The Astronomy Exam at Haverford College in 1859

In the late 1850s students at Haverford College had to pass exams in three departments: English, Classics, and Mathematics.[1] They demonstrated their mastery in these divisions through a grueling set of exams at the end of the senior year.[2] First they had to pass a battery of private exams that covered all the subjects and spanned two weeks. These private exams were followed by a set of public exams.

According to the regulations established in 1855, the faculty had to determine the private exam schedule in advance and give the seniors one full week’s notice. In 1859 the seniors had to take the following test:

Private Exams at Haverford College in 1859
Week 1 Week 2
AM PM AM PM
2nd Day Antigone & Grk. Ex. Differential Calculus Dymond Lat. Prose (Cic. & Tacit.)
3rd Day Kent’s Commentaries Integral Calculus Analyt. Geometry Butler
4th Day Logic Rhetoric Horace & Lat. Ex. Mechanics
5th Day Intellect. Philosophy
6th Day Political Economy Thucydides Optics
7th Day Astronomy
At the faculty meeting on May 27, 1859, the faculty determined the schedule for the first week of private exams that year. Nearly a month later the faculty got around to finalizing the second week’s exam schedule. The Minutes of the Faculty are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# HCV—R4 ID 1835–1869 (see the finding aid).
At the faculty meeting on May 27, 1859, the faculty determined the schedule for the first week of private exams that year. Nearly a month later the faculty got around to finalizing the second week’s exam schedule. The Minutes of the Faculty are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# HCV—R4 ID 1835–1869 (see the finding aid).

Each exam was supposed to include a “series of written questions … [with] a number being annexed to each question, to represent the value assigned to a correct answer” and must include a “suitable number of questions” to test the students’ mastery. Each day students filed into the examination room where under the watchful eye of a faculty member they were prohibited from talking to each other while they took the exam. Exams lasted up to four hours.

Seemingly in an effort to reduce bias against students, the faculty had stipulated that each student should assume a motto and should sign his exams not with his name but with that motto. According to the regulations set down in 1855:

XII The papers containing the answers, must not be signed with the students [sic] name, but with a name or motto, assumed for the occasion; and a sealed envelope, inscribed with said assumed name, and containing the real one, must be handed in to the first meeting of the council, after the merit of the answers has been determined.

Predictably, some students were quite creative in the mottos they adopted, sometimes capturing, no doubt, their own anxiety about the exams:
Crocket, H. St. John, Mohawk, O!, Kit Carson, Incog., Imparatus, No Anxiety, Anxietas, √–1.

Equally predictably, others viewed it as a tedious task, choosing something trite—Greek letters were common, e.g., Omega and Beta were common.

Some of the mottos reflect the prominence of the classics in Haverford’s early curriculum:
Aeneas, Tyro, Hesperus, Ajax, Hector, Themistocles, Ὄνομα, Ἑρμῆς, Ξένος, Παραδειγμα, Φευ φευ.

Finally, and most interesting to me, some mottos seem to reflect a growing interest in astronomy, e.g., Regulus, Hipparchus, and most bluntly Telescope.

In 1859 eight students took the private exams.

The faculty always recorded student performances in the Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, listing both the student’s motto, his real name, and his grades in the three departments as well as his average. The Minutes of the Faculty are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# HCV—R4 ID 1835–1869 (see the finding aid).
The faculty always recorded student performances in the Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, listing both the student’s motto, his real name, and his grades in the three departments as well as his average. The Minutes of the Faculty are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# HCV—R4 ID 1835–1869 (see the finding aid).

The Haverford College Catalogue lists the books seniors studied and the faculty who taught the various course. From the list of books and the public lectures faculty agreed to give, we glean some idea of what seniors were supposed to have learned. In the late 1850s Moses Stevens was responsible for teaching the mathematics, which was divided into three subjects: mechanical philosophy, optics, and physical and practical astronomy. For the first two subjects, students were assigned a book by Olmsted, perhaps Dennis Olmsted’s An Introduction to Natural Philosophy (1844)). For astronomy, they read a book by Robinson, probably Horatio Robinson’s A Treatise on Astronomy, Descriptive, Physical, and Practical (1850).

