he titled the most simple and readable version of his system, and the one that together with the Rudolphine Tables had the most influence, the Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae. Not a smart move! Whatever, we are already at two men who revolutionised astronomy.

Nicolaus Copernicus 1580 portrait (artist unknown) in the Old Town City Hall, Toruń Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicolaus Copernicus 1580 portrait (artist unknown) in the Old Town City Hall, Toruń
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler did not discover Copernicus himself but was introduced to him by his teacher Michael Maestlin at the University of Tübingen. Usually Maestlin gets mentioned in passing as Kepler’s teacher and then forgotten but he played a very important role in Kepler’s early development. In reality Maestlin was himself one of the leading European astronomers and mathematicians in the latter part of the sixteenth century, as well as being by all accounts an excellent teacher. He was also one of the very few supporters of both Copernican astronomy and cosmology. This meant that he gave Kepler probably the best foundation in the mathematical sciences that he could have found anywhere at the time, as well as awakening his interest in Copernican thought. It was also Maestlin who decided Kepler would be better off becoming a teacher of mathematics and district mathematician rather than training for the priesthood; a decision that Kepler only accepted very, very reluctantly. Even after he had left Tübingen Maestlin continued to support the young Kepler, although he would withdraw from him in later years. Maestlin edited, corrected and polished Kepler’s, so important, first publication, the Mysterium Cosmographicum. In fact Maestlin’s contributions to the finished book were so great he might even be considered a co-author. Some people think that in later life Kepler abandoned the, for us, rather bizarre Renaissance hypothesis of the Cosmographicum, but he remained true to his initial flash of inspiration till the very end, regarding all of his later work as just refinements of that first big idea. Maestlin’s contribution to the Keplerian system was very substantial. And then there were three.

Michael Maestlin Source: Wikimedia Commons

Michael Maestlin
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho! Without Tycho Brahe there would be no Keplerian System. Tycho and Kepler are the Siamese twins of elliptical astronomy joined at the astronomical data. Without Tycho’s data Kepler could never have built his system. This duality is recognised in many history of astronomy texts with the two, so different, giants of Renaissance astronomy being handled together. The popular history of science writer, Kitty Ferguson even wrote a dual biography, Tycho and Kepler, The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens[2], a title that of course contradicts Love’s One Man. Her original title was The Nobleman and His Housedog, with the rest as a subtitle, but it seems to have been dropped in later editions of the book. The ‘housedog’ is a reference to Kepler characterising himself as such in the horoscope he wrote when he was twenty-five years old.

Portrait of Tycho Brahe (1596) Skokloster Castle Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Tycho Brahe (1596) Skokloster Castle
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho invited Kepler to come and work with him in Prague when the Counter Reformation made him jobless and homeless. Tycho welcomed him back when Kepler went off in a huff at their first meeting. It was Tycho who assigned him the task of calculating the orbit of Mars that would lead him to discover his first two laws of planetary motion. It has been said that Tycho’s data had just the right level of accuracy to enable Kepler to determine his elliptical orbits. Any less accurate and the slight eccentricities would not have been discernable. Any more accurate and the irregularities in the orbits, thus made visible, would have made the discovery of the elliptical form almost impossible. It has also been said that of all the planets for which Tycho had observation data Mars was the one with the most easily discernable elliptical orbit. Serendipity seems to have also played a role in the discovery of Kepler’s system. The high quality of Tycho’s data also led Kepler to reject an earlier non-elliptical solution for the orbit of Mars, which another astronomer would probably have accepted, with the argument that it was not mathematically accurate enough to do honour to Tycho’s so carefully acquired observational data.

Tycho was anything but a one-man show and his observatory on the island of Hven has quite correctly been described as a research institute. A substantial number of astronomer, mathematicians and instrument maker came and went both on Hven and later in Prague over the almost thirty years that Tycho took to accumulate his data. The number of people who deserve a share in the cake that was Kepler’s system now reaches a point where it become silly to count them individually.

