Tag: Historical expertise

Newton Relics

In an editorial taking Kyrie Irving to task for his comments about the shape of the earth, “Between Kyrie Irving’s flat Earth and Isaac Newton’s apple tree, science remains a process of understanding,” Glenn Starkman and Patricia Princehouse remark:

We have an apple tree on the Case Western Reserve University campus grown from a twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity 350 years ago.
We’d love for Mr. Irving to come see our tree and look at what we’re doing. Decide for himself if we’re deluded.

I cannot understand how this comment about Newton’s apple tree adds anything to their op-ed. Their comment, however, takes scientific relics to a new level.

The Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University celebrates its Newtonian apple tree.

There is no shortage of Newtonian apple trees. Numerous colleges and universities claim to have an apple tree descended from the “original apple tree grown in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor:” Cambridge University Botanic Garden; University of Nebraska; William & Mary; The University of York; MIT; etc.[1] Most of these trees are growing in courtyards or gardens associated with physics and astronomy departments, not history departments. Why, I wonder, do so many science departments want to have and want to celebrate their Newtonian apple trees? I can’t help but see these trees as quasi-secular relics, i.e., as markers of prestige and physical ties to saint-like figures, as means of tapping into archetypal geniuses. As physical artifacts, these relics seem to reinforce hagiographic discovery narratives.[2]

The claim to have “an apple tree … from a twig of the actual apple orchard” seems, however, to take the quasi-secular relic a step further. Somehow the spatial proximity is sufficient and important—their tree descends from a tree in the “actual orchard.” Did some occult force emanate from “the original tree” and permeate the entire orchard? How far does the influence from Newton’s original apple tree extend? To all of Woolsthorpe? To all of England? And why emphasize the “actual apple orchard”? As opposed to what, the virtual apple orchard? I just don’t get it.

In this case, the twig underscores the myth that Newton was a genius who, in a flash of brilliance, understood the theory of gravity. In this case, the twig is a metonym for a discovery narrative. Although the basic contours of that narrative are familiar, less well known is the process by which that story was established.

Around 1727 a handful of sources refer to Newton and his experience with an apple. Robert Greene reported a version in his The Principles of the Philosophy of the Expansive and Contractive Forces…, claiming to have heard it from Martin Folkes. John Conduitt recorded a version in his draft of a “Memoir of Newton:”

…in the year 1665 when he retired to his own estate on account of the Plague he first discovered first thought of his system of gravity wch he fell into hit upon by observing an apple fall from a tree a heavy body fall to the ground…[3]

Conduitt repeated this claim in other drafts of his work.

About the same time we find the earliest printed version of the story, which seems to be in Voltaire’s An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (London, 1727). He claims: “And thus in our days Sir Isaak Newton walkign in his Gardens had the first Thought of his System of Gravitation, upon seeing an Apple falling from a Tree.” Six years later Voltaire published his Letters Concerning the English Nation (London, 1733), where he gives us more context for the story:

But being retir’d in 1666, upon Account of the Plague, to a Solitude near Cambridge: as he [Newton] was walking one Day in his Garden, as saw some Fruits fall from a Tree, he fell into a profound Meditation on that Gravity….”

Voltaire claims to have heard the story from Catherine Barton, John Conduitt’s wife. And Henry Pemberton gestured to the anecdote in his A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (London, 1728), though he omits any reference to the apple, mentioning only that Newton “sat alone in his garden.”

It is unclear how many independent sources there are for these early accounts. Greene refers to Martin Folkes. Conduitt doesn’t cite any source, though he might have heard it directly from Newton—the Conduitts were living with Newton at the end of his life. Pemberton doesn’t cite any source. Voltaire refers to Barton, who probably learned it from Conduitt. So maybe two independent sources, Folkes and Conduitt.

William Stukeley claimed to have heard the story of the apple tree directly from Newton.

Apparently around the same time William Stukeley heard the story directly from Newton, or so he claims. In his manuscript notes “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life” (1752) Stukeley claims that Newton had related the incident to him after dinner one evening in 1726:[4]

After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he [Newton], & myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood: “Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earths centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. Therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. If matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.” That there is a power like that we here call gravity which extends its self thro’ the universe….[5]

We might pause and wonder about this story. There is no record of the story for six decades and then, just before Newton dies, it appears in manuscript and print from people who could have heard it from Newton. Newton was at this time an 83- or 84-year-old man recalling events that happened perhaps as many as 60 years earlier. We certainly have reason to be skeptical of his account. 83-year-old men tend not to recall events accurately, and their narratives tend to toward exaggeration and teleology. Perhaps Newton was the exception—perfect, infallible memory and absolute fidelity to events—though given his experiments with mercury and other chemicals, we would be forgiven for questioning his memory. But we don’t and can’t know that he was. While we can’t confirm the story, its veracity is not its most important aspect.