The Haverford College Catalogue for 1859 lists the books students read in the mathematics department. The books included a text by Olmsted on mechanical philosophy and optics, and a book by Robinson on astronomy. The Haverford College Catalogue for 1859 is available online here; this particular page is available here.
The Haverford College Catalogue for 1859 lists the books students read in the mathematics department. The books included a text by Olmsted on mechanical philosophy and optics, and a book by Robinson on astronomy. The Haverford College Catalogue for 1859 is available online here; this particular page is available here.

Although we don’t have Stevens’s lecture notes, we do have copies of the exams he gave the students in 1859 along with the students’ answers and marks on each section.[3] Stevens divided mathematics into six areas and tested the students on each: Analytical Geometry, Differential Calculus, Integral Calculus, Mechanics, Astronomy, Optics. The first three the students learned as juniors; the second three they studied as seniors.

Stevens tested the students in six areas. He recorded their grades in this summary table and then reported to the faculty the students’ general average on the battery of mathematics exams. Here, each area was worth 10pts for a maximum total of 60 pts. In some cases, students earned more than the maximum points—if their answers were particularly good, they could earn extra credit. The students were, apparently, most prepared for the optics exam and least prepared for the astronomy exam. These exams are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).
Stevens tested the students in six areas. He recorded their grades in this summary table and then reported to the faculty the students’ general average on the battery of mathematics exams. Here, each area was worth 10pts for a maximum total of 60 pts. In some cases, students earned more than the maximum points—if their answers were particularly good, they could earn extra credit. The students were, apparently, most prepared for the optics exam and least prepared for the astronomy exam. These exams are found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).

Although all the exams—both the exams for the various mathematical subjects and the different students’ exams in each subject—would repay study, here I’ll look at just one student’s responses to the astronomy exam. The student, “Katabasis”—Benjamin H. Smith[4] was his real name—was an average student. He performed slightly better than average on the astronomy exam, but overall he was slightly below average.

When Katabasis walked in to examination room on the morning of the seventh day of the first week of exams he confronted nine questions that asked him to identify astronomical instruments and their parts, define astronomical terms, and carry out a range of calculations:

Astronomy

  1. Name the varities [sic][5] of eye-pieces in common use and describe each. Val 5.
  2. Describe the transit instrument. Val 6.
  3. How do we compute the correction for to the time of transit, for inclination of axis, for collimation and for meridian? [Val] 20.
  4. Given the R.A. and Dec. of two stars to find their distance apart. [Val] 8.
  5. Give a method for finding the lat. of a place. [Val] 10.
  6. How can we find the position of the equinoctial points? [Val] 10.
  7. What is meant by the angle of the vertical and how may it be computed? [Val] 8.
  8. Give the method of computing Rad. of earth at any point. [Val] 12.
  9. Define the parallax of a heavenly body, and show how to computer the par. of moon in R.A. [Val] 21.
Katabasis neatly copied out the astronomy examination questions. Minor spelling mistakes, e.g., “varities” for “varieties,” and abbreviations were common in the students’ copies of the questions. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).
Katabasis neatly copied out the astronomy examination questions. Minor spelling mistakes, e.g., “varities” for “varieties,” and abbreviations were common in the students’ copies of the questions. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).

Unfortunately, there’s no indication how long Katabasis and the other students had to complete the exam, though a couple of them remarked that they didn’t complete a question because “time fails.”

Although the three years of astronomy courses at Haverford used Robinson’s textbook, when Moses Stevens taught the course he had to supplement this material. For example, Robinson’s textbook said nothing about varieties of eye-pieces or transit instruments. Katabasis’ answer to question one seems to have come from Elias Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy, which the college assigned a couple years later as the astronomy textbook. The order, the drawings, the terminology, and even the underlining in Katabasis’ answer echo that found in Loomis’s textbook.[6] Perhaps equally telling, the unnecessary information and detail Katabasis added, e.g., when he described how to “find the power of the telescope,” is exactly the detail that follows Loomis’s discussion of eye-pieces.[7]

Katabasis’ answer to question one: “Name the varities [sic] of eye-pieces in common use and describe each.” It seems likely that the source of this information was Elias Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).
Katabasis’ answer to question one: “Name the varities [sic] of eye-pieces in common use and describe each.” It seems likely that the source of this information was Elias Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).

