Tag: Astronomy

Astronomers do not Date Sappho’s ‘Midnight’ Poem

Once again the internet is all excited by some scientists’ findings that solve a historical mystery. In this case, “UTA scientists use Planetarium’s advanced astronomical software to accurately date 2500 year-old lyric poem” (as the University of Texas at Arlington press announcement puts it). Unsurprisingly, UTA’s “press release” (by which I mean “propaganda”) misrepresents the article. Despite the link to the article in the “press release,” nobody at UTA—either in media relations or in the planetarium—apparently could be bothered to read the article. I shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised that most other people trafficking in this story have likewise ignored the article. While not surprised, I am disheartened to see that even purportedly reputable, pro-science sites that typically demand “evidence” and “data” expend no effort to read the original article, i.e., to base their posts on evidence. We read over and over again some variation on “astronomers date 2,500-year-old Sappho poem,” when, in fact, article does not determine nor does it claim to determine a date for Sappho’s poem (though the authors assume a particular year).[1] This episode raises three issues:

  1. UTA’s propaganda about the article and the subsequent coverage of it expose the naïve assumptions people make about a universal applicability of scientific expertise.
  2. The original article reveals the problems that plague scientists’ efforts to work in areas outside their own domains of expertise.
  3. Pretending that such work is interdisciplinary—that “[t]his research helps to break down the traditional silos between science and the liberal arts, by using high-precision technology to accurately date ancient poetry,” as the dean of UTA’s College of Science put it—confuses dilettantism for expertise and rigor.

Finally, in this particular instance, the article suffers from serious problems that should have stood in the way of its publication, at least in its current form.

Using the latest, advanced software, astronomers add nothing to our understanding of Sappho’s ‘Midnight’ poem, despite UTA’s propaganda.
Using the latest, advanced software, astronomers add nothing to our understanding of Sappho’s ‘Midnight’ poem, despite UTA’s propaganda.

The Rogue Classicist has a nice post on UTA’s initial propaganda as well as the general contours of subsequent coverage, see: “Problems with the ‘Scientific’ Dating of Sappho’s Midnight Poem.” His critique revolves around the twin poles of critical thinking and source criticism. While neither is, in principle, unique to any discipline, different disciplines view different problems as worthy of critical thinking and different sources as open to criticism.

I want to emphasize how the UTA “press release” as well as the reposts and other summaries are possible because they assume that scientific expertise is somehow universal, or at least extends unproblematically into non-scientific fields and supersedes whatever expertise is unique to that field. Scientific expertise, it seems, gets at universal truths—in this case, the Pleiades are a constellation that obey certain, known equations that describe how the universe has always worked. If you assume the superiority of some ambiguous, ill defined but all pervasive scientific methodology that uncovers to timeless laws of nature, then there is little reason to check the original article or to ask questions about it. It’s science.[2]

If we turn to the original article, “‎Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited,” we see immediately how the questions that scientists tend to ask and the answers they identify are not valid for historical work.[3] Here we come back to the issue of source criticism. Scientists will often read certain aspects of historical sources (typically documents) as unproblematic reflections of reality, usually a reality they have expertise in studying today.[4] In this case, the astronomers, Cuntz et al., assume:

  • that Sappho’s poem unproblematically reflects a reality that Sappho experienced;
  • that the constellation we know as the Pleiades is the same thing as the πληΐαδες in the fragment and that we can reduce the πληΐαδες to Alcyone, the bright star “near the geometrical center of the most prominent part of the cluster;”
  • that μέσαι δε νύκτες is the exact same thing as our midnight, i.e., 12:00 AM, a precise moment Sappho certainly knew and meant, they claim, because she checked a clepsydra;[5]
  • that Sappho wrote the poem when Sappho saw the stars in Pleiades set before midnight, i.e., 12:00 AM.[6] They double down on this assumption in note 9, where they assert on no evidence whatsoever: “…it is more reasonable to assume that she [Sappho] made her astronomical observations and wrote the poem at about the same time.” What? Why is that a reasonable assumption? Reasonable on what grounds? Reasonable to whom? Reasonable to you because that’s what you would do if you wrote poetry?
  • that Sappho died around 570 so it is therefore valid to use 570 as a date for their analysis and, then, for people to conclude that Sappho was writing in 570. So powerful is 570, that Cuntz et al. offer precise dates in that year: the poem had to be composed between January 25 and March 31.[7]

With each of these assumptions they have reduced historical possibilities and poetic language to quantifiable and quantified data. They have reduced Sappho to an astronomer and the poem to a research report.