We can confirm, however, that whatever brilliant insight the falling apple produced in 1666, it had no immediate discernible impact on his work. Two decades elapsed between the apple’s fall and Newton’s Principia mathematica, during which time he devoted considerable attention to alchemy and optics, as well as astronomy. Perhaps he fiddled with the mathematics for two decades. Perhaps he slowly through trial and error worked out the details, struggling to solve new difficulties as he worked to assemble the entire work, slowly working his way toward the system we encounter today in the Principia mathematica. Perhaps, though it seems unlikely, he sat down in some philosopher’s-stone fueled rampage and wrote down the entire Principia mathematica in one frenetic weekend of brilliance and productivity, and then sat on it for two decades. We don’t really know.

But highlighting the apple tree story—especially when the best you can say is that your tree descends from a “twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity”—effaces the arduous work, the mistakes and dead ends, the inchoate solutions, the revisions, and the tangible and intangible contributions other people made to bring the Principia mathematica to fruition.

While I’m not in Cleveland, I invite Glenn Starkman and Patricia Princehouse to talk to me. I’d be happy to explain historical expertise and history to them. I think we can find a great deal of common ground—and not just because we all struggle to refute the flat earth myth.


  1. A piece of the original was sent into space, Newton’s apple tree bound for zero gravity.  ↩

  2. On hagiographies and discovery narratives, see Who Really Needs Scientific Discoveries and Science Heroes?  ↩

  3. The text is available at The Newton Project—Fair copy of the Memoir of Newton. Search for “apple” to find the passage.  ↩

  4. Images of the manuscript can be seen at The Royal Society’s Turning the Pages, “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life.”  ↩

  5. You can find a normalized version of the text at Revised Memoir of Newton. Search for “apple” if you want to find the passage.  ↩

Disciplinary Histories from Within

Disciplinary history written from within that discipline tends to be not only teleological but also parochial and hagiographical. Most importantly, disciplinary history written from within that discipline tends to be unprofessional, in the sense that it is written by scholars who have been trained in the discipline that they are studying but not in the discipline of history or the history of science.

L. Daston and G. Most, “History of Science and History of Philologies,” Isis 106(2015), 386.

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.  ↩

“Nothing New” is “Really Bad”

In their impressive compilation of Assyrian and Babylonian medical fragments JoAnn Scurlock and Burton R. Andersen remark about the āšipu: “like intellectuals everywhere, it was not possible for him to approach a medical problem without bringing to it a bit of preconceived theory.”[1] Their observation holds true for modern intellectuals (in this case, a psychologist and a psychiatrist) just as it did for the magico-medical āšipu, as the recent “Nothing New under the Sun: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders in the Ancient World” demonstrates. When I tweeted about this article a few days ago, I assumed it was another attempt to foist our comfortable diagnostic categories onto the past.

My skeptical tweet about this article.
My skeptical tweet about this article.

Although efforts to retrodiagnose diseases have a long pedigree, they remain fraught with difficulties.[2] Historians of medicine have argued that such efforts are fundamentally flawed, mistaking ontological categories and distorting evidence for modern purposes.[3] Along with such theoretical challenges, attempts to identify in past descriptions of symptoms our modern diseases run into the problem of evidence: the historical record is often too fragmentary and ambiguous and imprecise to justify such identification. Or rather, any number of diagnoses are plausible given the vague and patchy descriptions of illnesses in the past. These difficulties, however, seem to be no impediment for the determined “scissors-and-paste” researcher armed with a pair of sharp Metzenbaums and ready to excise choice quotations in an effort to demonstrate the timeless truths of our current knowledge.

