A Lady Logician

Today George Boole is regarded as one of the founders of the computer age that now dominates our culture.

George Boole
Source: Wikimedia Commons

His algebra lies at the base of computer circuit design and of most computer programming languages and Booleans power the algorithms of the ubiquitous search engines. As a result two years ago the bicentenary of his birth was celebrated extensively and very publically. All of this would have been very hard to predict when his work on the algebra of logic first saw the light of day in the nineteenth century. His first publication Mathematical Analysis of Logic (1847) was largely ignored by the wider world of mathematics and his definitive presentation of his logic An Investigation of the Laws of Thought on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities fared little better, initially attracting very little attention. It was only some time after his death that Boole’s logical works began to attract deeper interest, most notably in Germany by Ernst Schröder and in America by Charles Sanders Peirce.

Charles Sanders Peirce
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1883 Peirce published Studies in Logic: by Members of the Johns Hopkins University, edited by himself it contained seven papers written largely by his students. Of central interest is the fact that it contains a doctoral thesis, On the Algebra of Logic, written by a women, Christine Ladd.

Christine Ladd’s life story is a casebook study of the prejudices that women, who wished to enter academia suffered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born 1 December 1847 (the year Boole published his first logic book) in Windsor, Connecticut the daughter of Eliphalet and Augusta Ladd, she grew up in New York and Windsor. Her mother and her aunt Julie Niles brought her up to believe in education for women and women’s rights. Her mother died in 1860 but her father initially supported her wish for advanced education and enrolled her at Welshing academy in a two year course for preparing students for college; she graduated as valedictorian in 1865 but now her father opposed her wish to go on to college. Only by arguing that she was too ugly to get a husband was she able to persuade her father and grandmother to allow her to study at the women’s college Vassar. She entered Vassar in 1866 but was forced by financial difficulties to leave before completing her first year. She now became a schoolteacher until her aunt helped her to finance her studies and she returned to Vassar.

At Vassar the pioneering female astronomer Maria Mitchell took her under her wing and fostered her developing interest in physics and mathematics.

Due to the fact that women could not do experiment work in laboratories she was forced to choose mathematics[1] over physics, a decision that she regretted all of her life. She graduated from Vassar in 1869 and became a secondary school teacher of mathematics and science in Washington, Pennsylvania. Over the next nine years she published six items in The Analyst: A Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics and three in the American Journal of Mathematics. More importantly she took a very active part in the mathematical questions column of the Educational Times, the journal of the College of Preceptors in London, a profession body for schoolteachers. This mathematical questions column was a very popular forum for nineteenth century mathematicians and logicians with many leading practitioners contribution both question and solutions. For example the nineteenth-century Scottish logician Hugh McColl published his first logical essays here and Bertrand Russell’s first mathematical publication can also be found here[2]. Ladd contributed a total of seventy-seven problem and solution to the Education Times, which would prove highly significant for her future career.

In 1878 she applied for and won a fellowship to study mathematics at the Johns Hopkins University. Her fellowship application was simply signed C. Ladd and the university had assumed that she was male. When they realised that she was in fact a woman, they withdrew their offer of a fellowship. However the English professor of mathematics at Johns Hopkins, James J. Sylvester, who knew of Ladd’s abilities from those Educational Times contribution insisted on the university honouring the fellowship offer.

James Joseph Sylvester
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the time Johns Hopkins did not have a very good reputation but Sylvester did, in fact he was a mathematical star, not wishing to lose him the university conceded and allowed Ladd to take up her three-year scholarship. However her name was not allowed to be printed in circulars and basically the university denied her existence. At the beginning she was only allowed to attend Sylvester’s classes but as it became clear that she was an exceptional student she was allowed to attend classes by other professors.

In the year 1879 to 1880 she studied mathematics, logic and psychology under Charles Sanders Peirce becoming the first American women to be involved in psychology. Under Peirce’s supervision she wrote her doctoral thesis On the Algebra of Logic, which was then, as mentioned above, published in 1883. Although she had completed all the requirements of a doctoral degree Johns Hopkins University refused to award her a doctorate because she was a woman. They only finally did so forty-four years later in 1927, when she was already seventy-eight years old.

