I have deleted my previous  post on the Caroline Herschel Google Doodle because I was wrong! I will explain tomorrow.


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It’s the wrong telescope.

I know I announced a blogging hiatus yesterday, but I have some time evenings and I simply couldn’t ignore this.

Caroline Herschel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Today is Caroline Herschel’s birthday and Google have celebrated it with a doodle, which is cool and an overdue acknowledgement of a great lady astronomer. If you don’t already know who Caroline Herschel is then you should read the two Guardian articles by Stuart Clark and Becky Higgitt. Google’s doodle is all well and good but I have a complaint, it’s the wrong telescope.

The Google doodle for Caroline Herschel’s 266th birthday. Photograph: google

The Google doodle for Caroline Herschel’s 266th birthday. Photograph: google

If you look at the picture Caroline is standing behind a mounted telescope and in the animated version of the doodle she bends down to look through the telescope as a comet flies passed overhead. This is to acknowledge the fact that she is most well known for the eight comets that she discovered. So what’s my problem? The telescope displayed in the doodle is a refractor that is a telescope with lenses at the front, the objective, and at the back, the eyepiece or ocular. The problem is that the Herschels, that is Caroline and her brother William, used reflectors; that is telescopes that have a mirror and not a lens as objective and then a lens or lenses as the eyepiece to observe the image created by the mirror. To be precise they used Newtonian reflectors that they built themselves. That they used Newtonians was rather unusual at the time because most other professional, or serious amateur like the Herschels, astronomers used Gregorian reflector telescopes, which are of a different design. The Gregorian is actually superior but the Newton is simpler to construct and this is almost certainly the reason that William stuck with Newtonians.

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Refractor. Herschel Museum Bath Source: Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Added: 17 March 2016

If you go to the article Caroline Lucretia Herschel – comet huntress (h/t Tony Angel)on the second page you can see sketches of the comet-sweeper Newtonian reflectors that William built for Caroline, which are not quite as elegant or impressive as the telescope pictured above but which served their purpose admirably.

The fact that the doodle shows a refractor and not a reflector is, viewed historically, not a trivial matter. In the eighteenth century the reflectors were capable of resolving much weaker light sources than the contemporary refractors and were thus superior for the type of deep space celestial mapping that William Herschel pioneered and which he taught to his younger sister. To show Caroline using a refractor and not a Herschel Newtonian reflector is a complete historical misrepresentation and totally misleading.

Now Google might argue that your average Google doodle viewer would probably not recognise a Herschel Newtonian reflector as a telescope and therefore they put a simple refractor in the picture as a generic telescope that people would recognise as such. All well and good but I can best explain my aversion by a simple analogy.

Lewis Hamilton is the current world Formula One racing champion. I want you to imagine the following. Next season Hamilton wins his fourth world championship and Google celebrate the occasion with one of their doodles, unlikely but you never know. So we get a cartoon of the well know figure of Lewis Hamilton in a Formula One racing car but he is not driving a Mercedes, the team for which he drives and has won two of his three titles up till now, but a Ferrari because that is the generic racing car that most people see in their minds eye when they think of racing cars. The Lewis Hamilton fans would probably launch a crusade against the Google head quarters in Mountain View and hang the offending doodler from a lamppost.

As far as I’m concerned in the history of science details matter a lot and the fact that the Herschels used Newtonian reflectors is not a triviality but an important factor in the astronomical achievements for which they are justifiably renowned. It should also be pointed out that this renown led to William becoming one of the commercially most successful telescope constructors in the eighteenth century because other astronomers wanted to own one of those telescopes, which had made the discoveries of William and Caroline possible.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

Blogging Hiatus

There will be a four-week blogging hiatus both here and at Whewell’s Gazette for two different reasons. Firstly I am going into hospital for three weeks, but have no fear this is a positive development not a negative one. I suffer from scoliosis and I’m going to get three weeks of intensive remedial orthopaedic treatment to try and improve my condition. Directly following my last day of treatment, I shall then fly to Britain for a meeting of the Christie Clan in a twelfth-century manor house in the Welsh marches. I shall not be entirely incommunicado, as I will only be a day patient during my treatment. So I will still pop up on Twitter and Facebook, from time to time, but I don’t think I shall be doing any blogging in this period and Whewell’s Gazette is definitely out.