It is easy to imagine one of two scenarios: First, Stevens turned to Loomis’s textbook to fill in important information he thought was missing from the assigned text. Haverford had, after all, built and equipped a new observatory that it prided itself on and required students to use. In such a case, basic, practical knowledge of the instruments would be useful. Second, Katabasis had for one reason or another not learned the information in class. To make up his deficiency he had consulted Loomis’s text during his six weeks of review prior to the exam.[8]

Although the college boasted that its students had plenty of opportunity to do astronomy in its new observatory, only the first two questions gave the students a chance to demonstrate their experience working with astronomical instruments. And even these two questions don’t require working with instruments so much as being able to describe their parts—neither required the tacit knowledge that students might gain only from working with instruments. Most of the exam asked students to explain how, in principle, to carry out certain astronomical calculations. Surprisingly absent from the exam were problems that asked the student to carry out astronomical calculations.

Again, Katabasis’ answers to these latter questions seem to owe a debt to Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy rather than Robinson’s text. For example, question 7 asks to define the “angle of the vertical” and show how to calculate it. This term is found nowhere in Robinson’s textbook. However, in Loomis’s text this problem is explained in terms remarkably similar to Katabasis’ answer, including the diagram that illustrates both Katabasis’ exam and Loomis’s textbook.

Katabasis’ answer to question 7, “What is meant by the angle of the vertical and how may it be computed?” so closely resembles the example in Loomis’s textbook that it seems likely that Loomis, not Robinson, was being used in the classroom. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).
Katabasis’ answer to question 7, “What is meant by the angle of the vertical and how may it be computed?” so closely resembles the example in Loomis’s textbook that it seems likely that Loomis, not Robinson, was being used in the classroom. This exam is found in Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Call# 910H (this collection of materials contains all sorts of fascinating stuff, see the finding aid).

On closer inspection, it turns out that most of the questions are found in Loomis’s textbook but not in Robinsons. Question 6, e.g., asked how to find the equinoctial points. Whereas Robinson’s text says nothing about this problem, Loomis’s textbook discusses the issue and works three examples. Unfortunately for Katabasis, he did not recall either the discussion or the examples. For question 6 he noted, simply, “Non reminiscor.”

The astronomy exam and Katabasis’ answers give us a glimpse of Haverford’s astronomy curriculum in the mid–19th century. Together they help us see beyond the prescribed curriculum and texts—in this case, his answers suggests that the prescribed text was not the primary resource used to teach astronomy. The exam questions also give us a chance to see what the college considered valuable astronomical knowledge. Considered alongside the other students’ exams and Katabasis’ own diary, we can perhaps begin to piece together a detailed picture of astronomy education at Haverford College in the mid–19th century.[9]


  1. These departments resemble our current divisions. Mathematics, for example, included mathematics as well as mechanics, optics, and astronomy. English was divided into “Ethics etc.” and “Belles-Lettres.”  ↩

  2. During the same period the class known as “second junior” (what we now call sophomores) took a set of exams. Before long Haverford did away with it idiosyncratic “second junior” and “third junior” terms and adopted the more common (and now standard) sophomore and freshman.  ↩

  3. Unfortunately, I have not located copies of Stevens’s lecture notes, so we don’t have a clear sense of what he tried to teach the students. We do have Samuel Gummere’s lecture notes from a few years later, after he took over the teaching of mathematics. I’ve looked briefly at Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus, but his entire set of notes merit further attention.  ↩

  4. I have just noticed that we have a copy of B.H. Smith’s diary while he was a student here at Haverford—it is also in this collection Call# 910H, which is a treasure trove of diaries, lecture notes, and other source material (it also includes another set of lecture notes by Samuel Gummere (see Samuel J. Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus for a set of notes from Call# 910F)). I didn’t have a chance to look at it before writing this post but will look read through it as soon as I can.  ↩

  5. The slight variations and minor spelling mistakes in the questions across student papers suggests that the students had to copy the questions from a blackboard (one student didn’t write out the questions to the astronomy exam, just his answers, so it seems unlikely that students wrote down questions as they were read aloud at the beginning of he examination).  ↩

  6. Although the description of eye-pieces is sufficiently generic to cast doubt on finding Katabasis’ source, the underlining in his answer that corresponds to the italics in Loomis’s text certainly suggests a close link between the two. I’m not implying any malfeasance on Katabasis’ part. Just looking for sources for his information.  ↩

  7. It is interesting to see students in the 19th century doing what students still do today and perhaps have always done: bulking up answers with unnecessary information. Perhaps this practice comes from not yet knowing (or being confident that you know) what a good answer would include. Perhaps it comes from a general anxiety about having left something out. Perhaps it comes from a mistaken notion that more is better or at least not worse. Whatever the source, it’s comforting to know that what I no doubt did as a student and what I see students doing now has a long pedigree.  ↩

  8. According to the regulations established in 1855, the faculty gave the seniors and second juniors a six-week reading period to prepare for exams:

    II. The Senior and 2d Junior Classes, will be allowed the six weeks next preceding the examination, for a general review of their studies….