In 1882 she married fellow Johns Hopkins mathematician Fabian Franklin and became Christine Ladd-Franklin, the name by which she is universally known today. As a married woman she was barred from holding a paid position at an American university but she would lecture unpaid for five years on logic and psychology at Johns Hopkins and later at Columbia University for thirty years.

In the 1880s she developed an interest in vision and theories of colour perception publishing her first paper on the subject in 1887. She accompanied her husband on a research trip to Germany 1891-92 and used the opportunity to study with the psychologist Georg Elias Müller (1850–1934) in Göttingen

George Elias Muller
Source: Wikimedia Commons

and with the physiologist and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) in Berlin.

Hermannvon Helmholtz in 1848
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1894 she returned alone to Germany to work with physicist Arthur König (1856–1901), with whom she did not get on and whom she accused of having stolen her ideas, and again in 1901 to work with Müller.

Portrait of Arthur Konig from Pokorny, J.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a result of her researches she developed and published her own theories of colour vision and the causes of colour blindness that were highly influential.

Ladd-Franklin was a tireless campaigner for women’s rights and even persuaded the inventor of the record player, Emile Berliner, to establish a fellowship for female professors, the Sarah Berliner postdoctoral endowment, in 1909, which she administered for the first ten years and which is still awarded annually.

Emile Berliner
Source: Wikimedia Commons

She herself continued to suffer rejection and humiliation as a female academic. In 1904 the British psychologist Edward Titchener (1867–1927) founded a society for experimental psychologists, “The Experimentalists”, and although he knew Ladd-Franklin well her barred her, as a woman, from membership. A decision, which she fought against in vain for many years. Women were only permitted to attend following Titchener’s death.

Edward Bradford Titchener
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the discrimination that she suffered Christine Ladd-Franklin published many papers in the leading journals and her work was held in high regard. She died of pneumonia, aged 82, in 1930. Today the American Association for women in Psychology have an annual Christine-Ladd Franklin Award, awarded for significant and substantial contributions to the Association.

Christine Ladd-Franklin
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although she struggled against prejudice and discrimination all of her life and never received the formal recognition that should have been her due, Christine Ladd-Franklin made significant contributions to the fields of Boolean algebra and colour vision for which she is highly regarded today. Through her fighting spirit and unbending will she helped open the doors of scientific research and academia for later generations of women.



[1] It is interesting to note that barred from access to academia and its institutions a small but significant number of women managed to some extent to break through the glass ceiling in logic and the mathematics in the nineteenth century, because these are subjects in which one can make an impression with nothing more than a pencil and a piece of paper.

[2] In my days as a logic historian I spent a not very pleasant two weeks in the British Newspaper Library in Colindale (the tenth circle of hell), amongst other things, going through the Educational Times looking for contributions on the algebra of logic. During this search I came across the Bertrand Russell contribution, which I showed, some time later, to a leading Russell scholar of my acquaintance, who shall remain here nameless. Imagine my surprise when shortly afterwards an article was published by said Russell expert explaining how he had discovered Russell’s first ever mathematical publication in the Mathematical Questions column of The Educational Times. He made no mention of the fact that it was actually I who had made the discovery.



Filed under History of Logic, History of Mathematics, History of science, Ladies of Science, Uncategorized

The history of mathematics is not that simplistic.

The Conversation recently posted an article with the title, Five ways ancient India changed the world – with maths, which to be honest left much to be desired as a piece of mathematical history. First off, if you are going to write about #histSTM then a piece of good advice is avoid BuzzFeed style lists, history should never be presented as a collection of bullet points; such an approach is bound to produce dubious and inaccurate claims and statements, as in this case.

The first major problem with this piece is the title; in reality it should read four contributions that Brahmagupta made to the history of mathematics with his Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta and one development in Indian mathematics, which failed to transfer outside of India.

The first four elements of the list are the number system, zero, solutions of quadratic equations and rules for negative numbers, which are all, as I said above, taken from Brahmagupta’s Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta, which was written in the seventh century CE. Both zero and negative numbers are parts of the number system so we really only have one item not three but I will return in detail to this and the quadratic formula later. First I want to deal with the fifth item on the list, basis for calculus.