If you are at a loose end and looking for something to do during this period, Afton, the excessively charming three-year-old daughter of my very good #histsci friend and colleague Michael Barton (@darwinsbulldog), suffers from epilepsy and has recently undergone neurosurgery. As they live in America this means big medical bills. Michael and his wife, Catherine, have set up an appeal on gofundme to help pay those bills, so you could do me and Afton a favour and make a small donation to help pass the time until I’m up and blogging again.







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We’re British not European – Really?

Yesterday evening my #histsci soul sister Becky Higgitt tweeted the following:

Scientists for Britain on #bbcnews – we had Newton therefore we don’t want to be in Europe

As #histsci bloggers both Becky and I have been here before, Becky here on her H-Word blog at the Guardian and myself here on the Renaissance Mathematicus but as it’s something that can’t be said too often, I thought I would point out once again that science is collaborative and international and all attempts to claim it for some sort of lone genius, as is often the case with Newton, or to make nationalist claims on its behalf are a massive distortion of the history of science.

Becky’s tweet specifically mentions Britain’s science icon ‘numero uno’ Isaac Newton, so let’s take a look at his scientific achievements and the foundations on which they were built. As Newton, paraphrasing Bernard of Chartres, famously wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke: If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. So who were these giants on whose shoulders Newton was perched? What follows is a bit shopping list I’m afraid and is by no means exhaustive, listing only the better known names of the predecessors in each area of study where Newton made a contribution.

Newton’s mathematics built on the work in algebra of Cardano and Bombelli, both Italians, and Stifel, a German, from the sixteenth century. Their work was built on the efforts of quite a large number of Islamic mathematicians who in turn owed a debt to the Indians and Babylonians. Moving on into the seventeenth century we have Viète, Fermat, Pascal and Descartes, all of them Frenchmen, as well as Oughtred, Wallis and Barrow representing the English and James Gregory the Scots. Italy is represented by Cavalieri. The Dutch are represented by Huygens and Van Schooten, whose expanded Latin edition of Descartes Géométrie was Newton’s chief source on the continental mathematics.

We see a similar pattern in Newton’s optics where the earliest influence is the 10/11th century Islamic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, although largely filtered through the work of others. In the seventeenth century we have Kepler and Schiener, both Germans, Descartes, the Frenchman, and Huygens, the Dutchman, pop up again along with Grimaldi, an Italian, Gassendi, another Frenchman, and James Gregory a Scot and last but by no means least Robert Hooke.

In astronomy we kick off in the fifteenth century with Peuerbach and Regiomontanus, an Austrian and a German, followed in the sixteenth century by Copernicus, another German. All three of course owed a large debt to numerous earlier Islamic astronomers. Building on Copernicus we have Tycho, a Dane, Kepler, a German, and of course Galileo, a Tuscan. France is once again represented by Descartes along with Ismael Boulliau. Also very significant are Cassini, an Italian turned Frenchman, and once again the ubiquitous Huygens. At last we can throw in a gaggle of Englishmen with Horrocks, Wren, Flamsteed, Halley and Hooke.

In physics we have the usual suspects with Kepler and Galileo to which we can add the two Dutchmen Stevin and Beeckman. Descartes and Pascal are back for the French and Borelli joins Galileo in representing Italy. Huygens once again plays a central role and one should not forget Hooke’s contributions on gravity.

As I said at the beginning these lists are by no means exhaustive but I think that they demonstrate very clearly that Newton’s achievements were very much a pan-European affair and thus cannot in anyway be used as an argument for an English or British science existing without massive European cooperation.

