If you’re going to blog about history of science then at least do the legwork.

In 2012 I found it necessary on two occasions to pour scorn onto the attempts of Esther Inglis-Arkell to blog about the history of science on the io9 website. In the end I gave up having come to the conclusion, not only because of her contributions, that io9 was, despite according to Wikipedia being “named one of the top 30 science blogs by Michael Moran of The Times’ Eureka Zone blog“, definitely not a place to go for anything resembling sensible history of science. However I recently had recourse to visit this quagmire of questionable information to trace the source of a dubious history of science claim. Entering the name Tycho Brahe into the sites search engine the first thing offered was a post about Denmark’s most notorious astronomer written by Esther Inglis-Arkell at the beginning of December. Against my better judgement I decided to read this pre-Christmas offering and very much wished that I hadn’t succumbed to temptation. This post with the title The Bitterest Scientific Duel in History Was Over “Geoheliocentrism” is to put it mildly pretty awful.

Before we examine the post let us consider the title. I have on numerous occasions argued that one should not use superlatives in the history of science, or in history in general come to that, terms such as ‘first’, ‘greatest’, etc., are to be avoided at all cost and the situation here is no different. ‘Bitterest scientific duel”? Really? What about Galileo contra Scheiner on sunspots or Galileo contra Grassi on the nature of comets? Hooke contra Huygens on the watch spring? Hooke contra Newton on everything under the sun or Newton contra Leibniz on the invention of the calculus? That’s just picking some of the cherries off the cake. In the Early Modern period disputes over priority, plagiarism, scientific interpretation and numerous other things were part of the daily bread of scholars. If should think that it was only the mathematical sciences which went in for verbal warfare try the dispute between Leonhart Fuchs and Janus Cornarius, which used language that would make a drunken sailor blush.

EIA’s introduction is also somewhat less than fortunate, she writes, “His bitterest fight involved three famous astronomers of the 16th century, and their battle over the best theory about how Earth was at the center of the universe“. This less than perfect sentence seems to imply that the dispute was about competing cosmological systems, it wasn’t. The dispute was about whether Nicolaus Reimers Bär, generally known as Ursus, had plagiarised the Tychonic system from its Danish creator. Tycho said he had, Ursus denied the charge. EIA’s confusion is not restricted to the introduction as in the following paragraph she writes:

[Tycho] published a geoheliocentric version of the universe, with both the Earth and Sun at the center of the solar system. The “system of the world” was well-received, and an improvement on the existing geocentric model. It was not unique. Nicolaus Reimarus also published a book, titled “Fundamentals of Astronomy,” that replaced the geocentric model.

First off in Tycho’s system “both the Earth and Sun are not at the center of the solar system”! The earth is at the centre and is orbited by the sun, which in turn is orbited by the five planets. Here it is also very clear that EIA is not aware that with slight differences they both published the same system. Tycho claiming that Ursus had plagiarised him and Ursus claiming that he had developed/discovered the system independently. In the interest of fairness it should be pointed out that Paul Wittich, Duncan Liddel, Helisaeus Röslin and Simon Marius all claimed to have independently developed/ discovered a Tychonic system: In fact Gingerich and Westman argue a very good case that Tycho and Ursus both plagiarised Wittich!

I’m not going to discuss the whole story here although I might write a post about it in the future but anybody who wants to read up on it for themselves should, to get a full and balanced picture, read Edward Rosen’s Three Imperial Mathematicians: Kepler Trapped between Tycho Brahe and Ursus, Nicholas Jardine’s The Birth of the History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler’s ‘A Defence of Tycho against Ursus’ with Essays on its Provenance and Significance and Owen Gingerich’s and Robert S. Westman’s The Wittich Connection: Conflict and Priority in Late Sixteenth Century Cosmology, as well as Victor Thoren’s The Lord of Uraniborg: A biography of Tycho Brahe and Dieter Launert’s Nicolaus Reimers (Raimarus Ursus) (this is in German). If that is not enough volume 36 (2005) of the Journal for the History of Astronomy (which is open access) has nine papers by Jardine et al on the subject and volume 44 (2013, not open access) has an interesting paper Trying Ursus: A Reappraisal of the Tycho-Ursus Priority Dispute by Juan D. Serrano. All of this literature means that there really is no excuse for EIA not to get her story right!

We now get introduced to Tycho:

The dual publication was bound to cause bad feelings. Tycho Brahe was a great drinking buddy, but he did not have an even temper when it came to academic debate. He’d lost part of his nose in a duel with his third cousin over a difference in their appraisal of mathematical formula. He was also a dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat who avoided marrying a woman because she was a commoner, despite the fact that they lived together for 30 years and had eight children.