This is something I blogged about several years ago in a brief outline of the history of calculus. What we have here is the so-called Kerala School of mathematics, which flourished in the 14th to 16th centuries and did some quite remarkable work on infinite series, anticipating work that was first done in Europe in the 17th century. This work is indeed the basis on which calculus stand, however there are various caveats that need to be made here about any potential influence on the world. First the extent to which the Kerala School anticipated calculus is debatable. George Gheverghese Joseph from whose book The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics (Penguin) I first learnt of the Kerala School is convinced that what they had is a full blown calculus, whereas Kim Plofker in her excellent Mathematics in India (Princeton UP) is far less convinced. However the real problem is that although Joseph sets up a plausible route of cultural transfer from Kerala to Europe, all investigations have drawn a blank and there is absolutely no evidence for such a transfer. As far as we know the Kerala School flourished and died without influencing the history of mathematics outside of their own circle. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the history of science.

Let us return to Brahmagupta. His text is indeed the text that introduced the so-called Hindu-Arabic decimal place value number system to the world outside of India, first to the Islamic Empire and then through them to medieval Europe. However this wasn’t the only place value number system from antiquity and not even the only decimal one. The Chinese also had a decimal place value number system and historians of mathematics still don’t know if the Chinese influenced the Indians or the Indians the Chinese or whether the two systems developed totally independently of each other. Of course the Babylonians also had, much earlier than the Indians, a place value number system but a base sixty (sexagesimal) one not a base ten (decimal) one. There was certainly knowledge transfer between Babylon and India did the Indians get the idea of a place value number system from the Babylonians? We do know that the Indians took over a lot of their astronomy from the Greeks and Greek astronomers used the Babylonian sexagesimal place value numbers system in their astronomical texts, did a knowledge transfer take place here? A lot of unanswered questions but although we do have the decimal place value numbers system from Brahmagupta there are still a lot of open questions as to where he got it from.

With zero as a number we are on safer ground, although the Babylonians did develop and use a place holder zero, as did the Greeks in their astronomical texts, it really does appear that zero as a number, and not just a place holder, is a genuine unique India invention. There is however even here an important caveat; Brahmagupta thought one could divide by zero, which as every modern school kid knows is not on.

Turning to negative numbers, whilst Brahmagupta does indeed correctly describe their use in his Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta he wasn’t the first to do so. In this case the Chinese beat him to it in The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, which dates from 202-186 BCE, so some eight hundred years before Brahmagupta. The author of the article write that “European mathematicians were reluctant to accept negative numbers as meaningful” but so were Islamic mathematicians and also some prominent later Indian mathematicians.

In his piece the author write:

In his seminal text, the astronomer Brahmagupta introduced rules for solving quadratic equations (so beloved of secondary school mathematics students)

Whilst it is true that Brahmagupta presents what is now know as the quadratic formula the Babylonians knew how to solve them at least two thousand years earlier. They however used two formulas for the two solutions based on the so-called reduced quadratic (where the parameter for x2 is reduced to 1 by division). The Babylonians of course rejected negative and imaginary solutions. Euclid solves quadratic equations geometrically, which is why we call them quadratic, meaning square). So there were methods for solving quadratic equations long before Brahmagupta.

Whilst by no means whishing to diminish the undoubted Indian contributions to the history of mathematics, what I am trying to make clear here is that any aspect of the history of mathematics or science has a context, a pre-history and a post-history and to ignore those aspect when presenting any given aspect automatically produces a distorted and misleading picture.


Filed under History of Mathematics

Galileo, The Church and that ban

Quite Interesting @qikipedia is the Twitter account of the highly successful British television comedy panel game QI (Quite Interesting). For those who are not aficionados of this piece of modern television culture it is described on Wikipedia thus:

The format of the show focuses on Davies and three other guest panelists answering questions that are extremely obscure, making it unlikely that the correct answer will be given. To compensate, the panelists are awarded points not only for the right answer, but also for interesting ones, regardless of whether they are right or even relate to the original question, while points are deducted for “answers which are not only wrong, but pathetically obvious”– typically answers that are generally believed to be true but in fact are misconceptions. These answers, referred to as “forfeits”, are usually indicated by a loud klaxon and alarm bell, flashing lights, and the incorrect answer being flashed on the video screens behind the panelists. [my emphasis]

Given the section that I have highlighted above the Twitter account should have points deducted to the sounds of a loud klaxon and an alarm bell accompanied by flashing lights for having tweeted the following on 12 September

It wasn’t until 1992 that the Catholic Church finally admitted that Galileo’s views on the solar system were correct – @qikipedia

Portrait of Galileo that accompanied the @qikipedia tweet


This is of course complete rubbish. In what follows I will give a brief summary of the Catholic Church’s ban on heliocentrism, as propagated by Galileo amongst others.