These assumptions, which go largely unexamined, then support a project that uses purported celestial phenomena to establish when (during the year) Sappho wrote the poem. While these assumptions might be defensible, they remain assumptions that no classicist or historian could have made without flagging them.[8] A more interesting and defensible article would admit these assumptions and then conclude something like: if the Pleiades in this fragment refers to the constellation and if midnight is taken to be sometime halfway through the night, then this fragment seems to describe a late winter scene. But that conclusion is not new, and that article has already been written.

In 1990 two scholars from Delft University of Technology, Herschberg and Mebius, published a more careful reading of the same fragment (they seem to have completed their research a year earlier, as reported in the annual reports for 1989). Based, it seems, on astronomical calculations, they conclude

For the Pleiads to have been visible after dark and to have set before midnight, the time of year is necessarily between mid-January and late March in the modern calendar.

They point out that the poem contains “implicit astronomical information, which must have contributed to the poem’s expressiveness to contemporary audiences,” and highlight how the poem conveyed a particular setting. They don’t assume that Sappho made any observations, which she then reported in her poem. They also don’t pretend to determine when the poem was written.[9] It is difficult to see how the Cuntz et al. article advances our knowledge of Sappho.

Unfortunately, Cuntz et al. and their article reinforces a facile (and asymmetrical) notion of interdisciplinarity that confuses dilettantism for expertise. The tools and methods of science are brought to bear on a set of non-scientific questions, with no regard to the possible misfit between the purposes for which those tools were developed and the valid ways to investigate those non-scientific sources. Here Cuntz et al. are dilettantes in the domains of history and classics, but the trappings of science and quantification give them the patina of expertise and rigor. To be sure, there is often a misfit when a set of tools and methods developed for one domain of knowledge is uncritically applied to a different domain—Cuntz et al. are just examples of a broader problem that plagues so-called interdisciplinary work. We justifiably recognize domains of expertise, even in closely related fields (e.g., physicists generally don’t do chemistry, and I’d rather not have an OBGYN give me a root canal). When scholars venture into new fields they should draw on and work with experts in those fields. In this case, however, you have astronomers running roughshod over history and classics with no apparent awareness of their own ignorance. Far from breaking down traditional silos between the sciences and the liberal arts, this article and the cavalier approach of its authors reminds us that those disciplinary silos exist for reasons and that moving between them requires considerable effort. When done well, when drawing on experts in those silos, interdisciplinary scholarship is probably worth the effort. But it does require considerable work as well as humility. When done poorly, interdisciplinary work invites mockery and derision.

Finally, there are problems with this article’s scholarly integrity. On the one hand, a cursory review of the text reveals too many passages that are only lightly filtered lines from various Wikipedia entries. In many cases, Cuntz et al. cite the same sources for the same passages that the Wikipedia entry cites, suggesting further that they relied primarily on Wikipedia (in one instance they cite Wikipedia but not the page they borrow from). For example, nearly half the discussion of Sappho comes from the Wikipedia page on Sappho (with an additional sentence from the Poetry Foundation entry on Sappho)[10]

Cuntz et al. on the left—Wikipedia on the right. The sections in yellow seem to owe a considerable debt to Wikipedia. The section in pink comes from the Poetry Foundation.
Cuntz et al. on the left—Wikipedia on the right.
The sections in yellow seem to owe a considerable debt to Wikipedia. The section in pink comes from the Poetry Foundation.

The historical discussion of the Pleiades is also compiled in lightly or unedited form from Wikipedia pages on the Pleiades and on the Pleiades in Folklore.

Cuntz et al. on the left—Wikipedia on the right. The sections in green seem to owe a debt to Wikipedia. The sections in purple are just misunderstandings or gratuitous citations. The blue seems to come from a different Wikipedia page.
Cuntz et al. on the left—Wikipedia on the right.
The sections in green seem to owe a debt to Wikipedia. The sections in purple are just misunderstandings or gratuitous citations. The blue seems to come from a different Wikipedia page.

On the other hand, the authors cite sources they either don’t understand or haven’t read. So, for example, they cite James Evans’s The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy when mentioning the Pleiades in Babylonian culture. Cuntz et al. say:

The Pleiades also have been epitomized by the Babylonians, as conveyed by the astrolabe and a fragment of a circular star list (Evans, 1998) [my emphasis].