That the duel in which Tycho lost part of his nose was over some sort of mathematical dispute (version differ) is apocryphal or put less politely, a myth with no basis in fact, put into the world by Pierre Gassendi. Tycho did not avoid marrying Kirstin Jørgensdatter, because he was a noble and she was a commoner, they couldn’t marry formally, it being illegal at that time in Denmark. However under a Jutish law (accepted at the time), “the woman who for three winters lived openly as wife in a house, eating and drinking and sleeping with the man of the house and possessing the keys to the household, should be his true wife”[1]. Tycho’s and Kirstin’s marriage was thus under Danish law a legitimate one and their children were also legitimate and not bastards but having a commoner as mother they were themselves commoners and could not inherit Tycho’s titles or properties. They could however and did inherit his astronomical observational data, a fact that caused Johannes Kepler much stress.

We then get introduced to Ursus:

Reimarus started his life lower, and arguably rose higher. As a child he was a pig herder. (Confusingly, this seemed to earn him the nickname of “Bear” or “Ursus.”) His academic performance helped him rise quickly, and his book on the true shape of the universe earned him a position as the Imperial Astronomer to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II.

Nicolaus Reimers’ nickname Bär (English bear, Latin Ursus) naturally, had nothing to do with his activities as a swineherd, which took place when he was eighteen years old not when he was a child, but was a name he adopted in 1588 because of his relationship to the Baren clan, a notable family in Dithmarschen. He was born in Hennstedt in Dithmarschen, an area in North Germany.

EIA goes on to say that Brahe circulated his accusations against Ursus in a letter “amongst the other imperial scientists”. Whilst it’s true that Brahe originally spread his accusations against Ursus in his correspondence with other scholars, not just one letter, I have no idea who ‘the other imperial scientists’ are supposed to be? However, the dispute first really blew up when he published a volume of his scientific correspondence in 1596 in which he included his correspondence on the topic of Ursus and his intellectual theft with Christian Rothmann, astronomer on the court of Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel. Rothmann, who knew Ursus personally from a period he had spent in Kassel, and didn’t like him, fanned the flames from his side with some choice gratuitous insults. Ursus was not amused.

EIA tells us, “Reimarus replied to the allegations in an astronomy journal“. This is a clear proof that EIA has no idea what she is talking about. Ursus’ reply was actually in the form of a book, De astronomicis hypothesibus, published in 1597. He could not have replied in an astronomical journal because there weren’t any in the sixteenth century. I don’t actually know when or where the first astronomical journal was published but certainly not before the eighteenth century. The first ever academic journal was the Journal des sçavans of which the first edition appeared on Monday 5 January 1665 two months ahead of the first edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which celebrates its 350th birthday this year. Ursus’ book set new levels for invective in an academic dispute.

The non-existent astronomical journal might seem to be a rather trivial error to non-historians of science but in reality it is anything but trivial. The media with which scholars communicate, disseminating and discussing their results is a very important and very central theme in the history of science. The error that EIA makes is a very high level error. It is as if a military or political historian describing the Battle of Culloden would claim that Bonnie Prince Charlie was driven away from the battlefield in a Rolls Royce.

Not content with all her errors up to now EIA now drops a major clanger:

Then he did something he lived to regret – if only briefly. He mentioned that Johannes Kepler, another famous astronomer, had sided with him in this little dispute. He even included a letter from Kepler, full of extravagant praise, in which Kepler declared that good old Ursus had taught him everything he knew about brilliant mathematics. When one of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians of the age was on his side, how could he be wrong?

Yes, Ursus did include a very obsequious letter from Johannes Kepler in his book, which did acknowledge Ursus as his teacher (not quite as extremely as EIA would have as believe) but Kepler was not “one of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians of the age”. This is common mistake that people make, if XY became famous he must have always been famous. This is of course not true, famous people must of course go through a process of becoming famous, which can often take many years. When Kepler wrote the embarrassing letter to Ursus he was a completely unknown schoolteacher from the Austrian provinces and in fact this was the motivation for his obsequious letter.

Kepler had just written his first book, the Mysterium Cosmographicum, and in order to try to interest people for his book and start to build a scholarly reputation he sent off gratis copies of the book accompanied with obsequious letters to well-known and influential astronomers and mathematicians, including sending copies to both Tycho and Ursus, who was after all Imperial Mathematicus in Prague.

EIA now adds fuel to the flames of her own historical funeral pyre she informs us:

Even in his own time he was revered, and so the person who actually did teach him had bragging rights. Those rights belonged to Michael Maestlin, Kepler’s math teacher at his university. When Maestlin heard that Kepler was making the Reimarus claim, he was understandably peeved, and fired off a letter to Kepler.