The initial ban on propagating heliocentrism as a proven theory, one could still present it as a hypothetical one, was issued by the Inquisition in 1616. Interestingly whilst the books of Kepler and Maestlin, for example, were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was not but merely banned temporarily until corrected, which took place surprisingly rapidly; correction meaning the removal of the very few passages where heliocentricity is presented as a fact. By 1621 De revolutionibus was back in circulation for Catholic astronomers. Galileo’s Dialogo was placed on the Index following his trial in 1632.

A title page of the Index of Forbidden Books 1758
Source: Linda Hall Library

Books openly espousing heliocentricity as a true fact, which was more that the science of the time could deliver, were placed on the Index by the Catholic Church, so all good Catholics immediately dropped the subject? Well no actually. The ban had surprising little effect outside of Italy. Within Italy, astronomers kept their heads below the parapet for a couple of decades but outside of Italy things were very different. Protestant countries, naturally, totally ignored the ban and even astronomers in Catholic countries on the whole took very little notice of it. The one notable exception was René Descartes who dropped plans to publish his book Le Monde, ou Traite de la lumiere in 1633, which contained his views supporting heliocentricity, the full text only appearing posthumously in 1677. Quite why he did so was not very clear but it is thought that he did it out of respect to his Jesuit teachers. However, Descartes remained the exception. Galileo’s offending Dialogo quickly appeared in a ‘pirate’ edition, translated into Latin in the Netherlands, where later his Discorsi, would also be published. I say pirate but Galileo was well aware of the publication, which had his blessing, but officially knew nothing about it.

Title page of the 1635 ‘pirate’ Latin edition of Dialogo
Source: The History of Science Collections of the University of Oklahoma Libraries

Within Italy once the dust had settled Catholic astronomers began to publish books on heliocentricity that opened with some sort of nod in the direction of the Church along the lines of, “The Holy Mother Church has in its wisdom condemned heliocentricity as contrary to Holy Scripture…” but then continued something like this “…however it is an interesting hypothetical mathematical model, which we will now discuss.” This face saving trick was accepted by the Church and everybody was happy. By the early eighteenth century almost all astronomers in Italy, with the exception of some Jesuits, were following this course.

In 1758 the ball game changed again as the then Pope basically dropped the ban on heliocentricity, although this was done informally and the formal prohibition stayed in place. The publication of a complete works of Galileo was even permitted with a suitable preface to the Dialogo pointing out its faults. From this time on Catholic astronomers were quite free to propagate a factual heliocentricity in their publications.

This was the situation up till 1820 when an over zealous Master of the Sacred Palace (the Church’s chief censor), Fillipo Anfossi, refused to licence a book containing a factual account of heliocentricity by Giuseppe Settele. Settele appealed directly to the Pope and after deliberations the ban on heliocentricity was formally lifted by the Church in 1821. The next edition of the Index, which didn’t appear until 1835, no longer contained books on heliocentricity. Anfossi and Settele only feature in the history of science because of this incidence.

So to summarise, the Church only banned factual claims for the heliocentric system but not hypothetical statements about it, so this is how Catholic astronomer got around the ban. In 1758 the Pope informally lifted the ban clearing the way for Catholic astronomers to write freely about it. In 1821 the ban was formally lifted and in 1835 books on heliocentricity were removed from the Index, so where did QI get their date of 1992 from?

In 1981 the Church constituted the Pontifical Interdisciplinary Study Commission to re-examine the Galileo trial, which came to rather wishy-washy conclusions. In 1992 the Pope held a speech formally closing the commission and saying that the whole affair had been rather unfortunate and that the Church had been probably wrong to prosecute Galileo.






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

Hyping the history of mathematics

A while back the Internet was full of reports about a sensational discovery in the history of mathematics. Two researchers had apparently proved that a well know Babylonian cuneiform clay tablet (Plimpton 322), which contains a list of Pythagorean triples, is in fact a proof that the Babylonians had developed trigonometry one thousand years before the Greeks and it was even a superior and more accurate system than that of the Greeks. My first reaction was that the reports contained considerably more hype than substance, a reaction that was largely confirmed by an excellent blog post on the topic by Evelyn Lamb.

