In a footnote to a previous post I worried that in a post on Columbus and the flat earth myth Valerie Strauss had preferred the opinions of a mathematician over the expertise of a historian. And in fact, Strauss did prefer the dilettante to the expert. She rejected the historian’s conclusions, which were based in training, evidence, and experience, and relied instead on the opinions of a non-expert, which ignored both evidence and experts.
Perhaps because she is awed by mathematics or assumes scientists are smarter than everybody else, Strauss aped the mathematician Robert Osserman’s fantasy about people in the early middle ages believing in a flat earth. Osserman was an accomplished mathematician at Stanford. He was also celebrated for bringing “math to a broad audience.” Turns out, he also happens to have been a flat earther.
For reasons that make little sense, Osserman repeats a particular version of the flat earth myth in his Poetry of the Universe. Chapter 2, “Encompassing the Earth,” opens with a rejection of the idea that Columbus proved the earth was round. Osserman even calls out this myth, saying
One of the enduring myths of the Western world is that in order to gain support for his expeditions, Christopher Columbus had to first overcome a pervasive belief that the earth was flat rather than round …
So far, so good. But then Osserman succumbs to the fantasy,
The myth undoubtedly stems in part from a compression of the historical past, conflating the early Middle Ages, when a belief in a flat earth was indeed widespread in Europe, with the late Middle Ages…
No, the myth doesn’t stem from a “compression of the historical past” but rather a willful rejection of the historical past, a willful rejection of historical fact, a willful rejection of evidence, and a profound intellectual laziness validated by arrogance and hubris. I am confident that Osserman had multiple colleagues at Stanford who could have explained to him how his beliefs were wrong, were myths. All he had to do was dial an extension or walk across campus and ask them. But he chose not to. He chose, instead, to traffic in a myth, to spread misinformation, and to do so with the authority of being a “mathematician.”
That authority was persuasive. It dazzled Strauss and convinced her to reject the expertise of the historian in favor of the unfounded beliefs of the mathematician. Her preference for the mathematician has, in turn, disseminated the myth yet further, now robed in the authority of a Washington Post column that claims to be grounded in research and to be a resource for teachers and parents. Unfortunately, Strauss has mislead the teachers, parents “(and everyone else)” who reads her column.
I marvel at the power of that old chestnut about people in the middle ages believing the earth was flat. Even a person who rejects the myth that Columbus proved the earth was a sphere nevertheless trots out the poor, benighted medieval Europeans as believers in a flat earth. Consider, for example, Valerie Strauss’s post for the Washington Post: “Busting a myth about Columbus and a flat Earth.” Despite the promising title, she traffics in one of the typical versions of the flat earth myth.
Strauss celebrates scholars in antiquity who knew the earth was a spherical. Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, these people got it right. Medieval Europeans, however, were apparently not so bright. On the basis of no evidence, she claims:
During the early Middle Ages, it is true that many Europeans succumbed to rumor and started believing that they lived on a flat Earth.
In her story, medieval Europeans were back on the right track by the 1200s CE, when texts like Sacrobosco’s De sphaera “discussed the Earth’s shape.”
Strauss has no excuse for making this claim. She is simply and demonstrably wrong. And she should know it.
Strauss cites Jeffrey Burton Russell’s book, Inventing the Flat Earth, implying that she has read it. If she has, she can’t also believe that people in the early middle ages thought the earth was flat. If she has read even the first 30 or so pages of Russell’s book, she will recognize her version of this myth as one of the most common. Russell spends some time surveying this form of the flat earth myth:
Another version of the Error is that the ancient Greeks may have known that the world was round, but the knowledge was lost (or suppressed) in medieval darkness.… Many inconsistent varieties of this version exist: The knowledge was lost in the first century A.D., or the second, or the fifth, or the sixth, or the seventh; and on the other end it was lost until the fifteenth century, or the twelfth, or the eighth. The mildest variety, therefore, posits only a few years of darkness from the flattening of the Greek earth to the rounding of the modern one.
Yet Strauss seems as committed as ever to a Dark Ages model of history, complete with its flat earth fantasy.
Two further thoughts:
First, I am particularly worried because Strauss’s myth-busting post appeared on her regular column, “The Answer Sheet,” which she characterizes as a “A school survival guide for parents (and everyone else).” How many parents and everyone else’s have read and been misinformed by Strauss’s “survival guide?” At least one other person has read, believed, and repeated Strauss’s claim about medieval Europeans thinking the earth was flat.