If we look at Newton’s scientific inheritance then things look rather bad for the British in the eighteenth century with the developments being made by a whole battalion of French, Swiss, German, Dutch and Italian researchers with not a Brit in sight anywhere. Things improved somewhat in the nineteenth century but even here the progress is truly international. If we take just one small example the dethroning of Newton’s corpuscular theory of light by the wave theory. Originated by Huygens and Hooke in the seventeenth century it was championed by Ampère, Fresnel, Poisson and Arago all of whom were French and by Young and Airy for the British in the nineteenth century.

I hope that yet again, with this brief example, I have made clear that science is a collaborative and cooperative enterprise that doesn’t acknowledge or respect national boundaries but wanders through the cultures where and when it pleases, changing nationalities and languages at will. Science is a universal human activity to which many different and varied cultures have made contributions and will continue to do so in the future. Science should have absolutely nothing to do with nationalism and chauvinism and politicians who try and harness it to their nationalist causes by corrupting its history are despicable.



Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

Christoph and the Calendar

The first substantive history of science post that I wrote on this blog was about the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christoph Clavius. I wrote this because at the time I was preparing a lecture on the life and work of Clavius to be held in his hometown Bamberg. Clavius is one of my local history of science celebrities and over the years I have become the local default Clavius expert and because of his involvement in the Gregorian calendar reform of 1572 I have also become the local default expert on that topic too.

Christoph Clavius

Christoph Clavius

All of this means that I have become very sensitive to incorrect statements about either Clavius or the Gregorian calendar reform and particularly sensitive to false statements about Clavius’ involvement in the latter. Some time back the Atlas Obscura website had a ‘time week’ featuring a series of blog post on the subject of time one of which, When The Pope Made 10 Days Disappear, was about the Gregorian calendar reform and contained the following claim:

The new lead astronomer on the project, Jesuit prodigy Christopher Clavius, considered this and other proposals for five years.

The brief statement contains three major inaccuracies, the most important of which, is that Clavius as not the lead astronomer, or lead anything else for that matter, on the project. This is a very widespread misconception and one to which I devote a far amount of time when I lecture on the subject, so I thought I would clear up the matter in a post. Before doing so I would point out that I have never come across any other reference to Clavius as a prodigy and there is absolutely nothing in his biography to suggest that he was one. That was the second major inaccuracy for those who are counting.

Before telling the correct story we need to look at the wider context as presented in the article before the quote I brought above we have the following:

A hundred years later, Pope Gregory XIII rolled up his sleeves and went for it in earnest. After a call for suggestions, he was brought a gigantic manuscript. This was the life’s work of physician Luigi Lilio, who argued for a “slow 10-day correction” to bring things back into alignment, and a new leap year system to keep them that way. This would have meant that years divisible by 100 but not by 400 (e.g. 1800, 1900, and 2100) didn’t get the extra day, thereby shrinking the difference between the solar calendar and the Earthly calendar down to a mere .00031 days, or 26 seconds.

Luigi LIlio Source: Wikimedia Commons

Luigi LIlio
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is correct as far as it goes, although there were two Europe wide appeals for suggestions and we don’t actually know how many different suggestions were made as the relevant documents are missing from the Vatican archives. It should also be pointed out the Lilio was a physician/astronomer/astrologer and not just simply a physician. Whether or not his manuscript was gigantic is not known because it no longer exists. Having decided to consider Lilio’s proposal this was not simply passed on to Christoph Clavius, who was a largely unknown mathematicus at the time, which should be obvious to anybody who gives more than five minutes thought to the subject.

