Astronomy and Printing

The Printing Museum in Tokyo has what looks to be an amazing temporary exhibit right now on astronomy and print, aptly named “Astronomy and Printing. In search of new world vision.”[1]

Astronomy and Printing, a special exhibition at the Printing Museum, Tokyo.

The exhibit brings together nearly 100 printed objects stretching from the 1450s to the 1870s.[2] In addition to showing an impressive range of items, the flyer and brochure are truly beautiful.[3]

The amazing flyer for the “Astronomy and Printing” exhibition.

The museum also hosted some lectures on the history of astronomy, alas now all past.

On the back of the flyer were listed the various lectures that accompanied the exhibit.

The brochure lists the objects, a list that includes all the expected authors and works, e.g., works by Pliny, Ptolemy, Hyginus, Albumasar, Peurbach, Regiomonatus, Dürer, Apian, Fine, Brahe, Kepler, as well as a number of Japanese authors,[4] etc. It also has a nice timeline with authors and references to the books on display as well as cosmological diagrams.

The brochure listed the items on display and provided this nice timeline that keyed to the objects on display.

The exhibition runs until January 20, 2019. If you find yourself in Tokyo with nothing to do, I recommend an afternoon at the Printing Museum.


  1. That is the English title. Since I don’t know Japanese, I can only assume the Japanese title is the same. If you do know Japanese, you can find out more at the Japanese page: 天文学と印刷  ↩

  2. As my Japanese hasn’t improved in the last sentence or so, I should acknowledge that I might have missed some object.  ↩

  3. For reasons I don’t understand, the English page does not have a link to the flyer. A PDF is available from the Japanese page linked in note 1.  ↩

  4. My Japanese is still, regrettably, nonexistent.  ↩

Feynman Relics

A pile of Richard Feynman detritus sold recently at Sotheby’s.1 In total, the 44 lots of Feynman’s stuff fetched $3,796,625, most of it paid for Feynman’s Nobel Prize.2 While I remain puzzled by the desire to own souvenirs from some famous scientist, I am truly baffled by the fact that somebody paid $60,000 for Feynman’s damaged tambourine.

Richard Feynman’s damaged tambourine.

Described as:

An 11 inch diameter Pandeiro, wood, metal, and goat skin. Skin torn from use. Signed by Richard Feynman: “R.P. FEYNMAN. HOTEL MIRAMAR / COPACABANA, RIO.”

This object can have only reverential use or be assumed to confer on the new owner some reflected authority, in the way a saint’s finger or skull or whatever conferred authority on the church or family that possessed it. I imagine Feynman’s tambourine will look lovely sitting on some altar in its own reliquary:

Feyman’s tambourine in a reliquary.

  1. Some Einstein material too was auctioned.  ↩

  2. Feynman’s Nobel sold for a whopping $975,000! The Feynman stuff accounted for more the 75% of the total auction.  ↩

Kanye West & Galileo

Kanye West’s recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live took an unexpected turn when West invoked Galileo, implying that they were both misunderstood geniuses who wouldn’t be silenced by bullies telling them what to think. West was responding to Kimmel, who had asked about West’s views on the president.[1] I’m not interested West’s opinions about the president. I am, however, fascinated by his use of history.

In a long, meandering reply that didn’t actually answer Kimmel’s almost question—“Do you like…? Do you think he is a good president?”[2]—West seemed to be saying that he, West, was a free thinker and that he would not be told by anybody what to think. A minute or two into his reply, West enlisted Galileo as predecessor and partner in resisting the thought police and societal oppression:

Kanye West invokes Galileo to justify his free thinking.

[West] Right or wrong or even if I changed my mind about it[3] or thought about it more, which I’m not saying I did, just place a thought out there that everyone’s not thinking sometimes. Galileo, they wanted to chop his head off for saying that…the earth uh that, what did he say?, the the the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa …. So when you have modern, futuristic ….

[Kimmel] But the sun…but…but the sun…

[West] I’m not concerned about specifics sir.

Here’s the audio of that portion, if you want to hear it:

Wow. Let’s pause for a moment and process West’s hesitation. He stumbled over whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth. That’s not history. That’s not science. That’s just basic life. So basic, in fact, that I can’t excuse West’s uncertainty as a nervous misstep.

Invoking Galileo as some martyr for free and rational thinking who stood up to the dogmatic, oppressive Church that wanted to execute him is nothing new. But usually people who conjure up the ghost of Galileo know that Galileo espoused and argued vigorously for the Copernican, heliocentric system, the model in which the earth revolves around the sun. And while we no longer think the sun is stationary, we still accept today the core features of the Copernican system as valid and verifiable (as Kimmel seemed to be fumbling towards saying). And usually people who invoke Galileo do so because, they typically claim, they are concerned about the specifics. Galileo got it right, as the evidence we have today demonstrates. Those specifics usually matter.