First off at the time of the publication of Ursus’ book Kepler was, as already said, a nobody and by no means revered. In fact the letter from Maestlin was completely different. Before we look briefly at that, calling another scholar your teacher was a fairly standard Renaissance flowery phrase meaning I have learnt so much from reading your work and didn’t faze Maestlin at all. What did faze Maestlin was the letter he received from Tycho complaining about the appearance of Kepler’s letter in Ursus’ book praising the man who had stolen Tycho’s ideas. Maestlin wrote to Kepler to tell him to apologise to Tycho, which Kepler did very quickly. This would prove to be a highly embarrassing situation for Kepler, who a couple of years later, expelled from Austria by the Counter-Reformation, desperately wanted Tycho to give him a job. In fact the noble Dane did give him employment but as his first assignment ordered him to write a book on the dispute exonerating himself and condemning Ursus. Kepler complied, although the book was originally not published, Tycho having died before it was finished, and it is this document that is the subject of Nicholas Jardine’s book mentioned above.

You may ask why I bother to tear this apology for history of science apart, a question I ask myself. What really angers me is that a website with the reach and influence that io9 has allows somebody like Esther Inglis-Arkell to write articles on the history of science, a discipline about which she very obviously knows next to nothing. There are a lot of good historians of science out in the world couldn’t io9 find somebody who knows what they are talking about to write their history of science articles or at least somebody who is prepared to do the leg work and read up on the topic they are writing about before putting fingers to keyboard?

[1] Thoren, p. 46


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

Preach truth – serve up myths.

Over Christmas I poked a bit of fun at Neil deGrasse Tyson for tweeting that Newton would transform the world by the age of 30, pointing out he was going on forty-five when he published his world transforming work the Principia. The following day NdGT posted a short piece on Face Book praising his own tweet and its success. Here he justified his by the age of thirty claim but in doing so rode himself deeper into the mire of sloppy #histsci. You might ask why this matters, to which the answer is very simple. NdGT is immensely popular especially amongst those with little idea of science and less of the history of science and who hang on his every utterance. Numerous historians of science labour very hard to dismantle the myths of science and to replace them with a reasonable picture of how science evolved throughout its long and convoluted history. NdGT disdains those efforts and perpetuates the myths leading his hordes of admirers up the garden path of delusion. Let us take a brief look at his latest propagation of #histmyth.

NdGT’s post starts off with the news that his Newton birthday tweet is the most RTed tweet he has every posted citing numbers that lesser mortals would not even dare to dream about. This of course just emphasises the danger of NdGT as disseminator of false history of science, his reach is wide and his influence is strong. Apparently some Christians had objected to NdGT celebrating Newton’s birthday on Christ’s birthday and NdGT denies that his tweet was intended to be anti-Christian but then goes on to quote the tweet that he sent out in answer to those accusations:

“Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them.”

Now on the whole I agree with the sentiment expressed in this tweet, although I do have vague vision of Orwellian dystopia when people from the scientism/gnu atheist camp start preaching about ‘objective truth’. Doesn’t Pravda mean truth? However I digress.

I find it increasing strange that NdGT’s craving for objective truth doesn’t stretch to the history of science where he seems to much prefer juicy myths to any form of objectivity. And so also in this case. In his post he expands on the tweet I had previously poked fun at. He writes:

Everybody knows that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.  I think fewer people know that Isaac Newton shares the same birthday.  Christmas day in England – 1642.  And perhaps even fewer people know that before he turned 30, Newton had discovered the laws of motion, the universal law of gravitation, and invented integral and differential calculus.  All of which served as the mechanistic foundation for the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries that would forever transform the world.

What we are being served up here is a slightly milder version of the ‘annus mirabilis’ myth. This very widespread myth claims that Newton did all of the things NdGT lists above in one miraculous year, 1666, whilst abiding his time at home in Woolsthorpe, because the University of Cambridge had been closed down due to an outbreak of the plague. NdGT allows Newton a little more time, he turned 30 in 1672, but the principle is the same, look oh yee of little brain and tremble in awe at the mighty immaculate God of science Sir Isaac Newton! What NdGT the purported lover of objective truth chooses to ignore, or perhaps he really is ignorant of the facts, is that a generation of some of the best historians of science who have ever lived, Richard S. Westfall, D. T. Whiteside, Frank Manuel, I. Bernard Cohen, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and others, have very carefully researched and studied the vast convolute of Newton’s papers and have clearly shown that the whole story is a myth. To be a little bit fair to NdGT the myth was first put in the world by Newton himself in order to shoot down all his opponents in the numerous plagiarism disputes that he conducted. If he had done it all that early then he definitely had priority and the others were all dastardly scoundrels out to steal his glory. We now know that this was all a fabrication on Newton’s part.