The problem with the calendar, as far as the Church was concerned, was that they were celebrating Easter the most important doctrinal festival in the Church calendar on the wrong date. This was not a problem that could be decided by a mere mathematicus, at a time when the social status of a mathematicus was about the level of a bricklayer, it was far too important for that. This problem required a high-ranking Church commission and one was duly set up. This commission did not consider the proposal for five years but for at least ten and possibly more, again we are not sure due to missing documents. It is more than likely that the membership of the commission changed over the period of its existence but because we don’t have the minutes of its meetings we can only speculate. What we do have is the signatures of the nine members of the commission who signed the final proposal that was presented to the Pope at the end of their deliberations. It is to these names that we will now turn our attention.

The names fall into three distinct groups of three of which the first consists of the high-ranking clerics who actually lead this very important enquiry into a fundamental change in Church doctrinal practice. The chairman of the committee was of course a cardinal,Guglielmo Sirleto (1514–1584) a distinguished linguist and from 1570 Vatican librarian.

Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The vice chairman was Bishop Vincenzo Lauro (1523–1592) a Papal diplomat who was created cardinal in 1583. Next up was Ignatius Nemet Aloho Patriarch of Antioch and head of the Syriac Orthodox Church till his forced resignation in 1576. Ignatius was like his two Catholic colleagues highly knowledgeable of astronomy and was brought into the commission because of his knowledge of Arabic astronomy and also to try to make the reform acceptable to the Orthodox Churches. The last did not function as the Orthodox Churches initially rejected the reform only adopting it one after the other over the centuries with the exception of the Russian Eastern Orthodox Churches, whose church calendar is still the Julian one, which is why they celebrate Christmas on 6 7 January.

Our second triplet is a mixed bag. First up we have Leonardo Abela from Malta who functioned as Ignatius’ translator, he couldn’t speak Latin, and witnessed his signature on the commissions final report. He is followed by Seraphinus Olivarius an expert lawyer, whose role was to check that the reform did not conflict with any aspects of cannon law. The third member of this group was Pedro Chacón a Spanish mathematician and historian, whose role was to check that the reform was in line with the doctrines of the Church Fathers.

Our final triplet consists of what might be termed the scientific advisors. Heading this group is Antonio Lilio the brother of Luigi and like his brother a physician and astronomer. He was here to elucidate Luigi’s plan, as Luigi was already dead. The lead astronomer, to use the Atlas Obscura phase, was the Dominican monk Ignazio Danti (1536–1582) mathematician, astronomer, cosmographer, architect and instrument maker.

Ignazio Danti Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ignazio Danti
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a distinguished career Danti was cosmographer to Cosimo I, Duke of Tuscany whilst professor of mathematics at the university of Pissa, professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna and finally pontifical mathematicus in Rome. For the Pope Danti painted the Gallery of Maps in the Cortile del Belvedere in the Vatican Palace and deigned and constructed the instruments in the Sundial Rome of the Gregorian Tower of Tower of Winds above the Gallery of Maps.

Map of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia - Gallery of Maps - Vatican Museums. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Map of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia – Gallery of Maps – Vatican Museums.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the calendar reform the Pope appointed him Bishop of Altari. Danti was one of the leading mathematical practitioners of the age, who was more than capable of supplying all the scientific expertise necessary for the reform, so what was the role of Christoph Clavius the last signer of the commission’s recommendation.

The simple answer to this question is that we don’t know; all we can do is speculate. When Clavius (1538–1612) first joined the commission he was, in comparison to Danti, a relative nobody so his appointment to this high level commission with its all-star cast is somewhat puzzling. Apart from his acknowledged mathematical skills it seems that his membership of the Jesuit Order and his status as a Rome insider are the most obvious reasons. Although relative young the Jesuit Order was already a powerful group within the Church and would have wanted one of theirs in such a an important commission. The same thought concerns Clavius’ status as a Rome insider. The Church was highly fractional and all of the other members of the commission came from power bases outside of Rome, whereas Clavius, although a German, as professor at the Collegio Romano counted as part of the Roman establishment, thus representing that establishment in the commission. It was probably a bit of all three reasons that led to Clavius’ appointment.