In some ways, “Nothing New Under the Sun” confirmed my suspicions; in other ways it surpassed my wildest fears. The authors brought their preconceived theory to bear on six Assyrian medical fragments and discovered exactly what they sought: PTSD.[4] Where the article broke new ground, however, was its scholarship: the deeply problematic footnotes and the misleading interpretation of what other scholars had written. I checked the two sources readily available to me—A. Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago, 1977) and JoAnn Scurlock and Burton R. Andersen, Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine (Urbana, 2005)—and found a number of problems. I appreciate that these are significant charges, so I offer below a catalog of the issues I consider problematic. If my interpretation of these examples is wrong, please correct me.[5]

On page 551, the authors stake their claim that “Mesopotamian sources mention earlier cases of Post-Traumatic Stress” and refer to the cuneiform texts:

Almost half a million cuneiform tablets written by the ancient Iraqis from that time until the birth of Christ have been discovered to date.[footnote 9: Jean Bottéro, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Edinburgh, 2001), 90] Several hundred of these tablets comprise medical texts, mainly consisting of handbooks and collections of prescriptions.[footnote 10: A. Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago, 1977), 294]

Page 294 Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia makes no reference to cuneiform texts, per se.

Page 294 of Oppenheim doesn’t say anything about cuneiform texts or how many might deal with medicine.
Page 294 of Oppenheim doesn’t say anything about cuneiform texts or how many might deal with medicine.

The last part of the paragraph, highlighted above, however, is a quotation from page 289 in Oppenheim’s book, though the authors never cite 289. There Oppenheim refers to the types of medical texts but not the number:

Our knowledge of the nature and the extent of Mesopotamian medicine is based on medical texts, consisting of handbooks and collections of prescriptions, supplemented by letters, references in the law codes, and allusions in literary texts.

Back to “Nothing New,” on page 552 we read:

The Ancient Mesopotamians believed that many diseases were punishments from the God(s) because of the patients’ sins or shortcomings.[footnote 13 here adds some information about Mesopotamian dynasties, not the claim just made.[6]] Leo Oppenheim suggested that the Gods, in their turn, allowed demons or ghosts of dead people to attack the sick person. The treatment of disease was holistic and usually involved a combination of religious-magical and pharmacological treatments. The cuneiform tablets discovered from the era suggest the presence of the two different professions that were necessary in order to perform diagnosis and treatment.[footnote 14: Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, 294]

While it is unclear to me where or if Oppenheim supports any of these claims, it is clear that page 294 does not corroborate them.

On page 554, the authors assert that trauma was commonplace in Mesopotamia, and that most of our medical texts on trauma concern war wounds:

More specifically, trauma was also commonplace in Iraq’s ancient civilizations. This involved not only traumata associated with daily life, industry and farming, but also traumata associated with warfare. Ašipu seemed to be working with armies, particularly in the Assyrian period (between 1300–609 BC). The majority of cuneiform medical texts on trauma were concerned with war wounds.[footnote 29: Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 345.]

Their source here, Scurlock and Andersen, do mention trauma and warfare on page 345 of their book, where they say: “The armies of Assyrian kings contemporary with the bulk of the surviving medical texts were protected by shields, ….” In other words, most of our medical texts come from a period when armies had shields, helmets, and suits of armor. It seems a rather significant misreading to say “the majority of cuneiform medical texts on trauma were concerned with war wounds.” Maybe there is another source that backs up the claim made in “Nothing New,” but the page cited in Scurlock and Andersen doesn’t.

Page 345 in Scurlock and Andersen doesn’t seem to say what “Nothing New” thinks it does.
Page 345 in Scurlock and Andersen doesn’t seem to say what “Nothing New” thinks it does.

Further down the same page, “Nothing New” refers to the frequency of wars during the Assyrian period:

However, because of the frequent wars during the Assyrian period, the male population of the kingdom was exposed to significant trauma associated with the battles being fought in every third year during their military service. It was this engagement in regular fighting (which the military would describe nowadays as being high “op-tempo”[footnote 33: C.A. Castro and A.B. Adler, “OPTEMPO: Effects on Soldier and Unit Readiness,” Parameters (Autumn 1999), 86–95.]) that was probably the main cause of post-traumatic stress disorders.[footnote 34: Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 438]

The causal, “because of the frequent wars during the Assyrian period,” is again a rather significant misreading (over interpretation grounded in a preconceived theory?) of Scurlock and Andersen, who qualify their interpretation in two ways, saying: “in periods when [my emphasis] wars were frequent, a significant portion of the male population was subjected to the stress of battle in one campaign season out of every three” and “…it is likely that a portion of these draftees [my emphasis] experienced battle fatigue (post-traumatic stress syndrome)” (438).