Newton was awarded his BA in 1665 and in the following years he was no different to any highly gifted postgraduate trying to find his feet in the world of academic research. He spread his interests wide reading and absorbing as much of the modern science of the time as he could and making copious notes on what he read as well as setting up ambitious research programmes on a wide range of topics that were to occupy his time for the next thirty years. In the eighteen months before being sent down from Cambridge because of the plague he concentrated his efforts on the new analytical mathematics that had developed over the previous century. Whilst reading widely and bringing himself up to date on material that was not taught at Cambridge he simultaneously extended and developed what he was reading laying the foundations for his version of the calculus. It was no means a completed edifice as NdGT, and unfortunately many others, would have us believe but it was still a very notable mathematical achievement. Over the decades he would return from time to time to his mathematical researches building on and extending that initial foundation. He also didn’t ‘invent’ integral and differential calculus but brought together, codified and extended the work of many others, in particular, Descartes, Fermat, Pascal, Barrow and Wallace, who in turn looked back upon two thousand years of history on the topic.

In the period beginning in 1666 he left off with mathematical endeavours and turned his attention to mechanics mostly addressing the work of Descartes. He made some progress and even wondered, maybe inspired by observing a falling apple in his garden in Woolsthorpe, if the force which causes things to fall the Earth is the same as the force which prevents the Moon from shooting off at a tangent to its orbit. He did some back of an envelope calculations, which showed that they weren’t, due to faulty data and he dropped the matter. He didn’t discover the laws of motion and as he derived the law of gravity from Huygens’ law of centripetal force that was first published in 1673 he certainly didn’t do it before he was thirty. In fact most of the work that went into Newton’s magnum opus the Principia was done in an amazing burst of concentrated effort in the years between 1684 and 1687 when Newton was already over forty.

What Newton did do between 1666 and 1672 was to conduct an extensive experimental programme into physical optics, in particular what he termed the phenomenon of colour. This programme resulted in the construction of the first reflecting telescope and in 1672 Newton’s legendary first paper A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colors published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Apparently optics doesn’t interest NdGT. Around 1666 Newton also embarked on perhaps his most intensive and longest research programme to discover the secrets of alchemy, whilst starting his life long obsession with the Bible and religion. The last two don’t exactly fit NdGT’s vision of enlightened objective truth.

Newton is without doubt an exceptional figure in the history of science, who has few equals, but like anybody else Newton’s achievements were based on long years of extensive and intensive work and study and are not the result of some sort of scientific miracle in his young years. Telling the truth about Newton’s life and work rather than propagating the myths, as NdGT does, gives students who are potential scientists a much better impression of what it means to be a scientist and is thus in my opinion to be preferred.

As a brief addendum NdGT points out that Newton’s birthday is not actually 25 December (neither is Christ’s by the way) because he was born before the calendar reform was introduced into Britain so we should, if we are logical, be celebrating his birthday on 4 January. NdGT includes the following remark in his explanation, “But the Gregorian Calendar (an awesomely accurate reckoning of Earth’s annual time), introduced in 1584 by Pope Gregory, was not yet adopted in Great Britain.” There is a certain irony in his praise, “an awesomely accurate reckoning of Earth’s annual time”, as this calendar was developed and introduced for purely religious reasons, again not exactly enlightened or objective.





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

Christmas Trilogy Part 3: Choosing a wife.

Johannes Kepler was an incredibly prolific writer. He wrote and published more that eighty books and pamphlets on a very wide range of topics from astronomy to optics, from astrology to Bible chronology, from stereometry (that’s 3-D geometry) to the determination of the volumes of wine barrels and much, much more. A well as all of these publications he was also a very prolific letter writer. Many of his letters were in effect scientific papers, the exchange of letters between researchers taking the place of scientific journals in the Early Modern Period. For example his extensive correspondence with the Frisian astronomer David Fabricius gives us an important historical view of his struggles to derive and establish his second law of planetary motion. However not all of his letters were of a scientific nature. A letter he wrote on 23rd October 1613 to an unknown recipient goes into great detail concerning his attempts over the preceding two years to find a wife.