On April 15 the anonymous blog, “Today in History,” posted “Columbus’s Flat Earth.” Borrowing closely from Strauss, the author asserts:
Since Columbus owned a copy of an ancient Greek book [i.e., Ptolemy’s Geography] that outlined the reasons why the earth must be round, he did not believe that the earth was flat. So did anyone ever believe that the earth was flat? Actually, yes. During the Middle Ages in Europe, many people began to believe the rumors that the earth was actually flat.
Actually, no. During the Middle Ages in Europe, almost nobody began to believe or likely even heard any rumors that the earth was actually flat. The person who runs “Today in History” claims to be “someone who love history” and is “passionate about learning” and hopes to “provide more insight into event in the past.” Alas, duped by Strauss’s “survival guide” the person who runs “Today in History” is passing on misinformation and falsehoods.
Second, I also worry that Strauss believes expertise in mathematics is somehow a) applicable to other, non-scientific domains of knowledge and b) superior to historical expertise. Why else would she gratuitously cite a mathematician for evidence that “Columbus did not worry that he would fall off the Earth’s edge.”
On the one hand, Strauss’s post reflects willful ignorance and dogmatic rejection of evidence. On the other hand, Strauss’s post reflects historians’ failure to dispel this myth. Despite all our ranting and raving, we historians have failed to communicate with audiences, e.g., scientists, journalists and authors, politicians, educators, etc. I have fared no better in various efforts to combat this myth (some of which you can find by searching this blog for flat earth).
I can only guess that Strauss means by “early Middle Ages” some portion of the millennium between Ptolemy and Sacrobosco. ↩
J.B. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (1991), 28–29. ↩
Perhaps the other book Strauss cites, R. Osserman, Poetry of the Universe makes this asinine claim. I haven’t had a chance to look at it. If it does, and if she preferred to accept the comments of a mathematician over those of a historian, i.e., to accept the opinion of a non-expert over the knowledge of an expert, we have other problems. ↩
“As part of Groupon’s commitment to science,” the online coupon site offered on April 1 a special on 2-D, flat earth globes.
The description neatly poked fun at the recent NBA fad to claim the earth is flat—gotta like referring to Shaquille O’Neal as “The Big Aristotle”—as well as conspiracy theories about NASA hiding evidence that the polar ice caps are really ice walls around the rim. I guess we’ll find out when they melt.
Sadly, it is no longer available. But if you really want one, contact me. I along with more than 680 other people downloaded the PDF. In case you missed it, I covered the PDF to a JPG (option-click or right-click to download).
Atlas Obscura seems to have reached a point that it no longer can describe itself as, well, obscura. The website enjoys more than 300,000 pageviews each day and has produced a book, which is currently the “#1 Best Seller in General Travel Reference” and #293 overall at Amazon. While individual entries might be, physically, off the “beaten path,” they are smack in the center of the virtual beaten path. Given Atlas Obscura’s place in popular culture, and our current anxieties about misinformation, it would be nice if Atlas Obscura tried to ensure it provided accurate information. Regrettably, the one entry I happened to check, the “Rosicrucian Pyramids of Bucks County,” seems to be a hodgepodge of misunderstood and misreported information, historical errors, and factually incorrect statements.
By looking at two paragraphs from the post—one that purports to provide historical information and one that purports to describe observable facts—we see an author who doesn’t try very hard to distinguish fact from fiction and a website that doesn’t care enough to factcheck its posts.
First, a paragraph drawn from history:
Inspired by the idea of a secret society of learned men, astronomers such as Johannes Kepler, Georg Joachim Rheticus, John Dee and Tycho Brahe formed an actual society, known as the Invisible College, to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. It would eventually become the Royal Society.
Well, no. Insofar as “the Invisible College” existed, it was an informal network of scholars in the latter 1640s, long after Rheticus, Brahe, Kepler, and Dee had all died. Its connection to the Royal Society is a myth, as Charles Webster pointed out four decades ago. More recently, Lauren Kassell has stated unambiguously:
The once common but erroneous identification of the Invisible College as an antecedent of the Royal Society derives from Boyle’s eighteenth-century editor Thomas Birch. There is now thought to be no link between Boyle’s ‘college’ and the philosophical society …. It is this group, with which Boyle became associated during the 1650s, that is regarded as the precursor to the Royal Society….