Turning now to the evidence itself, the authors of “Nothing New” write:

Scurlock and Andersen mention three cases which they found in the series of diagnostic and prognostics.[footnote 35: Ibid. [Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses], 351. See René Labat, Traité akkadien de diagnostics et prognostics médicaux (Leiden, 1951).] They describe post-traumatic stress disorders as mental health manifestations of severe mental and/or physical (traumatic) stress that does not usually cause the death of the patient:[footnote 36: Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 351.]
14.34 “If his words are unintelligible for three days […][footnote 37: Square brackets denote broken entries or texts (Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses,
576).] his mouth [F…] and he experiences wandering about for three days in a row F…1.”
14.35 “He experiences wandering about (for three) consecutive (days)”; this means: “he experiences alteration of mentation (for three) consecu- tive (days).”
14.36 “If his words are unintelligible and depression keeps falling on him at regular intervals (and he has been sick) for three days F…]”

The text cited in footnote 36, Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 351, does discuss post-traumatic stress syndrome, but qualifies it saying the “quotes below may [my emphasis] be describing this syndrome [PTSD].” The careful qualification has been lost in “Nothing New.” Further, the highlighted section above is a word-for-word quotation without quotation marks.

Note 37 is wrong. The explanation of square brackets on page 576 refers to the tables that follow, not the translations of the texts. Square brackets and ellipsis in the translations are explained on page xvi: “An ellipsis in square brackets indicates a missing section of text whose restoration is uncertain” (Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, xvi). These unrestored parts of the translation further highlight the fragmentary nature of the texts.[7]

Moving on, “Nothing New” asserts:

They furthermore list the following symptoms associated particularly with post- traumatic stress disorders as a result of military operations (military casualties):[footnote 38: Ibid. [Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses], 429–430.]
19.32 “If in the evening, he sees either a living person or a dead person or someone known to him or someone not known to him or anybody or anything and becomes afraid; he turns around but, like one who has [been hexed with?] rancid oil, his mouth is seized so that he is unable to cry out to one who sleeps next to him, ‘hand’ of ghost (var. hand of […]).”[footnote 39: Hands of Gods or hand of ghosts are seen by the Mesopotamians as a cause of illness; see Pangas, “La mano.”]
19.33 “[If ] his mentation is altered so that he is not in full possession of his faculties, ‘hand’ of a roving ghost; he will die.”
19.34 “If his mentation is altered, forgetfulness(?) (and) his words hinder each other in his mouth, a roaming ghost afflicts him. (If) […], he will get well.”

Pages 429–430 cited in note 38 say nothing about PTSD or military operations. Instead, there is a rich discussion about ancient efforts to name disease patterns. The reference in note 39 may or may not be accurate, but it does not apply to the quotation, which is on Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 438. The other two quotations, which receive no reference, are from Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 439. In their zeal to find PTSD, the authors of “Nothing New” seem to over interpret these quotations. Scurlock and Andersen group these three quotations in a section on ghosts, though they do say that some of these symptoms “are compatible with this stress syndrome [PTSD].” When Scurlock and Andersen offer a modern diagnosis, however, they are more cautious: attributing 19.32 to “nightmare,” 19.33 to “mental status change,” and offering no diagnosis for 19.34.[8] When the authors of “Nothing New” gesture to ghosts, their citation is again wrong:

It looks as if, in the case of military casualties, the responsible ghosts were usually assumed by the treating ašipu to be the ghosts of the enemies whom the patient had killed during military operations.[footnote 41: Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 429.]

Page 429 of Scurlock and Andersen’s Diagnoses mentions ghosts among gods, goddesses, demons, demonesses, and demonic forces, e.g., curses and sorcery, but nothing about the ghosts of killed enemies. In fact, warfare and enemies are absent from that page, and the following one.

After checking a third of the notes in “Nothing New,” I am suffering from Post-Traumatic Article Disorder, which prevents me from finding the other scholarship cited and checking the references to it. Of the sixteen notes I was able to check, nine are wrong or problematic (another three or four are worrisome, but not egregious). I don’t want to impute malfeasance to the authors of “Nothing New.” I will, however, deplore the scholarship that doesn’t rise to the level I would demand of an undergraduate. If my reading of this article and its notes is accurate, I cannot understand how or why a history of science journal accepted and published it.