Kepler had married for the first time in 1595, at the age of 24, a wealthy young widow with daughter, Barbara Müller then aged 23, whilst he was serving as schoolteacher and district mathematicus in Graz. It seems to have been a love match and should have been a happy marriage, however Barbara, who suffered many trials and tribulations with Kepler’s expulsion from Catholic Austria and his subsequent more than rocky time as first assistant to Tycho and then Imperial Mathematicus in Prague, appears to have suffered from clinical depression making their marriage to a time of great stress to Johannes. Worse was to come. In 1611 Kepler’s three children contracted small pox and his son Felix died at the age of six. Barbara fell ill shortly after and passed away on July 3rd. All of this took place whilst Rudolph the German Emperor, and Kepler’s employer, was being deposed by his brother and Kepler was desperately trying to find a new position anywhere but Prague.

In those times it was perfectly normal for a widow with small children to look for and marry a new wife to run his household and look after his children. It was also perfectly normal for marriages, at least at Kepler’s social level, not to be love matches but rather arranged or brokered. Suitable partners being brought together in what more resembled a business deal than a personal relationship. Kepler was no exception to these norms and immediately following Barbara’s death he set about looking for a new wife to care for his children. In the end the whole process would take more than two years and involve negotiations with a total of eleven different women. In the letter mention above, and which I’m going to précis in the following, Kepler himself provides us with all the gory details.

Potential wife number one was a widow in Prague who was a mutual friend of Kepler and his wife. Barbara had recommended her, as her successor on her deathbed. Kepler opened negotiations and the widow seemed to be interested at the beginning but then withdrew, turning down the offer. Kepler was now offered a young maiden by her mother, as Kepler expressed it from widow to virgin. Kepler described to girl as having a pretty face and beening well educated but too young to bear the responsibilities of a household. In the end the mother withdrew the offer on the grounds that her daughter was too young.

At the commencement of this second negotiation Kepler had stated that he would either marry or leave Prague. The marriage having fallen through he now left the city on his way to Linz. In Moravia he met a girl who warmed his soul; a well brought up girl who took over his children with enthusiasm. Leaving his children in the care of their future mother he continued his journey. However when he returned the girl was engaged to another. Onward to Linz.

In Linz Kepler turned his attention to number four, apparently a bit of a stunner, tall, beautiful and athletic. Kepler was proceeding to tying the knot when his attention was distracted by number five, and here we get the longest description. She impressed through her love, her humble fidelity, her economy, her zeal and her affection for his children. It also appealed to Kepler that she was a solitary orphan.

Having almost accepted number five Kepler was urged by the wife of Helmhard Jörger (?) to decide on number four. Caught in a quandary, Kepler’s stepdaughter and her husband recommended a sixth candidate, an attractive, wealthy, but rather too young aristocrat. Kepler who suffered from a serious inferiority complex was worried she would look down on him. Lack of money being a permanent problem in his life he also feared the high costs of an eventual wedding so she too was rejected.

His thoughts returning to number five he now ran into number seven. His friends praised her nobility and her economy. As Kepler pressed his suit with her relatives he was warned off and in the end he was rejected. Enter number eight, by Kepler’s own account not attractive but with an honest mother. Kepler’s nervous and uncertain approach was met with an equally uncertain and nervous response, the whole project collapsed. Kepler now turned his attention to a ninth who simply turned him down. Kepler regarded number ten as unsuitable, describing himself as thin as a stick and his potential partner as short and fat, on to number eleven.

This time everything seemed to be in order the new potential Mrs Kepler was noble, wealthy, and economic, if somewhat young. However after four months of serious negotiations Kepler’s suit was once again rejected on the grounds that the lady was too young.

Kepler finally did the sensible thing, returned to number five, asked her to marry him and was accepted. The lady in question was Susanna Reuttinger twenty-four years old at the time to Kepler’s forty-one. They were married in Eferding on 30 October 1613. Despite Kepler’s vacillations in the two years leading up to the marriage it was a happy and loving union blessed by the birth of six children although, as was not unusual in the seventeenth century, three of them died in childbirth. Kepler took a long time and travelled a circuitous route to find his Susanna but in the end find her he did and she proved a good catch.


Filed under Uncategorized

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!


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Newton

Christmas Trilogy Part 2: Computing mathematical miracles.

In modern perception Charles Babbage has become reduced to narrow minded Victorian number cruncher whose only interest in life was producing mechanical computing machines to crunch ever more numbers. He has even been accused by the acolytes of St Ada of Lovelace of not understanding the real future purpose of those machines, knowledge of which had to be supplied by her saintliness. This rather dismal one-sided portrait of Babbage is very far from the truth Babbage being in reality a multi-talented man whose knowledge of the potentials embodied in the newly emerging machines of the nineteenth century was both very broad and deep. He even, within the context of a religious debate, conceived of the possibility of pre-programmed miracles a concept that he would demonstrate like a mechanical conjuror on early prototypes of his difference engine.