Plimpton 322, Babylonian tablet listing pythagorean triples
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was followed by an equally excellent and equally deflating essay by Eduardo A Escobar an expert on cuneiform tablets. And so another hyped sensation is brought crashing down into the real world. Both put downs were endorsed by Eleanor Robson author of Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History and a leading expert on Babylonian mathematics.

Last week saw the next history of mathematics press feeding frenzy with the announcement by the Bodleian Library in Oxford that an Indian manuscript containing a symbol for zero had been re-dated using radio carbon dating and was now considered to be from the third to fourth centuries CE rather than the eight century CE, making it the earliest known Indian symbol for zero. This is of course an interesting and significant discovery in the history of mathematics but it doesn’t actually change our knowledge of that history in any really significant way. I will explain later, but first the hype in the various Internet reports.

A leaf from the Bakhshali Manuscript, showing off Indian mathematical genius. A zero symbol has been highlighted in the image.
Courtesy of the Bodleian Library


We start off with Richard Ovenden from Bodleian Libraries who announced, “The finding is of “vital importance” to the history of mathematics.”

Bodleian Library Carbon dating finds Bakhshali manuscript contains oldest recorded origins of the symbol ‘zero’

The Guardian leads off with an article by Marcus Du Sautoy: Much ado about nothing: ancient Indian text contains earliest zero symbol. Who in a video film and in the text of his article tells us, “This becomes the birth of the concept of zero in it’s own right and this is a total revolution that happens out of India.”

The Science Museum’s article Illuminating India: starring the oldest recorded origins of ‘zero’, the Bakhshali manuscript, basically repeats the Du Sautoy doctrine,

Medievalists.net makes the fundamental mistake of entitling their contribution, The First Zero, although in the text they return to the wording, “the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero that we use today.”

The BBC joins the party with another clone of the basic article, Carbon dating reveals earliest origins of zero symbol.

Entrepreneur Cecile G Tamura summed up the implicit and sometimes explicit message of all these reports with the following tweet, One of the greatest conceptual breakthroughs in mathematics has been traced to the Bakhshali manuscript dating from the 3rd or 4th century at a period even earlier than we thought. To which I can only reply, has it?

All of the articles, which are all basically clones of the original announcement state quite clearly that this is a placeholder zero and not the number concept zero[1] and that there are earlier recorded symbols for placeholder zeros in both Babylonian and Mayan mathematics. Of course it was only in Indian mathematics that the place-holder zero developed into the number concept zero of which the earliest evidence can be found in Brahmagupta’s Brahmasphuṭasiddhanta from the seven century CE. However, this re-dating of the Bakhshali manuscript doesn’t actually bring us any closer to knowing when, why or how that conceptual shift, so important in the history of mathematics, took place. Does it in anyway actually change the history of the zero concept within the history of mathematics? No not really.

Historians of mathematics have known for a long time that the history of the zero concept within Indian culture doesn’t begin with Brahmagupta and that it was certainly preceded by a long complex prehistory. They are well aware of zero concepts in Sanskrit linguistics and in Hindu philosophy that stretch back well before the turn of the millennium. In fact it is exactly this linguistic and philosophical acceptance of ‘nothing’ that the historian assume enabled the Indian mathematicians to make the leap to the concept of a number signifying nothing, whereas the Greeks with their philosophical rejection of the void were unable to spring the gap. Having a new earliest symbol in Indian mathematics for zero as a placeholder, as opposed to the earlier recorded words for the concept of nothingness doesn’t actually change anything fundamental in our historical knowledge of the number concept of zero.

There is a small technical problem that should be mentioned in this context. Due to the fact that early Indian culture tended to write on perishable organic material, such as the bark used here, means that the chances of our ever discovering manuscripts documenting that oh so important conceptual leap are relatively low.

I’m afraid I must also take umbrage with another of Richard Ovenden’s claims in the original Bodleian report:

 Richard Ovenden, head of the Bodleian Library, said the results highlight a Western bias that has often seen the contributions of South Asian scholars being overlooked. “These surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition,” he said.

Whilst this claim might be true in other areas of #histSTM, as far as the history of the so-called Hindu-Arabic numbers system and the number concept zero are concerned it is totally bosh. Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749-1827) wrote the following:

“It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it has lent to computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of the achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.”