  1. JoAnn Scurlock and Burton R. Andersen, Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine (2005), 429.  ↩

  2. I have worried about those difficulties in the past, see Retro-Diagnosing Fictional Plagues and Paleopathology and Retrodiagnosis. To be fair, some efforts to analyze past diseases are really interesting and produce interesting information, whether or not it helps us understand the past or deal with the present.  ↩

  3. See, for example, Charles Rosenberg “Disease in History: Frame and Frames” in C. Rosenberg and J. Golden, Framing Disease (1989), 1–16 or Andrew Cunningham’s “Transforming Plague: The Laboratory and the Identity of Infectious Disease” in A. Cunningham and P. Williams, The Laboratory Revolution in Medicine (Cambridge, 1992), 209–44 or Roger French et al., The Great Pox<Yale, 1997>.  ↩

  4. The title is, I suspect unintentionally, funny. In addition to its claim that PTSD is “Nothing New,” “Nothing New” also describes the contents of the article, which extracts from Scurlock and Andersen’s volume the three fragments that they, Scurlock and Andersen, already group under the heading “Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome” and suggest “may be describing this syndrome” (351).  ↩

  5. The authors bear the bulk of the responsibility for the sloppy scholarship. It worries me that nobody else bothered checking the notes more carefully.  ↩

  6. The author’s claims about disease being punishments for sins seems to be at odds with what JoAnn Scurlock argued in Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illness in Ancient Mesopotamia (Leiden, 2005), at least according to Scott Noegel’s review of that book in Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, where he writes:

    Perhaps the most important contribution of these volumes is that they offer a healthy corrective to many long-held assumptions concerning the Mesopotamian medical profession. For example, they illustrate that disease was only rarely viewed as a punishment for personal action (A, pp. 73–74)—indeed, “sin” (especially in the Christian sense), is a concept that would have been wholly foreign to ancient Mesopotamians.  ↩

  7. The authors of “Nothing New” are probably not responsible for the wonky formatting in these quotations, e.g., [F…] and F…1, but they should have checked the page proofs more carefully. They are, however, probably responsible for the missing half brackets ( and )19.32 and 19.33  ↩

  8. The latter portion of the book includes tables relating ancient diagnoses to modern for the many quotations. For 19.32 see Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 643, #83–85; for 19.33 see Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 651, #47a; for 19.34 see Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 651, #53–54.  ↩

A Call for Historical Accuracy

If we inveigh against people who distort science and ignore facts to prove their point and we label them dogmatic knuckleheads, we should at least guard against committing the same missteps in our criticisms of them.

Phil Plait recently drew attention to and rightly criticized a pseudo-documentary promoting geocentrism.[1] The same day, Lawrence Krauss—a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, and one of the experts who appears in the movie—proposes plausible ways he ended up, apparently, a spokesman for geocentricism. Yesterday, Graham Slaughter, staff reporter for The Toronto Star, reported on the pseudo-documentary and the various experts and former Star Trek actor who appear in the film: “Why do prominent scientists and a Star Trek star appear in unscientific ‘documentary’?

I have no doubt that this latest piece of quasi-scientific[2] claptrap is rubbish, but getting the history wrong—or, to put it more bluntly, ignoring facts and evidence[3]—mars both Krauss’s and Slaughter’s critiques (to be clear: Plait does not get the history wrong in his post).

In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.
In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.

Krauss repeats the flat earth myth. Lamenting his celebrity status, Krauss says

I get bombarded regularly by all sorts of claims, and have become painfully aware that ideas as old as the notion that the Earth is flat never seem to die out completely.

Krauss dredges up once again that past when the benighted humans roamed an earth they believed was flat. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that such a past ever existed.

The evidence offers up just three people, three, who claimed the earth was flat (or at least not a sphere): Lactantius—an early Christian author and advisor to Emperor Constantine I, Severian—a fourth-century Bishop of Gabala, and Cosmas Indicopleustes—a sixth-century Byzantine monk.[4] And there is no evidence that their opinions were widely accepted. Instead, the overwhelming vast majority of evidence reveals that people—Christians and pagans alike—believed the earth was a sphere. Most of this evidence provides reasonable philosophical and sometimes empirical arguments for the sphericity of the earth—more than two millennia ago Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, which circumference scholars continued to cite for the next 1700 years.[5]

The evidence does not support the inference that people believed the earth was flat. To be sure, we cannot infer what the uneducated “person on the street” might have believed—that person might have believed the earth was a potato chip—but we can say the evidence supports the conclusion that people argued for a globe-shaped earth. If the evidence reflects contemporary beliefs, then the overwhelming vast majority of people throughout history have believed the earth was a sphere.