    Haverford’s current one-week reading period seems paltry in comparison  ↩

  9. If only we could find a copy of Moses Stevens’s lecture notes for this period, we would be set. Samuel Gummere’s notes from a few years later might also be helpful, especially because by that point Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy was the prescribed textbook.  ↩

Astrolabes or Mariner’s Astrolabe—A Primer

Celebrations are afoot in Ontario celebrating 400 years of Francophone presence in the region. An important part of those celebrations is Samuel de Champlain’s exploration of Ontario and his early encounter with First Nations cultures. Simcoe.com has a short post on an exhibit that includes one of Champlain’s navigational instruments: “Historic astrolabe on display in Midland believed to have been Champlain’s.” Unfortunately, there’s a bit of confusion about this instrument, which is not in fact an astrolabe.

The Simcoe article faithfully reports information from the Sainte-Marie among the Hurons site. Unfortunately for the Sainte-Marie among the Hurons site, the Canadian Museum of History, which owns the instrument, contributed to the confusion. The museum lists the instrument, artifact #989.56.1, as an astrolabe (the museum also identifies its two other similar instruments—artifact #988.58.1 and artifact #LH994.142.1.2 as astrolabes). Buried toward the end of the museum’s description is a passing comment that identifies the instrument as a “mariner’s astrolabe.”

This passing comment is the only place that Champlain’s instrument in correctly identified as a “mariner’s astrolabe.” Although the two instruments share one possible function—determining the altitude of star (usually the sun or the pole star)—that’s it. The astrolabe combined observations and calculations, allowing the user to perform hundreds of operations. It was both a complex, technical device and a status symbol. The astrolabe has been compared to iPhones and more recently to a complex Rolex watch.

Astrolabes—pre-modern Rolex or iPhone, you decide.
Astrolabes—pre-modern Rolex or iPhone, you decide.

These comparisons capture the astrolabe’s status and superabundance of operations its operations. My pamphlet offers a handy introduction to the history, fabrication, and use of astrolabes. Hundreds of astrolabes survive.

The mariner’s astrolabe, by contrast, was utilitarian and singular in function. It allowed the user to determine the height of the polar star or the sun and, thus, the observer’s latitude. The instrument’s design reflects its utilitarian function. Mariner’s astrolabes are typically heavy, made from a thick brass ring (only the limb of astrolabe) to limit them from swinging too much as the ship’s deck swayed and rocked at sea. Some had a ring at the bottom of the instrument from which to hang a weight for added stability. The body of the instrument was often cut away to reduce, scholars claim, the effects of wind blowing on the body of the instrument.

On the left is a typical mariner’s astrolabe from ca. 1600, from the Museum of the History of Science, inventory #54253, found here. On the right is a planispheric astrolabe, usually called simply an astrolabe. This is an early 16th-century astrolabe from the Museum of the History of Science, inventory #52528, found here.
On the left is a typical mariner’s astrolabe from ca. 1600, from the Museum of the History of Science, inventory #54253, found here. On the right is a planispheric astrolabe, usually called simply an astrolabe. This is an early 16th-century astrolabe from the Museum of the History of Science, inventory #52528, found here.

The limb was typically graduated from 0°–90° in the upper quadrants, once again reflecting its use as a basic observational instrument. A simple alidade with rather crude sighting vanes was attached to the front of the instrument. At night the navigator would look through the holes in the alidade to align them with the pole star. Then he could read the altitude of the star from the graduation on the limb, which altitude was, roughly, his latitude. If he wanted to know his latitude during the day, at noon he rotated the alidade until the sun shown down through the holes in the vanes (he would not look at the sun for obvious reasons). He read the sun’s altitude from the scale on the limb, added or subtracted the earth’s tilt based on the day of the year, and subtracted the result from 90° to obtain his latitude.