But the Babylonians didn’t have astrolabes. Astrolabes weren’t invented for centuries, many centuries. Even our earliest texts describing astrolabes don’t appear for more than a millennium after the Babylonians. A quick look in Evans shows that he does use the term “astrolabe” but uses it to refer to circular fragments of star lists. He qualifies his use:

This [the circular fragment] is usually called a circular astrolabe. However this name is not especially apt, for the word astrolabe is also used for two kinds of astronomical instruments that were developed in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Circular star list therefore might be more suitable.[11]

So, contrary to what Cuntz et al. say, the Babylonians did not have astrolabes and circular star lists. They had circular star lists, of which fragments still exist, lists that some people refer to as “astrolabes.” Cuntz et al. could insist on using the term astrolabe—if they wanted to confuse or mislead readers—but then they don’t get to say “astrolabe and a fragment of a circular star list” [my emphasis]. One or the other, but not both. And as Evans points out, circular star list would be the better choice.

Other, similar examples include: Cuntz et al.’s citation of Renée Raphael’s review of a recent translation of Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius suggests they didn’t read Raphael’s review. Although Raphael says nothing about Galileo’s sketch of the Pleiades, by citing her review as they do, Cuntz et al. imply that her review supports their claim. There is no reason to cite Raphael’s review, particularly since this paragraph comes, almost verbatim, from the Wikipedia page on the Pleiades. In another example, in their conclusion they attribute a claim to Joan Schmelz, although the particular blog post they refer to in the notes is clearly marked as a guest post written by Stuart Dean, a former attorney who now self identifies as an “independent researcher and writer.”

Stuart Dean’s guest post is misidentified as a post by Joan Schmelz. See Sappho and the Origins of Greek Astronomy.
Stuart Dean’s guest post is misidentified as a post by Joan Schmelz. See Sappho and the Origins of Greek Astronomy.

In the best case, Cuntz et al.’s “‎Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited” would simply confirm what Herschberg and Mebius concluded two decades ago (and did so better and more efficiently). There is nothing new here—their newer methods do not justify more than a paragraph. We do not, however, have a best case scenario. We have a poorly constructed article that makes strong claims about the past. Because the authors all lack expertise in the field, they don’t realize that their methods and understanding of the past are, as a colleague put it, “risible.” Their conclusions border on indefensible. The writing and style is, well, Wikipedian, especially in the historical sections. We also have an article that risks violating scholarly norms and practices with respect to citations and intellectual integrity. Yet, regrettably, countless sites and so-called news outlets repeat the article’s problematic conclusions without ever bothering to look at the original article, without holding up their end of the implicit contract, i.e., checking and confirming their sources and consulting with relevant experts. Such sites have an obligation to evaluate their own sources, especially when they are a simple click away.

Alas. We seem to be trapped in an echo chamber of dilettantism where the value of shoddy “scholarship” is validated by slapdash “reporting” which, in turn, reinforces both the “scholarship” and the “reporting” on it. In our dystopian future its going to be dilettantes all the way down.


  1. If you’re bored, a search for “astronomers date sappho” vomits up countless posts with mind numbingly similar and misleading titles that you can spend hours reading (though I have no idea why anybody would). Many posts merely reproduce all of or select passages from the UTA propaganda, but as many masquerade as something new when they are little more than superficial reworkings produced by an army of “science writers.” And no, astronomers did not “crack the secret of this gorgeous poem by Sappho,” as Clive Thompson put it on his blog and later, regrettably, on Medium (which would benefit from some editorial oversight).  ↩

  2. I think another factor that discouraged people from looking up the original article is the mistaken belief that published articles have been reviewed and vetted and are, therefore, accurate and valid (This is not the place to wallow in the problems of peer review, and I’m not the expert to do so. But smart people who have spent countless hours studying peer review have raised some tough questions. I think it’s safe to say, peer review doesn’t live up to its hype). The Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage seems to be a professional journal complete with an editor, associate editors, and an editorial board. It’s easy and comfortable to assume that articles appearing in its pages have been reviewed, in the process errors and missteps have been identified and corrected. Heck, the article even thanks “an anonymous referee for helpful comments” and the journal’s own editor, Prof. Orchiston, “for assisting with the revision of this paper.” At least in this particular case, such assumptions seem to be problematic.  ↩

  3. As a historian, I like archives and sources, and like access to them. So, in the interest of preserving access to a source, here’s a link to a locally cached copy of the original article, in case the original version at the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage site goes missing.  ↩

  4. Efforts to retrodiagnose the plague or reconstruct past climate through uncritically cherrypicking passages out of historical documents provide examples of such problematic readings. See my critique, for example, of claims of snow in Baghdad: “Good Science Often Makes Bad History” and the longer “Scientists and Bad History.”  ↩

  5. I love the image of Sappho pulling out her pocket clepsydra to check the time. Or perhaps she had a wrist-clepsydra. Or was there a large water clock in the town square where Sappho set up to watch the Pleiades set as she composed her poem? At least they corrected for the absence of time zones in antiquity.  ↩

