Exploding Myths About the History of Science

We want our heroes to be virtuous at all times, clear-thinking visionaries who never falter. Of course, that is almost never the case. But a nicely packaged narrative about a great person’s life is very tempting. In The Renaissance Mathematicus, Thony Christie sets out to challenge those narratives, at least in the case of math and science history.

An illustration from Kepler's Mysterium Cosmographicum. This image from From the book, "The Science-History of the Universe" by Francis Rolt-Wheeler is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

An illustration from Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum. This image from From the book, “The Science-History of the Universe” by Francis Rolt-Wheeler is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

In the mission statement for his blog Christie writes, “What is taught in our educational establishments is not the history of science but the mythology of science. Unfortunately this pervasion of falsehoods is not restricted to polite cocktail party chat but is used by such people as historians and philosophers (of the non-scientific variety) to formulate their theories, leading to some real intellectual perversions. My life’s function as a historian of science is to serve as a myths-of-science buster and one of the principle functions of this blog is to expose and explode those myths.”

I was never a great student of history, but ever since I started writing about math, I’ve gotten much more interested in the history of math and science. Christie’s blog is one of the math and science history blogs I read regularly, and I’m very glad I do. I am as susceptible as anyone to tidy hero narratives, and as Christie articulates, those don’t do justice to the heroes or the history.

Christie lives near Erlangen, Germany, Emmy Noether’s birthplace, and has written twice about her. I knew that she wasn’t able to become a full professor at Göttingen, but I didn’t know how ridiculous her quest to get her Habilitation was. Christie writes, “During this whole circus my favourite comment was the one professor in the faculty meeting who bitterly opposed Emmy’s habilitation because she would be then entitled to eat in the private dinning room for habilitated faculty members…”

I think I learned about the Renaissance Mathematicus in September when I came across the post History of science is history and not science in which Christie bristles at the idea that historians of science should always write about which of two competing theories ended up being “right” in the end. I probably wouldn’t have considered the possible problems in this approach, but Christie writes, “Let us consider for a moment the theory of gravity. In modern terms this means Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Go back to the beginning of the eighteenth century and we have a famous dispute between Newton and Leibniz about the former’s theory of gravity.  Martin wants us to tell him who was right in this dispute with respect to the general theory of relativity. The answer varies according to which aspect of the dispute one views. From one viewpoint Leibniz was right from another Newton, from yet another both of them were wrong. So what does one do? In order to explain what’s going on, one ends up analysing the whole Leibniz-Newton debate in terms of the general theory of relativity and not in its own right.”

It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole while reading Renaissance Mathematicus, which I did while writing this post. My search for the word “euclid” led me to the problem with parallels, the first English translation of Euclid, scientific illustration, and eventually to rants about the way Galileo is idolized, among other things. All informative and, when crankiness is necessary, delightfully cranky.

My one complaint about the blog is that it does not have enough posts about women, and I am very interested in better understanding the contributions of early women mathematicians and scientists. My complaint is unfair because Christie focuses on science in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries when, unfortunately, women’s representation was even lower than it is today. (It’s also unfair because it’s his blog and not mine!) Nevertheless he does sometimes write about women, and I do appreciate his take on the sometimes hyperbolic claims about Mary Somerville and Ada Lovelace. He is clearly interested in promoting awareness of women in science but not at the expense of history.

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3 Responses to Exploding Myths About the History of Science

  1. Michael McPeak says:

    How was Pi discovered, worked out, calculated? There has to have been a known diameter and/or known circumference. How do we get to the number 3.1416…..?

  2. derek haas says:

    Lots of absurd claims about females(and non-whites)of history have been made,calling them “brilliant” and giving them credit for something they didnt do or greatly exaggerating the things they did do.Giving ada lovelace credit for charles babbage`s work is a good example.Similar misinformation about albert einstein`s wife has been promoted also,including by mainstream media outlets like PBS.I also have a problem with the idea that gender differences have more to do with external influences than internal.It is self-evident that the sexes,as with the races,have different capabilities and different traits and are naturally inclined toward different interests,regardless of culture or socialization.It is quite clear that some people have gone to great lengths to convince us that we are all the same and that race and gender have no bearing on academic or occupational performance.I cant speak about the myths that christie refers to,but i know that lots of new myths,surrounding the contributions of females and blacks,have emerged,and few are willing to expose them.

    • evelynjlamb says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that it’s not helpful to exaggerate the contributions of women and minorities, but I strongly disagree that it is self-evident that the sexes or races have different capabilities or are naturally inclined toward different interests absent culture and socialization. I think we have not had nearly enough (read: any) randomized controlled trials of humans growing up outside of society to make that kind of claim.

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