Ich bin ein Gastblogger I: Road to the Renaissance or One Thing Leads to Another

Feb 28 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Please allow me to introduce myself

I’m a man of dubious taste

I like maths and history

The Renaissance is the place

I write posts on astronomy

Astrology and the rest

I a fan of mathematici

Kepler was the best

Pleased to meet you

Hope you guess my name

But what’s puzzling you

Is the nature of my game?1

I shall be attempting to entertain you with four guest posts over the next two weeks. In the invitation asking me if I would like to undertake this task it was suggested that I could use my first guest post to tell the readers something about myself. If you want to know who I am you can pick up the information here or here and if you read German here where you can even find out what I look like. As there is already enough biographical information floating around in cyber space I decided instead to tell the story of how I came to concentrate my researches as a narrative historian of science on the history of Renaissance mathematics.

I’m one of those awful people who not only like mathematics but I was always good at it. As I have often mentioned in the past when I was sixteen my father gave me a copy of Eric Temple Bell’s Men of Mathematics and I discovered for the first time that there was such a thing as the history of mathematics and fell in love with it. From all of the stories in Bell’s book I was most fascinated by the story of the discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibniz because calculus was my favourite area of mathematics. Of course being English I was fascinated by Newton as I had been introduced to him as an English hero when I was still at primary school. Over the years I deepened and widened my knowledge of the history of mathematics learning about the Greeks, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, the Indians and the Chinese but somehow I would always circle back to Newton.

Later I came to formally study history and philosophy of science at the University of Erlangen in Franconia in Germany and devoted a large part of my studies to deepening my knowledge of Newton and Leibniz and everything that connected them and not just the calculus. Due to illness I never formally finished my studies and for a number of years I quit academia although I kept up my interest in the history of science but only simmering on a low flame.

When I returned to serious considerations of the history of science, I took up an old interest of mine examining the relationship between Newton and the third book of Jonathan Swifts Gulliver’s Travels (a paper that is still waiting to be written!). These investigations led me to reconsidering Newton’s reception of Kepler’s astronomy, which in turn led to a consideration of the relationship between Kepler and Copernicus. Around the same time a friend of mine was teaching a course on Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and I asked him if I could participate. He agreed and knowing that I had read the relevant literature he asked me if I would hold a talk in his course on Rheticus, the Wittenberger professor of mathematics who travelled to Frauenburg and persuaded Copernicus to publish his life’s work. Whilst preparing the talk it occurred to me for the first time to ask the how come De revolutionibus was published by Johannes Petreius in Nürnberg? Living as I do just down the road from Nürnberg somehow this became a very personal question. Although there is a whole library of literature about Copernicus and his book none of it contains an answer to what I originally thought was a simple question. Finding no ready-made answer I started researching the question myself.

Now the simple naïve answer is that the book was published in Nürnberg because Rheticus brought it there. The next question of course is why did he bring it there? Trying to answer this question and all the ones that followed this answer led me to an in depth analysis of Renaissance mathematics, early scientific publishing, intellectual culture in Nürnberg at the beginning of the 16th century and a whole heap of other historical themes, the Reformation, Renaissance universities, and so on and so forth. (The full answer to my original question is another paper that is waiting to get written!)

I was captivated. I can’t actually say why it was simply a case of love at first sight. I, as a historian of mathematics, had lived near one of the most important European Renaissance cities that has a deep and significant history of Renaissance mathematics for many years and had no awareness of that history, from then on I reoriented my studies to Renaissance mathematics in general and that of Nürnberg in particular.

Now if you look at standard mainstream histories of mathematics you wont find an awful lot about the Renaissance. In the opinion of the writers of such history real mathematics in Europe takes place in Greece in antiquity disappears with the gradual collapse of Romano-Hellenistic culture has a brief guest appearance in the Golden Age of the Islamic Empire and returns to Europe at the end of the Renaissance signalling the beginning of modern science, during the Renaissance there was no real mathematics. In fact, although the Renaissance concept of what constitutes mathematics is very different to the current one it is a fascinating potpourri of practical applications of various aspects of mathematics. This difference in substance is the reason why I prefer to use the Renaissance term mathematicus and not the modern variant mathematician and why when I started blogging about the history of science I became the Renaissance Mathematicus.

In my next post I shall write about the history of mathematics but I shall be leaving the Renaissance and returning to Newton and Leibniz

1) With apologies to the Glimmer Twins and JFK’s speechwriters for the main title!

11 responses so far

  • Bob O'H says:


    I hope you stir things up with a few posts about Galileo. 🙂

  • Just wondering, what do you think of Dennis Danielson's biography of Rheticus?

    • Thony C. says:

      I bought and read Dennis’ book (we have never met but we have exchanged emails on a couple of occasions in the past) when it first appeared. I had had it on pre-order at the Big Book River for about six months before it appeared, as I had read several of the papers he published whilst writing the book and they were very good.

      It is well researched and well written and it’s the only complete biography of Rheticus in English. Although I don’t agree with everything in it I would certainly recommend it to anybody who wanted to learn about the man and his life. Despite the fact that I propagate myself as a history of science myth buster I find it sad that Dennis destroyed one of the nicest Rheticus stories. Rheticus’ father was executed as Rheticus was still a child and according to the traditional story he was beheaded for practicing witchcraft. Dennis exposes this as a myth according to the court records he was not a witch but a swindler and kleptomaniac.

      On a more serious level Dennis suppresses or minimalises the role of astrology in Rheticus’ life, even at one point resorting to the tired cliché that he only did it for the money. Astrology was very central to his life and he was an active practicing astrologer who obviously believes very deeply in his craft. Dennis presents his journey to Italy to visit Cardano as a mini-summit meeting of mathematicians whereas all of the sources make it very clear that it was a summit meeting of astrologers.

      There are other parts of the book that I would criticise but that’s what historians do. If you can find two historians that agree with each other cherish the moment, it’s very rare. However having said that I would still recommend the book.

  • Zuska says:

    Welcome to the Guest Blogge! You've certainly piqued my interest. Nürnberg was previously of interest to me because of the time Maria Merian spent there and her biography "Chrysalis" gives a glimpse of the city at the time she lived there. I'm looking forward to your posts here at Scientopia!

    • Thony C. says:

      Nürnberg was also the hometown of one of Merian’s contemporaries Maria Clara Eimmart (1667 – 1707) one of the earliest female astronomers. Her father, who was an engraver and probably knew Merian, founded Europe’s first public astronomical observatory in Nürnberg, where she also worked.

  • Namnezia says:

    Hey welcome! I'm a big fan of your regular blog(s), and am always impressed as to how you manage to know so fucking much (at least about things I wish I did).