  6. In both instances, midnight and pleiades are ambiguous terms, one temporally and one spatially. In brief: they need to show that “midnight” was more than a general term for really late at night and that Pleiades identified with some precision the constellation in the sky. ↩

  7. The Rogue Classicist does a nice job pointing out how 570 has become a meaningful date for the authors and the people reposting this story.  ↩

  8. Not all these assumptions are universally held. For example, Reiner and Kovacs have on linguistic grounds questioned Sappho’s authorship. See, P. Reiner and D. Kovacs, “ΔΕΔΥKΕ μεν α ΣΕΛΑΝΝΑ: The Pleiades in Mid-Heaven” in Mnemosyne 46 (1993): 145–159 [Behind JSTOR Paywall]. While Reiner and Kovacs might be mistaken, the authors of the current article don’t have the expertise to judge the issue and they didn’t apparently seek out anybody with such expertise. But that doesn’t stop them from dismissing Reiner and Kovacs. And for the record, our access to the fragment does not date from the archaic period but from eight centuries later, when Hephaestion the grammarian wrote a book on meter. So the attribution to Sappho is not necessarily unproblematic.  ↩

  9. Herschberg and Mebius were scholars at Delft University of Technology. They offer to provide “complete astronomical reasoning and computations” to anyone who requests them, though 25 years later it might be difficult to locate them. So Cuntz et al.’s characterization of their analysis as “a descriptive approximate approach” seems a bit odd. See I.S. Herschberg and J.E. Mebius, “ΔΕΔΥKΕ μεν α ΣΕΛΑΝΝΑ” Mnemosyne 43 (1990): 150–151 [Behind JSTOR Paywall]. If the comment “historians had estimated” the date in “Scientists Used the Stars to Confirm When a Famous Sapphic Poem Was Written” refers to Herschberg and Mebius, it seems like it was probably based on Cuntz et al.’s dismissal of the earlier work as “descriptive.” Other posts, e.g., the Ars Technica version, have unhelpfully described the earlier findings as mere guesses by “humanities types.” While I have not been able to confirm that Herschberg and Mebius weren’t “humanities types” or “historians,” it seems improbable—other sources indicate that they were in the computer science department. Their original article was recorded in the annual reports of the “Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics” and the “Faculty of Technical Mathematics and Informatics” at Delft University of Technology, which doesn’t appear to employ historians or, in fact, “humanities types” of any sort.  ↩

  10. Plagiarism is a strong charge, and I don’t know if it applies here, but there are real problems. If a student turned in a paper with borrowings and wordings that so closely resembled Wikipedia, I would at the very least have a discussion about plagiarism and require the student to rewrite/rework the offending passages. And while the Wikipedia entries might not be the source Cuntz et al. used, they indicate that Cuntz et al. borrowed closely from somewhere for some sections of their article. They should acknowledge their debts and work a little harder to use their own words.  ↩

  11. James Evans, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, 9.  ↩

Maria Wants Her Sextant Back

Buried in Haverford’s Special Collections is a brief letter from Maria Mitchell to E.D. Cope.[1] When she wrote to Cope, Mitchell was a senior member of the scientific community. She was director of Vassar College’s observatory, where she was also professor of astronomy. On October 1, 1847, when she was 29, she had discovered a comet,[2] which discovery brought her considerable fame (and a gold medal from the King of Denmark). Following her discovery she was elected the first woman fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She spent the next two decades working for the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office computing ephemerides for Venus, was appointed to the American Philosophical Society in 1865, and in the same year she became the first female faculty member at Vassar College when it opened. By any measure, Mitchell was an accomplished scholar.

The first building completed at Vassar College was the observatory, long called the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Read more about it here, which is where I got the image.
The first building completed at Vassar College was the observatory, long called the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Read more about it here, which is where I got the image.

Cope too was an accomplished scholar, though his area of expertise was paleontology rather than astronomy. Although he had taught briefly at Haverford College, he didn’t seem to enjoy teaching, complaining that the students required too much time and attention, and so retired. His irritation was not limited to students and their incessant questions. When he left Haverford and moved into Philadelphia (his adjoining townhouses still stand at the corner of 21st and Pine St.) he became so annoyed by the herding of livestock down his street, that he wrote to the mayor demanding that the city outlaw it. The mayor’s response was polite but dismissive. He said he would look into it.

When Mitchell wrote to Cope in 1881, she had a very specific request: she hoped he would return her sextant.

Maria Mitchell’s letter to E. D. Cope asking him to return her sextant if he finds it in a box of James Orton’s things.
Maria Mitchell’s letter to E. D. Cope asking him to return her sextant if he finds it in a box of James Orton’s things.