In the first half of the nineteenth century intellectual discourse in Victorian England was dominated by the concept of natural theology, particularly as presented by William Paley in his Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature published in 1802; Paley being today much loved by creationists and much derided by their opponents. The central argument of natural theology is very simple, stating that one can deduce the existence of God through the (scientific) study of the natural world. Paley is famous for having used the watchmaker analogy, the natural world resembles a watch in its complexity and design therefore there must be a watchmaker. (I have a sneaking feeling that I’m going to get hammered by my philosophical friends for this very simplified presentation of natural theology).

Paley was by no means the only believer in natural philosopher in that age and Francis Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, left a bequest of £8 000, a lot of money in those days, to pay one or more authors to write one or more treatises defending the principle of natural theology against the then modern scientific discoveries; the money to be administered by the Royal Society. The Royal Society decide to divide the money into eight portions of £1 000 and to commission eight treatises covering the full range of the then natural and moral sciences.

John Herschel was originally approached to write the treatise on astronomy but he declined on the grounds that it was wrong for a scholar to write for money! This volume was then offered to William Whewell, who having neither Herschel’s wealth nor his scruples eagerly accepted the task. Whewell duly wrote and published the Third Bridgewater Treatise, Astronomy and General Physics considered with reference to Natural Theology, which became the most successful and widely read of all of them, running to nine editions in his own lifetime. Whewell produced all of the argument brought earlier by Isaac Newton, who can be considered natural theological, for a God designed cosmos but adding all of the newer astronomical discoveries made since Newton’s times even including Herschel’s very recent work on double stars, showing how they too obeyed the law of gravity. Whewell’s cosmos was one governed by the laws of science as laid out by a scientific God; having established that God’s cosmos is governed by scientific laws Whewell then goes on to expound his philosophy of science. As he was soon to declare in his legendary three volume History of the Inductive Sciences (1st ed. 1837) and two volume The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences Founded upon their History (1st ed. 1840) Whewell was a Baconian through and through who argued that the laws of science are obtained through induction. Not content to leave it at that he then went on to deny the ability of mathematics and deductions to discover new laws of nature.

Whewell, Herschel and Babbage had been close friends as students at Cambridge[1] and although all three of them were excellent mathematicians, who together as students had fought for the introduction of the continental analysis into Cambridge, it was Babbage who most considered himself to be a mathematician and who took umbrage at what he saw as a personal slight in Whewell’s dismissal of mathematicians in the process of scientific discovery. Never one to take insults lying down Babbage rose to the challenge and wrote and published his own Bridgewater Treatise, although he was not one of the eight chosen authors. Entitled The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise A Fragment by Charles Babbage, Esq. it contained Whewell’s offending passage on its title page:

“We may thus, with the greatest propriety, deny to the mechanical philosophers and mathematicians of recent times any authority with regard to their views of the administration of the universe; we have no reason whatever to expect from their speculations any help, when we ascend to the first cause and supreme ruler of the universe. But we might perhaps go farther, and assert that they.are in some respects less likely than men employed in other pursuits, to make any clear advance towards such a subject of speculation.”—Bridgewater Treatise, by the REV. WM. WHEWELL, p. 334.

This small book contains much of interest but what concerns us here is Chapter II, Argument in Favour of Design from the changing of Laws in Natural Events, which is a clever move by Babbage the computing expert to score points over Whewell.

Not in his Bridgewater Treatise, but in his reviews of the two volumes Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology from 1831and 1832 Whewell addressed a problem that was central to the problems of natural philosophy caused by the recent scientific developments, evolution. Although Darwin’s own theory of evolution still lay some decades in the future evolution as a scientific fact was becoming more and more established as the geologists and palaeontologists found and examined more and more fossils of extinct species. If God had created the world and all that was in it, how come the geological record clearly displayed the disappearance and appearance of different species over the ages. Whewell’s solution was to invoke a caretaker God who popped in from time to time introducing new species to replace those that had died out these interventions being in the form of miracles. It is here that Babbage set out to demonstrate the superiority of a mathematical computing God.

Babbage argued by analogy, he describes the possibility of a computer programme (not the terminology that Babbage uses by the way) that generates the natural numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, … up to and including 100,000,001 but then instead of producing the number 100,000,002 as expected jumps to 100,010,002, continuing the series 100,030,003; 100,060,004; 100,100,005; 100,150,006; 100,210,007 … and so forth. Babbage states that the law generating the series has changed at the jump. The expected numbers being exceeded by the series 10,000, 30,000, 60,000, 100,000, 150,000 … and so on this being the series of triangular numbers 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, … multiplied by 10,000.