Second, the description of what can be found on the property is riddled with problems:
…the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis … settled in Pennsylvania, and today owns land in Bucks County on which three Rosicrucian pyramids sit. The headquarters of the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, besides the three temples, it includes a number of normal buildings and “The Beverly Hall,” a large stone building named after the fraternities founder Paschel Beverly Randolph.
Surrounded by “No Trespassing” signs, the pyramids are aligned smallest to largest and covered in Rosicrucian symbolism inside and out, including images of a winged world crowned by a skull and crossbones, and the infamous pyramid with floating eye…
Um… no. There are four pyramids, not three. Only one is large enough to enter and could be mistaken for a temple, though it seems more likely a mausoleum or similar memorial. Two resemble garden fountains that stand 4–5 feet tall (when I visited only one was functioning). The smallest pyramid seems to be a pedestal type decoration. As of a year ago, there were no “No Trespassing” signs (there weren’t any the first time I visited either). Finally, the pyramids are all but unadorned. They certainly are not “covered in Rosicrucian symbolism inside and out.” The largest, the mausoleum (?), has some brass plaques on the outside that list names of deceased members, and you can see a few decorative plaques inside that do have some Rosicrucian symbols on them.
Much of this paragraph seems to be an exaggerated and enthusiastic mélange drawn from Weird Pennsylvania, pp. 55–56. Other parts of the post weave together fictions from history, on the one hand, and fanciful Rosicrucian mythologies, on the other. Disentangling the history from the mythologies of the Fraternitas Rosæ Crucis is a challenge—clearly too much work for the author of the Atlas Obscura post. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for the author get the easily verifiable history correct or to stop short of making things up. For a brief post on the local Rosicrucians and some photos of these pyramids, see “Pyramids of the Fraternitas Rosæ Crucis.”
Perhaps this entry on the Rosicrucian pyramids is aberrant. Perhaps all the other posts are accurate. Or, perhaps, Atlas Obscura should be rebranded Atlas Obscura but Not So Accurata.
Even Frances Yates, who was particularly adept at finding Rosicrucians, did not link Rheticus or Brahe to Rosicrucians or invisible colleges. Dee, to be sure, figured large in her discussion of Rosicrucians. And Kepler was an odd case, whom she called “a heretic from Rosicrucianism” (F. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, p. 223). More typically, Samuel Hartlib, Jan Comenius, and Robert Boyle are associated with the Invisible College. Yates devotes a chapter to the relationship between the invisible college and the Royal Society. Charles Webster refutes this Rosicrucian association. He finds, instead, a network that includes Boyle as well as other lesser known physicians and Baconian-minded experimentalists. The role of “the Invisible College” has all but disappeared from recent histories of early modern science, e.g., Wootton’s The Invention of Science all but omits it (I found only a passing reference on page 341 to “an ‘invisible college’” as a correspondence network). ↩
See Lauren Kassell’s entry “Invisible College” for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (paywall). ↩
I suppose it’s possible that they’ve surrounded the place with “No Trespassing” signs, but given the other factual problems with this post, I’ve no confidence the author happened to get this right. ↩
When Chemistry World reported on a Newton manuscript that CHF had recently purchased, it started a small epidemic of posts on Newton and alchemy. Within a few days hundreds of sites—ranging from sites like the Daily Kos and CNN to the Ancient Code and Facebook posts—had summarized, linked to, reposted, or transformed the original report. Following the Chemistry World article as it spread across the internet reveals the process replication and transformation as the information drifted further from the original in time and space.
Chemistry World first reported on the manuscript in “Newton’s recipe for alchemists’ mercury rediscovered.” The manuscript contained Newton’s hand-written copy of George Starkey’s recipe for “philosophic mercury” as well as some of his own notes for distilling a volatile spirit. Since the 1930s this manuscript had been in private hands but will now be available to scholars thanks to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which had recently purchased it and will make scans and a transcription available through The Chemistry of Isaac Newton project. The Chemistry World article is rather dry, beginning with the title that certainly doesn’t excite interest—“alchemist’s mercury”? yawn. Importantly, the article doesn’t make grandiose claims, but sticks to a rather conservative: “Until now, the contents of this particular manuscript had not been made public.” Other than the title, there’s no language of rediscovery. No language of surprise at Newton’s interest in alchemy. CHF immediately excerpted and linked to the Chemistry World post.