1881 Nov 7
Observatory of Vassar College
Po’keepsie

Prof. Kope
Dear Sir,
A gentleman named Heath, who called on me yesterday, tells me that the boxes of the late Professor Orton are likely to reach your hands.
I lent Prof. Orton a valuable sextant which I hope may be found in the collection sent to you. May I trouble you, if it is among them, to send it to me by Express.
Yours,
Maria Mitchell

Apparently, Mitchell had loaned her sextant to Professor Orton. She was probably referring to James Orton, who in 1867 had borrowed various instruments from the Smithsonian for his expedition up the Amazon and into the Andes and then in 1869 had introduced natural history instruction to Vassar College.[3] in the 1870 Orton made two other trips to the upper Amazon and the Andes.

Mitchell’s sextant probably resembled this one, perhaps even with a nice mahogany case. 19th-century sextant’s are readily available for reasonable prices. Bamford’s auctioned this one a couple years ago.
Mitchell’s sextant probably resembled this one, perhaps even with a nice mahogany case. 19th-century sextant’s are readily available for reasonable prices. Bamford’s auctioned this one a couple years ago.

Orton’s interests in zoology and his explorations of the Andes seems to have linked Cope’s paleontology to Mitchell’s astronomy. Orton, who had a history of borrowing astronomical instruments, probably borrowed Mitchell’s sextant for one of his later trips to the Andes. We can imagine Orton exploring the Amazon jungle and the Andes using Mitchell’s sextant to chart his way. Then, after he died, Cope had arranged to acquire some of Orton’s material related to his zoological work. Apparently, Mitchell suspected that in one of those boxes Cope would find her valuable sextant.

Unfortunately, we don’t know if Mitchell ever received her sextant or even if Cope replied—unfortunately, Haverford’s collection of Cope letters doesn’t include any of his responses. Maybe the observatory at Vassar College has Mitchell’s sextant now on display with other historically significant instruments.[4]


  1. This letter is in the collection of E. D. Cope letters, which includes letters from all sorts of interesting people, including a letter from Ernst Haekel. To find other letters in the collection, see the Edward Drinker Cope Papers finding aid. If you want to read more about Cope, see these posts.  ↩

  2. Known for years (and probably still in various circles) as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” it is formally identified as C/1847 T1.  ↩

  3. Orton was apparently a supporter of coeducation and wrote a text based on his experiences teaching natural history at Vassar: Liberal Education of Women. He also wrote Comparative Zoology, Structural and Systematic, based on Agassiz’s functional approach to zoology.  ↩

  4. Haverford College used to have some 19th-century instruments, including sextants. But the college recently sold them. In a strange denial of expertise, the astronomer at the time didn’t consult with the historian of science (me) before deciding we no longer needed the instruments and deciding to sell them (the proceeds were used to support public programs at the observatory, if I recall correctly). We have lost the chance to learn anything more about those instruments.  ↩

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.  ↩

Strawbridge Observatory

The Strawbridge Observatory at Haverford College, January 2013 (Click for full size image).
The Strawbridge Observatory at Haverford College, January 2013 (Click for full size image).

The current Strawbridge Observatory was built in the early 1850s, replacing the original, wood-frame observatory that had been constructed for John Gummere in the 1830s (records seem to indicate different dates for this original building). A pedestal capped by a now broken sundial marks the location of Gummere’s observatory (see this post for more on the sundials around Haverford College).

The column with its broken sundial that marks the site of the original observatory. The plaque reads: “This stone marks the site of the Observatory of John Gummere (1784-1845). Erected about 1834.”
The column with its broken sundial that marks the site of the original observatory. The plaque reads: “This stone marks the site of the Observatory of John Gummere (1784-1845). Erected about 1834.”

A second dome was added to the Strawbridge Observatory in the 1880s, when the college acquired a 10-inch refracting telescope. Then in the 1930s steel doors were installed as part of a major renovation project. During this project the architects preserved the concrete slab that both marked one of the original equatorial mounts and the donors’ names (so I was recently told). Apparently, the college’s original telescope—a refractor built in the 1830s—is still in one of the observatory rooms (this too was recently related to me—stay tuned for an update on these issues). Today students use a 12-inch and 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain to look up at the heavens, at least when cloud cover doesn’t prevent it.

Astronomy has long been the backbone of science at Haverford and and remains one of our celebrated subjects. While the construction of an observatory served to demonstrate the college’s commitment to science, it came during a period when colleges across the country were constructing observatories. Haverford’s observatory is as much an expression of the 1830’s institutional Zeitgeist as it is evidence of a profound commitment to scientific activity.