I started buying general books on the history of mathematics more than 45 years ago and now have nine such volumes all of which deal explicitly with the Indian development of the decimal place value number system and the invention of the number concept zero. I own two monographs dedicated solely to the history of the number concept zero. I have four volumes dedicated to the history of number systems all of which deal extensively with the immensely important Indian contributions. I also own two books that are entirely devoted to the history of Indian mathematics. Somehow I can’t see in the case of the massive Indian contribution to the development of number systems that a Western bias has here overseen the contributions of South Asian scholars.

This of course opens the question as to why this discovery was made public at this time and in this overblown manner? Maybe I’m being cynical but could it have something to do with the fact that this manuscript is going on display in a major Science Museum exhibition starting in October?

The hype that I have outlined here in the recent history of mathematics has unfortunately become the norm in all genres of history and in the historical sciences such as archaeology or palaeontology. New discoveries are not presented in a reasonable manner putting them correctly into the context of the state of the art research in the given field but are trumpeted out at a metaphorical 140 decibel claiming that this is a sensation, a discipline re-defining, an unbelievable, a unique, a choose your own hyperbolic superlative discovery. The context is, as above, very often misrepresented to make the new discovery seem more important, more significant, whatever. Everybody is struggling to make themselves heard above the clamour of all the other discovery announcements being made by the competition thereby creating a totally false impression of how academia works and how it progresses. Can we please turn down the volume, cut out the hype and present the results of academic research in history in a manner appropriate to it and not to the marketing of the latest Hollywood mega-bucks, blockbuster?

[1] For those who are not to sure about these terms, a placeholder zero just indicates an empty space in a place value number system, so you can distinguish between 11 and 101, where here the zero is a placeholder. A number concept zero also fulfils the same function but beyond this is a number in its own right. You can perform the arithmetical operations of addition, subtraction and multiplication with it. However, as we all learnt at school (didn’t we!) you can’t divide by zero; division by zero is not defined.


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

The Great Man paradox – A coda: biographies

This is a follow up to my last post that was inspired by an interesting discussion on Twitter and by the comment on that post by Paul Engle, author of the excellent Conciatore: The Life and Times of 17th Century Glassmaker Antonio Neri.

It is clear to me that biographies, particular popular ones, play a very central roll in the creation of the great men and lone genius myths. Now don’t misunderstand me I am not condemning #histSTM biographies in general; I have one and a half metres of such biographies on my bookshelves and have consumed many, many more that I don’t own. What I am criticising is the way that many such biographies are written and presented and I am going to make some suggestions, with examples, how, in my opinion such biographies should be written in order to avoid falling into the great man and lone genius traps.

The problem as I see it is produced by short, single volume, popular biographies of #histSTM figures or the even shorter portraits printed in newspapers and magazines. Here the title figure is presented with as much emphasis as possible on the uniqueness, epoch defining, and world-moving importance of their contribution to the history of science, technology or medicine. Given the brevity and desired readability of such works the context in which the subject worked is reduced to a minimum and any imperfections in their efforts are often conveniently left out. In order to achieve maximum return on their investment publishers then hype the book in their advertising, in the choice of title and/or subtitle and in the cover blurbs. A good fairly recent example of this was the subtitle of David Loves Kepler biography, How One Man Revolutionised Astronomy, about which I wrote a scathing blog post.

The authors of such works, rarely themselves historian of science, also tend to ignore the painfully won knowledge of historians and prefer to repeat ad nauseam the well worn myths handed down by the generations – Newton and the apple, Galileo and the Tower of Pisa and so on and so forth.

#histSTM biography does not have to be like this. Individual biographies can be historically accurate, can include the necessary context, and can illuminate the failings and errors of their subjects. Good examples of this are Westfall’s Newton biography Never at Rest and Abraham Pais’ Einstein biography Subtle is the Lord. Unfortunately these are doorstep size, scholarly works that tend to scare off the non-professional reader. Are there popular #histSTM works that surmount this problem? I think there are and I think the solution lies in the multi-biography and the theme-orientated books with biographies.