A number of posts derived directly from the Chemistry World report. Summarizing the Chemistry World post, Gizmodo piled on with typical dismissal of Newton’s alchemy, “Rediscovered Manuscript Shows How Isaac Newton Dabbled In Alchemy.” Dabbled? As Jim Voelkel pointed out in the Chemistry World post, “the estimate of Newton’s alchemical output is something like a million words in his own hand. This [manuscript] is just another little page in a corpus of hundreds and hundreds of documents.” Gizmodo’s “dabbled” as well as the “he [Newton] resorted to the mysterious world of alchemy” reflects not Newton’s interests and efforts but rather Gizmodo’s desire to save Newton from the stain of alchemy:
Sir Isaac Newton may have been one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, but his contributions to chemistry leave much to be desired. … Newton and his fellow alchemists were simply doing the best they could given the dearth of scientific knowledge.
Gizmodo doesn’t want us to blame Newton for believing in alchemy. He was a great scientist, one of the greatest, who just happened to live in an ignorant, benighted time.
A week after the initial report, the Daily Mail posted a derivative of the Chemistry World article, “Isaac Newton’s recipe for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ rediscovered.” They reworked Chemistry World’s original so that it would appeal to their readers, as the subtitle indicates: “17th-century alchemy manuscript reveals ingredients it was thought could make people IMMORTAL.” Because the their readers care less about the finer alchemical details and more about immortality and transmuting lead into gold, and because Harry Potter had popularized the Philosopher’s stone, the Daily Mail foregrounded these themes.
Filed under “WTF?” are the posts that appeared on various cooking sites the same day as the Daily Mail’s article, e.g., the Good Cooking Store’s “Isaac Newton’s recipe for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ rediscovered” and Cooknology’s “Isaac Newton’s recipe for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ rediscovered.” These posts seem to have been generated by running the Daily Mail’s article through a simple algorithm that had a tenuous grasp on English. The algorithm replaced definite articles with indefinite articles and identified some bizarre synonyms. At times the synonyms read like a middle school student who, having discovered a thesaurus, transforms “human” into “tellurian.” At times the synonyms distort the text in strange ways as when “volatile spirit” becomes “flighty suggestion” or “minute example” becomes “notation instance.” I assume these sites have some automated process that scrapes certain sites for cooking related posts, transforms them, and reposts them in an effort to generate traffic and advertising income.
though best best known for his study of gravity and his laws of motion, Newton also apparently wrote more than a million words of alchemical notes throughout his lifetime.
Despite contacting CHF and quoting Jim Voelkel a number of times, Live Science’s version offers much of the same content in slightly different form. The only new information indicated that the manuscript had come up for auction two other times, in 2004 and in 2009.
Once again, filed under “WTF?”, Live Science’s version also spawned an algorithm-generated version on cooking sites. Sebastian’s Fine Food, for example, copied CBS’s version of Live Science’s article: “Manuscript reveals Isaac Newton’s recipe for magical ‘philosopher’s stone’.” Again, the algorithm substituted synonyms and replaced definite with indefinite articles. But this time the algorithm doesn’t do as good a job of it. Some of the replacements make no sense. For example, “up” is replaced by “adult” as in “ended up working” that becomes “finished adult operative.” In another instance, “great interest” becomes “good seductiveness.” Is this some perverse way of driving internet traffic?
National Geographic and the Rest
Two weeks later through reputable outlets such as National Geographic, FOX News, and the Washington Post the story had permeated internet news sites. These three sites give the impression that they are brining something new to the story, but do little more than recycle much of the same content.
National Geographic’s “Isaac Newton’s Lost Alchemy Recipe Rediscovered” is entertainingly written—it opens with an enticing question: “Combine one part Fiery Dragon, some Doves of Diana, and at least seven Eagles of mercury, and what do you get? A key precursor to the Philosopher’s stone….” The speculation that Newton turned to alchemy to “possibly strike it rich” seems dismissive. We learn a bit more about George Starkey, but the focus remains vague surprise that “Newton—a father of modern physics and co-discoverer of calculus—was greatly influenced by alchemy and his collaborations with alchemists.” In addition to citing Jim Voelkel, the article quotes Bill Newman, who had been conspicuous for his absence in the other articles. In this version Newton’s alchemy is enlisted in the service of his science, especially optics.