Our list even includes royalty. Rudolph II, Holly Roman Emperor, was the man, who, at Tycho’s request, gave Kepler a position at court, even if he was more than somewhat lax at paying his salary, official to calculate the Rudolphine Tables, a task that would plague Kepler for almost thirty years but would in the end lead to the acceptance of his system by other astronomers. Rudolph also appointed Kepler as Tycho’s successor, as Imperial Mathematicus, after the latter’s untimely death, thus giving him the chance to continue his analysis of Tycho’s data. Rudolph could just as easily have sacked him and sent him on his way. Tycho’s heirs did not assist Kepler in his struggle to maintain access to that all important data, which belonged to them and not the Emperor, causing him much heartache before they finally allowed him to use Tycho’s inheritance. After he had usurped his brother, Rudolph, in 1612, Matthias allowed Kepler to keep his official position and title as Imperial Mathematicus, although sending him away from court, a fact that certainly assisted Kepler in his work. Being Imperial Mathematicus gave him social status and clout.

Rudolph II portrait by Joseph Heinz the Elder Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rudolph II portrait by Joseph Heinz the Elder
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler described his long and weary struggles with the orbit of Mars as a battle, but he did not fight this battle alone. In a long and fascinating correspondence with the astronomer, David Fabricius, Kepler tried out his ideas and results with a convinced supporter of Tycho’s system. Kepler would present his ideas and David Fabricius subjected them to high level and very knowledgeable criticism. Through this procedure Kepler honed, refined and polished his theories to perfection before he submitted them to public gaze in his Astronomia Nova, Knowing that they would now withstand high-level professional criticism. David Fabricius, who never met Kepler, nevertheless took a highly active role in the shaping of the Keplerian system[3].

Monument for David and Johann Fabricius in the Graveyard of Osteel

Monument for David and Johann Fabricius in the Graveyard of Osteel

Even after Kepler’s death the active participation of others in shaping his astronomical system did not cease. Jeremiah Horrocks corrected and extended the calculations of the Rudolphine Tables, enabling him to predict and observe a transit of Venus, an important stepping-stone in the acceptance of the elliptical astronomy. Horrocks also determined that the moon’s orbit was a Keplerian ellipse, something that Kepler had not done.


Stained glass roundel memorial in Much Hoole Church to Jeremiah Horrocks making the first observation and recording of a transit of Venus in 1639. The Latin reads "Ecce gratissimum spectaculum et tot votorum materiem": "oh, most grateful spectacle, the realization of so many ardent desires". It is taken from Horrocks's report of the transit

Stained glass roundel memorial in Much Hoole Church to Jeremiah Horrocks making the first observation and recording of a transit of Venus in 1639. The Latin reads “Ecce gratissimum spectaculum et tot votorum materiem”: “oh, most grateful spectacle, the realization of so many ardent desires”. It is taken from Horrocks’s report of the transit

Cassini, together with Riccioli and Grimaldi, using a heliometer determined that either the orbit of the sun around the earth or the earth around the sun, the method can’t determine which is true, is an ellipse another important empirical stepping-stone on the road to final acceptance for the system.

Giovanni Cassini Source: Wikimedia Commons

Giovanni Cassini
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicholas Mercator produced a new mathematical derivation of Kepler’s second law around 1670. Kepler’s own derivation was, as he himself admitted, more than a little suspect, viewed mathematically. The first and third laws had been accepted by the astronomical community fairly easily but the second law was a major bone of contention. Mercator’s new derivation basically laid the dispute to rest.

Cassini in his new role as director of the Paris observatory showed empirically that the satellite systems of both Jupiter and Saturn also obeyed Kepler’s third law extending it effectively to all orbitary systems and not just the planets of the solar system.

Lastly Newton derived Kepler’s first and second laws from his axiomatic system of dynamics giving them the true status of laws of physics. This led Newton to claim that the third law was Kepler’s but the first two were his because he, as opposed to Kepler, had really proved them

As we can see the list of people involved in revolutionising astronomy in the seventeenth century in that they replaced all the geocentric systems with a Keplerian elliptical system is by no means restricted to ‘one man’ as claimed in the subtitle to David Love’s book but is quite extensive and very diverse. There are no lone geniuses; science is a collective, collaborative enterprise.