Babbage goes on to explain that the operator does not need to interfere with the calculating engine (he is of course thinking of his own Difference Engine) at this point but can pre-programme it from the beginning to make the change at the given juncture.

Unlike Whewell’s God who has to intervene in his own laws of nature with miracles to explain the presence of new species in the geological record Babbage’s mathematical God can pre-programme his laws of nature to change at the required point in time thus pre-programming his miracles at the point of creation.

Babbage actually programmed one of the calculating units of his Difference Engine to perform a miracle of the type described here, which he then demonstrated to guests at the soirees he held at his home in London. It was one of these demonstrations that so impressed the seventeen year old Ada Byron in 1833 and drew her into Babbage’s sphere of influence.

Babbage was so pleased with his mathematical miracles that he included another account of them in his autobiography, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher originally published in London in 1864.

Some readers might note a strong similarity between Babbage’s argument, sketched here, for a divine pre-programmed replacement of species and the arguments of those modern Christians who accept the theory of evolution but state that this is God’s method of creating the world.





[1] Laura J. Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club, Broadway Books New York, 2011 is an excellent account of that friendship that I strongly recommend.


Filed under Uncategorized

Christmas Trilogy, what’s that?

I have had another year with a comparatively large number of new readers many of whom are possible wondering why todays post is titled, Christmas Trilogy Part 1. I wrote a brief post explaining the Renaissance Mathematicus Christmas Trilogy last year, which also contains links to the Christmas Trilogy Posts from 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The Christmas Trilogy posts for 2013 were Part I: The Other Isaac, Part II: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Part III: A New Years Offering.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Christmas Trilogy 2014 Part I: Was he or wasn’t he and does it matter?

Isaac Newton supposedly boasted on his deathbed that he had never known a woman. That’s known in the Biblical sense meaning to have sexual intercourse. Most people interpret this to mean that Newton died a virgin but is this true? Had he perhaps known a man?

Anybody setting out to write a biography of Isaac Newton has a problem, what can you do to make your biography stand out from all the ones that have already been written and there are a lot of them out there. Even Richard Westfall, whose Never at Rest[1] is without doubt king of the pack, has written three different Newton biographies! Michael White who could be described as a profession writer of intellectual biographies decided to go the shock, horror, did you know?, route with his biography from 1997, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer[2], in which he reveals “the extraordinary influence of alchemy on the greatest mind of the modern world”. Unfortunately for White this is very much stale news as was pointed out four years ago by my #histsci soul sister Rebekah “Becky Higgitt in a blog post entitled Newton and alchemy: a constant surprise? To quote the good Dr Higgitt:

However, the thing that bugs me most is the fact that Newton has been ‘revealed’ as an alchemist, or as a magician, over and over again. In recent years the major popular interest in Newton has related to alchemy and prophecy, and such presentations tend to be accompanied by the suggestion that this is a surprising and novel revelation. This process goes back at least as far as John Maynard Keynes and his 1946 essay ‘Newton the Man’, which presented Newton as ‘the last of the magicians’. Keynes had acquired a significant portion of the ‘non-scientific’ part of Newton’s archive (as judged by the scientists who catalogued and divided them in the late 19th century), and he was undoubtedly struck by what he found. But, as I have said in my book, he shouldn’t have been as surprised as he evidently was.

White was of course aiming for the general lay public with his popular biography so he might have surprised some of his readers with his alchemical revelations, however he definitely did cause quite a stir with another revelation in his book, the claim that Newton was homosexual. In this post I want to examine the evidence that White puts forward for this claim and give my views on the question, was Isaac Newton a homosexual? Equally important in my opinion is the question; does it matter?

There is no actual solid evidence that Newton was homosexual that is, he never outed himself, as we would say today, and none of friend acquaintances or enemies ever outed or denounced him as being so. Newton acquired enough enemies throughout his long and cantankerous life, several of whom would happily have wished him to the devil so I think if there had been even a hint that he was homosexual one of them would have made the information public with malicious glee. This being the actually situation as far as our biographical knowledge of Newton goes White is reduced to circumstantial evidence and plausible assumption. He thinks he has found two separate pieces of evidence that point to Newton’s homosexuality and as they are unrelated I shall deal with them independently.

White’s first scenario concerns John Wickins, a fellow Cambridge student and later fellow of Trinity College who shared a chamber with Newton for twenty years from 1663 to 1683. We know next to nothing about Wickins one of the few sources being a brief note written by his son Nicolas Wickins to Robert Smith in 1728.

