Tag: Nicolaus Copernicus

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.  ↩

More De Revolutionibus Chord Diagrams

I did some additional fiddling with the information I pulled out of Gingerich’s An Annotated Census of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus. The way I now translate the city location into a country location gives more dependable results. I then separated out the movement of the first and second editions into distinct chord diagrams. I also generated a new diagram for both editions (an updated version of the previous diagram).

Chord diagram showing how first editions of De Rev moved.
Chord diagram showing how first editions of De Rev moved.

As before, these chord diagrams are interactive: you can mouseover (or touch, if you are using a touch device) and get information about each country and each pathway between countries.

The three chord diagrams are available:

And as before, I am indebted to Steven Hall for his tutorials and code. See:

Editions of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus

In 1953 Haverford College purchased a first edition of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus for the Philips Collection. William Pyle Philips had left his collection of rare books to the library as well as an endowment to purchase additional books for the collection. Over the years, the library has added significant works to the Philips Collection. In 1953, they decided to spend $2,750 on a that first edition of De Revolutionibus:

Title page of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus
Title page of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus

This was an extraordinary purchase in various senses. The library understood this to be a special book and was willing to spend quite a lot on it. Tution that year was $675—so the library spent more than four times the tuition on a single book (imagine the library spending $190,000 on a book today!). Another way to look at it: in today’s dollars, that $2,750 would purchase a little more than $24,000 dollars worth of book.

In order to get a better sense of this book, I have been extracting information from Owen Gingerich’s An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus. Initially, I wanted to know how the annotations in this copy compare to other. Gingerich describes them as:

There are some underlinings and a few brief annotations in two old hands at the beginning of f. 10v, again at the beginning of book V, and very scattered marks in [books] II and III.

The annotations range from references to classical poetry to more technical notes. In book I an early reader added a reference to the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Marginal note about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from Book I, fol. 5r.
Marginal note about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from Book I, fol. 5r.

In book V the notes seem more focused on astronomy, jotting in the margin planetary data and making reference to the following tables of data (which also include scattered marks):

Marginal notes record planetary data, fol. 134v.
Marginal notes record planetary data, fol. 134v.

As I am working through Gingerich’s Census, I’ve started to think about other questions, such as: How many times did De Rev change hands? How much did it move around? Did copies of De Rev concentrate in certain cities? So now I’m pulling out of Gingerich’s book the following information:

  • Edition and number (just the number in the Census)
  • Number of owners (based on provenance listed in the Census)
  • Cities where owners have lived (based on provenance notes)

So far I’ve made it a little more than half way through the Census. The information is the Census is not complete so these numbers offer a qualitative picture rather than a quantitative one. That said, I think they suggest general trends. Plotting this information gives the following:

Ownership and Location patterns for 1st and 2nd editions of De Rev
Ownership and Location patterns for 1st and 2nd editions of De Rev

It seems copies of De Revolutionibus don’t move around much. More than half of the first editions and two-thirds of the second editions can only be traced to a single city.[1] A wholly unsurprising pattern of ownership, with most being owned by a just a few people.[2]

Ownership and location patterns for 1st & 2nd editions combined.
Ownership and location patterns for 1st & 2nd editions combined.

I have begun putting together a heat map showing where copies of De Revolutionibus have concentrated. Note, the cities listed are not necessarily a copy’s current location. Rather, these cities reflect the various places owners have lived when they had a copy of De Revolutionibus.[3]

Heat map of locations where copies of De Rev were owned.
Heat map of locations where copies of De Rev were owned.

You can play with this heat map on this page:
De Revolutionibus Heat Map.
You can change the gradient color (I think the blue is easier to see). Because this heat map is a Google maps overlay, you can pan and zoom as you like.

It’s too early see what this tells me about our copy of De Revolutionibus. Perhaps when I finish going through the Census I’ll be able to say something.


  1. N.B., that these numbers reflect the positive identification of a city in the provenance notes, i.e., cities where owners have lived. They do not reflect the cities copies passed through in the hands of rare book dealers or auction houses.  ↩

  2. Again N.B., these are owners who are identified in the provenance section. There are surely some owners who left no evidence of ownership and, consequently, do not appear in the provenance section. Further, Auction houses and rare book dealers are not counted as owners.  ↩

  3. Yet another N.B., these cities surely under record the places owners have lived. Moreover, these concentrations do not reflect the fact that often more than one owner lived in the same city. So, for example, two different owners in Wittenberg are not counted as a single instance in Wittenberg. This was an artifact of how I started pulling information out of the Census.  ↩

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)  ↩

Weekly Roundup: History of Science Videos & NSF Report

The History Channel Distorts History

A number of the videos at the History Channel’s “Enlightenment” page deal with the history of science—on Isaac Newton, the Scientific Revolution, and a series Beyond the Big Ban: Copernicus, Beyond the Big Ban: Galileo and Beyond the Big Ban: Newton. Some gesture to interesting points, e.g., the interaction between science and religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, but most repeat heroic tales and neat stories of discovery through flashes of brilliance. Unfortunately, the History Channel didn’t enlist the expertise of many historians and fewer historians of science (the eminent Owen Gingerich makes two cameo appearances). Scientists, however, are well represented. I wonder how different these videos would have been if they had consulted more scholars with expertise in the history of early modern science.