The mariner’s astrolabe was a nautical/navigational tool. Although an astrolabe could have been used at sea as a navigational tool, it is unclear that they were. The instrument’s many functions and finely graduated limb would have made it unnecessarily complicated and difficult to use on the deck of moving ship. Moreover, the astrolabe’s cost and status make it seem unlikely that a mariner would have owned one when there were other, more specialized and less expensive instruments that did the same thing. There are a few illustrations of astrolabes being used on ships, but whether these are idealized or meant to reflect contemporary practice is unclear. The various instruction manuals that include canons on how to use astrolabes at sea, e.g., Johannes Stöffler’s Elucidatio fabricae ususque astrolabii (1513), do not demonstrate that they were so used. Authors of such manuals sought to distinguish themselves and demonstrate their expertise by cataloging as many possible uses for astrolabes as they could imagine, regardless of whether or not anybody actually used astrolabes in those ways.

Surely few people used an astrolabe to make the many observations Cosimo Bartoli cataloged in his Del modo di misurare (1564). Google has scanned it here.
Surely few people used an astrolabe to make the many observations Cosimo Bartoli cataloged in his Del modo di misurare (1564). Google has scanned it here.

Whereas traditional astrolabes were expensive, status symbols and were, therefore, collected and displayed, mariner‘s astrolabes were working tools. They were not, as a rule, collected or displayed. Consequently, much rarer today—only about 100 survive and most of those were recovered from shipwrecks (the Museum of the History of Science has a nice audio guide to the mariner’s astrolabe here).

Champlain’s instrument was graduated from 0°–90° in each quadrant. The body has largely been cut away. And on the front is a large alidade for sighting.

From this photo it is clear that Champlain’s instrument was a mariner’s astrolabe. From the Canadian Museum of History description—direct link to photo.
From this photo it is clear that Champlain’s instrument was a mariner’s astrolabe. From the Canadian Museum of History description—direct link to photo.

It is plausible that he brought a mariner’s astrolabe with him as he explored Canada. But the story of Champlain losing his instrument by a lake, it having lain there in the forest for 250 years before a 14-year-old boy found it, and its subsequent sale to different collectors, seems almost too good to be true. And the instrument’s remarkable shape, having spent more than two centuries in the dirt, is equally surprising.[1] Whether or not it was ever owned by Champlain, his instrument is clearly a mariner’s astrolabe.


  1. In its description of the instrument’s provenance, Canadian Museum of History expresses some but not much skepticism about the story (my emphasis):

    In May 1613, Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer-cartographer, travelled up the Ottawa River. To avoid the rapids, he chose a course through a number of small lakes near Cobden, Ontario. Champlain and his men were forced to portage and to climb over and under fallen logs at one particularly difficult point by Green Lake, now also known as Astrolabe Lake. It was here, according to several nineteenth-century authors, that Champlain lost his astrolabe. If this is correct, the astrolabe remained where it had fallen for 254 years. Eventually a 14-year-old farm boy named Edward Lee found it in 1867 while helping his father clear trees by Green Lake. Captain Cowley, who ran a steamboat on nearby Muskrat Lake, offered Lee ten dollars for the astrolabe. Lee never received the money nor saw the astrolabe again. Cowley sold the astrolabe to his employer, R.W. Cassels of Toronto, President of the Ottawa Forwarding Company. He in turn sold it to a New York collector, Samuel Hoffman. The astrolabe was willed to the New York Historical Society in 1942 where it remained until June 1989, when it was acquired by the Department of Communications for the Canadian Museum of Civilization. This astrolabe is unique. It is the smallest of 35 mariner’s astrolabes surviving from the early part of the seventeenth century and the only one from France. It is in excellent condition, except for one missing piece, a small ring on the bottom edge of the disk, to which a weight was likely attached to help keep the instrument plumb. The ring was probably broken off sometime in the late nineteenth century, since it appears in an 1879 photograph of the astrolabe.

    For a more thorough analysis of the connection between Champlain and this instrument, see “The Mystery of Champlain’s Astrolabe” or, more recent, “19th century manuscript sheds new light on ‘Champlain’s Astrolobe [sic]’ thought lost by French explorer.”  ↩

Samuel J. Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus

In 1862 Samuel J. Gummere began lecturing on astronomy at Haverford College. At that time all sophomores and juniors heard lectures based on John Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy; seniors heard lectures on “practical astronomy” based on Elias Loomis’s text (probably his Introduction to Practical Astronomy) and carried out observations in the college’s new observatory.