My Father’s intimacy with him came by mere accident. My Father’s first Chamber-fellow being very disagreeable to him he retired one day into the walks where he found Mr Newton solitary & dejected; Upon entering into discourse they found their cause of Retirement the same &thereupon agreed to shake off their present disorderly Companions & Chum together, which they did as soon as conveniently they could &and so continued as long as my Father stayed at College.[3]

During their time together Wickins functioned as Newton’s amanuensis copying up notes for him and acting as his assistant during alchemical experiments. White can offer no evidence that their relationship was anything other than just roommates but believes there is a smoking gun. He writes:

There is no hard evidence of their relationship being sexual in nature, only speculation surrounding the intensity of their bond as indicated by the absolute and clinical manner of its breaking.[4]

He and Newton separated in 1683 under a cloud and, despite Wickins living for another thirty-six years, the two men never met again.[5]

This is the full extent of White’s evidence and even as it stands it is mighty thin. There is nothing unusual in people who have been friends for long periods of time after they part, for whatever reasons, completely losing contact with each other. Having moved around quite a bit in my life I could quote quite a few examples out of my own life. However White’s argument is further weakened if we turn to Westfall’s account of their relationship.

With John Wickins, the young pensioner he met on a solitary walk in the college, he continued to share a chamber until Wickins resigned his fellowship in 1683 for the vicarage of Stoke Edith. Wickins was frequently absent for extended periods, and during the final five years he was hardly there at all.[6]

This added information doesn’t quite tie in with White’s “intensity of their bond” and “absolute and clinical manner of its breaking”. It appears more likely that their friendship simply drifted apart as many similar friendships do.

Interestingly White doesn’t try to conjure up a homosexual relationship between Newton and Humphrey Newton (a young man from Grantham who was no relation) who following Wickins’ final departure lived in Newton’s chambers for five years functioning as his amanuensis.

With his second piece of evidence White is on much firmer ground and describes a friendship of Newton’s that does appear to have been a love relationship with another man, the young Swiss mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier (1664-1753).

Fatio c. 1700 Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia commons

Fatio c. 1700 Artist unknown
Source: Wikimedia commons

Fatio, as he is known, having previously studied with Cassini in Paris and becoming friends with Huygens and Jakob Bernoulli, travelled to London in 1687, where he met many of the leading scholars including John Wallis and was elected a member of the Royal Society. It was probably at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1689, where “Huygens discoursed on light and gravity” that he first met Isaac Newton. “The attraction between the two was instantaneous”[7] There then followed very close intellectual and personal relationship between the two men, well documented in a series of very intimate letters that can, without a very great stretch of the imagination, be described as love letters. This relationship lasted about four years with Newton offering to lend his young friend money and at times entreating him to come and share his chambers with him so that he can care for the health and wellbeing of the young scholar. There is no evidence that their relationship was ever physical but there is little doubt of the affection that it entailed. Was it a homosexual love affair? It seems very likely on the evidence of the correspondence however it could also be explained with a father son relationship; Newton having perhaps seen something of himself in the young Fatio and having adopted him like a mother hen. The tone of some of Newton’s letters would certainly support such an interpretation.

I personally think there was at least a non-physical love relationship between Newton and Fatio and one could be justified in including Newton in the very small number of known homosexual scientists. This of course raises the question included in my title, does it matter? In an ideal world, at least in my vision of one, a scientist’s gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, political opinions or any other personal traits should not play any role whatsoever in how we view their scientific work; however we a very far from living in such an ideal world. People are discriminated because of their gender, their skin colour, their sexual orientation, their religion etc. etc. We even recently had the unappetising spectacle of a self-proclaimed champion of free thought ridiculing Islam because of the lack of Islamic Nobel Prize laureates.

Since a number of years many people, including myself, have been pushing to raise the general awareness of female scientists, both in the history of science and in the current world, as role models to encourage young women to consider science as a possible career and to try to reduce the prejudice against those that do make this their career choice. Whilst female scientists are thin on the ground in the history of science before the twentieth century, homosexual scientists are almost non-existent. In several recent articles in the Internet provoked by the Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation, young homosexual scientists have emphasised the importance of Turing as a role model for them when choosing their careers. I feel it would be good if young homosexuals could also point to Newton, often presented as the greatest of all scientists, as a role model when contemplating a career in science.

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

[2] Michael White, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, Fourth Estate, London, 1998.

[3] Westfall, p. 74

[4] White, p. 235

[5] White, p. 52

[6] Westfall, p. 194

[7] Westfall, p. 493


Filed under Uncategorized