A good example of the first is Laura J Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World. Despite the hype in the subtitle this book embeds its four principal biographies in a deep sea of context and because all four of them were polymaths, manages to give a very wide picture of Victorian science in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Another good example is Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men: The Friends Who made the Future, once again a terrible subtitle, but with its even larger cast of central characters and even wider spectrum of science and technology delivered by them we get a true panorama of science and technology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Neither book has any lone geniuses and far too many scrambling for attention for any of them to fit the great man schema.

Two good examples of the second type are both by the same author, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and Twitter sparring partner, Matthew the Mancunian Maggot Man, aka Matthew Cobb. Both his books, The Egg and Sperm Race: The Seventeenth Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth

and Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

deal with the evolution of scientific concepts over a relatively long time span. Both books contain accurate portraits of the scientists involved complete with all of their failings but the emphasis is on the development of the science not on the developers. Here, once again, with both books having a ‘cast of millions’ there is no place for lone geniuses or great men.

These, in my opinion, are the types of books that we should be recommending, quoting and even buying for friends and relatives not the single volume, one central figure biographies. If more such books formed the basis of peoples knowledge of #histSTM then the myths of the lone genius and the great man might actually begin to fade out and with luck over time disappear but sadly I don’t think it is going to happen any day soon.

Having mentioned it at the beginning I should say something about Paul Engle’s Conciatore.

This is a single volume, one central figure biography of the seventeenth-century glassmaker Antonio Neri, who was the first man to write and publish a book revealing the secrets of glassmaking. His revealing of the trade secrets of a craft marks a major turning point in the history of technology. Up till the seventeenth century trade secrets were just that, secret with severe punishment for those who dared to reveal them, including death. Later in the century Joseph Moxon would follow Neri’s example publishing a whole series of books revealing the secrets of a whole range of trades including the first ever textbook on book printing his Mechanical Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works. Paul’s book is a biography of Neri but because of why he is writing about Neri it is more a history of glassmaking and so sits amongst my history of technology books and not with my collection of #histSTM biographies. Here the context takes precedence over the individual, another example of how to write a productive biography and a highly recommended one at that.





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

The Great Man paradox

Over the years a fair number of the blog posts here have been fairly speculative, basically me thinking out loud about something that has recently crossed my mind or my path. What follows is one of those posts and as I begin writing I have a germ of an idea what I think I want to say but I can’t guarantee that what will come out is what I initial intended or that it will be particularly illuminating or informative. At the end of last week I had the following very brief exchange with zoologist and historian, Matthew the Mancunian Maggot Man (@matthewcobb)

MC: What would have happened if Einstein fell under a tram in 1900? What difference would it have made, for how long?

Me: Not a lot, Poincaré was almost there and others were working on the various problems. I’d guess at most a ten-year delay

MC: So are there any true examples of ‘great men’ or is science all over-determined?

My instantaneous response to Mathew’s last comment was yes there are great men in the history of science and Einstein was certainly one of them but not in the sense that people usually mean when they use the term. It is this response that I will try to unpack and elucidate here.

When people describe Einstein as a great man of science what they usually mean is that if he hadn’t lived, see Matthew’s original question, we ‘wouldn’t have the theories of relativity’ or ‘physics would have been held back for decades or even longer’. Both of the expression in scare quote are ones that occur regularly following statements along the lines of if X hadn’t existed we wouldn’t have Y and both are expressions that I think should be banned from #histSTM. They should be banned because they are simply not true.

Let’s take a brief look at the three papers Einstein published in 1905 that made his initial reputation. The paper on quantum theory, for which he would eventually get his Nobel Prize, was, of course, in response to Planck’s work in this field and was a topic on which many would work in the first half of the twentieth century. The so-called black body problem, which sparked off the whole thing, was regarded as one of the most important unsolved problems in physics at the turn of the century. Brownian motion, the subject of the second paper, was another hot topic with various people producing mathematically formulations of it in the nineteenth century. In fact Marian Smoluchowski produced a solution very similar to Einstein’s independently, which was published in 1906. This just leaves Special Relativity. The problem solved here had been debated ever since it had been known that the Clerk Maxwell equations did not agree with Newtonian physics. We have both Lorentz and FitzGerald producing the alternative to the Newtonian Galilean transformations that lie at the heart of Einstein’s Special Relativity theory. The Michelson-Morley experiment also demanded a solution. Poincaré had almost reached that solution when Einstein pipped him at the post. The four dimensional space-time continuum now considered so central to the whole concept was delivered, not by Einstein, but by his one time teacher Minkowski. Minkowski’s formulation was, of course, also central for the General Theory of Relativity; the solution for the field equations of which were found independently by Einstein and Hilbert, although Hilbert clearly acknowledged Einstein’s priority.