Having established that Clavius only had a fairly lowly status within the commission how did the very widespread myth come into being that he was somehow the calendar reform man? Quite simply after the event he did in fact become just that.

When Pope Gregory accepted the recommendations of the commission and issued the papal bull Inter gravissimas on 24 February 1582, ordering the introduction of the new calendar on 4 October of the same year,


he granted Antonio Lilio an exclusive licence to write a book describing the details of the calendar reform and the modifications made to the process of calculating the date of Easter. The sales of the book, which were expected to be high, would then be the Lilio family’s reward for Luigi Lilio having created the mathematical basis of the reform. Unfortunately Antonio Lilio failed to deliver and after a few years the public demand for a written explanation of the reform had become such that the Pope commissioned Clavius, who had by now become a leading European astronomer and mathematician, to write the book instead. Clavius complied with the Pope’s wishes and wrote and published his Novi calendarii romani apologia, Rome 1588, which would become the first of a series of texts explaining and defending the calendar reform. The later was necessary because the reform was not only attacked on religious grounds by numerous Protestants, but also on mathematical and astronomical grounds by such leading mathematicians as François Viète and Michael Maestlin. Over the years Clavius wrote and published several thousand pages defending and explicating the Gregorian calendar reform and it is this work that has linked him inseparably with the calendar reform and not his activities in the commission.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of science, Local Heroes, Renaissance Science

History of Science for Kids

I recently got an email from Chad Lillian with the following request:

I was wondering if you could recommend some books for me about mathematical and scientific history that would be interesting for my 10 year old son to read (or for me to read with him)?  I have looked through your book reviews, but am wondering if there are any books you haven’t reviewed on your blog, but would recommend?

Now I don’t have and never have had children and I also don’t teach children so I am basically the wrong person to answer this question. Can people recommend suitable, preferably myth free, books on the histories of mathematics and science for Chad? make your suggestions in the comments!


Filed under Book Reviews

Scientists and Saints’ Days

Friday 12 February was the birthday of Charles Darwin, which has now been celebrated by his acolytes for several years as Darwin Day. The British Society for the History of Science obviously thinks this is a good idea and asked the following question on Twitter, “Should other scientists have a day?” launching a poll with the usual suspects, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Galileo Galilei and the not so usual Rachel Carson. I for one have the feeling that in following this path the history of science community is running the danger of establishing a faux religion with Saints’ Days like the Catholic Church. Some of you may ask, well what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t we honour the women and men who gave us our scientific worldview? I, as a historian of science, would answer; yes we should acknowledge them but not like that. So why do I object?

In the good old days what passed, as popular history of science (and not infrequently academic history of science) was a collection of inspiring stories about how lone, oft persecuted, geniuses fought against the ignorance of the masses to bring enlightenment into the world and to lead humanity into a glorious future. The Early Modern Period was a litany of great names and great moments: Copernicus/heliocentricity persecuted by the Catholic Church, Galileo/modern astronomy persecuted by the Catholic Church, Descartes/the rainbow killed of by Christina, Newton lone loony who invented the modern world. Starting around 1930 historians of science have been chipping away at this travesty deflating the great and bringing in the hordes of anonymous researchers who got left out of the picture. Having rehabilitated the lesser beings, who actually contributed most of the real work, they then moved on to the instrument makers, technicians and finally the women. Despite all their best efforts these advances in the story of science, and the way that we tell it, remain largely unknown to the public at large, as the media and all too many of the pop science writers insists on repeating the myths of old. However some progress has been made and more can be made if we keep up the pressure.