[1] David Love, Kepler and the Universe: How One Man Revolutionized Astronomy, Prometheus Books, 2015

[2] Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler, The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens, Walker Books, 2002

[3] For a wonderful description of this correspondence and how it contributed to the genesis of Astronmia Nova see James Voelkel’s excellent, The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia nova, Princeton University Press, 2001


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

Let the debate begin!

David Wootton, whose new book The Invention of Science I featured recently on my list of books I have to, and want to, find time to read, was on the BBC’s flagship news magazine, Today, this morning talking about his book (starts at about 49.20 mins). Wootton started off his short slot by denying the ancient Greeks any form of scientific status and joining the, in the mean time fashionable, chorus of those slagging off Aristotle. Another notable member of this particular chorus being Steven Weinberg in his recent To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. He then went on to claim that the medieval scholars only discussed problems without end but didn’t achieve any resolution or progress; a claim that certainly had Pierre Duhem, Alistair Crombie and David C. Lindberg all rotating violently in their graves. Wootton thinks that science only starts after Columbus discovered America, thereby introducing the concept of discovery into intellectual discourse and according to the flyleaf of his book, the first discovery or change introducing the scientific age was Tycho’s observation of the nova in 1572.

Wootton’s book is a highly explosive grenade lobbed into the middle of the revolution contra gradualism debate at a time when the gradualists are very much in ascendance, within the history of science community. Those on the revolution side will eagerly clutch his good points, and I’m sure they are there in abundance, in order to shore up their sagging positions, whilst the gradualists will be forced to sharpen up their arguments to refute Wootton’s thesis of a reinstated Scientific Revolution.

I for one, a declared gradualist, welcome the conflict as it can only serve to bolster the history of science as a discipline. As I quoted Frank McDonough in a recent edition of Whewell’s Gazette, “The role of the historian is to move the debate forward, no more, no less”. So, let the debate begin.


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The Head of the BBC Science Unit didn’t just jump the shark; he did a backflip over it!

Yesterday evening the BBC4 television channel showed a documentary film about Ada Lovelace called Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing. I haven’t seen this, so I can’t comment on it and this is not what this post is about. In the run up to the programme Andrew Cohen, Head of the BBC Science Unit, tweeted the following tweet advertising the programme.

Thank this woman for your smart phone. WTF! From all the inane comments that I have read over the years about the Countess of Lovelace, I think this one wins the prize for the biggest heap of festering bovine manure that anybody has, to my knowledge, ever uttered about her.

Whatever has been said about who was responsible for the notes appended to her English translation of the Menebrea memoire on the Analytical Engine, she or Babbage (and I still personally think that all of the available evidence points to Babbage as being their principle author) there is one thing about which all historians of computing agree one hundred per cent: Neither Babbage nor Lovelace nor Babbage’s machines had any influence whatsoever on the invention and development of the modern computer in the second half of the twentieth century and thus on your smart phone. In fact most of the pioneers who created the modern computer and thus ushered in the computer age had never even heard of either Babbage or Lovelace.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but Mr Cohen your statement is pure unadulterated crap and not something I would expect from someone who glorifies under the title Head of the BBC Science Unit.


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When Living in the Past Distorts the Past; Or, Why I Study the Victorian Era

What you are about to read is somewhat off topic for the Renaissance Mathematicus, but as I’ve said on a number of occasions I reserve the right to post here what I will, after all it’s my blog. I received an unsolicited email from Jacob Steere-Williams, who is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston asking me to post this on Whewell’s Ghost. As I only post Whewell’s Gazette there theses days, I didn’t think it was a very good idea but because I found Jacob’s post well worth reading I have decided to post it here. Although it doesn’t deal with the history of science, Renaissance or otherwise, it does deal with some general historiographical points that I consider important so I offer it to my readers to read, contemplate and digest. I’m sure Jacob would also be interested in any thoughts it provokes amongst those that read it.

I am a Professor of Modern British History (and the History of Medicine) at the College of Charleston, and have written a piece that responds to the recent article on Vox about a couple who live as if they were Victorians:

I study history, namely the Victorian period in Britain that roughly spanned the lifetimes of the well-known and indefatigable writers Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde.