Yet this flat earth myth persists. While I might forgive President Obama when he invokes it, it’s harder to forgive purportedly fact-based science journalism for propagating the flat earth story. I find it more regrettable when Krauss repeats it. He rightly lambasts people who propound a geocentric model of the cosmos for ignoring evidence and facts. I would like to see him apply the same standard to his own claims about the past the believed in a flat earth. In both cases evidence and facts demonstrate that these claims—the geocentric model of the cosmos and the flat earth past—are wrong.[6]

Krauss didn’t need to invoke history to make his point. But since he did, he should strive to get his facts right. I suppose that’s what bothers me most. Krauss is an expert in cosmology and theoretical physics. His domain of expertise does not extend to history. Just as people invoking cosmology or theoretical physics should consult an expert about about their statements, so too should Krauss consult an expert—in this case, a historian of science—when he invokes history.

Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.
Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.

Graham Slaughter too should consult some historians of science. Slaughter opens his article by saying:

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus turned the scientific world on its head when he presented a controversial theory: the sun, not the earth, is the centre of our solar system.
The church was scandalized. How could God’s greatest creation be under the orbital control of a giant, burning star? Many Protestant scholars blasted Copernicus, saying his writings flew in the face of the Bible.

Here we have all the set pieces of the Copernican revolution myth: we see the hero, the revolution, and the villain.

As historians of science have long noted and widely discussed (and Thony C. has colorfully pointed out in various posts), the “scientific world” of the 16th century largely ignored or was ignorant of Copernicus’s “controversial theory.”[7] Moreover, the church was not scandalized. Late in the game, the Catholic Church placed Copernicus’s book on the Index, but that was in the 17th century after Galileo and Paolo Foscarini antagonized the Church by challenging its authority (again, see Thony’s post). And the Protestants were some of the earliest supporters of Copernicus’s theory.[8]

Slaughter didn’t need to appeal to Copernicus in his criticism of the pseudo-documentary. But since he did, he should get the history right. Alas, the history is once again wrong, and wrong in all the same ways that the pseudo-documentary is wrong: both ignore evidence and disregard facts.

I am not defending the producers of this latest quasi-scientific, geocentric dross or the film itself. I am, instead, calling for greater attention to facts and evidence in our criticisms of such dreck, especially if we are going to assume the moral, factual, and evidential high ground. We can do better.


  1. Plait provides the title, so click through if you want to know. I, like Lawrence Krauss, would rather not provide additional coverage for the film.  ↩

  2. It might not even rise to the level of “quasi-scientific.”  ↩

  3. Or distorting them or not doing the work to check them.  ↩

  4. Polemical writings accuse two other authors of denying the sphericity of the earth, but this is indirect and problematic evidence that cannot be taken at face value.  ↩

  5. Sometimes scribal errors corrupted the value reported for this circumference, as was the case in the sources Columbus was using. He argued for a much smaller number than was commonly accepted. He and his detractors argued over the how big around the earth was, not whether the earth was round.  ↩

  6. Accessible, and short, scholarly articles are readily available, e.g., Lesley Cormack’s “That the Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Chicago, 2009), as are popular books on the subject, e.g., Christine Garwood, Flat Earth. The History of an Infamous Idea (New York, 2008) or Jeffrey Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (New York, 1991). A quick Google search will turn up both the wikipedia page and my various rantings about it.  ↩

  7. Historians of science typically claim there were 10 Copernicans in the 16th century. Owen Gingerich has argued that more 16th-century scholars than previously thought might have encountered Copernicus’s De revolutionibus through the teachings of a small group of university masters, but this is indirect and inconclusive evidence. See Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read.  ↩

  8. Robert Westman pointed this nearly 40 years ago in “The Melanchthon Circle, Rheticus, and the Wittemberg Interpretation of the Copernican Theory,” Isis 66(1975): 165–93. For a considerably more thorough analysis of the so-called Copernican revolution, see Westman’s The Copernican Question (Berkeley, 2011)  ↩