Albert Einstein in 1904 (age 25)
Lucien Chavan [1] (1868 – 1942), a friend of Einstein’s when he was living in Berne. – Cropped from original at the Historical Museum of Berne.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Without going into a lot of detail it should be clear that Einstein is solving problems on which a number of other people are working and making important contributions. He is not pulling new physics out of a hat but solving problems over-determined by the field of physics itself.

What about other ‘great men’? The two most obvious examples are also physicists, Galileo and Newton. I’ve already done a major demolition job on Galileo several years ago, in which I show that everything he worked on was being worked on parallel by other highly competent scholars that you can read here. And a more recent version here.

Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Leoni
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what about Newton?As should be well known Leibnitz and Newton both developed calculus roughly contemporaneously, even more important, as I explained here, they were both building on foundations laid down by other leading seventeenth-century mathematicians. Newton was anticipated in his colour theory of white light by the Bohemian scholar Jan Marek Marci. As I’ve explained here and here Newton was only one of three people who developed a reflecting telescope in the 1660s. Robert Hooke anticipated and probably motivated Newton on the theory of universal gravity and Newton’s work on dynamics built on the work of many others beginning with Tartaglia and Benedetti in the sixteenth century. His first law of motion was from Isaac Beeckman via Descartes and the second from Christiaan Huygens from whose work he also derived the law of gravity. Once again we have a physicist working on problem of his time that were being worked actively on by other competent scholars.

Copy of a portrait of Newton at 46 in 1689 by Godfrey Kneller
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I think this brief analysis that the work of these ‘great men’, Einstein, Galileo and Newton, was to a large extent over-determined that is dictated by the scientific evolution of their respective times and their finding solutions to those problems, solutions that others also found contemporaneously, does not qualify them as special, as ‘great men’.

Having said all of that I would be insane to deny that all three of these physicists are, with right, regarded as special, as great men, so what is the solution to this seeming paradox?

I think the answer lies not in the fact that they solved the problems that they solved but in the breadth and quality of their work. Each of them did not just solve one major problem but a whole series of them and their solutions were of a quality and depth unequalled by others also offering solutions. This can be illustrated by looking at Hooke and Newton on gravity. Hooke got there first and there are good grounds for believing that his work laid the foundations for Newton’s. However whereas Hooke’s contribution consist of a brief series of well founded speculations, Newton built with his Principia a vast mathematical edifice that went on to dominate physics for two hundred years. Put simply it is not the originality or uniqueness of their work but the quality and depth of it that makes these researchers great men.



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“Within the stress of Research” – A collaborative composition with apologies to Paul Simon


Hello JSTOR my old friend[1]

I’ve come to search in you again[2]

Because a reference softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was reading[3]

And the paper that was gnawing at my brain

Still remains[4]

Within the stress of research[5]


Through restless links I searched alone

Papers from journals I do not own

Neath the halo from my desk-lamp

I turn my collar to the research lab[6]


When my eyes were stabbed by the pain

Of a sleepless night

As I tried to write

Through the stress of research[7]


And in the flickering light I saw

Ten thousand deadlines maybe more[8]

Within the stress of research


Post-doc said, ah you do not know

Research like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Read my diss’ and it might reach you

But my sources like undergrads they failed

Adding to the stress of research[9]


Then the faculty bowed and prayed

To bureaucratic gods they made

And the REF flashed out its warnings

Low impact scores were alarming[10]


And the graphs and words from students

Were projected on the classroom walls and lecture halls

Folks breaking under the stress from research[11]


Composed 31 August 2017

Extended 5 September 2017

[1] Clare @mcclare95


[3] Thony Christie @rmathematicus

[4] Vivek Santayana @viveksantayana

[5] Thony Christie @rmathematicus

[6] Eric Keeton @w0wkeeton

[7] Vivek Santayana @viveksantayana

[8] Vivek Santayana @viveksantayana

[9] Eric Keeton @w0wkeeton

[10] Vivek Santayana @viveksantayana

[11] Eric Keeton @w0wkeeton


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