Like the flâneur, itself an idealized literary type from the nineteenth century, I perambulate the Victorian world, consuming its echoes through the traces of modernity. Fueled by my own curiosity of the period, I am consumed by the past. But unlike a bygone wandering traveler, as a professional historian I interrogate, criticize, and find meaning in the past. Both in the classroom and the archive I privilege the historian’s however fallible creed, to approximate the past “was eigentlich gewesen [ist],” as it essentially happened, the dictum of the Janus-like nineteenth century historian Leopold von Ranke.

It’s with a good bit of vexation, then, and no little amuse, that I recently read about privileged hipsters living the solipsist dream of a phantasmagorical Victorian world in the twenty-first century.

Don’t get me wrong. The winding of a mechanical clock and brushing of ones teeth with a boar bristle brush in the morning, and the heating of wax and plunging of a personally-monographed seal on a hand-written letter in the evening by the Edison bulb with a bit of sherry all sound lovely, albeit in a kind of super-ego stroking masturbatory way. Eschewing the technology of the present, however, for that of the Victorian past, is an odd perversion of the Thoreauvian luddite sentiment towards simplicity and nature. This is made all the more dogged when one “blossoms” into their “true self” through the ritualized play of what university-aged Brits today might call perpetually living in period specific “fancy dress.”  The Victorians themselves of the 1880s would have rightly called this behavior Silver Fork Snobbery.

Yet, the political rationalist in me embraces the freedoms that have it made possible for a handful of twenty-first century Americans to choose to happily obtain that 14-inch waist through tightlacing a corset, all the while finding time to delight in a weekend stroll on the high-wheel tricycle.

Again, don’t get me wrong. We historians have long embraced material culture as an arbiter of the past. An antique kerosene space heater, a crinoline skirt, and even a bar of Castile soap are all indeed are primary source traces that help us to understand and interpret the past. Yet they don’t do so in and of themselves. We as human actors—either today or in the past, the difference being critical— provide and attach meaning to material objects, apart from their Kantian ding an sich (the thing in itself). Plucking nineteenth century objects from museums and dusty attics and revitalizing them to navigate the twenty-first century is a kind of Frankensteinian Promethan dream. Decontextualizing these objects from the time and place in which they were created doesn’t privilege the lived experience of the past, but rather is the akin to the scholarly sin of being ahistorical.

The irony of the twenty-first century posturing of Victoriana material culture would not have been lost on the nineteenth century critic Karl Marx, who as early as the 1860s fully articulated the concept of “commodity fetishism” to explain how objects gain culture power in the marketplace apart from their inherent labor value. In this way, subverting twenty-first century technology for its nineteenth century counterpart is a fuller expression of bourgeois capitalism. But what Marx would have found disdainfully surprising is the inversion of historical commodities being fetishized. It’s the professional historian in me that sees this behavior and what it undergirds as a dangerous foray into historical revisionism. At its core living the Victorian dream is a performative act that tells us more about twenty-first century tensions and fears than nineteenth.

Such idealization of the Victorian period represents a decontextualized distortion of the past. At a deeper cultural level, it signifies the staying power of what the philosopher Walter Benjamin identified as the shock of modernity. Yet the great irony of finding refuge in the Victorian era is that the Victorian themselves were disillusioned with the fast-paced technological and social changes of their time. There were moral panics surrounding the railroads, where riders were sickened with the medico-moral disease “railway spine,” which struck Dickens himself. The Victorian period saw for the first time in history the collapse of space and time. Sure, the age that domesticated nature via industrialization was at times bubbling with bravado over science and technology, yet Victorians were also frightened by what they had produced.

Aristocratic Victorians were fond of ‘retiring’ to their country estates to relieve the mounting fast-paced pressures of steam engines, timetables, and telegraphs (and, lest we forget, the urban poor). I suppose that twenty-first century hipsters are finding refuge in an idealized version of the past would strike those uber wealthy Victorians as perfectly normal. For the rest of us it’s perfectly odd. For professional historians, it’s down right dangerous.