But as West says, the specifics don’t matter to him. History, after all, is holding “us back as a race of beings:”[4]

I think people focus too much on the past and focus too much on regret. Even like when you deal with schools, you take like my slave idea. My my point is I’ve heard of history class. I’ve never heard of a class that breaks down how you, ya know, balance a checkbook or how you control your finances, which uh my father never taught me that, and I’ve never heard of a future class. So they keep us so focused on history that we start to believe that it actually repeats itself and we become overly traditional and we can’t advance as a race of beings. We get too caught up in the past and what everyone’s saying and what everyone’s tweeting ….

I have a different idea here, one I’m going to place out there even if everyone’s not thinking it: History does matter. And paying attention in history class, not just hearing “of history class” but listing in history class, matters.[5] And history classes are not the problem. Focusing on history doesn’t convince us that history “actually repeats itself” and prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” No, ignoring history, thinking history and historical facts are infinitely malleable or that the specifics don’t matter, that’s the danger that prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.”[6] Such willful ignorance, such open rejection of history empowers factions in society to “become overly traditional,” because once you deny history, society can and will continually make up whatever tradition that suits its immediate needs. Winston’s dystopian future will become our present:

All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

History matters, as West instinctively realizes in his use (and abuse) of it to validate and justify his own position, because of the specifics. Once we lose the details, the historical facts and the evidence, then we’re just making stuff up.

If for some reason you want to watch more of the interview, this search should produce a link to the YouTube video.


  1. Unlike West’s response, Kimmel’s question about the president was anything but unexpected.  ↩

  2. West said he was going to answer the question Kimmel was going to ask but didn’t, the question about liking the president.  ↩

  3. I.e., West’s ideas and opinions about the president.  ↩

  4. The irony of his having just deployed one of the more famous episodes in Western history to support him and his position seems to have been lost on West.  ↩

  5. Yes, other classes matter too. And yes, West is right, classes on basic economics and finances are worthwhile (and offered in many schools and colleges).  ↩

  6. I need to point out that I have no idea what West means by “advance as a race of beings,” especially the retro–1950s, invaders from another planet “race of beings” bit.  ↩

Στοιχειωματικοὶ were casters of something

As progress continues on Ptolemy’s  Ὁ Καρπός I find myself confronting more and more questions that E. Boer’s critical edition does not and cannot answer.[1] Some of these questions are small and probably of interest only to a sliver of scholars. Other seem a bit broader, such as: How did the talented humanist, scholar, and bibliophile Johannes Sambucus make sense of aphorism 21 since one of his copies encouraged him to consider when the moon is in Cancer or Pisces and yet his other copy told him to consider when the moon is in Scorpio or Pisces (as we read in Boer’s edition)?[2] How did he decide which copy to trust, assuming he read and understood either?

Sambucus’s two versions of Aphorism 21
ÖNB Manuscript Greek English
Cod. Phil. gr. 37 τῆς «σελήνης» οὔσης ἐν τῷ «καρκινῳ» ἢ τοῖς «ἰχθύσι» καὶ τοῦ κυρίου τοῦ ὡροσκόπου συνάπτοντος ἀστέρι ὑπὸ γῆν ὄντι, … When the moon is in Cancer or Pisces and the lord of the ascendent is in conjunction with a star under the earth,…
Cod. Phil. gr. 49 Τῆσ «σελήνης» οὔσησ ἐν τῷ «Σκορπίῳ» ἢ τοῖσ «Ἰχθύσι» καὶ τοῦ κυρίου τοῦ ὡροσκόπου συνάπτοντοσ ἀστέρι ὑπὸ γῆν ὄντι, … When the moon is in Scorpio or Pisces and the lord of the ascendent is in conjunction with a star under the earth,…

Or, for another example, how should we proceed when Boer claims that all Greek copies lack aphorism 98 and so includes that aphorism from the Latin tradition (“hic aphorismus in omnibus codicibus Graecis nunc deest, supplevi ex Lat.”) and yet many Greek manuscripts do have an aphorism 98 (though not the one Boer supplies). Are we to assume that readers of these Greek copies somehow knew that they were missing aphorism 98 (despite having one in the 98th position)? I have yet to find any evidence that early readers thought their copy was missing aphorism 98 (and none that don’t have 100 aphorisms).[3]

At the same time I am confronting other questions about how to translate certain expressions and terms. Some of these translation issues I’ve recognized as I work through the aphorisms the first time (e.g., καταντήματοϲ). Other translation issues I’ve realized as I go back and polish my translation. Recently, when looking back over some early aphorisms, I encountered just such an issue with a particular term: στοιχειωματικοὶ.

