Month: January 2020

Byzantine Astrolabe (sort of)

In a fragment attributed to John Kamateros on the astrolabe are a handful of interesting diagrams illustrating the various parts of an astrolabe. Here is the diagram showing the rete.

An illustration of an astrolabe’s rete, found in a 15th-century Byzantine fragment on the astrolabe.

There is also diagram illustrating the plate, and two showing different aspects of the back of the instrument.

Galileo In Vienna

In Vienna’s 13th district stands a beautiful Jugendstil building, the Galileihof. Designed by and built by Emil Reitmann in 1905, the building appears to have been renovated not long ago.

The Galileihof is a beautiful Jugendstil building in Vienna’s 13th district.

Vienna is strangely committed to Galileo. In addition to the Galileihof, on the other side of town is the Galileigasse, which has a beautiful relief showing Galileo, the leaning tower of Pisa, and both Jupiter and Saturn with their respective satellites.

Portrait of a Mathematician

The label identifies this painting as a portrait of Pierre Joseph de Rivaz, an 18th-century “Swiss mathematician, inventor and historian.” Rivaz is not particularly famous, and seems to be better known for his inventions than his mathematical achievements. Nonetheless, the label claims this is a “Portrait of a Mathematician.”

“Portrait of a Mathematician,” according to the label.

Although there seems to be some doubt about whether or not this is a portrait of Rivaz, I am not interested in that issue. What interests me is the way an otherwise generic, albeit wealthy, “mathematician, inventor and historian” was depicted in the 18th century. Looking at this portrait, I wondered:

  • What sort of portrait would today’s working mathematicians think best represents them?
  • What accoutrements would they array around themselves?
  • What would they wear?
  • Where would they choose to sit?

We could substitute inventor or historian for mathematician and ask the same questions. And what similarities and differences would we see between the various portraits.

Don’t Try Pre-Modern Medicine at Home!

Yvette Hunt’s new translation of the Medicina Plinii is a welcome addition to the history of medicine, particularly for those who don’t have the linguistic training to read it in Latin.1 I can imagine it finding a place in the unit on medicine in my Introduction to the History of Science. 2

Hunt’s English translation of the Medicina Plinii

While the text should be useful as a tool for introducing students to the history of medicine, the disclaimer at the front suggests that the author (or the publisher’s attorney) worries that some people will read it as a how-to manual.

Stunningly, the legal department thinks this English translation of a pre-modern medical text needs a “Don’t Try This At Home” disclaimer.

Do not try these at home

The advice outlined in this text was meant for an ancient audience and does not constitute modern medical advice.
Not only was the vast majority of ancient medicine ineffectual, in some cases it was injurious to patient health. Many of the medicaments used are toxic, and even those which are not are dangerous as it is impossible to determine how an individual might react to chemicals they contain. Yes, these remedies can be considered natural, but natural does not mean safe!
This research was conducted for historical purposes only, and the authors are not responsible for the effects on anyone who experiments with these treatments.

As much as I would like to think the legal department is being overly cautious here, I would not be surprised to hear of somebody trying these treatments in the name of some misguided commitment to a twisted sense of homeopathic remedies. I can imagine the affluent raw water fans in Silicon Valley shelling out $124 (+ tax and shipping) for this book and sharing their favorite recipes.


  1. Or the other languages into which it has been translated.  ↩

  2. In fact, I placed a rush order through our library so I could use it in this coming semester, despite the price.  ↩

Jimmy Kimmel & Galileo

A couple nights ago Jimmy Kimmel aired a segment that followed “Jake Byrd” at last fall’s Flat Earth Conference in Dallas. In true “Jake Byrd” fashion, he is quick witted and irreverent. But I am not particularly interested in Byrd’s performance or the content of the segment itself.1 I am more interested in Jimmy Kimmel’s opening comments:

Today’s a notable day for our galaxy. On this date back in 1610 Galileo, you know the guy from the Queen song, Galileo discovered that the universe does not revolve around the earth, on this day. And yet there are many people who not only do they still believe that the earth is the center of the universe, many of those same people believe the earth is flat, like a tortilla. They’re called “Flat Earthers” and they have conventions, and talks and shirts and mugs, the whole deal….”

Hmmm. I suppose Jimmy Kimmel is referring to Galileo’s observations on January 7, 1610, when he first saw three bright spots in a line near Jupiter. As he tracked the bright spots over a number of subsequent nights (and noticed a fourth), he concluded that they were moons orbiting Jupiter.

I am impressed that Jimmy Kimmel linked the Jake Byrd segment to what is an obscure little bit of trivia about Galileo, though he had to work to get from center of the universe to flat earth.2 I am less impressed with the whole “discovered that the universe does not revolve around the earth” bit, but baby steps.

And now, for that Galileo from the Queen song:


  1. If you are interested, you can find it by doing a quick internet search.  ↩

  2. Historians of science might think Galileo’s observations are anything but obscure trivia, but they would be wrong. Even the nerdy, NPR-listening crowd is largely ignorant of such minutia. Sure, they can tell you who Galileo was and what they think he did, generally with some historical accuracy, but the date of his initial observations of the moons of Jupiter is beyond the scope of their concern. So props to the writers on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show.  ↩