Newton the Genius

In Newton’s Apple: Science and the Value of a Good Story Ned Potter is right: telling a good story is more important, perhaps more important than being accurate. His comment about lists of great scientists underscores his point:

Search online for any list of history’s greatest scientists and you’ll find the same names: Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Louis Pasteur, and so on. The order may change, but the name on top will almost invariably be that of Isaac Newton.
We can argue over such lists — they’re mostly harmless fun — but we can agree that Newton earned his place there.

I don’t think such lists are “mostly harmless fun.” Such lists tell a good story and reinforce a particular image of science, one that misleads and distorts its history and development. They are built on the pillars of the lone genius waging war with the weapons of rationality, empiricism, and experiment to overcome church, benighted society, and ignorant political leaders. Potter’s own description of Newton conforms to this model. Newton alone, in his spare time, invented reflecting telescopes and calculus, and explained light and colors. Only as an aging genius, in his later years, Newton fiddled with alchemy and Biblical chronology.

He published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. In his spare time he designed the first reflecting telescope, laid the foundations for calculus, brought us the understanding of light and color, and in his later years – it would be disingenuous to leave this out – tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.

Newton turns out not only to have been a genius in science but also in self promotion.

NSF, Astrology, and the Pig-Ignorant American Public

The release (or at least the summary of the release) of the latest NSF survey on attitudes about science and technology has prompted the standard handwringing and fretting. Of particular concern is the fact that 1 in 4 Americans Don’t Know Earth Orbits the Sun. Yes, Really, which echoes One in four Americans unaware that Earth circles Sun. The Telegraph jumped on the bandwagon with One in four Americans ‘do not know the Earth circles the Sun’ and The Space Reporter sprinkled a little history onto its summary of broadcast soundbites and published factoids, Study finds nearly 25 percent of Americans don’t know the Earth orbits the sun.

Another predictable worry is the “More than half of US millennials think astrology is a science,” repeated in Science News and Slashdot and then with some added commentary (and the standard ambiguities and imprecisions in terms like “horoscopes” and “astrology”) at Mother Jones. Richard Landers worries about possible design flaws in the NSF’s study: NSF Report Flawed; Americans Do Not Believe Astrology is Scientific.[1]

All this anxiety is part of a more general claim that Americans struggle with science, respect scientists, survey finds.

The NSF report generating all this incredibly repetitive and generally uncritical “news” is the most recent Science & Engineering Indicators 2014 – (NSF), a biennial report that “highlights some major developments in international and U.S. science and engineering.” The part of the report that has attracted the most attention is chapter seven and the various Appendix Tables (astrology that most resilient of science’s hobgoblins enjoys its own table, Appendix table 7–13). What if we look at chapter seven of the NSF report a different way?

Sure, on average, respondents answered only 65% of the “factual” questions correctly, but that percentage has been steadily increasing, up from 59% in 1992 (according to ‎Appendix table 7–8).

Respondents were asked the following questions about science (“Don’t know” responses and refusals to respond were counted as incorrect):
Physical science—

  1. The center of the Earth is very hot — 84% got this right.
  2. The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future — 83% got this right.
  3. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? — 74% got this right.

    • 3a. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (Asked only if the respondent answered correctly that the Earth goes around the Sun.) — 55% got this right.
  4. All radioactivity is man-made — 72% got this right.
  5. Electrons are smaller than atoms — 53% got this right.
  6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves — 47% got this right.
  7. The Universe began with a huge explosion — 39% got this right.

Biological science—

  1. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl — 63% got this right.
  2. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria — 51% got this right.
  3. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals (a footnote indicates that only 1,152 of the 2,256 respondents were asked this question) — 48% got this right.[2]

Biologists should probably be worried that respondents seem to know less about biology than they do about the physical sciences.

The Appendix tables are full of other interesting information that has not attracted any attention while the media fixate on the astrology-loving geocentrist Americans. Apparently only 33% of respondents have a grasp on “scientific inquiry,” as demonstrated by their (in)ability to answer two probability questions and either a question about theory-testing or a question about why its better to use control groups in drug tests (see ‎Appendix table 7–11).[3] 70% of respondents claim not to know much about the causes of environmental pollution, according to another table. Another table indicates that males and females would be “happier” if their sons and daughters chose to be engineers rather than scientists.

Parental happiness about child’s career as
Scientist Engineer
Male Daughter Son Daughter Son
Male 81% 82% 86% 88%
Female 80% 79% 82% 83%

Engineers are, no doubt, “happy” to learn of this parental esteem.

Despite science purportedly being an international collaborative project, the NSF’s 2014 Science & Engineering Indicators digest of the report makes it a nationalist concern:

Many other nations, recognizing the economic and social benefits of such investment, have increased their R&D and education spending. These trends are by now well-established and will challenge the world leadership role of the United States [page 2].

This rhetoric recalls the debates recently last year in England about investing more in domestic R&D. Kieron Flanagan wrote a nice piece in The Guardian about the problems of framing debates about science and basic research in terms of national boundaries, Does the UK need to spend more on basic research?.


  1. Perhaps we should also worry about the term “scientific,” which is notoriously difficult to define.  ↩

  2. A subset of these questions was used in determining the trends in “factual knowledge” reported in Appendix table 7–8:  ↩

    • The center of the Earth is very hot.
    • All radioactivity is man-made.
    • It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
    • Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
    • Electrons are smaller than atoms.
    • Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
    • The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.
    • Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
    • How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?
  3. “Scientific inquiry” here could be applied to most rigorous, rational, evidence based activities.  ↩