In the world we live in today our interpretations of the past loom as large as ever. My own state, of South Carolina, for example, has been emblazoned of late because of the discord between an object of the past—the Confederate flag—and competing interpretations over its meaning. The past, it seems, is perpetually being made handmaiden to political perversions. The wearing of nineteenth century clothes and cooking with nineteenth century utensils is far from an innocuous appropriation of powerless objects from the past. There is a very real danger in a cherry-picked, tunnel-vision version of history, one that ignores power, inequality, racism, and privilege.

For a truly authentic Victorian experience, kids these days might be better off lounging around an opium den, or cordoned from society from the effects of hysteria. Ever try the gripping effects of typhoid fever or cholera—you can’t understand the Victorian world without them.

Jacob Steere-Williams

Assistant Professor, Department of History

College of Charleston


Filed under Uncategorized

Der Erdapfel

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Johannes Söner's 1520 terrestrial Globe. Germanische Nationalmuseum

Johannes Söner’s 1520 terrestrial Globe.
Germanische Nationalmuseum




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

Teaching the Revolution.

Anthony Millevolte is professor for chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Colleges where he also teaches the history of science courses. When he was teaching an introductory course on the so-called Copernican or Astronomical Revolution he realised that there was no suitable modern textbook available for such a course so he decided to write one: The Copernican Revolution: Putting the Earth into Motion.[1] His resolve to do so was strengthened when he realised that some people wee still teaching such courses using Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution from 1957. He writes, “As well written as it is, the obviously unavoidable weakness of Kuhn’s text is that it doesn’t reflect over a half century of active scholarship in this field”[2]. Being somewhat less diplomatic than Millevolte I would add that Kuhn’s book was flawed in some aspects in 1957 and those flaws haven’t improved in the almost sixty years since.


Millevolte’s book is exactly what he set out to write an introductory textbook for college students on the developments in European astronomy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries centred on the period between Copernicus and Galileo. Having above referred to the so-called Copernican Revolution I should point out that Millevolte doesn’t believe in a revolution either, as he explains in the final chapter of the book, An Epilogue, but uses the term in his title because it “reflects a long-standing historical convention – not because it accurately summarizes a series of events that unfolded over many centuries”[3].

The first three chapters could be summarized as setting the scene, giving a quick survey of European astronomy prior to the Renaissance. Consisting of only eight-two pages they don’t offer much depth but however cover all of the salient points clearly and accurately. All the chapters of the book have excellent endnotes and these contain references to the extensive bibliography helping any reader who wishes to pursue any given topic further.

The fourth chapter is devoted to Renaissance astronomy and Copernicus and contains one of the few minor criticisms that I have of the book. In his biographical sketch of Copernicus Millevolte makes some errors only significant to a pedant like me, which however could profitably corrected in a second edition. Otherwise this like all the other chapters in the book is clearly presented and the history of science is as far as it goes correct.

In his introduction Millevolte says that in the process of writing he realised why nobody had written such an up to date textbook. He writes, “It turns out that the experts disagree on a good many of the central elements of the story – so much so that it is sometimes challenging to identify an acceptable narrative”[4]. On this point I agree with him so one should bear this in mind when considering any criticism that I might make here. Despite this problem throughout the book Millevolte had managed to produce a clear, coherent narrative suitable for beginners. On those points that are contentious he includes clearly written, extensive endnotes, which list alternative viewpoints, thus managing very successfully to have his cake and eat it, too.

Having set the astronomical revolution in motion Millevolte produces one chapter each on Tycho Brahe and Kepler and three on Galileo. Here I would complain that the balance is false as Kepler contributed far more to the astronomical revolution than Galileo. However the traditional narrative always favours Galileo over Kepler and as this is a college textbook Millevolte stays within the tradition. He does however redress the balance somewhat in the final chapter where he attributes equal weight to Kepler and Galileo in establishing heliocentricity. I still think this gives too much credit to Galileo but it is it is better than the standard mythology that gives almost all the credit to Galileo and almost none to Kepler.