The concept of special days for selected scientists is a massive step in the wrong direction. It harks back to the great names great event model of the story of science that we actually need desperately to get rid of, once and for all. Are we going to have a calendar of the patron saints of science: 12 February is St Charles’ Day, patron saint of evolution, 14 February St Galileo’s Day patron saint of the telescope: St Isaac’s day poses a bit a problem, when do we celebrate the patron saint of gravity? On 25 December the day he was born under the Julian calendar or 4 January the corrected date on the Gregorian calendar? On 7 November, Saint Marie’s day, the patron saint of radiation do we all go down to the clinic for a dose of radiation therapy? You think I’m joking? On Darwin Day people were posting images of artefacts out of Charles Darwin’s life, his geological hammer, his death’s head walking cane, without links to articles or websites, like the medieval Christian Churches displaying relics of the saints. Will our science museums become shrines to the saints of science with reliquaries containing their bones? The Galileo Museum in Florence already had his middle finger on display in a gilded glass container.

In 2010 I posted a short post with the deliberately provocative title A Biological Birthday. Why provocative? Because most readers would expect a post about Charles Darwin, but 12 February is also the birthday of the Dutch anatomist, microscopist and natural historian Jan Swammerdam (born 1637). I wonder how many of the people posting accolades to Darwin on social media last Friday have even heard of Jan Swammerdam let alone know about the important contribution that he made to the life sciences.

12 February is also the birthday of Julian Schwinger (born 1918). Julian who I hear a chorus of Darwinites cry. Julian Schwinger, as well as being a frighteningly intelligent child prodigy, won the 1965 Nobel Prize for physics for his theory combing the theory of special relativity with quantum theory, one of the most important developments in twentieth-century physics.

Despite the fact that I follow a large part of the online history of science community on social media the number of people honouring Schwinger’s birthday was a small fraction of those honouring Darwin’s and I think I was the only person to acknowledge Swammerdam.

The claim made by the supporters of Darwin Day is that the theory of evolution by natural selection is the most important scientific theory ever discovered and that is why it should have a special celebration. Putting aside all of the plentiful arguments against quantifying the importance of scientific theories relative to each other, I think, for example, that for the bridge designing engineer the Newtonian theory of gravity is more important than the theory of evolution, if you are going to have a special day for the theory of evolution then celebrate the theory of evolution and not Charles Darwin. Celebrate all the early evolutionary theorists Maupertuis, Monboddo, Lamarck; Erasmus Darwin, Wallace and Charles Darwin, we can even give a nod to Patrick Matthew and a handful of other minor figures. We shouldn’t forget the geologists, whose theories of deep time allowed for the possibility of evolution in the first place Cuvier, Hutton, Smith, Sedgwick, Buckland, Lyell and all the ones I don’t know not being a historian of geology. We should forget the natural historians and palaeontologists whose work laid much of the foundations on which the theory of evolution was built, a list of names I am not qualified to write. Science is a collaborative enterprise let us demonstrate this in our historical acknowledgements and get away from the type of hagiographic hero worship engendered by concepts such as Darwin Day.

I am not alone in having doubts about Darwin Day. Already in 2012 the philosopher of biology Michael Ruse published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, Why I Am Not Celebrating “Darwin Day”. Last week on Twitter Jon Phillips (@jowiph) a doctoral student of the history of science at Johns Hopkins tweeted the following:

Every year I think I get a little less comfortable with the idea of “Darwin Day.” Treating scientists as objects of veneration feels off. I get the impulse. Evolution is a powerful theory, Darwin was a hugely important figure, and both have been at the center of a culture war. But I spend so much time reading people who invoke science—and evolution in particular—in support of often extreme political agendas I worry that treating Darwin as a secular saint emphasizes the talismanic quality that makes evol. a useful framing device for racists, etc – Jon Phillips (@jowiph)

Also last week Alexander Hall (@Green_Gambit) a post doc “researching & thinking at the interface of science, religion, & the environment” at Newman University (@Newman_Uni) posted the stimulating essay Darwin Day: Celebrating Without Deifying on the website Science & Religion: Exploring the Spectrum.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to take a step back and seriously ask if we should follow the BSHS suggestion for even more scientific “Saints Days”!














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