The college was quite proud of its new observatory, that cost nearly $7,000 to build and outfit with instruments. (See also the notice in the Haverford College Catalogue. 1862–1863, where they emphasize students using the instruments.)
The college was quite proud of its new observatory, that cost nearly $7,000 to build and outfit with instruments. (See also the notice in the Haverford College Catalogue. 1862–1863, where they emphasize students using the instruments.)

Gummere’s lecture notes survive in Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections[1] and give a tantalizing glimpse into the nature of astronomy education in the middle of the 19th century. Through the opening two dozen or so pages of Gummere’s notes he covers the history of astronomy from ancient Greece up to the “modern era.” Although his lectures were structured largely by chronology, he detoured into astronomical instruments for at least a lecture.

Unsurprisingly, Gummere thought Copernicus had established modern astronomy. Equally unsurprising is Gummere’s dismissive comment about the Islamic astronomy, whose greatest contribution was to preserve ancient astronomy “through the long ages of darkness, and again restoring [it] to the nations of Europe.”
Unsurprisingly, Gummere thought Copernicus had established modern astronomy. Equally unsurprising is Gummere’s dismissive comment about the Islamic astronomy, whose greatest contribution was to preserve ancient astronomy “through the long ages of darkness, and again restoring [it] to the nations of Europe.”

For Gummere and, consequently, his students, modern astronomy began with Nicholas Copernicus and the publication of his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Whereas previous philosophers had speculated about a heliocentric system, their work had been mere guesses and had failed to persuade anybody. Copernicus, however, grounded his heliocentric system in new observations (according to Gummere) and better mathematics. As a result, those who could understand Copernicus’s arguments were immediately persuaded. Yet many who couldn’t understand the arguments continued to invoke commonsense experience and tradition to oppose Copernicus’s system.

Gummere was quick to point out that neither the Church nor the pope were immediately opposed to the heliocentric system.[2]

Gummere’s discussion of Copernicus sounds much like a basic introductory course and does not instill much confidence in the level of astronomy instruction at Haverford College in the 1860s. Perhaps these were merely background lectures before students confronted contemporary astronomy.[3]

Here, for your reading amusement, is Gummere’s lecture on Copernicus and the dawn of modern astronomy:

We have thus in a few sentences dispensed of many centuries of astronomical history but we have shall henceforth find ourselves embarrassed by the abundance rather than by the scarcity of materials We come now to what is considered the modern era introduced by the reformation in theoretical astronomy brought about chiefly by the researches and the labors of one whose name will always be prominently associated with the establishment of the true system of the universe.

Nicolas Copernicus was born at Thorn in Prussia in the year 1473—While engaged in the study of medicine at the University of Cracow his mind was constantly directed to mathematical subjects—He afterwards went to Italy and received last lessons in astronomy from the celebrated professor Dominic Ferra Maria after which he spent some time in teaching mathematics and in making astronomical observations at in Rome Returning to his native country he devoted himself almost exclusively to the study and the practice of astronomy His dwelling is said to have been situated on the summit of a mountain commanding an uninterrupted prospect of the heavens, and hence most favorably situated placed for his chosen pursuit—The attention of Copernicus was now strongly turned to the prevailing theory in relation to the celestial motions—The absolute immobility of the earth as the central body of the universe was at this time universally admitted—This was supported by the apparent evidence of the senses, by the supposed testimony of scripture and by the authority of such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle—In earlier ages indeed, different systems had been proposed advocated at various times but these systems were mostly based on mere random guesses, and were never seldom supported by any arguments entitled to any attention—

Among the various conjectures as to the celestial mechanism it would be a matter greatly to be wondered at if the Sun had never been selected as the centre of the planetary motions, and indeed there is evidence that many philosophers of little celebrity adopted this view—The name of Pythagoras however is generally associated with this true system of the world as the first man of uni acknowledged eminence through there is some reason to believe that it was first advocated by his immediate followers and not by himself—But the ipse dixit of Pythagora[sic] was not powerful enough to question a system seemingly so paradoxical it fell into oblivion.