At first glance, οἱ στοιχειωματικοὶ is not a problematic term. Liddell and Scott are clear: “persons who cast nativities from the signs of the Zodiac.” They even cite aphorism 9 of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός as an example. Good. Done. But then I came across an older article by C. Blum that seemed relevant: “The Meaning of στοιχεῖον and Its Derivatives in the Byzantine Age. A Study in Byzantine Magic.” Starting from an analysis of texts about Apollonius of Tyana (who was famous for making talismans) and moving from there to a number of related texts, Blum argues forcefully that “στοιχειοῦν was a technical term for the practices Apollonius, and that, accordingly, στοιχειωματικός was the professional name for such a man” (316). In other words, a στοιχειωματικός made talismans. Blum too refers to aphorism 9 of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός in the end, saying that with his definition of στοιχειωματικός

we are able to understand a disputed passage, viz. Pseudo-Ptolemæus Centiloquium, edition of 1553, p. 214: Τὰ ἐν τῇ γενέσει καὶ φθορᾷ εἴδη πάσχει ὑπὸ τῶν οὐρανίων εἰδῶν. διὰ τοῦτο χρῶνται τούτοις οἱ στοιχειωματικοὶ , τὰς ἐπεμβάσεις τῶν ἀστέρων σκοποῦντες ἐπ᾽αὐτά (324)

I find Blum’s argument powerful if not entirely persuasive. Στοιχειωματικοί is used only once in the Ὁ Καπρός, so there’s no easy way to compare its possible meanings across examples. I’ve not yet done enough work to see if it is always linked to magic and talismans, as Blum argues is the case. And simply because στοιχειωματικοὶ could describe a maker of talismans doesn’t demonstrate that it always and only identified such a person (to be clear, Blum argues for such a unique connection). Different versions of the Latin Centiloquium as well as many English translations accept that aphorism 9 is about people who “frame of images” (typically glossed as makers of talismans). The one Greek copy I have found with a Latin gloss does not clarify things much (BnF gr. 2180).

Accepting Blum’s authority (and the widespread conviction that aphorism 9 is about talismans), I have tentatively adjusted my translation to be:

Curent working translation of Aphorism 9
Aphorism Greek English
9 Τὰ ἐν τῇ γενέσει καὶ φθορᾷ εἴδη πάσχει ὑπὸ τῶν οὐρανίων εἰδῶν. καὶ διὰ τοῦτο χρῶνται οἱ στοιχειοματικοὶ τούτοισ, τὰϲ ἐπεμβάσεισ τῶν ἀστέρων ^σκοποῦντεσ ἐπ᾽αὐτήν ἐπ’αὐτά. In their generation and corruption [terrestrial] forms are affected by the celestial forms. And for this reason casters of nativities makers of talismans consult them by examining the ingresses of the stars into them.

I still need to do more work to convince myself that Blum’s translation applies here, so I reserve the right to revise and change my mind in the future. Stay tuned (if you’re a total nerd).


  1. This is not a criticism of Boer’s edition, which is excellent, but rather a concern about critical editions in general. Boer made a number of editorial choices that rendered the text homogenous and unproblematic. In the process, the text loses features and difficulties that earlier readers had to confront. The critical apparatus with its daunting and cumbersome (and therefore exclusionary) system of symbols and multiple footnote streams does little to restore those features if for no other reason than few people make the effort to use the critical apparatus to reconstruct variations in the manuscript. It’s too much of a pain. My concerns about critical editions are not new (and this footnote is not the place to rehearse and discuss them, but don’t be surprised if in the near future I spend considerable time and space thinking aloud about them), but I don’t think scholarship has yet taken those concerns seriously and tried to address them, whether in traditional print form or through dynamic digital publications.  ↩

  2. Sambucus’s contemporary Augerius von Busbeck also had a copy of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός that included the same wording. Busbeck purchased a fifteenth-century copy in sixteenth-century in Constantinople and brought back to Vienna.  ↩

  3. There’s a related issue in aphorism 100 in Boer’s edition. A number of the Greek copies divide Boer’s aphorism 100 into multiple aphorisms with no evidence that they thought these aphorisms should be combined into a single one.  ↩

Galilean Moon Crackers

Wandering through Trader Joe’s this morning, I stumbled across an excellent and under explored career for historians of science: marketing and advertising.

Picking up some snacks, I noticed the Cheddar Rocket Crackers. In typical Trader Joe’s fashion, the package combined a bit of a goofy aesthetic with retro images.

Trader Joe’s retro-History of Science style advertising on these Cheddar Rocket Crackers is great.

Brilliant! Why, I thought, not use other history of science related themes to sell products. I glanced in my basket and noticed a perfect candidate for some history of science. Trader Joe’s, you’ve totally missed an opportunity with your Half Moon Cookies.

Trader Joe’s Half Moon Cookies are good, but they could be so much better with a better name.

You should label them Galilean Moon Cookies. I’ve corrected your packaging to help you see what this should look like and so you understand that it is a better name for these cookies.

Trader Joe’s Galilean Moon Cookies are much, much better than those half moon knockoffs.

Feel free to contact me, Trader Joe’s, if you want me to explain how other products would benefit from a history of science makeover, e.g., your Electric Buzz Coffee Cups are crying out for some history of science attention.