In his chapters on Galileo Millevolte also tend to emphasise positive aspects of Galileo’s activities oft by simply omitting the negative. For example whilst discussing the dispute between Galileo and Orazio Grassi concerning comets, that led to Galileo writing Il Saggiatore, whilst conceding that Galileo’s attacks on Grassi were, to say the least, immoderate Millevolte neglects to mention that on the question of whether the comets were sub- or supralunar Grassi was in the right and Galileo very much in the wrong.

The same subject turns up in the discussion of the third day in the Dialogo, which is devoted amongst other things to the novas and that they were supralunar. Millevolte claims that Galileo devoted space to this theme because “there remained many Aristotelians who refused to believe the novas were located beyond the sphere of the moon”[5]. This may well have been but the Jesuit, who were without doubt the leading geocentric astronomers, had already accepted the supralunar status of the novas in the sixteenth century. Galileo is here flogging the proverbial dead horse. Again not mentioned by Millevolte, who in general fails to make the important distinction between Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic and/or Tychonic astronomy; a distinction that played a central and significant role in the gradual acceptance of heliocentricity. Geocentric astronomers were prepared to abandon Aristotelian cosmology when the evidence showed it to be wrong but not to give up geocentric astronomy without clear evidence against it and for heliocentricity.

Concerning day four of the Dialogo, Millevolte fails to mention that Galileo’s much favoured theory of the tides was in fact refuted by the empirical facts.

All of the above points whilst, in my opinion important, are for an introductory text not absolutely essential and should not be thought to lead to a negative assessment of Millevolte’s book.

The closing chapter of the book delivers a brief but very clear assessment of the further progress towards heliocentricity up to and including Isaac Newton. As already mentioned the book has an extensive bibliography and the endnotes to each chapter deal skilfully with many of the historically contentious points in the story. I personally would have welcomed an index. The book is attractively illustrated with black and white pictures and diagrams.

Taken as a whole Millevolte has fulfilled his original resolve extremely well and what we have here is a first class up to date textbook on one of the most important episodes in the history of astronomy. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wishes to read an introductory text on the subject to inform and educate themselves and especially to anyone wishing to teach an introductory course on the subject to college students or even to the upper classes/grades of grammar schools, high schools etc. Currently priced at circa $17 US on most students should be able to afford a copy.


[1] Anthony Millevolte, The Copernican Revolution: Putting the Earth into Motion, Tuscobia Press, 2014.

[2] Millevolte, p. iv

[3] Millevolte, p. 294

[4] Millevolte, p. v

[5] Millevolte, p. 270


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Uncategorized

History or political propaganda?

Quite a stir has been caused in the Internet by an article written by David Abulafia and published in History Today entitled Britain: apart from or a part of Europe, which to put it quite simply argues for a British exit from the EU based on the concept that Britain has a unique history that separates it from its European neighbours. Possibly the worst part of this blatant piece of political propaganda, masquerading as history, is that it is presented as a sort of manifesto for a group of historians calling themselves Historians for Britain, thereby implicitly implying that they represent the British community of historians. As a convinced European who has lived more than half his life in Germany, I hardly need to say that they don’t represent this British historian.

The last couple of days has seen some informed criticisms of this piece by Charles West at Sheffield University’s History Matters, England: Apart From or a Part of Europe? An Early Medieval Perspective, by Fiona Whelan and Kieran Hazzard at The History Vault, Historians for Britain: The Betrayal of History and Historical Practice, and by Neil Gregor at The Huffington Post, Historians, Britain and Europe. Chiming in on behalf of the historians of science my #histsci soul sister Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt has written an excellent piece on her H-Word Blog at The Guardian, Beware Eurosceptic versions of history and science.


16 May: Sean Lang at The Conversation, There is no dastardly EU plot to hijack the history curriculum

17 May: Historian for History Statement May 2015

18 May: A very large number of historians at History Today: Historians Isolated, Fog in Channel

All of these save me the trouble of writing something myself, but in her article Becky reminded me that Brian Cox had written an essay for the BBC a couple of years ago claiming the same sort of exceptionalism for the history of British science entitled, The Wonder of British Science. At the time I wrote a demolition of Cox’s arguments, Rule Britannia: Britannia rules the science, which I humbly offer up as my contribution to the current debate.


Filed under Uncategorized