Copernicus was disposed to find simplicity and harmony rather than complexity and disorder in the system of the universe, and was thus gradually led to the opinions adopted the Pythagorean doctrine that the sun is immovable in the centre of the system and that his real apparent annual motion is the result of the revolution of the earth as a planet and with the other planets around their common centre: the diurnal motion being produced by the earth’s daily rotation on its axis—

We can scarcely conceive at this day how startling such views assigning not merely a single but a two fold motion to the earth must have been to those whose belief in the earth’s its [sic] absolute immobility resting on the evidence of their senses informed by lay centuries of unquestioning acquiescence—The Prussian Astronomer however was in no haste to divulge his opinions or to gain converts—He resolved to find support for his theory in more accurate observations of the planetary movements than had yet been made—He accordingly constructed a large quadrant with movable radii with which he made an immense number of observations.

Though now fully confirmed in his belief of the correctness of his theory, Copernicus was yet reluctant to shock the prejudices of the world by publishing the work which he had been deliberately preparing to justify his conclusions—One of his friends, however, prepared the way for him by publishing anonymously an account of the new system—About the same time also the author of a work called Theorica novae Planetarum alluded to the want of a second Ptolemy to restore the degenerate science of the age and alluding to Copernicus expressed the hope that such a person would be found in Prussia—

Being thus encouraged in relation to the reception that his views were likely to meet with, Copernicus ventured to publish his own carefully prepared work, which was printed in the year 1543 when its distinguished author had all just completed his three score years and ten—The following was is the title of this celebrated book the publication of which marks an era in astronomical science—“Nicolai Copernici Toriniensii de Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium libri VI. Habes in hoc opere jam recens nato et edito, studiose lector, motus stellarum tam fixarum quam erraticarum, cum ex veteribus tum etiam ex recentibus observationibus institutus[4] et novis insuper ac admirabilibus hypothesibus ornatos[5]. Habes etiam tabulas expeditissimas ex quibus eosdem ad quodvis tempus quam facillime calculare poteris. Igiture eme, lege et fruere.

Copernicus did not live to enjoy the celebrity of his publication of to be disturbed by the opposition which it called forth. He did not even read his own work in print the first copy having been placed in his hands only a few hours before his death—It has been remarked as a singular circumstance that Copernicus the author of so great a reformation in science should have had no sympathy with the great reformer in religion but that on the other contrary the district in which he lived stood alone among the surrounding districts in its hostility to Luther and his doctrines.

The theory of Copernicus was at once embrace adopted by the greater part many of those who were able to understand the fore reasonings by which it was supported, nor did it encounter that opposition from the Church Pope which its author seems to have apprehended —thefrom the Church which had not yet taken alarm at the innovations and heresies of science—

It is no matter of wonder however that the old system should still maintain its ground for a time with persistent obstinacy—Indeed Copernicus and his supporters were not in a position to prove the truth of the new doctrine—The grounds on which alone it could then be supported were its plausibility, its simplicity, and the satisfactory explanation which it furnished of all the celestial motions—the last quality however it only shared with that system which made the earth the centre of the all the celestial motions and regarded the planets as satellites of the sun and attending him in his annual revolution about the earth[6]—It has been said that this latter system though mechanically absurd is yet astronomically correct—and even the adoption of it at this day would not require any change to be made in our tables of or our modes of calculation—The struggle, then, with those who balanced the two theories was between the simplicity of the one, and the weight of authority with the testimony of the bodily senses to the truth of the other—

Many years later Bacon who always opposed the new theory thus argued against it: “In the system of Copernicus there are many and grave difficulties: for the threefold motion with which he encumbers the earth is a serious inconvenience: and the separation of the sun from the planets with which he has so many affections in common is likewise a harsh step: and the introduction of so many immovable bodies into nature, as when he makes the sun and stars immovable, the bodies which are peculiarly lucid and radiant: and his making the moon adhere to the earth in a sort of epicycle: and some other things which he assumes are proceeding, which mark a man who thinks nothing of introducing fictions of any kind into nature provided his calculations turn out well”—

Gilbert who distinguished himself by his experiments and researches in magnetism after weighing the arguments in favor of the Copernican system comes to the conclusion that the system in partly true, that is that the earth revolves on its axis, and this revolution he connects with his magnetic hypotheses, yet he hesitates to admit the annual revolution of the earth—The prevailing uncertainty and indecision in relation to the Copernican theory and its rival is well set forth by Milton in his discourse between Adam and the Angel Raphael…