The worry that such a scientific giant as Newton was engaged in junk science animates the Washington Post’s “Isaac Newton spent a lot of time on junk ‘science,’ and this manuscript proves it.” Dear Washington Post: alchemy was not “junk ‘science’” and this manuscript proves nothing. The Daily Beast borrows from the National Geographic’s and the Washington Post’s articles to worry about how alchemy (again dismissed as “junk science”) informed Newton’s presumably real science:
Newton, it was announced this year, had a secret obsession with the lowest of the pseudosciences: alchemy, or the pursuit of a “magic” substance that will change one element into another.
To think that one of humanity’s best minds would have written over a million words on something out of bad fantasy adventure writing is concerning—but maybe it shouldn’t be, because his research eventually led to something earth-shattering in another field.
For the record, dear Daily Beast, it wasn’t announced this year that Newton was interested in alchemy. It has been known for a long time. The article you cite points out that already in the 19th century Newton’s biographer was aware of his interest in alchemy. Scholars have written numerous books and articles on Newton’s alchemy. Bill Newman, whom you cite, has spent much of the last 20+ years working on Newton’s alchemy (even attempting to recreate a number of his laboratory practices and experiments). Maybe you just learned of it, but that’s just your own ignorance. And when did alchemy become the “lowest of the pseudosciences”? Both the Daily Beast’s and the Washington Post’s articles are full of problems and add little to the broader story.
Three weeks after the Chemistry World post, purportedly reputable news and other specialized sites are spooning out bits from previous accounts as if they were some Newton-themed Smörgåsbord. These later posts, e.g., History.com, CSMonitor, Phys.org, CNN, Atlas Obscura, Smithsonian Magazing, contribute nothing to the conversation nor do they add anything to the information provided in their sources. These later posts seem to accomplish little beyond duplicating and remixing information widely available. By this point news has become merely repetition—the echo chamber of the internet is deafening.
Postscript: I want to point out that this entire story was scarcely news worthy when it all began on March 17, 2016. Back in 2010 Discover Magazine was all worked up over Newton’s interest in alchemy and interviewed both Bill Newman and Larry Principe in “Isaac Newton, World’s Most Famous Alchemist.” But even then manuscripts demonstrating Newton’s interest in alchemy weren’t news. Five years earlier still, in 2005, NOVA had interviewed Bill Newman about Newton as alchemist and had created an interactive page that let you try to decode one of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts. More remarkable than Newton’s interest in alchemy is the internet’s failure to remember that long ago we discovered Newton’s interest in alchemy, as a quick internet search will reveal.
Search results for this report or some version of it edged up towards a thousand. Sure, on the Kardashian-Bieber scale that number is infinitesimal, but on the nerdy-academic scale, it is a rather impressive. ↩
Another way to describe this process is by reference to the old party game “telephone.” But the language of infection and epidemic seems so much more sophisticated and, well, science-y. ↩
For some reason, a couple weeks after CHF’s initial post, they switched the source of their excerpt from Chemistry World to National Geographic. They switched the same day National Geographic posted about the Newton manuscript. Perhaps CHF preferred the more dramatic prose in National Geographic’s version. Perhaps CHF assumed it looked better to appear in a major publication like National Geographic rather than the obscure, discipline specific Chemistry World. ↩
I don’t really know what these people are going on about. There are NO scientists mentioned in the article. In this story, scientists didn’t discover anything. Historians, maybe. ↩
These posts seem to have been rather ephemeral, even by internet standards. Within a few days these posts had disappeared. ↩
Clearly, recipe in the title of the Daily Mail’s post was sufficient to flag it as a cooking related post. These posts have since disappeared. Perhaps the sites have human editors that go through and remove egregious mistakes such as this one. ↩
I realize that in 2005 many of the authors of the most recent round of Newton-was-an-alchemist-?!? posts were probably still toddlers, but they should know how to perform a basic internet search. What good is their superior internet nuance and sophistication if they refuse to use it? ↩