  1. For those interested, Gummere’s lectures are Call #910F.  ↩

  2. Though he suggests that the Church would before long oppose science. It will be interesting to see what he says, if anything, about Galileo and the Church.  ↩

  3. In another set of notes that treat modern phenomena, e.g., meteor showers, however, he adopts a similar historical-survey approach.  ↩

  4. He glossed it as “founded”  ↩

  5. He glossed it as “supported”  ↩

  6. Here Gummere alludes to the Tychonic system, which he seems to dislike.  ↩

Wile Fatigue: A Final Post on Exploring Creation

In a series of posts on Exploring Creation with General Science I have tried to take Dr. Jay Wile’s young-earth creationist arguments seriously. The effort has revealed a funhouse-esque edifice of intellectual trick mirrors and shifting floors. Far from being irrational, however, Wile’s creationist arguments are exhaustingly hyper-rational and, consequently, completely unreasonable.[1] I had hoped to work through Wile’s text, reading each module generously and evaluating his claims against his own stated position and broader scientific consensus. Unfortunately, “Wile Fatigue” has exhausted me,[2] so instead I offer this summary post by way of conclusion.

Despite its title, the first 200 pages of Wile’s Exploring Creation with General Science has little to do with general science. Instead, they are an extended effort to inculcate a particular kind of skepticism by holding scientific findings and scientists to unreasonably strict standards. For example, aspects of science that are often lauded—e.g., the way that scientists adjust and emend theories to take into account new evidence—are presented as evidence that science and scientists can’t be trusted because they have got it wrong in the past and so must have it wrong today and probably will get it wrong in the future.[3] Wile’s obvious but unstated goal is to undermine scientific consensus.[4] At the same time, Wile strives to present himself as a trustworthy authority by admitting his own bias. He claims repeatedly that “all scientists are biased,” admits he is biased, but then asserts that “in his scientific opinion” some theory or other, e.g., catastrophism or ID, more accurately and completely explains problematic evidence. Watching him summarize a prevalent theory (which he often does reasonably accurately and succinctly), concoct problematic evidence (usually taken from a standard set of imagined problem evidence), and fabricate “better” explanations (which are always more complicated and ad hoc) would be amusing if this weren’t a textbook for home-schooling parents.

The remainder of the book introduces “life science” as a vehicle for an assortment of simplified ID, creationist, and young-earth creationist claims. For example, in module 9, “What is Life?” Wile characterizes DNA as a set of instructions for building living organisms and compares it to instructions for constructing a bicycle. The instructions for building a bike could not have occurred by chance, he says. Those instructions had to have a maker. Obviously since DNA is so much more complicated than the instructions for building a bike, Wile concludes, DNA could not have occurred by chance but had to have a creator, one that is infinitely smarter than any human.


  1. There’s nothing necessarily irrational about creationism. See, for example, John S. Wilkins’s “Are Creationists Rational” post (and article if you have access). Rational and reasonable are not, however, synonymous.  ↩

  2. The gap between those posts and this one was caused by acute WF. Trying to take Wile’s arguments seriously is exhausting because, A) it requires wading through endless quagmires of self-citing and self-plagiarizing material (more on the self-plagiarizing claim in a future post) that carefully but often idiosyncratically defines terms and refers to obscure and surprising data but rarely provides a full and useful citation; B) it takes so much energy to disentangle and unravel the convoluted logic, which can make sense at the level of a particular clause but becomes absurd when evaluated on a larger scale; C) it takes forever to cite the volumes of scholarship and literature that undermine each of his claims.  ↩

  3. The first module is a history of scientists having gotten it wrong.  ↩

  4. Much of Wile’s approach calls to mind Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt.  ↩

HistorySTM Championship Round

The final question in this year’s competition is:
Whose actions/efforts did more to advance and disseminate the prestige of science?

The spirit of the question asks about Einstein’s and du Châtelet’s efforts, not the effects of their work. You are, of course, free to interpret it however you like.[1]

2015 HistorySTM March Madness Round 5: The Final Four (click to embiggen).
2015 HistorySTM March Madness Round 5: The Final Four (click to embiggen).

  1. The delay in posting the final round was caused by a) a wedding and b) some disagreement about a “fair” question. This one seemed to the committee to be the fairest of the questions left in the hat. ↩